Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jazz Mini-Lesson

I'm posting this little conversation I'm having with a reader who posted anonymously regarding a bad gig experience he had recently. This is a common issue that rhythm section players have with playing for singers.

Anonymous said:

I'm a bass player. I did a gig last night with a singer that didn't bring her book. She called tunes in different and obscure keys. I didn't do to well.
The drummer told me it's not my fault. He said when you work with a singer for the first time, she needs to bring her book and have a set song list.
I thought it's my fault regardless because my 'ears' weren't big enough to fake through the tunes. Will somebody comment on this. So did I lose this steady gig because of my weak ears or she didn't bring her book?

Anonymous bass player: I think it's a combination of things, which is often the case in jazz. I believe that singers SHOULD have charts, especially if they have a lot of obscure tunes and weird keys. HOWEVER, I think you have to develop that skill set at home of being able to transpose tunes on the spot. Now, if somebody asked me to play Chick Corea's You're Everything in another key, I might have a hard time, but standards should be manageable. The way I do it is to think of the theory. For example, If the tune is Green Dolphin Street, instead of thinking:

EbMaj7 GbMaj7 FMAj7 E Maj7 EbMaj7
(G-7 C7 )F-7 Bb7 EbMaj7
Ab-7 Db7 GbMaj7 F-7 Bb7

It's better to think:

IMaj7 bIII Maj7 IIMAj7 bII Maj7 Imaj7
(iii-7 vi7) ii-7 V7 IMaj7
iv-7 bVII7   bIIIMaj7   ii-7 V7

Do you see what I mean? Roman Numeral Analysis is something that classical music students do in theory class. I think it's very helpful for jazz players, maybe even more so, because we actually have to know what's going on harmonically.

While having better ears helps as well, it might be a question of understanding the theoretical analysis behind the standard tunes. This sort of analysis works well with all the tin pan alley stuff. It might be tougher to analyze  something like an obscure Wayne Shorter tune this way, but it is possible. I think this way is easier than just straight transposition, although that's a good skill to have as well.

Shelia Jordan
But this doesn't let the singer off the hook! Singers are notorious for just showing up and expecting everyone to fall in line by some magical means. Back in the 90's, I was involved in a workshop with legendary vocalist Shelia Jordan. This was her mantra: singers, get thy charts TOGETHER! Pay someone to help you if you must. It makes showing up to the gig a whole lot easier. Yes, we should all know tunes and so forth, but you'll save time and your band will thank you. It's a two way street.

Anna-Lisa Kirby, getting on singer's cases!
I actually believe that this has changed a lot due to the amount of singers that come out of jazz programs now.  Many of the vocalists at the University of Manitoba are well prepared, thanks to instructor Anna -Lisa Kirby getting on their case!

Anonymous, another trick is to stand BEHIND the piano player and watch his left hand. You'll notice that Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal always set up that way with that idea in mind. It makes it easier to change up the harmony spontaneously. But in this case, you might be able to follow along.

I hope this helps. I remember what a rude awakening it was when I first started dealing with singers. But sometimes a rude awakening will kick your ass to get into the shed and practice. Sometimes the desire to avoid embarrassment can highly motivate.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

East Coast Love Affair: My Trip To The Blue States

    It was good to be back in New York for a spell. As we rode away from La Guardia Airport in Queens, I took in the familiar sights, sounds and smells. Well, I wouldn't say the Tri-State area smells good, but it does have a plethora of distinct odors. Nevertheless, New York City still has it's charms, and having lived there for almost 15 years, it's nice to come back as a visitor from Canada. New York is still especially great for jazz, even if the scene is not as lucrative as it used to be for musicians. It's still inspiring to be around a multitude of world class players and fervent jazz fans.

My first musical stop was not The Big Apple, but Washington D.C., our recently reddened Nation's Capital, which is about a 4 or 5 hour drive from Manhattan. I had a weekend engagement with my trio at The Bohemian Caverns, a wonderful spot on D.C.'s recently revitalized U Street. (When I lived on Quebec Street in Northwest D.C. back in 1994, U Street was not a hip place to be. Now, it's almost like Greenwich Village in New York:  Hip Restaurants, Clubs, and Yuppies of all types out on the town.)

The inside of Bohemian Caverns
Bohemian Caverns is run by a young entrepreneur from Boston named Omrao Brown. He recently brought in a new Yamaha grand piano, which was really a pleasure to play. The look of the club is almost like a cave, but the overall vibe of the club is very comfortable. And the stage sound is quite good. In my opinion, it is THE club to beat in Washington D.C. We had a good turnout both Friday and Saturday nights; oddly enough, the Saturday night was kind of a mini-high school reunion for me. I was amused by the fact that many of my friends from the 80's didn't even know that I played piano. "Where's the trumpet?" was a frequent question from my former classmates.

Alison Crockett
Despite feeling a little rusty, the gig was fun. I've been playing with Josh Ginsburg on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums for a few years. We hadn't worked together in some months, but it all fell musically back into place. Also, we had two surprise guest vocalists; D.C.'s own Heidi Martin joined us for a few tunes on Friday night, and Saturday night we had Alison Crockett give us a rousing rendition of "Stella By Starlight". I remember thinking during the performance, "If only Victor Young could have heard what we did to his song!"

Maria Neckam
Back in New York, my wife and I stumbled onto a wonderful vocalist named Maria Neckam at Small's on a Tuesday night. Neckam, born in Austria,  has a very unique style of singing; it kind of reminded me of Bjork mixed with Astrud Gilberto mixed with Inara George(the singer with a band called The Bird And The Bee ). She performed all of her own music (except for two Charles Ives compositions).Her music has jazz elements, but also has a Third Stream quality to it, making it not so easy to classify (which I think is a good thing). I got an interview with her after the show, which will be in an upcoming blog entry.

I stayed for a while after to see an old friend of mine named Dave Stoler perform with a trio consisting of John Weber on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. They did a wonderful version of "Only Trust Your Heart", which is one of my favorite tunes. Dave Stoler has been based in Madison for many years; we met at a jazz piano competition in Indianapolis in 1992. He's a very thoughtful, studied musician. I'd like to get a conversation with him at some point.

Next on the bill was my trio at Small's the following night. The turnout was pretty good, and the performing was fun. I finally got up the nerve to pull out the melodica on a few ballads. While I'm suspicious as to whether my band will tolerate more than one song a set on the melodica, I enjoyed playing it so much on the ballads; it has a sustain that is just impossible on the piano... It kind of makes me feel like a horn player, without the agonizing pain and suffering of the trumpet! I think the audience enjoyed it...

Cameron Brown

Ronnie Cuber
The next morning, I had to rise early to meet veteran bassist Cameron Brown in Tarrytown, N.Y., in order to catch a ride to Boston. We had a one-nighter at Sculler's with Baritone Saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. Cuber is a legend on the Bari Sax; he was THE studio cat in the 70's and 80's. I was rather pleasantly surprised to get the call from his manager for this gig.. I had only performed with Ronnie within the confines of the Mingus Big Band. It was a true inspiration to hear Ronnie stretch out on some Coltrane tunes, such as "Spiral" and "Miles' Mode". Rounding out the ensemble was the great Joe Farnsworth on drums. Farnsworth's drumming at times reminded me of Louis Hayes and Art Blakey with some Elvin Jones thrown in for good measure. It was a pretty energetic set, with a good crowd response.

I drove back the next morning with Cameron Brown and, in the car, we listened to a good portion of a box set edition of Miles Davis' Live At The Blackhawk. Brown told me that he was fortunate enough to have seen the same band when he was a kid in Detroit. " Miles, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly...I used to stand behind Wynton and light his cigarettes for him..." Brown reminisced. I had heard some of this recording before, but this version is four sets of music with no edits. This album reminded me of something my friend Jed Levy had said once:"When you hear jazz musicians in the studio, oftentimes it's just the tip of the iceberg of what they can really play." Live At The Blackhawk is a great example of that notion, because the solos go long and are so inventive it's scary. I think they get into some things that just wouldn't end up happening if they were limited by the constraints of the studio.The swing on the CD is amazing; when Miles solos, you get the feeling that he doesn't want to stop, propelled by the unwavering intensity of Jimmy Cobb's ride cymbal beat and Paul Chamber's insistent quarter note pulse. I'm planning on downloading the album soon so I have have another closer listen.

I have two gigs to go: an engagement with my trio at a house concert series in Baltimore called Jazzway 6004. (Tickets are still available if you are in the area.) And we're finishing up the east coast tour with a trio performance at Fat Cat in NYC on Monday night. Soon I'll be back in Osborne Village in Winnipeg, wondering if it was all a dream...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Christine Jensen Interview

I was first exposed to alto saxophonist Christine Jensen through working with her trumpet playing sister Ingrid. We played some of her music, which really struck me as direct, mature, grounded and highly creative. Later on I got to meet her; unfortunately, we have not played together much (except for maybe one or two  jam sessions years ago). I hope that will be rectified in 2011! Jensen has a new CD called Treelines (Justin time Records) which features a large ensemble and her original music. In addition to alto saxophone and composition, Jensen plays a mean soprano saxophone, and also plays piano quite well. She's recently added motherhood to her list of activities (Congratulations! Hope you like coffee...unless your baby sleeps, unlike mine....oy vey...anyway....) I recently sat with this Montreal-based musician to discuss some high concepts relating to music...

GC: OK Here we go. Let me say off the bat that I haven't done many of these, and I like to keep it loose. I'd rather you just talk about whatever you want, and I don't edit much. I have some questions which might seem general, but hopefully it will lead to something interesting.

So I'd like to know what made you want to be a musician, and how specifically did you get into jazz music?

CJ: Well, I grew up in a musical family. my mother was a great piano and music teacher plus she was into musical theater. There was a lot of classical, and American songbook music in our house through her LP collection, and from what she played on the piano. She had a few jazz piano recordings that she loved playing including Oscar Peterson Trio and George Shearing. She also loved Nat King Cole and singers Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney in particular.

Needless to say, I had piano lessons from an early age, and was lucky to participate in a strong public school music program that included combo and big band along with concert band. My older sisters chose trumpet and trombone, so I was destined for sax... although, in hindsight, anyone who wants to play sax might want to start on clarinet, as it is a more difficult instrument.

Anyway, my early training really helped me to become a composing jazz saxophonist, as I was able to soak up so many genres of music.

Ingrid Jensen

Related specifically into jazz, I was always a daydreamer. Classical piano was more about repertoire. I was always gravitating toward the more impressionistic repertoire when studying classical piano, including Toronto Conservatory repertoire.

Anyway, I had terrific public school teachers- the same schools as Ingrid and Diana Krall in Nanaimo- who really had a passion for jazz.
They got us all improvising and playing repertoire off of Kind Of Blue and things like that. It was a really good starting point.
The teachers also encouraged us to jam with them outside of school time, which led to gigs and great playing opportunities around Vancouver Island.

 GC: Was there a specific moment when you decided that music would be your life, or was it gradual, or maybe you always knew?

CJ: For me it was gradual... I really went back and forth between piano and sax from age 15 until about 25.

Once composition started flowing, I knew that I was committed to jazz, but it was always there in front of me for so many reasons.

Having Ingrid as an older sister kept jazz very present for me, although we didn't perform together until I was in my 20's.

My teachers also encouraged me by feeding me with recordings to listen to and with gig opportunities really. School was fun, but I was not focused until I moved back east to attend McGill. It was a small program with some of Canada's most elite players kicking my butt, including Kelly Jefferson, Mike Rud, Denzal Sinclaire, and my now husband Joel Miller.
GC: I like the dreaming thing you were talking about. Composing is kind of like dreaming. If you've ever seen that clip of Duke Ellington in his later years being asked about his compositional process or something, and he says, "Oh, this? This is just dreaming....that's all I do is dream...."      

 CJ: Exactly. he along with Billy Strayhorn are my heroes for that.

Kenny Wheeler

I have also heard similar statements from Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely. we all want to give our impressions on paper, and that is such a difficult hurdle in the compositional process. there is a certain amount of risk taking in order to get to honesty in composition, I think...

I also think of Gil Evans' process as well. It should take a long time to commit to a sound that you are trying to capture. he would play a voicing over and over before committing to it.

GC: So are you saying that you labor over the compositional process?

 CJ: In fact, I have to work really hard at everything in order to get into a dream state in my compositional process. Quite the opposite of improv.

GC: Interesting. So you don't see improvisation and composition to be connected in that sense? Like a similar process but at a much slower or faster rate? Do you ever try to get into a dream state when you are improvising?

CJ: Definitely. They are two different processes for me, yet they must weave together at the final stage, which is the performance. Regarding composition-I first have to force myself into a dream state, which means shutting down my whole world around me. I also usually have some sort of deadline and a bit of a map of what I am composing for. I can usually break it down into three or four components, rhythm, melody, counterline melody( usually an accompanying bass figure). If the initial idea is strong enough I can further orchestrate it for whatever group context that I am working in. Basically, most of what I compose breaks down to a lead sheet.

Regarding improvisation... I do get into a dream state, as long as I am comfortable with my playing. That means keeping up my jazz vocabulary, and hopefully building on it as well. I get equally inspired as a performer and composer just from listening to the development of a great solo like a solo from Joe Henderson... or Coltrane. I really feel that a great jazz solo is just as meaningful as a strong composition.

Back to composition versus improv and dream state: both are in the moment, but composition is such a solitary state. I love improv because I get to have a conversation with at least one other person and hopefully the element of spontaneity prevails. I guess that is what makes for meaningful conversation that the audience can react to as well.

 GC:I was always struck with the clarity of your compositions. They remind me of Wayne Shorter or Theolonious Monk in the sense of having a very clear idea of a melody and thematic material...not to say that it ever sounds cliche or obvious. Although I get the sense that you aren't afraid of the obvious in the effort to try to be too clever or something. You music has a strength of ideas that really appeals to me. I try to write this way, with questionable success. Is this something you are conscious of? It seems like a consistent pursuit throughout all the music of yours that I am familiar with...

 CJ: That is such a compliment! I am constantly struggling with initial ideas. It is like a big drawer of little scraps piling up, and I go back and look over these ideas. If they jump out at me, I might start to re-hash them and develop them further. Otherwise, it is back to the drawing board. Sometimes ideas flow fast, but it is probably because I have been unlocking an idea that was buried in my subconscious. The more time I devote to composition, which includes studying different styles of music, the more ideas I come up with. The tank runs empty the longer I stay away from it too. I really do pull from Shorter, and the rhythms and harmonies of bands from the past, and try to emulate them, give up and move on. That seems to be when they pop back in. I think of it as the blender affect in coming up with a unique sound. I have to listen equally to all sorts of music. African, Brazilian, European, American, they are all worth intense and equal study.

I guess not being afraid of the obvious is also risk-taking. Once I commit to an idea melodically, I kind of have fun with the idea of a counter-attack with rhythm and possibly harmony. I also tend to gravitate toward a pop mentality with melodic ideas. Maybe that makes the composition memorable?

GC: Why shouldn't it be memorable? Does that make it less intellectual somehow? I'm checking out your CD entitled Look Left and the writing is very intriguing but also memorable. It's not being afraid to have clear ideas but it also makes for great improvisational vehicles on that album...

CJ: As the composer, I am not the one to judge how the listener embraces the work. I write for myself first, and then hope the musicians add to the life of the work. Again it's about having the freedom to put it our there on so many levels, with the end result being that hopefully the audience is able to gravitate toward listening to it for there own reasons. I am a lover of so much music with melody, from the Police, to Jobim, to Miles Davis, to people on the fringe that influence me know such as Guillermo Klein and Bill Frisell, not to mention Chopin, Stravinsky, Barber, Copland, Bjork, Dirty Projectors, and Django Bates...very random list, I know, but they all compose melodies that stick with me, and a lot of it has to do with interval choice and rhythm.

GC: That's a wide range of influences to be sure. There is so much great music out there. Sometimes I feel like students are sort of pushed into a box where all they listen to is hard bop. While I feel like students need to listen to jazz, I don't ever discourage them from listening to anything. Sometimes I ask them what I need to check out! So even though the music of yours that I have heard is definitely jazz, could you say that you have a multitude of influences outside the so called genre of jazz?

Bill Evans

 I am very influenced by what the people around me are listening to, whether it is the musicians that I am working and touring with, my sister, or my husband especially. We live in a very picky household for music listening! I know when I was a student, I was obsessed with Blue Note recordings, Miles' classic quintets, and Bill Evans doing anything. Evans was a master sculptor of creating a really well-placed thought out solo. It makes sense as he devoted his life to capturing a perfect sound on the piano and with his trio. Funny, one of my favorite albums is Bill Evans' We Will Meet Again. It is just full of great solos by him plus the added sax and trumpet of Tom Harrell and Larry Schneider. It was like he went one step further near the end of his life to transfer his sound into a front line. Anyway, I still write with "jazz" in mind as I love the idea of being able to instantly be in a moment with the musicians that I am performing with. I am just so lucky to be able to play with some great musicians who get excited to try out my new works, or equally when we tour a lot with my repertoire. It excites me to know that every time I get together with like minded jazz musicians, that there are so many surprises to discover through playing in the moment. I get the most satisfaction when we can use my compositions as a base for our explorations, and come up with new directions that are off the page. It really takes a high level of artistry, along with trust throughout a band for it to happen though. I am lucky that I have been able to experience it in both my small and large ensemble projects. The great thing is that it inspires me to continue to write and perform.

GC: Your alto playing has a great presence. You play with a rich, thick tone. I am a huge fan of the alto, but there are some alto players,remaining nameless, who annoy me because I can't stand their tone. I would put you in the sort of post-modern alto category, leaning towards two of my favorites, Steve Wilson and Jon Gordon. My wife was listening to your CDs and she compared you to a tenor player named Bill McHenry. Who are your biggest influences on the alto, and do you really feel like an altoist, or do you just think of yourself as a musician who happens to play alto....also your soprano playing is really nice, any influences there?

CJ:  Well, I work hard on sound development. Ingrid also got me into that as trumpet is all about maintaining a sound. I also had some great teachers who gave me exercises incl. Steve Wilson, George Garzone, and teachers here in Montreal including Janis Stephrans and Remi Bolduc. I also got into transcribing Gary Bartz, who you hipped me to. He has one of the most modern sounds going I think. Anyway, long tones along with centering pitch is what I am a stickler for.
In fact, Ingrid and I still work on a few routines whenever we get together, which helps to bind our sound together. Soprano- I don't even think about so much, as I find alto such a difficult instrument to control, in comparison to soprano. Some alto saxophonists think the opposite I am sure.

I  love for Parker, Cannonball and Sonny Stitt, not to mention Johnny Hodges! I find that Hodges and Parker the hardest out of all of them to emulate.

Pianist Dave Restivo

GC: In another life I will play alto. I have one sitting in my office. I've played it for a total of 15 minutes. Your playing makes me want to try again.
Before we talk about the big band recording, which of your small group CDs is your favorite and why? I think Look Left is mine. Dave Restivo is killing on it! I think the whole CD has a vibe.

CJ: Ha ha, you are too generous. It is an incredibly difficult instrument to make sing I think. Look Left is great because I felt that we were able to communicate in a small group setting that gave us lots of space. That was really due to us having spent some time on the road beforehand, rather than me starting a new studio project.
not to say that I don't love each record for different reasons...

GC:"Treelines" is a wonderful large ensemble CD. I hear some influence of Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schnieder, Gil Evans....what made you decide to do this and what were the pros and cons? Was it overwhelming?
CJ: It sure didn't happen overnight, or even within a year, and there were times in which I was overwhelmed, but the big thing was keeping organized and entering the studio with a well-rehearsed band. I really built the whole thing around my rhythm section and soloists as well. I gradually have been building up a big band repertoire of my music over time, probably for the last ten years. I also gradually worked on getting the project of this album organized over the past three years which included finding financial support through various agencies. This allowed me to dedicate a large chunk of time in preparing the scores, rehearsing the band, recording, and spending quite a bit of time in post-production. Through doing a concert a year of new music along with bringing in guest artists, I was inspired to get the album off the ground. Fortunately, I was able to get some optimal circumstances in the recording of the album, including working with a great producer/ engineer here by the name of Paul Johnston. He was great in terms of making sure that I was not overwhelmed. In a way, it was much closer to producing a pop album, as we had to prepare so much and find a balance in mixing between a modern and traditional acoustic jazz sound, while layering Ingrid and her electronics on top.

 We also worked hard on giving the feeling of a large room sound, as the studio we used included a tight set-up. I liked that for various reasons. It was especially a great session in terms of capturing an "in-the-moment" vibe with both the improvised sections and the brass and woodwind sections. Overall, the actual recording of the band was the shortest moment for me in creating the whole recording. We only had three days to lay down a lot of tracks, and we only got two or three takes of each track to choose from, so it really was an attempt of capturing the music in a pretty live setting. The other beauty of this project coming to life was that the musicians really dedicated themselves, and heir focus helped to raise the bar even more with solos and ensemble parts.

I don't really know when I decided to do this. It was always in front of me in a way, and the big step for me was getting focused on having optimal conditions with a project of this size. Next album will probably be a duo or trio project though, ha!
Maria Schneider

GC: Some of the big band music I enjoy has that sort of mixture of the large with the small, and features strong rhythm sections. I always felt that way about Maria Schneider's music, or that Joe Henderson's Big Band CD, or even playing with the Mingus Band. I enjoy the soloing on "Treelines" as much as the group sound. Did you have any particular models for this particular project, being your first, or was it not a conscious thing?
I realize you already listed some of your many and diverse influences, but for this being kind of a massive undertaking, did you feel more inclined to use a model, or was that not a factor? When I studied big band writing, we talked about some of the greats like Thad Jones, or Sammy Nestico, or Ellington, but the instructor(trumpeter Mike Mossman) showed us very concise skills that I thought made it easier to write it our own way, as opposed to "copying" other styles. Is this how you think. Perhaps I'm leading you with this line of questioning.....

CJ: I would say that those are all strong models. My general picture or idea of big band is the following: I am creating a large landscape, and the soloists are adding their own layer of color to it. I did study arranging with Bret Zvochik who is now running the jazz program in Potsdam, and came out of North Texas. He really drove home the traditional arranging techniques a la Nestico and so forth, but also inspired me to come up with original orchestration. I was really in love with Brookmeyer and Wheeler's use of thick brass pads.
I think all of the masters that have been mentioned here have one thing in common: They were constantly writing for their musicians who were also great improvisers. It gives the large ensemble composer a large palette to work from, and it is easy to draw inspiration from the musicians they are or were working with.
Another thing in general that I have not been afraid to tackle is composing in less common keys and time signatures. I really spent a lot of time working through B Major, D Major, C# minor , and so on. I continually challenge myself in finding new sounds, and part of the process is exploring keys or modes that I am less familiar with. Part of the process of composition for me is "exploration" and working on uncovering the unknown.

So, no model per-say, although I am compared a lot to Maria or Kenny Wheeler. I listen to them, and I think that they are both impressionists with their music, and I probably fall into that category as well. This is not to say that I have probably spent just as much time listening to and playing the repertoire of Ellington and Basie. I am hooked right now to Ella and Basie! What a great recording of counterpoint between her and the band with the orchestrating of each section. 

Anyway, it is so important to learn those basic arranging skills. Organization and voicing of sections especially. however, I am also one to break rules, but only after knowing what they are, ha!

 GC:  I know you are originally from British Columbia in Canada. What makes you a Montreal resident? What are your thoughts on the scene in Montreal(not counting the jazz festival). Did you ever consider living in New York?

CJ: I spent a bit of time in NY on and off between '98 and 2001. I would go down for one to three months at a time. I got to study with all sorts of sax players as well as a bit with Kenny Werner and later with Jim McNeely where i took part in the BMI Composers meetings. I love New York, but I also love being in Canada where I have a bit more luxury in devoting so much time to creating! Montreal, being majority french presents some challenges, but I have been surrounded by a strong music community, including McGill University.

 I met my husband Joel here at McGill. He is from new Brunswick in the Maritimes and I am from the west coast, with lots of our family living on the east coast, so it is a nice city to travel from in terms of distance. 
The music scene in general is so strong here in Montreal, with culture being a top priority in the urban area. Two small jazz clubs and a bigger venue through the festival for larger acts makes for a busy scene as well.
I have also been fortunate to work with two actual jazz record labels here. So, there have been great opportunities for me present my music, and to travel between here, NY and Toronto especially. I also got to hook into Paris jazz scene thanks to receiving a 6-month residency in the Quebec loft in 2002 at Cite des Arts in Paris. But New York... I was so fortunate to always be able to spend time there as Ingrid lives there and loves introducing me to new sounds coming out of there.
GC: Last question: How do you juggle motherhood and your busy jazz career?

CJ: Ha! Everyone kept saying if I could do that big band record and tour it, motherhood would be a piece of cake. Well, I could write a book about my experience through being pregnant as a saxophonist and the first three months so far! It meant canceling and postponing a lot of projects for 6-12months while getting this baby fed and taken care of. However, I know that I have even more to give as a composing jazz musician in the future because of this life-changing experience.That being said, I am on a bit of maternity leave until January 2011. At the same time, I am currently doing a few gigs not as a leader but as a sideman locally right now. My husband Joel and I did our first few gigs together over the past few weeks, so it was scary and exciting to start leaving the nest a little. It was such a blast to have my horn back on my face and be in the moment with the music. We are lucky to both have a career where there is so much passion in preparing ourselves mentally and physically with the music in order to create in the moment. The act of performance in jazz is so fulfilling to the mind and soul, and I can't compare it to motherhood and family in the same way, although the same words can be used. Now we get to share tons of experiences with this new little being who is so innocent. I just hope that I keep getting to put out even more music down the road, while knowing that I have even more to share with both family and whoever my audience may be in the future. Having a baby makes me want to practice and explore new sounds even more. It's just harder to find the time at this juncture!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stop The Presses! Corporate America Plays The Blues....

I realize that when I started this jazztruth blog that I said I wanted to stay positive. However, there are times when speaking the truth means really telling the truth, sunshine be damned! I believe in a positive outlook and all that stuff, but I also believe that if you can't honestly look at the negative, then change will never occur.

What sticks in my craw this fine morning is the headline for Downbeat Magazine, the online edition. Now, on the record, Downbeat Magazine is a fine publication, and historically important in jazz journalism. But let's face it, the world of publishing is tough these days (what with all the free content on the internet.....ahem!) and print publications are just trying to stay afloat. I guess I've long ago accepted (to a degree) that many of these magazines are essentially propaganda; whoever pays for the most advertising gets the features, and after that, whoever can afford the most aggressive publicists gets attention. Downbeat is not the worst offender: for example, a japanese promoter who produced some recordings was approached by Swing Journal (the biggest jazz magazine in Japan) and asked how much money he would pay to receive a 5 star review of the CD!

Anyway, The Downbeat online edition headline reads: JAZZERS DIG INTO DISNEY REPERTOIRE ON NEW CD SERIES.

Why does that bother me? Well, because it's the HEADLINE for one. Maybe not on the print edition, but this is basically equivalent of opening the New York Times and seeing as the HEADLINE this:


I feel myself going into rant mode. Easy, now......

 It would be different if somebody like Wayne Shorter decided on his own that he wanted to record some songs that happened to be associated with Disney movies. Maybe he would call it "Someday My Prince Will Come" or "Beauty and The Beast"(Oh wait, he has his own tune with that title. Never mind....). But this is so clearly a corporate takeover of Downbeat. It's so over -the -top commercial that it just makes me wonder if there is any integrity left anywhere.

This Jazz Disney CD, entitled, "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat, Volume 1." is being released on Walt Disney Records in December. Just in time for Christmas! Oh Goody! It features all the usual suspects, the people who are already sort of jazz household names or the people who are being pushed into being household names. Not surprising. I hope the date paid well. (That's probably the main reason for my rant... is that I wish somebody would call me for a recording date like that. Wait until Fox News stars a jazz label, I would happily play " Blues for Sean Hannity" for the proper sum.)

Am I wrong to think that jazz music and jazz journalism should steer clear of this kind of thing? I'm not against jazz musicians or magazines making a buck. But this is so blatantly, crassly commerical to me. In a time when rock and roll music is used for commercials to get kids to Join The Army and rap music is used to sell McDonald's, do we have to sell our souls to Disney to keep jazz alive?

In the United States last night, the electorate basically voted against the Obama administration, after only two years of trying to reverse 8 years of Bush and Company. The Bush administration basically made Corporate America the de facto government of the United States. It would seem that people want MORE of this by how they voted last night. I don't have time to explain why Corporate Control of everything is bad. I thought that it was obvious. So to hear that the chance for Obama to actually change things has possibly come to a screeching halt, and then to see that Disney has effectively bought out the front page of Downbeat, well, that was a little troubling for me this morning.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why Learn Tunes?

Marco Castillo
David Jernigan
I played a really nice couple of gigs last weekend with Brazilian-born-but-Winnipeg-based singer-guitarist Marco Castillo. The first night was duo, and the second night we added the versatile, spirited  percussionist Scott Senior. We played many different samba and bossa nova songs; some were originals of Marco's, but many were from what is considered "standard" brazilian repertoire. And then some were off the beaten path, songs by Ivan Lins or Chico Buarqe that I remembered from almost twenty years ago from my gigs with Washington D.C. bassist David Jernigan. (Jernigan "showed me the ropes" regarding any of the Brazilian stuff that I know.) It was a really fun couple of nights, but I couldn't help noticing that there were virtually none of the jazz students from the U of Manitoba (where I'm currently teaching) at the venue to check out the music. (Too expensive? Not unless you consider free cover to be too expensive...)

I'm sure there were a multitude of reasons as to why there weren't any students there (although there was a crowd on the Friday night). However, I started to wonder if jazz students these days see any connection with Brazilian tunes and jazz, or with Brazilian tunes and their own musical development. I always remember bossa nova tunes being part of the Baltimore and Washington D.C. jazz gig repertoire. Tunes like "Corcovado","Chega De Saudade", "Favela", and "Desafinado" were considered the level one Brazilian standards one was supposed to know. I wonder if that's still the case, in D.C. or anywhere for that matter.

Cedar Walton, composer of
"Bolivia" and many other
hard tunes...
While I don't feel like I know as many tunes as I would like, I spent a fair bit of time in my early twenties learning as many "jazz" tunes as I could. I and my friend, bassist David Ephross, used to spend a lot of time working on not just standard tunes, but more obscure tunes, like "California Here I Come", or "Stars Fell On Alabama", or "Heyoke", a wonderful Kenny Wheeler tune. Indeed, many of the Cedar Walton tunes we had learned were considered to be advanced, and made people think we were more advanced players than we actually were! In fact, the first tunes we really learned were "Bolivia" by Cedar Walton and "Stablemates" by Benny Golson. I didn't even know "Misty" or "All The Things You Are", but despite that, people thought, wow, he must be very advanced....

Back to present-day Winnipeg, I believe that I got the call to play with Marco Castillo because I knew at least a few more tunes than the Level One bossa nova repertoire. And yet most of my students are struggling to remember "Body and Soul", let alone "Comecar De Novo" by Ivan Lins. It makes me wonder what I should be emphasizing as a teacher. Should I insist on having my students learn 150 tunes a year?

Again, I don't claim to know every tune ever written. Many of the older cats know way more tunes than I do. They say Harold Mabern knows at least 5000 tunes. David Jernigan seemed un-stumpable when it came to tunes. By all accounts, Russell Malone knows many, many tunes.When I was a guest on the Marian McPartland show, she called a whole mess of tunes that I had never heard of. I think she called a few pre-Civil War tunes!

I get the impression that the modern student is oftentimes perplexed as to how to develop the quantity of their repertoire of tunes. Many of my students come to me and say, "Professor Colligan, I don't know what tunes I'm supposed to be learning, and the ones I learned, I seem to forget them after three months of not playing them!" I find this to be really unfortunate, and I don't have the easiest answers. This is because I learned the tunes I know on the gig (or preparing for a gig).

When I was in Maryland in the early 90's, I played many more gigs than I do now. Sometimes I would have four gigs on a Saturday! And I'd have gigs every night through the week. But students now don't seem to have those opportunities. So how can they get motivated to learn a whole bunch of tunes for gigs that don't exist?

One option is to look at it in terms of "preparation". There is some expression that goes something like,"It's not the opportunity, it's whether or not you are ready for the opportunity."  For example, a student of mine was offered a trio gig with some of the top Winnipeg jazz players. I asked him if he had enough tunes for two sets of trio playing. He showed me his list of tunes. It seemed like enough, however, I feel like one should have more than merely enough. This might be referred to as "depth" of knowledge. The standard for me over a decade ago was the Bradley's gig in New York , which was an entire week of three one-hour sets a night. So let's say six tunes a set times twenty one sets equals 126 tunes. (That's assuming you didn't repeat any tunes.)

Unfortunately, Bradley's closed in the late 90's, and I have no idea if that kind of gig exists anywhere nowadays. To further throw a wrench into things, most touring bands play the same repertoire of twenty or so tunes every night. And some really successful jazz musicians have admitted that they only know a handful of standards (although they play the mess out of them.) And so many young jazz musicians are composing their own music, which I whole heartedly support. Many of these youngsters say,"Well, if there are no gigs that require me to learn standards, and I'm just going to get my own gigs where I can play my own tunes or standards that I like, why should I spend hours learning tunes that I may never play?"

It's difficult to answer these questions. Let me just say this: knowing at least some depth of music makes you a deeper musician. But even though I am a jazz educator, I don't want to tell you exactly how to develop this depth. You might know 500 songs, or you might only know 100, but play the heck out of them! Easily, I could give you a list of jazz tunes that I think you should learn. But I believe that part of developing as a mature artist means finding the tunes you like to play and developing those in your repertoire.

Of course, there are going to be tunes that you have to learn, or will be called on a gig and maybe you won't know it. So bring a fakebook! No shame in that. (While some people say you should always learn tunes off the recording, I think using fake books combined with listening to great versions is good. Gary Bartz told me that he would buy the original sheet music for standards, so he could see what the composer originally intended.)

Carl Allen
 Carl Allen, the current Artistic Director of Jazz Studies at the Juilliard School, used to tell the students to write down any tune which is called during a session or gig that they don't know, so that next time it's called, they know it! We do the same thing here at the U of M, but I believe, correct me if I'm wrong, but I've seen only one student ever engage in this practice! So I guess the message has not sunk in yet...

For those of you who are struggling to broaden your repertoire, believe me, I've felt the intimidation. My first tour with Cassandra Wilson was in the fall of 1999. We did 9 weeks straight, 2 in Japan and 7 in Europe. Although we had a set repertoire ever night (which I had learned, of course), I remember getting a wake up call during every single soundcheck: Wilson and bassist Lonnie Plaxico would, just messing around, play different tunes from Motown, R&B, Rock, Folk, Country, Jazz, TV themes, Pop, you name it. I knew very few of them. And I'm talking every night for 9 weeks. That was impressive, to say the least.
Cassandra Wilson

I'd love to hear some responses in terms of your personal philosophies. I think the jury is still out on this issue. But if you are trying to learn more tunes, I do believe you've got to learn one at a time!