Sunday, February 27, 2011

Check This Out

Liam, settle down, I'm trying to blog!
Some of you out there probably have lives....children....maybe even a job! I find myself using the phrase "there are only so many hours in the day" quite frequently. (Gotta be careful though. When I used that line on my accountant when he asked me why I hadn't organized my receipts, he didn't see the humor in it...)So he's a segment I'm calling Check This Out. It's just some short bits on what I've been checking out lately. And just to be clear, "Check Out" in this context is jazz slang for "listen to" or read about" or "observe".

Drummer Chris Massey has a new CD called "Vibranium". Massey has been on the scene for the better part of the last decade, having performed as a sideman with veterans like Donald Harrison and Joe Lovano. He features a quintet of musicians who I was completely unfamiliar with, but who are all clearly quite skilled in the art of New York Jazz. I say New York Jazz because I grow weary of the labels like Straight Ahead, Post-Bop, and Modern Mainstream. These guys play jazz like New Yorkers do:it's swinging, it's got an edge to it, and it's tied to the jazz tradition without sounding hackneyed. Massey is part of the lineage as a drummer and also a drummer-composer-bandleader. His time is solid, his drums have a full, warm sound. But he doesn't showboat;he's accompanies his sidemen well. Massey plays a wonderful solo on "Change" which is a composition unto itself, with a consistent technical control but also using dramatic dynamics.

Donald Malloy is a strong trumpeter, reminiscent of early Terence Blanchard. Benjamin Drazen is a fine alto player; I'm certain he's checked out Jackie McClean and Antonio Hart, but I wondered if he had ever listened to Arthur Blythe or Joe Ford? Pianist Evgeny Lebedev plays a great solo on the tune "Galactus", a 7/4 vibe (which seems to me "borrowed" from a Jeff Watts tune from the Charles Fambrough album "Thunder and Rainbows", if I'm not mistaken. Hey, like they say, good composers borrow, great composers steal. I don't know where I would fall in that. I rent....). "Vibranium" is a great debut from Massey and his quintet.

Next up is Esperanza Spalding, a bassist-vocalist-composer from Portland, Oregon, who, unless you've been living under a rock, you know has taken the music world by somewhat of a storm. (She won a Grammy for Best New Artist, I believe the first "jazz" artist to ever do so. This sent Justin Bieber fans into a murderous rage! How dare they give a Grammy to a real musician!)I first heard Esperanza and her highly accomplished band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2009 and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Part of me can't help but think that much of the hubbub is due to Spalding's image; an attractive, female bassist who simultaneously sings and plays- and also sports a huge afro. I think one would be foolish not to acknowledge that, in today's superficial society, that this kind of unique image would help one get a career started. All that being said, I've been going back to listen to Spalding's music in more detail.

Her self titled CD, "Esperanza" is full of music that draws on many influences, yet feels highly personal. Honestly, it's the kind of CD I wish I could make:it's got a little bit of everything mixed in a visionary way. It's a boiling melting pot of influences;samba, latin, fusion,jazz,funk,blues, R&B. In terms of pushing jazz, or music, in a new direction, this is an example of a project which transcends style. Even the jazziest cut on the CD," If That's True", is at least half hip-hop, or neo-soul, or whatever you want to call it. " I Know You Know" is part funk, part samba, but the vocals have a kind of hip-hop/pop rhythm to them, almost R. Kelly-ish. All in all, this is what music is supposed to; EVOLVE. (Just like humanity. I have more hope in the evolution of music, personally.)I really enjoy this CD, but I would like to see what Spalding is doing in 10 years. With all of her precociousness, she still has room to develop as a musician and composer. Which is a good thing.

Fraser Hollins
Speaking of composing bass players, I'm listening to a disc by Canadian bassist Fraser Hollins. I met him on a gig with saxophonist Christine Jensen recently at the Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal, where Fraser is based(no pun intended). Fraser is a bass player who has tons of technique and tons of creativity. His new CD entitled "Aerial" features his flawless bass playing and composing. Much of this CD makes me think that there might be a "Canadian" style of modern jazz, in that much of the young Canadian musicians write music with extremely colorful melodies and harmonies. These melodies and harmonies might hint every once in a while at things like hard bop or Tristano-style jazz, but that's never the concern. The concern is to create a feeling. But Hollins' group here has all the rhythmic sophistication of a New York band, which makes the "listening picture" (oxymoron?) feel complete to me. Check out Hollins' bowed bass work on "Vyana"; it's gorgeous. Saxophonist Joel Miller is strong and endlessly inventive on this album. Pianist Steve Amirault is also very solid in his comping and improvising.

Woody Shaw

And finally, you need to check this out: a video from a blog called "Brilliant Corners";this is Woody Shaw, the late master trumpeter, playing in a courtyard in Boston in the late 80's with a band of pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist David Williams, and a very young Terri-Lynne Carrington on drums. It's a little weird to see world class musicians playing in what seems to be some kind of hotel gig for passing pedestrians. But Woody, although ailing, is clearly killin'. Shaw is arguably one of the last important innovators of jazz trumpet. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Informal Session with Adam Niewood And Chris Higgins

Adam Niewood
 I spent much of last summer in New York. During my time there, I tried to take advantage of the wealth of high level players and have what we call "sessions". A "session" to me is derived from the jam session, but it has a more private and more organized feeling to it. I called tenor saxophonist Adam Niewood and bassist Chris Higgins to do some playing and we met at Niewood's apartment in Harlem. We played for a few hours: we mixed it up with original music and some standards. There was a really positive group energy that made me wish I had an opportunity to book the band somewhere! After the session, we sat down and spoke. This is an excerpt of the conversation. I didn't edit much.

Chris Higgins
GC: We are here talking with Adam Niewood And Chris Higgins. We just finished playing a very exciting jam session at Adam's house. Adam is a tenor saxophone player, and drummer...I mostly played drums today, but I played some piano, which seemed to be a big hit....(laughter)...Chris Higgins merely played the bass....oh wait, he did play some solo piano, which I was very impressed with...Ok, in all seriousness, let's talk a little bit about doing sessions; when I moved here in 1995, and even before when I would just come to New York for a visit, I found that doing sessions was very important for my development , and also it was a way to network and meet other jazz musicians. Some of the sessions then, and some of the sessions now, I have found them to be oftentimes more exciting than some of the gigs! What are your thoughts on this? What are the pros and cons of doing sessions?
AN: I would agree, of course...sessions are really's the way we work on our craft. I feel like if I don't play a session for two or three weeks, and then I have a professional engagement, or anything where I have to really be on, then I feel like I have to dust off the cobwebs. I don't feel as loose of as fluid, musically. Playing sessions regularly, reading people's music, playing standards you aren't familiar with, are all part of our process. In a session you have the ability to start and stop, you can try the tunes a second time, you can even discuss how it felt and how you could improve, try different tempos...we can work on the group dynamic and so forth.
CH: I look at it as practicing together. You can practice at home and that's great, but you can practice with other people, as long as there are other musicians around to play with. Taking advantage of that is part of being in New York. I think it probably doesn't happen in other cities as much. But in New York, it's unique because you can get pretty much anybody to play sessions.
GC: I would agree, because I felt that in Baltimore and Washington D.C., it was harder to just get together for sessions with some of the players, because they were so busy doing gigs. It was sort of beneath them to get together to work on original music. That was one great thing about moving to New York...I met Mark Turner at a session! I tagged along at a very informal session with Tom Harrell...he just felt like playing! Over the years, I played sessions with Bill Stewart, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Joshua Redman....But some people aren't interested...
AN: Sometimes you do run into people who don't want to play....sometimes I'm one of them! It depends what's going on in your life at the moment. It's not always convenient. It also depends on who else wants to play, as well... If everyone's head is in the same space, if everyone on the session is open to improving themselves, and  making art...that's what we are doing, we are making art on the spot. If you are playing with people like that, then it's fun. But sometimes the sessions are not about that, some musicians have ulterior motives, where they are looking at it purely as a networking thing. One thing I've noticed in the last few years is that we are all in the same boat with the gig situation, or lack thereof.... you know what I mean, I just don't like it when people come to the session with strings attached, with another agenda. I'm sure you have had similar situations?
GC: Absolutely. I have my own theory about networking, which is that the goal is that whomever is doing the networking gets the call for the gig!
AN: But that's what I mean, when the sole motivation of the session is for me to stop calling my regular players and call that person for a when all of the conversation between tunes is like...
CH: "Yeah, we should hook up a gig..."(laughter)
AN: So that's the thing about sessions, it depends on who you are playing with and what their vibe is towards the session and about music.
GC: So you've done sessions with people who only came to say,"Hey, check me out!" As if there was no musical agenda? I think some people are so aggressive in this way that it's a turn off. It works for some...
AN: But it can also backfire. So it's a fine line.....In the end it's just people. You meet different people and they resonate with you and you get along....I mean, I'm not promoting cliques at all, you know what I mean.
GC: Do you have a lot of sessions here?
AN: I have a lot of sessions here. Let's just talk about the environment for sessions: You need to have a comfortable place where you can let the dynamics go where they may. In interesting when you have folks come over, you start to really see what's going in the scene. For example, somebody might bring a tune in that's slightly in progress, and then they might bring it back two weeks later  and they've revised it. It's like "being in the workshop." Maybe I just did a non-sequiter?
GC:The point is that the sessions should be about music first. Now, I'm not going to suggest that one would come to New York and absolutely refuse to network, People have to know about you. But it's really all about HOW you network.
You can't have too much pressure.

AN: It's a fine line. Some people are able to network well and not come off as too pushy. Christian McBride and John Patitucci  told me that one good thing to do is to make lists of people you would like to work with. Have different groups: maybe the young players, the older cats, etc.....THEN go see ten of their gigs, get a feel for the band. Then, start learning the music , either off of recordings, or get the music from somebody in the band. And then when you feel ready,approach the bandleader and say " I really respect your music and I learned your book, if you ever need a sub please call me."
CH: This is actually a really great idea!
GC: Have you ever done something like that?
CH: No! (laughs)And I study with Patitucci. But I would consider doing that.
AN: But a good way to get a gig with someone is to learn their music. Because what you would want to avoid is where you hound someone to hire you, and then when it comes time for the gig, you don't know the music and you fall on your ass and embarrass yourself. That does more to hurt your reputation in so many ways.
GC: I remember a situation where a younger musician was begging me to recommend him for one of the bands I played in. I told this young musician that the music in this band was extraordinarily difficult. This musician insisted he would learn the music, although I think he really just wanted to go on the tour to Japan that was in the works. Anyway, his tryout gig was going to be at a local NYC venue, but the day before, he met the bandleader for a rehearsal. Well, let's just say he didn't learn any of the music, was fired on the spot, and his name was mud with the bandleader, not to mention the fact that he made me look bad for recommending him for the gig.
On the flip side of this, Chris, don't you think that bass players just get called.....
CH: .......Anyway, we tend to get called for more gigs anyway. I tend to get called for standards gigs, cause I learned a lot of standards, and maybe some of the younger guys don't know that many standard tunes. But if it's original music, you have to really know it. And that's a great way to keep the gig.
GC: Chris, you lived in Barcelona for a few years, and then you came back to NYC. How are things different there?
CH: The music is not as challenging as New York. It's changed. There were some great players there when I first arrived in Barcelona. Now there are a lot more young players and many of them are good. But the attitude over there is very loose. It's sort of....less of everything, less expectation of perfection, or expectation of great playing. There's not very much pressure at all. The only time I ever felt any pressure was playing with Perico Sambeat( one of the great alto/soprano players in Spain, if not the best.). The lifestyle in Spain dictates that everyone gets along, and there's not that hierarchy that you have here. If you can play at all, you'll have gigs.
GC: So you were working all the time in Spain?
CH: Oh yeah, all the time, I never worried about getting work, I was touring Spain all the time, and I always had money......I ate out in restaurants all the time, never worried at all....
AN: (Comically)So why did you come back to New York?
CH: Well, yeah, because I wasn't being challenged musically at all. You're always going to be challenged in New York.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Viewer Mail 2: Which Books?

Here's a letter I got from a reader who I am assuming is a beginner. Hopefully I answered his question.

I liked your post about Aebersold learning material a little while ago. I'm a jazz enthusiast who'd like to learn how to play(alto sax) to enjoy the playing itself but also to understand better what's really going on in some of the music I listen to. Now for Aebersold- seems there are a plethora of books what will you recommend for the first book,...and may be the next let's say five books that will allow me to learn and progress the most efficiently?

Dear Charles
Maybe you should start with any of the beginning method books for Alto Sax. I think Rubank is the one everyone does. Also, start with major and minor scales( you could get those off of the internet), and then move on to reading simple notation. Maybe you are already doing this? And then you need to progress to the jazz modes like Dorian, Mixolydian, Lydian, and locrian. Then move on to diminished scale, lydian dominant, and diminished whole tone scale. In every key! Yes, it's tedious, but you'll thank me later.
I would get the First 3 legal Real Books from Carl Fischer Publishing, plus Patterns for Jazz by Jerry Coker. Also, the accompanying books with the Aebersold Cds have great information in terms of how to apply scales and patterns over chord changes. For me, it's cool to get melodic and harmonic info from books. But rhythm and phrasing have to come from listening.
Also, for an altoist especially, I would highly recommend the Charlie Parker Omnibook. One thing that is cool to do with the Omnibook, besides playing the solo along with the recordings, is to analyze every note of the solo according to scale degree relating to the chord. For example, if the notes are Bb, C, D, F, and the chord is Bbmaj7, then you would write 1, 2, 3, 5. The more you start to think in scale degrees relating to chords, the more sense it will make.
Don't forget about listening. I would try your hand at transcription. Maybe do a few bars at first. Try to just learn the notes on the alto, then write out the passage. Do a little at a time. Don't let it overwhelm you. Then,when you have the notes, do the same kind of analysis you did with the Omnibook, and then try to incorporate those ideas into your improvisations.
Let me know how it works out. Good Luck!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Viewer Mail: Improving Jazz Vocabulary

 I recently received in the comments a very long question regarding learning how to play, and it has inspired me to start a new section called Viewer Mail. I'm posting Anonymous' question (I edited it some) and then I will respond. Hopefully, Anonymous will find my answers helpful.

Anonymous said...
Hi George (sorry for the long post in advance, and thank you for your time…). This is Anonymous  from Toronto, and I started studying jazz improvisation very seriously about 4 years ago. I am 32, and very hungry for jazz improvisation related information. I found your blog via some of the interviews you posted. I just want to say this is SUCH a blessing and you’re really COOL guy to want to dedicate your time sharing insights and experiences openly. Although there is a lot of information out there for jazz students, oftentimes they are not specific enough on describing the actual process of learning how to improvise, or more precisely, how to acquire and maintain a musician’s jazz vocabulary in our brain. Could you shed some light please?  

  For example, I started transcribing about 2 years ago, and I’ve been transcribing a bit everyday and went through 4-5 solos in the past year (Aaron Goldberg’s piano solos on Jimmy Greene’s Introducing CD track: Con Alma, Flower and Fly Little Bird Fly). I’ve practiced to the point that I have lines memorized. I can sing them in my head from start to finish. And I’ve analyzed the harmonic ideas of his outlines (although the more I memorize the solo, I tend to not be conscious anymore of the harmonic and chord changes but it’s more playing out of muscle memory, and I’m not sure if this is effective or not). I’ve practiced some 2 bar lines in all 12 keys on the guitar , and then move on to next line and repeat again next day or work on new projects. Usually I can only remember the lines for a few weeks. 

  When actually improvising, I end up still going to my familiar few patterns and few licks. If I slow down, or just sing alone without the guitar, occasionally one of Aaron’s transcribed idea will come up while singing. Then, eventually, I get so tired of the transcribed solo and fear that I’m not progressing  that I move on to new solos for inspirations, and then the results are the same.  

Recently I read a book by Lee Konitz called "Conversation on the Improviser's Art", and he said that Lennie Tristano used to ask his students to write a chorus etude and memorize it. I’ve been doing that over common standard progressions.  If I can slow down time I hear really good ideas that I even surprise myself and have time to think how to connect changes linearly. But for me to be able to improvise in real-time at the rate this is going, well, i'm afraid I will be 80 years old before I succeed. 

Question 1. Is the way I’m studying jazz improvisation normal? Or am I going totally the wrong direction?

 Question 2. Do you recommend a way to memorize lines and/or a system how to maintain your vocabulary, and how to discern which line you hear/feel so quickly when you’re in the bandstand situation. Or, if you can just post any info you feel it’s important to share to this regard, or how did you practice when you first started, or just how to build your vocabulary. George- thanks so much!

OK. Anonymous- Thanks for writing. Your situation is quite common. The larger question, and to put your entire monologue much more succinctly, is: How can I improve my improvisational vocabulary? Also, how can I use what I'm studying to improve my improvisation?

Licor de Manzana:
doesn't necessarily help you speak Spanish 
Think of jazz music like a language. When you learn a language, you learn one word at a time. Gradually, over a period of time and much real practice with people who speak the language, you will develop fluency. But we must remember that you can only learn one word at a time. When you develop fluency, you will be able to memorize long passages of T.S. Eliot or William Shakespeare, or what have you. But at the beginning stages, it's one word or concept at a time. When I learned Spanish, I was traveling to Spain a lot and I would write down vocabulary words and work on verb tenses everyday, and then practice with the locals. I knew I didn't speak very well, but the real time awkward practice really helped. (It forces you to think, even after five glasses of Licor De Manzana at 3:30 in the morning....)

I believe it is the same with jazz vocabulary. You have to concentrate on the short phrases. Even 2 note ideas can go a long way if you are trying to apply them to chord changes. Let's go back to the spoken language analogy: you would never attempt to "learn" to speak English by learning Alec Baldwin's monologue from Glenn Garry Glen Ross. If you don't understand basic verb tenses, Baldwin's speech, while amazing, won't really mean much to you.

I am not saying don't transcribe entire solos ever. Eventually, you will be able to do that more easily. What I do recommend is to take small, small ideas from a wide variety of jazz players, and then work it into your own playing. And when I say "work it into", I mean that this could be described as "plugging licks into the chord changes". That doesn't sound very artistic, I know. However, this is the beginning of the process. When you are just starting to learn to speak a second language, it is the same; it's not very correct or profound, but you keep speaking, hope you'll be understood, and hang in there. 

The great Lee Morgan
I gave out an assignment recently of "Moment's Notice" where students will just "plug" one measure ideas into every ii V progression in the tune. This is very robotic and calculated; be that as it may, if you look at what Trane and Lee Morgan are doing on the recording, they are doing a very artistic and advanced form of this.

I also think you need to combine "licks" with "concepts". For example, maybe instead of thinking about a "lick", think about the scale that goes with the chord. Use the scale as if it was a a big drum kit with 7 drums. That combined with melodic shapes in the jazz idiom should give you a lot to think about.

To further the analogy; your goal in speaking a language is to express your needs. Not to quote Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot's needs. Your needs. So you need to understand how the process works on a molecular level. If you take two and three note ideas and "apply" them to chord changes, and then start to experiment with how to move those ideas around and connect with other SMALL ideas, then eventually you will start to see progress. 

I like Tristano's idea of writing a solo chorus of your own and memorizing it. I have my students do this.
It's like soloing in slow motion. Eventually, you want to be able to do that in time.

I also wanted to comment on your choice of transcription subject. Aaron Goldberg is a fine pianist, but he's pretty advanced and modern. Why don't you try something like Dexter Gordon, or Hank Mobley, or even a Miles Davis solo? Something very simple. Maybe one chorus of Bird, or Freddie Hubbard? Aaron Goldberg is a weird place to start for a beginner. Again, it would be like me trying to learn Spanish by memorizing the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Now, eventually, I would love to get to that level, where I could speak on the level of Pablo Neruda's poems. In this way, you want a high level of fluency as a jazz musician. But you have to be patient.

Also, why not try someone on your instrument? What about a Grant Green or Wes Montgomery solo? It's not essential, but you might want to at least check out some guitar players. Maybe some George Benson? Maybe something of John Scofield that isn't too hard?

Above all, be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day. (And with Roman contractors, it's a wonder they ever completed the job to begin with.) I'll be in Toronto in April, if you want a lesson, let me know. Email me at my website