Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Back in New York! Helen Sung Quartet and more Shameful Self Promotion

My father's favorite city, New York, New York!
Hey there, Jazz Fans! I'm back in New York for the summer! Yes, I'm in the true Jazz Capital of the World. Well, I will admit that the scene has changed a lot since I first moved here in 1995. I think New York is tougher than ever, in terms of musicians to make a living. However, the sheer number of amazing performances and performers you can hear on any given night is truly staggering. From the legendary Blue Note in Manhattan to tiny hole-in-the -wall clubs in Brooklyn, there is amazing music to be heard. If you are any kind of a serious jazz fan, you need to come to New York at least once a year.

Houston native Helen Sung
Since I hadn't been in the Apple since December, I decided to go down to Greenwich Village and hear the Helen Sung Quartet at the famous 55 Bar. Sung is a wonderful jazz pianist who has recently decided to go down a more "electric" avenue ( sorry, Eddie Grant...) in her sound. She's played with Lonnie Plaxico and Richie Goods as a side person; I believe that these two gigs influenced her tremendously. A graduate of the Theolonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, Sung has plenty of chops and she's also a prolific composer. She and her band performed some poetry-inspired music which had fusion undertones(Sung played Fender Rhodes electric piano the entire evening), as well as jazz-rock standards like Weather Report's classic "Black Market." She also presented some cool arrangements of the Monk tunes "Eronel" and "Epistrophy."

Straight out of Philly-Johnathan Blake
I was very familiar with her sidemen, since I had worked with all of them extensively. Sometimes it's more fun to be a listening bystander than a performing participant. I enjoyed listening to guitarist Tom Guarna greatly, and I was sitting right in front of his amp (which wasn't cranked to 11, if you care to know). Guarna is becoming know for his tasty use of effects. I hadn't seen drummer Johnathan Blake in a few years, and he still plays with a lot of energy. Blake also has excellent control over his volume, which is so refreshing in a smaller room like the 55 Bar, which can easily become dangerously loud. In fact, the overall acoustic presence of the band was one of the best I've heard in this venue. A big surprise was one of my longtime collaborators on electric bass, fellow Marylander Josh Ginsburg. Most know Ginsburg as a crack acoustic bassist, but in this setting, Ginsburg was laying down some Tower of Power inspired sixteenth note grooves that would make you think that he was a full time electric bassist.

Yes, it's fun to listen to music, but I also enjoy playing music, too! And so, my next trip to a New York City jazz club will be as a performer. My trio will perform a double bill with my wife, pianist Kerry Politzer, at Cornelia Street Cafe on Friday, April 29th. My trio will feature Josh Ginsburg on bass and Melbourne native Danny Fischer on drums. Politzer's trio will consist of yours truly on drums, Ginsburg on bass, and Tom Guarna on Guitar. Sets are at 9pm and 10:30 pm We had a great turnout the last time we did this at Cornelia Street, and I hope we will have a good turnout this time as well. I'm itching to play after spending a good portion of the winter teaching. Not to mention being inspired by Helen Sung's skillful playing!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kerry Politzer Interview

Kerry Politzer
Kerry Politzer is one of my favorite musicians, period. (Yeah, she's my wife, you gotta problem wit dat?No, I see the potential conflict of interest, but hey, it's all about who you know, right?)

Seriously, Politzer is one of the most underrated musicians around. She has five amazing CDs to her name. She is a truly gifted jazz pianist and composer; however, a few years back, she whimsically decided to become a singer/songwriter, and within a few months had material(which ended up on her album You Took Me In ) which would take some artists a lifetime to develop. Her most recent album is called Blue and Blue, and features Politzer's brilliant originals, as well as some brilliant saxophone playing from Donny McCaslin. She's been on hiatus a bit since the birth of our son, but she's slowly coming back. She did some performances in Winnipeg earlier this year, and in a week or so, we are performing a Colligan/Politzer double bill at Cornelia St Cafe in New York.

I thought an interview with her might be a good promotion for the gig.

GC: How did you get started in music? Were your parents musical? How did you get into jazz music?
KP: My mother used to play clarinet, accordion, and piano, and my maternal grandfather played violin, saxophone, and clarinet. So, the musical gene was probably passed down that way. I first started piddling around with a toy piano when I was three, and started writing little songs. My parents put me in group music lessons when I was four, and when I was eight I started with classical piano lessons. For high school, I went away to the North Carolina School of the Arts, where I remember hearing some jazz a few times, but it was at the New England Conservatory of Music where I really got hooked on jazz. I just couldn't see myself highlighting each voice of a Bach fugue with a different color marker and practicing passages eight hours a day, which I think you have to do to be a serious classical player. Also, I used to suffer from tendinitis (the Feldenkrais technique fixed this), and I had to stop playing the piano for a few months. During this time I started transcribing jazz solos and doing jazz ear-training in order to be able to hear the alterations.

GC: You studied extensively with Charlie Banacos. Banacos was considered a guru by many renowned musicians. How did his teaching influence your music? What kinds of things did he teach you?
KP: I owe almost all of my jazz musical development to Charlie and miss him terribly. He was deeply spiritual about music and couldn't help but communicate his positivity and enthusiasm for life in every interaction you would have with him. He had a way of making you feel like you could shoot for the moon. I waited to study with him for a year and a half, and I was terrified at my first lesson, because I'd heard a rumor that he would choose to accept me or not. So, I played my Wynton Kelly and Thelonious Monk transcriptions, then soloed a little. He told me that I was playing a lot of licks, which was absolutely true. We started out with a lot of writing exercises. I wrote 12 long lines a week and also started writing compositions. He also had me transcribe different artists every week and play along with the transcriptions. He wanted me to learn the vocabulary of a lot of different musicians so that I wouldn't start just mimicking one. He had really interesting reasons for choosing the artists; for example, he wanted me to learn Lee Morgan's "shout quality."

Honestly, I think about Charlie whenever I sit down at the piano. When I play a hotel gig, I think about how he said that I should be able to solo over anything and make it sound good, even a tune like Killing Me Softly, which he had me work on. Of course, we also worked on jazz tunes like Upper Manhattan Medical Group and Lament. He once had me transcribe both a McCoy Tuner and a Herbie Hancock solo from There Is No Greater Love, so I could see the difference in their thinking.

GC: How did you develop your ears? What would you say to a young student who is frustrated with transcribing solos?
KP: I first developed my ears listening to tapes of different jazz chords at New England Conservatory; the department head at the time, Hankus Netsky, had recorded all the different chords and put them in the library. Then I studied with Bevan Manson and John McNeil, and I started doing transcriptions of people like Sonny Stitt, Hank Jones, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and some solo work of Thelonious Monk (I was really proud of transcribing "Round Midnight"). To a young student who is frustrated, I would suggest starting with shorter passages and older, more "inside" jazz solos. Take it one measure at a time. Playing along with transcriptions is really important, to get the feel of the player. This is how I learned to swing, as I had no clue before.

GC: How do you approach composition? Where do you get your ideas?
KP: I either start by hearing chords and a melody together, or just hearing a melody, or just noodling around with some chords that sound good to me. Harmony really excites me, which is why I like listening to compositions by Richie Beirach and Kurt Rosenwinkel, and you, of course. :-) Lately I've been having fun with trying to write multiple parts, because I used to just write lead sheets. Also, although I haven't written any Brazilian tunes in a while, I used to like to play a Brazilian rhythm, find some chords that appealed to me, and write melodies over the rhythms.

GC: What made you interested in becoming a singer/songwriter?
KP: I guess there are many factors. Singer-songwriter music is so immediately accessible to the listener, and there are so many ways to approach the singer-songwriter genre. There's just so much good music out there with lyrics. I took a year of SongHall writing workshops with Lorraine Ferro, and that was a lot of fun.

GC: What do you think your next album will be? What are your long term musical goals?

KP: I'd like to do an album of the newer jazz tunes with multiple parts, and I'd also like to do another singer-songwriter album that is more cohesive than the last one, which was really a mishmash of genres. I'd like to have a more consistent sound and instrumentation. This isn't to say that I don't want to continue making a lot of different kinds of music.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"What Should I Practice Over The Summer?"

April 14th: As the school semester is drawing to a close here in sunny Manitoba(yes, it was snowing yesterday, HA!), I have been making sure my students get their last lessons in. Many of my students have asked an intriguing question: "Professor Colligan, what should I practice over the summer?" (Intriguing because I still can't believe that anyone would call me Professor Colligan. My beloved late father used to call me "beanhead," "neversweat", and "bud", albeit endearingly. Nevertheless, the fact that I have attained any position of authority is still a surprise to me.)

Of course, I nostalgically look back on when I was really practicing in great quantities: between 1991 and 1994, when I diligently practiced the piano 4 to 8 hours a day. Luckily, I was also playing a lot of gigs, so I always had a way to apply the concepts I was practicing. I worked on a lot of different things: technique, sight reading, transcribing, rhythm, composing, and trying to learn tunes; hopefully, I could play the tunes I was learning in all keys. I was sure to keep my practicing focused, and to be conscious of the time I was spending on making my weak areas stronger, as opposed to glorifying my strengths(a common habit among young players). However, I always left time to play for fun, and especially tried to throw all the discipline to the wind when I played trio gigs: whatever happened, happened and let's just try to make music. That's pretty much what I do now.

My advice to any musician trying to make the most of his or her summer is as follows: First of all, the temptation to "take a break from music" is probably pretty strong. However, if you don't touch your instrument at all for two weeks straight(or more, God forbid), then you risk actually losing the ground that you've hopefully spent all year trying to gain. So I propose that you at least play every day, but only for very small sessions. Sure, enjoy the spring weather (or if you are in Winnipeg, get out your sled and mittens.....HA!). But just play enough to get a taste of what it feels like to play your respective instrument, and then go off and enjoy yourself. At a certain point, you'll be ready to get back into it.

What's the flat 9 on Ab7?
Also, keep in mind, you may have been one of the people complaining that "I would be practicing my instrument more, but I had so much other work to turn in for my other classes!" OK, well, now you don't have any classes, so no excuses! Get in the shed! That's why the summer vacation is actually great for practicing: so much free time! Bring an instrument to the beach if you can. At least, bring an ipod with some solos or tunes you want to learn.

The idea of breaking up your practice sessions is good because you don't want to practice tired for too long: you can actually end up doing more harm than good-physically and mentally. I find this especially if you are practicing something which requires more than one new concept. When something is really technically challenging, the best thing to do is slow it down, maybe so slow that it sounds nothing like music. If you really practice slow and focused, it gives your mind a chance to digest the information. Also, it always your body to choreograph the motions you are using.(I always give as an example of how I was trying to get my piano fingerings together. I practiced Bach Two Part Inventions slower than humanly possible. It started to really annoy anyone within earshot: "What are you doing? Can't you play some music?" Keeping the Inventions slow helped my technique tremendously. But it took a lot of concentration.)

I find oftentimes with students, and myself, that when we think we have learned a tune, or a lick, or a solo, we really haven't. We might be able to sort of play it, with a lot of slop and hesitation amongst some flashes of competency. This is because we are in a rush to play something well, and we don't give whatever it is a chance to sink in. I compare it to taking a cake out of the oven before it's done: you  are so eager to eat it, but it's not fully cooked, so it doesn't taste quite right. Let your practice sit in the oven a little longer.

I've heard that as a rule, you can't play something perfectly unless you can play it 10 times in a row without mistakes. So here's my advice: whatever you are trying to play, slow it down, play it perfectly 10 times in a row, and then speed it up a few notches. Then play it 10 more times perfectly. Keep this up until it's right. Obviously, this could take time and concentration, and if you get to the 8th time and mess up, you have to go back and start all over again! Ouch! This type of practice will do wonders, but I think you can see why you wouldn't want to do that for 5 hours straight.

Another thing that helped me tremendously was keeping a practice journal. I gave all my students this year an old fashioned paper organizer so that they could write down what they practiced every day. I also made sure there was enough room for a tune list. The tune list was divided into three parts: Tunes that they knew well and were continuing to improve on, tunes that were "works in progress", and tunes that they wanted to learn. I would urge students to continue to do this throughout the summer. Learning tunes is always a great answer to the question,"What should I practice?" because there are always more tunes to learn. (See my article about Harold Mabern-he's forgotten more tunes than most of us know!)

So my advice here is not so much what to practice as it is how to practice. Practice smart, be patient, and don't overdo it. Enjoy your summer, but you can still enjoy it and get to your instrument every day.
And of course, if you are young, single, childless, and living with your parents, then realize that you'll never have this much free time again, so use it wisely. That is, if you are serious about improving....

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Tom Guarna Interview

Tom Guarna
I've known Brooklyn-born guitarist Tom Guarna for maybe twelve years, give or take. He used to literally live around the corner from my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We worked together in a band that drumming phenomenon Rodney Holmes had put together. I eventually asked Guarna to join an organ trio I was trying to start. This organ trio was called "Mad Science" and eventually, Holmes joined us and we recorded two albums( and then a third with Kenny Grohowski on drums). Guarna and I worked and recorded with fusion legend Lenny White's quartet, and we've actually worked together in a number of other configurations. 

Guarna is simply a great guitarist, perhaps one of the most underrated in the jazz world. He's got great ears and chops, but he has what many on that instrument lack: taste! The thing I love about Guarna's playing the most is the care in which he chooses his notes. But don't be fooled: he can burn with the best of them. He's very versatile as well: he knows everything from classical and flamenco guitar techniques to bebop to fusion and beyond. Guarna and I will be performing together at Smalls' in New York on July 22nd and 23rd. I wanted to feature him in jazztruth before then, so here's my interview with him:

GC: Why guitar? 

TG: Well, my dad played guitar. He was always playing or practicing. I used to sneak into his practice room and play air guitar. It was just a natural progression.

GC: Describe your earliest musical memories. Do you think growing up in the New York area was important for your musical development?
TG: My earliest musical memories were of my dad playing around the house. He would have people over to play or once in a while he would take me to his rehearsals. I definitely think growing up in New York was invaluable to my musical development. I was able to go out to clubs and listen to all the great musicians I had been listening to on recordings. To have the privilege to be able to go out on almost any night of the week and hear all these great musicians was inspiring. I learned so much just from being there.

GC: Do you have goals as an improviser? 
TG: I think the goal of any improviser is to be able to express what you are feeling through your instrument without any technical issues getting in the way. In order to achieve that, I spend a lot of time practicing to try and eliminate as many of those issues as possible. That is a life long pursuit. 
Who are some improvisers who inspire you?
Allan Holdsworth
There are too many to list but to name a few, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth. The list just goes on and on.

GC: How did you get into composing?
TG: As soon as I started learning how to play, I was trying to write my own songs. I later studied classical guitar at Brooklyn College. There I was lucky to study orchestration and composition with Robert Starer. In his classes we studied works from Bach to George Crumb. It was a great experience. I think that is when I took composing much more seriously.
GC: What motivates you as a composer?
TG:  I enjoy writing my own songs. Life experience is a motivating factor. I try to be open to all things. Anything can be motivating or inspiring if you are open enough.

GC: What were the challenges of going back to school and getting your degrees? Do you feel like you learned something, even though you are already an established player?
TG: I did learn quite a bit. There is always something to be learned. Some things I learned were brand new and other things were just reintroduced and solidified. The real challenge while going back to school was trying to tour and earn a living. During my undergraduate degree at The New School, it was a bit easier to do do that. When I went to Juilliard for my Masters Degree, it was much more of a challenge. The Juilliard program is very small, so it was hard to leave school for weeks at a time to tour. In any case, it worked out. I would have to say that the overall experience was a positive one.

GC: How do you see yourself as an educator? 
TG: Teaching is a very hard job. If you really care about it. I feel I am genuinely interested in helping my students. I feel that is one of the elements that make me an effective teacher.

GC: Do you have some upcoming projects/gigs that we should know about?

TG: I am starting up a new band.  I will be playing at the 55 Bar on Sunday May 15th, with a new group of mine. This is more of an electric project. Keyboards, electric bass, etc. It's in the very beginning stages. I have not selected all the musicians and I am still composing songs for this gig. I hope I can get everything together by then and record this year. I am also playing in bassist John Benitez new group. It's a fun project with Will Vinson on saxophone, and Manuel Valera on piano. Another project I'm involved in is playing in pianist Helen Sung's new group with Marcus Gilmore on drums and Josh Ginsberg on bass. There is also a possibility of doing a project with guitarist Jimmy Herring, If our schedules permit. That would be really fun.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My "Tour" of Canada, Part 1

Winnipeg: Nowhere near Toronto or Vancouver
Many of you know that I've been living and teaching in Winnipeg for the past two years. ( Winnipeg is in the province of Manitoba. It's nowhere near Toronto or Vancouver. It's literally the "center" of the country. It's the coldest city in the world of cities of 500,000 or more. Look it up if you don't believe me.) And I've posted about my exploits and so forth in Winnipeg a bunch of times. I figured since I am a resident of Canada and I don't need a work permit, I should try to make it to some of the other fine cities in this northerly nation.

 Earlier in the year, I made a weekend getaway to Montreal, where I played in a quartet featuring saxophonist/composer Christine Jensen. Jensen just won a Juno for her big band album Treelines. (What's a Juno, you ask? It's like a Grammy in the states. Except that in the jazz category, the selcetions are made by a panel of jazz experts, as opposed to, in the case of the Grammies, members of NARAS randomly picking jazz names that sound familiar to them. But I digress.....)

Cory Weeds
Next stop on my "tour" of Canada was Vancouver for a weekend stint at Vancouver's best jazz club, The Cellar. This venue is owned by Cory Weeds, who is a great musician himself. It's rare for musicians to be successful in opening and maintaining jazz clubs. Weeds is a rare breed in that he is able to balance respect for the musicians and also respect the bottom line as well. He's kept it going for 11 years, which is no easy feat.

Jodi Proznick
I played two great nights with bassist Jodi Proznick and drummer Jesse Cahill. I had played with the same trio a few times in previous years. It seemed as though we easily picked up where we left off. Proznick and Cahill navigated through my challenging tunes as easily as one reads the morning paper. (When I give music to musicians and they tackle it so effortlessly, I always think that "Hmmm, maybe I should write harder music."...)

Proznick even gave me a great impromtu bass lesson, in which she talked about developing the muscle memory for intonation in the left hand. "Lead with the first finger", she advised, "and your scales will always be in tune." Ha ha, easy for her to say. Cahill invited me out to his home in New Westminster, where he and his wife cooked me seafood pasta, while I marveled at his vintage vinyl record collection. (He had a copy of Trumpets All Out, a rare recording with Art Farmer and Donald Byrd which I loved as a kid.)

I wanted jazztruth readers to get a sense of the Vancouver scene, so I asked a few questions of Weeds and Cahill.

GC: Cory, why did you open The Cellar?

Cory Weeds: Why did I open The Cellar.... I have been asking myself that question every day for the past 11 years! Seriously though, I opened it in 2000 because at the time there was a bit of a lull in Vancouver jazz wise and I was having trouble finding a place I could go to hear the people that I grew up listening to like Cam Ryga, Ross Taggart, Oliver Gannon ...  that was my prime motivation.

GC: Why do you think The Cellar is important?

I think The Cellar is important to the Vancouver scene because its really the only place that musicians can come and play their own music and not be told to turn down, play standards. We are essentially a theatre that happens to have a restaurant in it.  We ask that people listen to the music.  There aren't any other clubs in this city that do that.

GC: What's it like being a club owner?

There are have been so many great experiences being a club owner. The playing opportunities that have come my way because I own The Cellar are to numerous to count and the great music that I have had the pleasure of hearing on a nightly basis whether it be someone from New York or one of the many great bands from right here in Vancouver has been inspiring.

GC: Have you had any bad experiences?

Bad experiences? Well, it's a jazz club and the financial strains of being involved in such a venture have definitely taken their toll on me and dealing with that stress continues to be an ongoing learning process.
I wouldn't trade the last 11 years of my life for anything though....

GC:What's the jazz scene like in Vancouver?

Jesse Cah
Jesse Cahill: Vancouver has  a very diverse Jazz scene that spans many sub genres of the music.  We have everything from world class contemporary improvisers to tremendous straight ahead bebop players and everything in between.

GC:Why is The Cellar important to you and the the scene in Vancouver?

JC: The Cellar is an outstanding venue that provides a stage for musicians to perform their music to a listening audience.  The crowd at the Cellar has become accustomed to seeing the top local, national and international artists in various configurations. As an artist it's refreshing to present your music and have it be the centre of attention as opposed to simply background furnishings.

Thanks for reading. Next time I'll talk about my trip to Toronto, and maybe my trip to Edmonton as well....

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Music Lesson: Victor Wooten's Ephiphany...In Book Form

"Boy, do I have a lot to learn!"

One of the reasons I like teaching is purely selfish: oftentimes, I learn more from my students than they seem to learn from me. And so, one of my students was recently talking about a book by the great electric bassist Victor Wooten entitled The Music Lesson. I made a mental note to look for this book. Well, as luck would have it, I wandered into Tom Lee Music in Vancouver this past weekend and The Music Lesson was sitting in of the sheet music bins. Buen Fortuna! I spent portions of my weekend reading the book.

It's a quick read, but I don't think it's only for musicians. Wooten is a good writer of prose:it's very clear and entertaining, and at times humorous. At the heart of the book is a philosophy of music that can help young(and old) musicians. But unlike books like The Inner Game of Music or Effortless Mastery, this book is a parable, or a story which teaches a lesson. It's almost as if Wooten has written The Alchemist for music. (And for the record, I read The Alchemist-sure, I bought it in the airport bookstore-but I wasn't really impressed. Maybe Oprah should be talking about Wooten's book!)

The story is essential a dream. Wooten speaks from an imaginary version of himself as a young bassist living in Nashville, who is trying to improve as a musician. One rainy day, while Wooten is drowsy from practicing, a mysterious man named Michael enters his apartment. Michael is "....a strange man, unlike any other music teacher I've ever had...he appeared to be part Native American, and part...something else." Michael is full of wisdom, musical and otherwise. He is a free spirit; perhaps this is representative of how "free" we should all feel when we are playing music.

Michael basically gives Victor sage advice on how to be a better musician instantly. One of the first things Michael teaches is that he has "nothing" to teach, that the student must learn for himself. As a primarily self taught jazz pianist, but also as a conservatory grad and a music teacher, this idea really hit home for me. This is a great way to approach learning: you can't understand any concept unless you literally "teach it to yourself". Even if someone "shows" it to you, the understanding has to come from you. No one can "make you" learn anything. So we are all essentially self-taught musicians.

Michael has some great ideas about the "elements" of music. "Many musicians like yourself struggle because you are not familiar enough with all the elements. You rely mostly on one or two of them when you play." Michael explains how most of us spend so much time with notes. Notes include "harmony, melody, re-harmonization,scales, modes, chords, key signatures..." and so forth. Then, he discusses the other nine elements: articulation, technique, feel, dynamics, rhythm, tone, phrasing, space, and listening. Michael's assertion is that we as music students and teachers spend too much time on one element, notes, at the expense of the nine others. Indeed, there are many who can "play the notes", but I believe that those who are truly great are the ones who address the other elements well. Why would you want to watch an actor who merely "knows the words"?

Another great pearl of wisdom is the notion of "practicing" music. Michael relates it to how you develop your language as a child. "Notice you did not develop your speaking technique through diligent practice, at least not the type of practice you are familiar with. Your parents didn't lock you in a room and make you work on it three hours a day, and they didn't make you take lessons. You learned to speak it through a natural process. Musicians could benefit from looking at this process." This is akin to "learning on the bandstand," as opposed to "practicing three hours a day."

The young Wooten meets some other prophetic characters on his journey. Eventually, Wooten sort of "becomes" Michael, and becomes a keeper of the flame of wisdom. I think this is part of maturity as a person:when you realize that you are your own teacher, you develop the confidence to make your own way. "There are no shoulds or shouldn'ts. There are only choices. What you choose next is up to you. No one can tell you what that is. You have been shown all you need to know." I think so many of us are afraid to make the choices. This book might encourage us to leave the fear behind.

I find myself talking philosophy with my students often. And many of my trumpet teachers would talk philosophy often in the lessons. Sometimes, talking was more helpful than playing.  I think The Music Lesson is a revelatory philosophical wake-up call for any musician out there wanting to be inspired.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ambrose Akinmusire: When The Heart Emerges Glistening

The trumpet, as great a jazz instrument as it is thought to be, can actually be very unmusical. The technical and physical requirements for sounding good on the trumpet can become an end in itself. Some trumpeters get so caught up in range exercises, technical studies, and long tones, that they forget why they play the trumpet in the first place: TO MAKE MUSIC! Even the best, most musical trumpet players, have to address these things. The lip and face muscles and flesh are very delicate. (This is why Freddie Hubbard couldn't play for the last 15 years of his career: for so many years, he had a natural ability to pick up the horn with no warm up and wail as hard as he could. Well, one day, his "chops" said, "Freddie, we've had enough."

And this has actually happened to a lot of trumpeters, famous and not. Which is why trumpeters who are smart will address the important yet non musical aspects of the trumpet. However...when I hear music, I want to hear MUSIC, not TRUMPET. Just like any other instrument. (Maybe this is why I ended up playing piano. I worked hard on trumpet technique. There was never any time for MUSIC!)

When I was listening to Ambrose Akinmusire's When The Heart Emerges(Blue Note), this was my first thought. The whole album is so dang musical! There is a concept that comes through from the first note to the last. Akinmusire has a beautifully, dark, modern tone, and can seemingly do anything he wants on the horn. And there are so many great ideas and grooves and moods on this CD: there are no "trumpet jock" moments or "I've got something to prove" events. It's very mature for such a young player.

Akinmusire's playing reminds me of one of my all time favorite trumpeters: Ralph Alessi.  Alessi actually has influenced a lot of players: some of them were his students at the Eastman School of Music, or perhaps from Alessi's Center for Improvisational Music. I'm guessing that maybe there's a connection because both Alessi and Akinmusire were members of Steve Coleman's band. I've been known to be wring when I try to guess people's influences, but I hear Alessi, as well as some more obvious influences, like Terence Blanchard, or Wallace Roney. But everything I've just said is not that important, because Akinmusire pretty much has his own sound.

"Confessions To My Unborn Daughter" begins the album with solo trumpet. Pianist Gerald Clayton times his entrance perfectly and beautifully.  Bassist Harish Ragahvan and drummer Justin Brown come in with some surprising drama. Tenor Saxophonist Walter Smith plays some inventive, post-Mark Turner lines with great confidence. ( I think I hear somebody on the CD during Smith's solo go " Wooo!". It reminds me of the Art Blakey recording Free For All, where on the title track, during Wayne Shorter's incredibly inspired solo, somebody is audible on the tape "woooing" with encouragement.)

"Jaya" is a mixed meter labyrinth of rhythm and harmony. Impressive and musical solos are traded by Akinmusire and Smith. Akinmusire almost out-does Smith, which is rare, because of the limitations of the trumpet. (I always feel like tenor players are playing the hippest stuff. That's what they tend to do.)
Justin Brown drops some drum things at the end of this tune that range from Ralph Peterson to Daniel Weiss.

Oscar Grant
"My Name Is Oscar" is a hip spoken word/drum feature which refers to Oscar Grant, a young black man recently shot and killed by a white policeman in the BART train station in Oakland. I always like to see jazz musicians bring political statements back into fashion. I think many in the jazz biz these days are too afraid of offending people. Akinmusire is obviously not. Jazz is inexorably linked to politics: Mingus, Max Roach, Trane, even Louis Armstrong eventually spoke out against oppression and discrimination.

When The Heart Emerges Glistening has everything a serious jazz listener needs. It's a really "modern" CD. Although, if you are suspiciously looking for more tradition, check out "What's New", where Akinmusire almost out "Wyntons" Wynton Marsalis on an old fashioned version of this standard. Congratulations to Akinmusire for a damn-near perfect debut for Blue Note.

And if you don't believe that the trumpet can be unmusical, do a search for "Double C" on Youtube. Let me know how it turns out.....

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Short Story About Harold Mabern

The great Harold Mabern
When I was in living in Washington D.C. in the early 90's, I attended performances at a great jazz club called the One Step Down. I saw many New York greats such as Mulgrew Miller, Joe Lovano, Marc Copeland, Tom Harrell, James Williams, Steve Wilson, etc... I also saw many local greats such as Rueben Brown, Bob Butta, Lawrence Wheatley, and Shirley Horn(although at that point she was internationally recognized). It was THE jazz club in D.C., besides Blues Alley and Twins, which also had their merits. But the One Step was the REAL jazz club to me. I ended up playing there many times over the years before they closed in the late 90's. But I had many wonderful experiences there.

I remember I went down to the One Step Down to hear the great pianist Harold Mabern with his trio. If you don't know Mabern, he's part of the Memphis piano clique( which includes James Williams, Donald Brown, Mulgrew Miller, and for some reason, Geoffrey Keezer, who is actually from Wisconsin!). He worked over the years with many of the greats, including Miles Davis, albeit briefly. You might know him from Lee Morgan's albums Live At The Lighthouse and The Gigolo. He's a giant of a man: his hands on the piano have a span of almost an octave and a half! His style is a mixture of many traditional elements like bop, stride, and gospel, but he can pound in a McCoy Tyner-ish fashion with the best of them. (I've seen the piano shake when Mabern is playing.)

The legend is that Mabern knows at least 5,000 tunes. Yes, jazz students. 5000 tunes. Deal with it. He's forgotten more tunes than you'll ever learn in your life. Well, I can't prove that, but my point is the man knows a lot of music. I heard him do a modern rendition of Steely Dan's "Do It Again" that was, to me, a revelation. He also recorded a great version of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing". I'm saying that he knows tunes from all different kinds of genres.

The few times I've met Mabern over the years, I found him to be friendly, and very down to earth. He's been teaching at William Paterson University for many years. He seemed like a natural born educator: someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about the music. But very honest and straightforward. ( For example, I remember I saw him lead a jam session at the Musician's Union when I first moved to New York. On one tune, the drummer was not up to snuff. Mabern said aloud:" Now, let's get serious: I took a bus and three trains from Brooklyn to get here, so can we get a REAL drummer up here. I mean, somebody that can REALLY play?)

What a fondly remember about this experience at the One Step Down was that Mabern played a wonderful version of the Sammy Cahn classic entitled " Be My Love." You might know it from legendary tenor Mario Lanza's famous version. Well, Mabern's version was wonderful. He added a kind of pedal point interlude to the piece that was quite inspirational. I wasn't familiar with the tune at the time, but I was curious.

That was the last tune of the night. The One Step Down was usually a three set gig, so this was after three 1 hour sets. As the audience was paying their tabs and filing out of the club, I felt the need to approach Mabern and ask him some questions. I tried not to be annoying.

I asked Mabern about the last tune he had played, and when he told me it was " Be My Love", I said, "Wow, I really want to learn this tune." So Mabern said, "Oh, OK, I'll write out a chart for you right now."

I assumed he was joking. It was 2 in the morning, he had just played three sets of trio, and was dripping with sweat. I said, " Oh, no, you don't have to do that." But he was already writing on manuscript paper. And he sat there for 15 minutes and made me a chart of " Be My Love." I was floored at his generosity, not to mention his stamina. So he finished the chart and gave it to me and was very nonchalant about the whole thing. He didn't want money or anything. He just seemed to want to impart knowledge.

I think about that story now when I teach. While I don't have the depth of his experience, or even that kind of energy, I try to be as generous as I can with what I know. I've written out chords for my students at jam sessions. I've given free lessons to people who couldn't afford it, or who seemed to really need some help. Much of that attitude comes from that experience I had that night at the One Step Down, when Harold Mabern, who could have easily shrugged me off, sat down and wrote me a very detailed chart on "Be My Love."