Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portland Jazz Scene Part 2:Electric Boogaloo

Darrell Grant
First off, I want to make sure that my Portland readers are aware of the PSU Jazz Night, which is Monday, November 28th, at 8 pm in Lincoln Hall 75. It is open and free to the public. It will feature the PSU Big Band, as well as a healthy serving of jazz combos. Plus, as an added bonus, there will be a special trio performance featuring pianist and PSU faculty member Darrell Grant. I'm really excited about this performance because it's my first time in an extended concert setting with the Portland State University jazz students. Charley Grey and I have been whipping the Big Band into shape, but I have not heard many of the combos which are playing on Monday, so I'm curious to see what they have been up to for this term. Ezra Weiss, Farnell Newton, and Alan Jones have been in charge of these combos, and I can only imaging what they have in store for us. Please try to come out and support this wonderful evening of music.

Mike Prigodich
"this amp goes to 11...."
Secondly, I wanted to tell you about my Friday night, which was a jazz double header; I took the streetcar down to Jimmy Mak's to hear Mike Prigodich's fuson band. Prigodich is a good friend and a great guy, and also a great composer and pianist/keyboardist. Prigodich had some great help; Damian Erskine on Bass, Reinhardt Melz on drums, John Nastos on saxophone, and Rafael Trujillo on congas. This is band is top shelf; they were super tight and super exciting. The music was high energy(Prigodich joked:" I don't know how to play slow!") but varied enough to keep my interest. Highlights of the set included a tune in 11/8, written for Nigel Tufnel, the fictional character from the cult classic film Spinal Tap, who claims to have amplifiers that "go up to 11". Another highlight was a tune written for Chick Corea, which had shades of Corea's "Armando's Rhumba". Much of the music had a latin flavor, rather than funk or rock, and Trujillo on congas helped to solidify this notion.

Alan Jones
Later on, I walked over to a restaurant called Brasserie Montmartre. I had stopped in to this place a few months ago, and there was a violin and guitar duo playing right next to the window. It didn't seem like the optimal place for a band, and it sure didn't seem like anyone was listening to the music. However, on this night, the band was in a newly renovated downstairs part of the restaurant, and it had a completely different vibe: there was a quartet up against the corner , and a bunch of tables were close to the action, and people were really listening. Indeed, the band was made up of Portland's jazz heavyweights: Darrell Grant on Piano, Tom Wakeling on bass, Devin Phillips on tenor saxophone, and bandleader and drummer Alan Jones. This unit has been playing together for some time, and it showed in their easy musical rapport. Grant and Jones really livened things up throughout the set.

Grant remarked on the break that the new set up at Brasserie Montmartre "almost feels like Bradley's back in the 90's." I agreed. On the next set, Jones remarked that "this is a band, so when you have a band, and then people sit in, it's a drag! However, there are some folks in the house that we want to feature." (I like Jones no nonsense approach!)Sitting in first was Nicole Glover, a Portland native, who spent some time at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Glover has a softer tone than Phillips, but she stepped up to the plate with some thoughtful, intricate lines, and played expertly over the standard, "The Old Country". Next, I was called to sit in, although they asked me to play trumpet. I obliged, although I was glad when Grant let me redeem myself by getting an extra piano solo on "Rhythm-n-ing". I left hoping that this could be a hip new Portland jazz spot, a place where it would have that "small club in New York" kind of feeling.

Speaking of new venues, last night (Saturday) I got to perform at a brand spanking new spot in Portland called Ivories Jazz Lounge and Restaurant (1435 NW Flanders St). This is also a great venue; it has a classy decor, the stage is nice, there's a great sounding Mason and Hamlin piano and a PA system. Also, the staff seemed friendly, and while I didn't have anything to eat, I've heard that it's great food(although that's the norm in Portland-I haven't had any bad food yet...). I played with a group called Zuppa, which featured AG Donnaloia on guitar, Allen Hunter on bass, and Charles Neal on drums.. It was fun because Neal asked be to bring some of my fusion-y charts, which I haven't gotten a chance to play for some time. We also mixed it up with some jazz standard and and some funky favorites towards the end of the night. There SHOULD have been more people in attendance, but I'm chalking that up to the fact that Ivories just opened and they need to get the word out. But a new jazz venue is something I always like to see, and I'm hoping that this will be another great spot for jazz in Portland.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Linear Spectrum

Sometimes, you think you've discovered something, only to find that someone else already discovered it WAY before you did. For example, I had a student once who played me a series of inversions of chords. Being fairly self taught as a jazz pianist, I had never thought to approach chords in this way. I started thinking, and then I started writing. I thought,"what if you could take any 5 or 6 note chord and move it in exact inversions, as opposed to thinking scales? You would get some really cool sounds. If you took a chord like this(which is what my student did):
And then moved it typically in the modal diatonic way, you would get this:
 But instead, if you used inversions based on only those 5 notes, you would get a very different sound:

This was a revelation to me. I thought, what if you did could do this with any voicing? You might get this :

And then maybe a thicker voicing, you would get this:
 And then, if you wanted to use a slightly weird voicing, you would get this:
 If you can play through these examples, you'll find some voicings, derived simply from the notes of the initial voicing, that you don't hear as commonly in jazz. So when I started doing this, I thought to myself, "Wow, this could be a whole new thing! Nobody has come up with this! This could be MY concept!"

So I showed my wife Kerry Politzer (then girlfriend; this was back in 2003) my ideas. She declared, "Oh, yeah, my teacher Charlie Banacos gave me a whole bunch of exercises like that about 10 years ago."

OK, so my enthusiasm was dampened a bit, only because I thought that I had "discovered" something.

Wisdom will tell you that there is very little that is new under the sun. Young cats think that playing "modern" is playing free jazz, which is more than 60 years old! Even "fusion" isn't new. Atonality isn't new. Odd Time Signatures: Been There. However, I think we can still search for our own small contribution, whether it is incredibly complex, or whether it is simply an interesting melody.

Recently, I've had dissonance on my mind. Two things occurred; First, I sat in on Darrell Grant's improv class. I was pretty out of it at the time, since my 22 month old son had woken up at 3AM, probably thinking that he's in the ARMY or something. While I was standing near the blackboard, I was asked by Grant to contribute something to the conversation regarding "how to add more dissonance" to your playing. I felt like my explanation fell flat; I talked a little bit about an intervallic approach, and how as long as you can resolve to chord tones, any notes work. I wished I had been more awake so as to make a clearer demonstration.

In the second instance, I had a student who wanted to know how to develop his solo chops on the bass. Since I had been mulling over the whole "dissonance" question for a few days, I gave him possibly a clearer answer. (Also, I was sitting in front of the piano, so I could play some examples.) The idea is still that any note works on any chord, it's a question of resolution. (And let's be clear, most students I've heard DON'T need more dissonance in their playing, they need to SPELL the changes in the more basic ways.)But how can we be MORE comfortable with the wrong notes? By having more understanding and purpose with the placement of each note. If you were to think of consonance and dissonance as a spectrum, then you would not be afraid of certain notes. You could actually do MORE with those dissonant notes, and create more interesting solos. I came up with this:

This is just based on my personal preferences on types of chords. The small numbers on the top of the staff are just scale degrees against the C Major 7 chord. The bottom numbers would indicate the level of dissonance against the chord, 1 being the lowest and 12 being the highest. Now, I'm sure that there are other theories and studies regarding this. But my little chart works for me and I can use this concept in my jazz playing. I don't know, it might work for you as well. Here's what I put for a minor chord:

And here's what I put for a dominant chord:

So, If you were to analyze a typical jazz line using my formula, it might look something like this:

But if you wanted to get a little bit more risky, you might look at something like this:

Again, this is just something I came up with, mostly for ME, and somewhat for my students who are ready to look at stuff like this. I have links to a PDF with the INVERSIONS and the LINEAR SPECTRUM if you want to print it out and take a look. I've seen a few things regarding the spectrum online, but I wanted to do this myself. I may not have discovered anything new, but at least I have something somewhat concrete. And remember, these are just theories, and theories are not music. Sometimes, the theory will help the music. Other times, you play music and ask about the theory later.....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jam Session Etiquitte 2: Electric Boogaloo

I started a jam session at Portland State University. It's supposed to be Fridays between 3 and 5 in Lincoln Hall 47. (It's not required at the moment, but it might fall under the Area Recital category that the classical Areas use to get more playing opportunities for their students.) I wanted to have a challenging, fun, yet safe environment for the PSU students to get their "sitting in" chops together, so that they can hopefully gain the skill and confidence to sit it at some of the other "intimidating" jam sessions around Portland. Now, I've been going to a lot of these sessions since I've moved here, and I actually don't find any of the jams intimidating at all. Then again, I have been doing this for many years. Be that as it may, compared to some of the things I saw on jam sessions and gigs in New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., I would say that the "vibe" on most of these sessions is pretty mellow.

Maybe too mellow. Jam sessions are supposed to push people; historically, there has existed in the olden days a certain air of the competitive spirit. That's why they called them "cutting contests"! So if everyone is too polite, then no one gets their butt whupped enough to buckle down and get better. But how much is too much, or too little? A young Portland based musician named Nicole Glover, who is a very talented tenor saxophonist, asked me this question via Facebook:

 NG:  I'm sure you have noticed how the Blue Monk sessions don't really function too effectively.There is lots of dead space, lots of awkwardness. As someone who frequents the sessions, and has far more experience with leading/running sessions than I do, how do you like to see jam sessions run? Alan Jones, who has set up the Blue Monk session,  was saying that there are many different models that jam sessions could take, and i was wondering if you had a couple in mind that you think seem to work well.

GC: I think a jam session can be organized, selective, and also inclusive. By that, I mean whomever is leading it has to lead from a musical perspective and also from a humanitarian perspective. For example, do a short set of prepared music to set the vibe, treat it like a gig, and showcase the highest level of musicianship that you can. Then try to find people you know first, and try to keep that level of musicianship, but maybe with some more well known tunes. Then, gradually open it up for everyone, even the lower level cats. But stay as engaged as you can without going insane! If it seems like it's becoming pandemonium, and no one will pick a tune, or people are vibing, be the referee and say, " OK, here is a blues or a tune that everyone knows, go!" Something like that. Oftentimes, there is a non-performing audience(not like comedy open mikes, those things are almost always ONLY comedians and they mostly DO NOT laugh at each others jokes and they are very depressing.) and they want to hear music, not watch a bunch of juvenile-delinquent looking people milling about on stage acting like their version of "Solar" is better than Miles Davis.

"Freebird? Is it in the Real Book?"
I ran a jam session in Washington D.C. in the early 90's for a brief period. Although some of it was good, sometimes it was rough. I was young and a lot of the cats didn't respect me. That can be tough. I think people are much friendlier here. It's not as competitive. However, sometimes this docile, over polite attitude descends into perceived apathy, and it just slows everything up for me. Plus, these jam sessions are short, why waste time going " Uhhhhhhhh, I dunno, what do you want to play? Uhhhhhhh, is it in the Real Book?" It's a two way street, and I think one can be inviting but also firmly say (through your actions, not necessarily your words), "We are trying to maintain a certain respect for the bandstand. We want you to play, but bring something to the equation, as in a tune you want to play. Or, if you come regularly, show us improvement. Show us that the tunes we called last time, that you should know in the first place, you wrote it down and learned it. Or, if you happen to call a tune you called before, that you are playing something new on it, not just repeating what you played last time.

Things are obviously not, and never will be like they were on 52nd St, when bebop was created. That was a pretty intense period of concentrated musical development. Those cats, all they did was eat sleep and drink music. They didn't leave at 10 cause they had homework or they had to walk their dog or look at funny videos on youtube. They played all night into the morning, and then practiced all day. (I'm leaving out the drugs, cause regardless of what anyone thinks, we don't want to emulate that part of it.)However, when we are at a jam session, we can give it our all for that two or three hours, and try to play our best, play MATURELY and MUSICALLY, and respect other cats by listening to them and so forth.

The jam sessions I've seen in Portland are by and large pretty cool. There's always room for improvement. I like to go now and then, but I also like to play my own music. But jam sessions are a way to keep my chops and reflexes up when I'm not working so much.

NG: It does definitely gives me a lot to think about. I think when we announce at the beginning "come talk to me if you want to play", I think we should also start saying "have a tune in mind when you come up to play". I think the major weakness of people out here in Portland is knowing tunes, from what I've experienced. On the east coast people knew way more tunes, and if they didn't know a tune like "Just Friends" or "Black Nile" they'd be incredibly apologetic, then go home and learn it! at least, that's what i did/do.So i think that leads to all the "derp........ what do you want to play?" moments.It's really pretty frustrating. I was contemplating making a list of 20+ obviously essential jam session tunes that people could possibly take home and learn and have ready for the next session. Alan Jones  has mentioned before though that lists don't seem to necessarily work out so well all the time.
Drummer and educator Alan Jones

GC: Believe me, trying to get people to do things like this can be frustrating. I think there are always going to be varying degrees of seriousness when it comes to musicians, especially at a jam session. It's harder than ever to motivate people nowadays. At least twenty years ago, you might get a nice gig or even a tour or a record date if you had your stuff together. Now, what is the motivation? There's so little guarantee of financial reward. You have to do it because you love it, because you can't rest until you learn those tunes, or master those changes, or whatever. That's why I did it. I was lucky that I got opportunities because of it.

The great Ron Carter
I think the Blue Monk session overall has a good energy and the students are humble and well intentioned. Even the ones who are pretty lost technically and stylistically. Just be patient. If you keep pushing people, some of them will figure it out. I believe people can grow. Who knows? Maybe some people need to be VIBED into learning some tunes. I've definitely gotten motivation out of being embarrassed on the bandstand, or wanting to avoid embarrassment. Maybe you need to embarrass some people! I heard that Ron Carter left some of his first jam sessions in tears, and he went on to be one of the most recorded acoustic bassists in history. Allegedly, someone threw a cymbal at Bird at one of his early jam sessions.  Anyway, if you end up VIBING somebody, don't tell them that I told you to do it. Tell them that my friend and colleague Alan Jones told you to do it! HA HA!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Miguel Zenon at The Mission Theater

Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon is one of the greatest jazz musicians playing today. He's a monster alto saxophonist, and appears to have no weakness in technique, tone, or creativity. He's also a monster composer and arranger, and truly has his own voice. Although not quite a household name, he's gaining recognition slowly and steadily as a bandleader, and has been able to work steadily enough to have the same band for many years. He recently received a MacArthur Genius Grant; hopefully he can use that press to increase his fame. In short, Zenon is the future of the music, and the future is now.

I have been fortunate to share the stage with Zenon on a handful of occasions. The first was actually a recording, a project led by Greg Tardy(Abundance, on the Palmetto label). I believe the first solo on the CD is Zenon's and it's smoking. I remember thinking that it was awfully big of Tardy to let someone potentially upstage him on the first song of the CD!I believe we played with the Mingus Band a few times after that. I subbed for Zenon's pianist Luis Perdomo on one concert back in 2007. It was one of the more challenging musical experiences of my life, and I've played a lot of hard music in my day! I was asked to sub another time, but the gig got cancelled at the last minute. Still, even one chance to play Zenon's music was a treat and an honor.

Last night, I went to hear Zenon and crew at The Mission Theater in Portland. The concert was sponsored by PDX Jazz, directed by Don Lucoff. I think it's great that Lucoff is programming some adventurous bands(last month was Cuong Vu's Burn Unit, and next month....wait, it's my band! More on that later). The turnout was more than respectable; I couldn't help but think that there should have been more PSU students at the concert. Maybe the word isn't getting out to the students. Hopefully we can change that, because Zenon is exactly who the students should be hearing.

Luis Perdomo
Drummer Henry Cole
Zenon's music is jazz, for sure, but there are key elements that give it a distinctive character. One is his pieces have a lot of rhythm and a lot of melody and a lot of harmony. However, there is always a perfect flow of energy from beginning to end of each piece, and from beginning to end of an entire set of music. His sets feel like one long symphonic suite, and within each piece, there is a grand development of ideas. Tonight's concert featured music from Zenon's latest CD, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook. (Zenon, a New York City resident, is originally from Puerto Rico.) While the melodies were very diatonic, with a simple folk song quality, the presentation was quite complicated, but with purpose. The first tune of the night, which I believe is the title track of the CD, the band began with a moody rubato in G minor, perhaps nodding to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. But the melody was very simple yet passionate. Eventually, free time gave way to a 10 beat groove with a descending bass line which  gave pianist Luis Perdomo a chance to shine as a soloist. Perdomo has great facility, but also resists showboating, and shows a fair amount of restraint, considering the energy which is around him. Drummer Henry Cole, also from Puerto Rico, is a true virtuoso drummer; he has perfect time, dynamics, and is able to follow the emotional shapes of both a song and an entire set.

The next piece had some 5/8 leanings which metrically modulated into a 4/4 which revealed the simplicity of the melody, and then shifted back to the 5/8. It occurred to me how much excitement Zenon is able to build without playing outside the chord that much. Again, when you have facility like Zenon,  it takes a certain amount of restraint to not play a ton of chromatic lines or ultra harmonic extrapolations. Zenon is able to build using range, dynamics, and rhythm.

Hans Glawischnig
Acoustic Bassist Hans Glawischnig, who I have had the pleasure of working with on a number of occasions, play a unaccompanied solo into "Tiemblas" which was intensely impressive. Glawischnig effortlessly plays things on the bass that other bassists could only dream about, and he does it with a facial expression of reading the newspaper! Glawischnig is the heart of this band; he holds down the most complex of rhythmic groupings with total confidence, and can also solo marvelously. His left hand is the  textbook for what a bassists left hand should be able to do. This concert, he used only a microphone, no pickup, but his sound was never lost in the shuffle.

The final soloist was Henry Cole, who took a masterful and energetic drum solo over a groove.(I never figured out the meter; it was one of those things where it was in 7 and then 8 and then 5. I bought the CD so I can study the music more.) Cole always knows where the form is and can easily slip his ideas
 in and around the "one" of the form. This concert left me as satisfied as the perfect meal; I was left having heard all the necessary elements. The music had passion, intellect, and skillful execution; indeed, music like this can't be played with a pick-up band. These guys have put in the hours together. I'm truly inspired. I may not get a chance to play with Zenon in the near future, but I'm incredibly inspired by his new project, and plan on trying to dissect some of his new CD as I drive around the streets of Portland. Check out the video of Zenon talking about the new CD.......

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My First Jazz Robots Video

I realize that I'm jumping on the bandwagon here, but I was bored last night, and ended up messing around with the xtranormal site where you can make your own animated videos. Here is a little scene which is definitely based on reality. I think it's slightly funny. And it will lead you to all sorts of other similar jazz robot type videos, which are much better than this one.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Herbie Hancock and the Oregon Symphony Part 2

I was really looking forward to the Oregon Symphony Concert. After checking out part of the rehearsal, I was excited to see one of my musical idols, Herbie Hancock, play Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", among other things, on a nine foot Fazioli grand piano. And after the disappointment of driving around South East Portland looking for a restaurant that seemed to give my GPS device a seizure, my wife and I headed back home. We parked the car  and ended up eating right next to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at a place called the Art Bar. We were hungry, but I figured making sure we made it to the concert was our top priority, especially after paying 75 bucks a piece for the tickets!

Gregory Vajda
The first half of the concert opened with pleasant and humorous words from conductor Gregory Vajda, who is originally from Hungary, and has been at the helm of the Oregon Symphony since 2005. The first three pieces were essentially "Pops Concert" fare; an arrangement of Duke Ellington's "The Nutcracker Suite", which is Ellington's take on Tchaikovsky's ballet music. The orchestra is technically skilled and things like intonation, precision, and dynamics are at a very high level. As to be expected, it's hard to get a true jazz feeling from an orchestra which is not playing swing music on a regular basis. However, there were some nice solos from a tenor saxophonist(perhaps a "ringer") and also the principal clarinetist.

The next piece was a Gershwin composition called "Lullaby for String Orchestra", which was pretty and relaxing, and not too demanding. I suppose a lullaby is meant to lull one to sleep, and it could have done just that, if I wasn't anticipating Hancock in the second half. The third selection was a watered down medley of Ellington and Strayhorn hits. I was impressed by the Symphony, however, this kind of "Pops" material is not to my taste. But believe me, I've heard much much worse.(We visited my mother-in-law in West Palm Beach, Florida a few years ago, and had the misfortune of hearing Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops. Not only was the music a snoozefest, and some of the musicians had arrived late and had to sneak on stage, but Lapin made a terribly inappropriate comment about how it was the orchestra's 15th anniversary, and how "we hope to see all of you at the next 15th anniversary", somehow not taking into account that the average age of the audience was 86!)

Herbie Hancock
After the intermission, the next half was introduced quite eloquently by my PSU colleague Professor Darrell Grant. Grant spoke about how important Herbie Hancock was to his own piano playing, and how after the morning's rehearsal, Hancock spent an hour talking with some PSU students, giving advice quite generously. "Herbie said, 'Always be open, and being a musician is not the most important thing. Being a human being is the most important thing'", Grant explained. And then Mr. Hancock came out and talked a bit before sitting at the piano.

I couldn't help but think how engaging and down to earth Hancock is. Hancock always seems to be having fun, in his music and his life. The sense of openness and creativity in Hancock's playing is something that has appealed to me a lot over the years of listening to him. And when Hancock launched into a startlingly fresh solo piano version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints", I thought ,"This is worth the price of admission!" Hancock treated the well known Shorter composition as a series of themes by which to launch improvisations and re-harmonizations, and did not stick to the expected form at all.  It was the kind of performance that makes you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about music.

It's interesting that Hancock is not known as a solo pianist; to my knowledge, there is only one solo album under his name (called "The Piano", recorded in Japan in the 70's.). I get the feeling that Hancock prefers to have a band to play with, but I'm hoping that he will do more solo recordings in the future. Between songs, Hancock explained,"It took me a while to realize that, without a bass player and a drummer, I can do anything! I can change tempos.......I can change the form......", and then, with a hint of mischief, "I can change the harmony!" Again, the mastery with which he played contrasts the little kid wonder by which he seems to view the world. I thought of another hero of mine, Keith Jarrett, who is quite famous for his solo playing. Yet his personality is also well known; Jarrett is known for his tremendous ego and his arrogance towards audiences which he deems to be too noisy(Jarrett notoriously cursed out an audience in Italy a few years ago.). While I have great respect for Jarrett, I think that, in recent years, his stubborn nature has stifled his creativity, putting him in a somewhat predictable musical box at times. Hancock, on the other hand, has constantly reinvented himself, and is always trying to go further, to go somewhere else, to find the newest chords. And he's not afraid to lose himself along the way. What an exciting way to play music!

George Whitty
I was enthralled by Hancock's reharm of Gershwin's "Embracable You", his on-the-fly reworking of his own "Dolphin Dance" and a rousing, funky version of "Cantaloupe Island". Next on the program was "Sonrisa" which Hancock explained was first recorded on the aforementioned solo piano disc, and then recycled as a tune called "Trust Me", on which Hancock sang using the vocoder. This version was orchestrated by a Portland native, keyboardist George Whitty (who received cheers from the crowd when Hancock mentioned his name!). "Sonrisa" is one of those slightly exotic sounding minor melodies, which is probably why, as Hancock related beforehand, "I thought maybe Chick Corea had written it, so I called him, held the phone up to the speaker, and said, 'Is this your tune?' Chick said no, so I said, 'Whew!'" I enjoyed hearing the tune, and the orchestration was lovely, however, some of the rhythms were problematic due to a lack of precision between the percussion section and the basses and low brass.

Hancock's performance on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" was even better than the rehearsal;indeed, Hancock's chops were clearly warm, and he has great facility and dynamic range. He mostly stuck to the written music, however, even a few little embellishments were invigorating. It was great to see Hancock perform and overall, I was satisfied. Nevertheless, when it comes to music, my mental wheels are always spinning; call it the curse of the artist's permanent state of dissatisfaction. In short, I can always find something to kvetch about. Whining is one of the great American pastimes!

What I wondered about is the state of music, the state of The Orchestra as we have come to know it, and the state of our culture. Musicians like Herbie Hancock are constantly looking for new ways to approach the music, while typically The Symphony Orchestra in America is by and large about preservation of old traditions, traditions from the Old World. Not everything new is good, without a doubt. And traditions can be important. However, there is always the question of relevance. "Rhapsody in Blue" was written in 1924 by a composer who was considered "cutting edge" at the time, and celebrated for it. Gershwin, although influenced by the European masters, thought that it was important to be contemporary. This is a quote:
George Gershwin

True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.

As impressive as it is that Hancock knocked "Rhapsody in Blue" out of the park, my question is, where is today's equivalent of "Rhapsody in Blue"? Who is today's George Gershwin? Why isn't Hancock being commissioned to write a modern day concerto for piano and orchestra?Would it even be for piano? What about Fender Rhodes? Or synthesizer? Maybe the piece would include rappers and soul singers. Or maybe even turntables and loops.....

The New York Phil, which is apparently millions in debt.....
I believe this might be a factor in why the idea of the Orchestra in our time is in danger; the Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for bankruptcy, the Cleveland Orchestra is in trouble, and the New York Philharmonic is deeply in debt. Audiences are dying out. How can new audiences be developed? Is there a way to bridge the gap between the old classics and the musical developments, for better or for worse, of the past 50 to even 100 years? I think these tough questions need to be asked. Otherwise, the Orchestra as we know it might go the way of the dodo bird. The only way you'll be able to hear an orchestra is if you have the Garage Band Symphony Orchestra Jam Pack....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Herbie Hancock and the Oregon Symphony Part 1

Philly is essentially the sixth borough at this rate.....
I lived in New York City for almost 15 years. I still think it is an amazing place, maybe still one of the greatest cities on earth. However, one of the things I don't miss about it is the hassle of traveling around the city. High real estate values have made it unaffordable to live in Manhattan, unless you are a hedge fund manager; most musicians have been pushed further out into the outer boroughs.  Some musicians even consider Philly to be the New York area! If you live in Brooklyn or Queens, as I did, getting in and out of Manhattan can be a lengthy commute by subway; and if you hate to wait 40 minutes for the subway at 1 in the morning, plan on a 20 to 40 dollar taxi ride.

Getting around in Portland is easy.....
Portland, on the other hand, is a breeze to get around. Everything seems close, and whether you take the streetcar, or walk, or drive on the well connected freeways, you can get anywhere in a flash. But more importantly, it's within the realm of possibility to live downtown! My location is convenient to everything imaginable. I can walk to Portland State University, where I teach; it takes me 3 minutes to get from my apartment to my office. And many music venues are within walking distance, like Jimmy Mak's, and the Camillia Lounge. The home of the Oregon Symphony, The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is a 5 minute walk from my apartment. (If you can afford to live next to Carnegie Hall in New York, then you must either be in a rent controlled building, or be related to J.P. Morgan.....)

The great Herbie Hancock
So it was a thrill this morning to walk for five minutes and be able to check out the rehearsal for this evening's Oregon Symphony performance. Tonight's concert(for which I have tickets) is going to feature Herbie Hancock playing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", as well as a piece called "Sonrisa", and probably some solo piano tunes to be announced. Additionally, Conductor Gregory Vajda will lead the orchestra in renditions of Gershwin's Lullaby for String Orchestra and some reworkings of Ellington's "The Nutcracker Suite" and something called "The Essential Ellington", which is probably a medley of favorite tunes. Darrell Grant, my PSU colleague, organized a group of students to check out this morning's rehearsal, so I tagged along.

Paul Whiteman: "King Of Jazz, or Oliver Hardy's double?"
I've never played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", but as a kid, I listened quite a bit to the Leonard Bernstein version, the 1959 recording with the Columbia Symphony. So I basically know the piece. It was originally written for the Paul Whiteman band in 1924. Whiteman was the so-called "King Of Jazz", although he didn't improvise and his band played watered down written arrangements of popular tunes. Gershwin is known for a wealth of tin pan alley tunes, but this work is one that people use an example of Gershwin's "serious" concert work. It is considered one of the most popular concert works in today's repertoire, for sure. I think it's a great piece, although some of it is a little gimmicky, in terms of showy piano athleticism and corny "jazz" licks. Be that as it may, I was curious to see Hancock, one of my all time musical inspirations, play this piece.

Could Brendal sit in with Miles?
During the rehearsal, what really struck me was that Hancock, who was classical trained as a boy and played Mozart with the Chicago Symphony at age 11, was able to step back into the world of "playing the ink" after a lifetime of being one of the greatest improvisers in jazz. Hancock is over 70 years old, and many folks his age are riding around on golf carts in Florida instead of appearing with orchestras playing finger-busters like "Rhapsody in Blue". I couldn't help wondering if a classical musician could jump into the opposite world with such ease; could Alfred Brendel jump up and sit in with the Miles Davis Quintet? I hesitate to jump into a classical musician versus jazz musician debate here (that could be another post), however, let's just agree that Hancock is more than rising to the occasion.

I know Hancock's playing very well, but I was also struck by the fact that if I wasn't aware that Hancock was playing, there's no way I could have guessed that it was Hancock. Hancock isn't "jazzing" it up at all, he's basically playing it like Gershwin wrote it, although there was one point in the rehearsal where a percussive phrase was followed by a space, where Herbie almost seemed to muse, "wow, this feels like a jazz gig!" To be sure, "Rhapsody in Blue" falls into the category of "jazz influenced concert music." It's not jazz, at least in my humble view. Hancock has done so many different things in his career, that in some ways, this is no surprise. As identifiable as Hancock's piano improvisation is, his influences and tastes run the gamut. Hancock is the kind of musician who makes me believe that one day we will have no genres and no boundaries. There won't be a "classical" department or a "jazz"department. Music will just be music, good or bad.

Hancock and the Oregon Symphony did a satisfying run through, and then went back through the score and touched on some spots. Then they looked at "Sonrisa", a melody which was reworked into a tune called "Trust Me." on the album "Feets Don't Fail Me Now". Here's what I believe is the original, from a great solo piano record that Hancock did in Japan:

And here's the way he re-used it:
The Oregon Symphony was essentially sight-reading an orchestration of this piece, which probably sounded great on the computer during it's conception, but the orchestra had some trouble with the "modern" syncopation. After a second run through, the "groove" smoothed out a bit. I couldn't help but think that it was weird that the percussion section was on the opposite end of the stage from the basses and low brass.( This would never happen in a jazz band; can you imagine Ron Carter being on the opposite side of the stage from Tony Williams?)Still, I'm looking forward to hearing the Symphony in concert; they seem like a fine orchestra and I'll have more to report after tonight's concert.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

All Star Bands

It's great to hear a band that has been together for years. Even if some of the members aren't as stellar as others, a band in which everyone knows the music, and is comfortable with each other, makes the music sound good. Gary Bartz used to say, "Nothing is better than a real working band!" And I agree. However, many promoters, producers, and club owners have no interest in real working bands these days. They just want to put together names that will draw the biggest crowd. And oftentimes, I can't say that I blame them. Times are tight. But also oftentimes, the "all star" bands that get thrown together seemed doomed from the start, musically speaking.

Duke Ellington: band is still working even though he's dead
Many venues won't even consider booking  you at all unless you have an all-star band. The sound of the musicians isn't important. It's all about the names. The late Freddie Hubbard, one of my musical heroes without a doubt, could barely play the trumpet for the last 15 years of his life due to a lip injury.  However, he would get booked because his name on the marquee drew a crowd. In fact, sometimes, the name can be a dead person, hence the prevalence of "ghost bands" like the still-touring Duke Ellington Band (Duke died in the 70's) or the Woody Herman Band( Herman died in the 80's). I used to work with the Mingus Band , and before or after performances, concertgoers would ask, "Is Charles going to play tonight" or "Is Mr. Mingus ill?" (Or they thought Frank Lacy was Mingus......)Indeed, the Polish violinist Michal Urbaniak told me that he was trying to book a tour in Poland in the 90's, and one club owner asked him "Who is in your band?" Without skipping a beat, Urbaniak calmly replied, "Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey." The club owner said, "I've heard of them, " and booked the band.

A drummer and friend of mine named Jeremy Blynn used to do this hilarious bit called the "Norman Granz All-Stars", which was a fictional band consisting of Tito Puente, James Brown, Miles Davis, and Frank Sinatra. He would basically go back and forth between spot-on vocal impressions of all four
Norman Granz
artists, and he always had us in stitches. But it wasn't just the imitations, which were impressive, but the idea of Puente, Brown, Davis, and Sinatra juxtaposed was so jarring. I bet that band would draw a crowd, but I doubt that those four giants would get through a sound check without some heated words or possibly even fisticuffs!

Sometimes, if I am completely bored, I'll make up all star bands that never existed, bands that would be very unlikely to exist. It's fun, yields some interesting results, and can distract me from the pain of sitting in coach on most airlines nowadays. It's kind of like playing Mad Libs: it's a sort of random creativity that makes you chuckle a bit. And don't try to read into any of these; it's only based on randomness and the strangeness of the combinations, and has nothing to do with my personal opinions regarding any of the named musicians. Have you every tried this? I wonder if anyone would pay to see any of these bands? Feel free to submit your own creations....

The Hank Jones Trio featuring Geddy Lee on bass and Sheila E on drums

The Branford Marsalis Quartet featuring Elton John on Piano, Paul McCartney on Bass, and Max Weinberg on drums

The Hiromi Trio featuring Oscar Pettiford on Bass and Gene Krupa on drums

Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers featuring Chet Baker on trumpet, Kenny G on alto saxophone, Yanni on piano, and Victor Wooten on bass

 The Brad Mehldau Trio featuring Gene Simmons on Bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums

The Miles Davis Quintet featuring John Zorn on alto sax, Tori Amos on piano, Sting on bass and Tommy Lee on Drums

Return To Forever featuring Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Steve Turre on trombone

The Wynton Marsalis Septet featuring Gato Babieri on tenor saxophone, Albert Mangelsdorff on trombone, George Howard on alto saxophone, Bobby Short on piano, Verdine White on bass, and Phil Collins on drums

The Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Steve Coleman on alto sax, Henry Grimes on bass, and Lars Ulrich on drums

The Ahmad Jamal Trio featuring Billy Cox on bass and Meg White(from the White Stripes)on drums.

The Wu Tang Clan featuring Method Man, The Rza, the Gza, Ghost Face Killa, Old Dirty Bastard, Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar and Marian McPartland on Piano......

Now if you didn't crack a smile after any of that nonsense, then this might at least make you smile.....

Monday, November 7, 2011

New Paint Job by David Valdez

David Valdez, saxophonist and blogger!

So some of you might be noticing the new look of All the work was done by saxophonist and blogger David Valdez. Valdez has lived in the Portland area for about a decade; before that, he spent time in the NYC are, although originally he hails from Santa Cruz, California. Valdez is a monster alto and tenor saxophone player, and we have played a handful of gigs here in Portland. I was glad that Valdez decided to help me spruce up my blog; he has been blogging for many years, and knows a lot of the ins and outs of blogging that I don't. (He has one of the more successful blogs in jazz, Many have commented that they like the new look, and I'm hoping that this will help to move me up in the blogging world, with whatever that means.(Ha!)

According to my stats, I'm pretty well over 100,000 hits. It's nice to know that there is an audience out there. However, Valdez has helped to make sure that I get some more traffic, and he's given me some important tips on how to get more readers and also how to post more content. Speaking of which, I'm test out this Posterous link. It's a PDF file of a piano piece I wrote about 15 years ago, and recorded on my first CD for the Fresh Sound New Talent Label("Unresolved",available on Itunes, and also here, featuring Mark Turner, Jon Gordon, Drew Gress, Howard Curtis, and Kurt Rosenwinkle.) The piece is called "Year's End", and if you want to check it out, then by all means, enjoy!

Some gigs in Portland with the Kerry Politzer Quartet coming soon
Valdez and I are going to be doing some gigs around Portland in January, some with my band, and also with the Kerry Politzer Quartet.(Here is a link to her music.) I'll be posting about those days as they firm up. I'm looking forward to doing some more playing!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Dave Fiuczynski Interview Part 1

David Fiuczynski

David Fiuczynski is a very unique guitar player. Many of you know him from his successful band called Screaming Headless Torsos. He's played with Hasidic New Wave, trumpeter Cuong Vu, and pianist Hiromi. I first met David at a rehearsal with drummer Billy Hart, and then we played a few projects with clarinetist Don Byron over the years. We've been working together in Jack DeJohnette's band since 2009, and during our European tour this past May, I found some time before a show to talk to David about microtonality(which if you didn't know, is music that uses intervals of less than a half step, or notes in between C and C#), and his teaching at Berklee, among other things. This interview is in two parts; here's part one!

George Colligan: So why microtonal music on guitar, and how? Go!

Joe Maneri
David Fiuczynski: It’s interesting, since some people think I’m a fanatic, and I can’t blame ‘em for it. The first time I was exposed to Microtonal music was at New England  Conservatory. One of the big pioneers in Boston was Joe Maneri; he was teaching there. And the first time I heard something microtonal, I said, “Stop!”

GC: (Laughs)

DF: I said, “What are you doing? Could you please stop?” But then I thought, “You know, it’s been said that there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad…” and that’s right, because finally I heard a good microtonal piece.. it was really happening , so that’s when I started checking things out in more depth. I ended up taking a class with Maneri in the late 80’s.

But the real way the way I got into microtones was non-western music.And its really like…you hear something, you analyze it,  you transcribe it, you learn it…And you want more…. So to me, an Arabic call to prayer, or a Turkish melody, or something like that … a Chinese melody…a Vietnamese melody, it’s like, “oh, wow, ok.” They have notes that we don’t have. So you start seeing well, what systems can I use? It kind of affected me like Eastern blue notes, just like the blues. I mean, all those blue notes, those sweet notes; you can’t find those on the piano.

GC: Right..

Rufus Cappadocia
DF: So I started to learn, I started to play in bands with any kind of Eastern thing going on. The one band that really allowed me to do whatever I wanted was Frank London’s Hassidic New Wave and also Matt Darriau - I would sub sometimes with the Paradox Trio, so that’s where I learned all the melodies and inflections. And I started playing with cellist Rufus Cappadocia. He’s on my first KIF CD.

I should say where it really hit me was in 1992, when I played with this group in Morocco. It was Western players from Paris , New York, and LA, and we were the house band backing up about 10 Moroccan folklore groups. So we rehearsed in Marrakesh. It was a dream gig for like 2 weeks; Jamie Haddad was on percussion, John Hassel on trumpet, everybody who had any kind of Non-Western musical experience.

And then we performed at the World Fair in Seville. And all the Moroccan musicians…they came up to me, and, only because I played guitar, it was very important for them to let me know that Hendrix came to Morocco.

GC: (Laughter)

DF: And that kind of sowed a seed, and that's where I was really interested in mixing these things with microtonality, like fat grooves… I experimented with a lot of downtown groups, but they were more jazz-oriented, and it was cool, but I just kept thinking… “Wow, what would happen if I combined this with grooves?” and then to really do it you need microtonality because a lot of these melodies, they just don’t work on 12 notes per octave.

So a lot of playing with bands learning melodies inflections and then eventually I returned to NEC- New England Conservatory- for my Master’s, and I really focused on microtonality. I actually took Joe Maneri’s last class, and I studied with a sitar player and a Turkish harp player for 2 years and various classes… and I just you know- all my assignments I tried to work off a 72-note per octave grid, if possible, and then learn the melodies precisely; but then there’s also Western microtonality , and that's where you take notes and stack them into chords. That's where it gets really dangerous.

GC: Ha ha!

DF: But also really exciting! I think there are some really incredible opportunities, as you noticed playing with Jack DeJohnette…

Jack DeJohnette
GC: Right…

DF:You know it doesn't always work, but there were times when you’re just thinking, “Wow!”

GC Sure.

DF: And then it's the same thing: well, I want to  know more…. why does this work?


DF: How can I expand? And I really feel like in a groove context- in a jazz groove context with microtonality and Eastern inflections …we’re not really doing Eastern improv concepts that much, but I think you can really do amazing things.

GC: Do you think that is one of the things that makes this particular band unique? The fact that you and Rudresh (Mahanthappa) have a handle on this stuff?

DF:You, too!

GC: Well I’m interested in it, I think that a lot of ..

DF: I can tell you right away there’s a lot of people “interested” in it.

GC: (Laughter)

DF: But you’re making it sound good, I mean, you know, you’re using a set tune and you’re experimenting…..

GC: Yeah, yeah

DF: But trust me I’ve sought  a lot of people out, and tried things. Non-Western players, Westerners just jamming, so-called pros, students… and I’ve seen many people with great intentions……and actually people more experienced than you, coming up with a whole lot less.

GC: Oh, well, thank you !

DF:But not too many cats are even trying.

GC: And the fact that Jack is open to it. I mean, because he’s the one that seemed to be pushing us to do it.

DF: Did I tell you how I got this gig?

GC: No, please do!

Don Byron
DF:So I played Don Byron’s wedding.

GC: Oh, yeah!

DF: And he got married to a Jewish lady…

GC:Yes, that’s right.

DF:So you know Fima Ephron was on bass, and he’s the band leader, and he said, “Hey, do one of your intros.” So I did my vibrato-wannabe-Arabic-micro-Western point-of-view-unorthodox thing. It just so happened that Jack DeJohnette was an invited guest to Don’s wedding and he came up to me after the set  and said, “Wow, that's the sound I’ve been hearing in my head for a couple of years!”

GC: Cool…

DF: So don't knock wedding gigs!

Stay tuned for Part Two! In the meantime, here's a video of Fiuczynski playing his double neck guitar; this might give you an idea of what he spoke about in the interview.