Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Theories on Rhythm

I have a few theories about rhythm. When we talk about swing rhythm, there's the general idea, but we can get really specific, and then even precise to the individual. The way Jelly Roll Morton swings is different from the way Kenny Kirkland swings, which is different from the way Wynton Kelly swings, etc....But in the overall sense, swing made a big change from the Swing Era into the Bebop Era. My theory is that it mostly had to do with tempo.

Dotted Eighth Sixteenth
The Swing Bands played medium bounces for dancers. Swing eighth notes were actually oftentimes written as Dotted eighth Sixteenths, which is closer to the jerky jaggedness of the earlier swing. Moving into the late 30's and early 40's, The Beboppers like Charlie Parker took the meaning of fast to new heights; they played Cherokee at tempos of Quarter note= 400! So they wanted to swing in a more streamlined manner, unencumbered by swing that could be too rickety. Hence, they smoothed out their eighth notes. Consequently, when they went back to playing slower tempos, they kept the smoothness.

Sometimes you will see swing notated as above, as a quarter and eighth triplet. And then some have talked about more modern swing as being eighth notes fairly straight with an accent or stress on the second eighth note. This can be used as a teaching tool, especially for folks who haven't heard much music with a swing feel. However, this is where it gets frustrating as an jazz educator, because I don't believe that you can  teach a student how to swing if they don't listen to jazz! Swing rhythm is more than just "put a stress on the second eighth note." There's a whole rhythmic vocabulary that you hear from players who have digested a great number of jazz albums.

Listening to this album and many others might shed some light on the subject....
I don't believe that you "have it or you don't" as some might assume; I believe you can be taught to swing with a combination of listening and guidance. But I believe that the biggest problem facing today's jazz student is that they don't hear jazz in any form on a regular basis. Many students come right from high school stage band into being a jazz major in college, without having any concept of jazz beyond a fun, cool diversion from Concert Band. The great jazz musicians, even the moderately good ones, have listened and absorbed a lot of recorded music, and probably seen a lot of live jazz as well. I know some musicians who listen to recordings a lot more than they practice their instrument. (That might be a clue.)

This brings me to my next theory, which regards Quarter Notes. I've noticed that some of the drum students at PSU will play only quarter notes on the ride cymbal. I've heard older cats do that, but in this case, it never really felt good, so I told some of the students that I didn't think they should only play quarter notes on the ride cymbal, that they should "keep the ride cymbal dancing."

"Yes, but our teacher, Alan Jones, told us to do that."

OK, I guess I didn't want to contradict Alan Jones, who is a great drummer and also a very dedicated and experienced educator. However, I kept this in the back of my mind.

Mel Brown
And then recently, during one of the late night jam sessions I hosted at Ivories, the great Mel Brown came in to the club, and I begged him to sit in on drums. As he played, I watched and listened. At one point, I noticed that he was only playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal. But it sounded amazing! Why did it sound so good when he did it and not when the students did it?

I called this guy to make the gig, but he was always late!
My theory is this, and it's somewhat derived from an idea that drummer Lenny White talked about (which he referred to as the Moveable One.):In order to play quarter notes on the ride cymbal and make it sound "good", you have to understand how it lays with everything else that's going on around it. It's not metronomic, per se, it's quarter notes with other rhythms implied around it. It only works if you work the quarter note into the bass players quarter notes, which in turn work into the piano syncopation and the eighth note and triplet lines of the horn players. Essentially, you have to have the jazz vocabulary in your head as you play quarter notes. It's organic. Otherwise, people would call a metronome to make a gig! (Which is a problem because most metronomes don't have cars.....)

Anyway, these are just theories. I'm interested in bridging the gap between the teaching of jazz and the "university of the streets" way to learn. I mostly learned by listening and going to jazz clubs and trying to piece it together while older cats yelled at me on the bandstand. I don't want to yell at my students, but I do want to see them improve. Maybe there are no shortcuts, but at least I can lead them down the quickest route.....

Monday, February 27, 2012

John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano-Performed by Adam Tendler

Acupuncture for the piano
I was walking down the hall to teach a class at PSU when my colleague Darrell Grant ran up to me. "Come check THIS out!" I guessed that my ensemble could wait, and I followed Grant down the hall to another practice room. Inside the room were a bunch of folks were standing around a prepared piano. For those of you who didn't know, prepared piano refers to a piano which has stuff jammed in the strings to make it sound much different from what we expect to hear from a piano. It might sound like a marimba on one note, or it might sound like a drum, or it might sound like a ghost, depending on the treatment. There were a bunch of screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber wedged in the wires( No Rottweilers, though, jerky...). Grant dared me to play it; I plunked down a few notes. It kind of sounded like a Space Kalimba(Wasn't that an Earth Wind and Fire song?) "There's a free performance tonight at 8 of the John Cage "Sonatas and Interludes" in this room." I decided I would be there, since I live only 3 minutes walking distance from Lincoln Hall, and also because it was free. Seriously, I was in the mood for something unconventional. (I say unconventional with the full awareness that Cage wrote this piece in 1948.)

Adam Tendler
Just before 8pm, the small practice room was full of people who were also in the mood for something unconventional. Wynn Kiyama, the Professor of Musicology at PSU, introduced the soloist, a young man named Adam Tendler. Tendler has made a name for himself specializing in "new music", and toured the 50 states giving free concerts in places where new music might not customarily be heard. Tendler advised that the piece was "around 70 minutes" and added that there would be a Q&A afterwards. Tendler sat down and launched into the piece, which he had memorized.

Maybe Scarlatti would have tried prepared harpsichord?
For music that one might quickly leap to label as intellectual, I got a lot of emotional impressions as I listened. Obviously, the piece is all notated, but much of it had a playful, improvisatory feel to it. The program notes mentioned that Cage's piece had the structures harkening back to the music of Domenico Scarlatti, but it's hard to hear that, since the piece doesn't really seem to value harmonic progressions like what you might hear in piano music from say 1700 to 1930 and beyond. There is a lot of spookiness in the sonorities achieved by the preparation, which is interestingly offset by the unprepared notes. There is a lot of repetition, and some of the movements were very dancelike, and had a funkiness which was accentuated by Tendler's rhythmic performance. Tendler seemed to throw himself physically into the piece, and squeezed a lot of expressivity from Cage's printed notes.

John Cage preparing the piano
There's a lot of cool sounds and phrases in the music, but there's also a lot of space, which is really important for the sort of haunted house-scary sounding parts. The piano was pretty soft overall, but Tendler performed with a very wide dynamic range. There were jarring thuds followed by tones which might be from a Satanic music box. Cage was trying to achieve the effect of a percussion ensemble, so there is a lot which I perceived as driven by rhythm, although there were lyrical moments as well. I never was bored, although towards the end, I was on the edge of thinking that a piece this long borders on the self indulgent. And then it was over; there was no climactic moment, it just sort of disintegrates, which Tendler later remarked "makes him hold back laughter".....

Cage was apparently inspired by the Hindu concept of rasa, which believes in eight states of human emotion: heroic, erotic, wondrous, mirthful, sorrowful, fearful, angry, and odious. (I think this is where they got the idea for the Seven Dwarves, but Disney took out odious because the Odious Dwarf didn't test well with audiences...). But what's interesting about this concept is that all of these states lead to tranquility. If you listen to the Sonatas and Interludes with this vague program in mind, it make the piece perhaps more meaningful, yet also adds to the unconventional nature of the flow of the piece, in that it kind of drifts off into a zen state of nothingness, rather than the clash bang of say a Stravinsky or Beethoven.

I downloaded a version of Aleck Karis playing this piece. (I'm a fan of Karis' recording of Stravinsky's piano music.) Also, you can download a  FREE version of Tendler playing it in Hawaii. If you are in the mood for something unconventional, you might be surprised at how much fun it is to listen to this great piece by John Cage.

Also, here's a clip of Boris Berman playing some of it....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Forever Young: Charles McPherson and Roy Haynes at the PDX Jazz Festival

Portland is certainly not the jazz capital of the world. However, it has a thriving scene, and for a city of it's size and location, it has a more than respectable jazz audience. This is most evident during the PDX Jazz Festival, which is annually held in mid-February. Festival director Don Lucoff has brought in a lot of great headliners, like Bill Frisell, Dee Dee Bridgwater, and Branford Marsalis. Furthermore, the partner events which feature a multitude of local talents is almost overwhelming; on any given night, there are Portland jazz musicians playing all over the city. Indeed, I was busy since last weekend playing events which were listed as part of the festival; late night jam sessions at Ivories(the last one is tonight at 11:45), a duo with Belinda Underwood at the Heathmann Hotel, a quartet with saxophonist Devin Phillips at Jimmy Mak's, a trio gig at Ivories featuring upstart tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover, and another trio gig at the Blue Monk featuring bassist Tom Wakeling and drummer Alan Jones. It's been a busy week, and I've been trying to shake some seemingly never ending nasal congestion as well, so I haven't been going to as many of the events as I would have liked. Still, the festival ends Sunday, and there's still a lot happening.

Charles McPherson
I was fortunate to get to play with one of the headliners and also attend a concert featuring another headliner. First, I brought a student ensemble into Jimmy Mak's to play with the legendary alto saxophonist Charles McPherson. (I hadn't played with McPherson since I worked with a 4 alto project featuring Phil Woods, Gary Bartz, Jesse Davis, and McPherson back in 1996.) The ensemble I chose is called The Colligan Men, and features Brandon Braun on drums, Hu Hao on bass, Ben Graves on guitar, Grant Sayler on guitar, Scott Ferguson on trombone, David Kim on piano, Marc Hutchinson on tenor saxophone, and I play trumpet in the group.  I talked to McPherson before the show and he was very friendly. I couldn't help but be impressed with how sharp, healthy and vibrant he seems for a 73 year old. (McPherson has lived in San Diego for many years;maybe it's the nice weather...)The Colligan Men plowed through a few standards, and then McPherson joined us on a striking rendition of "Body and Soul". I'm very proud of our student group, but it's always a lesson when younger players share the bandstand with the older masters. The vibe changed as soon as McPherson played the first few lyrical notes. He really schooled our rhythm section on how to play a ballad. And on our rendition of Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce", McPherson basically destroyed the blues with endless bebop lines and fiery execution.

Pianist Randy Porter
The next set featured McPherson as a leader, with a rhythm section of Randy Porter on piano, Tom Wakeling on bass, and Alan Jones on drums. Porter has been playing with McPherson for years, so they had a great connection. They began with a rousing rendition of "Lester Leaps In" where McPherson and crew schooled all of us on playing blazing up tempos. A beautiful version of "Embraceable You" featured McPherson soloing masterfully with an almost Coltrane-like "sheets of sound" approach, which left the audience flabbergasted. McPherson show no sign of slowing down.

The Great Roy Haynes
Last night, I went to the Newmark Theater to see Roy Haynes and the Fountain of Youth Band. Roy Haynes is another senior citizen who has more energy than most of my students! Haynes is celebrated because of his long career and unique, sensitive drumming style, which fits with seemingly any situation; Haynes has played with literally everyone in jazz, and that's EVERYONE from Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday  to Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. Sometimes, Haynes will tour with an all star band, but his regular band features some young players who have been with him for years; alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw has been with Haynes for 6 years, while pianist Martin Bejerano and bassist John Sullivan have been with Haynes for a few years longer. These are all great players, but even so, the star of this band is clearly Roy Haynes.

The amount of energy Haynes has is almost insane; Haynes strolled out onto the stage with a swagger that you might expect from James Brown in his prime. And it seems as though everything Haynes does has a rhythm to it;even the microphone, which he used to joke with the audience, he beat on his chest and it was almost as compelling as his drum solos."That's my HEART", Haynes quipped. Clearly, Haynes is enjoying his golden years. The concert began with an extremely short version of Monk's "Green Chimneys", but then they launched into a full length version of "Trinkle Tinkle"; they added some special rhythmic jabs which made the solos challenging. Then they played a sweet version of "My Romance". I marveled at how Haynes' drumming might seem unimpressive to those who are impressed by flashy technique and pyrotechnics. Haynes was impressing me with how little he played; everything was driving the music and the feel was the most important thing. Everything he played, particularly during his two lengthy drum solos of the evening, were technically within the abilities of most drummers, even my students. However, it's not what he played on the drums, but HOW and WHEN were what makes Roy Haynes special.

Jaleel Shaw
Altoist Shaw and pianist Bejerano wowed the audience with their skill and energy. Bassist Sullivan had a nice little feature with a solo rendition of Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan". This was curiously sandwiched in between two occurrences of what I'm guessing might be the band's theme song, Pat Metheny's "James", a piece written for James Taylor. They ended up playing the tune for a third time later in the almost 2 hour set; Haynes seemed happier every time they played the joyful, uplifting melody. I think this is Haynes' secret; his elixir of eternal life is music. Hopefully he'll be around for many years to come.

I was thinking, as I left the concert, that I've found a good response to the question: "What is jazz?"

The answer? "Roy Haynes. Roy Haynes IS JAZZ."
(above is "James" from "Te Vou!")

Friday, February 17, 2012

Introducing Nicole Glover at Ivories Sunday Feb 19th at 4:30

Nicole Glover
When I was young, and first getting into the jazz scene, older musicians used to asked me, "How did you get interested in THIS music?" Jazz is not so popular these days, and it seems abnormal anytime young people express interest in playing or even listening to it. That's why I'm really impressed with a young saxophonist named Nicole Glover. She's a Portland area native who seems very serious about the music and become a better musician. She already has a lot of talent, and she's also open to new ideas and influences. She's going to be featured with my trio this Sunday at 4:30 to 7:30 at Ivories(1435 Northwest Flanders Street). The trio will consist of Tom Wakeling on Bass and Alan Jones on Drums. It should be a great afternoon of music. 

I did a quick interview with Glover so that you might know more about this young talent.

GC: How did you get into playing jazz? Who are your biggest influences on recordings? Who are your biggest personal influences?

NG: My dad was the one who first introduced me to jazz. He used to play a lot of music for me when I was a kid, and he gave me my first CD, which was Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus”. Miles, Cannonball, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett were other early influences. So I grew up listening to the music. I didn’t start seriously committing myself to studying the music until I was about 17.
It would be impossible to provide a complete list of my musical influences, but I’ll attempt to name the ones who have had the greatest impact… Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bird, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Rich Perry, Lennie Tristano, Duke Ellington, Ravel, Debussy, Brahms, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, J Dilla, Radiohead... and so many more...

Personal influences… everyone I come into contact with can teach me something about myself.  So I guess all the people in my life influence me.

GC: Why tenor saxophone? Do you find it daunting that there are so many great tenor players out there?

NG: Of course I do… but I started playing the saxophone when I was 11, and at the time the realities of being a tenor player were naturally not present in my consciousness. I had wanted to play saxophone for years, but I started off on the clarinet before making the switch. There was actually a point where I debated playing drums in middle school, but never pursued it (until now). I'm not sure what exactly I'm going to do about being  "another tenor saxophonist"... I have some ideas, though. We'll see what happens.

GC: What are your long term musical goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? ten years?

NG: It's difficult to say what my long term musical goals are besides becoming the best musician I can be. I don't really have a specific agenda, and things change, so I try not to think too much about where I might be or what I might be doing several years from now. People can call that naive if they want, I prefer to think of it as seeing what's directly in front of me.

GC: Describe a typical practice session. Do you practice a lot or do things sort of come easily for you?
NG: There are certain aspects of music that come easier to me than others. Still, the best musicians in the world are essentially the ones that practiced the most, whether things came easily to them or not. It’s easy to cheat yourself out of practicing, and my shortcomings are immediately more apparent whenever I do. So I try to stay as honest with myself as possible.
I have a fairly organized practice schedule, something that my mentor Alan Jones helped me establish. I have areas of music that interest me, for example Harmony, Ear Training, Tone, etc., and each day I work on one task from each category. Sometimes I fall into a trap of over-saturating my practicing… there is an incredible amount of information out there that I am not aware of, and I’m too impatient! I need to remind myself sometimes to focus on one thing at a time before moving on.

GC:What's your opinion of the music industry today?

NG: It’s… pretty terrifying. Can that be my answer?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

David Valdez at Ivories Wednesday February 15th 8:30 PM

David Valdez

David Valdez is a seriously killing alto and tenor saxophonist. He lives in Lake Oswego, right outside of Portland, OR. I've been playing with Valdez quite a bit since I arrived here on the West Coast. Valdez plays on a very high technical and musical level, so I feel like he is helping me keep my chops up! We have a performance this Wednesday at the new jazz spot in Portland, Ivories Jazz Lounge And Restaurant
(1435 Northwest Flanders Street  Portland, OR 97219 (503) 241-6514). I interviewed Valdez recently so that my readers could know more about Valdez and also what to expect on Wednesday.

GC: What do you think about the current jazz scene in Portland?

DV: It seems to be picking up lately. Of course in a smaller scene like PDX just one or two Jazz clubs opening tend to seem like major improvements, same thing if just one or two great new players move to town. Having you relocate recently here has certainly added some vitality to the scene. When I first got here in 2000 there definitely were more Jazz clubs than there are today. In just a little over one square mile I’d say that there were at least nine different clubs that regularly had live Jazz. It reminded me of the East Village, where you could walk to a bunch of different clubs in one evening and listen to a lot of great music.

 There was a time a couple of years ago when the scene seemed to be losing ground. We lost a few key clubs and there wasn’t really a nice room to play creative music and still get paid. At that point I started to make escape plans, but when I started looking at other livable cities I realized that things had gotten worse all over the country.

 What usually happens for me is that my calendar looks bleak for the upcoming months, but then playing opportunities come up unexpectedly at the last minute. There are a lot of world-class musicians here, so that always manages to keep things interesting for me.

GC: Is it comparable to the New York scene?

DV: Portland has always had a history of being a good place for Jazz and I think for the size of the place it’s pretty hard to beat. All in all, I think it’s treated me very well over the last 11 years. Somehow I manage to keep getting work playing creative Jazz music with good musicians. I really think if I was living anywhere else I would probably have had to do a lot more commercial type gigs.

  I talk to my buddies in New York and many of them have to play a lot of more commercial type gigs in order to survive. I’ve known a lot of great players who have moved to the city only to get caught up playing nothing but club dates. The burning tenor player that moves to NYC to take over the Jazz scene only to end up playing Disco five nights a week. Kind of ironic really. I honestly have a hard time imagining how Jazz musicians with families manage to make ends meet living in New York. I guess sometimes they have to pick up the straw hat and suspenders or sit down and memorize all of the horn lines for the Donna Summer songbook. 

GC: Do you miss the New York scene?

DV: Of course. I miss my friends and I miss being able to go out and listen to incredible players any night of the week. Most of the guys I grew up playing with are still back in New York. The musical bonds with players that I’ve built up over many years are definitely the thing that I miss the most. Once in a while I try to bring a musician out here for a recording and/or gigs, but it does seem like I’m out in the boonies at times.

GC: What's the theme for the gig on Wednesday at Ivories?

DV: How about  ‘Latin-ish-Jazz’ ? I’d like to do as many originals as we can shoehorn into that genre. Weber Iago will be coming down to play some piano and he is a really great composer, so we’ll get a chance to play some of his compositions while you’re on trumpet. Weber grew up in Rio and his Brazilian thing is very deep. He kind of sounds like a Brazilian Keith Jarrett. Weber definitely has a very distinctive style, it’s just that he incorporates elements of modern Jazz pianists, as well as Classical harmonies, and  a solid understanding of Brazilian music. I invited a nice percussionist to sit in as well, so I’d say that there will be a fair amount of Afro-Cuban action happening as well as the Brazilian stuff.

GC: What "Latin" music has influenced you the most?

DV: When I was young I got a chance to hear groups like Poncho Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente, but I didn’t start playing Latin music professionally until I was in Boston going to school at Berklee. I guess you could say that I worked my way through school with Latin gigs. The first bands I started working with were Merengue bands with the Dominican Republic cats. I really think that playing that music had a big influence on my concept at the time. Rhythmically that music was so different from anything that I was playing at school. The time was so far on top of the beat and it was incredibly demanding chop-wise. The gigs were always five hours long and the horn montunos were insane. I had to learn to single tongue a lot faster. After doing the Merengue circuit for a while I did a lot of Cumbia gigs with Columbian bands and then worked with Puerto Rican Salsa bands. When I moved back to the Bay Area after school I did a lot more Salsa gigs

 I never really did any Latin gigs as a leader until the mid-90’s when I put together my first Afro-Cuban band together while living in northern California. The band became pretty successful locally and we built a large following of Latin dancers. It was a nice change to be playing for dancers who were having a great time on the dance floor. I felt like I had the freedom to really stretch out and there seemed to be a big audience for that type of music. It was a nice change from playing straight-ahead Jazz.

 Over the last two years I’ve been working with Weber Iago and playing a lot more Brazilian music than ever before. I’m quite comfortable with Cuban music, but it was kind of a steep learning curve for me with Brazilian music. The Brazilian rhythmic feels is much more elusive and elastic than the Cuban feel. I’m getting better, but it’s still something I’m working on and listening to.

GC: Do you think Latin Jazz is important for students to learn?

DV: I think it is a crucial part of a good Jazz education. Latin styles are a big part of modern Jazz, but most younger players do not give as much attention to them in school. Many players never really get serious about learning the fundamentals of different Latin styles and so they end up approaching Latin Jazz just like Bebop, with long strings of 8th note lines, totally ignoring what is going on rhythmically. I’m not saying every Jazz player needs to start learning every percussion part for every Cuban rhythm, but some effort should be made to approach Latin music with some amount of seriousness. I know a lot of rhythm section players who are great Jazz players, but if I try to call a Latin tune their shit just falls apart and they sound terrible. Drummers, bassists and piano players cannot just skate by like horn players often can, they need to have some grasp of what should be happening rhythmically and stylistically.

GC: Where would you start with a student who wanted to learn about Latin Music?

DV: I have all my students start by working out of piano montunos books. I make them pick out single lines from the piano montunos and repeat them over and over until the feel is right. Then I’ll have them change selected notes and rhythms while keeping the montuno going. I usually make them learn bass lines so they understand what is going on with the bass parts. Of course it’s usually a good idea to make them clap the different clave patterns (son, rhumba, 2/3, 3/2, ect) while listening to tunes. I have them improvise around the clave pattern. Then I’ll have them improvise sparsely, trying to fit in between the piano comping, as if they were comping for the pianist. The Latin Aebersold volumes are good for this (Bird Goes Latin, Salsa/Latin Jazz, ect). I’ll also have them try to create strong repeated montuno patterns with the Latin Aebs. Of course there needs to be a lot of listening of good Latin music that accompanies this process. Latin music is even harder to get experience playing than Jazz. I feel lucky that I got a chance to put in so many hours on the bandstand with a lot of different Latin bands, but a young player here in Portland would be hard pressed to find those kind of playing opportunities.

(Some books that I use for my students are: Latin Jazz Piano Technique by Oligario Diaz, 101 Montunos by Rebeca Mauleon-Santana, Salsa & Afro-Cuban Montunos for Piano by Carlos Campos)

GC: How did you get into blogging?

DV:  I have a friend named Darren Littlejohn who talked me into starting a Jazz blog. He thought that I should write down the stuff I was teaching my students. I finally gave in and soon got kind of carried away. I was writing a lot, more than I had ever written in my life. That started me writing for a monthly Jazz magazine and even a few liner notes. I began getting good feedback from the blog and made a lot of connections that I would have never made otherwise. I built up a pretty big readership in time and was able to get my music out there through the blog. It has really opened some doors and I think it has gotten my a level of recognition that I hadn’t had just by playing music. Now when I go to other cities like LA I’m usually surprised by how many people I meet that are regular readers of my blog. It’s been pretty cool, though it doesn’t always translate directly into financial rewards. It has gotten me students, some nice teaching gigs, and free gear however.

GC: Do you think that musicians who blog can change the jazz scene for the better?

DV: I feel like if I can offer some good educational material, whether it be harmony lessons, interviews or technical articles, then musicians will learn something and possibly get a little better. Not everyone can afford to go to a $40k a year conservatory, but they can still appreciate high level educational material. My goal is to offer serious players access to the educational materials that I wished I would have had access to when I was coming up. I think that this might be able to change the scene a little over time. We can’t control the economic realities of the music business, but we can do out best to pass on what we can to other players that are trying to learn this music. I really think your blog is gaining some momentum lately. We need more Jazz writers who are also players that are in the trenches getting dirty. So many Jazz writers have questionable qualifications when it comes to really knowing about the music. Who cares how many reviews and CD liner notes they’ve written, do they really have the understanding to accurately compare and assess musicians who are operating at a very high level? Hardly.

GC: Any other exciting projects coming up in the future?

       DV: Well, I’m excited about playing with your quartet and with Kerry Politzer’s quartet. I’m also looking forward to working more with the Chamber-Jazz project that I’ve been leading with Weber Iago ( That group has a very cool instrumentation, with a bassoonist,  a woodwind player (clar, flute, bass clar), and me in the front line. This month I’ll also be recording a CD with trumpet player/vocalist Robert Moore. On March 11th at the Blue Monk I’ll be doing the first gig with a group called Proto-Human, which is led by pianist/composer Andrew Durkin ( This group has been in rehearsal for months getting together some incredibly challenging compositions written by Andrew. The tunes are all over the map stylistically and are probably the most challenging stuff that I’ve had the pleasure of playing recently.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why The Grammys are Irrelevant... Revisited

20 minutes for vocal warmups and 3 hours to get dressed....
About a year ago, I posted a piece on how the Grammy Awards seemed like a separate entity from actual MUSIC. I had a very weird experience tonight which made me want to revisit this idea.

Ron Steen
Last night, I played at Clyde's Steakhouse in Northeast Portland with the Ron Steen Trio.  This gig was a typical jam session type gig where the house band of myself on piano, bassist Kevin Deitz and drummer Steen played trio for about an hour, then we let people sit in. We had two great singers sit in; first, Marilyn Keller, and then Laura Cunard, two local favorites. Clyde's, as I mentioned in another previous blog, is a very interesting scene with a lot of interesting characters. It's a lot of older folks, and it's a mixed crowd, meaning more blacks and whites that you might see elsewhere in Portland. The older folks dig the music; some of them got up to dance! These people were not self conscious in the slightest; they were dressed super casually, and they were out to have a old fashioned good time.  And they were having a very good time: Keller's rousing rendition of "Teach Me Tonight" had people cheering.

I think Rhianna was a little "flat" in this part

But I kept getting distracted by the big screen television over the bar that was right in my line of sight. They had the Grammy Awards on. The sound was off, of course, but it didn't seem to matter. The visual spectacle was so overwhelming, and so contrasting to the "scene" at Clyde's. It seemed like it was being broadcast from another planet, or maybe the 5th circle of Hell, judging from all the explosions and bursts of flame. Every performance seemed to have 50 background dancers running around in Halloween costumes, doing back flips off of elaborate stage monuments. And it seemed as though a "crowd" was at the front of the stage going wild for each performing artist. It seemed really fake; the celebrities who get invited to the Grammy Awards are NOT going to be up at the front of the stage jumping up and down like teenagers! I tried to look away from this ridiculous show, but the disparity between Clyde's and the Grammys was fascinating to me.

John Lennon-what would HE think about the Grammys?
I'm pretty liberal, and I usually reserve my disdain for the super-rich who are bent on destroying this country by funneling all of the resources upward. But I felt a deep disdain for these...well, they can't really be called "musicians", let's call them "music industry celebrities". I think there were times when the average person could relate to musicians and singers. People like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Neil Young, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and many other artists of days gone by, were trying to communicate with the people of the world. All I got from watching this visual extravaganza was that the music industry clearly has a lot of money to burn. Literally.(It seemed like every time I looked at the TV, a lot of fire was shooting over the stage.)And at a time when Americans are struggling to pay for their homes, to put food on the table, to pay for health care, this over-the-top parade of "music industry celebrities" and their wealth and success seems somehow inappropriate.

Looks like a reject from Star Wars
For the first time, I kind of understood the whole "limousine liberal" phenomenon. We tend to think of entertainers as liberal, as being someone we can connect with, as having a understanding of humanity, as having compassion. The entertainers I see now in the music industry, as well as movies and TV, seem to want attention for being famous and rich. How can we as average citizens connect with Lady Gaga and her crazy outfits? Everyone is constantly saying "Lady Gaga is actually a great musician and she can play piano and sing, blah blah..." But is it really necessary to wear these ridiculous get ups in order to be a successful artist? She looks like a creature you would find in the bar on Mos Eisley from the Star Wars movie.

As we played our be bop and our tin pan alley tunes, I thought that maybe we were the dinosaurs. We were after all, merely "playing music". We had no elaborate stage shows. We were simply playing music, and the regular folks at Clyde's were just sitting and listening to it. There was no Red Carpet leading into Clyde's, no one was wearing fancy gowns or mesh face masks or what have you. The scene at Clyde's had an honesty to it. I'm sure that elsewhere in America, there were countless other similar scenes of regular folks looking for a 15 dollar Prime Rib special and a jazz trio. There were no limousines parked outside Clyde's.

I think the biggest irony of the evening was that singer/songwriter Adele won the most Grammys. Adele, in my view is an artist who seems pretty down to earth, considering here success. She doesn't create a spectacle of herself, but "merely" sings really well and writes really meaningful songs. Maybe there is hope for music after all...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Three Tenors: Billy Harper,Gary Thomas, and Rob Scheps

Billy Harper
Sometimes I wish I played tenor saxophone. There are so many great important tenor players in jazz: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis, Bob Berg, Steve Grossman, Benny Golson, George Coleman, Warne Marsh, Dewey Redman, Jan Gabarek, Joe Henderson. And then when you think about all the tenor players of today, like Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Donny McCaslin, Greg Tardy, Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Tim Warfield, Marcus Strickland, Wayne Escoffrey.....this is all just off the top of my head! But there are three tenors that I think don't get talked about enough, especially by other tenor players. Obviously, there are already so many to deal with, so I can forgive the oversight. But I thought I would mention three that I believe are overlooked. (Although the list of overlooked jazz musicians would fill a stadium.)

Number one is Billy Harper. If you want a big, BIG,  bold tenor sound with a lot of excitement and edge, you'll  love Billy Harper. Originally from Texas, Harper worked with Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and Gil Evans. He is a great composer; my personal favorites of his  are "Priestess"(which I recorded) and "Illumination". Harper's music has a heavy power to it. The melodies are "statements of fact" rather than "flights of fancy", if that makes any sense. And with titles like "I Do Believe" and "Thy Will Be Done", you know that Harper is thinking heavy thoughts! Harper recorded a bunch of albums in the late 70's, and it seems like he didn't record at all for much of the 80's. There are a bunch of live albums on Steeplechase that are nice. Harper is still active, albeit not as active as he should be. Check out his website for more info, and many of his classic recordings are on itunes;"Live in Europe" is available-that was one which I borrowed from my best friend and never returned(sorry, David...). It features a young Fred Hersch on piano as well as another under-known drummer, Horacee Arnold.

I was fortunate to perform with Harper one weekend at the Iridium a few years ago with David Weiss' band; Harper was a special guest, along with trumpet great Charles Tolliver. It was amazing to get to play "Priestess" and "Capra Black" with the composer himself. And Harper's sound is big on recordings, but up close, it's really staggering how intense his sound is.

Gary Thomas
Next is Gary Thomas, who was undoubtedly influenced by Harper; Thomas has a similar bold, edgy sound and definitely captured the inflections and intensity of Harper. Yet Thomas has a totally unique approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm. It's one of the most modern approaches to the tenor saxophone that exists. And Thomas' playing is kind of an enigma because many perceive his playing to be "out". But if you ever have transcribed any of his lines, you'll see that his command of harmony is impeccable. And Thomas seems to be able to go in all directions at once by manipulating small melodic "cells" of two, three, or four notes, and moving them around the tonal center in very dissonant ways. And his rhythmic approach can be dead center, or very staggered, and he has total rhythmic control either way.

Many tenor players "in the know" will admit that Gary Thomas is one of the true innovators on the tenor saxophone. Unfortunately, Thomas has been mostly teaching for the past 10 years, and hasn't recorded as a leader since 1998(to my knowledge). Thomas' music has been a big influence on my writing and playing, and I was fortunate to do some of my first touring with his bands. Thomas' albums which I would recommend would include "Seventh Quadrant", "Code Violations", "By Any Means Necessary","While The Gate Is Open", "The Kold Kage", "Exile's Gate", Found On Sordid Streets", and "Pariah's Pariah". (That's just off the top of my head.)

Rob Scheps
Lastly, I mention tenor saxophonist Rob Scheps because he is also a big Billy Harper disciple, but also because I recently worked with Scheps after not playing with him for about 15 years. Scheps is moving back and forth between New York and Portland a lot these days, but he lived in Portland for a number of years. Scheps is a true virtuoso tenor player; he has a huge tone and more chops than most. He seems to have total musical recall as well; he's a master of "quotes". He'll play some other melody within any set of chord changes, and it will be the silliest nursery rhyme or the hippest McCoy Tyner tune! He's one of the most intense people you will ever meet.

Scheps was in town to play a few local gigs and record a big band album. I played with his quintet, which featured the great Greg Gisbert on trumpet, Scott Steed on bass, and Todd Strait on drums. It was a real "New York Gig Experience" in Portland. The music was on a higher level than many of my students had ever heard. Scheps and Gisbert also came by PSU and gave a very informative clinic. I need to get my chops back up just in case Scheps calls me the next time he's in town!