Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tour Diary: Jack DeJohnette U.K./Poland/Georgia 2012

Where we left off on the last tour
When I last left off from my Tour Diary, we were still on the European continent. I felt  a little guilty that I wasn't able to do a full feature on the tail end of our October tour, which took us to Ukraine. I'm finding some of the eastern places we have been going to be the most stimulating; also, some of the more appreciative audiences have been in these countries. (Perhaps many in the audience remember the times when they could not see or hear music from the West; therefore, they take it for granted less than other places.) Just to backtrack a bit, our last gig in October was in a city called Zaporozhe. We flew into Dnepropetrovsk, then we had to drive an hour to Zaporozhe on a very bumpy highway. As we drove, the promoters of the concert gave us vodka and bacon sandwiches. One of the promoters stood and gave a little speech to declare how the arrival of Jack DeJohnette and his group in their city was a truly momentous occasion. They presented DeJohnette with a crash cymbal in which they had engraved his name and a likeness of his face! They also told us that some people were coming from as far away as a 24 hour car ride to see the concert. After the standing room only show, we signed autographs for about an hour. I must say it feels good to see so much enthusiasm. (It's not always the case, believe me…)

After a few weeks back in Portland, catching up on my teaching and spending time with my family,
Marvin Sewell
we had another two weeks to go; this trip would take us first to England, a detour to Poland, back to England, and then a final gig in Georgia (the country and former Soviet territory, not the red state in America!) This trip would be a slightly different group; while I, DeJohnette, and bassist Jerome Harris would be returning, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa would be replaced by Don Byron on Eb clarinet and tenor saxophone, and David Fiuczynski would be replaced by guitarist Marvin Sewell. Furthermore, Harris was unable to do the last three gigs due to a prior commitment; his sub was British electric bassist Mike Mondesir. We played basically the same repertoire from the previous tour(all compositions by DeJohnette), however, Byron and Sewell naturally had a very different approach to the music. To my knowledge, there are few if any examples of Eb clarinet in jazz; it's used in symphony orchestras almost as an effect; works like Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" or Berlioz' "Symphony Fantastique" are known for Eb Clarinet. It has a more intense, more shrill sound, which really worked well when Byron played melodies, some of which lean towards a Middle Eastern sound. Meanwhile, guitarist Sewell, whom you might know from his many years working with famed vocalist Cassandra Wilson, should probably win the "Most Underrated Guitarist" award. Indeed, Sewell's comping and improvising are extremely unique; his comping was very fluid and supple, almost like a piano, while his soloing had a jarring angularity which seemed to inspire DeJohnette into some uncharted territories. I found it to be a revelation; Sewell and I had actually toured together in the 90's as sidemen with Gary Thomas and Cassandra Wilson, respectively. This musical setting gave me more of a chance to hear Sewell open up. It was a pleasure to hear him create new interpretations of DeJohnette's music.

Overall, our tour was a success. However, the tour itself was bookended by travel nightmares. Well, that might be overstating it somewhat. I'm alive and uninjured, and that's something I truly appreciate. Nevertheless, I find the modern-day airline industry to be a huge rip-off. My first flight on Jet Blue from Portland had to be diverted from JFK in New York to Syracuse because of fog. Therefore, I missed my British Airways flight to London Heathrow. I called British Airways when I arrived in Syracuse and told them I would miss the flight. They told me that my entire itinerary would be cancelled and that I would have to purchase all new tickets. I said to the agent on the phone, "Wow, so you just rip people off?" They were saying that not only was my flight from JFK to Heathrow gone, but they would cancel the booking for Newcastle to London, London to Tbilisi, Tbilisi to London, and then my flight from London to JFK. Now, before you freak out and say " British Airways is a complete load of bollucks!", you'll be surprised to know that this is common practice with many airlines these days. If you miss the first flight, all subsequent flights need to be re-purchased. Luckily, the promoter in the U.K. took responsibility to the tune of, well let's just say a great deal of money. My belief is that this policy is completely unfair, and it shows a great example of what happens when corporations have more power than their customers. Honestly, the airline-passenger relationship these days is increasingly lopsided.

Your bag is overweight; you have to pay extra fees. We don't allow these instruments on board. Your carry-ons are too heavy. You are only allowed one piece of luggage and one personal item. Bags must be checked 45 minutes before departure. Boarding closes 15 minutes before departure. No liquids can go through security. If you want to change your itinerary, you have to pay a penalty. If you want to book a ticket over the phone, you have to pay extra. If you miss your flight, even if it's not directly your fault, you're screwed. Oh, and if we are delayed, or cancel a flight, or make a mistake of any kind, we aren't responsible in any way, so don't expect any apology or help from us. Unless you want to drive your car across the Atlantic Ocean or can make your own flying machine, you are basically at our mercy. And thank you for choosing British Airways.

I'll have more on the airlines in a moment. When I finally arrived in London, I was driven to a hotel where I napped for abut 2 hours. Then , I met up with Byron, Sewell, and Harris, and our driver Jean Berthon. We drove up to Manchester and met up with Dejohnette, his wife Lydia, and our road manager and soundman Paul Herwin. We had a soundcheck/ rehearsal, then a quick dinner, and then the show. Even though we had subs, the music was awesome from the get-go. After that, I was glad to get a good night's sleep in the hotel.

Queen Elizabeth Hall in London
The bulk of the tour was driving around jolly old England. Our travels took us to Leeds, Cambridge, and The Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. (There is supposedly a link to the London gig; it was recorded by the BBC.) I had little time to see any of these places due to our daily schedule of checking out, driving, checking in, going to sound check, playing the gig, dinner, and back to the hotel. I was looking forward to seeing Cambridge, only because one of my favorite movies, "Chariots Of Fire", was set in Cambridge. I watched the movie for the 20th time on my ipad as we drove away. Oh well.

After London, the next gig was to be in Wroclaw, Poland. I was informed that we were flying Ryanair. If you aren't familiar with Ryanair, they are known in Europe as the super-budget airline, where you can buy a ticket from Ireland to Italy for literally 1 Euro. However, this so-called budget airline will try every which way to charge exorbitant extra fees for everything else. Their baggage weight restrictions are so tight that if you pack more than two shirts and a toothbrush, you get charged 100 bucks. If your carry-on bag is too heavy, they charge you for that. If you forget to print out your boarding pass, they charge you 93 dollars.(Look at this if you think I'm kidding.) Ryanair is the airline where they made headlines for considering charging for using bathroom on the flight. The
Michael O'Leary, CEO and clearly insane Irishman

Ryanair CEO and insane Irish business man Michael O'Leary has been heavily criticized for making outlandish and contradictory statements just to get attention. Although he may be a completely reprehensible, this business model of charging extra fees has spread throughout the airline industry and other industries as well. This quote from the Daily Mail article sums up perfectly my feeling as a traveler:

Where once you were a welcome guest, now you feel like a sucker being forced non-stop to pay out trifling amounts for trifling things.

Like I said before, the experience of air travel these days involves this very one sided relationship between you and the airlines. You want to go somewhere quickly, and they want to suck your blood until you are dead.

Obviously, Ryanair is tough for musicians because, unless your group involves piano and vocalists, you probably have some instruments. It says on Ryanair's website that they charge around 100 dollars per instrument. But I believe we we charged overweight, which is something like 20 dollars for every pound of overweight. The night before, to avoid overweight baggage fees, I completely repacked my suitcase and left many bags of clothing in our U.K. tour bus. I even left my pocket trumpet, as it would have counted as extra carry-on luggage, and I asked our tour manager to phone the promoter in Poland to find a trumpet for me to play. I'm guessing that the tight restrictions of the airlines will eventually lead to musicians like guitarist, bassists, brass and wind players having to play the instrument du jour whenever they tour. Some musicians do this already; most upright bassists don't bring a bass anymore.

When we finally arrived in Wroclaw, we had a little bit of a break. That evening, we went to a Cinema to see Bill Frisell and his band play music for a film about The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Afterwards, they took us to a great smokehouse restaurant, where we had delicious Polish sausages and other smoked meats. The maitre' d made a big deal about how "many restaurants around
Bill Frisell
here tell you they have a smokehouse. BUT THEY ARE LYING! I will SHOW you our smokehouse on the premises." Wow, they take their smokehouse pretty seriously, don't they......

I got up early the next morning and went for a two hour run. The nice people at the desk of the Radisson showed me a beautiful route near the Wroclaw Zoo. There was a really nice running path that went near a river and some gorgeous trees. It was very cold, but invigorating. And I saw many other runners out and about.

I found the Wroclaw audience to be extremely welcoming. Much like the aforementioned Zaporozhe audience, they seemed to really be starving for great music. After the performance, we went to a nice quiet Italian restaurant in the town center. (Apparently, this restaurant is where all the Polish celebrities go for dinner.) After that, we went to a jazz club where some local cats were playing what I suppose you would call "free jazz." I sat in on drums before calling it a night.

After another Ryanair flight back to the U.K. , we had some time in Birmingham, probably my favorite town in England. I spent one morning shopping for Bob The Builder toys for my son Liam. I had to go to five different stores, but I eventually found enough toys to bring home. Bob The Builder is my son's favorite show; however, the toys have been pushed father back in the inventory due to the rise of other popular kid's programs.

Our concert was in a hall within the Birmingham Conservatoire, where I've done a bunch or teaching over the past few years. This was the first of three gigs where bassist Mike Mondesir would replace Jerome Harris. Mondesir had some big shoes to fill, but he did a marvelous job. The sound at the gig was not optimal, but the music was pretty adventurous, nonetheless.

We had a long drive to Newcastle, in the north of England. This would be our last performance in the U.K. Although it was "bloody cold", I managed to get in a few good runs. We said goodbye to our driver and England and then it was off to Georgia. The flight was on British Airways, and after Newcastle to London, it was 4 and a half hours from London on an almost empty jet to Tbilisi. We arrived at around 4 in the morning. Luckily, a Georgian television crew was there to film a bunch of tired, disheveled looking dudes staggering out of the airport into taxis.

The biggest tragedy of the Tbilisi trip was that there was no time to see anything outside of the hotel. Although we did have dinner after the show at a Georgian restaurant, we ate lunch ironically at an

American style sports bar! And then it was time for sound check, etc... it was great to end the tour with the most euphoric audience on the tour. Everyone, especially DeJohnette, pulled out all the stops in front of the happy Georgians.

Flying back proved to be as problematic as my arrival; although we went Tbilisi to London without a hitch, my flight on Virgin to New York was cancelled, so they got me on a much later flight. This meant that I would miss my connecting flight to Portland, so I had to get a hotel in New York.

I was anxious to get back to Portland and see my family; however, it was nice to have an extra day in New York. I did a nice run from Canal Street to 125 St and back, which is 14.4 miles. It took two hours. I figured that was a good way to reminisce about my days in New York City.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

George Colligan Quartet Featuring Debbie Deane December 22nd At ShapeShifter Lab in NYC

 Newsflash: I will be performing in New York in December! Yay! December 22nd to be exact. This is a special project featuring vocalist Debbie Deane. If you've been following my blog, you might remember that we did a duo tour of Japan last December, and then we had a nice gig at the Jazz Standard in April, as well as a nice duo gig in Baltimore at An Die Musik. We also had a good gig at the Jazz Gallery and a great house concert in Princeton Township. This is another episode of this project, which is mostly my originals, with lyrics either by me or by my sister, Dana Colligan. Filling out the band will be Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Donald Edwards on drums. 

Shapeshifter Lab
The gig will be at the brand new ShapeShifter Lab, a wonderful space in Brooklyn (18 Whitwell Place, between 1st street and Carroll Street, in Park Slope) which is run by bassist extraodinaire Mathew Garrison. This has become one of the hot spots for creative music in New York. If you haven't been there already, this is a great opportunity to check it out.

Since I'm gearing up for this concert, I thought it would be a good opportunity to interview Deane so that my readers can know a little more about her. As she says below, we have recorded many tunes for a CD to be released in the hopefully near future.

GC: Describe your earliest musical memories.
DD: My parents didn't play much music around the house, even though they went to the opera and NY Philharmonic religiously. But my 2 older brothers did, and they had a huge influence on me. My earliest musical memories are of going into my oldest brother David's room when I was 5 or 6 and listening to Jethro Tull's Aqualung, George Harrison' s All Things Must Pass, The Woodstock album ("Give me an F, GIve me a U, Give me a C, GIve me a K!!! That was very exciting to hear as a 6 year old). When Carole King's Tapestry came out, I vividly remember dancing to it alone in my room. 

GC: How did growing up in Brooklyn affect your musical development? 

DD: Growing up in Brooklyn enabled me some freedom to be a city kid and take the subway around town starting in 6th grade. (Would I let my kid ride the trains at that age these days? Not quite sure!)
I would say being able to experience live shows and the events NYC had to offer had the biggest influence. Just feeling all that energy. 
The Broadway shows Annie and A Chorus Line were huge influences for me and my tween friends. 
Let's see, here are some highlights: 
When I was 10 years old, I went into a record store and randomly put on some headphones at a listening station. It was my very first headphone experience. Weather Report's Heavy Weather was playing. That was life-changing.
My brother Steve and I took the subway to Madison Sq Garden when I was in 8th grade to hear Neil Young on his Rust Never Sleeps tour. Amazing.
In 9th grade, Chicago was my 1st outdoor concert at The Pier at 42nd St. All those horns! We were in the 3rd row and got totally baked. Magic. 
In 11th grade, a friend took me to the Palladium to hear Jeff Beck on his There and Back tour. A pivotal moment to hear instrumental rock/fusion played so well. 

GC: When did you know that you wanted a life in music, which might be contrary to a degree from Harvard?
DD: I went to Harvard, and while I loved the college experience of meeting people from all over the country, I was quite lost.  I had taken piano lessons from age 6 through high school and reached a pretty proficient level with classical music, also playing some pop tunes, some Joni Mitchell, etc...I did a lot of singing in high school in the chorus and musicals, but had no connection to music at Harvard, and I was missing it. My childhood camp friend Laurie Geltman, who was at Boston University at the time,  told me about Berklee College of Music.  We both decided to take a year off and go there. So I took a year off from Harvard after my sophomore year, went to Berklee and it was the beginning of my life change, but I didn't quite know it yet. 
I did 3 semesters there as a piano major. I went to every recital, every performance--I was a sponge and completely musically unformed. I had much work to do. All the Europeans and Japanese students  opened up a new world for me there as well. 
I ended up finishing my last 2 years at Harvard, majoring in English while taking my piano lesson at Berklee once a week with Craig Najjar, who became my mentor. I spent more time in the practice room at Harvard then studying, and I coasted by. But I am very happy I finished Harvard. At that point, I just wasn't sure of my path. I was just trying to play the piano, and learn the jazz language.  I was still a few years off from writing and singing songs....I consider 
myself a late bloomer. 

GC:  When did you get serious about songwriting? How do you approach songwriting?
DD: So I graduated Harvard, was fortunate to travel to China, Tibet, India and Nepal for 3 months and get my mind blown in the process. Then I moved back to NY and became a prep cook . 
Once again I felt quite lost. And music was missing. I realized I wasn't ready to be in NY yet, so I decided to go back to Boston and Berklee. It was a transforming moment to realize that I needed and wanted to pursue music. 
So I went back to Berklee to pursue my piano major. I went to every recital, every performance, taking it all in. I was still studying with Craig Najjar, and felt like I was starting to play some jazz, sorta.

GC: Then Craig told me he was gonna teach a songwriting class outside of Berklee (he was in the process of leaving Berklee to set up his own little school scene). At the time, songwriting hadn't even crossed my mind, but I said yes, why not.  The songwriting class had 10 students and we met once a week for 2 hours. We became a family, we were babes and it was our incubator. I wrote my first song and got hooked. I stopped going out and hearing everyone. I holed up and wrote songs. 

DD: At that time, Craig had us listening to artists that we liked, analyze the song and then try to write one in a similar vein. 
I remember my first song ever was based on the  Anita Baker song "Been So Long". 
I wrote one song a week back then, as there was deadline for class, but then it eventually slowed down to only when I felt the inspiration. 
I have never been one to write everyday. Discipline doesn't come easily.  I will go months without writing and then perhaps write a few songs all at once.
For me, the music always come first because it is therapeutic. Writing lyrics is another headspace and ballgame. 
Sometimes I'll sit on a piece of music for a long time, cause I want the music to speak to me about what the lyrics should be about. It can take awhile. The best songs are the ones that come in 15 minutes, music and lyrics. I've only had a couple of those. 
The last handful of years, I have been writing on guitar, just for that different angle and inspiration. 

GC: Who are you vocal heroes? What about jazz musicians in general: what musicians inspire you?
DD: Hmmmmm, where to begin. 
Since 9th grade, I was one of those Joni Mitchell fanatics, singing along alone in my room for hours. How many of you Joni heads are out there? Raise your hand!
Here is my vocal hero list (I'm sure this list looks exactly like most people raised in the 70's):
Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt,  Elton John,  Ricki Lee Jones, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,  The Police, Van Morrison, Donald Fagan, Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens. There must be more.....

Of course, when I got to Berklee my world expanded.
I took Roy Okutani's Miles Davis class and transcribing Miles' solos was a life changer.
I was turned on to Sarah Vaughan, Live at Tivoli. That record was an education in itself.  
The Nancy Wilson/Cannonball collaboration, Ella. 
I've been very inspired by Miles first and foremost, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Joe Zawinul, Jobim,  Jaco Pastorious. 
Michael Brecker, Geri Allen, Dianne Reeves, Ravi Coltrane, Matt Garrison, Kazumi Ikenaga, David Rothenberg, Victor Merlo,  Joe Locke,  Geoff Keezer, George Colligan, Kerry Politzer, Elie Massias, Seamus Blake, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Marc Miralta, Mercedes Rossy, Guillermo Klein, Akiko Pavolka, Mike McGInnis, Mark Turner, JIm Whitney, Andy Statman,  Jon Dryden, Brian Blade,  Jon Cowherd, Melvin Butler, Myron Walden, Chris Thomas, RIchard Hammond, John Deley, Irving Louis Latin, Kenny Rampton, Bill Sims, Andy Hess, Tony Mason, Kevin Barry, Rodney Holmes, Wayne Krantz, Jeff Andrews, Joshua Redman, Terry Deane, Jonatha Brooke, Alain Mallet, Joan Osborne, Me'Shell N'degeocello. Did I forget anyone? The list can go on and on if I sit here long enough. I feel blessed to have worked with many on this list. 

GC:  How do you balance motherhood and music?

DD: I find that ever since Julian came into my life almost 4 1/2 years ago, that although my practice time has plummeted, my performance experience feels deeper. 
I will never forget Jeff Andrews telling me that his best performances happened when he would be traveling and get minimal sleep. He said the brain didn't have the time or energy to edit itself and be self critical. That's how I've been feeling over the past 4 years. I don't have the luxury to edit, and I realize I am there to just tap into expression. Pretty freeing!

Another thing is I can't go out all the time anymore. I used to close places up as I loved hanging and seeing and supporting all my friends. I cannot do that anymore, and sometimes that is hard for me. But I can here and there, and when I do go out to hear music, it becomes that much more special, The same when I perform, hey, it's a night out for me. It's not about oh I fucked up that note, and I'm bummed for the rest of the night.  Don't get me wrong, there's always room for improvement, but I am really enjoying performing more than I ever have. And after 20 plus years of performing, I realize I have a pretty solid foundation there to draw from and I need to trust it. 

GC:  Are you planning a new recording soon? What are your thoughts on this upcoming gig with my quartet? Any of your own gigs coming down the pike?

DD: I have a bunch of songs that I have been sitting on and I am hoping I will record them in 2013. Recording takes a long time for me, plus the dollar aspect is something I have to figure out. My last record was released on Ravi Coltrane's label RKM Music. They so generously paid for all recording and promotion. Things have changed since then, and I am hoping to check in with them to see where they are at.  In the meanwhile, I have been living life--important for the music!

That said, this past year has been a departure for me because I got to work on some projects that are not my own, specifically with you, George! Really fun and freeing for me to be a sideman, to learn fun,  challenging tunes, and to be a 'singer' (I usually play the piano or guitar and accompany myself for those who might not be familiar with me...) You are in my piano chair dude! And that has been heavenly to hear every frickin note you play, I feel like I've hit the jackpot being on the bandstand with you. 
Touring in Japan with you really solidified the music, and since we toured as a duo, their was so much opportunity to explore and expand.
After Japan, we've had some band gigs, one highlight was playing at the Jazz Standard, and it was so energizing hearing the music filled out by Lonnie Plaxico, Clarence Penn, and Jaleel Shaw.  I love both ways-duo and full band- equally. 

Shapeshifter Lab is a warm, welcoming venue. My dear friend Matt Garrison and I used to play through Real Book tunes in the Berklee practice rooms when we were just babes, so it's so amazing to see what he and Fortuna have created many years later, (not to mention his ridiculously badass playing). 
I really look forward to playing with you on Dec 22 with such a great band. Can't wait in fact.  It's gonna be so fun to sing those tunes again.

Gig-wise, I am laying a bit low right now. I sang the National Anthem at the 1st ever Nets game at the Barclay Center in October. That was a huge life highlight and people were so supportive, it amazed me.
I am excited to be doing a collaboration with Elie Massias in 2013. And you and I recorded many of your tunes, Mr. George, so I look forward to seeing where that goes!

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Billy Childs Interview Part 2

GC: I certainly think in terms of your piano playing and your writing, to me you should be out there as much as any of these other cats. One thing I wanted to ask’re from LA, and I know you were kind of going back and forth...was that a hard decision not to go back to New York?

BC: I think it really had an effect in terms of my profile in the jazz world. For two reasons - one, the connection to Europe is a lot longer. Promoters find it more difficult to fly me out from LA than New York, for obvious reasons. Number two - New York is perceived as the jazz center of the world. If you’re from anywhere else, especially LA which is perceived as an industry, a commercial town, then you’re incapable of not putting out anything of any depth. Combine that with the fact that I was on a jazz label when I was making a name for myself back in the late 80s, with a really great distribution, the problem was that it was called Windham Hill Jazz. Some genius at marketing thought that they would have a jazz label called Windham Hill Jazz, which of course Windham Hill was the poster boy for New Age music which is the antithesis of jazz. And so a lot of people would look at the label and go “Windham Hill? Nah this is bullshit, I don’t want to hear this.” Or they’d hear it, but the Windham Hill image would be so strong that they would still call it New Age.

GC: I could see that. I don’t know if you ever heard some of Dave Holland’s ECM records, there’s one I’m thinking of with Steve Coleman and Smitty Smith and it really doesn’t sound anything like what you’d typically hear from ECM. I could see people being confused, if they buy into that. That’s interesting. Did you ever want to live in New York full time?

BC: I had a place there, it wasn’t full time though. By the time I had the place I had a family and everyone was used to being here. I kind of did, but I’m in New York so much now. I’ve kind of established myself in this particular direction, like I have this jazz chamber group, and I’m kind of cool with not having been in New York, but do I wonder how shit might have turned out? Yes, I do. I think as a jazz pianist, I think I’d be way more out there and touring every summer and that thing. But being in LA has given me a minute to reflect and become more of a skilled composer. Which to me is much more rewarding and important. Because I’ve developed this thing here, LA’s kind of a studio town, so when I have some heavily orchestrated thing, or some chambers type thing, it’s not difficult to call people to rehearse it and hear what it sounds like. Everyone has a car, and you have your garage to rehearse in, it’s no think. In New York you’ve got to get everybody into a practice room in the city and people have to worry about parking - it just wouldn’t work. So I’ve learned a lot just about getting together with people about composing. And that’s contributed to who I am right now. One thing that New York critics don’t like about me is that I don’t apologize from being from LA, you know? I don’t defer to New York. They listen to my music and they have that geographical chauvinism that nothing of depth can come from anywhere other than New York. That’s a pet peeve I have with critics, and that’s why when that cat jumped on you, I was like “who the fuck are you to say that?”

GC: Well it seems like a lot of times there’s an agenda or there’s preconceived notions not based on anything that has to do with the sound of the music. Because if I was listening to your music I wouldn’t think “oh, this is an LA vibe”. I would just hear it as some killing stuff.

BC: Well, I appreciate that.

GC: Yeah. I don’t like to think of things in that way, because certainly there’s a lot of things that come out of New York that don’t have the “New York sound”, whatever that is. Your music certainly has as much intensity if not more than a lot of stuff that comes out of there.

BC: You know I have to say - a lot of times I use a New York rhythm section because it’s still hard for me to find drummers and bassists that are playing like the ones in New York. In LA you’re not going to find any Antonio Sanchez’s or Clarence Penn’s or Brian Blade’s. Actually you would, he lives there doesn’t he?

GC: You know, I keep hearing that, I saw him last year and he seemed to imply that he wasn’t really here that much. But there’s Brian Blade sightings once in a while. So I’m not really sure. He’s not on the scene at all. But you never know. Portland seems like it’s getting a good reputation as a good place to live, I’m sort of wondering if more cats are going to move out here.

BC: Hey, you ever play with Ron Steen?

GC: Yeah, he does a bunch of jam sessions.

BC: Tell him I said hello when you see him. I used to see him with Joe Henderson, Tom Grant, and Patrick O’Hare.

GC: That’s amazing! Tom Grant’s still around too. Hey Billy, I should wrap it up, but I really appreciate this. Good to talk to you always.

BC: I appreciate you interviewing me for your blog! Your blog is much better than most blogs concerning jazz. You know, I’ve always thought that musicians should critique the critics! There should be some sort of thing, 4 stars, on what we feel the guy knows. How sound he is on history, his grammar, his fucking punctuation...

GC: I hear you. It’s a touchy subject, I certainly wouldn’t want to alienate all critics, but we should hold them to as high of a standard as they seem to like to hold us to.

BC: There should be more rebuttals. A lot of musicians, including myself, tend to think “well I’ll just let the music speak for itself, I’m above that, I’m not going to lower myself to get into a battle of words over music.” The time for that is getting old. They’re just fucking writing what they want, and giving that impression to thousands of people.

GC: I think creative music is not in a great position now and these critics are people that claim to love this music, yet nitpick something. I’ve paid out of my pocket to do some of these records, and then to be crushed by some dude who didn’t even listen to it, is an insult. They don’t realize what we’re up against.

BC: Yeah! Or maybe he listened to it but didn’t like it for some reason. Instead of saying “this guy is obviously great, I just didn’t get it” they’ll say “this sucks” in a very declarative, definitive way, like it’s an empirical truth that you suck.

GC: But then you have a bunch of reviews like that, and you wonder why nobody likes jazz. The stuff that’s really good will fall by the wayside, the people who are already doing well in the industry - they’re always going to get a good review. So the people one or two tiers below have to really struggle just to be mentioned. And then when it’s a bad or unclear just feels unfair to me.

BC: I’m with you. I don’t think I’ve ever - and I’ve been doing this for 35 years - I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a good review from a New York critic about anything that I’ve ever done. Which to me is upsetting.

GC: I would think they would dig your stuff the most. I don’t get that.

BC: I think I got one good review from the Wall Street Journal on my last record. Chick Corea tells me I’m good, Herbie...I think I must be good.

GC: Yeah, they should know!

BC: I’m glad that you called me. Hope we can hang soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Billy Childs Interview Part 1

Billy Childs is simply one of the baddest musicians on the planet. He's a brilliant jazz pianist, having received much acclaim as a sideman with legends as well as from being a bandleader. His Windham Hill recordings-"Take For Example, This.....", "His April Touch", and "Portrait Of A Player"- were a big influence on my musical tendencies. Childs has been busy for the past two decades as a composer, having been commissioned by major symphony orchestras as well as jazz stars. He has received three Grammy awards and was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Still, I think Childs is somewhat underrated in the jazz world, partially due to the fact that he has lived in Los Angeles (as opposed to New York, arguably the jazz capital of the least for the time being) and also been touring with Chris Botti for the past few years. Hopefully, Childs will have much more visibility as a bandleader in the near future.

Childs is a very no nonsense type of person; in our interview, he spoke frankly about his musical opinions and his view of the music scene. This kind of conversation is exactly why I started this blog; jazz musicians should be able to tell people their side of the story. I'm breaking it up into two parts; it's rather lengthy, and we could have gone on longer.
GC: I believe it relates to the state of creative music and the fact that there are all these opinions out there and now with the web, at least we can hear from musicians, but it’s hard to have a clear idea of what the state of music is. I feel like if you’re doing creative music in a sense you should probably get a pass because there’s some really extremely commercial music that seems to get fawned over by writers, and then somebody who’s trying to do something to be expressive will get ripped apart by a critic like that. What’s your feeling about that?

BC: Well actually it’s not just pop music. You’re contending with other creative artists, you’re contending with everybody and their mother who wants to put out a CD. I mean, there’s a fucking glut of music out there right now that you have to wade through, that people have to wade through in order to get to music that’s been really carefully thought out and put together and all of this shit. So my feeling is that I just continue to do what I do and the internet, while it’s made everybody’s music available to everybody, it also makes it possible to find your audience. Starting mailing lists, having Artistshare or Kickstarter campaigns, Facebook is really important in that, I think. We all know that America takes for granted the very music that is the crowned jewel of its musical contributions to the world. It takes it for granted because it requires an attention span. But you just keep going on, you know. Just keep doing it. I wanted to ask you, as an educator, don’t you think it’s kind of a problem when there’s so many students and the demand for jazz is way low and there’s all these students coming out of school who can play the shit out of jazz?

GC: To me it’s actually an ethical dilemma. The fact that all these students are paying - I recently noticed in the grocery store, I think Time Magazine or Newsweek said something like “is a college degree a good investment?”. I didn’t read the article, I just noticed the headline. I should read the article to find out what the statistics are, but I think some people, when you look at the number of people in any field who graduate from college or have multiple degrees, even doctorates, aren’t finding jobs in their field, and then when you consider the astronomical cost of education in this country, you’ve got to wonder. And it’s not everybody, but it’s enough people that will be crushed by debt and will maybe never be able to get a job. In terms of musicians, people who either don’t play so well or do play really well are not having opportunities to become a musician or play, who will be frustrated for the rest of their lives. My first feeling is that, if you are going to make the decision to major in music or jazz, you’re going to need to be serious about it.

BC: You have to make hard decisions about whether or not you are actually necessary to the world as a musician. Is the calling in you so strong that you just have to get this message out to everybody? If so, then yes, pursue it. But if not, if you’re not that passionate about it, then get out, because there’s enough.

GC: I say that to people - you kind of do this because you have to because you think it’s kind of a cool idea to be a musician. For me I really had no other choice. I had good grades in school, but at a certain point everything that I was doing was about music. I think we all have those times where we think “well what if I did something else, then I guess I could be driving a Lamborghini or something”. I don’t know, to me this is what I love to do and this is where my skills seem to lie. I’ve actually thought about the idea that anybody who majors in music should automatically be a double major.

BC: Yeah, maybe. Like in business or some other practical thing.

GC: Yeah. I mean some people say music education, which is what I did, but it’s definitely a problem and it’s only getting worse. You’ve got to be honest with people and not make it seem like there’s going to be tons of opportunities, try to make sure that people know that it’s competitive.


BC: Yeah, it’s way more competitive than when I was coming up. I’m 55, so when I was 20 and making my mark, like 1977 or shit, there’s a handful of piano players on the level. Now everybody is on that level, but back then it was the guys I knew like Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller, James Williams, Donald Brown, and a few others. But now it’s fucking every kid! And there’s the internet and Youtube and all these videos you can see of actually how the masters played that we didn’t have. So they learn it really quickly. A lot of times they play like they learned it.

GC: Well let’s bring that to you, because to me you’ve kind of always had your own style. You were telling me about some of the first things that you listened to that inspire you. You said you’re a real Return to Forever fan...

BC: Oh yeah. When I was 14, which is about when I started getting serious about music, that was about 1971. What was happening that was this incredible confluence of styles coming together. I think I was really incredibly lucky to be at that impressionable age during that time because what was going on was that jazz was interested in trying to connect with rock, rock musicians were coming out of conservatories and trying to work classical music into it, like Keith Emerson. Then you had Miles with Bitches Brew and all of the shit that that spawned, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul. Herbie and the Headhunters. All of this shit was happening, all these various styles. Not just styles like genres of music but cultures of music. Like the Mahavishnu Orchestra incorporated East Indian Music and those rhythms, and Herbie had this African influence in his music, so all these shit’s going on. Leonard Bernstein wrote that Mass.... It had lyrics by Paul Simon, drum sets, etc. All this informed my music and I guess the thing that I took from it was to try to incorporate all things that were influencing me and try to sift all of those genres into one form of music. And that’s what those guys did and that’s what I try to do. Emerson was hugely influential, besides the obvious ones - Herbie, McCoy, Chick, Keith Jarrett.
GC: What about 20th century classical music, or anything that falls under the category of European classical music, because I know you have a relationship with that. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BC: Sure. After high school I took a theory class and I took jazz piano, classical piano. Because I kind of excelled at theory in high school I was encouraged to go to try out for USC as a composition major. There were three places I applied - USC, Berklee, New England Conservatory. And Berklee and NEC accepted me as a jazz major or something, but USC accepted me as a composition major. And I wanted to explore European composition. I had heard Mathis der Maler by Hindemith and I fell in love with that piece. I wanted to know more about how shit like that was working. And so I chose to go to USC to study composition. So my four years there were really...I just got indoctrinated with European thought in terms of music. Structure, orchestration, counterpoint, theory - that kind of thing. And really it was invaluable to shaping my concept now. One thing I dug about classical music is that because it had such command of a technical aspect of orchestration and all of these musical devices, it really lent itself to drama. You can really paint tonal pictures with it, with that command of orchestration and structure. You can create these cinemascapes, these tonal soundscapes, just by understanding how the masters did it. So that was really invaluable to 


GC: When you’re composing, do you think “I’m going to write a jazz thing”, or a classical thing, or do you even think in those terms? Or does it just come out and you don’t worry about the labels?

BC: Well when I write my music, for me, I don’t think in those terms at all. Not at all. I feel, I won’t say offended, but I feel like people are putting an unfair limitation on my music when they say “it’s a classical piece” or “it’s a jazz piece”. Because it’s everything that I’ve been influenced by. But that doesn’t mean that if some singer wants me to do jazz arrangements, and she specifies some idiomatic preference, a stylistic preference, that should we like me to do, then I’ll do that. Or if some orchestra or chamber group wants a straight-up classical piece, like a string quartet, then I’ll do that. But when it’s my music, then it’s kind of like whatever I’m hearing. I’m more concerned with the story, the drama, the effect that I want to achieve. If jazz or classical isn’t the quickest way to get to that, then I’ll do that.

GC: What is your feeling about American jazz in Europe? Do you have any awareness of the European scene? Because I personally feel like it seems like there’s more going on in Europe in terms of gigs, and I feel like there’s sort of this idea that Europe wants to take ownership of jazz. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that.

BC: Well I mean, no one takes ownership of any form of music, in my opinion. We have to recognize the roots of the music, where it came from, who invented it, why. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. Just like democracy, you know. It started a certain way but now it’s a living, breathing entity that has to reflect the times. Slavery was legal when the Constitution was written. That’s kind of how jazz is. I call jazz a classical music. My definition of classical music is one that’s so profoundly deep that it would last generations but each generation will put it’s own mark on it. The music will be strong enough to endure and change with each generations interpretation. Now in terms of Europe owning jazz? That’s....
GC: Well, to play Devil’s Advocate, I read this book called “Is Jazz Dead, or Has it Moved to a New Address?” by Stuart Nicholson. He talks about how the perception is that the jazz that comes out of America is very traditional, historic, and very repertoire based, whereas the Europeans don’t feel tied to those traditions in the same way, so they’re moving the music forward.

BC: I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t read that quote to someone like Jason Moran or Dave Douglas. People who are at the forefront of their shit. Even Robert Glasper, you’ve got to mention him. He’s combining jazz with hip hop in an interesting way. It’s significant, what he’s doing. There is innovative stuff. I think, being from America and us being co-opted and run amok by labels and critics and divided and conquered and all of this bullshit, I think that they don’t even know what the fuck American jazz is now. Back when bebop was coming out, everyone knew what that was. It was one form of music and it kind of evolved naturally into hard bop and modern jazz and so forth and so on, but it’s kind of branched out into all these different things and put into all these different categories and shit. And then you have shit like smooth jazz and commercial whatever. Maybe in Europe it’s a little more, maybe they’re like “you know what? We got this shit now.” I don’t know, I haven’t been to Europe enough. One thing I do know - and I’ll say this, I haven’t been to Europe enough with my own group - but one thing I do know is that, from the audience perspective, there’s a much more acute awareness of what jazz is and much more ability to actually 

 appreciate it. Do you feel that?

GC: Yeah. Well for me, I actually feel like one of the big advantages that Europeans have - and I hate to just lump Europe into just one category, because it’s many different cultures within one continent - in general, it seems like people in Europe go out. They go out and they to either hang out at the pub or to listen to music, or just to be outside of their house not at home on the internet or watching TV. I mean, I’m sure there’s some of that, but just to give you an example: you go to say, Cleveland, on a Tuesday, and it seems almost like a ghost town.

BC: Los Angeles.

GC: Right! And then when you go to Europe it seems like people are just out, hanging out, going to hear music. In Japan, people like to go out.

BC: I know. And man - Prague is the shit. I was in Prague and people were out walking around, it’s a beautiful night in a beautiful city, you could just stumble into a jazz club and somebody’s really trying to deal with some stuff, you know? Yeah, I know. America is the most developed country in the world but that may be the leading us to some bullshit 

music or something. I don’t know.

GC: In terms of you bringing your band to Europe, do you have the desire to be out there more as a leader? It seems like it’s really about that time.

BC: (laughs) It’s about that time! I’m fifty-five...well I did a 

European tour about a year ago. It was one of the most rewarding tours I’ve ever done, one of the most rewarding things as a leader I’ve ever done. Mostly because of what we were just talking about. We played a gig in Austria, in Vienna. Big ass 1400 seat place - which was packed! Sold out! And I played whatever the fuck I wanted. My songs. I took a piano solo here, didn’t take one there, then a harp solo, [Brian] Blade was playing on the gig. It was like a standing ovation, encores, the promoter took us out to dinner after. When we walked into the restaurant, people got up and starting applauding. That’s what they think of what we did. And then we’d play at a club here, and have to catch a cab home, you know...we played at the Duc De Lombards in Paris and it was the same thing! Such a warm acceptance. When you’re playing, really playing, it’s like life food for them, like it’s essential to their life that they hear art on that level. And it’s really rewarding to provide that art. And I got that sense every gig that we did in Europe. I’m with Myles Weinstein and he’s working with me on a quartet thing that I’m trying to put together to do a European tour next summer. And we’ll see where it ends up.

GC: I certainly think in terms of your piano playing and your writing, to me you should be out there as much as any of these other cats. One thing I wanted to ask’re from LA, and I know you were kind of going back and forth...was that a hard decision not to go back to New York?

BC: I think it really had an effect in terms of my profile in the jazz world. For two reasons - one, the connection to Europe is a lot longer. Promoters find it more difficult to fly me out from LA than New York, for obvious reasons. Number two - New York is perceived as the jazz center of the world. If you’re from anywhere else, especially LA which is perceived as an industry, a commercial town, then you’re incapable of not putting out anything of any depth. Combine that with the fact that I was on a jazz label when I was making a name for myself back in the late 80s, with a really great distribution, the problem was that it was called Windham Hill Jazz. Some genius at marketing thought that they would have a jazz label called Windham Hill Jazz, which of course Windham Hill was the poster boy for New Age music which is the antithesis of jazz. And so a lot of people would look at the label and go “Windham Hill? Nah this is bullshit, I don’t want to hear this.” Or they’d hear it, but the Windham Hill image would be so strong that they would still call it New Age.


GC: I could see that. I don’t know if you ever heard some of Dave Holland’s ECM records, there’s one I’m thinking of with Steve Coleman and Smitty Smith and it really doesn’t sound anything like what you’d typically hear from ECM. I could see people being confused, if they buy into that. That’s interesting.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Viewer Mail Part II: Context

In my last post, I answered a question regarding jazz vocabulary. I related jazz vocabulary to spoken language; we have to learn one word or phrase at a time, and there is a process between the initial learning and the fluency with each word or phrase. Eventually, put a bunch of words, or in the case of jazz, "licks" together, and you are "speaking the language." Furthermore, there is another level: "Fluency" is one thing, being really creative is an even higher level. How many of us can write compelling fiction or poetry in a second or third language? In this way, we have to not only have a worthy number of ideas, we have to be able to be creative and spontaneous and relevant while we play. But initially, we have to be patient as we develop our vocabulary.

The previous post was sparked by Nanaimo based guitarist Alexis Deighton Harrison. Her question might imply that she is a beginner, but Harrison can already play quite well; she sat in with my trio at The Cellar in Vancouver earlier this year. In regards to my analogy, Harrison wanted further clarification:

Comparing it to languages makes a lot of sense. I guess what I am still wondering is, does it ever make sense to sit down and say, "today, I will learn a " third up" pattern, followed by a "third down" pattern, in G major up to 200 beats per minute "? Or will that always be comparable to trying to memorize vast vocabulary lists without any context?

This was my response:

The problem is the context IS lost when you just take patterns out of a book. The best place to get patterns from is RECORDINGS! This is the way the masters developed vocabulary-from recordings and being around the music 24-7. Also, many of the greats-Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown-studied either classical music or traditional "classical" method books. The point is to take ideas from everywhere. And these guys knew lots of melodies. Melodies become melodic ideas, which can be used to improvise with.

Regardless, whether you are given patterns to work on by your teacher or you take from recordings or wherever- in the initial stages it's always going to be abstract and boring. Scales and all of this stuff is not music. Music is the total package. YOU are always the one that has to add the creativity. But we need stuff WITH WHICH TO CREATE.

Have you ever tried to conjugate verbs in another language? French? Spanish? It's really hard, boring, and ultimately abstract because if you aren't a native speaker, those sounds and words don't really MEAN anything to you. However, this is why immersion programs, or actually going to France or Spain really makes a difference, because then , being thrown in the thick of it and always HEARING the context, it happens more naturally.

My son , almost 3, has learned how to speak from hearing my wife and I talk, plus Caillou, Bob The Builder, and Wibbly Pig TV shows. He really can talk and uses past tense, imperative. It's funny because he hears patterns and tries to make up different rules. He invents verbs. "Let's TRAIN" to him means, "Let's play with trains." "Let's FOOD" means let's eat. It's wrong, but he's trying to see the pattern.

Harrison responded:

Yeah, I definitely see your point. I learned Dutch as a second language on an exchange trip by simply being as conversational as possible, watching their TV shows, and reading a lot. I see now that I have probably been too abstract with the jazz vocabulary"grammar" I have been learning lately and that's why it isn't working as I would like. Hopefully those patterns that I learned but am not finding in my solos will come in helpful later down the road...thanks so much!

I am constantly question my explanations and teaching philosophy for the simple reason that I want it to be useful. If it isn't working, then students and musicians heeding my advice aren't advancing. I am always looking for constructive feedback. And I got some on my facebook page.(I had to shut off comments on this page because of a certain someone who made some nasty comments about my family. Maybe I'll be able to turn it back on soon.) A bunch of knowledgeable musicians chimed in:

Jim Butler:
You know, that's a lot of truth in what you say. But I think there are significant reasons, many and varied, as to why so many folks don't bridge the gap between the pattern and's really a small number that go on to develop their musical language.

Mike LeDonne

I have never practiced patterns and tried to fit them in. And I don't really see what you posted in your examples as patterns but simply tiny parts of lines. I think of patterns as more complicated sequences of notes that follow the same routine down or up in parallel motion. Or something like arpeggiated triads that go in a specific sequence up or down but follow the same intervallic leaps exactly. I think there are musicians that are wired to practice these harmonic systems and fit them in note for note over parts of tunes on command. I've never been wired like that though. That doesn't mean I don't play patterns but with me they just happen in the spur of the moment. If I tried to practice them they would probably screw up at some point and sound too deliberate. So I think this is a different strokes for different folks kind of question. 

George - I also wanted to say that I really liked the whole analogy to language you laid out. I always new that is had these comparisons but I never thought it out to that extent. But it really works.

Larry Ham:

Gotta agree with LeDonne....Different strokes.....There are so many different learning styles. whatever works is the way to go. and somehow we all learned to speak English (or whatever our mother tongue is) by hearing it and struggling to imitate the sounds of it-in tiny bits at first, one sound at a time, with direction and encouragement. eventually, with continuous exposure (immersion) and practice, we assimilated vocabulary, syntax, timing! context, nuance of expression, non-literal expressions. by learning "in sound" we are then able to express our selves "in sound" and interact with others in that world of sound.

David Berkman:

This whole topic of licks reminds me of an experience I had teaching. I was doing a week-long residency at a school and the level was pretty mixed--some good players but a lot of beginning students (and some who weren't very serious) missing some fundamental harmonic knowledge. It seemed to me that they were being drilled pretty well on Harmony so I decided to take a different tack and we did a lot of different sessions on improvising without chord changes. It was a fun week and the students were pretty energized by it, which was my goal. On the last day, they double-booked my clinic time with Dr. Billy Taylor (another guest teacher) so we were both teaching the same class. Billy turned to me and said, 'well, you've been working with them, what can they do?' I didn't really want to start with the free stuff, so I said, I thought they could handle a blues. They played and sounded pretty terrible. Billy was unimpressed and let them have it. He was a little rough on them, but he made a great point. He said (paraphrasing) that they were playing the blues but they didn't know the melodies that had been played on the blues in the past. They had no sense that there was a history of melodies that were attached to the blues and if you didn't know these melodies, you couldn't play the blues well. The words "Jazz Vocabulary" get used so often but I like this the way Dr. Taylor put it: an amassed history of the melodies that have been played on the blues, or over chord changes. Within that definition, "licks" with the negative associations that many people have with that word, are just phrases that we've heard over these tunes. 

I've never practiced licks much either. I do encourage students to play chord changes slowly alternating between singing and playing or playing up and down half-steps or to learn solos and analyze them so they can understand in harmonic terms (scale degrees, approach note patterns etc.) what great players do over changes.

Christopher Munch:

Before asking about patterns students should ask themselves: Can I make up (on the spot or somehow composed) a MELODY? A real, beautiful, meaningful melody? - When I read about such approaches like the one discussed here I always think: How can the things people like King Oliver, Lee Konitz, Hal Galper, Keith Jarrett or many others rightfully said be so forgotten again and again? I don't learn a language by collecting words in memory and hoping to be able to connect them eventually to something halfway meaningful; I learn a language by wanting to express something specific and looking for ways to bring it out! This dreaded pattern-based approach to improvising is mostly only used as a trick to make students sound AS IF they were able to handle the material fluently. (But in reality they have underdeveloped ears and harmonic sense and play mechanically.) The musicians I really like to listen to (whether famous or not-so-famous) all didn't learn via patterns or practicing modal scales the whole day! That's no coincidence! We as teachers mustn't fall into the trap of "methods" that seemingly make our students sound more advanced than they are - we have to teach them the real thing.