Thursday, December 30, 2010

You Must Be This Tall To Play Jazz: The Superficiality Of It All

Some of you might be aware that my 41st Birthday happened yesterday.(FYI: unlike Elaine on Seinfeld, I would never scoff at a birthday gift of CASH....) Now that I am securely in my 40's, I started to think about the fact that I am no longer even close to being a musical young lion anymore. And yet, I'm playing as well as I ever have in my life. Yet the conventional wisdom (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to be that once you pass a certain age, your usefulness in the music industry is arguably null and void. Why?

The great Lewis Black
I am constantly saying that music should always be judged by what it sounds like rather than what it looks like. (One of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black, has a brilliant routine along these lines regarding MTV, and how " music goes in your ear, and video goes in your eye! " He also astutely obseves," MTV is to music what KFC is to chicken!") While every other aspect of our culture has succumbed to the lure of making sure it celebrates the youthful and the sexual, I am more disappointed when this occurs in jazz music. And this is not just because jazz happens to be my life's pursuit.

Lady Gaga: I can see that she's  talented...
I think jazz music should be held to a higher standard. Why? Because it is no longer popular music in the way that Taylor Swift and Lada Gaga are the popular music. Therefore, it is already a niche market. And I believe that those in that market are more sophisticated already to make their musical listening choices in a mature way: by actually LISTENING to the music! Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are marketed towards teenagers who are easily swayed by peer pressure and pubescent hormonal insanity. I believe that the majority of jazz listeners are adults and listeners, and wouldn't be swayed by external forces. Or shouldn't be.

Furthermore, there is also the trend of focusing on the super elderly in jazz. While this is in many ways quite noble, it's still not based on anything real. It's sort of like jumping on the bandwagon at the last minute.  For example, Joe Henderson was ignored for years, even when he was playing his butt off and making great music. Then, it seemed as though once he hit his 70's, all of a sudden the jazz business came out of the woodwork to give him some respect. (Let's not even talk about those who don't get noticed until they are, ahem, deceased....)

The Great Roy Haynes
Again, it seems like if your between 30 and 65, the jazz powers-that-be have very little interest. If you think I'm completely off base, ask a jazz musician you know and let me know what he says. In fact, ask Roy Haynes, who, as I was told by one of his former band members, was always mystified by the accolades he got as a senior citizen, while he had been playing his ass off for decades prior.

But whether it be age, looks, race, nationality, religious views, back story, shoe size, height, hairstyle, or number of parking tickets; none of these things interest me when it comes to music. Music is sound. Call me crazy, but I don't think it should be judged by anything else. Would you judge a Picasso by how it smells? Would you judge a novel by how it tastes?( On second thought, my one year old son is trying to EAT one of his books at the moment.....Liam, no......)

If you want to comment, do so respectfully and thoughtfully, please.
Happy New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Sentiments Exactly: A Brilliant Essay By Scott Robinson

This is a reprint from All About Jazz. Scott Robinson, an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist, is also clearly an original thinker. Scott gave me permission to reprint this essay, which I think hits right on the money in terms of what is going on in our society. Thanks, Scott, for telling it like it IS!

Sameness is the Enemy
by Scott Robinson
You know the feeling: you're just arriving in a part of the US you've never visited before, and looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. The moment your plane touches down, the cabin suddenly fills with dreadful Muzak that you must endure until you can make it to the exit. In the airport, the insipid music (or another version of it) is again your unwanted companion, following you everywhere, even into the bathroom. You wend your way past the same Chili's Express, Cinnabon and Miller Brewhouse you saw in the airport you departed from 2,000 miles ago, and pick up your car keys at the rental desk. Out in the lot, the music continues to follow you as you make your way to your car, through speakers mounted every five feet in the canopy overhead. 
You hit the road, looking forward to the local scenery on the way to your hotel. You're on a highway, and it looks disturbingly like a lot of other highways in a lot of other places you've been, nowhere near this one. You pass shopping centers, malls and large swaths of housing developments just like the ones back home. These bear evocative names that recall whatever was destroyed in order to put them there: Fox Run Woods, Turkey Glen Estates. Nervously you turn on the radio, thinking, "maybe I'll catch some local music." But up and down the dial is a seemingly endless supply of the same pop/rock you were subjected to back at the airport, along with a hefty dose of right-wing talk and a smattering of news.
Near a big intersection you find your hotel, one of a giant chain (aren't they all nowadays?). Your spirits fall as you look around and realize that this highway interchange is indistinguishable from all the others you've seen all across this continent. Wal-Mart, Wendy's, Home Depot... you are in the center of a giant ocean of unrecognizable conformity. Where Indians once hunted bison is now no different than where steamy Floridian jungle once stood. Those worlds have been removed and replaced with... this.
You step into the hotel lobby (yes, the pop music is playing there, too) and make your way to the checkin desk, passing by the hotel bar. Maybe you'll drop in later for a good local beer! Quickly you scan the taps: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light... no luck there. As the perky young gal at the desk hands you your key, you ask, "Where can I get some good local chow?" "Well, there's a Denny's next door," she answers cheerfully, "and an Applebee's just across the highway. I like Applebee's, 'cause you know what you're gonna get - it's always the same!"
This scourge of sameness has somehow permeated nearly every part of our landscape and every aspect of our culture. And it isn't just here at home. Thanks to globalization, multinational corporate behemoths now bring us Kraft cheese in France, Coca-Cola in Chad, McDonald's in Moscow and Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City. Where America's jazz once fired the imagination of the world, now her bland, pitch-corrected pop has stultified the cultures of other nations, driving out their indigenous music like an invasive species. In cafés from Kowloon to Cameroon, I've had to endure the same stuff that I would in my local New Jersey bar. What's disturbing is the tyranny of it, the ubiquity. We are not allowed to escape it - it is required listening wherever we go.
The forces of sameness are at work in education, too, where the push is toward ever more standardization, and away from innovation in teaching. Even the world of jazz, supposed bastion of unfettered imagination, is susceptible (theme-solos-theme formats, formulaic endings, the dreaded "everybody wear all black"). And thanks to deregulation and corporate greed, jazz has virtually disappeared from radio along with almost anything that isn't pop or talk. Radio stations once had live orchestras; now many of them don't even have local DJs, as programming is prerecorded from a prescribed playlist and piped in from corporate headquarters. This t rend began in the '90s with test marketing: test groups determine playability based on just 10 seconds of music. Playlists shrink, songwriters start "writing to the test" and sameness wins the day. Today, any sort of DJ autonomy has vanished from most radio, as corporations decide what gets played. There's big money in sameness!
What about the internet? There's been much to be thankful for, with independent musicians finally out from under the yoke of record labels and distributors who decide which music is worthy of release. But I see an ominous new trend coming: subscription services, which many say will soon replace downloads. For a monthly fee, listeners can access an entire library of music... but only whatever music the company chooses to provide. Even more unsettling are the new "acoustic personalization" services, which provide listeners with music matching the acoustical profile of whatever they listened to last - a virtual recipe for sameness! How would someone listening to Coltrane discover, say, Art Tatum by such a method, let alone Bartók's string quartets? The joy of discovering new sounds will be forever lost if we start allowing our listening choices to be made by a computer program whose sole criterion is that the next piece must sound the same, or nearly the same, as the last.
Why does uniformity have such a hold over us? Why do humans, those most creative of animals (in America, that most creative of nations), seem so eager to prostrate themselves before the altar of sameness? I have a theory: perhaps, like brute physical strength, creativity is becoming less critical for day-to-day survival. Where early humans had to use brawn and brains to find a way to stay alive, now most (in the developed world, at least) can simply pick up a pizza or buy groceries. Could we be in danger of losing our creative edge?
Certain species of birds have, through the centuries, lost the ability to fly. Consider the ostrich: does not such a flightless bird seem somehow less a bird, absent such a distinguishing characteristic? And would not a diminishment of our own creative powers make us, in some immeasurable but crucial way, less human?
If there is an answer to this dilemma, at least for musicians, perhaps it cannot be stated more simply or more passionately than what Mr. Anthony Braxton said to me years ago: "We have to keep playing music like our life depends on it - which it does!" He was speaking, of course, of creative, far-reaching music, music that elevates the imagination and transforms the listener. We musicians are often told that we must "give the audience what it wants"... but an audience can only want what it already knows. I believe that part of an artist's job is to find that which the audience never knew it wanted, that which it was not even equipped to imagine. This way, the music is allowed to evolve and grow, and perhaps take us humans along with it. Indeed, creativity - and creative music in particular - may be the most powerful weapon we have against the creeping tide of sameness and uniformity. Let us wield it often, and well. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tin Pan Alley Revisited: Spike Wilner/ Ned Goold Duo at Smalls

Spike Wilner
Now that my teaching semester at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg is on holiday break, I'm spending the rest of December in New York. Unfortunately, it seems to be just as cold in the Big Apple as it is up north in the ....what's a nickname for Winnipeg? Big.....Ice Cube? I dunno...... Anyway, It seems worse in New York at times more because we don't rely on our cars here, we walk to the subway. We're staying on the Upper East Side near York Avenue, which is a good twenty minutes to any subway. Nevertheless, I braved the windy cold last night to hear some warm jazz at Small's, my favorite club in NYC.

On the bill for the early set was an interesting piano/ tenor saxophone duo featuring pianist Spike Wilner and saxophonist Ned Goold. Wilner is currently the proprietor of Small's, however, he has been paying his dues as a jazz musician for almost two decades in the city. And you may know Goold from his work with the Harry Connick Jr. Band. Both musicians are quite accomplished technically, and also have a strong interest and respect for the history of the music. Furthermore, they are both very creative  players, and seemed very comfortable in the exposed, intimate setting of duo. 

The theme of the evening was performing obscure tunes from the "Tin Pan Alley" era of American songwriting. For those of you who don't know, Tin Pan Alley refers to tunes written roughly between the turn of the 20th century( some say as early as 1885, when music publishing began in New York) and 1950(when rock and roll took over ). Much of the jazz repertoire is taken from this era: all the famous tunes by Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, and so on, were from this era. More importantly, "Tin Pan Alley" was an actual place: West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. (I think there's a Starbuck's there now....) All the publishing houses were there, and they had people called "song-pluggers" who played new songs on pianos all day long, so that people might hear the tune and come in and buy the sheet music.( This was before radio, of course.) The cacophony of all these pianos being played all at once sound like, well, "tin pans" being thrown down an "alley". Hence the name. 

And as Mr. Wilner mentioned during the performance, jazz musicians use a small portion of these Tin Pan Alley tunes as vehicles for jazz. But there were so many tunes which were great but never made it into the jazz lexicon. Sometimes it's fun to dust off some of these gems and take them for another ride. And that's just what Wilner and Goold did last night.

The evening began with "Gone With The Wind" written by Allie Wrubel and Herb Magidson in 1937, which is actually not so obscure for jazz players. One thing I noticed right away from this ensemble was the commitment to the melody. The themes were always very clear and the original chords were respected. Indeed, if you look at old fake books, sometimes the original changes are hipper than what they morph into today. 

Earl " Fatha" Hines
I have heard Wilner deal with some heavy bop and post bop over the years. In this setting, however, Wilner drew from Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum with great aplomb. Various inceptions of stride piano in the left hand were used throughout the evening, quite skillfully. In the stride idiom, the use of tenths in the left hand, or a third and an octave, are used frequently. It takes a pretty good stretch of the thumb, unless you can "roll" the jump and make it sound smooth. Wilner had no problems with this endeavor. Also, his right hand carried on independently from the left with much dexterity and tone.

Ned Goold's sound reminded me of Lester Young a bit. I was luckily sitting in the first row at Small's, so I could hear the sound acoustically right from the bell of Goold's horn. (I sort of wondered what Lester Young would have sounded like from that vantage point, if I was a time traveller.). Goold has a ton of bebop vocabulary, although it was executed in a very fluid, off- the-cuff manner. Every once in a while,  Goold would venture into an almost sheets-of-sound territory, and even allude to some quite dissonant intervallic material (which most saxophonists worth their salt seem to have at their fingertips). 

Some of the tunes presented were gems like "I'll Tell The Man In The Street" by Rodgers and Hart, "I Surrender Dear" by Harry Barris (Wilner joked that Barry Harris could do a record of Harry Barris tunes!), "Well, Did You Evah?" by the prolific Cole Porter. A version of "Too Marvelous For Words" gave a nod to the famous Art Tatum version. 

Stephen Foster
I found it interesting that they choose a Stephen Foster tune entitled "I Dream Of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair." Foster was someone who wrote many tunes for the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century. Since publishing was not regulated back then, Foster did not earn royalties the way composers do today, and he died penniless. 

Also surprising in the set was a rousing version of Theolonious Monk's "Crepiscule with Nellie." This is one of those Monk tunes which is really hard to improvise on because of the odd structure. Wilner and Goold found some new ways to approach it. 

The set ended with a virtuoso rendition of Gerswin's "Liza".  I stayed after a bit to hear the next band, which was pianist and Winnipeg native Jill McCarron and her wonderful quartet consisting of altoist Vincent Herring, bassist Essiet Essiet, and drummer Joe Strasser. They had a mixed meter version of Joe Henderson's "Short Story" that was quite impressive. I left that night amazed at the plethora of jazz music that one can hear in New York on any random Thursday night. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Oy vai iz mir, don't even bother........

This is not a blogpost so much as a recommendation to check out a thread regarding freelance classical musicians in New York City. I am posting this because I believe the same issues apply to jazz musicians as well. I wouldn't be surprised if that topic applied to jazz musicians was either soon to follow or it's probably been done many times over.

The comments are telling, in terms of the wide range of viewpoints, on how do deal with the lack of gigs for freelance classical musicians. Some people think that the opportunities are there, it's just a matter of ingenuity and self-promotion. Others blame the cultural decline of our nation and so forth. I think we can agree that any music that does not involve booty shaking or rappers on a mother-f^&#*ing boat is not doing so well these days.

I have to admit that I personally have issues with my own involvement in Jazz Education at the university level. My ethical dilemma deals with these kinds of issues: how can I teach students in a pre-professional environment, knowing that their chances for a career in music seem to be dwindling? Especially when part of my reason for teaching full time is because the freelance jazz musician's plight of living gig-to-precarious-gig does not present any stability for a family?

Part of how I deal with the dilemma is honesty. I constantly tell my students that if you really want to be a musician, you have to work hard, but you need to really, really want to be a musician above anything else. And that is because you are essentially making a choice between finding something you love doing and being rewarded by creative achievements, or finding a job that will pay you well although you might hate your life for 40 hours a week.

Anyway, I thought some of the comments were interesting. There is one I found fascinating in regards to audiences and classical music:

A key reason for the slow demise of classical music is the widespread insistence -- within the classical music community itself -- that any newly composed pieces must be "atonal" to be worthy of performance.

Audiences, of course, have steadfastly disliked "atonal" music for a century; its proponents' almost messianic belief that this will one day change is sheer fantasy.

But as a result of this attitude, audiences are usually forced to choose between the same old roster of dead composers (which must eventually get somewhat boring, no matter how good they are), and music that the audiences simply don't like.

No wonder they switch to pop music.

And also, check out the last comment from the wife of avant-garde bassist Henry Grimes. Obviously a lot of passion regarding this subject....

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Geoffrey Keezer: Talent, Experience, and Creativity

I remember back in the early 90's when I heard pianist Geoffrey Keezer. I had been hearing people talk about him; he joined Art Blakey when he was 17, was sort of a prize pupil of James Williams, had ridiculous technique. But when I actually went to Bradley's in New York's Greenwich Village and heard Keezer up close, it was a staggering revelation. It hit me like a ton of bricks; that this young man from Wisconsin, a year younger than I was ( I was 22 at the time), was playing more piano than anyone I had ever heard, more piano than I could ever have conceived of playing ever in life. It motivated me tremendously, although begrudgingly, since deep down I knew I could never catch up to that kind or prodigiousness. Regardless of this, I was then and forevermore a fan of Geoffrey Keezer. And I spent the the next few years practicing four to eight hours a day.

Keezer, or "Dr. K" as James Williams used to call him, has appeared on numerous recordings as a sideman. Indeed, when looking at his musicianship, one can think about how he started very young, clearly showed talent, and also benefited from the fact that his parents were musicians and music teachers. However, Keezer, despite his talent and youthful head start, spent a great deal of time practicing and listening to recordings, and transcribing from recordings. Furthermore, Keezer paid many dues by living in New York as well as  touring with most of the greats. From Art Blakey to Art Farmer to Benny Golson, Christian McBride to Chris Botti, Ray Brown to Jim Hall- it's amazing to think of how that kind of experience had only added to his arsenal of  musical information. Some of my favorite recordings which feature Keezer are Art Farmer's Soul Eyes, Joe Locke's Live In Seattle, and Christian McBride's Vertical Vision.

But Keezer is a great force as a bandleader and composer as well. His first album is Waiting In Wings. If you can find it, it's quite impressive piano playing for a 17 year old. You can hear shades of McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland, and Mulgrew Miller. I also owned Curveball, Here and Now, Other Spheres, World Music, and Turn Up The Quiet. His latest on Artistshare is entitled Aurea. I really enjoy his solo piano CD entitled Zero One: He does a waltz version of Stevie Wonder's "These Three Words" which is a virtuoso thrill ride. I'm hoping for more solo work from Keezer, since of all the pianists out here, he seems to posses the best tools to pull it off: a ridiculously adept left-hand, total independence between both hands, endless inventiveness, and impeccable rhythm.

Keezer was in Winnipeg recently to perform in the Asper Series with vibraphonist Joe Locke and vocalist Kenny Washington. We were quite fortunate to have Keezer give a master class at the University of Manitoba, which was hailed as a great success by all who were  in attendance. Unfortunately, Joe Locke was unable to perform due to an emergency appendectomy. However, Keezer took up the slack and made the weekend quite memorable for Winnipeg jazz folk: I'm getting the sense that many of the jazz pianists in town are feeling exactly as I did when I first heard Keezer almost 20 years ago...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jazz Mini-Lesson

I'm posting this little conversation I'm having with a reader who posted anonymously regarding a bad gig experience he had recently. This is a common issue that rhythm section players have with playing for singers.

Anonymous said:

I'm a bass player. I did a gig last night with a singer that didn't bring her book. She called tunes in different and obscure keys. I didn't do to well.
The drummer told me it's not my fault. He said when you work with a singer for the first time, she needs to bring her book and have a set song list.
I thought it's my fault regardless because my 'ears' weren't big enough to fake through the tunes. Will somebody comment on this. So did I lose this steady gig because of my weak ears or she didn't bring her book?

Anonymous bass player: I think it's a combination of things, which is often the case in jazz. I believe that singers SHOULD have charts, especially if they have a lot of obscure tunes and weird keys. HOWEVER, I think you have to develop that skill set at home of being able to transpose tunes on the spot. Now, if somebody asked me to play Chick Corea's You're Everything in another key, I might have a hard time, but standards should be manageable. The way I do it is to think of the theory. For example, If the tune is Green Dolphin Street, instead of thinking:

EbMaj7 GbMaj7 FMAj7 E Maj7 EbMaj7
(G-7 C7 )F-7 Bb7 EbMaj7
Ab-7 Db7 GbMaj7 F-7 Bb7

It's better to think:

IMaj7 bIII Maj7 IIMAj7 bII Maj7 Imaj7
(iii-7 vi7) ii-7 V7 IMaj7
iv-7 bVII7   bIIIMaj7   ii-7 V7

Do you see what I mean? Roman Numeral Analysis is something that classical music students do in theory class. I think it's very helpful for jazz players, maybe even more so, because we actually have to know what's going on harmonically.

While having better ears helps as well, it might be a question of understanding the theoretical analysis behind the standard tunes. This sort of analysis works well with all the tin pan alley stuff. It might be tougher to analyze  something like an obscure Wayne Shorter tune this way, but it is possible. I think this way is easier than just straight transposition, although that's a good skill to have as well.

Shelia Jordan
But this doesn't let the singer off the hook! Singers are notorious for just showing up and expecting everyone to fall in line by some magical means. Back in the 90's, I was involved in a workshop with legendary vocalist Shelia Jordan. This was her mantra: singers, get thy charts TOGETHER! Pay someone to help you if you must. It makes showing up to the gig a whole lot easier. Yes, we should all know tunes and so forth, but you'll save time and your band will thank you. It's a two way street.

Anna-Lisa Kirby, getting on singer's cases!
I actually believe that this has changed a lot due to the amount of singers that come out of jazz programs now.  Many of the vocalists at the University of Manitoba are well prepared, thanks to instructor Anna -Lisa Kirby getting on their case!

Anonymous, another trick is to stand BEHIND the piano player and watch his left hand. You'll notice that Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal always set up that way with that idea in mind. It makes it easier to change up the harmony spontaneously. But in this case, you might be able to follow along.

I hope this helps. I remember what a rude awakening it was when I first started dealing with singers. But sometimes a rude awakening will kick your ass to get into the shed and practice. Sometimes the desire to avoid embarrassment can highly motivate.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

East Coast Love Affair: My Trip To The Blue States

    It was good to be back in New York for a spell. As we rode away from La Guardia Airport in Queens, I took in the familiar sights, sounds and smells. Well, I wouldn't say the Tri-State area smells good, but it does have a plethora of distinct odors. Nevertheless, New York City still has it's charms, and having lived there for almost 15 years, it's nice to come back as a visitor from Canada. New York is still especially great for jazz, even if the scene is not as lucrative as it used to be for musicians. It's still inspiring to be around a multitude of world class players and fervent jazz fans.

My first musical stop was not The Big Apple, but Washington D.C., our recently reddened Nation's Capital, which is about a 4 or 5 hour drive from Manhattan. I had a weekend engagement with my trio at The Bohemian Caverns, a wonderful spot on D.C.'s recently revitalized U Street. (When I lived on Quebec Street in Northwest D.C. back in 1994, U Street was not a hip place to be. Now, it's almost like Greenwich Village in New York:  Hip Restaurants, Clubs, and Yuppies of all types out on the town.)

The inside of Bohemian Caverns
Bohemian Caverns is run by a young entrepreneur from Boston named Omrao Brown. He recently brought in a new Yamaha grand piano, which was really a pleasure to play. The look of the club is almost like a cave, but the overall vibe of the club is very comfortable. And the stage sound is quite good. In my opinion, it is THE club to beat in Washington D.C. We had a good turnout both Friday and Saturday nights; oddly enough, the Saturday night was kind of a mini-high school reunion for me. I was amused by the fact that many of my friends from the 80's didn't even know that I played piano. "Where's the trumpet?" was a frequent question from my former classmates.

Alison Crockett
Despite feeling a little rusty, the gig was fun. I've been playing with Josh Ginsburg on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums for a few years. We hadn't worked together in some months, but it all fell musically back into place. Also, we had two surprise guest vocalists; D.C.'s own Heidi Martin joined us for a few tunes on Friday night, and Saturday night we had Alison Crockett give us a rousing rendition of "Stella By Starlight". I remember thinking during the performance, "If only Victor Young could have heard what we did to his song!"

Maria Neckam
Back in New York, my wife and I stumbled onto a wonderful vocalist named Maria Neckam at Small's on a Tuesday night. Neckam, born in Austria,  has a very unique style of singing; it kind of reminded me of Bjork mixed with Astrud Gilberto mixed with Inara George(the singer with a band called The Bird And The Bee ). She performed all of her own music (except for two Charles Ives compositions).Her music has jazz elements, but also has a Third Stream quality to it, making it not so easy to classify (which I think is a good thing). I got an interview with her after the show, which will be in an upcoming blog entry.

I stayed for a while after to see an old friend of mine named Dave Stoler perform with a trio consisting of John Weber on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. They did a wonderful version of "Only Trust Your Heart", which is one of my favorite tunes. Dave Stoler has been based in Madison for many years; we met at a jazz piano competition in Indianapolis in 1992. He's a very thoughtful, studied musician. I'd like to get a conversation with him at some point.

Next on the bill was my trio at Small's the following night. The turnout was pretty good, and the performing was fun. I finally got up the nerve to pull out the melodica on a few ballads. While I'm suspicious as to whether my band will tolerate more than one song a set on the melodica, I enjoyed playing it so much on the ballads; it has a sustain that is just impossible on the piano... It kind of makes me feel like a horn player, without the agonizing pain and suffering of the trumpet! I think the audience enjoyed it...

Cameron Brown

Ronnie Cuber
The next morning, I had to rise early to meet veteran bassist Cameron Brown in Tarrytown, N.Y., in order to catch a ride to Boston. We had a one-nighter at Sculler's with Baritone Saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. Cuber is a legend on the Bari Sax; he was THE studio cat in the 70's and 80's. I was rather pleasantly surprised to get the call from his manager for this gig.. I had only performed with Ronnie within the confines of the Mingus Big Band. It was a true inspiration to hear Ronnie stretch out on some Coltrane tunes, such as "Spiral" and "Miles' Mode". Rounding out the ensemble was the great Joe Farnsworth on drums. Farnsworth's drumming at times reminded me of Louis Hayes and Art Blakey with some Elvin Jones thrown in for good measure. It was a pretty energetic set, with a good crowd response.

I drove back the next morning with Cameron Brown and, in the car, we listened to a good portion of a box set edition of Miles Davis' Live At The Blackhawk. Brown told me that he was fortunate enough to have seen the same band when he was a kid in Detroit. " Miles, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly...I used to stand behind Wynton and light his cigarettes for him..." Brown reminisced. I had heard some of this recording before, but this version is four sets of music with no edits. This album reminded me of something my friend Jed Levy had said once:"When you hear jazz musicians in the studio, oftentimes it's just the tip of the iceberg of what they can really play." Live At The Blackhawk is a great example of that notion, because the solos go long and are so inventive it's scary. I think they get into some things that just wouldn't end up happening if they were limited by the constraints of the studio.The swing on the CD is amazing; when Miles solos, you get the feeling that he doesn't want to stop, propelled by the unwavering intensity of Jimmy Cobb's ride cymbal beat and Paul Chamber's insistent quarter note pulse. I'm planning on downloading the album soon so I have have another closer listen.

I have two gigs to go: an engagement with my trio at a house concert series in Baltimore called Jazzway 6004. (Tickets are still available if you are in the area.) And we're finishing up the east coast tour with a trio performance at Fat Cat in NYC on Monday night. Soon I'll be back in Osborne Village in Winnipeg, wondering if it was all a dream...

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Christine Jensen Interview

I was first exposed to alto saxophonist Christine Jensen through working with her trumpet playing sister Ingrid. We played some of her music, which really struck me as direct, mature, grounded and highly creative. Later on I got to meet her; unfortunately, we have not played together much (except for maybe one or two  jam sessions years ago). I hope that will be rectified in 2011! Jensen has a new CD called Treelines (Justin time Records) which features a large ensemble and her original music. In addition to alto saxophone and composition, Jensen plays a mean soprano saxophone, and also plays piano quite well. She's recently added motherhood to her list of activities (Congratulations! Hope you like coffee...unless your baby sleeps, unlike mine....oy vey...anyway....) I recently sat with this Montreal-based musician to discuss some high concepts relating to music...

GC: OK Here we go. Let me say off the bat that I haven't done many of these, and I like to keep it loose. I'd rather you just talk about whatever you want, and I don't edit much. I have some questions which might seem general, but hopefully it will lead to something interesting.

So I'd like to know what made you want to be a musician, and how specifically did you get into jazz music?

CJ: Well, I grew up in a musical family. my mother was a great piano and music teacher plus she was into musical theater. There was a lot of classical, and American songbook music in our house through her LP collection, and from what she played on the piano. She had a few jazz piano recordings that she loved playing including Oscar Peterson Trio and George Shearing. She also loved Nat King Cole and singers Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney in particular.

Needless to say, I had piano lessons from an early age, and was lucky to participate in a strong public school music program that included combo and big band along with concert band. My older sisters chose trumpet and trombone, so I was destined for sax... although, in hindsight, anyone who wants to play sax might want to start on clarinet, as it is a more difficult instrument.

Anyway, my early training really helped me to become a composing jazz saxophonist, as I was able to soak up so many genres of music.

Ingrid Jensen

Related specifically into jazz, I was always a daydreamer. Classical piano was more about repertoire. I was always gravitating toward the more impressionistic repertoire when studying classical piano, including Toronto Conservatory repertoire.

Anyway, I had terrific public school teachers- the same schools as Ingrid and Diana Krall in Nanaimo- who really had a passion for jazz.
They got us all improvising and playing repertoire off of Kind Of Blue and things like that. It was a really good starting point.
The teachers also encouraged us to jam with them outside of school time, which led to gigs and great playing opportunities around Vancouver Island.

 GC: Was there a specific moment when you decided that music would be your life, or was it gradual, or maybe you always knew?

CJ: For me it was gradual... I really went back and forth between piano and sax from age 15 until about 25.

Once composition started flowing, I knew that I was committed to jazz, but it was always there in front of me for so many reasons.

Having Ingrid as an older sister kept jazz very present for me, although we didn't perform together until I was in my 20's.

My teachers also encouraged me by feeding me with recordings to listen to and with gig opportunities really. School was fun, but I was not focused until I moved back east to attend McGill. It was a small program with some of Canada's most elite players kicking my butt, including Kelly Jefferson, Mike Rud, Denzal Sinclaire, and my now husband Joel Miller.
GC: I like the dreaming thing you were talking about. Composing is kind of like dreaming. If you've ever seen that clip of Duke Ellington in his later years being asked about his compositional process or something, and he says, "Oh, this? This is just dreaming....that's all I do is dream...."      

 CJ: Exactly. he along with Billy Strayhorn are my heroes for that.

Kenny Wheeler

I have also heard similar statements from Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely. we all want to give our impressions on paper, and that is such a difficult hurdle in the compositional process. there is a certain amount of risk taking in order to get to honesty in composition, I think...

I also think of Gil Evans' process as well. It should take a long time to commit to a sound that you are trying to capture. he would play a voicing over and over before committing to it.

GC: So are you saying that you labor over the compositional process?

 CJ: In fact, I have to work really hard at everything in order to get into a dream state in my compositional process. Quite the opposite of improv.

GC: Interesting. So you don't see improvisation and composition to be connected in that sense? Like a similar process but at a much slower or faster rate? Do you ever try to get into a dream state when you are improvising?

CJ: Definitely. They are two different processes for me, yet they must weave together at the final stage, which is the performance. Regarding composition-I first have to force myself into a dream state, which means shutting down my whole world around me. I also usually have some sort of deadline and a bit of a map of what I am composing for. I can usually break it down into three or four components, rhythm, melody, counterline melody( usually an accompanying bass figure). If the initial idea is strong enough I can further orchestrate it for whatever group context that I am working in. Basically, most of what I compose breaks down to a lead sheet.

Regarding improvisation... I do get into a dream state, as long as I am comfortable with my playing. That means keeping up my jazz vocabulary, and hopefully building on it as well. I get equally inspired as a performer and composer just from listening to the development of a great solo like a solo from Joe Henderson... or Coltrane. I really feel that a great jazz solo is just as meaningful as a strong composition.

Back to composition versus improv and dream state: both are in the moment, but composition is such a solitary state. I love improv because I get to have a conversation with at least one other person and hopefully the element of spontaneity prevails. I guess that is what makes for meaningful conversation that the audience can react to as well.

 GC:I was always struck with the clarity of your compositions. They remind me of Wayne Shorter or Theolonious Monk in the sense of having a very clear idea of a melody and thematic material...not to say that it ever sounds cliche or obvious. Although I get the sense that you aren't afraid of the obvious in the effort to try to be too clever or something. You music has a strength of ideas that really appeals to me. I try to write this way, with questionable success. Is this something you are conscious of? It seems like a consistent pursuit throughout all the music of yours that I am familiar with...

 CJ: That is such a compliment! I am constantly struggling with initial ideas. It is like a big drawer of little scraps piling up, and I go back and look over these ideas. If they jump out at me, I might start to re-hash them and develop them further. Otherwise, it is back to the drawing board. Sometimes ideas flow fast, but it is probably because I have been unlocking an idea that was buried in my subconscious. The more time I devote to composition, which includes studying different styles of music, the more ideas I come up with. The tank runs empty the longer I stay away from it too. I really do pull from Shorter, and the rhythms and harmonies of bands from the past, and try to emulate them, give up and move on. That seems to be when they pop back in. I think of it as the blender affect in coming up with a unique sound. I have to listen equally to all sorts of music. African, Brazilian, European, American, they are all worth intense and equal study.

I guess not being afraid of the obvious is also risk-taking. Once I commit to an idea melodically, I kind of have fun with the idea of a counter-attack with rhythm and possibly harmony. I also tend to gravitate toward a pop mentality with melodic ideas. Maybe that makes the composition memorable?

GC: Why shouldn't it be memorable? Does that make it less intellectual somehow? I'm checking out your CD entitled Look Left and the writing is very intriguing but also memorable. It's not being afraid to have clear ideas but it also makes for great improvisational vehicles on that album...

CJ: As the composer, I am not the one to judge how the listener embraces the work. I write for myself first, and then hope the musicians add to the life of the work. Again it's about having the freedom to put it our there on so many levels, with the end result being that hopefully the audience is able to gravitate toward listening to it for there own reasons. I am a lover of so much music with melody, from the Police, to Jobim, to Miles Davis, to people on the fringe that influence me know such as Guillermo Klein and Bill Frisell, not to mention Chopin, Stravinsky, Barber, Copland, Bjork, Dirty Projectors, and Django Bates...very random list, I know, but they all compose melodies that stick with me, and a lot of it has to do with interval choice and rhythm.

GC: That's a wide range of influences to be sure. There is so much great music out there. Sometimes I feel like students are sort of pushed into a box where all they listen to is hard bop. While I feel like students need to listen to jazz, I don't ever discourage them from listening to anything. Sometimes I ask them what I need to check out! So even though the music of yours that I have heard is definitely jazz, could you say that you have a multitude of influences outside the so called genre of jazz?

Bill Evans

 I am very influenced by what the people around me are listening to, whether it is the musicians that I am working and touring with, my sister, or my husband especially. We live in a very picky household for music listening! I know when I was a student, I was obsessed with Blue Note recordings, Miles' classic quintets, and Bill Evans doing anything. Evans was a master sculptor of creating a really well-placed thought out solo. It makes sense as he devoted his life to capturing a perfect sound on the piano and with his trio. Funny, one of my favorite albums is Bill Evans' We Will Meet Again. It is just full of great solos by him plus the added sax and trumpet of Tom Harrell and Larry Schneider. It was like he went one step further near the end of his life to transfer his sound into a front line. Anyway, I still write with "jazz" in mind as I love the idea of being able to instantly be in a moment with the musicians that I am performing with. I am just so lucky to be able to play with some great musicians who get excited to try out my new works, or equally when we tour a lot with my repertoire. It excites me to know that every time I get together with like minded jazz musicians, that there are so many surprises to discover through playing in the moment. I get the most satisfaction when we can use my compositions as a base for our explorations, and come up with new directions that are off the page. It really takes a high level of artistry, along with trust throughout a band for it to happen though. I am lucky that I have been able to experience it in both my small and large ensemble projects. The great thing is that it inspires me to continue to write and perform.

GC: Your alto playing has a great presence. You play with a rich, thick tone. I am a huge fan of the alto, but there are some alto players,remaining nameless, who annoy me because I can't stand their tone. I would put you in the sort of post-modern alto category, leaning towards two of my favorites, Steve Wilson and Jon Gordon. My wife was listening to your CDs and she compared you to a tenor player named Bill McHenry. Who are your biggest influences on the alto, and do you really feel like an altoist, or do you just think of yourself as a musician who happens to play alto....also your soprano playing is really nice, any influences there?

CJ:  Well, I work hard on sound development. Ingrid also got me into that as trumpet is all about maintaining a sound. I also had some great teachers who gave me exercises incl. Steve Wilson, George Garzone, and teachers here in Montreal including Janis Stephrans and Remi Bolduc. I also got into transcribing Gary Bartz, who you hipped me to. He has one of the most modern sounds going I think. Anyway, long tones along with centering pitch is what I am a stickler for.
In fact, Ingrid and I still work on a few routines whenever we get together, which helps to bind our sound together. Soprano- I don't even think about so much, as I find alto such a difficult instrument to control, in comparison to soprano. Some alto saxophonists think the opposite I am sure.

I  love for Parker, Cannonball and Sonny Stitt, not to mention Johnny Hodges! I find that Hodges and Parker the hardest out of all of them to emulate.

Pianist Dave Restivo

GC: In another life I will play alto. I have one sitting in my office. I've played it for a total of 15 minutes. Your playing makes me want to try again.
Before we talk about the big band recording, which of your small group CDs is your favorite and why? I think Look Left is mine. Dave Restivo is killing on it! I think the whole CD has a vibe.

CJ: Ha ha, you are too generous. It is an incredibly difficult instrument to make sing I think. Look Left is great because I felt that we were able to communicate in a small group setting that gave us lots of space. That was really due to us having spent some time on the road beforehand, rather than me starting a new studio project.
not to say that I don't love each record for different reasons...

GC:"Treelines" is a wonderful large ensemble CD. I hear some influence of Kenny Wheeler, Maria Schnieder, Gil Evans....what made you decide to do this and what were the pros and cons? Was it overwhelming?
CJ: It sure didn't happen overnight, or even within a year, and there were times in which I was overwhelmed, but the big thing was keeping organized and entering the studio with a well-rehearsed band. I really built the whole thing around my rhythm section and soloists as well. I gradually have been building up a big band repertoire of my music over time, probably for the last ten years. I also gradually worked on getting the project of this album organized over the past three years which included finding financial support through various agencies. This allowed me to dedicate a large chunk of time in preparing the scores, rehearsing the band, recording, and spending quite a bit of time in post-production. Through doing a concert a year of new music along with bringing in guest artists, I was inspired to get the album off the ground. Fortunately, I was able to get some optimal circumstances in the recording of the album, including working with a great producer/ engineer here by the name of Paul Johnston. He was great in terms of making sure that I was not overwhelmed. In a way, it was much closer to producing a pop album, as we had to prepare so much and find a balance in mixing between a modern and traditional acoustic jazz sound, while layering Ingrid and her electronics on top.

 We also worked hard on giving the feeling of a large room sound, as the studio we used included a tight set-up. I liked that for various reasons. It was especially a great session in terms of capturing an "in-the-moment" vibe with both the improvised sections and the brass and woodwind sections. Overall, the actual recording of the band was the shortest moment for me in creating the whole recording. We only had three days to lay down a lot of tracks, and we only got two or three takes of each track to choose from, so it really was an attempt of capturing the music in a pretty live setting. The other beauty of this project coming to life was that the musicians really dedicated themselves, and heir focus helped to raise the bar even more with solos and ensemble parts.

I don't really know when I decided to do this. It was always in front of me in a way, and the big step for me was getting focused on having optimal conditions with a project of this size. Next album will probably be a duo or trio project though, ha!
Maria Schneider

GC: Some of the big band music I enjoy has that sort of mixture of the large with the small, and features strong rhythm sections. I always felt that way about Maria Schneider's music, or that Joe Henderson's Big Band CD, or even playing with the Mingus Band. I enjoy the soloing on "Treelines" as much as the group sound. Did you have any particular models for this particular project, being your first, or was it not a conscious thing?
I realize you already listed some of your many and diverse influences, but for this being kind of a massive undertaking, did you feel more inclined to use a model, or was that not a factor? When I studied big band writing, we talked about some of the greats like Thad Jones, or Sammy Nestico, or Ellington, but the instructor(trumpeter Mike Mossman) showed us very concise skills that I thought made it easier to write it our own way, as opposed to "copying" other styles. Is this how you think. Perhaps I'm leading you with this line of questioning.....

CJ: I would say that those are all strong models. My general picture or idea of big band is the following: I am creating a large landscape, and the soloists are adding their own layer of color to it. I did study arranging with Bret Zvochik who is now running the jazz program in Potsdam, and came out of North Texas. He really drove home the traditional arranging techniques a la Nestico and so forth, but also inspired me to come up with original orchestration. I was really in love with Brookmeyer and Wheeler's use of thick brass pads.
I think all of the masters that have been mentioned here have one thing in common: They were constantly writing for their musicians who were also great improvisers. It gives the large ensemble composer a large palette to work from, and it is easy to draw inspiration from the musicians they are or were working with.
Another thing in general that I have not been afraid to tackle is composing in less common keys and time signatures. I really spent a lot of time working through B Major, D Major, C# minor , and so on. I continually challenge myself in finding new sounds, and part of the process is exploring keys or modes that I am less familiar with. Part of the process of composition for me is "exploration" and working on uncovering the unknown.

So, no model per-say, although I am compared a lot to Maria or Kenny Wheeler. I listen to them, and I think that they are both impressionists with their music, and I probably fall into that category as well. This is not to say that I have probably spent just as much time listening to and playing the repertoire of Ellington and Basie. I am hooked right now to Ella and Basie! What a great recording of counterpoint between her and the band with the orchestrating of each section. 

Anyway, it is so important to learn those basic arranging skills. Organization and voicing of sections especially. however, I am also one to break rules, but only after knowing what they are, ha!

 GC:  I know you are originally from British Columbia in Canada. What makes you a Montreal resident? What are your thoughts on the scene in Montreal(not counting the jazz festival). Did you ever consider living in New York?

CJ: I spent a bit of time in NY on and off between '98 and 2001. I would go down for one to three months at a time. I got to study with all sorts of sax players as well as a bit with Kenny Werner and later with Jim McNeely where i took part in the BMI Composers meetings. I love New York, but I also love being in Canada where I have a bit more luxury in devoting so much time to creating! Montreal, being majority french presents some challenges, but I have been surrounded by a strong music community, including McGill University.

 I met my husband Joel here at McGill. He is from new Brunswick in the Maritimes and I am from the west coast, with lots of our family living on the east coast, so it is a nice city to travel from in terms of distance. 
The music scene in general is so strong here in Montreal, with culture being a top priority in the urban area. Two small jazz clubs and a bigger venue through the festival for larger acts makes for a busy scene as well.
I have also been fortunate to work with two actual jazz record labels here. So, there have been great opportunities for me present my music, and to travel between here, NY and Toronto especially. I also got to hook into Paris jazz scene thanks to receiving a 6-month residency in the Quebec loft in 2002 at Cite des Arts in Paris. But New York... I was so fortunate to always be able to spend time there as Ingrid lives there and loves introducing me to new sounds coming out of there.
GC: Last question: How do you juggle motherhood and your busy jazz career?

CJ: Ha! Everyone kept saying if I could do that big band record and tour it, motherhood would be a piece of cake. Well, I could write a book about my experience through being pregnant as a saxophonist and the first three months so far! It meant canceling and postponing a lot of projects for 6-12months while getting this baby fed and taken care of. However, I know that I have even more to give as a composing jazz musician in the future because of this life-changing experience.That being said, I am on a bit of maternity leave until January 2011. At the same time, I am currently doing a few gigs not as a leader but as a sideman locally right now. My husband Joel and I did our first few gigs together over the past few weeks, so it was scary and exciting to start leaving the nest a little. It was such a blast to have my horn back on my face and be in the moment with the music. We are lucky to both have a career where there is so much passion in preparing ourselves mentally and physically with the music in order to create in the moment. The act of performance in jazz is so fulfilling to the mind and soul, and I can't compare it to motherhood and family in the same way, although the same words can be used. Now we get to share tons of experiences with this new little being who is so innocent. I just hope that I keep getting to put out even more music down the road, while knowing that I have even more to share with both family and whoever my audience may be in the future. Having a baby makes me want to practice and explore new sounds even more. It's just harder to find the time at this juncture!