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...