Monday, October 31, 2011

The First Of Many Reminders

Yay for ME!
Shameful Self Promotion Time! Here are some upcoming gigs that I will be frequently reminding people about:

November 10th  PSU Noontime Concert featuring Guitar Hero and The Colligan Men 
November 28th  PSU Jazz Night featuring PSU Big Band and Combos 7pm in LH 75

December 13th   George Colligan's Portland Debut at the Mission Theater

December 17      George Colligan Quartet at Jazzway in Baltimore

December 21st   George Colligan Trio at Cornelia St Cafe in New York

January 8th         George Colligan with Jack DeJohnette at the Blue Note NYC

The concerts on the 10th will  be in Lincoln Hall on the PSU Campus in LH 75 at NOON, HIGH NOON. The 10th features Guitar Heroes, which is a group consisting of four, yes four guitars and rhythm section. The 10th will also feature The Colligan Men, which is another ensemble I've been working with that is on the advanced side of things.

The PSU Jazz Night on the 28th (7pm in LH 75) will feature the PSU Big Band, which I and Charley Grey have been working with this term. Also featured will be the Bebop Ensemble, the Hard Bop Ensemble, the Contemporary Ensemble, and the Park Avenue Trio. There might be some surprise guests(time permitting...)

December 13th is a big one; this is my debut concert as a leader in Portland. Here is some of the official P.R. from PDX Jazz:

Pianist George Colligan To Make Portland Debut
PDX Jazz @ The Mission Theater
December 13 @ 8pm

 NY Transplant and PSU Professor to Perform Originals and
the Works of Piano Icon Andrew Hill
PSU Students and Faculty Receive $2 Off At The Door With I.D.
PDX Jazz, the presenting organization of the Portland Jazz Festival in partnership with the Mission Theater, along with The Crystal Hotel and our media sponsor KMHD Radio, is set to present the final PDX Jazz @ The Mission Theater show of 2011 with George Colligan on Tuesday, December 13th at 8pm. Colligan, who joined the music faculty at PSU this fall, will be joined by: guitarist Dan Balmer, bassist Eric Gruber, drummer Todd Strait, and special guest pianist Kerry Politzer. The esteemed composer, Colligan, will also play trumpet and melodica on original compositions for this debut performance, in addition to performing compositions by the late pianist and former PSU Professor, Andrew Hill.
Colligan earned a reputation as an elite session performer and sideman in the New York area during the late 1990s; appearing on upwards of 100 CDs.  Most recently Colligan has toured and performed with artists such as Cassandra Wilson, Miguel Zenon, Don Byron, Gary Bartz, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker, Ravi Coltrane, and many others.  He is a Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation grant recipient who just released his 22nd recording, Living For the City.  Colligan was a faculty member at the Julliard School for two years and an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba for two years before moving to Portland. Colligan enthused, “I am very excited to join the PSU Jazz Department Faculty. So far, everything has been great. I love the University, the community, and Portland as a city could not be more perfect.”
Concerning Andrew Hill, Colligan remarked, “he was an important and unique figure as a composer and pianist. More young jazz musicians should be aware of him. I hope that this concert will spark some renewed interest in his music.“ Hill became one of the most prominent jazz pianists of the 1960s; playing with central figures of the era like: Roland Kirk, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, among countless others. Hill recorded many classic albums for the Blue Note label and was the only artist to record for the storied imprint on three separate occasions.  In the 70s Hill moved to Portland where he taught as an associate professor at PSU, and established a summer jazz-intensive program.
Colligan plays in a style that is down-to-earth, technically gifted and impressively improvisational.  Some of his influences include Miles Davis, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, and Herbie Hancock.
“As a creative artist, he’s really up there…. In terms of technique, knowledge of music and improvisational creativity, there aren’t a whole lot of cats from his generation that are any better than him. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of any.” – Don Braden in a blindfold test for JazzTimes.

I will be reminding my readers of these events; hopefully it won't get too annoying......

Tribute 1: Billy Higgins

The Great Billy Higgins
These days, aspiring jazz drummers check out, in no particular order, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jeff Watts, Brian Blade, Bill Stewart, and Eric Harland(there used to be a hilarious Jazz Robots video about Harland but I'm unable to locate it.). And maybe they check out Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Ralph Peterson, and Lenny White. One drummer I think gets left out of the curriculum is Billy Higgins. Playing the drums musically means playing good time and serving the music; Higgins did just that, which is why he played on 700 recordings as a sideman. You may know him from Cedar Walton's Eastern Rebellion:
However, Higgins played on many of the pivotal Ornette Coleman recordings, as well as tons of classic Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, and Hank Mobley recordings. Lee Morgan said of Higgins, "He never overplays, but you always know he's there." Higgins' ride cymbal beat is fairly identifiable: it's more straight in the eighth notes than somebody like Jimmy Cobb or Ben Riley(two other underrated drummers in the jazz edumacational world).

My favorite Billy Higgins appearances are the following odd mix: Herbie Hancock's "Takin' Off", Charles Lloyd's "Hyperion With Higgins", Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder", John Scofield's "Works For Me", and of course any of the Eastern Rebellion stuff.(I like the stuff with George Coleman and Bob Berg.)

Cedar Walton, WITH a shirt on....
I was fortunate to have one opportunity to record with Higgins. Years ago, Higgins was a guest on a recording by vocalist Vanessa Rubin, who I had been working with steadily for a number of years. Rubin had gotten the great Cedar Walton to write some arrangements for the album.(Which was another cool experience; getting to meet Cedar Walton. Rubin and I went over to Walton's apartment in Brooklyn to check out the arrangements. I was struck by the fact that Walton came to the door shirtless, because the air conditioning was on the fritz and it was a muggy New York City summer. I thought back to my first hearings of Walton and learning many of his great tunes, never expecting to meet him in the first place, and never thinking I would meet him at his door shirtless. Walton sat at the piano, played through his arrangements, and then said, "Why don't you give it a try?" That's the New York Pressure for you: where else do you meet the greats and then have to sit down in front of them and play?)

Two things that were really amazing about that session (at least concerning Higgins. What was also amazing was when the producer of the recording, John Clayton, during a break in the action, picked up Richie Goods bass and flawlessly fired off the double bass excerpt from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Impressive, to say the least). One was that Higgins never looked at the charts of Walton's arrangements, but after one run through, had all the hits nailed. I suppose all those years of playing with Walton gave Higgins a sense of where the music will most likely go. I suppose musicians who play together for 30 years are like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences.....

The other thing that was amazing to me was when Higgins started singing. Again, during a break, I was messing around with Cedar Walton's waltz entitled "Clockwise". Higgins ran over to the piano and started singing these marvelous lyrics, very operatically, and doing an elegant dance around the studio. I was really impressed. I asked Higgins, " Who wrote those amazing lyrics?" He replied, " I did. Just now....."

Here's an interview with Higgins, who passed all too young while waiting for a liver transplant:

And here's a clip of Higgins with Pat Metheny:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kevin Hays Masterclass

I got the chance to interview the great Kevin Hays for jazztruth two summers past, and it was really a hit.(You can go back and read it if you like!) Hays has always been an inspiration to me as a player, and he is starting to do more as a teacher as well. He's been doing some workshops in New York, and this is something he just sent out regarding an event taking place next weekend:

Dear Friends:

I am presenting a workshop this coming Saturday, November 5th from 2:30-5:30 in partnership with The Church Street School for Music and Art located at 74 Warren Street in Tribeca.

Participants may also take part in the workshop via Skype if you are outside of the NYC area and are unable to attend in person. Please follow the link below to register and for more information.

I am very happy to begin partnering with the Church Street School as a new member of their faculty and I look forward to working with you all, be that in private lessons, as part of this workshop series, or on the bandstand!

To Register please go to:

All the best,

Hays has many recordings as a leader available, and he's well recorded as a sideman. Here's a little youtube sample if you are completely unfamiliar with this great pianist. It's from his third Blue Note release called "Andalucia", which features Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. You can buy this CD on Amazon by clicking this link:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: The War of Art

As I was leaving my office yesterday, I ran into my esteemed colleague, Professor Darrell Grant.(His office is right next to mine!) Grant lent me this great book called The War Of Art (Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles) by Steven Pressfield. I've read my fair share of self-help books(The Road Less Traveled by M.Scott Peck, The Richest Man In Babylon, countless diet and exercise books...), even those which deal with creativity( Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, The Inner Game Of Music, The Artist's Way....). Pressfield's book is unique in that he writes with a writer's flair for language. The chapters are short and to the point, and each chapter is like a mini-zen lesson in how to be a successful artist. Mind you, in Pressfield's view, which is also my view, the successful artist creates and realizes his visions, although financial compensation is always secondary(unfortunately true, but true artists tend to love the satisfaction of self expression and integrity more than fancy cars and lavish homes. Hey, what do I know, I'm a music teacher by day!).

author Steven Pressfield
The War Of Art is in three books: Book One is about Resistance. This is anything that keeps you from being creative, and creativity takes a lot of work. So many of us put off our own creativity as long as possible, and make excuse after excuse. I have a friend (who will be nameless) who was frustrated by his lack of success on the New York jazz scene. I said to him, "Why don't you form your own band? Take advantage of all the bad-ass cats in New York and do a recording? Write some music?"

"Well, I don't really have any music written?"

"Why Not?"

"Well......I need to get a really good keyboard first, before I write any music....."

You can buy a midi keyboard for 100 dollars, hook it up to Garage Band, and write some music TODAY. This guy was letting 100 dollars stand in his way of living up to his potential. Now, believe me, I make excuses, too. Pressfield's lessons are a reminder of what it takes to be an artist, or really to accomplish anything. It takes overcoming the many forms of Resistance. Excuses and distractions are forms of Resistance. Even close friends can be resistance.

Book Two is called Combating Resistance: Turning Pro. This book deals with the differences in attitude between a professional and an amateur. It has nothing to do with whether you are paid or not for your art. It has to do with perseverance and dedication; showing up every day, through rain and snow, sickness and health. It's not about momentary glories and immediate gratification. It's about slogging it out for YEARS, as Pressfield can truly profess to as a struggling screenwriter. I admire the fact that Pressfield can be so candid about his failures, and how he stuck with it because he believed in what he was doing.

Book Three is called Beyond Resistance:Higher Realm, which concerns even more philosophical aspects of Art, such as The Magic Of Keeping Going, Fear, the Ego, Hierarchical versus Territorial thinking, etc... Another musician friend of mine, drummer Matt Jorgensen, told me his view of the jazz scene these days:" You don't worry about making money, you just keep making music, keep putting out recordings....just keep doing it as long as you can." I think that embodies much of Pressfield's philosophy: you keep at it because that's all you can do. It's a War, and in War, you don't surrender. You keep fighting.

I plan on studying this book further. I think I'll order a copy for myself!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jam Session Etiquitte; The Obvious

I've been going to jam sessions off and on for easily 20 years or more. (Yeah, I'm older than you might think. I actually got carded the other night going into a venue. Instead of taking out my Driver's License, I removed my hat. "OK, sir" said the guy at the door.) I believe the jam session to be a important part of a musician's development. I'm sure that many of us have been to great jams, and then the not-so good or worse. Some of it has to do with where the session is located, who is running the session, the level of the players, local cultural attitudes, how much the musicians have had to drink, etc......

There are already some posted lists of Jam Session Etiquitte on the web. However, here is mine, however redundant or obvious it might seem:

OMG, what if I forget the changes?
1. Don't be afraid. It's a jam session, not Carnegie Hall. If you are afraid to play in an informal setting(which most jam sessions are), then how can you expect to play when the pressure is on? Most of the time, musicians at jam sessions are just trying to have a good time. (There's always a Blues played at some point that anyone should be able to play on!) If you come to the session with good intentions, others will sense that. Try to gravitate towards encouraging musicians. Yes, some people will vibe you, possibly, but that says more about them than it does you. So don't let fear keep you from trying. Save the fear for when you see a Grizzly Bear running towards you, or if you are shipped off to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan from some reason....

These folks look like a BAND!
2. Make music! Don't just get up and show off! (Although some degree of showing off can be appropriate if it's done tastefully!) Most musicians will be more impressed if you listen and play with everyone as opposed to only listening to yourself and only caring about whether you are featured or not. Listen and interact musically with the musicians you are sharing the stage with. This is part of becoming a mature artist. You don't want to be like the guy at the party who goes on and on about himself and doesn't let anyone else have a chance to talk!

3. Have a tune, or several tunes in mind. Unless you are very experienced and know a boatload of tunes and never get stumped, you should think of a tune you know very well and ask the leader of the session if that could be the tune that you play on. Hopefully, this is a tune that you have practiced at home, and you really know it, not sorta know it if there is a chart handy. Furthermore, if a tune is called that you don't know, write down the name of the tune and learn it for the next time. And if you need to look at the fakebook, I don't discourage that. However, the next time you come to the session, you should try to be familiar with the tune.

4. Be sociable and respectful. It's ok to want to "sit in" and it's ok to network at the session. But don't be the person who shows up, demands to play on the first tune, plays his or her solo, then gives the band leader his or her card and runs out the door! Maybe listen to other people's solos? Maybe take off your coat and stay awhile? Again, the more respectful you are of others, the more people will want to play with you.

5. Don't wear out your welcome. Again, be respectful: while you might think that you have thirty-five great choruses within your grasp, you probably only have two.... three, tops. Unless your name is Kenny Garrett, or Herbie Hancock, or Sonny Rollins, you should not over do it. "Say what you got to say, and get out!" is the advice that's usually given. Build it up and leave them wanting more. Again, people will dig you for it.

If anybody has suggestions to add to this list, I'm open. Hopefully, my PSU students will read this before the jam tomorrow(Friday 3-5 in LH 47....)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cuong Vu and Burn List at the Mission Theater

Cuong Vu
I've been curious about trumpeter Cuong Vu for a little while. I was not terribly familiar with his music until a few years ago, when we competed for a teaching job at the University of Washington. (He won the job, and he is still currently on the faculty.)I wanted to know more about my "competitor", so I downloaded a few of his trio records. Vu's music is what some might call "avant-garde". I might call it "ultra-modern". I was certain that I liked the "idea" of his music. I like forward thinkers, generally speaking. I wasn't completely in love with the music; honestly, I was a little conflicted. But I let the jury stay out. And even after seeing Vu and his band live, the jury might still be out. I do respect Vu's conviction as a musician, without a doubt.

Mission Theater
I headed down to the Mission Theater in the Pearl District of Portland. It's very easy to get to by foot, just a short walk from the streetcar. The Mission Theater is a lovely venue, very low key and warm, like you were in somebody's gigantic living room. The event was sponsored by PDX Jazz, which is sponsoring Miguel Zenon in November and your truly in December(December 13th to be exact. I will be reminding people ad naseam). After a short introduction, Cuong Vu and his band Burn List took the stage, consisting of Greg Sinibaldi on tenor saxophone, Aaron Otheim on Korg M3 keyboard, and drummer Chris Icasiano. Vu mentioned later in the concert that he and Sinibaldi were old friends, while Otheim and Icasiano were the youngsters of the group.

Greg Sinibaldi
The concert began with a song called "Wine Cloud", written by keyboardist Otheim, opening with a lot of long notes over a vamp, which reminded me of composer Phillp Glass' minimalist music. There were a lot of atmospheric effects, using delay, and cool synth-rhodes hybrid sounds. (I hate to use "cinematic textures" because everybody and their mother has probably used that to describe this band, but it's getting late, so there it is.) The music shifted into a 5 note keyboard riff against a triplet groove played by drummer Icasiano. The tension built into a virtuosic tenor solo by Sinibaldi, who reminded me of modern tenor players like Steve Grossman, and maybe  a sprinkling of Gary Thomas or Mark Shim, but not as aggressive. There was some free form drumming over a fat, evil orchestral bass synth sound, and then the band got soft again.

Burn Unit creates compelling musical atmospheres, however, some of the sound effects are borderline gimmicky. Vu blows air through the trumpet, which in connected to an effects pedal, and admittedly, it's a cool sound, at least the first time you hear it..... I was enjoying the music, and I like the contemporary edge and the freedom, and the band was surely very tight, and sound like they had played together a lot. (The drummer had all the music memorized.) I like the ambient stuff, but I was missing the "meat and potatoes", like a strong melody, or a really compelling solo, or some kind of infectious groove.

Vu and Sinibaldi played a nice contrapuntal duo, which was hard to tell if it was composed of improvised, but it was effective. There was also a nice drum and piano duet, in which keyboardist Otheim used a very free approach, contrasting some of the complex arpeggio patterns he played on the non-improvised portions.)A piece called "Chau" began with what could have been a riff in an 80's pop tune, but then rhythmically flipped in and out and upside down, expertly held in check by drummer Icasiano, who played some stuff that might be described as Dave Garabaldi(drummer of Tower of Power)on Acid.

Cuong Vu is clearly a thoughtful, skilled musician, and has the pedigree and credentials to prove it. His trumpet playing is unique; not terribly impressive on a technical level, but if you dig what Vu is going for musically, it doesn't matter. As a frustrated trumpet player myself, I can appreciate a musical trumpet player much more than guys who play a million meaningless notes, or try to win the Maynard Ferguson contest at every opportunity. Vu has a focused tone and good intonation and articulation. He tends to stick to low and middle register playing, but occasionally ventures upward, which actually makes it more effective. I thought it was interesting that the bandleader, Vu, didn't actually take a solo until 25 minutes into the set. Again, I'm guessing that this is an artistic calculation, in the tradition of Miles Davis, who left the stage and featured his sideman quite a lot.

Chris Icasiano
Drummer Icasiano impressed me throughout the concert. He had surely done his homework, he played with a lot of energy and taste, and had a focused sound. I couldn't help but wonder what he would sound like playing something more conventional(although that goes against my philosophy of listening to music based on what it IS rather than what it is NOT. HA!)

I left the Mission Theater reasonably satisfied, but still not as convinced as I'd hoped to be. Like I said, I choose to let the jury stay out. Vu puts on a good show, and I think he has something to say. Check him out for yourself at his website. And don't forget to come out on November 16th for Miguel Zenon and December 13th for my group, featuring Todd Strait, Eric Gruber, Kerry Politzer, and Dan Balmer.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

"The Jazz Bridge Project" Cultural Exchange to Khabarovsk

Darrell Grant
Darrell Grant is my colleague at Portland State University. He is a wonderful pianist, composer, 
educator, and all around great guy! He is putting on a concert this Thursday in Portland, and I'm hoping that this reprinting of the press release will help generate some business. This looks like a pretty exciting endeavor and I hope to see you Portlanders there!

"Bridge to Russia" is evening of music supporting "The Jazz Bridge Project" Cultural Exchange to Khabarovsk. It's taking place at 7:00 PM  on Thursday, October 27th at The Old Church 1422 S.W. 11th Ave, Portland. A pre-concert reception will take place from 6-7 p.m featuring traditional folk music and Russian hors d'oeuvres (along with complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks).Performers will include vocalist Marilyn Keller, pianist Darrell Grant, bassist Charley Gray,  drummer Alan Jones, saxophonist Marc Hutchinson, and some special guests.

Maybe you can’t gaze at the sunset on the banks of the beautiful Amur River in Khabarovsk, Russia.  But you can get a taste of it at this annual event presented by Portland-Khabarovsk Sister City Association (PKSCA).  This year we celebrate Portland jazz as five of Portland’s distinguished artists are joined by special guests in this fundraising concert.  Proceeds from the event will support "The Jazz Bridge Project," the first-ever jazz cultural exchange with Portland’s sister city in Russia. The concert will feature the world premiere of “The Amur Suite” A jazz suite in 7 movements composed by Darrell Grant, Charley Gray, Scott Hall, Alan Jones, Gordon Lee, Andrew Oliver & Ez Weiss.

Organized by the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute at PSU, in cooperation with PKSCA, The Jazz Bridge Project will bring a delegation of distinguished Portland jazz artists: PSU professor and pianist Darrell Grant, PSU professor and composer Charley Gray, drummer Alan Jones, saxophonist Marc Hutchinson and vocalist Marilyn Keller to the Russian Far East for a ten-day goodwill cultural exchange. The performers will serve as ambassadors from the Pacific Northwest, presenting public concerts, giving presentations about jazz history, offering workshops and clinics at colleges and local music schools and interacting with members of the local and regional arts community.

Through local fundraising and community support the project has also collected teaching materials, including books, CD’s and DVD’s to support jazz education in the Khabarovsk region; commissioned 7 area jazz composers to create an extended original jazz suite based on Russian folk songs to be performed in Khabarovsk, compiled a collection of CD’s by Portland jazz artists to present as a gift to the city, and will create a video portrait of the Portland jazz scene to be shown in Russian schools and on television.

“This project is about building meaningful, ongoing connections between communities using the arts as a bridge.” says Grant.

Admission to "Bridge to Russia" includes a pre-concert reception from 6-7 p.m., featuring traditional folk music and Russian hors d'oeuvres (along with complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks). Tickets are $25, adults; $20, seniors; $15, students, and $10, children under 14. Maximum charge for a family is $60. Tickets are available at online at or at the door.


Since being introduced in 1988 as the pianist in vocalist Betty Carter's trio, Darrell Grant has performed internationally with Tony Williams Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Roy Haynes and many others.  His seven albums as a leader have received both critical acclaim and topped jazz radio charts.  A professor at Portland State University since 1997, Darrell is the founding Director of the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute.

Charley Grey
Charley Gray is the Director of Jazz Studies at Portland State University, where he conducts the Jazz Ensemble and teaches Arranging, Jazz Techniques, and Jazz History. He is the co-founder and director of the Portland Jazz Orchestra.  Having received his M.M. in Jazz Arranging and Composition from North Texas State University, his charts have been performed by the University of North Texas One O' Clock Big Band, the Kicks Band, Terrel Stafford, Dan Faehnle, Nancy King and the Pioneer Brass Quintet, among other jazz artists around the U.S. As a bassist, he has performed with the Bobby Torres Ensemble, the Kicks Band, the Carlton Jackson-Dave Mills Big Band, Latin Expression and Pepé and the Bottle Blondes.

Marilyn Keller
Marilyn Keller is a 27-year veteran of music and stage performance with a voice that is beyond category.  With a stylistic range that spans Jazz, Gospel, R&B, Pop and Blues, Marilyn has built an international career as a talented vocal artist.  She has toured in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and the UK, performing  concerts, festivals, night clubs.  Her magical voice can be heard on multiple recordings, movie sound tracks, commercials, and documentary narration. Vocalist for the acclaimed Black Swan Classic Jazz Band since 1997, she has a loyal following in the Dixieland and Ragtime scene.  She is featured at the Jazz Worship Service at Augustana Lutheran Church every Sunday and can be seen frequently at restaurants, clubs, festivals and holiday events throughout the Pacific Northwest.  Her current solo release is entitled "At Last".

Alan Jones
Alan Jones is one of America and Europe’s most creative and powerful jazz drummers, composers, and teachers. He has performed and toured with Dave Holland, Ralph Towner, Randy Brecker, Kenny Wheeler and Lee Konitz. And others, and appears on over 40 recordings. He is the founding director of AJAM, a music school that brings musical education to the small group setting.  Jones holds a B.M degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Marc Hutchinson
Portland native and tenor saxophonist Marc Hutchinson is a graduate of Portland State University with a degree in Jazz Performance. He is an active member of the Portland music scene and has performed with such notable names a, Mel Brown,  Ron Steen, Dan Balmer, Ben Darwish's Commotion, and the D.K. Stewart Band, as well as with national artists Ingrid Jensen, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Jim Black, Don Braden, and Kenny Werner.


The Portland-Khabarovsk Sister City Association (PKSCA) was formed in 1988 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to foster international friendship through cultural and educational exchange and to facilitate social and economic ties between the citizens of our two communities. Over the past 23 years, PKSCA has undertaken a wide variety of projects, working with our Russian partners on issues of public safety, healthcare, environmental protection, music and graphic arts, public education and youth programs.


The Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute (LVJI) is an independent, self-supporting institute housed within the Department of Music in PSU’s School of Fine and Performing Arts.  LVJI celebrates jazz’ origins as an American art form that embodies the most noble aspirations of our national character. Named for Leroy Vinnegar, the “Master of the Walking Bass,” who after a legendary career called Portland, Ore., home for several years, LVJI serves as a catalyst bringing together the ideas, resources, and needs of a large community of students, scholars, educators, artists and music professionals.  By carrying out its programs in collaboration with other institutions and individuals that share its mission, including the non-profit arts community, schools and educational institutions, and the professional music community, LVJI seeks to impact communities throughout the state and the greater Northwest region.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jazz? You Mean That OLD Stuff My Grand Dad Listens To?

  The 1984 Chevy Celebrity: Guaranteed to NOT attract women.....
When I lived in Washington D.C. back in the 90's, I drove my car a lot. (It seemed like when I lived in Baltimore, I started working in D.C. all the time. And then it reversed when I moved to D.C.; all the gigs were in Baltimore.) And I listened to jazz radio a lot. WDCU and WPFW were the stations; people like Rusty Hassan, Gwen Redding, and Whitmore John played what I thought was a wide variety of jazz, from past to present. Unfortunately, when I moved to New York, I had to get rid of my car (it was so hard to sell for parts my dear beloved grey 1984 Chevy Celebrity. Sure, people laughed when I drove down the street, and sure, the lack of power brakes made my right leg asymmetrically muscular compared to the left, but that car was all paid for....), so I found that I listened to jazz radio a lot less. And when I did listen to WBGO( the main jazz station in New York, which broadcasts from New Jersey), I thought that there was much less variety. It seemed as though the types of jazz you might hear were all within a certain boundary, and much of it was pretty stale to me. It was either music from a long time ago, or "modern" players who played in a very old style, or maybe popular singers who were in a certain framework. And not all of it was bad; I just thought it was a little predictable.

The Andrew Sisters: They really influenced Destiny's Child......
And now that I'm driving again in the United States, I'm getting a similar feeling.(Winnipeg didn't seem to have a jazz station, although there was one station that played sort of "oldies", indeed, "very oldies" might hear something like the Andrew Sisters or Judy Garland or something like that. I usually listened to that station, because the other stations seemed to have a format of Contemporary Crap.) Now, I haven't been in Portland long enough to get the total picture, however, while I was driving today, I heard a lot of great music on KMHD, the local jazz station. I heard Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Allen, and some Brazilian music that I could not remember the name of. But I started to think about how everything I had heard was from many decades in the past, with the exception of Harry Allen (although his playing is what I would call on the conservative side, so it could have been recorded in the 50's).

Frank Zappa:" Jazz Isn't Dead, It Just Smells Funny..."
Jazz, according to Frank Zappa, "isn't dead, it just smells funny." I think this is a big misconception about jazz music; that it is something that comes from a museum, that it is history. Now, as a jazz history professor, I am fascinated by the study of all the greats of the past, and the evolution of America's original art form. But jazz is not history alone. We have so much great music being created by not only young musicians, but older musicians who have paid tons of dues but didn't get big recording contracts. And I'm amazed that musicians and radio stations and writers seem to care more about the classic recordings than the music that is being made NOW. We, the people that care so much about keeping jazz alive, are debatably helping to kill it.

Ken Burns: now what instrument did he play?
The great trumpeter and jazz spokesperson Wynton Marsalis comes to mind when we discuss these things. Marsalis, although always rather conservative musically, was somewhat of a forward thinker when he first came on the scene; listen to recordings like "Black Codes From The Underground", which is one of my all time favorites. His early recordings had a modern spin on so-called straight ahead jazz. His band featured Kenny Kirkland on piano and Jeff Watts on drums, who had a unique, innovative sound; not reinventing the wheel, but at least they played things their own way. At some point, Marsalis became obsessed with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Then we had the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary, which has much merit(I use it in my teaching), but is arguably biased towards Armstrong, Ellington, and more traditional styles and eras of jazz. (In the 10 part documentary, Fusion is dismissed, and many of the great straight ahead players of the 70's and 80's are tragically ignored.)Again, I insist that the knowledge of the past is important; however, if it's so important to listen to all the old music, how can listeners possibly have time to catch up with the new music? Why should we even consider the new music, if the old music is so great, so much greater than what's being made now(as the Ken Burns series might lead you to believe)?

It's no wonder that young people are increasingly less interested in Jazz; it seems as though you have to study all this history in order to make sense out of any recording or performance. I think many people want to just enjoy music for what it is, what they perceive it to be, rather than what Ken Burns or Wynton Marsalis or writer Stanley Crouch (who I respect and he's actually been quite nice to me over the years)think it's supposed to be. Folks in general just want to be entertained, or at least relax, when they listen to music. They don't necessarily want a history lecture all the time. They might like the melody, or the rhythm, or they might respond to the energy. But does Jazz need to "pay homage to the masters" or "authentically swing" or "respect the tradition" in order for people to enjoy it?

Bill Haley and The Comets: So Hardcore.....
When you consider the fact that the "free jazz" movement took place in the 1950's, and yet some musicians still consider free jazz to be "avant-garde" or modern, it creates a weird perspective. It would be like young Rock and Roll fans thinking Bill Haley and the Comets were "really hardcore." Or if today's youth was expected to love Little Richard, or Otis Redding. (And believe me, I'm not saying anything bad about any of them. I think some hip youngsters ARE into them and other golden oldies.)

And although I have opinions about whether or not Jazz should progress, or change with the times, this is a separate issue. Even today's musicians who play in an older style should have as much chance to be heard as a Theolonious Monk re-issue, or a remastered Art Blakey recording. I just think there is something weird about all the CDs that are being put out by LIVING musicians, regardless of stylistic leanings, and yet a box set of Miles Davis "Live at The Plugged Nickel" and the like will always get more attention.

Phil Schaap, A Walking Wikipedia of Jazz
I'm a jazz musician, so it's in my best interest to see jazz flourish and live. As I said, I do teach jazz history by day. But I am not content to just teach the history; I want to PLAY! I have my own ideas on how the music should go(as did all the dead masters). This is what we are supposed to be doing; writing our OWN songs, playing our own style. (Again, don't get me wrong....I have spent a lot of time learning old tunes and listening to old recordings. I'm no Phil Schaap, not even close, but I am continually intrigued by history. However, I don't merely want to emulate, I want to use that knowledge to my advantage. If Stravinsky had merely imitated Rimsky-Korsakov, we wouldn't know Stravinsky. If Picasso merely imitated the impressionists, we wouldn't know Picasso.)

One problem I see in today's Jazz education, and even in my own playing, is a focus on very old tunes.(Although I do stand by my argument that you should NOT be allowed to graduate from jazz school if you can't play "All The Things You Are" convincingly.) And, yes, there are so many great old tunes, and I love to discover new-to -me old standards and so forth. And I say this as someone who spent part of the 90's and all of the 2000's in New York, playing mostly original music by contemporary players. Before I moved to New York, I learned many Monk tunes, Wayne Shorter tunes, Benny Golson tunes, etc... And these tunes are great, BUT, why aren't we playing tunes by Mark Turner, or Kevin Hayes, or David Gilmore, or Christian McBride? I do see modern tunes pop up more and more, but this should be the norm, not the exception. If the infamous Real Book is what people are pulling out on gigs and jam sessions, then we are talking about very old tunes; all pre-1970's tunes(the Real Book came out in the 70's...).

Why not a Real Book for the New Millennium?
I don't know if this idea has already been done, but I think it's time for a (legal, of course)Real Book for the New Millennium. This New Real Book should have jazz from at least the last two decades, if not the last three. I think that this will help to keep the music alive, current, and relevant. It will make students and listeners all over the world more interested in today's living musicians, as opposed to over-obsessing about music of the past masters. I would like to see how something like this could be organized. I can't promise that I would be the one to do it, and obviously, if it hasn't been done, someone could easily steal the idea after reading this! But I believe we need to bring the focus back to today's jazz, and that will help the music in the long run, so that jazz doesn't go the way of the Dodo Bird.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Search Of The Wrong Notes

A colleague of mine recently asked me what I was working on. "What have you been practicing?" Well, these days, that is a tough question to answer.  While my most intense practice years were probably the early 90's when I kept a daily journal and practiced 4 to 8 hours a day, I admit I haven't been able to do that for a long time. Generally speaking, I'm mostly just practicing music that I plan on performing on future concerts.(For example, I was asked to play TRUMPET on a gig which featured music from the Lennie Tristano school. The melodies were VERY challenging and fast, and there's no way I could have gotten through the gig without doing some serious homework.)But in terms of improvisation, there are a number of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic concepts that I still want to develop. Sometimes, it's better to have a general philosophy than a a bag of tricks. So, since I never really answered the question in the moment, I'm answering it to a certain extent right now; I'm trying to play more wrong notes.

"Wait a dang minute!", you might be saying to yourself. "Why would you want to play WRONG notes? I thought we were supposed to play the RIGHT notes!" Well, here's the thing. These days, jazz students tend to spend a lot of time on learning the "correct" way to play changes and rhythms. Scale A works over chord B, etc.....And I admit that I end up teaching this way more often than not. This is mainly because I find that many of my past and present students are so lost as to "what to play". And I think that the fundamentals are really important. You can't run if you can't walk, that's for sure. So students need to be able to play the right notes, the right chords, the right rhythms; otherwise, they probably shouldn't pass their classes!

However, I believe that once a player has a foundation, and is somewhat experienced, then it's time to figure out how to get to the next level. And in some ways, the next level is how to set oneself apart from the crowd. I think this applies to life in general, depending on your ambition. History is filled with successful people who weren't afraid to "break the rules" and "think outside the box". The great writers, painters, inventors, and scientists have all tried to push the limits of what is known. Are we encouraging young musicians to do this?

When I was first learning about jazz, I was once advised that jazz players who sounded "out" were actually playing "very inside". What he meant by this is that an advanced player can manipulate the dissonances (as related to each chord of a song) at will, as long as he is relevant to the changes.(You can also relate this to rhythm and harmony.)But I think even advanced players can get bogged down in the typical traps of chord-scales, bebop cliches, and so on.  So how does one get out of it? Well, if we understand the notes in the scale, why not isolate the notes NOT in the scale, and really get to know how they sound against the chord. For example, if the chord is D minor 7, then the chord scale tones are D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. The notes that are "not" in the chord are Eb,Gb,Ab,Bb,Db. Instead of thinking of these as dissonances, why not start on one of the notes in the latter group? (I used to call this an "opposite" scale, but I question that nomenclature.)

I believe that the student improvisor should be comfortable with how any chromatic note will sound against any given chord. There are so many possibilities; why be limited to one scale for each chord? I believe as long as the foundation is there, that trying to balance the "wrong" notes with the so-called right ones is a great way to find new things to play.

Furthermore, once you get comfortable with the "wrong" notes on a scale, you might want to see how the "wrong" shapes, patterns, or triads work over chords. For example, can you play a Bb minor triad over a E minor chord and resolve it? Or take a C#triad over a F major chord, and resolve it to a C# diminished chord, and THEN resolve to a "correct" note in the F major chord. Hopefully, you can see that the sky is the limit if you want to try unexpected sounds over a chord progression.

Rhythmically, this philosophy can work as well. If you can play WITH the groove, why not play AGAINST the groove to create tension and interest? Hopefully, you won't lose your place, but experiment with staggered triplets, or playing purposely behind the beat. If you do it with a sense of tension and resolution, you will be surprised at how useful this approach can be. Some players, like Gary Bartz, or Joe Henderson, or even Trane and Bird, sound like they are playing rubato over the groove. And it sounds perfectly natural.

Stravinsky, although I don't think he was arrested for wrong notes......
Look at the greats who played "wrong" notes: Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Monk, Ellington, Parker, Coltrane, Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Hendrix....they break the rules, but this is precisely WHY we are interested in them. Their music goes against the grain. Much of the academic study of music is teaching rules that follow logic. But educators need to encourage breaking the rules. Otherwise, we risk (and this is already somewhat the case) producing legions of players who "play it safe". I suppose it is not in everyone's nature to go against the grain. (Look at the Occupy Wall Street protest: I'm sure many more people agree with the protesters, but most people either don't have the time or are afraid of their head being busted by the NYPD. I fall into both categories.....Either way, to actually go against the status quo takes effort.)

This is related to why I love to play wrong notes. In creative music, the consequences of playing the "wrong" or "shocking" notes are so much less than if you were to do something "shocking" in your life. Doing something "wrong" can bring attention to what you are doing. On the bandstand, you will get musicians to take an interest in what you are playing. In life, you might go to jail, or you'll lose all your money, or die of a drug overdose. So save the "risk taking" for the bandstand, if you can....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Viewer Mail 4: Where Should I Live?

This question comes from a young jazz guitar student from British Columbia. Actually, this question was asked on Facebook, but I thought it would go well as part of the blog:

Hey George, I am going to graduate with a B.mus. in Jazz next summer. Nowhere close to pro chops but working on it. Do you recommend moving to a city with a real scene right away, or bumming around somewhere cheaper while I woodshed a little longer?

- Alexis Deighton Harrison

Dear Alexis:

Interesting question. If you had a ton of money in the bank, or could work during the day as a hedge fund manager, I would say by all means move to New York City. (When you get to Wall Street, you might see a bunch of crazy protesters who hate freedom and so forth. Just ignore them.) But the fact that you used the phrase "bumming around" could imply that you are not independently wealthy. (Although some rich people might say something like, "I'm just going to bum around East Hampton for a year until my inheritance kicks in." Totally different use of the word "bumming.") So moving to New York can be tough, even for somewhat established musicians like myself.(That's why I don't live there anymore. HA!)

The New York Jazz scene is the best in the world in terms of number of musicians per square inch, being able to hear the best known and unknown players every night of the week, and getting your ass beaten musically(which could make you a better player...). I lived in New York from 1995 to 2009, and I believe that I would not have developed in the same way if I had stayed in D.C. or Baltimore. However, I DID wait for 4 years after I graduated college. I waited until I felt I was ready to move to New York. I could have moved sooner, but I also started late playing jazz piano, so I needed the time to play catch up. And I was also playing with some name cats when I moved there, so I had a bit of an in. Furthermore, New York was VERY DIFFERENT in the 90's. There was much more work in the city, and much more touring work. 

That all changed after 9/11. I found it impossible to make a living in the city, and I think that's still the case, unless you do Broadway shows, have a job with the Symphony, or teach 40 students a week(or have a full time teaching position, which is slim pickins in New York City.) Even in the 90's, most of my bread came from tours, and as I got older and touring became less and less fun, I was stuck between not touring and going broke, or touring all the time and being miserable, or not working in town AND not touring and REALLY going broke, or ....TA DA! Find a teaching job. So I pursued that for many years, first ending up in Winnipeg, and then being in Portland now.

I realize I'm going off on a tangent. Older people tend to do that.

Now it's interesting, I think, because I feel like there ARE scenes outside of New York, that should be cultivated, not only for their own sake, but just because New York doesn't need any more musicians moving there. I believe that the "Either you are in New York or you not, and New York is where it's at" philosophy has not always been universal, and that New York is actually becoming less and less relevant. For example, I know some very successful musicians in Europe who have only visited New York a handful of times. And when you start to look around, you notice how many musicians DON'T live in New York and never did.

OK, so what does ANY of that claptrap have to do with you? Well, I think unfortunately, you answered your own question at the beginning. And I don't really know your playing either, so if you could prove to me that you were the next Kurt Rosenwinkel, then maybe I would say run, don't walk, to New York. (BTW, Kurt doesn't even live in New York.He got a teaching gig in Berlin. HA!) But I'm guessing that being on a smaller scene would most likely benefit you more than being lost in the shuffle in New York.

I would try to sell you on doing your Master's at PSU( I'm supposed to be recruiting, after all...). Portland has, from what I can tell so far, a good scene. It's cheaper to live here than most of the other cities that you might have considered(Vancouver, Toronto, maybe even Montreal. And it's not as cold!).

I'm guessing that what you need to do is PLAY! And if you can find a place where you get to play on a regular basis, and not have to worry about rent and health insurance and all that, then go there. I played tons of gigs in Baltimore and Washington D.C., and that's really how I got my stuff together. I think If I had moved to New York right away, I might have been overwhelmed.

Maybe I would have quit.

You might also want to live somewhere cheap so that you can save your money and make regular "fact finding" excursions to New York. Spend a week every 3 to 6 months in New York. Take some lessons, go to gigs, try to meet some players.

What about a Canada Council Grant? In the 90's, it seemed like every other day I would run in to somebody who was living in New York on a Canada Council Grant.

But I would say smaller is better for now. Also, you might consider Europe. I hear great things about Berlin. It's cheap to live there and it's a great vibe. Not sure about the jazz scene. It all depends on who you talk to.

Anyway, good luck, and I hope the ramblings of a jaded jazz edumacator helped you. And feel free to ask any more questions.          

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blue Skies

About a decade ago, I was a member of Cassandra Wilson's touring band. Not only was it a great musical experience, but it was great to have well organized tours, with nice hotels and tour buses and per diems and so forth. Furthermore, it was cool to answer the question, "Are you in a band?" with a name that, more often than not, people actually recognized. This was 1999 to 2001, when Wilson was still riding high on the success of her Blue Note albums like "Blue Light 'Til Dawn" and "New Moon Daughter". She had just released "Traveling Miles", a tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis.( This was just before Norah Jones, also on Blue Note, sold 8 million CDs of her musical equivalent of valium. Yawn........)I never got to record with Wilson, although I did appear briefly with her in "The Score", a movie featuring Robert DeNiro, Ed Norton, and Marlon Brando.(The scene is not even a minute long, and it took 14 hours of filming in Montreal. I always joke that "I had a number of spoken lines, but they were left on the cutting room floor....")

But many listeners are completely unaware of Wilson's earlier releases. Before she was signed to Blue Note, Wilson recorded 7 albums for JMT, a German based label run by producer Stefan Winter.(By the way, I always used to wonder what JMT stood for. Then I was told it stands for "JAZZ MUSIC TODAY". Hmmm, sounds German to me. Winter now calls his label "Winter and Winter" and is actually re-issuing a lot of the JMT catalog.) Much of Wilson's early work is influenced by saxophonist Steve Coleman; she was actually part of the M-Base Collective(She sings on "Sine Die", a Steve Coleman recording I used to listen to in the 90's). Although much of Wilson's more recent work is blues and pop based, Wilson's has deep roots in jazz. This is nowhere more evident on her third JMT release "Blue Skies".

This was an album I listened to a lot in the mid 90's, when I was first doing long tours.(Remember portable CD players? And remember those big books of CDs people would lug around, and somebody would always leave one on a plane or something?)I recently pulled this album out again and put it on in the car. I appreciate it even more now, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Wilson is blessed with a truly distinctive voice; one note is all you need to know it's her. Her voice is fairly low for a female voice, and it's husky, but still flexible and buoyant.(I asked Wilson if she did any vocal exercise or practice. "No, I don't really practice", she admitted." I smoke cigarettes....")

One of the hip things about "Blue Skies" is that this session, in the hands of less motivated musicians, could have easily been a forgettable "let's do standards that people love the way they expect them to be done" kind of session. However, Wilson always puts a different spin on the material; on "My One And Only Love," which most people expect to be a lovely ballad, she begins scatting the melody alone at moderate to brisk tempo. Another ballad, "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" is done as a loose waltz. "I'm Old Fashioned" is done as an up-tempo. And "Sweet Lorraine", a beautiful duet with piano master Mulgrew Miller, is interesting due to the alteration of the lyrics, sung from the point of view of a third party observer, rather than a man singing of "my Sweet Lorraine."

Mulgrew Miller
And let's not forget the band; this is some of my favorite Mulgrew Miller of all time. His solos are sparkly and inspired. Miller is a mainstream pianist, but much of his soloing here is as harmonically inventive as anyone could hope for. Mulgrew's comping is perfect throughout; on ballads like "I've Grown Accustomed To (His) Face", or bouncy medium tunes like "Shall We Dance", Miller provides stellar support. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico is also beautifully supportive. Plaxico was music director for Wilson on and off for 20 years.(Indeed, he was the one who called me for the first tour I was on.) Plaxico doesn't get much solo space, but his sound is really dark and round, and he has a nice arco(bowed) solo on "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You." Terri Lynne Carrington is really swinging on this CD, and her brushwork is impressive. My only complaint is the snare sound, which I believe is a mixing or mastering issue;at times it sounds a little harsh to me. But Carrington's cymbals are dry and clear, and she keeps time responsibly and maturely, but not without some occasional fiery outbursts.

Also worth noting is Wilson's scat soloing. During my tenure in her band, I felt that Wilson was reluctant to scat. Indeed, in the wrong hands, jazz scat singing can easily annoy and detract. However, Wilson sings a tasty solo on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was"; it's more instinct than theory, but Wilson's ears take her to the right notes all the way through. Furthermore, even on the expected sensitive ballads, Wilson delivers the lyrics in a personal way. Check out "Autumn Nocturne"; it's breathtaking.

Lauper, then and now

I've told this story a number of times, so I figure one more time won't hurt. When I toured the U.S. with Wilson in 2000, one of the stops was to be Carnegie Hall in New York. We were told that we would have a special guest for part of the show: 80's pop star Cyndi Lauper. Apparently, Wilson and Lauper had met somewhere and Lauper admitted that she really liked Wilson's version of "Time After Time." So Wilson invited her to be on the Carnegie Hall performance. A rehearsal was planned. Lauper showed up, looking more like a dressed down Queens soccer mom than a glitzy pop idol. and her accent was REALLY Queens (She's originally from Ozone Park). She almost sounded like Fran Drescher from "The Nanny"! So after some introductions and pleasantries, the rehearsal began. I wish I had recorded it because at one point, Wilson and Lauper tried to write a song, and kind of batted some ideas around while the band laid down a groove. It never solidified, but it was fascinating to watch two singers from vastly different worlds try to collaborate.

At one point, Lauper suggested that we do "Blue And Green", except that she would sing the melody and Cassandra Wilson would sing "Blue Skies" as a counterpoint. This was weird because "Blue And Green" is a 10 bar tune, while "Blue Skies" is a 32 bar standard. We ended up using this in the performance, and I don't know how or why this ended up working, but it worked. Again, I wish I had recorded this, because it will probably never happen again in history.

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall, to many, is kind of a legendary symbol of hitting the musical big time. (The old joke: Guy standing on the street in New York asks another guy," Hey, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice....") So of course my father and his wife had to come to the performance. So I was somewhat proud and excited. The house was full, the performance went well, and when Wilson announced Lauper as the special guest, the house went nuts with cheering and applause.

After the performance, my father took us to the nearby Russian Tea Room to celebrate. As we enjoyed our blueberry blintzes, my father, born in 1943 in Brooklyn, asked, "So...who was that woman who came out on stage in the middle of the show?"

"Uhh....that was Cyndi Lauper!"


"You know, the singer from the 80's?"


"You know, 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun'?"
"Girls...they wanna have Fu---hun....."

"Never heard of it."

"Uhhhh, OK.....I guess, for your generation..." I struggled to think,"it would be like, if somebody like, say Bob Dylan came out as a guest." I had missed my target. My father was an earlier generation. I should have said Bobby Darin.

"You wouldn't want Bob Dylan to come out and sing..." my father stated. "He's TERRIBLE. Of course, maybe if you did one of his songs with a REAL singer, and then Bob Dylan came out to get his royalty check...."