Thursday, May 31, 2012

Don't Forget About The Music

Filipino food is delicious
My first year teaching at Portland State University is winding down. This is the time of year when we like to evaluate the year's progress( for students and faculty). For some graduating students, this might be a time to reflect on their entire academic career. The juniors and seniors are doing major recitals, which are representative of all that has been accomplished over three or four years of musical study. For some students, these recitals are a big deal;parents and extended family, as well as friends in the community, are in attendance. Some bring food for the after party(one of students at University of Manitoba was of Filipino descent; the food that his family brought to his recital after party was enough to feed an army. It was so delicious, I was worried that the food would influence my grading of the recital!).

Glad that Hummel wasn't alive to hear me butcher his Trumpet Concerto
I've seen two recitals thus far, and both of them made me recall my own senior recital at Peabody Conservatory, when I was so nervous about my performance that I neglected to put up posters until the last minute, which insured that only a small handful of people were in attendance to witness my mediocre rendition of the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. (My Master's Recital at Queens College was much better; by then, I was a jazz pianist, and there was no Hummel, Hayden, or even Hindemith on the program.)

"If I'm not at the bar, I'll be at the Mini-bar..."
I think it's great to make these recitals into semi-momentous occasions. It's great to take the time to have a special performance and congratulate ourselves for our work and development. As usual, I have the jaded, grumpy perspective of wanting to see the larger context. Some people see high school or college graduation as the goal, and when that goal is reached, the feeling is, "I did it!" My pragmatic view is, "OK, you DID it. What's next?" I want students to see these recitals as a beginning, not an ending. In this way, a student might have a more relaxed attitude about their recital, and not feel like "this is my last chance to prove myself as a musician!" No, if your goal is a LIFE in music, you'll have many more significant musical opportunities in your life. Although your family and friends might not be there, and you might not even have any home cooked food afterwards. You might just go back to your hotel room, down a Toblerone chocolate bar and a tiny bottle of Absolut Vodka, watch Roseanne (dubbed in German) on TV and pass out from exhaustion.

Tom Harrell says he carries around "The Real Book in all 12 keys"
But one of the recent recitals really got me thinking about the big musical picture. Now, we spend a lot of time, in the study of music, talking about little pieces. Sometimes these little pieces are almost literally like little pieces of paper all over your room, and you are trying to put them all together into something that makes sense. This is totally normal. But this can be daunting for many students who need a predictable, acceptable structure. For example, the idea of learning two tunes per week seems like a reasonable assignment for a young jazz student; it's concrete, and by the end of 30 weeks, you would "know" 60 tunes. But then what about all the other things that might distract you during those 30 weeks: other classes, technical exercises, sight reading, transcriptions, ensemble music, maybe some other tunes which you wanted to try, etc...Today's music student has almost too much information. Again, this is normal. (Also, the idea that you would then "know" 60 tunes is not the whole story, because as improvisors, "what" are you playing on these tunes is as if not more important than just knowing the tune. And that's where it can get tricky.)

So trying to "put it all together" makes people start to have doubts. I believe that the key to overcoming these doubts is to try to remember why you got into music in the first place: the feeling of the music. How does music make you feel? When you hear a familiar melody, how do you feel? When you hear a brilliant improvised solo, what are you feeling? When you hear a great groove, does that make you want to move? Why do people even go to hear music? When you think about music in this way, the nuts and bolts and scales and chords fade into the background a bit. What becomes more focused is the joy and emotional content and communication of a musical performance.I guarantee you that the audience doesn't care whether you learned two songs a week or whether you know seven diminished patterns to play over dominant chords. They want to FEEL something.

That is not to say don't practice and learn all the skills. In some ways, the skills are the easy part, because they are more tangible then the "musical" part. Learning tunes: either you know it or you don't. Scales: same deal. Rhythm: set the metronome, wake up, and smell the coffee. This is your preparation. Practice as much as you can physically handle. It will be boring. But the more prepared you are, the more you will be able to concentrate on the FUN on playing MUSIC when you actually PLAY a concert. The more skills you have, the more fun you'll have.

However, it's extremely common for musicians to forget that. We start to become obsessed with the skills and trying to be perfect and getting uptight about our playing, and then it stops being fun. Music students have to stop and smell the musical roses. The bandstand is a great place to do this. When I was 22, 23 years old, I was lucky that I had so many gigging opportunities between Baltimore and Washington D.C. Also, I had no children, so I had a lot of free time. I was practicing a lot: 4-8 hours a day. But more importantly, I was playing 3 to 7 gigs a week. Everything I practiced could be applied to those gigs. My musical goals were to really focus hard on my weaknesses during the day, and then at night, just musically "go for it." Unfortunately, it's very rare these days for musicians in their 20's to be in a situation like that. Music school should be some kind of artificial yet useful recreation of that environment.

The recital I attended was very good, and it was a packed house. Obviously, it was a meaningful event for the student and the student's friends and family. And sure, there were some technical issues; some bars out of place, some sloppy techniques. But what was great about it was the overall "vibe". These students, regardless of technical prowess, were "going for it." And it really came across well. It felt good to listen to it. It was a performance you would pay a cover charge for. This "overall vibe" has to be remembered in the study and teaching of music. Granted, it's not as easy as saying, "here, learn two songs per week for 30 weeks." But it is way more important.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Videos and More Videos!

I've had this band called Mad Science for over a decade. We've been kind of on hiatus for a while; not by choice, mind you. Mad Science is a little odd in that it's an organ trio that plays fusion jazz. It's a little too jazzy for rock clubs and too rockish for the jazz clubs. We've had a few nice hits over the years; we did a nice run at Pizza Express in London and a nice gig at the Rochester Jazz Festival. We did three albums, the latest is called "Pride And Joy" and it's on Piloo Records. I've always been really proud of the band, and I still think there is a place for it somewhere out there.

The band has gone through a few inceptions, but it's always included guitarist Tom Guarna. Our last gigs in New York featured the wonderfully talented Kenny Grohowski on drums. Recently, Guarna visited Portland, and I used that visit as an opportunity to do a Mad Science West gig. But instead of organ, we decided to make it a quartet. We enlisted Damian Erskine on bass and Reinhard Melz on drums. Erskine and Melz are Portland residents, but they sure play on a world class level. At the one rehearsal we had scheduled, they knew the music better than I did!

We played at a local venue in Portland and in my view, it was mostly a success. The music was off the chain without a doubt. Guarna was on fire, and Melz tore into the music with gusto. Erskine laid down the bass, which freed me up to do some different things(since normally, I would have been playing left hand organ bass). I'm hoping to do another performance very soon. It won't be at the previous venue, due to the fact that said venue, after leaving us off of their email listing, blamed us for what they called a turn out which was "not what they had hoped for." Well, it happens.(I wonder if they actually had heard the performance if they would have been so focused on the business. For some, I suppose money is louder than music.)

But you can judge for yourself, because the gig was recorded on Audio and Video, and I have links! Again, this is a really cool project and I think it has potential. It's funky, energetic, and artistic. We're working on another double bill with Mike Prigodich's band for the fall. Enjoy these videos and stay tuned!

Friday, May 18, 2012


"In The Shed" is slang for "I'm practicing a lot....."
I'm very excited about the first ever Portland State University Jazz Camp! It will be July 17-19 on campus, in Lincoln Hall. We have a great faculty and it will be an intensive small group focused camp open for middle school age and up. We will have some great masterclasses, jam sessions, combo coaching, and faculty/student concerts. I'm really excited about it! Here is the press release:

 “The Shed” Summer Jazz Intensive Workshop
July 17-19, 2012
Workshop Director, George Colligan
Portland State University’s inaugural Summer Jazz Intensive Workshop is open to high school, college and adult instrumentalists.
“The Shed” is intended to provide students with an opportunity for “hands-on” learning in a personalized small combo setting. The three-day workshop includes masterclasses, coached rehearsals, group lessons, performances and student/faculty jam sessions.
In addition to intensive exploration of topics including improvisation, arranging, jazz theory and harmony, ear training, rhythm section concepts, styles and repertoire, students will learn effective practice techniques and have the opportunity to play side by side with the workshop’s master musician faculty.
Dan Balmer
George Colligan
Tim Gilson
Darrell Grant
Charley Gray
Alan Jones
Farnell Newton
David Valdez
Dan Balmer

See faculty bios at

 Workshop Tuition plus $368.60 PSU tuition and fees
Limited scholarships available.  Meals and lodging are not provided.
Students will audition for placement in combos on Tuesday morning, July 17th.
Check back soon for information on what to prepare for this audition.
Tuesday July 17
8-10 AM -Registration
10-12 Noon -Welcome and Jam Session/Workshop
12-1 PM -Lunch
1-2 PM- Masterclass - George Colligan
2-3 PM- Masterclass - Charley Gray
3-5 PM Combo coaching
5-6 PM  Dinner
6-8 PM Faculty/Student Concert & Jam Session

Wednesday July 18
9-10 AM -“The Morning Shed” led by Darrell Grant
10-12 Noon- Combo rehearsal/Coaching
12-1 PM - Lunch
1-2 PM - Masterclass-Darrell Grant
2-3 PM - Masterclass-Alan Jones
3-5 PM - Combo rehearsal/Coaching
5-6 PM - Dinner
6-8 PM - Faculty/Student Concert & Jam Session

Thursday July 19
9-10 AM -“The Morning Shed” led by Darrell Grant
10-12 Noon- Combo rehearsal/Coaching
12-1 PM - Lunch
1-2 PM - Masterclass-Dan Balmer
2-3 PM - Masterclass-David Valdez
3-5 PM - Combo rehearsal/Coaching
5-6 PM - Dinner
6-8 PM - Faculty/Student Concert & Jam Session

Portland State University Dept of Music PO Box 751 Portland, OR 97207
Phone: 503 725-3180 Fax: 503 725-8215

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Persian Jazz Suite

A few months ago, I was asked to be a judge for an in-house concerto competition at Portland State University. I got to hear some great Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saens, and it was nice to listen to some European Classical music for a change. But then, a young lady brought out this Hammer Dulcimer-looking thing, and started to play some very exotic Eastern music. I and the two other judges were entranced with the eerily beautiful tones coming from this stringed instrument. What really got me was when, halfway through the piece, this young lady flipped her instrument over and played on the other side! I was really intrigued. The other judges were leaning towards the pianist who had played Rachmaninoff to be declared the winner, but I was insisting on the lady who played the Dulcimer. It was so different from everything else we had heard.

Persian Santur
I knew the young lady because not only is she a PSU music student, but she works behind the desk in the PSU Music Office. So the next time I stopped in, I asked Monica Rabii;"What is that instrument and what kind of music was that?" Rabii explained that it was called the Persian Santur, and that she was playing Persian Classical music. And then she started to explain that the Santur is a diatonic instrument, meaning non chromatic; you tune it to a scale and then you play using that scale. Also, the scale used in the piece she was playing was a G natural minor scale with the concert A, the second degree of the scale, a QUARTER TONE flat. (This intrigued me further, since I had been using the program Mainstage, which comes with Logic Pro, to use non-traditional tunings on my keyboard. I was doing this to keep up with the microtonal leanings of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist David Fiuczynski, who are my band mates in Jack DeJohnette's current band.)Furthermore, Rabii explained that in Persian traditional music, the ostad, or master, teach the apprentices the common repertoire, which is two hundred short melodies called gusheh, and these are classified into dastgah, or modes. Part of the performance includes an avaz, which is a interlude of freely improvised music. I thought, "this is so much like Jazz!"

I was immediately inspired to compose something for santur and somehow mix it with jazz. So I whipped up what I call "Persian Dance #1", and got Rabii and some other PSU students to get together and rehearse. We performed the piece on a Thursday noon recital, and the response was really good. I decided to write an entire suite for the same instrumentation, which was keyboard, santur, tenor saxophone, upright bass, cajon, and tombek, a traditional Persian drum. Additionally, Rabii is an excellent violinist, so I decided to incorporate that into the piece as well.

We are performing this music, which I call "The Persian Jazz Suite" this coming Monday evening on the Portland State University campus; in Lincoln Hall 75, starting at 7pm. Admission is free. The musicians will be myself on keyboard and piano, Monica Rabii on santur and violin, Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone, Jon Lakey on bass, Cordero Kingsley on percussion, and Mario Sandoval on percussion. I think it's going to be a very interesting cross-cultural experience. I'm hoping to use this music to develop an International Studies class, which will involve bringing this band on the road! Hopefully I can get that together. In the meantime, I hope to see you Monday night! In the meantime, her is a video of Rabii playing her santur.....

Monday, May 14, 2012

Burnin' Out: Hailey Nilswanger-"The Keeper"

Very influential album from the 80's
Say what you want about Wynton Marsalis, but without his rise, a lot of the jazz which occurred in the 80's and 90's would never have happened. I had all of his albums;from "Wynton Marsalis" to "Think OF One" to "Hot House Flowers' to "Standard Time (Volume 1)". But one record really stood out: "Black Codes(From The Underground)" is still among many musician's favorites. Much of that enthusiasm is not just because of Wynton and his brother Branford's virtuosic improvisation, but also because of the exciting interplay between pianist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. Yes, Marsalis can be called a neo-classicist, even more so nowadays with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and it's traveling live-action jazz museum. Much of the music could be construed as picking up where Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter left off in the late 60's, before fusion became the rage. However, "Black Codes" put a unique, driving energy into acoustic jazz, creating a style that saxophonist Tim Warfield used to refer to as "burnout."(You might know Warfield from his stints with the bands of trumpeter Nicholas Payton and bassist Christian McBride, respectively. He's put out a number of great recordings on Criss Cross Jazz.)

Redman was part of the Young Lions fad....
Yes, some think of the late 80's and 90's in jazz as the "Young Lions" era. Yes, it's true that, thanks to Marsalis and the renewed interest in acoustic, non-fusion jazz, many major labels were signing jazz musicians between 18 and 28 to multi-album deals. Players like Roy Hargrove, Marlon Jordon, Cyrus Chestnut, Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christopher Holliday, and even Joey DeFrancesco benefited from this flurry of signings. Many of these musicians' careers lasted beyond the decline of the labels. Some didn't. (Christopher Holliday was really blowing up in the early 90's; it seemed like he was going to be a superstar, and then he disappeared. I heard he went back to finish his degree and is now teaching. This is all the evidence I could find on him, one video from BET featuring Marcus Roberts on piano, Keter Betts on bass, and Carter Beauford-from the Dave Matthews band- on drums.)

I suppose the "Young Lions" phenomenon, like many of the sub-genres of jazz, could be considered a "fad"; nevertheless, some of my favorite music comes from that period. In addition to Kenny Kirkland's work on "Black Codes", albums like Branford Marsalis' "Crazy People Music", or "Random Abstract"(also by Branford), or Out Of The Blue(known as OTB and featuring Mike Mossman, Kenny Garrett, Ralph Bowen, and Ralph Peterson)"Live At Mt. Fuji", or Terence Blanchard/Donald Harrison's "New York Second Line", or Kenny Garrett's "Introducing Kenny Garrett"(on the Criss Cross Label), or "Black Hope"(Another Kenny Garrett album), were all very important for me.

I used to have this on cassette. Anybody have a copy?
"Young Lions" doesn't work as a musical description; that term is really only a marketing ploy. "Burnout" refers to the idea of hard swinging, rhythmically aggressive, interactive, and poly-rhythmic solos over one or a small number of chord changes(maybe a blues form). The melody might just be a short, complex melody, immediately followed by "burnout". The goal is to build to a climatic fever pitch, then possible state the short complex melody as an interlude, then pass it off to the next soloist. The short complex melody might be played in a different tempo-slower or faster-to give the solos some variety. In a set, there might also be a jazz standard, played very traditionally, just to have a breather from all the "burnin' out." Stylistically,  the music of the late 80's and 90's can be seen as a combination of bebop, swing, modal jazz, and in some ways, free jazz. It was a return to acoustic instruments(bass players got rid of the amps and pick-ups and went back to the old style of miking the bass. Of course, when they all got tendonitis from pulling too hard just to be heard, they went back and got pickups.)and an intellectual aesthestic. Also, you had to wear a suit and tie!

I'm taking a trip down memory lane because I've been listening to Hailey Nilswanger's latest CD. It's called "The Keeper", and it leans heavily towards the Young Lions jazz (that I just wasted four paragraphs talking about). The music is very skillfully played and Nilswanger is unquestionably a great young talent. (I'm reading that she graduated from West Linn High School, which is right outside of Portland, Oregon. Maybe she'll move back and I'll get to play with her at some point...)
I'm guessing that her influences include alto saxophonists like Kenny Garrett, Antonio Hart, and Steve Wilson. She has a great deal of technique, swing, and musicality for a youngster. 

Mark Whitfield, Jr.
Nilswanger has assembled a top notch team of young sidemen. Pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi has definitely checked out some Kenny Kirkland, if not for the exact notes, then for the feeling and articulation.Ohbayashi is a great comper and channels other more refined players like Hank Jones and Mulgrew Miller as well.  Max Moran holds it together on the bass, and does get a few nice solo spots("Straight Up", "Balance" and "B Happy"). Drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. is playing his rear end off throughout the CD; at times, he is the sonic spitting image of Ralph Peterson, who I'm guessing was his teacher at Berklee College of Music. Even his snare sounds like it's tuned similar to Peterson's. Darren Barrett is kind of a ringer on this date; he's a veteran trumpeter who is tremendously gifted and tragically under-appreciated. He plays some wickedly devilish lines on an arrangement of "Milestones". (This is the "Milestones" which is not from the classic "Milestones" album from 1958; it's another tune, which is already pretty challenging. Nilswanger's arrangement is actually adding more mishagos to it; there are odd drum breaks and surprising half steps and embellishments. I think they could have played it straight and it would have been fine, but perhaps it will grow on me...)

Hailey Nilswanger
The first tune, "Scraps", is definitively a "burnout" type of tune; complex head, swing over one chord. Change tempo, new solo(piano) on different chord. Piano solo speeds back into original tempo. Nilswanger and Ohbayashi take inspired solos. The next cut, "Straight Up" is a medium burn which swings nicely. Nilswanger shows that she knows how to build intensity. "Norman" is a nice gentle contrast, with a more classic feel. Whitfield plays brushes tastefully; Nilswanger solos soulfully.

"Ravine" is a moody rubato ballad, where Nilswanger and Barrett have some beautiful contrapuntal phrasing. "Played Twice" is a not often played Theolonious Monk tune. On the breaks within the melody, drummer Whitfield really channels his mentor Ralph Peterson on this one! Ohbayashi swings very hard on his solo, and Nilswanger slithers around on her soprano with a short but well crafted solo.

Takeshi Ohbayashi
Nilswanger and Ohbayashi collaborate elegantly on Cole Porter's "Night And Day". I like how Ohbayashi keeps the tempo without walking a bass line. Sometimes he almost implies stride, but it's more reminiscent of how Bill Evans comps on "The Tony Bennett/ Bill Evans Album". It's rare to hear young pianists who can comp so well. (I'm intrigued by Ohbayashi. I noticed on his website that he teaches the Taubman technique; I studied with a pianist named Fred Karpoff who showed me many of the Taubman principles. It's helpful for pianists who have been injured or who want to avoid being injured.)

 This unit sounds as if they play together often, not just for the purposes of this recording. Nilswanger confidently leads her crew, and has a full, vibrant tone and mature phrasing. I think Nilswanger has a bright future as an saxophonist and a composer.

 Nilswanger and her young crew don't have their own unique sound yet-HOWEVER, I am actually glad that they sound like SOMEBODY! And they sound like they check out HIP somebodies, which is better than checking out NOBODY! Students have to emulate in order to learn the craft. These guys and gal are doing it. But I'm thinking, "What will they sound like when they are 40 years old?"Time shall indeed tell.

Don't get me wrong; these young players have tons of potential. If Nilswanger and company had been around in the 80's and 90's, they probably would have been signed. But many of the cats who were "signed" ended up fizzling out, probably because they were "signed" too young. Nilswanger self produced these CDs(the second one was funded by a Kickstarter campaign), and the climate is so different now for young players; with a handful of exceptions, the opportunities for gigs and financial rewards are much harder to come by. I think in some ways it's actually better that young players have to pay more dues; this will more easily prevent the "flash in the pan" syndrome.

All that being said, bravo and best of luck to Hailey Nilswanger and her band! I look forward to the next one.

 I leave you with an excerpt from an interview I did with Steve Wilson in 2010, related to the subject of longevity. I think it helps illustrate my point:

Steve Wilson
GC: I feel like at age 40 I'm just getting started with understanding the music. I ran into Jon Hendricks a few years ago, and he told me that "it takes a lifetime to learn this music". And he was in his 70's at the time. Do you think, in this era of instant gratification, that students can have the patience to survive the lifelong journey of musical development?

SW: I think it's possible. It's very possible. We are in the midst of a cultural shift, some say a cultural war.The students will have to figure that out. It is a lifetime study. I tell students: " This is a marathon, not a sprint.!" And a lot of it is who is left standing when you are 70 or 80, like a Jon Hendricks. You could become a star at 25, but you might not be a star at 30. So you need to be prepared when you aren't a star. And what's going to carry you the rest of the way. There is a real ebb and flow in terms of what we perceive as success. But REAL success is when you have the tools and resolve to keep practicing your craft when nobody's looking. But I do think it's possible. It will be hard for some to shake the cultural tendency to say," If I don't make it by the time I'm 25, then I don't want to do this." But some will figure it out, and I do think we will be in good shape musically.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Travis Rogers' Review and Jason Crane Interview

Me playing at Ivories on Friday
Some people never seem to shut up about themselves. I'm one of those people. At least my blog persona won't. Anyway, we had a good show at Ivories on Friday night. My concerts are rarely reviewed, so here is a link to Travis Rogers' blog where he reviewed the performance. I like Rogers' blog because it's honest and from the heart. It's very unpretentious and to the point. Rogers' blog deals with many other philosophical subject besides music; I'll have to take some time to sift through it. But I'm always glad to get positive feedback from someone who is knowledgeable.

Jason Crane
If you want to hear more about me and how freakin' great I am(crickets..........), check out an interview I did with jazz journalist Jason Crane. He has a great site called The Jazz Session. He has done hundreds of interviews with jazz greats. He's a cool guy and knows the music well. He's also a prolific poet. This interview was conducted back in April, before my show at the Jazz Standard in New York. It was pretty loose and candid. I felt comfortable and tried to "keep it real" as much as possible. Check it out, and then check out some of his other interviews.

There are so many jazz blogs out there already, I'm surprised that anyone takes the time to read mine. I think most blogs are more interesting and valid than the so-called "jazz mainstream press." When you take the advertising concerns and the politics out of it, I think it ends up being more about the music than the hype. You can't listen to hype. Hype can't move you the way music does. You can't dance to hype. No married couple ever said, "Listen, honey....they're playing our HYPE!"

Friday, May 11, 2012

George Colligan Quartet at Ivories Tonight! Live Recording!

I'll be smiling if you come to Ivories tonight!
For those of you who live in Portland, you are in for a treat; tonight at Ivories(1435 NW Flanders) is the George Colligan Quartet. I'll be playing piano, and maybe some melodica if I feel like it. David Valdez is an amazing alto player, Eric Gruber is an amazing bass player, and Todd Strait is a killing drummer. (Killing means he sounds great, not that he has ever killed anybody. That I know of.) We'll be playing a lot of my original music, as well as some off the beaten path jazz standards. We are doing a live recording, so if you want to be documented on our recording, prepare your hands for clapping and come on down. It's a 10 dollar cover; Come on, it's worth it!

I leave you with a video of me playing with Al Foster, Eddie Henderson, Doug Weiss, and Eli DiGibri. This was recorded in Paris in 2007. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts On Sight Reading and So Forth

Mike Prigodich-forced me against my will to sit in
Last night, I went and sat in on Mike Prigodich's gig at Ivories. I went to listen, but Prigodich asked me to sit in; first on drums, then on piano. He made me sight read some of his music, which was pretty challenging fusionesque material. I made it through, but I left feeling as though my sight reading had atrophied a lot. The other musicians and audience seemed to think it was ok, but I know better. The question is, will I be able to improve? Teaching full time, being a parent, and playing gigs doesn't leave much time in the schedule for extra practice.

The late Vince Loving
I think sight reading is a very valuable skill, although in some ways, it is misunderstood. First of all, some musicians really develop their ears, and never spend the time learning to read in more than a rudimental way. I don't think that those musicians should be thought of as less skilled. It's more like being differently skilled. For example, if you can hear, then you theoretically don't need to be able to read, because as long as you can memorize, you can really learn the  music. (Years ago, I played on a recording led by guitarist Cheryl Bailey. The bassist was the late Vince Loving, a great musician from Baltimore. There were charts for every tune, but Bailey would just demonstrate Loving's bass parts, and he would just play them back to her, and then he would memorize them. He was the only one of us not looking at charts during the  recording!) I believe the ears should always trump the eyes. That's why composer Raymond Scott always taught his musicians by ear, instead of giving them charts. It looks more professional when the musicians aren't reading, right?

There's a funny bit by underrated comedian Todd Barry, where he talks about seeing Aerosmith performing with the London Symphony. He thought it was weird that Aerosmith had no sheet music, while the conservatory trained London Symphony needed sheet music for such simple music! He imagines the strained thoughts of the orchestra members: " A major...uh, oh, A MINOR?" I think he actually has a point in that be able to read it might actually make us lazy. Written music can be a crutch.

Lonnie Plaxico
Lonnie Plaxico, who also has amazing ears, always told us that Art Blakey never allowed musicians to read on the bandstand. So when I was in Plaxico's band, he tried to insist that we wouldn't use charts. My parts were so difficult that I HAD to memorize them in order to play them. Admittedly, Plaxico's charts were much more technically demanding than say, Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'." Still, it makes for a better performance if you really KNOW the music.

I suppose I'm off on a tangent about memorizing. I think it's important to develop that skill as well. One of my piano students at the University of Manitoba brought in Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" to a lesson. I had assigned this months prior, and asked him why he hadn't memorized it. " Well, if you hadn't played this tune in a while, would you REALLY be able to play it from memory?" "Of COURSE!" I exclaimed. "Maybe there's something else which is holding you back? You do realize that Cannabis has an effect on memory?" My student stuck his tongue out at me....

However, being able to sight read well can make things go much faster in the studio, or on a gig if there is no chance for rehearsal, or if there is no recording of the piece, etc...I've always envied musicians that could really read well. As a trumpet student at Peabody Conservatory, I met many great classical piano students who seemed to be able to sight read anything you put in front of them. I had a pianist roommate for a brief time who seemed to be a flawless reader. I actually tried to write something really impossible, to see if he couldn't read it. He didn't bat an eye and played it down flawlessly. So much for that.

I was a decent sight reader on trumpet, but trumpet only requires that you read one line at a time. Piano can be a much more challenging proposition. My teacher Wayne Cameron helped us with our sight reading. One of my classmates was trumpeter Alex Norris; during one masterclass, another trumpet student declined to play a solo piece, which he had been assigned a month earlier. Mr. Cameron said, "Alex, why don't you sight read his piece?" Norris expertly sightread the music which the other fellow was unable to play at all after working on it for a month! Talk about intimidating.

Kenny Drew, Jr. 
I had to really work on my sight reading, and I'm still nowhere near where I would like to be. There are a bunch of other jazz pianists who sight read on the level I wish I could achieve; Geoffrey Keezer, Helen Sung, Ethan Iverson, David Kane, and my wife Kerry Politzer as well. But there is one guy who is hands down(no pun intended) the best sight reader I have ever seen; Kenny Drew, Jr. I witnessed him bringing a stack of music books from Pedelsen's in New York, putting them on the piano, and reading them as if he had been preparing the music for 6 months. And these weren't simple tunes; this was HARD 20th Century Russian piano literature. This was piano acrobatics, and Drew could just READ it like the morning paper. I seriously thought about quitting the piano that day...

I've mentioned before in this blog that there are many misconceptions about jazz musicians. You'd be surprised how many jazz musicians can read BETTER than classical musicians. Especially when it comes to rhythm. Plus, even if a jazz musician doesn't read on par with a classical musician, he can take the music home and maybe in a week or a month, come back and play on par with classical musicians. And yet, you can't give a non-improvising classical musician a jazz tune and say, "Come back in a week and be able to improvise..."

James Reese Europe
If you watch the Ken Burns "Jazz", there is an entire segment on the James Reese Europe Orchestra, and how these African- American musicians were considered crack readers. "They could read a moving snake! If a fly landed on the page, he got PLAYED!" But they would memorize everything and play without sheet music. Unfortunately, the white audiences just assumed that because they were black that they had no training, and just played by ear. I think some of those attitudes remain, regardless of the color of the musicians.

The top 6 things you can do to improve your sight reading are as follows:

1. Try to sight read brand new music everyday. Don't worry about what it is, or whether you like it, or what it sounds like. You are now a sight reading robot. You will read anything that is put in front of you. Go to the music library, dig out sheet music from your attic, borrow some books from your friends, whatever. The only criteria is that you've never seen it before.

"He'll read anything that's on the teleprompter"
2. Don't look at your hands; look at the music!( I realize this doesn't apply to every instrument.) How can you follow the music if you keep looking down at your hands! Learn to play by feel as much as you can. And keep your eyes on the music Think of the music page as the teleprompter, and you are looking at it like Ron Burgundy from Anchorman. ("He'll read anything that's written on there!")

3. Look over the music just before you start and find the trouble spots. Check for key changes, lots of 16th notes, weird rhythms, etc... just so you have a fighting chance before you put the pedal to the metal.

4. Look as far ahead as you can while you play. This is tricky, but it will help you to plan ahead. It's a different level of alertness. It's kind of like driving a car; you always have to keep your eyes far ahead, not just focused on the road in front of you. That way, you can react before it's too late. Same with sight reading music. The best sight readers read one or two systems ahead, let alone a few bars ahead. Try it next time you read and see if it helps.

5. Sight read and play so slowly or out of time that you don't play any wrong notes. This will help you with your accuracy, and will give you an idea of just how slowly you need to play to get everything perfect. It will help you develop your reflexes, and hopefully it will help you to play faster with accuracy in the long run.

6. Sight read and set the metronome; keep the tempo and don't worry about wrong notes. This is especially important for professional playing, because there is no time in the studio or in some accompanying situations to perfect every nuance. You need to play it up to speed. Especially with pianists, you might have to leave some notes out in order to keep the time. Basically, this is known as "faking it." But it's a good skill to have.

Good luck, and above all, be patient. Just 10 minutes a day can help. Maybe spend 10 fewer minutes on Facebook and sit down and sight read a new piece. You might surprise yourself if you keep at it.

Marching Baritone Part 2

The internet is really something else. I never really have a sense of your audience the way I do in a concert performance And then I'll be shocked to find out who is reading my blog. That's why I really try to speak honestly, but also thoughtfully, because I don't want to offend, especially folks that I respect. I like to debate, as long as there is no name calling and the conversation is respectful and relevant. And it's interesting to see which posts generate the most comments. My last blog regarding my new purchase of a marching baritone generated some cool responses, and I wanted to make sure you see them.

The first was from someone named Brandon:

Rich Matteson
So as a college student learning jazz on trombone after eight years of euphonium playing (including a year of attempted music majorness), I can say I kind of agree. I have to work much longer than any of the other students in the improvisation classes to get down simple licks (arpeggios, some 2-5-1 patterns, rotations), to the point where I'm going to be catching up on stuff I've covered in the past two semesters this summer. The few times I've decided to play my euph this year, it's been relative easy to take the patterns I've been learning on trombone and apply them almost immediately (it might help that I'll randomly finger them while bored class and such, because well thinking of things in valve combinations is still more natural to me). I also showed up to a few jam sessions last year with a Yamaha marching baritone and everyone thought it was a flugelhorn. But most of the people there were really psyched to see it, just because it was different (same when I brought the actual euphonium along).

But I think the main reason everyone learns trombone instead of one of the valved low brass instruments is that as few gigs as there are for trombonists at least trombone has somewhat of a pop culture name. As far as I know there were three jazz euphonists (one played on Ready for Freddie by Freddie Hubbard, one is Rich Matteson, and the other is Rich Matteson's succesor at UNF). And those guys only played in combos (well Rich lead a big band, but not many people lead big bands to begin with). That's the main reason I'm learning everything on trombone; I've learned it to play in big band and it seems like a waste to learn improvisation if I can't apply it in that setting (since right now that is the main place where I play). Big bands seem to be where most famous jazz trombonists play (or at least got started/made their name). Also, euphonium/baritone horn just doesn't fit in big band tonewise (especially euphonium). I've tried both, and it just sounds out of place. Maybe things would be different if I wasn't the only one not playing trombone, but the trombone section has a pretty well defined sonority that doesn't transfer to the other two (just different amounts of light/dark in the tone depending on range. Instead of sounding like a lead trombone, you get more of a french horn sound in the upper register). I mean, it might work in a manner similar to Stan Kenton's mellophonium band or with lead bone/bass bone and then two euphs/baritones playing third/fourth trombone, but it'd require a lot of experimentation and finding people who want to play baritone/euphonium.

But you're in a lot better place than I am to be experimenting with the baritone horn in a jazz setting (as you have steady gigs, and a job to boot). I definitely want to go back at some point and really transfer all the stuff I'm learning on trombone to euphonium and play them both at gigs. There are some songs (like Ceora and a few bebop songs) that I see the heads as being more trouble than their worth to try to play on trombone, but would be great to play on euph. Also, a real euph/four valved baritone horn (if you get one) has pretty much the same range as a double bass (using pedal tones), so it can fill a variety of roles.

I definitely want to see what you end up doing with the marching horn; please continue to post about it here (and maybe record yourself playing it at a gig please?). Also, yes it's very heavy, it takes at least two to three months of marching band practice before holding it for a ten minute show isn't painful, and even then it's tiring. Also, if you get a non-standard issue mouthpiece, you can get something similar in size to a trumpet mouthpiece (not as small, but enough smaller). Although most of those will be listed as trombone mouthpieces, because it's not like anyone really plays the baritone seriously, right?

I was glad to hear that I'm not the only one who was thinking along these lines.

Steve Turre
The next comment was from someone named Stephan Turre, which must be the great trombonist, Steve  Turre:

There is a thing called a "valve trombone" which exists...

Steve, of course! I thought of that first! For some reason, I gravitated towards this marching baritone monstrosity. I might live to regret it. Maybe I'll trade it for a valve trombone...

The third and most interesting comment came from none other than Frank Lacy. Lacy is one of the most underrated musicians there is. He's a great brass player, and composer, conductor, and bandleader, but he's one of the great jazz singers. Why he isn't a super star is beyond me. Lacy is also a very smart guy; I think he has a degree in Chemistry. I've enjoyed debating him on topics in the past(we had long discussion about Israel and the Middle East and Lacy really knew the history). Here is his comment:

As a brass player that plays all the brass instruments(french horn,trumpet,euphonium,baritone horn,trombone, and tuba) i feel compelled to address this, as a means of educating musicians about brass instruments. 
1) I love trombone jokes.......hard as it is to keep work as a trombonist, the jokes keeps me from crying... 

2) You totally failed to mention the mechanics of the rotary valve(i.e. the french horn) that can play eight and sixteenth notes passages cleaner than piston valves,hence,the reason the French horn is used in woodwind ensembles. 

3)What's with the slide? On the slide, it's POSSIBLE, because the slide is calibrated in POSITIONS, not fingerings as in valve and rotary pistons,keys(like on saxophones and pianos)or instruments of indefinite pitch(percussion instruments)to obtain the PERFECT intonation of a note, like a string instrument. Therefore, the trombone is called the stringed instrument of the brass family. 

Frank Lacy
4)The trombone is the ONLY musical instrument that comes closest to mimicking the HUMAN VOICE (check out Tricky Sam Nanton of the Ellington band).

 5) Because of it's cumbersome quality to play fast passages, it's easier to make the instrument SWING on the eighth note, and as of recent times(mid-nineties to present), I'm finding it increasingly hard to hear jazz musicians swinging on the eighth note due to more and more classical-tinged melodies in jazz compositions that one cannot recall 30 seconds after the tune is played. 

6)Since i've played with great composer/arrangers like Henry Threadgill, Slide Hampton,Jimmy Heath, Clifford Jordan, Muhal Richard Abrams, Mike Nock and Michael Formanek and others, not too many jazz composers have excercised the testicular fortitude and ejacalative viscosity to even TRY to study the workings of the instrument enough to WRITE for it CORRECTLY.As of RECENT times, I've had to rewrite most of the trombone parts I've had to play on !

I suppose you are right, Frank, regarding the possibility to be perfectly in tune on a trombone. But like any string instrument, it takes work to be able to hear it. So yes, advanced players can do it. Students can have a hard time. And I hear what you are saying about the classical tinged melodies which are forgettable. I'm not totally against that, but I do think that the whole, "let's play everything straight eighths, not swing, and have every melody be a technical exercise" is potentially dangerous. And Sam Nanton was an integral part of the Ellington sound, for sure.

Frank Lacy, also a great jazz singer....
I'm glad to get feedback on this. I've only had this baritone for 2 days. I tried playing it this morning before my history class, and I'm wondering how long the honeymoon will last. I'll let you know. 

Finally, this was posted on my facebook page from another great trombonist named Andre Hayward:

No hate at all George. I love the valves myself. There's nothing like the sound of a euphonium, baritone horn, or bass trumpet. I can't wait to hear you play it.

 I think you are going to have to wait, because I'm not ready! But give me a few weeks at least.....

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Marching Baritone Part 1

Robin Eubanks, one of the great jazz trombone players
I've played with a number of really tremendously fine trombone players in my career: Robin Eubanks, Frank Lacy, Luis Bonilla, Christophe Schwietzer, Andy Hunter, Conrad Herwig, and many others. I have great respect for trombone players, despite all the great jokes at their expense.(What's the difference between a squirrel laying dead on the highway and a trombone player laying dead on the highway? The squirrel was on his way to a gig!)My college roommate was and currently is a really great trombonist( he lives in Boston and is playing full time.) So please don't send me hate mail for what I'm about to say.

SO.....Uhhh, what's with the slide? Is it really better than valves? Isn't much of a trombonists time spent trying to simulate with the slide what valves can do quite easily? Isn't it like using a horse and buggy when we have high speed transit? Now, some people will say that there are smears and things which are impossible on valve instruments. You can't get that with a half valve technique? Well, maybe they are right about that, but like I said, trombonists who are trying to play bebop lines would probably do a lot better with valves. (I'm really not trying to hate on trombonists! Please! Some of my best friends are trombonists......)

Bass Trumpet
My thought was that if a valve trombone magically appeared before me, my trumpet abilities would allow me to instantly double on the trombone. (I realize that the mouthpiece and air flow are quite different. We'll get to that.) However, my internet research led me to some other possibilities. I saw something called the marching trombone, which has VALVES, and looks like a big trumpet. I saw the bass trumpet, which is rarely used (except in Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring"), has an extremely strident tone, and also tends to be very expensive. I also noticed  things called marching baritones and marching euphoniums, and also flugabones. All of these things look like oversize trumpets. They were all kind of expensive, too.

Marching Baritone
 I remembered how much my sister Dana enjoyed played the baritone horn in high school. I figured that baritone is somewhere between a trombone and a euphonium in terms of timbre(trombone being bright and euphonium being much more mellow due to it's conical shape.)And I saw a really great deal on a brand new Hoss marching baritone(with case!) on EBAY, so I threw sanity to the wind and put in my credit card. Well, my marching baritone arrived TODAY! I was cautiously optimistic, especially considering that I already own many other instruments and barely have the time to practice them. However, I wanted to get a taste for low brass. I had only picked up a trombone maybe a handful of times as a joke, or when I was a Music Education major in college.

My new Marching Baritone
In some ways, I proved my point; playing a marching baritone is in some ways like playing a trumpet an octave lower. However, the amount of air is quite different, and will take some getting used to. Also, it is twice as heavy as a trumpet, and my left shoulder got tired very quickly. Furthermore, I think it will require some embouchure adjustment, since the negotiation of intervals with the lips is quite different on this double sized mouthpiece. Still, it was fun to be able to pick up a new instrument and be able to play something without having to learn a completely new fingering system.

I shall keep my readers informed on how this little experiment goes. I might include some youtube videos at some point, but for now, I have included photos, and you'll just have to imagine how it sounds.(Not great. But not terrible.) I showed the new instrument to some of my colleagues at PSU, and I'm pretty sure they think I need professional psychiatric help.

Yes, the amount of air needed for a marching baritone is much greater than what is needed for the trumpet; I felt dizzy after playing for only ten minutes. I actually fell asleep. While I slept, I had a strange dream; I dreamt that I left my marching baritone in the backseat of my car, and parked it on the street. When I returned to my car, I found that my car had been broken into ;now, there were two marching baritones in the backseat.......