Thursday, February 21, 2013

George Cables Solo Piano at PDX Jazz Festival

The Great George Cables
It's Jazz Festival Time here in Portland, Oregon. This is a very exciting week. There is a lot going on, and it's probably impossible to hear it all. Fortunately, my excuse is that I'm performing quite a bit. Unfortunately, I will miss a lot of great music. The PDX Jazz Festival, like most good jazz festivals, has a wide variety of jazz artists, local and international. Thanks to festival director Don Lucoff, there are huge headliners as well as student ensembles as well as Portland mainstays, all presented for your listening pleasure.

Tonight, I got the opportunity to introduce, interview, and listen to one of the true piano jazz greats: George Cables. When we talk about jazz piano, we of course speak of Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. But if you are just getting into this music, and you dig a little deeper deeper, you find names like Kenny Barron, James Williams, Harold Mabern, John Hicks, Onaje Allen Gumbs, Albert Dailey, Ronnie Matthews, Larry Willis, and many others. George Cables is one of those jazz pianists who played with all of the greats and is still, even in his late 60's, still on my Talent Deserving Wider Recognition list! He has had all the dream sideman gigs, and has a lengthy discography as a leader as well. He's a true New York pianist. (He's from Brooklyn as well. Isn't everyone from Brooklyn?) He's also an extremely friendly guy, and was nicely forthcoming in our "jazz conversation" before the concert at Classic Pianos officially began.( I tried to record the interview but my computer crapped out. I asked him about playing with Joe Henderson on "Live At The Lighthouse", among other

Cables gets a wonderful variety of tone color out of the piano. He began with a fast and flowing version of "My Foolish Heart." I enjoyed the fact that Cables, much like Art Tatum and Bill Evans, can stretch his timing in a very tasteful way. At times, it was rather Chopin-esque, and other times, it was solidly grooving. Cables played a number of great jazz standards, including Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" and Theolonious Monk's "Round Midnight", but he also featured some of his most beautiful compositions; a song for his mother entitled "EVC", and a song for his "best friend" Helen Wray (who sadly passed away in 2010) called "Helen's Song" were highlights. Cables, by request, played one of his hit tunes called "Think On Me", which he described as "a tune which I rarely play in a solo setting." Cables uses a lot of bass lines in his writing, and has a very fluid technique, but never overplays or tries to overcompensate for the "space" of solo piano.

Another welcome surprise was a quite high energy version of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." I'm noticing that many older players will take tunes that are considered ballads or slow tunes and make them into "burners." Indeed, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is not an easy tune as a ballad, let alone as an uptempo tune! Cables continued on with an off-the-beaten-path McCoy Tyner ballad entitled "You Taught My Heart To Sing." He played it in the key of Bb and modulated to Db on the last A section, which I had never heard anyone do before.

Finally, Cables stood up to receive a standing ovation. As an encore, he played one of the most compelling tunes of the evening: an original entitled "Lullabye." George Cables has all of the hip New York edge and experience combined with a sensitive soul. I left Classic Pianos with musical joy and inspiration still ringing in my ears.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Move to New York?

I stumbled across this from a Huffington Post article from 2010:

Musician and author Patti Smith had some sound advice for fledgling artists thinking of moving to New York: don't.
According to Vanishing New York, in a discussion with writer Jonathan Lethem at Cooper Union on Saturday, Smith was asked if it was possible for young artists to come to the city and find the path to stardom that she did.
In response, Smith told the crowd, "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city."

This was the subway in New York in the 70's
I followed the link to Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, a blog regarding the "changes" which have been occurring in New York since perhaps the late 80's and early 90's. Yes, New York is safer and more pleasant in some ways. But in other ways, the gentrification and the influx of bankers and wall street hedge fund managers into New York has made the city into a playground for the ultra-rich. (Bloomberg is blamed heavily in some earlier posts.)This means that any struggling artist would have his work cut out for him if he wanted to "make it" in New York.

Many of my students ask me: " Should I move to New York? Do I have what it takes to make it in New York?" For most of my students, the answer is no, and that's mostly because they don't have their musical stuff together.  But for those of my students who I believe DO have the potential to work in New York, I still hesitate. It's not that they can't make it in New York as a jazz musician; the question is, can ANYBODY make it in New York anymore?

I moved to New York in 1995. I played a lot around town, even though it took a few years to really get established. I played at Bradley's, Sweet Basil's, Small's, and a bunch of restaurants and smaller clubs in different parts of New York. Plus, I still went back to D.C. and Baltimore to work just to fill in the gaps. I also was starting to travel more. In fact, I would say for most of my career in New York, the bulk of my income was from touring Europe. Sometimes, I would be on the road for 50 percent or more of the entire year.

That all seemed to change after 9-11. Whereas in the 90's, tours could be as long as 9 weeks straight, or even 11 weeks straight, the 2000's seemed to whittle that down. Many of the great venues in New York closed, and the ones that stayed open became more and more competitive. Many musicians, including yours truly, started to be on the lookout for teaching gigs. In 2007, I attended Queens College to get my Master's degree, in the hopes that this would make a full time teaching position more possible.

When I first moved to NYC, my rent was 150 dollars a month. I had 5 roommates. I literally lived in a closet. Then I moved into a place with 3 other roommates. Now I had a child's room for 300 bucks a month. After about a year, I moved into my own one bedroom for $650 a month. That was in Park Slope. Nowadays, the rents in Brooklyn, let alone Manhattan, are astronomical. I have a friend who lives pretty far out in Brooklyn, way farther than Park Slope, and pays $1000 a month for a tiny no- frills studio. I suppose deals can be had, but it all depends on how you want to live.

I think some of the reasons to move to New York to play jazz are still there: more jazz musicians than anywhere else, a great way to make connections and be inspired, some jazz industry things going on, more venues than other cities. But actually making a living playing jazz in New York seems almost impossible. The gigs don't pay, and you are competing with so many other superb players for the same gigs. Also, I think the venues are not thriving the way they used to because the demand for creative music, or any live music, is not what it was. Bankers and hedge fund managers are more interested in cigar bars and high end sushi-fusion restaurants than jazz clubs.

If you have a lot of money saved, or you want to live far out in the outer boroughs, or even in New Jersey, (ha!), and you can consider working a day job until you start to earn money from gigs, then by all means, move to New York. You can hear incredible musicians every night, and New York is still a wonderful city. Even though some say that the city has lost it's character, I believe New York still has a lot of personality(more than most other American cities. Sorry.). But if you think it's going to be easy, you are delusional.

I still have desires to spend time in New York. However, I believe it's actually a lot cheaper to fly to New York a handful of times a year, and get small fixes that way, then to live there full time-WITHOUT a teaching gig(you dig?). That's the next thing I would recommend to aspiring jazz students. Try to spend as much time as you can in New York without going broke. Fly there a few times a year, see as much music as you can, try to play sessions, and soak up the atmosphere. Maybe try to meet, fall in love with, and marry a hedge fund manager, while you are at it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wayne Shorter Part 2 Electric Boogaloo

 I think the Wayne Shorter controversy has run it's course. It has come to my attention that the young man who said terrible things about Mr. Shorter is actually a very troubled human being and probably needs someone to help him. I really hope he gets the help he needs. We don't need to bash him or shame him. That's already been done. I think this kid is hurting. Send some good thoughts his way. He might not be ready to get help, but I want peace in this world and one way to create peace is to love those who maybe don't love you.

In the meantime, I got this in the Facebook "mail":

Hey Mr. Colligan: With all this Wayne-ing noise going on, I'd like to ask you a question. To my ears, I still think "High Life" is one of the very best albums I've ever heard, at least in terms of effectively cross-breeding the idea and /or potential of a "studio recording" with the idea and/or potential of "jazz expression". Yet most of the critical comments I've seen have tended to be lukewarm at best. Care to comment? Thanks in advance.

Excellent question. My first reaction is that many critics have their heads up their you-know-what. Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" was panned. My second reaction is that I haven't listened to that recording in a long time, so this is a perfect time to pull it out and listen to it again.

I think one thing that's amazing about Shorter's career is that he is a great improviser, and played with such freedom with the Miles Davis Quintet. But he also has a flair for long form composition. "High Life" is a celebration of the latter. It's densely orchestrated, with REAL strings, REAL woodwinds, and some synthesizers and percussion. It's quite colorful, but it's more like symphonic music in that one, it's mostly written, and two, it's melodies and moods unfold slowly over time. It's not a head-solos-head affair at all; this is a Magnum Opus kind of session, which I imagine probably took a lot of time and energy to finish. 

I think we have a tendency to jump too quickly to conclusions about music. If we hear one recognizable element, we want to immediately throw it in the "style" box. " Oh, this is funk..." or whatever...."This is fusion." As I listen to "High Life" some more, I marvel at it's harmonic complexity, and the way that Shorter is able to solo melodically over these types of polychords, chords which make "Giant Steps" seem like a blues in comparison. One cool thing about Shorter's music throughout his career is that he uses common tones between chords, which functionally may have nothing to do with each other, and makes it seem like a natural progression, all the while creating a singable, simple melodic statement. In this way, "High Life" is just a long form, highly orchestrated version of his earlier work. 

I couldn't help but listen to this music and remember former New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous' highly critical review of the album. Watrous used the following words to describe this music:

"...turns out to be a pastel failure and a waste of his enormous talent..."
".... it is as if Picasso had given up painting to design greeting cards...."
"...simply, it's an eager-to-please instrumental pop album..."
"....only a vestigial relationship to mainstream jazz and virtually no connection to Mr. Shorter's glory years...."
"Mr. Shorter's "High Life," with its reliance on the most obvious pop back beats and its sentimentalism, is quite likely a commercial mistake. The real money nowadays is in acoustic music with intellectual weight. Mr. [Joe]Henderson, Mr. Shorter's label mate, sold 74,000 copies of "Lush Life." Mr. Shorter's three albums, electric and ostensibly commercial, recorded for Columbia during the 1980's never sold more than 20,000 copies apiece. "

Much of the article refers to what Watrous calls "The Curse Of Miles Davis." My interpretation is that Watrous just never could get with "fusion" music, and seems to think that Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock should have kept playing straight ahead acoustic music. My opinion is that Watrous, obviously biased, should not have even been allowed to review this album. This is not only because he is clearly biased against the music based on boxing it into a genre, but he's not even calling it fusion, he calls it "eager-to-please instrumental pop "! My question is: what the heck is Watrous hearing? Does he have any ears at all? Did he even listen carefully to the entire recording? If he doesn't have the chops to understand it, or if he doesn't have the time to listen to it, then he shouldn't be allowed to write in the newspaper of record about anything. My feeling is that this review is practically libel, and if Wayne Shorter cared(which I'm sure he didn't), he should have sued. 

This is why I believe music writers need to be held to a higher standard. First of all, words NEVER tell the proper story when it come to music. Here's an example; if  we are at a party where the folks know nothing about jazz, and Wayne Shorter and one of my PSU students are in attendance. Wayne Shorter says, "I'm a jazz musician," and  my PSU student says, "I'm a jazz musician, too," the folks at the party would think that Wayne Shorter and one of my students are equals. That's pretty insane if you think about it. 

In this way, Watrous flippantly reducing "High Life" to  "eager-to-please instrumental pop"
is in the same way false. In my view, he basically lumped Wayne Shorter in with Kenny G!

Folks, you decide:

Here's Shorter's brilliant reworking of "Children Of The Night":
And here is Kenny G's most popular tune:

  There is a big difference in what's happening with both of these songs: harmonically, improvisationally, thematically, and rhythmically. However, from what I read, Peter Watrous would put "High Life" in the exact same category. This is just wrong on a million levels.

In the way that our Facebook friend said terrible, disrespectful things about Wayne Shorter, shouldn't critics be held to an even higher standard? When you think about the fact that every moment of Shorter's musical life up to that point led up to the completion of "High Life." Every moment he spent practicing his horn, every lesson he took, every gig he played with Art Blakey, with Maynard Ferguson, with Miles Davis, with Weather Report, and so one. Every hour it took to record "High Life", to make sure all the parts were correct, to mix and master, and so on and so forth. For Mr. Watrous to so viciously, disrespectfully, and furthermore inaccurately hate on it is....well, it was outrageous. I believ Watrous took a lot of heat for that piece. (Much like the avalanche of anger heaped up our Facebook friend.)

I don't mean to open old wounds. And I don't really know Mr. Watrous. I could have met him at Bradley's in 1996 when I had my own group there; the club owner told me not to bother him. "Peter doesn't like to be bothered." As if I was dying to talk to him? Isn't this what is so jacked up about the jazz business? Everyone's important except the actual musicians. Shouldn't it have been the other way around? Shouldn't he have wanted to talk to me? I'm the one on the bandstand, for pete's sake......(If memory serves, I think he gave me a good review for that gig, but honestly I can't even recall....)

So in answering the question, I think that once again, the problem with jazz is that you actually have to listen to it. And sometimes people just want to figure it out in a hurry. I wonder if Mr. Watrous ever went back and tried to figure out what he was missing? There's no pleasing everyone, that's for sure. I think "High Life" is really a magnificent work of art. But what do I know? I'm merely a musician who has devoted his life to understanding and performing and composing music......

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What's all this about Wayne Shorter?

LOVE Wayne Shorter.......
Facebook is quite miraculous in many ways. The explosion of social networking in cyberspace has changed people's lives and made it easy to keep up with friends who are far away, publicize your gigs and music, and also share photos and information with large numbers of people. There's also a dark side to Facebook. Some people use it as, at best, a public diary, and at worst, a way to incite virtual riots. (Since Facebook caught on, I've been truly fascinated to see the wide diversity of status updates; they range from extensive quotations from the writings of Krishnamurti to "I love pancakes!")

In the past few days, there has been a huge cyber-controversy regarding a young musician who, in what I imagine was a poorly thought out burst of emotion, posted something very harsh about the great saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. (I don't want to post it here. It was a much meaner way of saying "Wayne Shorter sucks.") Folks have come out of the Facebook woodwork to criticize this young man. While I haven't had time to read all 400 and then some of the comments below this post, I felt the need to say something.

While obviously, this guy, who is a saxophone player, technically has the right to say whatever he wants (within the laws of free speech; for example, it's illegal to threaten to kill the President, or to post child pornography, or that type of thing). And certainly, I have said harsh things about human beings on my Facebook page, AND on jazztruth. In defense of myself, I have been harsher on political figures, who I believe are fair game for harsh criticism; I believe I have been critical of them in a political context. If it seemed over the top, I was probably attempting humor (for example, if I say , "John Boehner is the Devil," I don't really believe he is the Devil, first of all, because I don't really believe in the Devil, and secondly, because I am aware that Boehner is a human being. He is a VERY corrupt politician. I don't know, unless you don't consider passing out contribution checks from Big Tobacco to fellow Republicans on the floor of the House of Representatives corrupt). Perhaps it's unfair to use humor as a defense; Rush Limbaugh has tried to hide behind some of the reprehensible things he has said by saying he was trying to be funny. (Limbaugh makes millions and is in a much different position that I am.)

I have been critical of some musicians, maybe some who didn't deserve it. In observing this sort of flip disrespect of Wayne Shorter, who is widely agreed in the community to be a jazz legend, I have my own regrets of things I have posted about lesser known musicians. I never used this type of profanity to sort of "dismiss" anyone. Now, some say that this type of obscene dismissal occurs all the time in private conversation(or perhaps throughout the Miles Davis autobiography. Well, none of us are Miles Davis, so you can forget using that as a justification). There's a big difference between saying this kind of thing in conversation and posting in a public forum.

Again, everyone has the right to their opinion, whether it makes any sense or not. Let's face it, this young jazz player is at least dismissing Wayne Shorter after listening to him; how many billions of other people in the world have dismissed jazz music altogether? In fact, they don't even have the time or interest to say, "Jazz Sucks," on Facebook. So in this way, this young musician's opinion is probably in the majority, if you really think about it.

However, I think that this poor misguided young musician is going to regret his callous words in the future, maybe even the near future. It would have been better if he would have written these words in a private email, or just vented to a good friend after a few beers. Unfortunately, saying something on Facebook is now a very open public forum, much like saying something in a magazine interview or on television. I think one should consider that these type of statements will have consequences, and that one must be prepared for those consequences. (For example, if I say "Mitt Romney sucks!" I know that there are some of my Republican or conservative friends who are going to disagree. And as long as they don't call me names, I'm willing to accept intellectual dialogue. But to my recollection, my criticism of Romney and other conservative figures has been based on their policies and their words. These policies will effect the course of world history. Music is WAY more subjective, and we need to acknowledge this.)

My basic impression is that a young musician who has essentially not much of a career to speak of at this point should not be publicly dismissing 80 year old jazz legends. It would have been MUCH different if he had posted, "Just came from the Wayne Shorter concert. I think it went over my head..." or, "What's all the fuss about Wayne Shorter? I'm not a fan....". Instead of dissing Wayne Shorter, maybe he should have talked about the tenor saxophone players he really loves. "Hank Mobley is AWESOME!"

Regardless of whatever his true opinions are, this young saxophone player should realize that success in the jazz business(and although it's microscopic compared to the rest of the music biz, it's STILL a business) is probably based as much on REPUTATION than one's playing. So if you want to have a good reputation, dissing the living legends of jazz is probably not a good way to make people think well of you. And it seems as though this young man is pretty stubborn, and pretty convinced that he is "right." Well, whether he is right or wrong, which is fairly subjective, he should still consider the fact that no he will be known as "the guy who dissed Wayne Shorter on Facebook" rather than "the guy who plays tenor saxophone at Small's occasionally."I've seen careers ruined by much less than this. Maybe this gentleman will eventually live this down. He could start by apologizing, instead of digging himself further down into a hole by trying to justify himself.

In some way, I can understand the emotion behind the rejection of one's elders. Jazz music, like life, is a progression. Jazz evolves. How does anything evolve? It changes. Jazz music comes out of a tradition, much like people come out of traditions. Some people continue traditions, some people take traditions and modify them. Some reject them altogether. I think when we are very young, we worship our parents, because we would die without them. As we get older, in order to assert our independence, we push our parents away. However, a sign of MATURITY, real MATURITY is to be able to look at our parents and say, "Wow, I used to think you were really corny. Now, I respect you."
I say all this because my mother died very suddenly a few weeks ago. I think about when I was in high school, and I had many conflicts with her. Then, as I got older, I started to understand her and respect her. And when I had a son, then I REALLY understood all that she sacrificed, and how I took her unconditional love for granted.

In this way, I think this young man's rejection of Wayne Shorter in such a disrespectful way is much like the high school kid saying to his parents, "I can do what I want! You aren't the boss of me!" But I suspect that a few years down the road, this young man will begin to understand why he should RESPECT the 80 year old Wayne Shorter, regardless of whether he will ever love Wayne Shorter's music or saxophone playing. It's just the right thing to do.