Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Blue: Mostly Other People Do The Killing's Transcription Homework Assignment

Mostly Other People Do The Killing.....I mean, wait.....
Mostly Other People Do The Killing is quite a provocative name for a jazz group. I've been aware of them for a few years; I have heard a few samples from their earlier recordings( "This Is Our Moosic, "Forty Fort", and "Shamokin!!!"". Clearly, it's not all about the hype; these guys can play, and they combine a post modern sense of humor with a solid grasp on virtuosity and the jazz tradition.  I think this group is a great example of where jazz is today and how conservatory trained musicians can think outside the box in order to find their niche.

It was brought to my attention that Mostly Other People Do The Killing recently released "Blue", which is not a tribute to Joni Mitchell, but rather an attempt at a note for note reproduction of "Kind Of Blue", which is probably trumpeter Miles Davis' most famous album and one of the most important as well as popular jazz albums in history. I was curious about the project. I will say off the bat that I did not purchase the album, I listened to samples on Itunes, which many of us do before making the decision to buy music( if you actually still buy music......anyone?). I decided not to buy it; instead, I download some of Mostly Other People Do The Killing's earlier work and study it a bit more. I'm not saying that I won't purchase it in the future, but I have reasoning why and I'll get to that later.

I am very conflicted about "Blue"; the clips I heard were impressive, and the jazz educator side of me is always impressed with the technical ability to hear and reproduce solos(especially since many of my students have real challenges with that kind of activity. I wasn't going to mention that one of my student groups couldn't name the musicians on "Kind Of Blue," which is rather disturbing, to say the least.) Transcribing solos and trying to play along with the recording and trying to match every nuance is a great tool in jazz education; however, even the most "derivative" musicians rarely try to perform a transcribed jazz performance and pass it off as their own. ( I'm not saying that MOPDTK is trying to do that, exactly.) It is a little odd that musicians would spend so much time on something that they would never present in a performance; in this way, transcriptions are like etudes- they are studies. You can't play the entire solo of  McCoy Tyner's on Passion Dance whien you play Passion Dance. You could play part of it, you can be influenced by it, but you can't play the whole thing. EVEN IF YOU CAN! IF YOU CAN, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO! In this way, jazz is like comedy- young comedians listen to the greats, but they MUST create their own material to be legitimate. Without Richard Pryor, there would be no Eddie Murphy, and without Eddie Murphy, there would be no Dave Chappelle. BUT, Dave Chappelle would NEVER release a comedy special called "Live On The Sunset Strip" or "Delirious." Why not? Because he has more than enough of his own jokes, and doing something like this would be an enormous waste of time and energy!

I read Nate Chinen's review of the CD, and he address some of the reasoning behind the project, and his own take on it seems just as conflicted as mine, although in the end he heartily endorses "Blue". Again, these are great players from a technical and creative standpoint. However, in my mind, this album has GIMMICK written all over it. The sad thing is, gimmicks work. This is especially true in the entertainment world, the music world, and the jazz world. Most of the time, it isn't about the notes, about the sound, about the artistic message. It's about the gimmick, the image, the sound byte, the selling point. It's not, "How can we make great music that will reach people and take an art form to a higher level?" It's, " how can we trick people into buying our product?" I've tried to stay away from gimmicks as a musician, mostly because it doesn't interest me, usually seems cheesy to me, and most importantly because I haven't found a gimmick that has made me rich and successful.....

The paradox of transcribing solos and playing them along with the recording is that it's nearly impossible to sound exactly like the musician who originally played the solo. It is impressive that MOPDTK  on "Blue" sounds at times exactly like Davis and crew. But even so, it's still not close enough. The recording quality is obviously different. As soon as trumpeter Peter Evans starts playing, you know it isn't Miles Davis. Maybe because he isn't playing on a 1947 Martin Committee trumpet? Is he using a Heim 2 mouthpiece with a deep V cup? Did they record on the same Steinway that was at Columbia's 30th Street studios? (I played that piano when I was recording at Clinton Studios years ago. It was a great piano, but I didn't sound like Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly, oddly enough.) I'm willing to engage in a "Kind Of Blue" challenge to test my own ears, if anybody wants to facilitate that.

I'm not saying that "Blue" is disrespectful of the tradition; indeed, I don't think MOPDTK would have spent all that energy on this if they didn't love that music. However, I would rather see them play their own music. This is why I'm not going to buy "Blue." I won't buy it, but clearly, I've already bought into the hype, and even this little blog will give them more press, so in the end, isn't that what matters? In an era when no one is buying music, it's not surprising that anyone would resort to extreme tactics.

In the end, the existence of a project like this reaffirms my belief that jazz is about innovation through imitation. Check out the greats, but in the end, do it your own way. MOPDTK, as evidence by their earlier recordings, already did this in spades. I guess they had a lot of extra free time to make "Blue". But I can't help what are some other records that warrant note for note reproduction:

A Love Supreme?
Birth Of The Cool?
Way Out West?
Duke Ellington Live At Newport?
Black Codes(from The Underground?
No Jacket Required?
Songs in The Key Of Life?
The Chronic?
Enter The Wu Tang(36 Chambers)?

Don't be offended, MOPDTK, but when my son's Bar Mitzvah rolls around, I'll know where to find a "Kind Of Blue" cover band.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Exercises in Sleep Deprivation, Part II

My son Liam was born December 19, 2009. I did not sleep again until December 19, 2010. Those of you with children can relate; some babies sleep, but some don't. Liam was a kid who just did not want to sleep. I was so sleep deprived that I started taking the bus to school after falling asleep at traffic lights. I thought that maybe I would never sleep again in life, that it was just a 39 year lucky streak and my luck had run out for the next few decades. When we went back to New York for the summer, we hired a sleep consultant, which worked out great for some lady who convinced me to give her 400 bucks in exchange for "sleep" information I could have found for free on the internet. Even at age 4 and a half, Liam still has lots of energy at night, but he sleeps pretty well( although he does com into our room during the night on occasion) once he gets to sleep.

I remember musicians who had kids always said they got more sleep on the road. I never could understand that until I had a son. When I travel, I miss my family, but it is nice to have a bit of a break from irregular sleep patterns. In fact, I think that the period after my son's birth has made me handle sleep deprivation a lot better than I did when I first started traveling. I remember after a few years of being jet lagged every time I went to Europe thinking, "Wow, this is not all that it's cracked up to be!" I don't sleep on planes- which is surprising, since trying to sleep sitting upright with a jet engine under your seat surrounded by strangers seems like it would just knock you right out.....

I always tell my students in my 9 am class, " If you are lucky enough to become a professional musician, you'll be getting up at all hours to make flights, trains, buses, and so forth. Missing a flight is an expensive lesson that you don't want to have to experience." I find I am better at mentally pushing myself through sleepiness. It can be tricky if I need to drive.

This past Friday, I had a good test of my tolerance for sleep deprivation. My son kicked me awake at 3:30 AM, which beat my alarm by 30 minutes. I left my house in Portland at 4: 15 and picked up bassist and former PSU student Jon Lakey at 4:30. We were planning on participating in Eugene based saxophonist Adam Harris' live recording; however, I wanted to make some recruiting stops along the way. We arrived at South Eugene High School at 6:45. I worked with Director Steve Robare's jazz band for about 30 minutes and then Lakey and I played some duo and we talked about the program at PSU. After a nice leisurely breakfast of omelettes, waffles, and gallons of coffee, we headed over to the University of Oregon to crash their Friday jam session. This was obviously not a recruiting stop but more of a chance to observe what goes on at other programs in the area. Lakey and I were invited to play a few tunes, which was of course a lot of fun.

I started to fade a bit, so I head over to saxophonist Joe Manis' house to try to nap on his couch for a few minutes. Lakey and I didn't so much nap, but we did play with Manis' 2 year old for a while. "George......Piano......Jon......Bass...." Ellery is a smart kid and we were having fun, but then it was time for a recruiting stop at Lane Community College. One of my combos from PSU, The Park Avenue Group, met us there, and we played some tunes and answered questions. The kids at LCC are very enthusiastic and it was a really good vibe. I took the PSU students for dinner at a small cafe in downtown Eugene, right before the soundcheck for the live recording, which was taking place at The Jazz Station, a wonderful non-profit venue. I was surprised at my ability to get through the concert, since around 10 pm I started to feel like I was running on fumes. After some quick goodbyes, Lakey and I got back in the car and drove back to Portland. I got home around 1:47 AM. I felt like I had just flown around the world and back.

Ironically, I am about to do something to that effect; tomorrow night, I begin my voyage to
Novasibirsk for one concert with the Lenny White Group. My flight path is Portland-New York-Moscow-Novasibirsk. Most of my trip will be on an airplane. I'm trying to bring as much reading, listening and watching material as I can. I'll keep you posted on whether I get any sleep or not. Wish me luck and I promise to take a lot of pictures.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Coryell, Bailey, White, Colligan: Four NIghts At Jazz Alley

Larry Coryell
One of the downsides of playing a lot of gigs with my students has been, you guessed it, that I'm no longer the youngest person in the band! In all seriousness, I have been very fortunate to be able to learn jazz, mostly on the bandstand,  from older musicians who had way more experience than I. Indeed, my very first steady gig was at a the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, MD, with saxophonist Phil Burlin and bassist Larry Kindling; it was supposed to be MY gig, but they were the ones showing me what to do, being at least a decade older. This is part of the jazz tradition in terms of jazz being a folk music, the art form being passed down to future generations by master practitioners. It's wonderful to be part of a great music curriculum and have classes and have a college experience. However, when you are on a stage and Gary Bartz starts playing a song you don't know and expects you to figure it out, that is a very different kind of learning process. In the real world of music, there are no letter grades- only "PASS" and "FAIL."
Victor Bailey

So when I get a surprise call to join three elder masters on stage at Jazz Alley for four nights, I get not only the thrill of feeling like the young'un on the bandstand, but I also get the thrill of learning through doing. In some ways, playing jazz has infinite variables. You cannot say, "OK, I have learned 60 tunes from the Real Book and transcribed a lot of solos and learned all of my scales and modes and I practiced with a metronome so I'm ready." Every grouping of musicians is going to present different challenges; every combination of bassist and drummer is a different feel than another. It's almost like saying your metronome is going to be different every day you turn it on.

Lenny White
It's especially challenging walking into a situation where you have three legends who have been playing together for decades, and your presence, even if promising, is possibly superfluous. Nevertheless, my first night with jazz fusion legends Lenny White, Victor Bailey and Larry Coryell was extremely positive.( I think it should count towards a Doctorate of Musical Arts. Can I get college credit for this?) We played a mixture of originals by Bailey, White, and Coryell( I had to sightread a tune call Spaces Revisited, which was fun-good thing I went to Peabody Conservatory!). We ended the set with a great arrangement of Led Zepplin's "Black Dog." Hopefully I can continue to learn and imrpove as the weekend continues.

These men aren't just practitioners of the art- they ARE the art!
We have three more nights: two sets Friday and Saturday and one set Sunday. Come down if you are in or near Seattle.....