Friday, October 23, 2015

New York Is Still Now

I'm currently away from Portland and on one of my Jazz Fantasy Camp trips. I performed twice in Canada: once at The Rex in Toronto and once at The Jazz Room in Waterloo-Kitchener, about 90 minutes away from Toronto. Joining me on bass was the great Neil Swainson, and on drums was the powerful Ted Warren. I had a great musical time with them, the audiences were very appreciative, and it was a good warm up for my trip to New York.

I had a trio night scheduled for the Jazz Standard. However, the night before, I went down to the Standard to hear the Mingus Big Band. I used to play with various configurations of the Mingus Band. It seems like another lifetime at this point. I really enjoyed the experience from the side of audience member; the Mingus Band always seemed more like a small group than a big band, in that the emphasis isn't on tight ensemble playing or fancy arrangements but more about the groove, spirit, and the strength of Mingus' compositions as melodies and improvisational vehicles. It's also great to hear Frank Lacy sing! Lacy is one of the more underrated musicians in jazz. In fact, any member of the Mingus Band could lead their own band; the bench is THAT deep.
Frank Lacy

Indeed, I am always ranting about how the level of jazz musicians is higher in New York than anywhere else. I believe this is not going to change anytime soon, even though many of the best musicians have moved out of New York for various reasons. As Benny Golson said, New York is still the Jazz Mecca and even in this period of doom and gloom for live music, there is still more jazz and there are more jazz musicians per capita in New York than anywhere else in the world. I think it's hard for folks who haven't spent much time on the New York scene to understand the depth of ability and understanding and expectation that is the norm in New York. I suppose if we want young musicians to feel good about themselves, we can ignore the New York standard and lower our expectations. I have the memories of 15 years in New York that in some ways drift away as I spend more time in Portland. However, even just a few nights of club hopping- from Small's to Mezzrow to the 55 Bar, even walking by The Garage, or even doing some informal jam sessions- has reminded me of the idea that to be a serious New York jazz musician is to have a DEPTH of ability and understanding of the music. Every town has it's local heroes, but some of those heroes would be just another one of the multitudes in New York.

At the Jazz Standard, I had the pleasure of working with bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer EJ Strickland. Although the turnout was not what I had hoped for, it was a very satisfying musical experience. Kozlov and Strickland are easy to play with because they have good time and a great feel but they also know how to take enough chances to keep the intensity and the interest level high. We had a guest on a few tunes- my former student and new resident of New York, saxophonist Nicole Glover. Although I usually try to persuade my students NOT to move to New York, Glover is one of the tiny minority of students I have had in Portland that I think has a chance on the New York scene. (I was pleased to find that many students from University of Manitoba are now in New York and doing well: Karl Kohut, Luke Sellick, Curtis Nowosad, Niall Bakkestad-Legare.....)

Damian Erksine
The next thing was a performance with electric bassist Damian Erskine's band, which consists of Reinhard Melz on drums and Tom Guarna on guitar. We did a performance and clinic for Aguilar amps. The audience was probably 98% bass players! Although we only played 4 tunes, it was fun to reunite this group, which has played merely twice in Portland at Jimmy Mak's.

My trip is not over; I have two gigs in Connecticut. Tonight, I'll be at Firehouse 12 in New Haven with Boris Kozlov on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. Then I will be playing drums with the great pianist Noah Baerman in Middletown on Saturday.

It's hard to balance performing and teaching and family. There are few places to play nowadays in Portland. I'm determined to try to continue to work in a trip to New York a few times a year in order to keep my inspiration. Despite the outrageous cost of living and the fall of the music business, New York is still the place for jazz of many kinds.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Alphabet City:" Brian Charette's Triumphant New Album

Brian Charette
Hammond B-3 organ is kind of a thing unto itself. It's not just an instrument, it's a lifestyle. You could take that literally when you consider that, whether you play a "clonewheel" ( meaning a digital keyboard which is designed to emulate the B-3 sound) or an actual B-3, C-3, or what have you Hammond organ, you need at the very minimum a car, or maybe a van, a storage space, and perhaps 3 friends to help you carry the organ into the club
( hopefully not up the stairs!). Don't forget about the Leslie speaker! I have always considered myself a dabbler in the B-3 lifestyle( I've recorded and toured as an "organist" but I'm not anyone's first call...also didn't have three friends to help with the lifting....ha ha). It seems as though older generations delineate clearly who is a pianist and who is an organist( meaning you won't see McCoy Tyner playing organ, or Jimmy Smith playing piano....not that I'm aware least not frequently.....). Among the younger generation, you have the dyed in the wool organists like Joey DeFrancesco, Cory Henry, Pat Bianchi, Jared Gold, and then you have the guys who went from piano to organ, like Larry Goldings, Gary Versace, Mike LeDonne (and I guess yours truly.....come on Downbeat give me a chance......).

Then you have Brian Charette. After reading Charette's bio, I see that he has a classical piano background. I am familiar with some of his writing in Keyboard magazine on the harmonic techniques of Olivier Messian.  Charette could be put in the latter category of pianists turned organists; however, after listening to his latest release on Positone, " Alphabet City," he has convinced me that organ is his true calling. He's so convincing on the instrument; the bass lines, the groove/hookup with drumming wiz Rudy Royston, the fluidity of his right hand, the cool drawbar settings he uses for "comping" for guitarist Will Bernard's solos- all of these things for me put him in the solid " organist's organist" category.

"Alphabet City" has something for every jazz fan: clever, brainy up tempo burners( "East Village"), funky jams( "They Left Fred Out"), medium tempo groovers( "West Village"), psychedelic fusion experiences( "Not A Purist"), soulful second line sermons( "Sharpie Moustache"), music for driving on the highway( "Disco Nap"), music for haunted houses("Hungarian Minor"), music for 70's TV shows("Avenue A"), and so much more. This is not " Back At The Chicken Shack" by any means, and yet Charette, even with the weird sounding smattering of synths and variety of moods, convinces me that the Hammond B-3 is his voice, and he's taking it out of the box and bringing it into the 21st century. Essentially, Brian Charette's "Alphabet City" is the type of  record I wish I could make!

Catch Brian Charette at the Jazz Standard on October 13.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Coltrane Time

I recently performed at Jimmy Mak's in Portland with trombonist Steve Turre. In addition to having drummer Charlie Doggett on the bandstand, our bassist was the great Chuck Israels. During the soundcheck, Turre and Israels were trading great stories. One story came up regarding the fact that Israels had recorded with Cecil Taylor. I said, "Really?" Israels elaborated on a record date from 1958, when Israels was 18 years old. The recording, now known as "Coltrane Time," was actually originally released under Cecil Taylor's name  in 1959 as "Hard Driving Jazz." The line up is Israels on bass, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, and Louis Hayes on drums.

What? That is an INSANE line up. I had never heard this recording. I can only imagine what it would be like for an 18 year old bassist, to get to record with these legends. I looked up the recording on wikipedia, and there is mention of a "tension filled" recording session. " Everyone says that there was tension, but it's not true," said Israels. " Everyone was very nice and it was a surprisingly smooth date." Israels
Chuck Israels
mentioned that it took a minute to adjust to Cecil Taylor's comping, which, if you take a listen, is definitely providing some rhythmic tension, but the contrast in personal styles is fascinating. When I went home and checked out the recording, I was surprised at how " inside" Cecil Taylor sounds; he's making the form and the changes, but in a very abstract way. " They even recorded my tune, 'Double Clutching,' which was a contrapuntal exercise."

If you get a minute, give this one a listen. Musicians often joke about putting together strange rhythm sections and collections of players( for example, " Hey, what about a band with Kenny G on sax, Al Hirt on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Henry Grimes on bass, and Alex Van Halen on drums? Totally RAD, dude!"). However, all kidding aside, sometimes weird line ups of musicians that might seem like an odd fit can produce intriguing results.

Monday, August 10, 2015

"Blues For Tahir," Todd Marcus' Journey to Egypt Through Baltimore

Baltimore based Bass Clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Todd Marcus has mastered his own destiny with his latest release, Blues For Tahir( Hipnotic). On this new release, Marcus and his Jazz Orchestra hit all the crucial marks for ensemble playing, expressive improvisations, and bringing the compositions to life. Marcus' work here has a strong Middle Eastern influence which is evident in many of the main melodies; indeed, the theme of the album is an exploration of Marcus' Egyptian heritage, as well as a programmatic expression of the recent political and social upheaval in Egypt. However, this above all is a modern jazz record which leans towards composers like Jamie Baum, Michelle Rosewoman, and Kenny Wheeler, if not John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Furthermore, the improvisations from Marcus and alto saxophonist Russell Kirk ( and to a lesser extent tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy) show a strong influence of Baltimore's own tenor saxophonist, Peabody jazz program director and musical original Gary Thomas. Add in Baltimoreons like bassist Jeff Reed, drummer Eric Kennedy and percussionist Jon Seligman, as well as my former Peabody classmate and now Peabody professor , trumpeter Alex Norris, and this music is as much about the state of jazz in Baltimore as it is about the state of Egypt.

Although this is described as a Jazz Orchestra, it's really more of a large chamber group, and the balance of ensemble playing and solo space throughout "Blues For Tahir" is superb. Marcus knows how to combine bass clarinet, flute, trumpet, alto, and trombone in a way that is impressive without trying too hard. The bass clarinet in ensembles like this often functions as doubling the bass line ( with the piano also on "Many Moons") or merely to add exotic color ( I'm sure you could ask  bass clarinetist Benny Maupin about that!) but Marcus insists that the bass clarinet can also be upfront. Marcus often solos in the mid to high register of the instrument, weaving complex lines which surely show the influence of Gary Thomas' linear concept. Marcus features himself sufficiently without denying his excellent bandmates some chances to blow. I wasn't familiar with alto saxophonist and flautist Brent Birckhead but he takes a marvelous turn on "Protest," in an aggressive post-Coltrane, post-Kenny Garrett type of blowing against a modern version of "stop-time."

"Alien" features solos from virtuoso trombonist Alan Ferber and pianist Xavier Davis, who throughout the album shows his considerable prowess as a accompanist. The rhythm section of Davis, bassist Jeff Reed ( who has a beautiful feature on "Tears On The Square"), drummer Eric Kennedy( who burns it up on "Washouli") and the addition of percussionist Jon Seligman( who is also an incredible drummer) is the foundation of this group and helps to solidify the music. ( One thing I noticed while listening to " Reflections" is that whatever type of drum is being played by Seligman has an overtone which "clashes" with the G7 suspended sonority prevalent throughout the section. It's not a bad thing; it adds to the exoticism. I'm not sure if it was intentional but it sounds cool.)I was a bit concerned at first about where "Summertime," George Gershwin's classic, was going to fit on this recording, but Marcus puts his own stamp on it, and most importantly, gives his lead trumpeter Alex Norris a chance to burn out.

Todd Marcus has really come into his own with "Blues For Tahir." It's a showcase for Marcus' playing, writing, and thoughtful artistry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Drum Genius: Cool App For Practicing

As a full time music teacher and father of 2, I have time finding the time to practice. I used to play and tour constantly, and I'm doing less of that these days. Before I was lucky enough to get called for gigs, I played a lot with the Jamey Aebersold Play A-Long recordings; I still recommend this great series to my students. The recordings feature world class rhythm sections and are a great way to practice keeping time as well as form. It's definitely more fun to play along with an Aebersold recording than a metronome.

Recently, someone recommended a phone app called Drum Genius. It's an app which has an entire menu of jazz drum loops which I believe are either samples or reproductions of loops from players like Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Stewart, and many others. There are many different styles and tempos. When I have a few spare moments, I put on Medium Swing or Fast Swing or Very Fast Swing, and it helps keep my chops up. Obviously, it's not as satisfying as playing with a real band, but it makes practicing way more enjoyable.

I made a little video to demonstrate. I highly recommend this app; I have barely explored it and it's already been inspirational. Check it out!