Sunday, June 30, 2013

Up Jumped Spring

I teach a number of jazz combos at Portland State University. (Listen to, I always hated that word. I always associated COMBOS with the phrase "Really Cheeses Your Hunger Away." I guess time changes everything.) One of the combos is called the Contemporary Combo. Instead of passing out music from, say 1960 and beyond(which in jazz is somehow considered contemporary), I decided that we would compose collectively based on certain chords changes or structures or other criteria which I would provide. The Winter Term class was very interesting in that we usually completed a song by the end of each class; we might create melodies by ear, so I would make a phone video of the completed piece, then take it home and score it on Sibelius. We came up with a book of cool tunes. Deciding on the title of each piece became a class exercise as well. (One of the students would basically try to title each song by looking at random objects in the rehearsal room."Filing Cabinet!" or "Music Stands!" were some of the possible titles. I think we actually used "Big Windows" for one tune.) I tried to make it a true group effort, although I did steer the compositional process towards areas which I thought would be good for the class. We performed some of the tunes during our Winter Term Combo Night and the tunes seemed to be as good as anything else we could have played.

The Spring Term class was a little different. We couldn't seem to finish any tune during our allotted
class time. The students would end up finishing the tunes in their own unsupervised rehearsal time. I was pleasantly surprised when the final result turned out to be really a really nice tune. There were some pretty cool yet not too wacky titles like "Lizard City" and "Hangin' Tough." But there was one tune which really surprised me. It began in class as something which was based on the structure of Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring." "Why don't we change the key and alter the harmonic rhythm, and instead of 3/4, let's make it 5/4," I suggested. Slowly but surely, it morphed into something which could not be linked to it's original inspiration. However, we didn't really have a good melody, so I figured that once again, the class would come up with something on their own. The next class, I got to hear the fruits of their labor. The melody was not what I expected, but unique and interesting. However, the title was even more intriguing. I noticed that their manuscript paper had, at the top the page, the title "Up Jumped Pimp."

In the spirit of creative thought, I didn't protest much. It was not the more tasteful of names, and yet it did show brutal originality. I inquired as to the reason for the title, and the best answer I got was "It's a song about friendship." Nevertheless, I decided to allow it, and we went on with the business of composing another tune.

When the time came for our Combo Night performance, I was asked to play trumpet on "Up Jumped Pimp." I actually found the chord changes to be challenging, so I agreed to play. I admit, I was thinking more about the chords than the title after a while. As to be expected, the time came during the show for the song to be introduced. This was at a point in the evening when, I'll admit, most of the audience had left, and it was not even clear whether there was an audience at all. One of the students, the designated MC of the group, delivered his intro of the tune with a humble yet deliberate speech, during which time, the weight of the silliness of the title hit me; I turned away from the audience in order to hide my giggling:
We would like to perform for you now………a piece.... which we have composed as a group…………It's a song about friendship……..It's based on Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring"………..It's called ………"Up Jumped Pimp"………

All of a sudden, a voice from the darkened hall shouted: "WHY?"

I couldn't control my laughter at that point. Neither could anyone else. After collecting ourselves, we performed the tune and ended the show. Indeed, why? Well, I guess great art always has a mysterious ambiguity to it……..Perhaps this was a song title which Charles Mingus might have been proud of. We'll never know for sure.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Zach Brock Interview

About a month or so ago, I had the pleasure of performing in a duo setting with violinist Zach Brock. I've known Brock for years; we met and played together a few times in New York City. However, this was our first time really playing in a creative, intimate setting. Brock is, in my humble opinion, one of the best if not the best jazz violinist out there today. Although as you expect, he has the classical training, but he is also very genuinely steeped in the authentic jazz tradition. But he isn't a purist at all; he's influenced by any type of music you could imagine. He's already gained exposure as a bandleader and as a sideman with Stanley Clarke. Enjoy the interview and below are some youtube clips of Brock, which hopefully you will enjoy as much as I do!

GC: What are your earliest musical memories? 

ZB: My earliest musical memories involve sitting at my Mom's feet under our piano bench. I suppose she was working on some Brahms or Schumann lieder. I used to hang out down there quite a bit. Plus, the dog would hang out down there with me. The hang was totally happening. I started going to violin class when I was four so my earliest memories of music making are of being in violin repertory class on Saturday mornings, playing the couple of pieces that I knew, getting really hungry, and then hanging out until the oldest kids had finished their pieces. When I was seven these Saturday-morning classes started seriously cutting into my Bugs Bunny & Friends time so I decided to quit. I begged my teacher to take me back a day later. Besides playing the violin I was in a Men & Boys choir until I was twelve and I got to perform a lot of great modern Anglican choral music (Vaughan Williams, Britten, Rutter) as well as the the classics (Bach, Händel, Purcell). We also had a family band. That's where I started learning how 
to improvise.

GC: How do you make the violin swing? 

ZB: One does it in the same way on the violin as on any other instrument: by listening to other players on any axe who swing and then by mimicking their time-feel, tone, phrasing, etc. I believe that it is exactly like learning a language, and by that I mean specifically that your brain and body will naturally find the necessary muscle movements needed to reproduce the sounds that you need to communicate. In my years of teaching I have written technical exercises for students who were struggling with their bowing concept but I found that if they couldn't hear "it" then they couldn't feel "it" and that was the reason that they weren't swinging. 

GC: Who are your biggest musical heroes? 

ZB: After making a huge list that included all of the usual suspects (Bird, Rollins, Trane, Miles, Herbie, Wayne, Seifert, etc.) I realized it was reading like an old MySpace page. I listen to the same players that all jazz connoisseurs listen to. The two musical heroes that I’d like to distinguish are my college violin teacher, Dr. Myron Kartman, and my closest jazz mentor, Phil Markowitz. Both of these musicians gave me their knowledge and musical wisdom so that I could build upon it and make it my own. They both encouraged me to develop my strengths and gave me the awareness and perspective necessary to address my weaknesses. I didn't get a system from either one of them. They gave me the tools to build my own system.

GC: What is your approach to composition? 

ZB: I have yet to settle on a specific approach to composing and it can be a struggle for me. I’m currently experimenting with a new approach where I challenge myself, regardless of whether I start a new composition at the piano, or any other instrument, to be able to represent the piece entirely on the solo acoustic violin. After I can do that, I'll notate a reduction/lead sheet so that I can play it with other people. I'll wait to do a full orchestration/arrangement of the new piece only when I have a very specific context, like a recording or a tour.

GC:  Was it tough to move to New York? What's you take on the scene in New York now? 

ZB:  It was very tough moving to New York from Chicago. I had been living in Chicago for almost thirteen years and I had to make a musical and personal separation with some of my closest friends at a time when I had already started working on a career in music. My wife and I both gave up a lot in the move. After being in New York now for seven years I've finally retired my urge to vilify the city for being the pain-in-the-ass that it is. It feels like home. As far as my take on the scene, I don't feel totally qualified to opine because I operate on the periphery of several scenes. That's something I would like to remedy in the future. That being said, it's the only place in the world where I could have met and played with you (George Colligan), Phil Markowitz, the guys on my last record, etc. I still secretly flip out when I walk into my bodega and there's some guy in there buying eggs and I have all of his records! I love that aspect of the music scene in New York. It keeps motivating me in the most primal, immediate way. I realize that any given day could be the day I finally play with "that guy" and I want to make sure that I show up as the musician I want to be in that situation. 

GC: What advice would you give to young jazz musicians? 

ZB: If they want to be professional performers on the world stage then I would advise them to recognize the distinction between developing their playing and developing their careers, to work at both with as much focus, energy, and intelligence as possible, and to learn how to manage their time. I think this concept is somewhat easier for younger musicians who didn’t grow up in the “young lions” era because the “Do-It-Yourself” skill set is now seen as a strength instead of a weakness and the necessary information is readily available. I remember when older musicians would ridicule younger musicians for putting out their own CDs, telling them that it was bullshit, they were bullshit, that the internet was watering down the meritocracy of jazz, and a lot of other misguided things. Now Sonny Rollins is DIY. So is Branford Marsalis. The stigma of putting out your own CD is passé. You have to learn how to do everything in your career now because there is no mainstream illusion that someone is going to come along and put you on the world stage while they write your blog for you and book your gigs. Coca-Cola sells Taylor Swift by promoting her as DIY-savvy, whether that’s even true or not. At the same time, if you don’t work equally hard at your craft as a musician then you will be exposed as “sad” a whole lot faster than you would have been in the past. YouTube and HD video on everyone’s phone can, and and will, show you at your best and your worst. There’s no escaping it and it’s not going away.

GC: What's your latest project?

ZB: I have a few things going on right now. First, I’m writing/arranging a new record for Criss Cross. Second, I’m working with Phil Markowitz to get our new CD, “Perpetuity,” released. And third, I’m working on an unaccompanied, acoustic violin project. Most of the playing I do in jazz requires a certain amount of amplification because I like to play with drummers. But lately I’ve been getting more and more into the violin in it’s most natural state. I really love the freakish amount of variations possible for tone color, articulation, dynamics, etc. I also find the limitations of creating harmonic complexity on the acoustic violin to be a very rewarding challenge. It definitely deepens and clarifies one’s linear concept on the instrument.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

California Here I Come

Now that the spring term is over at Portland State University, I get a little break. My break is in the form of a tour of California! Well, it's three performances. Does that count as a tour?

It's in two different cities: San Diego and Los Angeles. My first stop is at a venue called the Athenaeum in La Jolla. They have an ongoing jazz piano series which I am honored to be a part of. (By the way, San Diego is home to one of the greatest jazz pianists alive, Mr. Geoffrey Keezer.) I will be playing trio with bassist Hamilton Price and drummer Steve Hass. I have never met or played with Mr. Price, but he comes highly recommended( he had a lot of positive ratings on Steve
Hamilton Price
Hass and I worked together a bunch many years ago; we played together with tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and also did a short tour with vocalist Janis Siegel. He also recorded with me on a CD called Live at Blues Alley which is still available! We have planned to play some original music of mine, but we might throw in some standards as well. I'm also bringing my pocket trumpet for some comic relief. (I'm amazed at how much attention I get when I play the pocket trumpet. People are always coming up to me after the show and saying, " What kind of trumpet is that?" No ever says I
Steve Hass
sounded good, but I think that the oddity of a tiny trumpet really distracts from how bad I sound on it. Wait until I buy a RED pocket trumpet! That will really distract them....)

After two days off in San Diego, I'll drive up to Los Angeles for more music. On June 19th, I will perform a short late set at ArtShare with drummer Tina Raymond. Miss Raymond is a former student of the great Joe LaBarbara has been highly active on the LA scene for a number of years. We are going to play duo(piano and drums) and the set will be mostly improvised. I've never played with Raymond, but I've been checking out her playing on her website, and I think it's going to be a momentous musical meeting.
Tina Raymond

On Thursday, June 20th, at 8pm in Studio City, I will be performing at Vitello's with a fabulous quartet. Hamilton Price and Steve Hass will be joining me again; we will be adding the great Bob Sheppard on tenor saxophone. I've enjoyed listening to Sheppard as a member of pianist Billy Child's band; I'm looking forward to hearing him play my music. I think this is a seriously heavyweight band and I hope that jazz fans in LA will come out
Bob Sheppard
and check it out! Hope to see you there!

(P.S. Here are some youtube clips of Steve Hass and I playing together. One is from my recording "Live At Blues Alley" featuring bassist David Ephross. The second is from a recording with Ravi Coltrane. Enjoy!)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Theoretical Planets This Friday at Shaker And Vine

Before I got serious about playing jazz piano, I was more than curious about the drums. I played with some bands in high school; even during my first year at Peabody Conservatory as a trumpet major, I considered switching to drums and transferring to the New School. Who knows what would have happened in such an alternate universe! Although most folks know me as a pianist, I've kept my interest in the drums and every once in a while, I get a chance to play drums in public. I don't get to practice as much as I would like, but I just try to be musical. Over the years, I've had the fortune of playing with many great drummers(Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White, Cindy Blackman, Terri Lynne Carrington, Ralph Peterson, Rodney Holmes, Bill Stewart, Billy Hart, Al Foster, Dave Weckl, Ari Honeig, E.J. Strickland, Donald Edwards, Quincy Davis, Rudy Royston, Billy Drummond, Billy Kilson, Jimmy Cobb, Carl Allen, Louis Hayes, Jeff Hirschfield, Tyshawn Sorey, Gene Jackson, Jeff Watts, Dennis Chambers.....just a few off the top of my head...), so I've gotten opportunities to absorb a lot of great ideas from drummers.

This Friday in Portland, at a venue called Shaker and Vine, I will be presenting a new band of mine called Theoretical Planets. This group features my drumming and compositions, but also a number of talented young musicians from the Portland area. On tenor saxophone is Nicole Glover, who is really developing fast as a soloist. I predict great things from her in the future. Another phenom is Jon Lakey on bass. He's also a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist. The youngest member of the band, Aaron Riehs, still in high school, is a great alto saxophonist and composer. An alum of the Thara Memory American Music Program, he's already on his way to great things.

We had our first performance recently at the Camellia Lounge. Below are two youtube clips. The first clip features a tune called "Moment To Spare," which is a heavily mixed meter challenge. The tune is inspired by some of Ralph Peterson's music, and the drumming is obviously indebted to my love of Peterson's drumming aesthetic. The second piece is from Ornette Colman's record "New York Is Now": the tune was transcribed by Nicole Glover and it's called "Garden Of Souls." Get a taste of the band and then come see us live this Friday at 8pm at Shaker and Vine(2929 SE Powell in Portland). It's only 5 dollars; come on people, it's so cheap! In New York, you'd have to pay at least 10 dollars to see this group!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Write Something(Composition Exercises I )

David Berkman
Sure, I went to Queens College. I got my Master's Degree in Jazz. What's it to ya? Anyway, in addition to one semester of piano study with Ted Rosenthal, I studied the next two semesters with pianist David Berkman. Professor Berkman told me right away that he didn't want to work on piano with me( I guess he thought I was beyond hope....), but instead, that we should work on composition. He gave me a cool list of composition exercises. It was extremely inspirational and helpful. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the list to share with you. So I came up with my own list, which I'm sure is loosely inspired by Berkman's. (You'll see it below in a second....)

My main reason for writing this(and I'm sure it's not complete) is because I have too many talented creative students who don't write music for whatever reason. I'm guessing it's mostly because they are afraid that it won't be great, or at least good. Well, I'm here to set a great example in that my music SUCKS! and yet I still write anyway. It's not about the result; it's about the process. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO REINVENT JAZZ TO BE WORTH IT! We create because we are alive and we want to be expressive. If I stupidly thought that all of my word writing had to be on the level of Ernest Hemingway, I wouldn't even write a thank you email to my sister, let alone a blog entry!

I am amazed at the excuses which people come up with for not composing. "I just don't have the right keyboard." Really? A MIDI controller cost what? 50 bucks? And most people have Garage Band. If not, manuscript paper costs even less. You could probably sing melodies into your phone, record them, and upload the recordings, email them to your friends, and have them learn them by ear: BOOM, you have some tunes. IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE GOOD. Just write. 


OK, if you have trouble getting started, here is my list of composition exercises/ways to get inspired:

Composition Exercises I

Write a tune with one note, two notes, etc……
Write a tune with one note and hip rhythms
write a tune with two notes and as many hip chords as you can think of
Write a simple folk melody
Write a simple modal tune of any tempo or rhythmic feel
Write a blues
Write a blues with a bridge
Write a blues in a strange key
Write a blues in a strange meter
Write a rhythm changes
Write a rhythm changes with a non standard bridge
Write a blues or rhythm changes with less complex chords
Write a blues or rhythm changes with more complex chords
Write a blues or rhythm changes in an odd meter
Write a  tune with at least two different meters
Write a contrafact-new melody over existing chords
Write a contrafact on old chords in a different key
Write a contrafact with old chords with harmonic rhythm augmented or diminished
Write a contrafact with less or more complex chords
Write a contrafact of a contrafact
Write a contrafact where you make the melody more simple than the original
Write a tune where you take your favorite tune and keep chipping away at every element( melody, harmony, rhythm, form, meter,key) until it is unrecognizable
Write a tune where you totally reharmonize a known tune, then write a new melody: repeat as many times as possible
Write a tune where you take the first chord of your favorite tune and then go a completely different direction
Write a tune where you take a ballad and make it into a fast song, and vice versa
Write a AABA tune with a verse
Write a AABA tune and then try it BBAB
Write an 8 bar tune
Write a 4 bar tune
Write something through composed as long as you can stand it
Write something which is simple and open so that musicians can easily improvise
Write something which is so complicated that no one can solo on it
Write a piece of  music in this order:
melody harmony rhythm
rhythm melody harmony
harmony rhythm melody
Write something for your favorite character in a movie
Write something for your best friend
Write something for your worst enemy
Write a song inspired by a political movement
Write a song inspired by unrequited love
Write a song about your favorite food or drink
Write a song about your anger
Write the saddest song anyone has ever heard
Write something which will make people laugh
Write a song based on the last poem or book you read
Write a song based on the dumbest thing you have seen on facebook
Write a song about the weirdest thing that ever happened to you
Write a song about something extremely routine and mundane
Write a suite, and have each movement be related in some way
Write a suite and have each piece be completely unrelated
Write lyrics, put a melody to the lyrics, and then throw away the lyrics
Write a tune right before you fall asleep
Write a tune just when you wake up
Write something in the middle of the night when you can't sleep or you had a nightmare
Write something while moderately drunk
Write something when you are moderately high(Note: I only condone this in Washington and Colorado)
Write something that you know all your friends are going to love to play
Write something that is going to piss people off because they are going to have to practice
Write something that could be your ticket to riches and fame
Write something which will be misunderstood by critics and push you into further obscurity
Write something when you don't feel like writing anything
Write music in a weird place, like a park, or on a crosstown bus, or anywhere in New Jersey
Write music on your instrument
Write music away from any instrument
Write music with clear intention and purpose
Write music with questionable intent and reckless abandon
Write music inspired by a musician that no one would believe you listen to
Write music on your instrument as if you've never had lessons and found your horn in a dumpster
Write music after seeing kids at the playground
Write music after seeing homeless people downtown
Write music when you feel that everything is right in the world
Write music when you feel like you are at the end of your rope
Write a tune in the shortest amount of time you can
Write a tune and really labor over it for months
Write a tune and post it on Facebook immediately
Write a tune which you don't want anyone to hear
Write a tune based on the chords of a non jazz tune
Write something with a beat which you don't fully understand the tradition of and just tell the drummer to play something kind of "like" whatever it is supposed to be
Write something for a solo instrument
Write something for as many instruments as Sibelius will put in a score
Write something in Garage Band
Write something on manuscript paper
Write something in your head and teach it to your band, or your friends, or anyone who wants to learn a new song
Write your own theme song
Write a theme song for someone else
Write a song as a gift
Write a song as if this was your last day on Earth

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's The End OF The Term As We Know It.......

I can feel it in the air; yes, the end of the spring term. I'm seriously ready for a break. this term, I've been teaching two lecture classes, many large and small ensembles, and trying to administrate and do a bunch of things involving the school, in addition to moving to a new neighborhood and trying to spend time with my family when I can. I'm getting adjusted to commuting by bicycle, which is actually exhilarating. I recently mowed my lawn; I don't recall ever mowing a lawn before! Plus, the weather is getting nicer; Portland summers are really something to behold. It's quite pleasant; you don't have the sweaty sticky humidity of the East Coast. I'm now in Southeast Portland, in the Hawthorne-Mt. Tabor area, which is nothing but bungalows and tree lined streets.

In addition to all of these things, I've been attending junior and senior recitals. I've also been playing on some. I played on a double recital this past Sunday that was really a blast. I was still warm from a two night stint at Jimmy Mak's with the great tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence. If you aren't familiar with Lawrence, he played with piano legend McCoy Tyner for about 5 years. We were presenting a tribute to the late great saxophonist and musical innovator John Coltrane. The two nights also featured tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips, bassist Eric Gruber, and drummer Alan Jones. Both nights were packed; the gig was well promoted by Don Lucoff and PDX Jazz. I was thrilled because
Azar Lawrence
Lawrence, especially the second night, really stretched out in a way in which I don't get to do often in Portland. It reminded me of some nights in the 90's playing with Gary Bartz; it's a type of intensity which is of course inspired by Coltrane. In order to really play long solos convincingly, you need endurance, limitless ideas, imagination, energy, and the trust and support of your rhythm section. All of these elements were present on the stage at Jimmy Mak's, and it was quite satisfying for me. I felt that, especially on the second night, drummer Jones and I really hooked up in terms of the flow of the music.

In some ways, I think of the recital on Sunday as a continuation of the Coltrane tribute gig. This has a lot to do with the students who were performing; drummer Brandon Braun and saxophonist Nicole Glover have been studying privately with me this whole year. They are not only talented musicians, but they also work hard and ask a lot of questions. What's most interesting about these two students is the types of music they listen to just for fun.

These days, jazz music is certainly not a part of everyday American life. There are many distractions: facebook, youtube, twitter, smartphones, Angry Birds, whatever. Even when one considers all the jazz that there is on youtube which is extremely accessible; for some reason, the fact that you can dial up so many FULL albums for free(as opposed to walking to the library and signing out a handful of RECORDS and listening to them over and over) makes us take the music for granted. I'm finding that many students just don't do enough listening to jazz on their own to absorb the language. If you don't listen to jazz, you will have a hard time improving and playing the music with any authenticity at all.

This is why my students Braun and Glover are so interesting; the things they check out are extremely hip, and it's not because of me. They figured out that they like these things on their own. Braun came up to me the other day and said, "Man, I've been checking out Max Roach's drum solos. He takes
Nicole Glover
some of the best solos ever." Braun is into Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, and Victor Lewis. Not too many kids his age are even aware of jazz, let alone any trumpeters besides Wynton Marsalis. Nicole Glover is constantly checking out music; she's actually turned me on to some recordings which I wasn't that aware of. She's into Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, but she's also checking out Ornette Coleman, Billy Harper,  Michael Brecker and Gary Thomas. It's students like these which give me hope for the future.

Both recitals were supposed to be junior recitals, but they felt like regular concerts to me. Braun's selection of "Jean Marie" by Ronnie Matthews, "Inner Glimpse" by McCoy Tyner, "Naima" by Coltrane and "Stepping Stones" by Woody Shaw was a very challenging set of tunes. Glover also choose challenging yet meaningful music; her set, which went easily over an hour, consisted of Don Cherry's "Guinea", followed by Ornette Coleman's "Garden of Souls" followed by Mulgrew Miller's "Farewell To Dogma" (Glover attended William Patterson and studied with the recently deceased Mr. Miller). A rousing rendition of Billy Harper's "Capra Black" preceded the closing ballad, Wayne Shorter's "Contemplation." I believe the highlight of the set was "Garden of Souls," which was a gateway to free improvisation featuring inspired drumming by Alan Jones and a passionate solo bass cadenza by Jon Lakey, another fine PSU jazz student.

I believe that Portland needs to have more bands with a mix of age groups. In this way, the older cats can teach the young cats, while the young cats can also keep the old cats on their toes. For me, playing jazz and teaching jazz and learning jazz are all the same, and it really doesn't matter how old or young the musicians are. We can all learn from each other and we can all communicate through the music. This it was keeps jazz vibrant and ALIVE!