Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Best Things in Jazz are Free...No, Really

After a year in New York, I can say with confidence that a free lunch is hard to find. The closest I’ve come is a free bagel with cream cheese from a street cart vendor in Greenwich Village. The next day he changed his mind and charged me double. But in the jazz world at least, that has just changed with the advent of NYU’s interview (and sometimes concert) series at Barnes and Noble

Every Friday evening at their Upper East Side store (at 86th and Lexington, specifically), Barnes and Noble opens its doors to the jazz community by hosting an interview with one of jazz’s great legends. The interview series is conducted (and was conceived by) the director of NYU’s jazz studies program, Dr. David Schroeder, who described how and why he started this series: "Through my position as the director of Jazz Studies at NYU, I have been fortunate to have access to some of the most inspired musicians on the planet. In developing friendships with these artists, I have also discovered their human side. It is my hope that through this series, artists can share their lives along with their music."

It features artists like Ron Carter and Russell Malone, Don Friedman, Wayne Krantz, Steve Kuhn (discussing his time in John Coltrane’s band), Benny Golson and many others. For students and fans alike, this is a really special opportunity to meet the art form’s greatest contributors, to hear their stories, see them demonstrate what they do and to ask them questions. And for free. It almost reminds me of those Mastercard commercials:

Subway Fare: $2.25
Barnes and Noble coffee: $2.00
Band-aids after getting run into by a crazed bike messenger
on 86th Street: $5.00
NYU interview series at Barnes and Noble: Free

Getting to meet, listen to and talk with a jazz legend: Priceless

Anyway, this past Friday featured Ron Carter, and as an added bonus he played a few duo tunes with guitar great Russell Malone. For those who don't know Ron Carter, he is one of the most important voices on the jazz bass in the entire history of the instrument. But his importance stretches even beyond that-- he was the cornerstone of perhaps the most influential jazz group in the modern era, the second Miles Davis Quintet (in the 1960's). That group totally reshaped the way that jazz players approach time, rhythmic and harmonic modulations, group interaction and composition (musicians still study the group's innovations 40 years later). And through all of the experimentation, the glue for the project was Ron Carter. His bass work provided the foundation for the other members to build upon, and he was there to guide them back if they leaped too far...

Following his stint in the Davis group, Carter has gone on to a prolific recording career both as a leader and as a sideman (I heard the figure 2500 recordings thrown out there, and I believe it). He has recently released an album dedicated to Miles Davis, called "Dear Miles." He has also just had an authorized biography about him published, entitled "Finding the Right Notes," and he was autographing it for the crowd on Friday...

The event began with Carter and Malone performing two duo pieces-- I didn't catch the names of the tunes but the first was loosely based on rhythm changes and the second was a blues melody that they appeared to compose on the spot. They have obviously played together many times, to the point where they have developed that special form of communication unique to virtuosic jazz musicians-- they have managed to create a variant on language such that only they know how to speak it. Carter put it much more succinctly when he said that he "trust[s] Russell." And for good reason...the music served to reinforce just why this was a standing room only crowd.

During the interview, Carter expanded on his astounding resume. He attended Eastman School of Music as a classical cellist in the 1950's. His classical background and training taught him "the value of discipline," how to practice, and a solid understanding of the rules of music. The last point was particularly important, he felt, because "it's hard to break the rules when you don't know what they are."

Carter moved to New York City in August of 1959, where he soon switched to the bass out of necessity. Even though there were many clubs and an active jazz scene, Carter said of his fellow young musicians at the time that "We were all looking to play, all the time. It didn't matter when, where or with whom..." Carter insisted that that experience was invaluable, and urged young musicians today to "find your own places to play, because you need to find out what you don't know."

Carter rocketed to stardom when he joined Miles Davis' band a few years later, but noted that his relationship with Davis began on surprisingly even terms. Carter was playing a two week gig with Art Farmer, and when Davis asked him to come on tour immediately, Carter replied "Mr. Davis (I didn't call him Miles yet), you'll have to talk to Art. If he says it's okay, I'd be happy to come with you. But if he says no, I'd be just as happy to stay here." That honesty and respect between the two men would shape their relationship and work in the years that followed. Carter gave the crowd a few other tidbits about his time with Davis, but in all fairness it's told more completely in his book (which everyone says is an excellent read), so I'd encourage people to pick it up...

What was more valuable than the jazz equivalent of TMZ was Carter's insight into how he approaches music and the bass. He talked about how every night on the bandstand was like "school" for him: "I really am constantly trying to find the right notes. What I mean is that everyone plays differently, and what I want to do is find the notes that fit with the player, to make that player sound better than he really is!" In response to audience questions, he discussed his approach to the duo he had just played with Russell Malone. "I try to hear everything, and I try to anticipate where Russell is going. I trust his judgment and that he will take me someplace that I wouldn't have thought of. But I also want to make him play something that he wouldn't otherwise play 'at his house.' So I need to start listening to where he's going even before he starts playing."

And for those rhythm section players among us, check out the following tip: "I always insist that the drums be tuned properly so that they are tuned to my bass. That way the drummer can hear all of the frequencies and can really hear the pulse." So if you're having time problems in a session, the fault may lie with your intonation! I wish that I could say that I could have intuited that in 100 years, but I would be lying to you :-)

Anyway, there were many other gems throughout the interview (Carter's favorite composer is J.S. Bach, for example), but rather than give myself carpal tunnel syndrome here, I'm just going to strongly urge you to check out this series in person. It's free and it's accessible...and I think Dr. Schroeder summed it up perfectly: "Mr. Carter is the consummate professional. A true gentleman who continues to inspire young musicians through his exemplary life's work. What a great opportunity for everyone to listen and learn."

Amen to that. See you next Friday at 7pm, and beware the bike messengers...

Friday, September 4, 2009

To My Friend, Scott Sherwood

What does one possibly say when a treasure is ripped from our lives? What can you say? The jazz world lost a great light several days ago with the passing of guitarist, composer and educator Scott Sherwood. The rest of the world lost an even greater human being.

I don't know what the proper measure of a man is. I'm sure that opinions vary. I'm definitely sure that I'm not qualified to answer that. But I will say this: in his far too short time here, Scott created great art and beauty on a daily basis, inspired countless others to do the same, taught gently, loved strongly, and made better people out of all those he came into contact with. I'd say that's as good a measure as any.

It would be easy to talk about his accolades. I could get into how some of the greatest musicians of our generation (Steve Giordano, John Abercrombie, Steve LaSpina) all admired Scott's talents and loved playing with him. I could tell you how Scott's last album, "Ripples" (a duo with the incomparable pianist Bob Rodriguez and featuring music that Scott wrote following his first bout with lymphoma), was called "nothing less than the absolute peak recording of all existing guitar-piano-duos in jazz history" by Swiss critic Juerg Sommer. Or how it went without saying that he was beloved by his legions of students of all ages and abilities.

But that would only show you Scott the musician, not the man who made the music, and there is a difference. So I will try to describe what he did to change the life of one person-- me -- in hopes that when you listen to his music you will also hear what imbues each note he played with tremendous meaning...

I met Scott several years ago in Philadelphia at a session with guitarist Steve Giordano back when I was still working as an attorney. I had heard him play both live and on some recordings, and I was a little nervous to be playing with him. Let's just say that a lot of times great players do not have attitudes that reflect the quality of their playing. But Scott had one of the humblest and gentlest personalities I had ever encountered, and he immediately put me at ease. Consequently, I enjoyed playing the session with him very much. I also took note of how pretty his composition "Ripples" was, and kept a copy of it.

And that might have been all I knew of Scott Sherwood had I not moved to New York last September. Steve Giordano gave me Scott's number and also put a call into Scott to say something to the effect of "look after this guy, won't you?" And he did.

Man, did I ever need that. When I first moved to the city I felt like I had fallen off of a cliff. I had left a stable career (complete with a desk job), and a comfortable and cheap apartment in a quiet Philadelphia neighborhood. I drove my car to the supermarket. I hadn't had a roommate in years. I had a great group of friends. And then overnight I'm living in Chinatown, I have two (sometimes three) roommates, the only thing moving faster than the pedestrian hordes are the rats, and I'm trying to follow a subway system that appears to have been transcribed directly off of the wall of John Nash. Oh, and I don't know a soul and everybody I meet thinks I'm crazy for quitting law. Except for Scott Sherwood.

And he didn't need me-- he was on top of the world at that time. He had beaten lymphoma two years earlier, he had just released an amazing album of original music earning rave reviews, and he had a thriving teaching practice at the prestigious Turtle Bay Music School in Midtown. He worked there with his wonderful wife, Jennifer, who was about to be featured on the hit reality T.V. show "What Not to Wear" (the first person to ever write herself in :-)). They had a beautiful Manhattan apartment. He didn't need any strays...

But he took me in anyway. On days that I had late classes and he had late students, I would take the 6 train up to Turtle Bay and wait in the grand old lobby of the school, sipping coffee and eating a bagel from one of the nearby carts. Scott would walk in with a smile and we would get to playing-- exploring new directions with old standards or bringing in songs with which we were both unfamiliar but were on our mutual "wish list." I attempted to learn his compositions-- some of them stretched the limit of my technique, but Scott was always incredibly patient with me. Sometimes I would bring in some of my homework or a song I was struggling to comprehend (some of Kenny Werner's tunes come to mind). Scott was very well-schooled and had an incredible harmonic knowledge, and he was an excellent teacher.

But mostly we just played. It's a very special process that occurs when two like-minded musicians begin to play together, especially in a duo context. There's a give-and-take, a constant interaction, and adjustments of timing and taste until you learn the other's strengths and weaknesses as a player. The result can be magical, and with Scott it was an easy process. He was constantly listening and evaluating, striving to bring out the best in me. That is rare.

Even more than playing, I loved just spending time with Scott. Sometimes we would grab breakfast before we played, and I would take that chance to pour my guts out to him-- the older brother I never had. Life goals, rent issues, ex-girlfriends-- nothing was off limits. He possessed an uncommon wisdom that perhaps came from confronting his mortality at a young age, but which I suspect was just an innate part of his character. He had a Midwesterner's dry sense of humor, and he would immediately cut to the root of any problem. He helped me to define my own goals as an artist ("Do you know why you're working on that, Pete? Where do you want it to take your playing?"), and as a person ("You must be getting something out of that or you wouldn't keep doing it, right?"). He was firmly rooted in the moment but still thought about grander artistic concepts ("People create art for three reasons, I think. Beauty, self-expression or to impress.")

When I think about Scott, I will hold one memory above all others. The night before Halloween the Turtle Bay Music School held a volunteer get-together to decorate the building. I had a Halloween gig but nothing else to do that weekend, so Scott invited me along. We hung out eating pizza in the basement until Jen tasked us with moving furniture. We were then pressed into service hanging skulls and cobwebs in the halls, and I literally lost track of him through the gauze webbing. But somehow at the end of the evening we all ended up in his studio, drinking wine and playing trio with a cute cellist I think he might have been trying to fix me up with. He was a really good sport, tolerating hours of mediocre sax-cello-guitar renditions of, frankly, boring tunes. Jen finally rescued him well after midnight :-) As I stepped out into the chilly night air, I looked back at the two of them standing so happily together there and waving goodnight. I can't describe why I felt this way, but I experienced a moment of contentment, maybe even bliss, that I had not had in years. I have only had a few moments like that in my life, and I cherish them. I owe one of them to Scott.

He got sick again after Thanksgiving. I cannot imagine-- do not want to imagine-- what he felt physically and emotionally during that time. I'll leave it that he had to endure things no person should ever endure. And he fought like hell. He was the toughest, most courageous guy I've ever met, inspiring me at every turn. And he never complained to me. On the contrary, he was always asking about my family and what I was doing. I tried to visit him as often as I could, and we would play like before. As tired as he was, his love of music was so great that we would play for hours (sometimes he'd take a nap, and hop up ready to play again), and it never mattered that he hadn't touched the instrument for a few weeks, he just seemed to get better and say more. His advice and companionship were still wonderful, and I took as much of it as I could get.

The last time we played was about three weeks before he passed. He was in the hospital and had just received his new custom-built guitar that he had ordered many months earlier. He had lost a lot of weight and could no longer speak. But somehow-- with the help of his family to find a way to hold it-- he got the guitar out and found the will to play. I have no idea what reserve he must have tapped to do so, but he just kept playing-- we ran standards that we had played many times before and he still found new ways of interpreting them and motivating me, taking me directions I had never been musically. He was even asking whether I found the timbre of the new guitar easy to mesh with...So I guess that is something else I will never forget. Because even through horror of medications and operations and injections in a fight against an incredibly cruel disease, Scott found the strength to stand up and say-- through his actions-- enough already. You can take this all away from me, but you will not take who I am and what I love or the music I've worked so hard to build. I am Scott Sherwood, and I am a jazz guitarist no matter what...

He played his ass off. And on that day at least, he beat that disease.

I could go on forever-- we all could. There are so many stories. So I'll exercise a little self-restraint. And I know that when a person dies the accolades pour in, and everyone says what a great guy/gal he/she was. Put that aside. Scott Sherwood was the real deal in every sense. Most of you reading this will never know his personality, and I am truly sorry for that because he was different than the rest. But you can listen to his music which was so much an expression of him, and maybe you can listen closely enough to hear the man behind it. You'll know it if you do, because you'll walk away like I always did...just a little lighter than before. Goodbye, my friend. You were there when I most needed a friend, you will always be with me, and I'll make sure that I finally get your songs right.

**** There will be a musical memorial service for Scott on November 7th at the Turtle Bay Music School. Contact them for more information if you would like to attend.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mad About Thad...Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama

Jazz is a story of continuity, that of one generation passing on its knowledge to the next. Like the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," one can trace the lineage of one great player to another, whether through direct artistic influence or simple opportunities for exposure. Some great musicians take it upon themselves to actively mentor other young players so as to preserve and extend the future of the music. There are well-publicized examples, like that of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. But many others have thus far escaped notice, and one of those is that of Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama, the latter of whom is seeking to repay that debt and do the same in return of other young musicians...

Most people in the jazz world are familiar with both men. Thad Jones is a legend, a distinctive voice on the trumpet and one of the most influential composers and arrangers since Duke Ellington. He was also a member of one of jazz’s most famous families (he was the brother of Hank and Elvin Jones). Probably his most well-known achievement was the big band he founded with drummer Mel Lewis in the 1960s. The Thad Jones- Mel Lewis Orchestra as it was known played weekly at the Village Vanguard and became sort of the “Saturday Night Live” of jazz—a ground-breaking artistic endeavor that helped spawn the careers of countless great jazz players. Though the founders have since passed, the group lives on as the Village Vanguard Orchestra, selling out every Monday night, winning Grammies, and continuing to play Jones’ charts (among others) for aficionados and tourists alike. Ralph Lalama currently holds the second tenor chair, as he has done for over 25 years…

Ralph is one of the top saxophonists in the world and an excellent educator, a staple on the New York jazz scene as well as an internationally renowned performer. I met Ralph this year as a student of his at NYU's jazz program. One of the things that impressed me with him, aside from his obvious technical prowess and distinctive sound, was the breadth of his knowledge of this music's history. I don't mean from a "timeline" perspective either-- it's more that he has studied and thought about the styles and approaches of so many great jazz players that each lesson is like a (colorful) history lesson.

But there was a time when Ralph was a young unknown saxophonist with no contacts whatsoever on the New York jazz scene. In 1975, he was just a senior at Youngstown State University in Ohio playing in his final school band concert. The college brought in one Thad Jones as the featured guest artist, and Ralph got to play in front of him. More importantly, Ralph got to hang out with him a little bit, driving him to and from the performance. Jones gave the younger musician encouragement and told him that if he wanted to really pursue jazz, he should move to New York City and throw himself into the most intense scene in the world…

Shortly after graduating, Ralph took Jones’ advice and headed to New York. He called Jones upon arriving, and in October of 1975 Jones gave Ralph his first New York gig—3 nights playing with Jones’ quintet. Getting to play with one of his heroes was more than just a thrill for Ralph: “I learned more on that gig than anywhere else.”

By his own admission, when he first moved to New York, Ralph was far from the polished force on the sax that he is today. Jones’ early guidance and support made a huge impact on Ralph, who says simply, “he was my mentor.”

Ralph soon began touring with Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, but continued to receive calls from Jones to sub in on tenor for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Ralph joined the band for good soon after Jones moved to Europe to finish his career and to live out the rest of his life. So the first follow-up to this story took place about a decade after Ralph moved to New York. The now Mel Lewis Orchestra went on a European tour and had a mini-reunion with Thad Jones. After Jones heard Ralph play again, he went up and put his arm around him and said, “Sounds great, you booger!” (a Jonesian term of endearment) Ralph knew then that he had truly arrived…

The second follow-up to this story is unfolding now. Ralph is seeking to honor Jones’ memory and music—as well as increase recognition of Jones’ role in jazz history—by producing a large concert for the public that will feature Thad’s music in a combo setting. He’s calling it “Mad About Thad.” I’m constantly on the lookout for fascinating jazz projects and I was extremely intrigued by the conversation I had with Ralph about this one. Most tributes to Thad Jones focus on his big band work, but Ralph’s project is unique in that it is designed for a small combo—much like that first quintet gig Ralph played with Thad 35 years ago.

There’s more to this than mere sentimentality, however. For Ralph, jazz improvisation ultimately boils down to melody (that’s one of the reasons we hit it off so well in my lessons with him—we’re both “melodicists” :-)) And Ralph wants people to hear Thad’s melodies in a very pure fashion, without the sound of the big band distracting them from the essence: the songs themselves and their harmonic movement.

As Ralph explained to me, Thad was both “ahead of his time and in his time.” Jones melodies utilized the concept of the upper extensions of the chords not just as accompaniment but as an integral part of the melody. While other jazz composers at the time were working with similar concepts, Jones “really explored and put his personal stamp on it…to the point where it just really flows.”

But there is still more to this project than the intricate beauty of Jones’ melodies. Ralph wants to show his audience the kind of person that Thad Jones was, how a few words from him could alter the life of a young musician because of Jones’ obvious sincerity in everything he said and did. Ralph recalled one of his first impressions of Jones upon picking him up in Youngstown. They drove by a playground with a bunch of kids playing and Jones laughed with obvious delight and exclaimed “look at all those little boogers.” Ralph feels that Jones’ love for children reflects in his music (for example, some of his most famous compositions are “A Child is Born”, “Kids are Pretty People”, and “Little Rascal on a Rock”), so Ralph wants the audience to leave with a “nice, happy feeling of childish delight” in addition to a better understanding of Jones’ melodies and harmonies. A tall order, perhaps, but Ralph is the perfect combination of artistry, knowledge and charisma to pull it off…

Is Thad Jones under-appreciated? "Maybe," says Ralph, "but only because nobody knows about him." Lest you think that Ralph is channeling the great Yogi Berra, he elaborated on this: "People who know Thad's music love it-- his charts have changed the lives of band directors all over the country. But the general public isn't aware of what he's about. The same goes for Thad as a player...I hope to change that a little with this concert."

As for when this concert will take place, that's still in the works-- the truth is that putting together a jazz program, especially one with such a non-typical twist, is a pretty thankless task. So I'll put my two cents out there and ask anyone reading this to please pass along any ideas you have for potential funders/interested parties, etc...or send Ralph an email directly at Maybe we can make the web work for jazz yet :-)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Sound and the HTML: Introducing the AAJ Orchestra :-)

The All About Jazz Orchestra. Photo credit: Bernard Ente

In many discussions about Jazz's future, people have argued that the Internet will be the next 52nd Street for the music. Sadly, like many things Web, there has been more sizzle than steak. But not always-- this past weekend I played a gig with the All About Jazz Orchestra (AAJO), a group that existed purely in binary code up and until the moment we performed.

The orchestra grew out of the lively online forums on the All About Jazz website, probably the oldest and definitely the largest jazz website in existence. It's a tremendous resource to the jazz community, a place to learn about the music's history, recordings, new releases, venues and individual artists. One of the best features of the site is the "forums" section, where hundreds of jazz musicians at all levels of development contribute, as well as many aficionados too (the influence and popularity of of online forums has been well-documented already). Want to know the difference between "hard bop" and "post-bop"? Having trouble with your Hammond keyboard? You've come to the right place.

However, behind the avatars are real people/musicians. One of the regular contributors, Jay Norem (a drummer from Atlanta) is probably the "father" of the the AAJO. A little over a year ago, Jay threw out the following challenge to the All About Jazz forum community (almost directly quoted :-))

"Okay I'm inspired. What could it possibly take to get every player on this board to participate in a mammoth session? I mean everyone.
There are at least four, five drummers here. Lots of guitar players (no shortage of guitar players), many bass players, keyboard players, a great many brass and reed players.
And a world-class arranger.
Can you imagine what it would sound like if we all got together and played some music? Goddamn! That would be the sickest [stuff :-)] ever heard!
I don't mean next week or anything. But come on. This would be absolutely f*$%&*g historic.
I'm putting this out to the AAJ staff and to every member who plays an instrument. Let's just do it."

The response was overwhelming. Over the next year-- and through dozens of forum threads-- the group began to coalesce around a few key contributors, and Jay, Jerry Engelbach (a pianist from Brooklyn) and trombonist Ed Byrne (though he had to pull out before the actual performance) took the lead logistically and musically. With the help of the AAJ website, and particularly through the efforts of Bernie Ente, the group secured a performance space and date: August 14, 2009 at Pier 66 in New York City.

By the time I got involved with the project it was already in its final stages (no pun intended). Jay, Jerry and Ed wrote and arranged roughly half a dozen pieces for a large combo/big band, though with flexibility in the parts given the difficulty of guaranteeing the attendance of a full big band :-) They also reserved a web page where members of the band could go and download and listen to the final versions.

So, armed with that elaborate web preparation (and one brief rehearsal the night before), 11 musicians from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life showed up at Pier 66 this past Friday, having never played together or even met outside of a jazz website. It was a great night for it-- one of the hottest days of summer, at sunset on the Hudson River (at least I think it was the Hudson, I still haven't figured out my NYC geography yet), and one of the best-looking crowds in the history of jazz. No kidding. I could have sworn that I saw Lara Croft...although the light may have been playing tricks on me...well, either that or the boat motion. We were playing at "The Frying Pan" an old barge turned into a restaurant, and it was rocking a little with the waves. Or perhaps the music :-)

Visual and perceptual distractions aside, it was a great set. The final roster of the AAJO included Chris Thompson and Scott Forrey on trumpets, Pat Clare on guitar, Alex Clough and Jerry Engelbach on piano/keyboards, Jay Norem on drums, Jeff Koch on upright bass, Yaron Elyashiv and Charles Lee on tenor saxophones, David Wise on tenor saxophone and flute, and myself (Peter Cobb) on alto sax. Our set featured 6 original compositions: One for Mike (by Ed Byrne for Michael Ricci), Riffraff (Byrne), Estrada Seguinte (by Jerry Engelbach), Small Ruse (Byrne), What Have I Done (by Jay Norem) and Shoulder of Fortune (Engelbach). The Byrne pieces were all variations on the blues and served as great vehicles for the overall group dynamics as well as some fun solos. Jay Norem's piece was a sophisticated modal tune that offered the soloists a perfect canvas on which to construct their improvisations. Finally, Jerry Engelbach's two songs were delicately crafted sophisticated latin songs-- easy to listen to but with some challenging parts to play! I know that I walked away humming the main theme from "Shoulder of Fortune," and I'm sure that many others did as well. As for the soloists, well, all I can say is that everyone up there was a superb craftsman on his instrument and brought an impressive enthusiasm and creativity to the stage...I hope that someone recorded it, because these guys played their butts off...

I should also add that the Vector Trio (featuring AAJO's own Scott Forey) began the evening with a set of totally original music. It was a change of pace from the style of the big band, but was nonetheless very beautiful and cutting edge music. I'd urge you to check out their site or find their videos online!

Finally, after the official set of the AAJO came to a close, the organizers opened up the stage for a jam session. Many of the original players stayed to play a fun set that featured Horace Silver's classic "Song For My Father" and the Joe Henderson staple, "Recordame." One wonderful feature of the jam session was that Ian Anthony was able to play electric bass during it. Ian is an exceptional musician and long-time contributor to the AAJ forums, and was also an integral part of forming the AAJO. Due to a hand injury he was unable to fully participate, but attended the rehearsal nonetheless and was a huge factor in getting the entire project off the ground. It was great to hear/play with him even on a limited basis!

So, kudos to Jay, Jerry, Michael Ricci, and to everyone else who participated in this project. The survival-- and growth-- of this music will depend on the efforts of those who love it to find one another and create a community. You all just did that through the web, and have taken a step that goes far beyond putting together a great show and evening of entertainment. Thank you all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Just Let 'em Play: Jazz and Copyright Law

This entry is brought to you by the Department of Lose-Lose Situations: welcome to the world of copyright law and jazz :-) If you are looking for a game where none of the participants understand the rules and everyone walks away a little worse for having played, well, you've come to the right place...

Quick disclaimer: As an attorney, let me state once and for the record that I am not speaking as an attorney on this issue :-) I took a grand total of one intellectual property course in law school and left more confused than when I with that huge block of salt, please read on!

Anyway, in anticipation of a long bus ride I was recently digging through some old papers in search of reading materials when I came across a Harvard Law Review article entitled, "Jazz Has Got Copyright Law And That Ain't Good." Much like "Snakes on a Plane," the title here says it all. It's actually a fascinating and well-written piece (the copyright one, not "Snakes...") and the author has clearly done a lot of research on how jazz is played--or was a musician him/herself.

If you're going to analyze the copyright system and jazz, you need to start by acknowledging that while there have been thousands of wonderful original compositions written by jazz musicians, the most compelling/defining characteristic of jazz is that musicians take popular songs and improvise over the underlying structure (the "chord changes"). The author's premise is that copyright law (at least as it was structured in 2005) simultaneously hinders jazz musicians and fails to give us adequate protection. The major issue stems from the fact that copyright law is composition-oriented and thus protects the underlying composition rather than the subsequent improvisation. This becomes a big problem when you consider how much of jazz music involves playing over "standards"-- songs from the Great American Songbook, for example, that have been reinterpreted by jazz musicians for generations (and given that jazz has so much respect for tradition, certain songs have stayed in the "canon" for decades):

"One major source of tension between copyright law and jazz is the law’s insistence on characterizing the underlying composition as an expression rather than an idea. The law essentially values the initial creativity and originality more highly than the subsequent work created by the jazz artist. This skewed valuation results in the mistaken treatment of the jazz standard as a creative work that is merely interpreted by the jazz musician. But the standards, while independent, creative works at one time, take on a different role when employed by the jazz musician. In jazz, the underlying composition is simply raw material — it is not intended to be the end product that reaches the listener or consumer, but is simply the idea from which the predominantly improvisatory expression flows." 118 Harv. L. Rev. 1940, 1948 (2005)

Ok, so what does this really mean for jazz musicians? After all, the author correctly notes that on a practical level, only the melodies themselves are copyrightable-- the chord changes are not:

"The application of the idea/expression dichotomy is not simply theoretical. It turns out that jazz standards’ harmonic progressions are only given a “thin” copyright. So long as the jazz musician changes the melody, the new piece is considered original. For example, many new jazz songs are merely new melodies played over existing chord patterns. [For example, t]here are literally hundreds of jazz compositions considered original that are in fact based on the chord progressions in “I Got Rhythm.” While no case explicitly holds that this is permissible, the failure of any court to find it impermissible squares with the above analysis." 118 Harv. L. Rev. 1940, 1948 (2005) (citations omitted)

Given how abstract this all is, let me give a couple of real-life examples. One of my former teachers wrote an instruction book (and for obvious reasons, I won't be using any names in this post :-)) where he talked about some techniques for improvising over a number of the classic standards, including "Autumn Leaves." The book also included a "play-along" CD so that students could practice the techniques. The copyrightable melody was never played and totally irrelevant to the lesson, but he (or his publisher) did not want to take a chance on violating the law so they simply changed the name of the track to "Fall Foliage". Most people knew what he meant, but those unfamiliar with the genre were no doubt confused...

Ok, no big deal, it's just a book. So how about this-- in 1999 I worked for Americorps in Paterson, New Jersey, and helped start a community jazz program with the focal point being to teach kids from low-income households about jazz. To raise money for the program we made a recording with local musicians and students playing jazz tunes over which we had taught them to improvise. But the licensing fees to use the songs would have probably exceeded any profit we would have generated, so I just wrote a bunch of new melodies over the traditional chord changes and we used those. I wish that I could tell you that my "compositions" were lovingly crafted works of art, but the truth is that I wrote them all in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot a few hours before the recording...

One might reasonably counter these examples by arguing that my teacher should have paid to license the songs and thus produced a better product, and that he would have recouped any costs by selling more books. One could make the same economic argument about our fund-raising CD. And it's also possible that we could have contacted an attorney (this occurred prior to my attending law school) and found some sort of charity loophole or got the copyright holders to waive or reduce the fees...

But this brings up another issue, that of "transaction costs" -- basically, additional costs to everyone involved to resolve an issue or undertake a transaction. Hiring a lawyer or attempting to negotiate with another party generates transaction costs. Given that both economic and legal policymakers frown on high transaction costs as wasteful, the copyright system has attempted to ease these by setting basic fees and handing over most management of copyrighted musical compositions to the "Harry Fox Agency." This theoretically allows musicians to pay for the rights to use songs on their recordings by just dealing with Harry Fox. But problems still arise when it comes to jazz. The licensing scheme usually makes the musician pay a set fee for the use of the song, then pay an additional based on the length of the recorded song. So assume that you're a jazz musician and you record a version of "Autumn Leaves." You play the melody for one chorus (copyrightable), then you and everyone else in the band improvises over the chord changes (not copyrightable) for 15 more choruses, then you play the melody one more time to end the song (copyrightable). Assume also that each chorus takes 30 seconds and that you play an original intro and ending for a total 9 minute recording. Finally, assume that you are making 1000 copies of your recording. Here are your costs:

First 5 minutes: 9.1 cents x 1000 = $91
Second 4 minutes: 7 cents x 1000 = $70
One time licensing fee: $15
Total: $176 (for 1 song)

In this case, the jazz musician has to spend $176 just for the privilege of playing the melody-- which only comprises a little more than 10% of the total piece. Imagine now that your album has four standards on it. You are looking at spending about $700 in licensing fees alone, and most of that is for a tiny portion of the overall work. Even more frustrating is that your fee is based on the length of the entire work, which includes original improvisations over the chord changes (which are not copyrightable in the first place). Of course, you are welcome to try to negotiate with the estates of Cole Porter or George Gershwin or whomever...remember the transaction cost issue?

Those of you who know me know that I am the last person to argue against anyone's right to profit from his/her work. But copyright is a weird corner of the free market-- it's a government-granted protection that exists to promote creative productivity, and in the case of jazz it achieves the opposite result. Without trying to play the sympathy card here, there's just not that much of a market for (new) recorded jazz. The overwhelming majority of musicians self-produce their own albums with little hope of meeting their expenses even if they use their friends on the recording, find a cheap studio and get a decent production package from CD printing company. Throwing an additional $700 expense can actually sink the project. Sometimes musicians say "screw it, I'm judgment proof anyway," but others either don't make the recording or make significant changes to their music to avoid copyright problems...and creativity-- as well as the further development of the art form-- is stifled. Nobody wants to take this to court and rely on a judge (who has no understanding of jazz's relationship to standard songs) to rule in their favor (for that matter, the judge probably doesn't want to wade into a policy fight over an obscure area of already complicated law either). So everybody loses, including the copyright holders as 100% of nothing is still nothing...

I'm don't have a proposal on how to fix this. I think it would be best accomplished through a legislative change rather than a gradual chipping away through judicial opinions. On a practical level, I think that restructuring the licensing fees to better reflect the actual amount of time that the jazz musician spends using the copyrighted material in the recording would be a good start. I think that most musicians would be willing to go ahead and spend $100 to use standard melodies. But honestly, making this kind of change would require policymakers to understand that a jazz rendition of a standard tune is a distinct artistic work, as well as a more flexible view of the economics behind art on the fringes. So I don't know-- maybe it's time to get your local congressperson to sit in at a jam session :-)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pay More Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: A Profile of Dave Schroeder

It's the paradox of jazz that its greatest story is its vast collection of untold stories. Great players finish their careers largely unknown. The reasons differ, though usually it's a function of the jazz "market" being unable to sustain more than a handful of "stars". Other times it's due to extenuating life circumstances (take Frank Morgan, for example), but on rare occasions it's because the musician is so good or successful at something else that the rest of the world simply never notices what he/she has to offer artistically. Such is the case with Dave Schroeder, the director of NYU's Jazz Studies Program, a top-flight saxophonist, composer and bandleader (he's also not a bad racquetball player). Anyone remember that great scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers the real Wizard hiding and operating everything from behind a curtain? Dave Schroeder is sort of like that, only in reverse...he is an administrative wizard on the outside, and largely masks his artistic brilliance.

First things first: Dave is truly an anomaly, because in a town full of people who can play at an amazingly high level, the ability to translate that skill into something tangible (a concert, a recording, a grant, a new performance venue, etc.) is surprisingly rare. Dave has done more to promote other musicians and foster a jazz community than anyone I've ever met. He has built up NYU's jazz program from almost nothing into one of the premier undergraduate and graduate level jazz departments in the world (seriously, when I was in high school NYU wasn't even on my radar screen-- 15 years later it was my top choice). He has done that by attracting some of the biggest names in the jazz world (John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Ari Hoenig, Chris Potter and dozens more) and providing them with a creative environment in which to share their art. He serves on the boards of a number of prestigious arts organizations, including the New York Foundation for the Arts. Dave is also an accomplished academic-- he has written numerous articles and he and Kenny Werner will soon be publishing a comprehensive guide (and new approach) to jazz theory. During the academic year you can find him teaching courses on jazz theory, composition and the history of American music.

But when it comes to promoting himself, he does virtually nothing. Literally. I mean, the guy doesn't even have a Myspace page, let alone a website. The closest he comes to publicizing his abilities is through his critically-acclaimed group Combo Nuvo. Combo Nuvo is an extremely innovative group of musicians (members include Lenny Pickett, Rich Shemaria and Mike Richmond among others) who craft complex-yet-accessible compositions and arrangements, and who perform regularly at top New York venues like the Blue Note and around the world. But this is not a post about Combo Nuvo (though you should really check them out to hear a new voice/take on jazz and its intersection with other forms of music) except to note that, even here, Dave bends over backwards to promote the band as a whole while the performances feature a group concept-- I doubt he's ever taken a gratuitous solo...

...and this is kind of a shame, though his respect for the music's integrity is to be admired, because Dave can flat out play. In jazz the best judges of talent are usually one's peers, so I vividly remember being in a master class with Kenny Werner and hearing him give advice to another saxophonist-- it wasn't so much the content but rather the lead-in, where he said "you don't have to be a Joe Lovano, Chris Potter or Dave Schroeder to make great music..." At that point I only knew Dave as the guy who ran the program and signed off on our advisement forms, so I was floored to hear him mentioned in the same category as two of the greatest saxophonists ever, and by no less a discriminating a source than Kenny Werner!

Ever since then I've made an effort to hear Dave play, and all I can say is that, as a sax player myself, I am really glad that I did. He is a master musician with prodigious command of the horn, but it goes well beyond that. He is a unique voice that is sorely in need of more attention from critics and audience alike. Unfortunately you're going to have to work a little to find him. I did it by going to hear him live, but I've searched for some web material and found a few things. Check out this clip of him playing soprano sax with Combo Nuvo in Italy last year (and yes, he is also playing the harmonica in the beginning of the song):

A couple of things jump out at me from this recording. First and foremost is his sound on the soprano-- a lush soprano sound is not an easy thing to achieve, and Dave manages to both cut through the other instruments as the clear lead while also blending with their timbres. The song itself is melodic and plaintive, and he captures that sentiment with the very first note he plays. But unlike many players, he maintains the mood of the piece throughout his improvisation, extending the song rather than showing off his technique. If you pay attention little hints of his virtuosity bleed through-- there are a few "runs" towards the middle of his solo-- but for the most part he is composing while he plays. For me, at least, that is the mark of a real artist, because when you have lots of technique it's very tempting to use it! If you were to pick a date at random in art history (in any genre), you would find a number of high-level technicians who exhibit considerable skill, and they were probably held in high esteem in their day. But we don't remember most of them-- we remember the Van Gogh's, the artists who explored places beyond what was comfortably accepted. And that doesn't only apply to artists who took "outrageous" risks. There is daring in beauty as well...

I'll close with an anecdote from a recent meeting I had with Dave. Obviously he's a very busy person and his time is at a premium. However, last week I had encountered several technical problems with my saxophone and was searching for a good repair shop, so I figured I would swing by the Dave's office and get some advice. He was in the middle of coordinating a summer jazz guitar program at NYU but his door was still open. Rather than just give me a name, he took the next hour and a half to sit down and try out my saxophone, then let me compare it to his alto and gave me roughly a dozen mouthpieces to test as well. The amount of knowledge he has about the instrument is a little scary-- in testing out the horn, he cycled through a number of different (and difficult) saxophone styles. For a moment, I thought I was listening to Cannonball Adderley, then James Moody, then David Sanborn, then Charlie Parker, then Joe Lovano. It takes most people years to absorb even one style-- Dave seemingly has access to dozens. It gave me an even greater appreciation for the way that he plays in the Combo Nuvo setting, because I realized that every one of his notes was his own stylistic choice. Often jazz artists develop their styles to accommodate their limitations, but Dave appears to have developed his style in the face of his limitless technique...

So, there's my effort at unmasking at least one great artist :-) Seriously, treat yourself and look up Dave and Combo'll be enriched for it. And we all need to do our part to keep an eye out for more under-the-radar-screen art and promote it...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Schmitt and the Order of the Fenix

Ok, spoiler alert: this is not an entry about the New York jazz scene. But the music scene really does extend south of Canal Street, despite what the locals may sometimes believe :-) Oh, and there will be no further Harry Potter references either. I think. It's possible I've been Confunded again...being a Muggle bites, doesn't it?

Anyway, I played a really fun gig with my good friend Harry Schmitt, a great guitarist, composer and person who has has a truly unique approach to, and voice on, the guitar. Beyond his formidable skill on the instrument, Harry has a dedication to interactive playing that makes him an absolute pleasure to play with in any context...especially as a horn player, you look for "comping" instrumentalists who will simultaneously listen to you and inspire you, and Harry does both. He is going to be releasing some original material for free on Youtube in the next few weeks, and you should definitely check it out!

He booked us a gig this past Saturday night ("The Harry Schmitt/Peter Cobb Duo") at the Fenix in, yes, Phoenixville, PA. Phoenixville is an up and coming town outside of Philadelphia with a lot of cool old buildings and architecture. The Fenix itself is a martini lounge and a great spot in which to play. The evening was a lot of fun-- a chance to catch up with and old friend (we met and started playing together in 2003 as we were both Steve Giordano disciples :-)) while exploring some standards and originals...

However, one of the really interesting things that I noticed was what a difference live music makes in terms of attracting a crowd, even when they don't know the performers beforehand! The Fenix is one of about five eating/drinking establishments all in a row on Phoenixville's main street. By the time we started playing the dinner crowds had already dissipated and people were literally window-shopping for places to hang out. Four of the bars had tables, chairs and sports TV in the windows. One of them had a live jazz duo. Guess which place got picked?

It's almost amusing from a musician's perspective: even people who are not jazz fans and have no real interest in actually listening to live music want to be around it. It's a sort of contagious energy, a sense of being connected to creativity that makes people feel more alive and fuels conversations...well, it did at the Fenix, at least. As musicians we live to be connected to that energy and it's a thrill to share it with others. It's always a mystery to me why more establishments don't utilize such a powerful "marketing" tool...

...anyway, kudos to the Fenix for their foresight in that area, and a special thanks to Harry for bringing me down for the gig-- let's do it again soon, man, you sounded great and it was a blast playing!

(These videos are from another gig we did a few years back...just giving a flavor :-))

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Practice Profile: Alex Terrier

One of the best parts about having relocated to the New York jazz scene is the access to so many other musicians at various stages of their artistic "development." The default expectation is that the talent level is going to be really high, and you run into a lot of amazing people up I thought it would be cool to profile some of the different players that I've met and really examine those concepts with which they are currently working.

Like I wrote about earlier, jazz is a life-long study, a huge challenge just to achieve the technical proficiency to play the music at a high level. Jazz musicians are constantly searching for new ways of practicing which will enable them to raise their musicianship. In a way, I suppose it's like code-breaking: you try dozens or hundreds of combinations, not randomly but within some sort of logical system, in hopes that one will unlock a sense of greater understanding. There is no one magic bullet-- usually progress is made through the process of searching-- but people come up with some very innovative solutions...

...which brings me to Alex Terrier. Alex is a fantastic young saxophonist, who hails from Paris, France. He actually attended Berklee College of Music on the Joe Viola Scholarship-- which was created in honor of the legendary Joe Viola who was one of the "founding fathers" of Berklee, as a saxophone guru and a wonderful man (Joe was my teacher, friend and mentor for 10 years until his passing in 2001). The scholarship is supposed to go to a very gifted and advanced woodwind player, and Berklee couldn't have made a better choice than Alex! Since graduating Berklee, Alex has been touring, recording and teaching worldwide though he's based in New York.

I had the pleasure of sitting in with Alex's group a few weeks back, and I was extremely impressed not only with his advanced musicianship but also his respectful and diligent approach to music in general. One of the first things to grab you when listening to Alex play is his flawless technique. He executes the most acrobatic of passages with a casual ease that belies the skill needed to do so.

Alex was kind enough to share what he's currently working on with me, a series of exercises designed to build technical and rhythmic fluency. The basic idea is to take a particular underlying pattern of music (which has its own inherent challenges), and then vary the pattern's rhythm. Alex does this very logically and mathematically, starting with grouping of 2's, 3's, 4's, 5's, 6's, 7's and 8's.

By the way, I feel like this entire entry should have one of those "technical stuff" icons that the "For Dummies" books have to warn people about upcoming content (which is not at all directed at any readers here, by the way!), so please accept my apologies in advance for too jazz "shop talk."

Anyway, I asked Alex to tell me why he developed these specific exercises, and this was his response (edited slightly for length, and stick with him, these are some great insights):

"I keep the metronome at 60 [beats per minute] and go through each exercise. I think it is important especially for improvisers to be able to play them without reading, not to be able to play them as it is during a solo, but to have them in the fingers available just like a library of data in which you can instantly go and pick something. I really internalize each example so that it feels natural. I play the most common ones with different articulations but when it comes to odd groupings (quintuplets and on) I tongue [saxophone articulation] on the down beat to emphasize the feeling of those groupings. Also one thing I find useful is to take one pattern like that and transpose it on each degree of the scale with the metronome always. Sometimes I take two groupings and transpose them. One can also take one grouping of quintuplet and one grouping of triplet for instance...

...I guess I came up with those exercises over an extended period of time and for several reasons: one is to practice the time, which is a very important thing, and to master odd groupings which will make it a piece of cake to play 8ths and 16ths right on the pocket. Also I like to imply a different tempo from what the rhythm section is playing so if you play quintuplets with a 8ths swing articulation that's pretty sweet. One can also take the half note triplet and feel that pulsation as your quarter note or half note, but I guess that would be an entire other chapter.

Also it gives me the opportunity to practice scales in a new and more interesting way than just going up and down and speeding up the metronome.

But really it is all about feeling the time as a space in which you are free and not constricted to play 8th notes and 16th notes. You can play very different if you feel the quarter note, the half note, the whole note, two bars or an entire 8-bar section.

Also, when I say it is important to memorize and internalize them, it is because when I'm actually playing I DO NOT think about all that. everything one seriously practices will come up somehow when one improvises, but the goal is to be natural and fluid, just like one speaks or thinks for himself."

Anyway, a special thanks to Alex for taking the time to share his work and ideas. I tried playing through his exercises and can attest to how challenging and enjoyable they were. Alex is the kind of person who takes the time to answer any questions that you have and I'd encourage you to check out his website ( and get in touch. I know that he makes many of his exercises available to friends and fans...

So, what about the rest of you? I'd love to hear what you're working on! Let's get more of these great ideas out there...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"But Principal Skinner, it was the reed" (Vando Jam)

Can one digress before one even begins? I guess I won't know until I try (incidentally, relaxed writing standards are one of the nice things about being a jazz musician as opposed to a lawyer). Anyway, I hope people are familiar with the Simpsons episode entitled "Lisa's Pony." Basically, Homer screws up with Lisa and in order to win back her love he needs to buy her a pony...and hilarity ensues. This is required watching for saxophonists because of how Homer screws up. He is supposed to get Lisa new reeds as she has a performance in the school talent show that night. Instead he takes a detour at Moe's Tavern and Lisa is forced to play on a bad reed. The result is painful, and she is humiliatingly stopped by Principal Skinner, prompting this immortal exchange:

Principal Skinner (clapping sarcastically): Let's hear it for Lisa Simpson and her wacky saxophone.

Lisa (softly and tearfully): But, Principal Skinner, it was the reed...

Principal Skinner: Sure Lisa, it was...the reed.

So, if you have ever played the sax then you know how critical having a good reed is, and if you haven't, well, it's hard to imagine how something so tiny can make such a huge difference. And they are pricey and notoriously fickle-- a box of ten frequently only yields three or four playable reeds, plus they have tragically short life spans...

Which finally brings me to the subject of this post, the Vando Jam, which I attended this past Monday night (July 13). "Vando" stands for Vandoren, which is one of the largest reed companies in the world (they also make a lot of other woodwind products). They sponsor a jam session that takes place on the second Monday of every month, from 8pm until midnight. It's a bit of an oddity by New York jam session standards in that (1) it's really early (most sessions start after midnight); (2) it's not that well-attended due to limited advertising and the monthly schedule, and; (3) it's in a really swanky location, the Iguana on West 54th Street. Honestly, most jazz clubs are dives, and this place is in the shadow of the Ed Sullivan Theater (of Letterman renown) with trendy martinis and a good-looking crowd...of course, they hold the jam in an upstairs room so there's not much mingling with the crowd :-)

So you're left with a session made up almost entirely of musicians, primarily horn players. The result is a very "educated" audience and a bunch of very talented guest artists. The session is led by Mark Gross, an amazing alto player, which makes sense because if you're going to lead a bunch of saxophonists and represent Vandoren, you'd better be pretty good! Gross is that and more-- he has impeccable time and technique as well as a powerful and commanding tone that grabs you right away. I thought that I could hear some of the influence of Kenny Garrett and Steve Coleman, as well as Coltrane, in Gross's, but he definitely has his own sound and approach.

Gross' band was great too. He had Benito Gonzalez on piano, and Chris Brown on drums (as Gross said, the "real" Chris Brown). Not only is Brown a fantastic drummer, but after the session opened up and another drummer replaced him, he reappeared a few minutes later holding an alto sax-- which he played at a very high level as well :-)

While the tunes were pretty common jam session offerings (On Green Dolphin Street, Billie's Bounce, The Days of Wine and Roses, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise), the overall musicianship extremely high and the players exhibited a wide range of styles. I got a big kick out of a soprano player who had an almost-eerie command of John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" work from the early 1960s (a little like Frank Tiberi). But it was a real pleasure to "sit in" (another jam session term) at an amicable session where everyone knew what to listen for and picked up on so many of the nuances that flow through jazz solos. An audience of one's peers, so to speak. I played on "The Days of Wine and Roses" and had a lot of fun sharing and harmonizing the melody line with Mark and a few of the other players...

So keep an eye on the calendar. On the next second Monday of the month, ask yourself if you can think of another place to hear great players for free in a comparatively-luxurious setting-- and still be able to get up for work the next day. If you can't, come check out the Vando...

***I would also like to point out that I have used Vandoren reeds for the past 18 years, so if there are any Vandoren reps out there, I too would be more than happy to accept a corporate sponsorship. My availability for corporate sponsorships is by no means limited to saxophone accessories. I alternate between exercising in Nike and Adidas shoes. I enjoy trail mix from Planters (although the generic is pretty good too, but I'll switch if that's part of the contract), I often drink a cup of Starbucks coffee before I begin a practice session, and I am currently typing on a Toshiba laptop. And I firmly believe in the efficacy of Glide floss for all wind instrument players...anyone? :-)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Draw! The Art of the Jam, Part I

I remember taking a legal philosophy class where we dealt with the concept of a "meta-question." I figured it's about time that I tackle a "meta-topic" here-- the jazz jam session. I really believe that someone could write a dissertation on this topic, so at the very least this will take me a couple of posts...and it may not be entirely sequential so please be lenient :-)

The jam session is, in my opinion, the central nervous system of jazz. It exists in every town and in every country where people play jazz. It has existed for at least a century, and probably a lot longer. In fact, if one were to calculate the total number of notes played at every jam session in history, that number would be roughly 10 times the global economy! Ok, I made that last part up. Seriously though, these things are pretty prolific. Jazz is a social music, and whether you're new to the scene and want to establish yourself and learn who the players are and what they're about, or you're a grizzled vet and want to see old friends and scope out new talent, you'll head to a jam session.

But jam sessions are also complex animals, managing to be both an Esperanto version of "We Are the World" and an episode of Fight Club rolled into one. The jam session has other names as well, including the slightly-less-inviting "cutting session." And while I'm no etymologist, that seems like a pretty accurate description as the musicians literally cut away at each other on the bandstand until only the best players are left standing. I'm often intrigued by how the audience only hears/sees the music, unaware of the old (and often epic) ritual taking place before their eyes. I suppose it's perceptible through the energy of the music...

Obviously, jazz has many sides. Sometimes it's gentle, sometimes plaintive, melancholy or even a little goofy (though still really hip :-)). And sometimes it has an almost violent ferocity, which I believe is forged in jam sessions.

I'll finish this segment by describing my first experience at a real jam session. Growing up in the Boston suburbs I had a lot of exposure to jazz-- great teachers and school programs, easy access to Berklee and a steady stream of jazz greats who came to perform at Boston clubs. But it had been cushy. So in the 1993 I decided to give the "bigger" scene a shot, and I hit Wally's. Wally's is a Boston institution, a hole-in-the-wall located in the South End/Roxbury neighborhoods, and has been a proving ground for decades. Legend has it that drumming revolutionary Tony Williams played there regularly until he joined Miles Davis' trailblazing 1960's quintet...

In later years, the best players from Berklee and New England Conservatory would serve as the house band for the Sunday afternoon jam session. Branford Marsalis was there in the 1980s, followed by Antonio Hart, Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove. By the time I got there, the group consisted of Teodross Avery, Aaron Goldberg, Reuben Rogers and Mark Simmons.

I had never played at that level before, and I received a thorough butt-kicking every time I set foot in the place. They would call obscure tunes, or would take traditional tunes and make them virtually unrecognizable by playing them at ridiculously fast tempos. Sometimes they would throw in a double-time feel (making the tune seem twice as fast) or introduce more complex metric modulations-- basically all of the things the top players were experimenting with and attempting to add to their vocabularies.

Sometimes you'd be forced to "battle" a far superior horn player, trading improvisational choruses in a way that felt like playing a musical version of the basketball game of HORSE-- match the shot or get off of the stage/court. And there were unwritten rules of conduct and competency that were enforced: if you played too long, the rhythm section would literally stop playing! My hands would sweat so much that my fingers would slide off the keys, and I could never sleep after a Wally's session from the excess adrenaline...

So if you've hung in this far I'll give you a breather :-) That's an opening take on the jazz jam session under the microscope. I'll be coming back to this often as New York has the greatest jam session scene in the world...and I'd love to hear your experiences either as a player or a listener, so please drop me a line or leave a comment!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Brava Anat!

Photo credit: Osnat Rom

Ok, I know I just wrote about the "3 Cohens", but I can't ignore great music :-) I had the incredible pleasure of hearing just one Cohen-- Anat-- during her week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard.

On clarinet.

You may wonder why that deserves a separate paragraph. I'll get to that. First, the show details. Entitled "Benny Goodman and Beyond," it featured Anat leading a stellar group comprised of Benny Green on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums.

Now back to the clarinet. At Berklee, we would not-so-affectionately refer to the clarinet as "the misery stick." While capable of producing a beautiful sound (well, not when I played it, but theoretically :-)), it is far less technically forgiving than the saxophone, and has really assumed a very minor role in the jazz world over the past 50 years, with Eddie Daniels and others as notable exceptions. During the big-band era, however, it enjoyed considerable prominence and one of the most popular and influential musicians of the day, Benny Goodman, was a clarinet player...

For that reason, Anat's show was quite aptly titled. Despite some marvelous individual work by various musicians like Daniels through the years, people still tend to associate the clarinet with Benny Goodman. Anat graciously acknowledges Goodman's long shadow, but has proceeded to take the clarinet to new places. While her set featured such traditional songs as "Tiger Rag," "St. Louis Blues," and "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," Anat offered a fresh interpretation of each. For starters, she has a modern-- and superb-- rhythm section with which to interact. Green's chord choices and comping patterns, Washington's sophisticated bass lines and Nash's poly-rhythmic responses all lend a new twist to older compositions. Her arrangements also seemed designed to highlight the group's different strengths as soloists, offering ample time for everyone to stretch out, explore the songs and interact.

But the real reason this show stood out was due to Anat's brilliant clarinet work. I'm not accustomed to hearing someone make a clarinet sound as easy to play as a tenor saxophone, but she did. I've heard people say that when you watch a truly great actor you forget that it's an actor playing the part and think only of the character-- I believe that the same is true with an instrumentalist. Within a few phrases I stopped marveling at Anat's clarinet technique and began marveling only at her musicality. She can weave the same intricate post-bop lines of a saxophonist through her solos, but with a clarinet's timbre...

And just as greater technique can unlock new ideas for improvisers, so can the natural qualities of an instrument. If you listen to some of the older Benny Goodman recordings, you'll hear him glide and "soar" above the other instruments due to the clarinet's voice-- it has an elegance and clarity of sound that probably comes from its classical origins (for an example of this, check out his version of "Memories of You" with Rosemary Clooney). Anat seemed inspired by the clarinet's capabilities as she added more glissandos to her modern vocabulary. There were a number of moments where she would seem to pause her lines and let a few of the rich higher notes ring out-- which certainly energized both the audience and her bandmates.

Finally, as I mentioned the last time I heard her perform with the rest of her family, she plays with an expressive joy that infects the audience-- I can't remember the last time I saw so many people smiling at a jazz concert! :-) I really recommend going to see her live the next time she is performing...this town is full of great players and innovators, but you're cheating yourself if you pass up the opportunity to hear someone literally revive a beautiful instrument and blaze a new trail. Plus it's always cool to say that you heard someone before they become a household name, although after winning a number of prestigious jazz awards, you may not have much time left for that in Anat's case...

Brava Anat!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jazz: Art or Craft???

If you'll pardon a quick dip into more philosophical waters, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about jazz's role in the artistic cosmos. I suppose a couple of summer days in stuffy practice rooms will do that to the best of us :-) Anyway, the basic question I have is whether one would consider jazz to be more of an art or a craft?

I'll have to tip my hat to Kenny Werner for this line of thinking. Kenny is a visionary musician, one of the leading pianists and composers of his generation. He is also an excellent educator and author (his book "Effortless Mastery" is considered required reading for any aspiring jazz musician), and I've had the good fortune of studying and playing with him since moving to New York. But he made an interesting off-hand observation one day at NYU, where he suggested that someone should write a story about jazz students as they constitute something of a rarity in our society: where else, he asked, do you find young people living an almost monastic existence entirely devoted to the study and practice of an art, and all without hope of any financial remuneration?

Well, I'm not enough of a storyteller to undertake that project, but it did get me to thinking about the enormous amount of intellectual and physical effort that it takes for someone to succeed as a player in the jazz world. Everyone is different, but it's not uncommon to see someone devote 8 to 12 hours a day mastering their instrument, learning a "standard" repertoire, and simply becoming familiar/comfortable with jazz's stylistic nuances. Take trumpet legend Clifford Brown's recording of Cherokee. As a jazz student, I suppose that step 1 would be recognizing the brilliance of his solo. Step 2 would be understanding how impressive it is to keep a consistent swing feel at such a fast tempo. Step 3 would be reproducing a similar feel at that tempo, and the last step would be the ability to make music and innovate there. I know that I'm over-simplifying things, but humor me :-)

Step 1 is pretty intuitive. If you like jazz and improvisation, you are going to get excited listening to this cut. For me, Brown's solo is a five and a half minute adrenaline rush. Step 2 is also a quick one-- just try tapping your foot at that tempo for the entire song and see how tired you get!

The difference between steps 2 and 3, however, is almost unimaginably vast. Just the physical content of Brown's solo represents years of practice on his instrument. He plays a number of "eighth-note" lines (which means he is playing notes at twice the speed of the actual tempo), so think about how much time it would take to learn to produce sounds on your instrument and then string them together in rapid succession, let alone doing so in tune and recognizably! And his solo does not take place in a vacuum-- rather, it reflects the language of his musical generation. Coming of age in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Brown had studied and absorbed the way the bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie approached soloing over similar tunes (Cherokee was one of the most popular bebop vehicles of the day). Brown actually publicly credited trumpeter Fats Navarro for influencing him on numerous occasions.

There are myriad other factors as well. Brown, like all jazz musicians, plays with a “swing feel” (that’s a whole separate topic, as many consider learning how to swing a lifelong pursuit). In a nutshell, the easiest way to hear swing is to listen to a jazz musician and a classical musician play the exact same passage. Jazz musicians interpret the phrasing differently and in a way that syncs up with the pulse laid down by the bass and drums. All of these influences/ingredients went into creating Brown’s masterful solo, and an aspiring jazz musician would have to go through the same steps in order to reproduce an authentic version of Cherokee…

…which brings us to step 4. With all of the unwritten rules and traditional expectations, how does one innovate on a tune like Cherokee? By the 1940’s bebop players began regularly playing Cherokee—a love song-- at very fast tempos to take advantage of the rich chord changes. By the time Clifford Brown recorded it, there had already been dozens of other recordings made, and every jazz musician in the world had played it countless times at late night jam sessions (and we still do today :-)). How did Brown make his unique? How would I?

Ay, there's the rub :-) I don’t have any answers for this one—I think of myself still wrestling with stage 3! But that’s the ultimate goal of any jazz artist, to achieve one’s own voice, to come up with something that will satisfy yourself and (hopefully) others. The most talented among us achieve that, but so do the most dedicated. Which brings me back to Kenny Werner’s observation and the accompanying long days in the practice rooms. We spend so much time and effort just learning to play this music authentically—which is a joy – but it’s easy to lose the creative forest through the technical trees. I don’t know enough about other artistic disciplines to comment on their processes of development and creativity, but I’d be curious to see how they correspond.

And I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts! Thanks for reading all of this :-)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Old Friends, New Music

From the "Road Not Taken Category" (or more accurately, "A Detour" :-))...

I just attended a beautiful show at the Village Vanguard entitled "The 3 Cohens Sextet". It featured siblings Anat Cohen on tenor sax and clarinet, Yuval Cohen on soprano sax, and Avishai Cohen on trumpet. The stellar rhythm section consisted of Aaron Goldberg on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.

Yuval Cohen is a special story for me. When I was at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-90's, Yuval and I became great friends as we were both students of saxophone legend Joe Viola. Yuval, while a far more advanced player than I, was always gracious and a wonderful friend. I spent a lot of time picking his brain about saxophone technique and playing sessions, liberally interspersed with games of chess and basketball...through Yuval I met his younger siblings, Anat and Avishai, both prodigious talents who also came to study at Berklee from Israel. My family even had the pleasure of hosting them for a wonderful day at the ocean in Gloucester, Massachusetts. One of the things I remember Yuval telling me was his dream of one day writing original music for, and starting a band with, his family.

Unfortunately, what was a very promising start to a music career was halted when Yuval developed a medical condition during an international tour that left him unable to use his hands. When I last visited him in Israel, he had stopped playing completely and had begun a career in, coincidentally enough, law...

Well, Yuval is back and then some. With a lot of hard work he regained the ability to play and has subsequently put his legal work on hold to resume a thriving musical life. He has formed his dream band with Anat and Avishai (both of whom are now at the top of the New York and international jazz scene), and "The 3 Cohens" are in the midst of a week-long date at the most storied venue in jazz. He is truly an inspiration to me.

So, onto the music! I attended the 11pm show on Wednesday, and was thrilled by a generous six song set. The evening featured music by all of the Cohens, including an uptempo arrangement of "Ornithology" by Avishai, Yuval's innovative re-harmonization of "Love and the Weather," and Anat's original composition, "Yuvali." All three Cohens displayed a remarkable virtuosity on their respective instruments, but that's par for the course in the upper echelons of the jazz world. What sets them apart-- as individual players and as a unit-- is their warmth and communication, which seems to feed their creativity as well. I can't remember the last time that I witnessed a group of musicians so attuned to each other. In a music scene renowned for it's detachment, the Cohens were rooting each other on, dancing, and letting out low whistles after particularly cool solos. And it translated into greater creative energy for each of them, for the rest of the rhythm section, and engaged the audience. Truly a pleasure.

As for the rest of the band, the superlatives get a little old, so I'll leave it that they are each "monsters" (that's a high compliment in jazz parlance). Matt Penman and Greg Hutchinson are some of the most skilled, creative and in-demand musicians on the jazz scene today. And Aaron Goldberg is simply amazing. Aaron and I actually go back further than Yuval and I do: we played in a school jazz band together in 1989-1990. He was good when he started, really good in short order, and soon became amazing (simultaneously attending Harvard while the rest of us were slogging through music school). He is now one of the world's leading voices on jazz piano, and he thrilled the audience and his band-mates with spell-binding solos and sensitive interpretations of the originals...

The 3 Cohens have released several recordings, and I highly recommend them all, particularly their latest, "Braid" (which also features Aaron Goldberg). They bring joy to their music and you will love it.

I'll close by saying that even though my evening was about the music and warm reunions (they are still the same good-natured and humble people they were as students), I couldn't help but think about what an inspiring story Yuval, Anat and Avishai are. They have worked their way from being complete unknowns from another country to trailblazers on the New York jazz scene, they have had overcome all sorts of adversity and odds, and their love and support for each other is apparent and heart-warming. I thought about meeting them as kids almost 15 years ago, and it makes me wonder what other special talent is hiding in unusual places...

Congratulations again, guys. You sound wonderful. Joe Viola would be very proud...