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 :-)