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.