Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jazz Bassist/Composers

My extensive research into the area of influential and prolific jazz composers who happen to be bass players has been something of a bust. Much as I wanted to shill for my fellow low note creators, the sad truth is that there are not enough outstanding musicians who fit the description to warrant a full length article. I had hoped to write something for the new and quite good online journal Bass Musician Magazine, but there is barely enough material for a decent blog post. So, here goes:

It will come as no surprise that the first and most outstanding jazz bassist/composer was, of course, Charles Mingus. He really has no peer in terms of output, passion, skill, stylistic advancement and influence. A quick glance at his catalog of compositions will give you a good overview of the breadth of this man's work. From simple blues based compositions like Haitian Fight Song and Better Git Hit In Your Soul to the massive and flawed Epitaph, his oeuvre is impressive - almost overwhelming.

Mingus aspired to be the Duke Ellington of his generation, though he also venerated Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. I'm guessing that his most played composition is the memorial he wrote for Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which is essentially a re-harmonized blues melody. The tune is rightfully well known and often recorded; it is hauntingly beautiful.

Next I have to go with the man who put the fretless bass guitar on the map and wrote a handful of great and often performed tunes, Jaco Pastorius. Jaco's output as a composer doesn't come close to the scope and influence of Mingus but some of his tunes have become fusion (for lack of a more appropriate term) icons. Such compositions as Three Views of A Secret, Teen Town, Havona, Punk Jazz, River People, Barbary Coast, Continuum and Portrait of Tracy leave no doubt as to the writing talent Jaco possessed. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see that talent fully realized.

Dave Holland has produced a great deal of music, primarily suiting his purpose to have the tunes serve as springboards for improvisation. He has written a number of compositions arising from his interest in odd meters and has also stretched the limits of harmony, often juxtaposing "tunes" and free improvisation. A friend of mine said that his historic early recording Conference of The Birds sounded like TV themes interspersed with free blowing. That's awfully dismissive, but some of the tunes do sound a little immature. Fortunately, he had the likes of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton there to push the improvisational envelope. Many of his recordings have been without chording instruments, which reminds me of Mingus's piano-less quartet recordings of the early 1960's. [The presence of Eric Dolphy on the seminal recordings of Fables of Faubus and What Love, among other tunes, certainly helped make those sessions as close to masterpieces as there are in jazz.]

Holland has garnered many accolades in the past couple of decades for his work as a bassist and bandleader. Some of the inherent value of his groups is due to the quality of his writing, which has greatly matured over the years. He has borrowed a strategy from the Ellington (and Mingus) play book, namely, writing compositions specifically for the individual players in his groups. Like his early mentor Miles Davis, Holland has fostered the careers of many younger players, providing them a movable workshop not only for their playing but for their tunes as well.

The only other bassist/composer I have found to be a potential rival for these masters will come as a surprise to many of you. I first heard Ben Allison's music in connection with the NPR show On The Media. After doing some investigating I discovered that Allison had been writing, performing and generating considerable buzz with his semi-cooperative band Medicine Wheel for a number of years. His writing is eclectic and fresh sounding, incorporating a lot of non-jazz elements like pop and world music textures. I can't give you a good thumbnail description of his compositions - there are a lot of them, spanning a good half dozen or so CDs. What I've heard I think is well worth checking out.

I realize that this list may be somewhat controversial. I've left out a lot of the usual (and some unusual) suspects. Many bass players have written some good tunes. My short list of these players includes Steve Swallow, Gary Willis, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, George Mraz, Miroslav Vitous, Michael Manring, Oscar Pettiford, Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, John Patitucci, Eberhard Weber, David Friesen, William Parker, Avishai Cohen, Drew Gress. I'm sure I've left out some worthy names, including your personal favorite...

But none of these players' work as yet comes up to the standard set by Mingus, Pastorius and Holland. Perhaps several of them will emerge as truly seminal, outstanding composers. That remains to be seen, or, rather, heard.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tough Choice

Because playing music is such an intimate activity, the skill levels and personalities of those of us who play together get commingled. Perhaps snarled might be a better descriptor. An age old conundrum has recently come to the fore in my career and I don't think I'm the only professional musician who faces this issue on a regular basis. The question is: Would I rather play with mediocre, fair to middlin' level musician who I get along with well personally or is it more satisfying to work with people with high levels of skill even if I find them to be insufferable, boorish or downright awful to be around?

In order to avoid insult I will keep the details vague, but I began to feel rather depressed in the middle of a gig recently because I was playing yet another set with someone who really has to be corralled, both rhythmically and harmonically. It was not fun. It is never fun trying to play under these conditions, as I've discussed in earlier posts. Yet the guy I was wanting to throttle so much during that gig is someone I really like, respect and enjoy hanging with off of the bandstand. He also hires me quite a bit (which is a whole other dimension of this dilemma).

I used to work with a drummer of medium ability whose opinion on this was clear: "Give me an asshole who can play." Sometimes I feel that way. Then I get on a gig with someone who can really play but whose ego or negative vibe sours the experience personally (even if the music is really happening). I'm not even sure the question should be what do I prefer. Maybe more important factors apply here, such as: what is this experience doing for my development as a musician? How is this gig or relationship affecting my career? What is an acceptable stress vs. musical quality level for me?

Ideally I want to play with excellent players who I love. That's a given. I feel fortunate to have been in that desirable position many times over the years. But the truth is that too much of the time I seem to be in with a crowd of people who I really like but who just don't play at the level to which I aspire. This is undoubtedly the result of many decisions I've made during the course of my career. I think the problem stems from the tough choice itself; I don't know how to answer the question so I can't take steps to solve it.

I'd be interested to hear what other folks think about this.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Little Humor

The church I play at every Sunday morning, like many churches (I guess), likes to call everything they do some kind of "ministry". So, there's the prayer ministry, the pet ministry, the children's education ministry, etc. My cohort Sarah dubbed coffee time between services the "caffeine ministry" and I have a codename for the pet ministry which for reasons of propriety I will not share here. Trust me, its funny.

So today I decided that I should call myself the "low note ministry". When I mentioned it to Sarah she said, "Oh, you're a fundamentalist." Hope you musical punsters appreciate that one. I then briefly recounted the story of playing in a club in the early 80's when author Alex Haley came in. When I saw him I stated playing just roots.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tony Andriacchi at the Skokie Theatre

I am happy to have been on stage with the wonderful pianist Jeremy Kahn in support of my old friend and colleague Tony Andriacchi. Here's what the mercurial Howard Reich had to say about the concert this past Saturday in today's Chicago Tribune:

In a way, Saturday night marked Andriacchi's second comeback.

A couple of years ago, the formidable Chicago singer returned to the stage after more than a decade-and-a-half away.

His career was just starting to gain new momentum when, earlier this year, he was sidelined by vocal-cord problems requiring surgery.

But some artists can't be stopped, as Andriacchi proved before a sold-out house at the refurbished Skokie Theatre. Performing for the first time since his treatment, Andriacchi sounded in fine voice and, more important, offered one illuminating, unconventional song interpretation after another.

He opened his marathon concert, which stretched more than 2 1/2 hours, with a wholly original version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." By elongating its melody lines and making the most of every syllable, Andriacchi revealed the inner workings of the tune. Yet even at this dreamy, unhurried tempo, the piece never lost rhythmic momentum.Though practically every singer in the pop-jazz tradition owes some debt to icons such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Andriacchi has pulled further away from their influence than most. He proved it when he dug into their repertory, singing "The Best Is Yet to Come" with a sly understatement that ran counter to Sinatra's euphoric recordings of this tune; and by dispatching "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" even more slowly and introspectively than Bennett.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Improvised Inspiration

Inspiration to change one's routine can come from some unexpected sources. This week I purchased a new tool in my "practice more/obsess about it less" arsenal: a comfy, portable stool! Yes, something that simple has gotten me to my bass consistently for the past five days; I've even been working on things that have been historic stumbling blocks for me. I've been doing this out of actual desire as opposed to guilt, and that's a welcome change.

For bass players who have struggled with stance, balance and posture (as I have on and off for most of my career) I can recommend one possible solution IF you've decided that sitting may be the most efficient and comfortable way to play the beast: The bass stool made by Danny Shannon at This thing is lightweight. It sets up and breaks down easily. And it is as comfortable as the thick Yamaha drum throne I used to schlep around with me. The Quikseat is far better than any other bass stool I've seen and is well worth the $165 price tag.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

VIDEO: Walking Bass Lines - Tritone Substitution

I've posted another video for jazz bass players on YouTube. In it I explain the theory and use of the tritone substitution on dominant harmonies.

Part one:

Part two:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

When There's Nothing To Be Done

File this post under frustrating bass player situations.

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There are times when I feel that I am powerless to do anything to make the music I'm trying to play "work". My first instinct when things are going awry on the bandstand is to assess what it is that I'm doing to make this moment (tune, set, show, entire night) sound or feel wretched. I'm sure that sometimes I really am the primary cause for the musical dysfunction. I mean, the law of averages pretty much guarantees that some of the time I am (in the words of the legendary Joe Daley) "not making it, babe."

But at least a decent percentage of the time, once I get past trying everything I can think of to "fix" what I'm doing, there are bad things happening in this musical moment that I simply have no ability to rectify. I'll trying playing softer if it seems like I might be getting in someone's way. I'll try being more aggressive if it feels like the time is wobbly. I'll attempt to focus on one specific thing; intonation, say, or just locking in with the drummer's ride cymbal. But it is often to no avail. I had one of these experiences last night.

I was playing a gig in a high profile location, in front of several hundred people in a concert situation. The singers were uniformly excellent (a rare treat) and everyone was "into" the event. But the thing was SO disorganized, the sound was SO awful and one of the players has SUCH dreadful time that I was unable to enjoy what should have been a nice if not memorable engagement.

I really wanted things to go well. I like most of the folks I was playing with. One of them is rather well-known - a guy I played with some decades ago but hadn't seen in a long time. I would have liked to walk out of there feeling like I contributed to a good (or how about excellent?) performance and I tried my damnedest to make that happen. But sometimes there's nothing to be done.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

10,000 Hours

I've been immersed in a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain On Music. The author, Daniel J. Levitin, is a musician/recording engineer/producer turned neuroscientist. Despite the unfortunate title, the book is a serious exploration of the connections between music (from both a listening and playing perspective) and the brain.

The chapter that most interests me discusses the venerable talent vs. hard work dichotomy. When it comes to developing true expertise as a musician, is it innate, genetic predisposition that matters most? Or is it what Artur Rubinstein referred to as "sitting power?"

The strongest evidence for the talent position is that some people simply acquire musical skills more rapidly than others. The evidence against that talent account - or rather, in favor of the view that practice makes perfect - comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do. ...experts in music require lengthy periods of instruction and practice in order to acquire the skills necessary to truly excel. In several studies, the very best conservatory students were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who weren't judged as good. (p. 196)

The emerging conclusion is that experts in many fields (sports, literature, composition, performance of every kind) need about 10,000 hours of practice time to achieve world-class levels of proficiency. 10,000 hours is the equivalent of 3 hours a day, seven days a week, for a period of 10 years. These studies do not address the differences in the efficacy of practicing for different people (which is known to vary widely). But when we're discussing performers on the level of Michael Jordan or Philip Roth or Yo Yo Ma, there apparently have not been cases where truly world class expertise was developed in less time.

According to Levitin, who runs the intriguing sounding Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, this 10,000 hour theory is consistent with what science knows about how the brain learns. The genetic components for musical expertise are also crucial. Such things as physical size may determine that one is more suited for the double bass instead of the piccolo, for instance. Other relevant genetically linked physical traits include manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and memory. Determination, self-confidence and patience are certainly requirements for becoming a highly skilled musician; those traits are inherent as well.
Levitin has a broad range of musical taste and knowledge, which helps make the book approachable, whether you're a baroque purist, a mainstream jazz aficionado or a Joni Mitchell fan. For the scientifically savvy there's also a certain amount of detail regarding areas of the brain that are engaged when we listen to or perform music.

Finally, Levitin writes with passion about the emotional content of musical performance. He notes that "so much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of the fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion."(p. 208) Since we go to music (as well as other forms of art) to be moved emotionally, it seems that being an expert musician ought to include the performer's ability (or lack thereof) to communicate with listeners in a meaningful way. Quantifying these skills is, alas, no easy task. But Levitin and his colleagues around the world are focusing some of their attention on these more mysterious matters. It may be just a matter of time before science is able to pinpoint the areas of the brain responsible for musical expression, sensitivity and communicative ability.

Meanwhile, it's back to the woodshed. At this point I think I've got about 7,529 hours to go.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Renaud Garcia Fons - bass master

Incredible "crossover" bass mastery. HOW can I not have heard of this guy before today???

He was a student of Francois Rabbath. His bass has a high "C" string, which is one reason he's able to play those lyrical melodies. But what great bow chops and killer intonation, not to mention a fresh musical concept and lovely tunes!

Excuse me, I have to go out to the woodshed now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Music Promo Maven Bob Baker in Chicago

I read Bob Baker's book, Guerilla Music Marketing, and the guy knows his stuff. I've gotten a lot of great promo ideas from him. If you have a band or music business of any kind and are operating on a low budget (like me!) you'll glean a lot from the book. Unless I have a gig, I'll be at this seminar. I know it will be informative and entertaining.

Monday, September 24, 2007 Releases New Tracks

I thought you should know that I just did a comprehensive new release of jazz standards play along tracks on my website

I'm especially proud of the innovative tracks we've created especially for jazz vocalists. I've also added a bunch of new stuff for bass players, horn players, pianists and guitarists and drummers.

Please check it out and let me know what you think.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Walking Bass Lines: "Rhythm Changes" VIDEO

Just posted another instructional video on YouTube. This ones demonstrates some substitute chord choices for the ever-popular "I Got Rhythm" chord progression.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Making A Living

I'm a musician. You know - a man with no marketable skills. Civilians sometimes ask me what I do for a living; musicians I run into often ask me what kind of stuff I've been doing lately. These questions always leave me tongue-tied. What on earth DO I do to make ends meet? Sure, I play gigs, I teach, I run my jazz education website. I do Finale copy work... But what does it all amount to and how can I succinctly answer these quesions? After all, if you ask someone in "normal" life what they do they'll say something like "I sell shoes" or "I teach fifth grade" or "I'm a bartender". I have no such pithy response.

My wise friend Sarah says that we belong to the "artist class"; we're not blue collar workers because most of us are highly educated and "professional" yet we're not really white collar either since we don't get a regular paycheck and most of us do not earn six figures (0r anything close to that!). So we occupy some subversive nether world; we have the freedom of a freelance schedule but the burdens of an irregular income, no paid vacations and having to fork over large wads of cash every month if we want to have health insurance.

When I examine the work I do as an instrumentalist I have to laugh. One night I'm playing Louie, Louie with a metaphorical paper bag over my head at someone's wedding; the next night I'm playing a jazz festival. One week I'm subbing on Wicked and earning serious dollars; the next I'm looking for spare change under my rug to buy a cup of coffee. Unless one has a day gig or some kind of steady job (in an orchestra, say, or touring with a name act), this is our reality.

I earn about 20% of my income teaching. Again, though I really enjoy the process and most of my students, it can be very hit or miss. I'll have a week where everyone shows up for their allotted time, followed by two where half my students cancel. There's also a wide variance in both skill and talent level, not to mention the amount of practice time people put in from lesson to lesson.

So, I ask my fellow freelance musicians: What do you do for a living?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Practice Vibe

I feel somewhat sheepish posting this great clip of one of my bass heroes...but I'm doing it anyway. It's awkward to post because I've just posted humble videos of me teaching a simple bass lesson. And Dave Holland is so in another league entirely.

The good news is that watching this video and the one from the same solo bass concert (!) where he plays Mingus' Goodbye Porkpie Hat got me up and cracking to my own bass to practice some stuff I haven't worked on in a long while. So that's the good news.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Walking Bass Line Transitions VIDEO

I've just uploaded my first instructional video to you tube. In it I explain how to connect one chord change to the next when you are playing a walking bass line. I use the lessons I've learned from the greats: Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Ron Carter et al. The techniques I discuss are ones I've used with great success with my students over the years. Please check it out:

Here's the same lesson on electric bass:

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Just when you thought it was safe to read this blog, yet another post about jazz singers comes hurtling at you:

In addition to the points I've made previously primarily (but not exclusively) about jazz singers I must add a further conclusion that I was reminded of earlier today. It concerns the inverse relationship between ability and the need to control. It has been my experience that the less competent the performer the more she has to take charge, direct and control the musical situation (and sometimes all the business surrounding the performance as well).

Earlier today I worked with a mediocre singer who can, on occasion, sound pretty good. Today was not one of those times. She brought in new material which was not so impressive to begin with and then tried to premiere it in front of an audience before the tunes were really finished and long before she was comfortable with the music. (We'll leave aside the less than helpful or accurate charts for the time being as that is a subject for another tirade.)

This singer found it necessary to read the charts aloud for the trio. It was rather like a teacher reading aloud from a textbook which one could easily read without help. She didn't offer anything helpful and it turned out that she didn't quite follow what she had written down for us anyway. Then, during the performance she did a couple of embarrassing things like over direct us at cues and make a big deal about a repeat she needed to add. We even had to stop and go back to a section in one of the songs because she fouled up the words (like anyone else KNEW!). It was truly a bag over the head situation.

On the flip side, when a top notch singer comes to a gig, she hands out the book (if there IS a book), counts off the tune and sings. If there is some important fact we need to know it will be either spelled out in the chart or indicated in a subtle MUSICAL way from the singer. People who are competent at their craft don't find it necessary to over-explain or hover over you while you do your job. Miles was notoriously cryptic with his sidemen over the years and just listen to the performances he coaxed out of his bands by saying next to nothing and leading by example.

There are a number of fabulous singers it has been my pleasure to work with who perform, act and communicate like they are IN the band. In fact, it is almost always true that the better the singer, the easier time one has playing with them and the less they feel it is necessary for them to direct. The control freak divas are, for the most part, in the realm of the poseur or, at best, the mediocre.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Jazz: Pursuit of the Spiritual Connection

There's a wonderful series that's been airing on NPR for a few years called This I Believe. It's not a show per se; it is a collection of brief personal essays chosen and recorded for broadcast during All Things Considered. This past Sunday the essay really caught my ear as I was driving to my weekly gig at Unity Chicago. Entitled The Holy Life of the Intellect, it was written and delivered aloud by Canadian poet George Bowering.

Even though I am a devoted secularist, his essay reminded me of an aspect of jazz that I sometimes forget. Bowering states:

I believe that the human intellect is the closest thing we have to the divine. It is the way we can join one another in spirit.

Sometimes when you are listening to a great jazz musician performing a long solo, you are experiencing his mind, moment by moment, as it shifts and decides, as it adds and reminds. This happens whether the player is a saxophone player or a bass player or a pianist. You are in there, where that other mind is. His mind is coming through your ears and inside your mind.

This is a wonderfully succinct way of describing the ultimate goal of those of us who choose to express ourselves through the language of jazz improvisation. We desire to make this spiritual and emotional connection with our listeners, without which art does not exist. Musicians begin this process in our minds. We hear, we respond, we recall, we send impulses to our muscles to create certain sounds in the physical realm that express the inner workings of our minds.

Listeners process these sounds through the apparatus of their ears and brains; those "instruments" receive and decode the sounds we produce. The "intellect", for lack of a better term, is intimately involved in this process. Before anything can move us at our emotional/spiritual core it has to pass through the mind. Bowering goes on to say:

The first time I heard Charlie Parker playing “Ornithology” I was delighted. I was about 11 years old. You are so much alone with your mind as a kid, so when you hear someone else’s mind improvising, you feel an excitement you will never get from some music that just wants to keep a steady beat...

I believe that if there is a god, this is what he wanted us to do. It is the holy life of the intellect.

At the highest level of jazz as art, this is what it is all about. At this point in the essay I started thinking about John Coltrane, specifically his masterpiece A Love Supreme. I don't believe anyone can remain unmoved by this music; it is sublime and beautiful in the truest sense of that word. Not a moment later Bowering mentioned this album as a shining example of intellect and spirit in jazz. I was not surprised.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Max Roach

The great bebop era drummer Max Roach has died. The man played with everyone who was and is anyone in jazz. Ask any jazz drummer about influences and Max will be on their list (if they've done their homework). His style, techniques and approach are as evident in modern drumming as Charlie Parker's playing is in every instrumental jazz musician who has grown up in the past 50 years.

I got to play with Max once, in the mid-80's. I don't know how or why I got called to play this concert but I had some of the most fun I've ever had on a bandstand that night. The other players, including a somewhat shaky (time-wise) Kenny Burrell, were fine; Max was magnificent. His playing was elegant, strong without being overbearing, meticulous, fine tuned to what was happening in the moment. Not to wax egotistic, but Max liked my playing. He said I could make "quarter notes sing... and not everybody can do that."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Good Experiment in Listening

Tonight I did something I've never done before. I'm doing some research for an upcoming article I'm writing on jazz composers who happen to be bass players. I recently purchased a small pile of new CDs by Ben Allison, Drew Gress, Avishai Cohen, William Parker and Scott Colley. It's a lot of music to really LISTEN to so I've been waiting for a break in my schedule to start. I somehow hit upon this crazy idea to take all five of these as yet unheard albums, stick them in my CD changer, hit shuffle play and listen without having any idea whose music would be playing at any given moment. I sat back and had one of the most interesting listening experiences of my life.

In addition to hearing some really great stuff I came to the realization that I often waste too much bandwidth reading the tray card and looking at the photos and artwork on the CD case while the music is playing. So I've been often guilty of not really giving the music my full attention, which is the least any music deserves if one purports to be a serious listener. Not having a pre-conceived notion of WHO is playing was also very telling. I know I would be pre-disposed to like or dislike something based upon my previous experience with that artist or because of something I may have read or heard about the music. This way I was free to respond to each piece as it unfolded right in front of my ears. Very refreshing.

After about an hour I started to get rather tired and thought I might get up and do something else for awhile. Just as I was about to do so, something came on the stereo that really caught my attention. I can't tell you what or who it was because I really have no idea. It was a short piece that used a repeating pedal tone, first heard on the bass. I think it was an Eb because that's the pitch that kind of stuck in my ear but I could be wrong (I don't have perfect pitch but I can usually get pretty close by listening to the texture of the note being played on my instrument). This one pitch kept being sounded as the chords moved underneath. Then the bassist played a wonderfully jagged yet melodic solo while the pedal note kept being played by the pianist.

This tune got my very excited. As it ended I stayed on the couch and started singing the note to myself and wound up writing a little folksy sounding tune in my mind. I ran downstairs to my music room and spent the next hour or so writing something of my own that echoes the concept of whoever's music I had just heard.

And if that's not the best result of listening to great music from a player's point of view then I don't know what IS!

PJN Tracks Available for FREE

Two play along tracks from are posted and waiting to be sampled by you at Jason Heath's doublebass blog. There's a Blues in Bb and a standard turnaround in C. These tracks are just piano and drums and are intended for bass players. Tracks for all instrumentalists and vocalists are available directly from PJN. Enjoy!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Even More on Jazz Singing

From a press release about my old colleague Janice Borla:

Often cited for her adventurous, risk-taking approach, Borla uses her voice as a jazz instrument and keeps vocal improvisation front-and-center in her performances. To quote noted jazz journalist and broadcaster Neil Tesser: “She shatters the stereotype of the jazz vocalist as a poseur or wannabe, infatuated with the idea of improvisation but lacking the mettle to carry it off; she’s a musician who happens to play voice.”

Well said, Neil (another old friend from my days at Northwestern University). Janice actually IS an excellent improviser who has clearly done her homework. There are only a handful of "jazz" singers who can boast of this skill. Among my favorites are Mark Murphy and Sheila Jordan.

Here's the substance of the rest of the press release:


On Sunday, September 2, jazz vocalist Janice Borla will present a lecture/performance entitled “The Art of the Solo” at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park. Joining her will be key members of her group: guitarist John McLean, bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Jack Mouse. The performance will begin at 2:00 p.m. on the Jazz & Heritage Stage.

Admission for this presentation is free. For more information on the Chicago Jazz Festival, visit its website.

My recommendation is to go hear these folks speak and play.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I'm Not Complaining - Much

This post is a response to an eloquent series of posts at Jason Heath's blog called This Crazy Music Business. While not a prerequisite for understanding this piece I highly recommend taking the time to read through what he has to say. As someone who has been around professional musicians, actors, dancers, comedians and performers of all other stripes for well over thirty years, I can tell you that Jason's observations and conclusions are quite savvy and articulate.

There's an old joke in the biz: Q: "How do you make a musician complain?" A: "Give him a job." That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income (never knowing when or how much you will work, how much you will be paid and when those checks might arrive); dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant conductors, band leaders, contractors and fellow sidemen; traveling to or finding the venue, parking and unloading unwieldy instruments, amps, etc; competition for gigs from other players of one's instrument and on and on.

And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?

Performing artists spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and sustained effort to become proficient at our crafts. The investments we make involve the kind of personal commitment that only exist outside of the arts in the most rarefied professions, such as health care and politics. The level of psychic, spiritual and emotional (what Heath calls "affective") effort required goes way beyond the requirements of most other fields of endeavor.

It is this commitment in addition to the "addictive" quality of performing that keeps most of us hacking away at it for the better part of our lives. It is indeed rare to see a highly skilled musician walk away from this world voluntarily and permanently. I can think of several performers who have lives or careers of note (forgive the unconscionable pun if you will) in addition to their involvement in music. Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin has a second life as a psychiatrist. The late bassist Art Davis was also a therapist. Many of us are involved in teaching in a variety of ways (more on this in a minute). There are people who are proficient in more than one area of performance: Steve Martin, for example, is a helluva banjo player. Yo Yo Ma can really break dance (just kidding). The pop music world is full of folks who have crossed over into acting careers and vice versa. The penicillin of economic reality and rationality has no effect on this performance bug, at least for most of us.

One of my favorite personal aphorisms about this business is: "I'm a musician, you know, a man with no marketable skills." The whopping majority of musicians, actors, dancers et al gave little or no thought to the "business" part of being a performer when we started studying, practicing and becoming addicted to expressing ourselves in these ways. I did not, for example, learn how to play all the modes, triads, seventh chords, pentatonics and so on in all twelve keys so that I could play Louie, Louie at weddings. I gave no thought to the commercial or practical aspects of playing music when I was playing original compositions and tunes by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and Chick Corea in tiny jazz dives in the late 1970's. I did it because I loved the music and the way it felt to create a literal and figurative groove with my band mates. I worked hard because I wanted to do it well and to (as Mingus would put it) "get it in my soul."

So what is this addictive quality that Jason describes so well? He focuses on the performance aspect itself which is, of course, important. We like connecting with an audience, getting that feedback in the form of applause or, for the most part in my niche of the biz, the occasional positive comment like "It probably doesn't seem like we were listening, but you guys were great". Comedian Lenny Bruce summed up the motivation for performing by equating it with the psychological need for attention: "Everything we do is: Look at me, ma!" But I'm more "addicted" to the feeling I alluded to a moment ago. For lack of a better term I'll appropriate one from sports: it is this being in "the zone" that keeps me coming back for more, whether I consciously want to do so or not.

The "zone" in playing music (I've also experienced it as an actor) is poorly suited to a verbal description, but I'll give it a go: It is the feeling of being wholly in the present moment, of being connected viscerally to the other players, of being subsumed as an individual into the temporary collective mind, of being outside of chronological time and free of bodily sensation. It looks really kooky on paper, but this is where the analytical/rational/linear part of the human mind fails to serve. For a few linear moments at a time (and it may not last long) I can re-connect with that feeling of living only in the present, without concern for the mundane, for what happened five minutes ago or for what will happen five minutes hence. None of that counts for a hill of beans when I'm in the "zone".

Rather than quit, many of us diversify. The field of music encompasses not only the act of performing but other potentially remunerative endeavors as well. We can compose or arrange or copy music. We can become conductors, music directors or band leaders. We can go into music history, music theory, music therapy, arts administration. We can teach privately and at every academic level from kindergarten to graduate school.

All of these ancillary fields can serve as ways to augment our performance income or as primary careers. If you are skilled and lucky enough to have a job in a major orchestra or as a member of a major rock or pop act then you probably don't need a second job. But many of us blue collar musicians have to have multiple income streams to satisfy the performing jones.

There is no substitute for the experience of performing in the "zone", which is why I continue to do this crazy thing.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Lyle Mays Video w/ Chicago Rhythm Section

Here's a link to a terrific video from 1992 of Lyle Mays' Quartet performing at a jazz festival in Rio.

The tune they play is a cool samba that I'm sure Lyle must have written. Members of the band are: Lyle Mays - piano, composer; Mark Walker - drums; Bob Shephard, soprano saxophone, flute; Eric Hochberg, acoustic bass.

I was fortunate enough have played many many gigs with Mark when he lived in Chicago, mainly in the 80's. I played with him when he was in his teens and he was a badass even then. Eric is a wonderful bassist who still graces various stages and clubs here in town. He blogs (as do I) at Jason Heath's fantastic resource for bass players.

FYI: I tried to embed this video but I couldn't get dailymotion's software to behave. No wonder youtube is so much more successful!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Jazz Singing Redux - or The Jam Session Blues

Because this illustrates the point of my previous post so perfectly, here's an extended quote from fellow Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. Steve plays in the house band for the longest running and highest profile jam session in Chicago, Friday nights at the famed Green Mill. Here's what happened this past Friday:

We had a singer who might not have been half bad if she’d paid more attention to singing the song and what was happening around her onstage than dancing and making meaningless “soulful” encouraging yelps; another singer who wanted to sing two songs that none of us had ever heard of, and if [pianist extraordinaire) Dennis Luxion doesn’t know the song, it’s probably worthy of being obscure; and finally a drummer who was so transcendently awful that Rick [Shandling] had to come onstage and reclaim the chair midsong.

Steve goes on to eloquently state the bane of the jazz musician (or skilled musicians in any genre, it seems to me):

Now, I know that jam sessions are, technically, the place where you attempt to prove yourself, and, intellectually, I realize that if you don’t put yourself out there you’ll never advance. On the other hand, what is it with these people? I find this mystifying, this phenomenon (and I see quite a lot of it) of people who have no business being on any stage at all, let alone one of the city’s top jazz clubs, with (and pardon me if I seem arrogant) some of the best players around. These are either people with no shame, or with no critical faculties, and probably both. I guess that some of it has to do with the American Idol mentality; everyone wants to be in show biz, but no one wants to pay the dues.

[Emphasis added for, well, emphasis.]

Finally, Hashimoto engages in a little fantasy that I believe must be archetypal among musicians:

But I tell you, I’d like to catch some of these characters when they’re on the operating table; doesn’t have to be anything major, like brain surgery or a triple bypass. Something easy, like an appendectomy, maybe, and just barge into the operating room in my street clothes and grab the scalpel from the surgeon, tell the patient that it’s okay, I’ve always had a hankering to perform surgery, I’ve practiced plenty with my surgery-minus-one videos and my inflatable dolls, don’t worry, it’ll be fine, what’s the f****** problem, why do you have an attitude about it?

As I mentioned in my Jazz Singing post, this problem is not isolated among vocalists, as Steve's story indicates. It just seems that too many civilians "listen" with their eyes, which is why attractive albeit incompetent singers are not only tolerated but often rewarded. It's not just women either, in case you're thinking I'm being a pig about this. However, with rare exceptions (and they're usually band leaders), instrumentalists who can't play do not get hired and their reputations as "instrument owners" travels like wildfire among other working musicians.

Sadly, it is often the singer who hires the band - usually because if she doesn't get the gig she will not be out there working. The public can be fooled a lot more easily than those of us on the bandstand. Sidemen, take back the night!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Jazz Singing

Just read a brilliant post from jazz vocalist Carol Sloane that got me thinking again about jazz singers. Some of what I'm about to say could go for certain instrumentalists I've run across in my years behind the bass, but the worst offenders (it pains me to say) are singers.

As Ms. Sloane points out, learning to sing or play a well constructed melody is a skill that in and of itself takes plenty of time and devotion to master. Just because one knows the melody and lyric of a song does NOT mean one has the skills to improvise or scat (ugh, just writing the word makes my flesh crawl). Skilled jazz players (and the few singers who have taken the time to do so) spend YEARS learning the language of jazz improvisation in order to play meaningful solos in this style. It should be self-evident (but clearly isn't) that the necessary skills include practical knowledge of song form, theory, harmony, rhythm, jazz history and the many stylistic elements that comprise a convincing solo (melodic shape, use of space, density, inflection, etc).

It is true that many inexperienced singers (and the all too frequently heard "solo" pianist) improvise as if they've never heard this music before in their lives. Slightly less common but still epidemic is the soloist who thinks that improvising is "making up something that no one has ever thought of right in this moment". So this would mean that the only "true" improviser is the junior high kid who stands up for the very first time in "stage band" to play 16 bars on "Sing, Sing, Sing". I think we can all imagine just how that might sound.

Listening is the key. And it is not the kind of casual listening one does while making dinner. We're talking about formal, analytical listening. Why is it that good soloists spend a lot of time transcribing other people's solos? Are they trying to be copycats? No, they are learning a language. Singers: you are not born knowing how to scat. Listening to a few Ella recordings does not qualify you to shoo be do bah your way through a chorus of anything.

Recent events in my own career go right to the heart of this matter. I was trying to do a project for my jazz education website specifically for jazz singers. I went into the studio with a dear old vocalist friend of mine to record some examples of how it is supposed to be done. In the process I discovered that my (now former) friend was guilty of all of the things we were trying to help budding singers avoid! Very sad and discouraging. Our friendship ended over it.

Oh yeah, one more gripe. Sing the freakin' melody, will ya? In another wonderful post, Carol Sloane discusses learning this lesson from none other than Oscar Peterson himself.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I Am a Jazz Bassist

Dave Holland, one of my heroes

I am what they call a “classically trained” bassist. I have a degree in double bass performance (aka a Bachelor of Music) from DePaul University. I studied with the late Warren Benfield, an eminent instructor and a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 40+ years. I have played in orchestras, chamber groups and in many theatre situations. I have played a couple of solo “classical” recitals.

But what I really like to do is to play bass in a jazz ensemble. Let me say it straight - I don’t enjoy orchestral playing. I love to listen to concert hall music (for lack of a better name). But playing in a bass section rubs me the wrong way and I am not good at it.

Playing in a section, to me, is like having a factory job. Five or eight or ten players all attempting to execute the same music precisely at the same time, using the same bowings and articulations is my version of Dante’s Inferno. It is authoritarian; the principal player dictates all the bowings. It’s hierarchical; one must obey the conductor, obey the principal, everybody has their assigned seat and stand. And it is so impersonal; individuals do not have the opportunity to be expressive. It is all about execution, and that is that part of music that interests me the least. I guess I have way too big an ego to be a good section player. I know I have problems with authority, too, which makes the situation even worse.

Sure, there’s power in all those strings vibrating together, especially on some double forte note low on the E string. I’ll grant you that. But it is not enough. What if I don’t feel like playing that particular passage the “correct” way? What if I want to play the “C” up an octave so I can actively support the second flute part? Nope, sorry. Not in the contract. Do it the “right” way and do it that same way every time or you’re out on your buttinski.

What I enjoy is being able to intimately influence the tempo, dynamics, texture, harmony, and articulation at any given point in the music. Sure, the chord changes and melody are a “given”, but I can interpret that information any way I see fit in the moment. So what if my job consists mainly of playing a steady stream of quarter notes with the occasional solo chorus or two? It feels really good to lock into the groove with the other members of the band, especially drums and piano or guitar. I like the feeling of being the glue that holds the key (no pun intended) to both the harmonic and rhythmic underpinning of the song. People stay out of my sonic way, too, as a general rule. I am the sole inhabitant of the lower couple of octaves – they are mine to handle as I wish.

I also like being able to hear myself, something that I was never able to do playing in a section. I find it demoralizing to have spent years working on playing in tune, getting a good sound, and so on, and then going to work and not being able to even hear if I’m accomplishing those goals.

I’ll leave the section playing to my arco-wielding brethren. Give me a good swinging rhythm section and I am good to go.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Coming Soon: Bassist/Composers

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I'm currently doing some research for an upcoming article here on jazz bassists who have made noteworthy contributions to the music as composers. Obvious examples are Charles Mingus, Dave Holland and Jaco Pastorius, all of whom have penned significant tunes that are a permanent part of the modern jazz repertoire. I'm sticking with a fairly restricted definition of "jazz" here so I will not delve into the pop/rock songwriting category, which would have to include such bassists as Paul McCartney and Sting. I'm also going to leave out folks like Edgar Meyer (IS there anyone else like him?) - classical, folk, country, bluegrass and crossover composers. Those great bass players could be the subject of another piece.

In the meantime, my list of bassist/composers includes: Ben Allison, John Patitucci, Steve Swallow, David Friesen, Drew Gress, William Parker, Stanley Clarke... I am trying to be inclusive of electric players and the wide variety of genres that commonly come under the heading "jazz".

Feel free to add your suggestions for consideration.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Now Spinning: Brecker and Patitucci

Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage
John Patitucci: Line By Line

These two recent recordings are the finest work to date from both of these giants of contemporary jazz. Pilgrimage is, unfortunately, Michael Brecker's final piece of work, as the jazz world lost him to cancer at far too young an age just a few months ago. Brecker's writing on this CD is straight ahead, intensely focused jazz. The rhythmic language of his earlier work is evident and is even more developed here than ever before. He has surrounded himself by some of the heaviest improvisers on the planet: Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. They all sound pretty fired up by the opportunity to perform with Brecker here; his cancer was in remission when the sessions took place and the musicians sound like they are seizing the chance to make this music with this man while they can. To my ears, Brecker is on fire and DeJohnette is tracking him every step of the way. Hancock is also outstanding (when isn't he?) in this setting.

Patitucci's most recent CD, Line By Line, represents a huge step forward for him as a composer. As with Pilgrimage, the tunes sound very focused stylistically and the bassist puts himself in some very interesting conditions for improvising (like his piece for strings and electric bass). His playing is as ferociously personal as always, as is the work of guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Brian Blade.

I haven't heard two CDs I can recommend more than these two so far this year.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Essential Jazz Recordings

May I just say, first of all, that this is an impossible task. So I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. There are plenty of places on ye olde internette to find top 100 jazz recordings of all times. Go here for a page that lists a few of the lists. This list of CDs is exhaustive and well chosen. I've just looked through a few of these attempts to codify the "essential" or "must have" CDs. I'm going to have a whack at it here, with a couple of caveats: I'm not going to set a number limit to begin with. I'm going to choose artists of historical importance (mainly old guys and dead guys who influenced the many musicians who came on the scene later). I'm going to choose stuff I personally love unless it is something I don't care for but is too influential to omit.

Louis Armstrong: Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Ella and Louis (with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson trio)
Duke Ellington: Blanton/Webster Band, Great Paris Concert
Count Basie: Sinatra at the Sands, April in Paris
Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach: Jazz At Massey Hall
Stan Getz: Getz/Gilberto
Oscar Peterson: Night Train
Cannonball Adderley: Somethin' Else, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, Cookin', Steamin', Workin', Relaxin', Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, E.S.P., Nefertiti...
John Coltrane: Giant Steps, A Love Supreme
Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Intermodulation (w/Jim Hall), Portrait in Jazz, Waltz for Debbie
Charles Mingus: Presents the Charles Mingus Quartet, Great Concert of...
Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, The Bridge
Thelonious Monk: Monk's Music, Brilliant Corners, Carnegie Hall Concert (w/ Coltrane)
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil, Alegria
Herbie Hancock: Maiden Voyage, Empyrean Isles, Speak Like a Child
Dexter Gordon: Our Man in Paris, Go
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Moanin', Free for All
Horace Silver: Song For My Father,
Joe Henderson: Inner Urge
Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder
Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of ..., Smokin' at the Half Note
Charlie Parker: Complete Dial and Savoy recordings
Dave Brubeck: Time Out
Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz
Clifford Brown and Max Roach: Study in Brown
Chick Corea: Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Light As A Feather
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy
Lester Young: with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Billie Holiday and Lester Young
Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius
Weather Report: Heavy Weather
Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds, Prime Directive, Not for Nothin', Triplicate
Cecil Taylor: Unit Structures
Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life
Coleman Hawkins: Body and Soul
Art Tatum: Solo Masterpieces
Bud Powell: The Genius of ...
Eric Dolphy: Out To Lunch
Lee Konitz: w/Wayne Marsh and Lennie Tristano

OK, that's all for now. I have left out some excellent contemporary artists and CDs due to lack of time, but I will come back to this soon. Whew!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jazz Art Paintings by Ann deLorge

This iconic image is entitled "Jazz In Red". I have the full size print in my home teaching studio and it never ceases to elicit oohs and aahs from students and friends.

When I was designing the look of my jazz education website I happened upon the work of New Orleans painter Ann deLorge. As soon as I saw her work I knew I had stumbled upon some extraordinary images and contacted her with the idea of using her artwork as an integral part of my site. Turned out she was very enthusiastic about the idea and we've been "in biz" ever since.

Here's a more traditional New Orleans image:

She seems to have a "thing" for bass players, and you KNOW I like that:

Or how about this one, which somehow reminds me of Andrew Hill:

If you're a jazz enthusiast, you owe yourself a visit to Ann's site. The prints are very reasonably priced and there are a lot of other jazz and N.O. related images there. Have some fun!

Listening to Jazz 101

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Friends and family members, musicians and civilians alike, all seem to get "lost" when listening to jazz. To most, once the melody of the song has been stated, the rest of the performance sounds like cacophony. Since it is the improvising that most interests us players (creative beings that we are) I'd like to offer a little assistance to those who don't understand what "all that noise" is.

Let's take a simple song, like Pop Goes the Weasel. I unfortunately hear this one WAY too much played by my friendly neighborhood ice cream truck, but it is one I think we can all sing in our heads. This internal singing mechanism is the key to being able to enjoy a jazz performance, in my opinion. OK, here's my version of the song (speak to the hand if you don't agree with the lyrics - these are the ones I grew up with):

All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,
Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

OK, got it? When the ice cream truck stops in front of my house, that song plays over and over and over again, without variation of any kind. Same stupid melody, same harmony, same rhythm, same tempo, same form. (We're not going to worry our pretty little heads about most of these terms, so don't sweat it.)

This repetition of all the elements of the song is precisely what happens in a jazz performance (leaving aside "free" jazz and music that is through-composed -- again, don't fret).

Everything about the music keeps repeating like a loop EXCEPT for the melody. What happens to that, you ask? That is what the jazz soloist is creating in the moment: a new melody based on the form, harmony, tempo etc of the originally stated piece of music.

Simply put, the jazz soloist takes the original song and plays variations of the given melody based on the harmony (what we refer to as "the changes"). And yes, this IS just what is meant in classical music by "theme and variations", the only difference is that the variations are being spontaneously composed as you're listening. It's pretty cool when you think about it.

So how does this help you listen to real jazz (as opposed to our fictional PGTW version)?
It's best to start by listening to a jazz version of a song you already know, because your task is to keep the melody playing in your mind DURING the improvised choruses. So, while the solo is going on you are using the melody as a backdrop for what the player is doing. [This, by the way, is how most jazz musicians keep their place in the music as it is being played.] If you keep the melody playing in your head you will be able to hear the soloist's new melody as a variation of the one you already know. Try it - it works.

Eventually you will be able to hear certain song forms through repetition. For example, there are many songs in the jazz repertoire based upon George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm. If you can hear that song internally then you can hear and appreciate the way a jazz musician solos on that song form. That covers a lot of territory. Same thing goes for the blues -- and there are hundreds (thousands, maybe) of jazz songs based on the blues.

Find a recording of a song you know performed by a known artist (Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, you get the idea). You'll have to "practice" listening if you want to get this, but it won't be hard work, just a fun way to open yourself to a whole world of beautiful music that is by no means cacophonous!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Feel vs Content

Decades ago I went to a club in Chicago to hear some local legends play. They were the venerable "old guys" that some of us younger players were supposed to be in awe of. I remember sitting there thinking that this was supposed to be really good; I was supposed to feel transported by this music. But the truth for me was that it didn't sound particularly good to me. The friend I was with summed it up pithily: "This music feels a lot better than it sounds." In other words, the rhythm section was happening but the soloists sounded pretty tired and uninteresting. Since then that criterion has been central to my ability to judge the music I play and the music I hear.

Sometimes the groove can be great, but the other aspects of the music are flaccid. The tune, singer or soloist can be boring or lame. So it feels good but doesn't sound very good. Or there can be a great composition or an inspired performance by an individual, but the rhythm section might not be clicking. Sounds good, feels bad. When you get both aspects of the music in the plus category, then you've got something extraordinary. Both of Miles' quintets are in this lofty category.

I've been playing this music for more than 30 years, so I do have an idea how it's supposed to sound and feel. As a bass player I'm primarily responsible for the feel side of things but I give almost equal mental bandwidth to the "sound" as well. I try to stay with the song form, play in tune, and shape good bass melodies, whether I'm accompanying or soloing.

There's an argument to be made that if it feels good (ie, if the rhythm section is taking care of business) then everything else will fall into place. I have witnessed that. But there are occasions when no amount of groove can compensate for an untalented horn player or singer.

So, this blog: I'm going for feel AND content, striving for a balance between readable and provocative.