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.