Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let It Breathe


What makes a jazz solo great? Why do musicians keep coming back to certain master players for inspiration in developing their own skills and style? Is there any single quality common to the most admired (and most transcribed) solos in the jazz tradition?

Rhythm, whether it is a sense of swing or groove or an individual player's use of rhythmic elements, is crucial, of course. Note choices (the "melody" or pitch content) is also critically important. Dynamics, articulation, style... all of these factors contribute to the overall quality of a jazz performance. But I would argue that none of these elements, taken separately, inevitably makes for a great, memorable solo.

It seems to me that, to be effective in a deep way, a solo must breathe. There must be a dynamic sense of phrasing where all of the individual musical elements converge in a convincing way. The oft-mentioned balance between the expected and the unexpected is certainly a part of this, but it is more than toying with the listener's expectations that gives a solo that certain something that makes it all but unforgettable.

The music must breathe. There must be a sense of line, of phrase, a certain elegance and balance. Horn players have a bit of an advantage in accomplishing this goal. After all, one must literally breathe to operate brass and woodwind instruments! Rhythm instruments can be played continuously, no "stopping" to breathe is necessary.

Of course, letting the music breathe is not just a matter of physical necessity. When you think of a great tune, classical piece or jazz solo is it possible to grasp it as a whole? It seems to me that we recall music in chunks or phrases that stick with us and, when put in context, somehow hang together with a feeling of inevitability. It is almost as if the piece HAD to unfold the way it did for it to make such a powerful impression.

As I write this I keep hearing Donna Lee in my mind's ear. That tune has a marvelous shape; it breathes in exactly the way I'm trying to describe. Charlie Parker was a master of all of the elements of jazz improvisation (that is certainly stating the obvious!). But if you analyze his solos in terms of phrasing - where he plays, where he leaves space, the varied length of phrases he plays, the shapes of the lines he plays; his music breathes in such a masterful, elegant way. That sense of inevitability is most definitely present in many of his solos, and Donna Lee (essentially a composed solo on the changes to Back Home In Indiana) is a great example of this quality.

Jazz musicians spend a lot of time working on fundamentals - scales, arpeggios, transcribing, ear training etc. If you're reading this you no doubt know exactly what I'm talking about. Becoming an effective soloist with something to say takes a lot of effort and time.

Here's a suggestion for the coming year's practice sessions: put some of your attention on phrasing and breathing regardless of what instrument you play. Listen not only to the great instrumentalists but also to the great vocalists. Pay attention not only to when they breathe, but also why they chose to start or end a phrase where they did. Experiment with varying lengths of your phrases. You can do this while working on your fundamentals as well as when you're soloing.

Let it breathe.

R.I.P. Freddie Hubbard

Another jazz great joins the celestial jam session.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nouveau Retro: Charlie Hunter Trio

Baboon Strength, the latest offering from Charlie Hunter, is a most curious CD. If Hunter was ever a "jazz" guitarist, he certainly doesn't demonstrate any of the characteristics one would associate with that description on this record. As soon as I started spinning it, I realized that I would not be evaluating this recording from a jazz perspective, even if I accord the genre a wide definition (which I do). Ain't nothin' jazzy about this music at all. And that's fine. Its an instrumental pop record, so I'll review it as such.

I find myself vacillating between boredom and a grudging admiration for the album's insouciance. My first impression of Baboon Strength was negative; I thought the writing was vapid, the bass playing weak, and the overall vibe of the record rather somnambulistic. When I read that Hunter plays a 7 string guitar, I was duly impressed that he plays bass lines with his thumb and everything else simultaneously. But that circus trick doesn't override the glaring sameness of many of the tracks.

Nice grooves, yes. Tony Mason is a great pocket drummer. Maybe this record ought to be under his name since the drums are mixed hotter than anything else on every track. Keyboardist Erik Deutsch "brought his 1970s Yamaha combo organ, Casiotone and Echoplex" to the session, according to Mr. Hunter's entry on his website. That adds up to some psychedelic sounds which live primarily in the roller rink zone. I did enjoy the Sun Ra-ish sounds he used on the title track, a boogaloo with a theme right out of a 60's detective TV show.

As I listened, the music started to grow on me, the way that certain Top 40 tunes get under your skin through repetition. I stopped listening for awhile and then came back to it. I wonder who this CD is for, besides the guitar geeks who must surely be wowed by Hunter's ability to play bass, rhythm and lead simultaneously. The music is not progressive in any way; there's no heavy improvising; they're not pushing against any particular musical boundaries. This group is a band in need of a strong vocalist or horn player to give the music a focus. Some of the grooves remind me of John Mayer's Trio, whose live CD Try is a far more successful project. Mayer's well-crafted tunes, plus his strong singing and playing, provide that band with a powerful organizing force - just the thing that's missing from Baboon Strength.

A batch of "decent songs" (as Hunter calls them), played with these old school funk grooves ala Booker T and the MGs does not a satisfying musical experience make. Here are three musicians making music that somehow adds up to less than the sum of their talents. This music functions well as quasi -ambient, low - impact background sound, if that's what you like. It feels very good, but doesn't sound like much.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008



The jazz hype machine (such as it is) went into overdrive earlier this year over Esperanza Spalding, the infuriatingly young and highly skilled bassist/vocalist/composer. She had features in Down Beat and Bass Player magazines, a nice piece on NPR, guest shots on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live etc. It is the kind of attention that many older, more obscure jazz musicians resent, often to the extent of ignoring an artist like her altogether (think Diana Krall).

Fortunately for Ms. Spalding, the quality of her work on this eponymous CD is outstanding in every way. I don't even care that she's young and attractive; no, not one bit of bitterness on my part. Not at all. I'm just thrilled that I got to use the word eponymous.

Anyway, this accomplished young musician composed nine of the twelve tracks on the album. Most of them have a latin-ish flavor; a couple are in odd or mixed meters. There's only one tune that has a little bit of straight ahead swing feel. The tunes are all well crafted, harmonically interesting and rhythmically strong. Some of the lyrics are a bit over the top sentimental for my taste, but that might just be the only indicator of Spalding's youth.

A majority of the tunes are bass-driven, which makes sense, given that the composer is a powerful bassist. It is easy to hear why so many heavy players have said positive things about her playing - and why she is on the Berklee faculty at such a tender age.

Last but not least, Esperanza can sing! She sounds effortless; she has a great sound and range; she sings with ease in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Here's a little slice of a few of the tunes on this wonderful CD:

Jazz and Poetry

Image from Kay Lovett's Fine Art gallery

As a jazz musician who grew up in the final third of the 20th Century, my exposure to the "golden age" of jazz-oriented poetry was pretty limited. When I've thought of jazz and poetry in the past it always brought to mind images of beatniks, berets and bongo drums. In fact, Maynard G. Krebs is the visual I get even now when I think of the Beat Generation. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lenny Bruce, marijuana and heroin all blend together for me in the kind of highly stylized way that only ignorance can produce.

I've only recently begun to delve into poetry again, after a long sojourn in the land of prose. It has been a lot of fun discovering new stuff as well as revisiting old favorites like Rumi, Neruda, Bly, cummings et al. I've even gone to a few readings of local poets here in Chicago. If you've never gone to a poetry slam or a reading I highly recommend it.

Apparently there is still a strong tradition of connection between the two disciplines of jazz and poetry. There is poetry that uses improvisational forms, poetry about the music and/or the musicians, poetry that is read or created in the context of the music. When it is good, it can be very satisfying, especially to those of us who like things to have both sound and meaning.

One place I've started to check out online is the e-poets network. The site has a nice variety of contemporary written poetry, as well as audio and video clips of poetry performances. Of particular interest to me is their collection of "jazz in words". Curator Kurt Heintz has put together a section of the site which, in his words:

"lists artists whose work addresses jazz, or whose work has been influenced significantly by jazz, whether that's in historical or contemporary modes. Jazz and performance poetry have a long, entwined history from the mid 20th Century to today."

As I read and listen to some of this work, the mental cliches are starting to fade. Funny how a little knowledge and experience challenges one's prejudices.

Modern Blues Harmonica

Blues harp is not my favorite thing. Traditional blues in general doesn't really do it for me as a genre. But when I stumble across someone who does it so well that the style is irrelevant I know there must be something special going on.

Blues harmonica virtuoso Adam Gussow is one of those people. He is half of the duo Satan and Adam, an award winning scholar and associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He has posted a series of thorough and enlightening videos on YouTube, among many other things.

Adam offers what appears to be a well-thought out approach to playing the blues on his excellent website Modern Blues Harmonica. If you have an interest in this music, as a player or listener, I urge you to check it out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Great Gig: Megon McDonough at the MAC

I'm a lucky bass player (sometimes, anyway). I'm going to play a couple of concerts with the amazing Megon McDonough the weekend of Thanksgiving. I've described the Her Way show elsewhere, but if you want to be well entertained by a truly gifted performer, go HERE for info and tickets.

From the MAC website (and they get it right, too!)

Cabaret artist, actor, and former member of The Four Bitchin’ Babes, Megon McDonough enlivens the evening with music, humor and memories that will have you grinning and asking for more. Singing the songs and sharing the stories of such divas as Connie Francis, Patsy Cline, Karen Carpenter, and Joni Mitchell, and sharing her own wonderful tunes, McDonough blends her witty humor and snappy patter with jazz, pop, country, folk and rock for a cabaret experience you won’t soon forget.

Here's the facts:

Friday, Nov. 28, 2008, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $32 adult/30 senior/22 youth

10% off: $28.80 adult/27 senior
15% off: $27.20 adult/25.50 senior

Cabaret table seating:
$40 adult/38 senior/30 youth

10% off: $36 adult/34.20 senior
15% off: $34 adult/32.30 senior

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pandora: What I've Been Missing

I know, I know...I must be the last person in America below the age of 80 to discover Pandora. In case you're a fellow troglodyte, this website encourages you to create "radio stations" directly related to the artists or genres you want to listen to. As a musician, this is such a wonderful tool to stretch the boundaries of your taste as well as just listening for pleasure while at the computer.

It may seem obvious, but one of the most "educational" things you can do to become a better musician is to listen to the kind of music you want to master. I'm not talking about having some music on while you do something else. The most important kind of listening you can do is to actively engage with what you're hearing. Listen analytically. Listen creatively. Listen critically. Try to really hear the shape of the melody, the harmonic motion, the rhythmic underpinning. Whatever you are working on in your practicing is a good thing to focus on in your listening.

We are living in a great era in terms of the availability of music. No longer do you have to venture out to your local record store (are there any of those left?) or search your FM dial for a station that might play a little jazz once in awhile. Now all you have to do is go to Pandora on your computer and set up a personal "radio station" for yourself. In fact, you can set up many different stations as you like. Each will call up tracks directly related to the artist or specific genre you identify. I've got my "Bill Evans" station playing as I write this. I've already heard great sides by Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Billy Childs, Monk and, of course, Mr. Evans himself.

I also have a bebop channel, a Dave Holland channel, and one devoted to the music of Stravinsky. I'm getting to hear stuff I've never heard in addition to tracks I haven't checked out in years.

It won't cost you a nickel. No yakking DJs, no commercials. It's a beautiful thing. Listen.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Great Gig: Turn of the Century

Goodman Theatre in Chicago is hosting the premiere of a new romantic musical comedy by the same creative team that spawned the uber-successful Jersey Boys. Opening this coming Monday, September 29, Turn of the Century stars Jeff Daniels and Rachel York as a couple of musicians who mysteriously travel back in time to the year 1900. They become overnight sensations by claiming to have written songs by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and some of the other composers of the American songbook. It's a goofy premise but the show is very entertaining and, of course, features a lot of great songs.

I'm very fortunate to be a member of the pit orchestra for this show. It is my third "premiere" at Goodman. In years past I played The Visit and the unfortunate Sondheim flop Bounce. It is pretty exciting to be in on the ground floor of the creative process of launching a Broadway style musical. The musical side of things is being very well handled by orchestrator Steve Orich, music supervisor Daryl Waters and music director Michael Biagi.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Charlie Haden Bridges the Jazz/Country Gap


Along with Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden's sound was most in my ears when I was first getting fired up about jazz. I heard Haden first, as most jazz listeners did, in the context of Ornette Coleman's recordings in the '50's and 60's. That woody gut string sound, so in tune, attracted me more to Ornette's music than anything else, at first. The saxophonist's sound takes some getting used to but the luxurious purity of Haden's sound is difficult to dislike.

Haden's heroic approach, rooted in folk melodies, along with his primary use of the lower register of the bass, is the antithesis of upwardly mobile players like Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, George Mraz, Marc Johnson and so many other great modern bassists. Haden plays deliberately; he takes his own sweet time spinning out melodies and bass lines.

The contrast between Haden's style and the playing of LaFaro et al evokes an unfortunate schism in the jazz world with regard to bass playing. So many players (and some listeners as well) seem to have a prejudice for a certain way of approaching the bass that excludes all other possible sounds and means. I've touched on this before, and I imagine I will address it more thoroughly in a future post. For me, however, Charlie Haden is the master of low and slow, just as LaFaro demonstrated how effective the upper range of the bass could be. If you're interested in hearing this stylistic diversity directly, check out Ornette's seminal Free Jazz. He uses both great bassists on that recording.

Then came the Liberation Music Orchestra, Quartet West, and Haden's duo recordings with so many wonderful musicians over the last couple of decades. Now he has gone back to his familial roots with a recording of country music called Rambling Boy. It features his family and some of the most accomplished Nashville artists. I've yet to hear the project but I am looking forward to checking it out, despite my lack of interest in country music generally. Anything Charlie is associated with deserves a deep listen, since his concept and playing are always full of sincerity and integrity.

There's a nice piece in the NY Times by Nate Chinen about Haden and the new project. And Haden was interviewed by the ever insightful Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Upcoming Gig: Megon McDonough at the Mac

OK, I never do this, but I am going to plug an upcoming gig that may be of interest to my friends, family, students and whoever else in the Chicago area. On Friday and Saturday, November 28 and 29 I will be performing with the always fabulous Megon McDonough. We will be playing Megon's show called Her Way: An Interesting Bunch of Gals, in which she pays tribute to many of her favorite jazz and pop singers. Click the link for more info and sample video clips from our DVD.

The venue is the McAninch Arts Center on the campus of College of Dupage in Glen Ellyn. For more info please go HERE.

What do I like about this gig, you ask? First of all, Megon is the real deal. I've not worked with a more gifted and accomplished singer. The energy she brings to the stage every show is contagious - it makes me play at a higher level when I'm backing someone like this. The excellent arrangements were written by my great friend Peter Polzak. We play everything from A-Tisket, A-Tasket to Nick of Time; there's quite a batch of styles in between.

It's not a heavy "jazz" gig by any means. But it is a very entertaining evening. Come check it out.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Doctor" Jazz?


I recently played a little gig with someone who is about to start working on a PhD in jazz at a well known music conservatory. Other than in academic areas like music education, history, theory or ethnomusicology, the idea of acquiring a PhD in music is rather absurd to begin with. But a PhD in jazz?

Just how does one qualify for such a lofty degree in an art form that thrives on innovation and improvisation? Just what skills should one have to demonstrate mastery of to obtain this PhD? By what objective standards (pardon the pun) should the prospective candidate by judged? Will conservatories start awarding honorary PhD degrees to the likes of Miles, Coltrane and Bird posthumously?

These are just the basic theoretical questions that pop into my mind. But one would think that, at the very least, a person who is even admitted to a doctoral program in jazz ought to be able to, um, play, right? I'm sorry to report that the musician I gigged with the other night plays the saxophone at an amateurish level, and that is putting it politely. This guy has a weak sound, terrible intonation and no concept of how to swing or phrase or play anything coherent. He spits out a stream of bebop cliches without apparent order or consideration of the musical context. In short, this PhD candidate ought to be an undergrad studying with someone who can teach him the basics of musicianship. There's no way this person qualifies for any kind of advanced standing as a jazz musician.

And yet... he managed to get accepted (enthusiastically, according to the anecdotes he told us sidemen) to this allegedly competitive program. In two years, assuming he passes all his classes, he will have bought himself a PhD, which, as far as I'm concerned, will mean absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jazz Poetry: Reflections of a Side Man

From the wonderful Chicago poet Nina Corwin:

Reflections of a Side Man

- for Tom Harrell

Where do you go?

Where do you go when you swing

that solo none too sane?

That flugelhorn makes notes fall like rain

those sweet contortions descending

from the brain

of a Mad Hatter of sorts,

so far beyond mending.

Where do you go?

Over misbegotten rainbows

where few can follow,

turning figures so fantastic

when you blow they seem to just

float in from Never Never Land,

fingers flying to beat the band

as you head off stratospheric

on circuitous routes

that take you through riffs

nearly missing the mark.

Hear you coaxing those quirks

as if they were the song

Where do you go?

You've been out there so long

I could swear you were playing to Satan's changes

there for a measure or two.

Like the melody took a wrong turn

or stumbled through the rubble

of some twilight zone of deconstruction.

Where do you go

when you blow that solo none too sane?

Is that tune you hear

a roadmap of your brain?

Do you follow some cynical piper

to the lip of the moon?

And when your solo

swings an orbit so elliptical

it might never get back

to the starting refrain,

where do you go?

But we'll keep the beat for you, brother

like a landing pad

those sweet same changes

till they bring you home.

Like the way your momma sang

those lilting lullaby's

to a bedtime sky.

And listen: for the honeymoon in the chorus

where melody and baseline coincide

till they mingle with the cymbals

in the rhythm of a hellified coitus.

Where do you go?

I want to hear what you hear,

trumpet player,

see what you see.

Can you take me with you, Mad Hatter,

can I bring you on home?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Favorite Jazz Bass Solos

Jimmy Blanton

I'm soliciting suggestions for an upcoming "Dozens" piece that I'm writing for jazz.com. What are your favorite recorded jazz bass solos of all time? Please leave a comment or drop me an email if you'd like to suggest a favorite track. Thanks.

BTW, if you haven't visited the site yet, it is a lot of fun to read through their interviews and track reviews.

Current bassists under consideration:

Jimmy Blanton
Charles Mingus
Ray Brown
Red Mitchell
Scott LaFaro
Charlie Haden
Christian McBride
Eddie Gomez
George Mraz
Oscar Pettiford
Dave Holland
Michael Moore

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jazz Guitar Video: Blues in C

One more instructional video for guitarists, this one showing how to play the jazz style blues.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jazz Guitar Videos

PlayJazzNow.com presents two new instructional videos on chord voicings for jazz guitarists:

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Loud and Louder: More Absurd Gig Stories

The last two nights have been a study in wackiness out there in gigland. Thursday night I played with a jazz quartet at a posh downtown hotel. We were human ambiance for a group of about 200 corporate types in a small ballroom. We were playing some nice quiet standards, minding our own business as usual. At several points during the first set some cheese from the "end client" came rushing up to the bandstand to tell us that we were too loud. This was utterly ridiculous. First, we don't play loud; we have been doing this kind of work for decades and the prime directive of this kind of gig is to play sotto voce enough for the guests to be able to converse normally. This usually results in there being a dull roar of voices accompanied by a barely distinguishable music track. Music for an ant farm, one of my friends calls it. Also, I was observing people right in front and to the side of the bandstand. None of them were leaning into one another to be heard or shouting or showing any signs of aural distress. It got to the point where we were practically miming.

Then tonight I played an event at a large, well-known store in downtown Chicago. I will protect the guilty by withholding the name of the place. We were on a small stage in a sizable open area. This was a piano, bass and drums jazz trio - not a very powerful group, volume-wise.

As the festivities were about to commence, we noticed that the recorded music was still "on" in the room (in fact, it was the second movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony). We asked our contact to see if it could be turned off and she got right on the horn to call the A/V dude. We sat there on stage waiting for a healthy ten minutes. Finally, we were asked to start playing and assured that the recorded music would be terminated momentarily.

So we played a tune. As we were finishing up, the final chord was swallowed up by the sound of some song by Prince. Apparently, the classical music had been replaced by dance music and was, of course, much louder and more obnoxious. So we sat there again for ten or fifteen minutes, waiting for the aforementioned engineer to, you guessed it, turn off the music. Again, and this time less pleasantly, we were asked to start playing regardless of the utter absurdity of trying to make music over this din. But - we're pros, so we soldiered on.

Eventually, someone high enough on the managerial food chain managed to find the "off" switch and we were left to our own sonic devices for a few minutes. Suddenly we were interrupted yet again, this time by the sound of the DJ literally blasting from the center of the store. It was teeth rattlingly loud. We were well over a hundred yards away but we could barely hear ourselves think, let alone play anything coherent.

I flashed back to the previous night and pondered the philosophical implications of just what, exactly, too loud might mean. Clearly, anyone even close to the DJ's speakers couldn't possibly hold a conversation above that decibel level, but we were told that this is what the store wanted. They wanted to create the impression that the people over there were in a dance club. Meanwhile, we were supposed to be playing in an intimate jazz bar or some such silliness.

Luckily it was only a five hour gig.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Branford's Band Bugs Me

The cover story of the May 2008 issue of Down Beat is a profile of Branford Marsalis' working quartet. The article's central theme is that this band is so bad that any humility about what they do is unnecessary. The opening quote is "We do things better than any band out here." The group's most recent CD is aptly titled Braggtown, so it seems that these men are very sure that they are, indeed, the shit.

It strikes me that, however earth-shattering their music might be (and I haven't heard this particular album yet), their superior attitude reeks of grandiosity and schoolyard bullying. Here's a particularly annoying exchange regarding the role of the bass player in jazz:

(Bassist) Eric Revis: "I've had this argument with several bass players. They say, 'Why can't we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.' "

Marsalis: "Then get a guitar!"

Revis: "This misconception exists that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated? Does Charlie Haden?"

There's so much wrong with this that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. First of all, if Mr. Revis prefers to play with "thump" as his primary contribution to the quartet then more power to him. It is unclear what he means by "liberation" in this context. The traditional role of the bass as the propulsive harmonic and rhythmic core of a jazz group is something many of us embrace. But does that have to preclude developing ourselves as inventive melodic soloists as well? If "liberation" implies progress in terms of physical technique, harmonic knowledge, and rhythmic/melodic sophistication then I'm all for it.

But just in case Mr. Revis has missed it, playing "like Charlie Parker" is not something new to bassists. He would do well to familiarize himself with the music of Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, just to name a few powerful and inventive soloists who no one would accuse of failing in their respective roles as rhythm section players.

Second, to put Wilbur Ware on a par with Charlie Haden is just silly. Mr. Ware was an accomplished working bassist who had a decent career despite various physical and mental problems. Mr. Haden is as deep a soloist as he is a stomping member of a rhythm section. But he is multi-faceted; he composes, he is a bandleader, he has a very distinctive sound, and he was a member of one of the most influential bands in the history of modern jazz. A little liberation would probably have served Mr. Ware well. And, ironically, one of Mr. Haden's most successful projects over the years has been his big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra. There's simply no comparison between these two musicians.

Finally, Mr. Marsalis' flippant rejoinder reminds me of just how regressive "creative" musicians can be. Is there really only one acceptable conception of bass playing? Is progress allowed or do bass players still have to sound like Pops Foster? If so, perhaps tenor saxophonists should have never been allowed to go further than Lester Young (if that's not too modern for you).

Mr. Marsalis shows his ignorance with another comment about the Ellington band from 1941. He believes that the band played "with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away (whatever this means), and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp or mike. That's the sound I want." [Italics mine]

Look at any picture of Duke's bands from the 40's and I guarantee that you will see a big old fashioned microphone in front of the bass player. It is true that horns, brass and drums were all played softer in that era but there is no way that Jimmy Blanton, for instance, would have been audible without some sound support. The bass is simply an acoustically soft instrument; that's why bass players have been struggling for decades to perfect a way to amplify the natural sound of the instrument. I can say without false humility that many of us have succeeded in doing just that.

Let me offer these gentlemen a list of "liberated", influential bass players who have the respect of most savvy listeners and musicians. Most of these players, by the way, don't feel the need to brag about their talent; nor do they make it a point to tell other musicians what kind of sound is acceptable.

Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland, Ron Carter, John Patitucci, Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson, Christian McBride, Stanley Clarke, Paul Chambers, Brian Bromberg, Gary Peacock, Michael Moore...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Freelance Musician Etiquette 101

A recent video post by Jason Heath reminded me that I've been wanting to offer some thoughts on a few of the unspoken rules of the freelance music business, so here goes:

Those of us who attempt to make a living by playing music without a steady gig often see ourselves as mavericks, flying under society's radar - somewhat like the cowboys of the wild, wild west but with instruments instead of six-shooters. But even in Buffalo Bill's era there was a code of behavior that was more or less understood by all those who wanted to be in the game. It may be a jungle out there, but we don't have to behave like savages. A little forethought and politeness can go a long way towards making our freelance lives a little more civilized.

Let's talk about talking - on the phone, that is. Nine times out of ten when you try to reach someone regarding a gig you get their voice mail. This is good. If you have work to get done the last thing you want to do is get into a conversation when all you need to know, for example, is if the other person is available for a certain date. So while you wait for the beep, here a few helpful hints:

If you are hiring and the gig is more than a month away, call the person you really want to hire for the gig. Then hang up and wait for them to call back. If you need an answer immediately, call them on their handy cell phone (I'm sure they've left that number in their outgoing message). If they don't call back within a reasonable amount of time (I think 24 hours is sufficient) assume they are not interested and move on.

If the gig is too soon for comfort and you feel the need to make multiple calls, mention that in the message you leave. If you make a bunch of calls and wait for the first lucky caller to get back to you without informing your colleagues, it gives them the impression that it really doesn't matter to you WHO you get to cover the gig. All you need is a warm body, apparently...a hunk of meat with a guitar, say. Its not a very genteel message to send. Sometimes you're in a hurry, granted. State your intentions, otherwise you've started a game of phone derby and I, for one, hate that game.

If you are leaving a message for a fellow musician do not say "please give me a call - I've got a date I want to check with you." That is a waste of everyone's time. Leave the date, time, place, compensation, name of leader - all the pertinent info so your colleague can make an informed decision and call you back with a real answer.

If you are on the receiving end you must return the call as soon as possible, regardless of your availability. If you can do the gig, leave that message and ask for a confirmation call and the contact info of the leader (if you don't have it). If you are not able to take the date, politeness dictates that you leave a hearty "oh man, I wish I could do it but I'm already booked and please call me again" message. Everyone appreciates an answer, yes or no. Don't make the mistake of only responding if you're open; that's just rude.

Now let's discuss the politics and ethics of subbing out of a job you've already accepted. This is a controversial subject. I know musicians who adhere to extreme positions on this: they either never, ever sub out of any job or they will sub out at the drop of a hat for a gig that pays $10 more. Both strategies are self-defeating.

If your policy is never subbing out of a date to do something that is either much better paying, more artistically satisfying, or as a means to further your career, then you are doing yourself a disservice. This business is difficult enough, so why shoot yourself in the foot? It ought to be acceptable to any reasonable contractor for you to take advantage of a great opportunity that comes your way as long as you take care of biz. More on that in a moment.

On the other hand, if you are the type of person who will get out of any gig for any reason at any time you run the serious risk of getting a reputation for being unreliable. I have a short but memorable list of players I simply can't do business with for that reason. If you're going to sub out, do it sparingly and for good reasons.

If you do have to get out of a date, here's the right way to do it: First, call the person you are already committed to and ask them if you might be able to sub out. Tell the truth (ie, have a good reason for asking) and offer to hire an acceptable sub. If the contractor balks or you can't replace yourself on the original date with someone who passes muster with that person then don't sub out. Never leave someone high and dry; it is simply unethical. If you feel that the leader is being unreasonable or unnecessarily stubborn, play the job anyway and file away that fact for next time. If you think you may run into that situation again with a particular contractor make sure you are OK with that understanding or don't accept the engagement.

Assuming that you get the go-ahead from your employer, get a short list of players that person likes and start making calls (one at a time - see phone etiquette rules above). When you find a good substitute, call the contractor and leave your sub's contact info and ask them to call back and confirm that they have gotten your message. You can't be too careful and everyone appreciates a freelancer who treats them in a professional manner.

The golden rule applies here, folks. Communicate clearly, be polite, don't be evasive or disingenuous. If you're in this business for the long haul, know that people have long memories. A reputation can be broken far too easily. Unless you're everyone's first call in your town you cannot afford to be rude or take anything for granted. We all know that its tough to make a living playing music; it seems to me that we can at least try to make things easier for one another.

Another Jazz Piano Video

Busy busy busy with PlayJazzNow.com videos. This one demonstrates good rootless voicings for playing the blues on the piano.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jazz Piano Voicings video

PlayJazzNow.com just released our first non-bass related video. This one is a lesson on voicing chords for the ii/V progression for aspiring jazz pianists. Please check it out:

Monday, April 7, 2008

250 Jazz Patterns book

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I just downloaded my copy of 250 Jazz Patterns by expatriate saxophonist Evan Tate. Studying patterns derived from scale and chord forms is one valid way to increase your jazz vocabulary and Evan's book is a well thought out addition to my library of pattern books. There are plenty of exercises in there for beginning improvisers as well as challenging stuff to work on if you've been at it for awhile.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Jazz Video Guy: Bret Primack

I don't know how I've remained unaware of this man's work until now. Bret Primack has been writing about jazz and jazz musicians for many years. In 1995 he co-founded the now-defunct mega-site Jazz Central Station and is now doing marketing videos for jazz greats Joe Lovano and Sonny Rollins through his company Planet Bret. As a midwesterner, the name Bret normally brings to mind another stellar individual, but we'll put Mr. Favre's career on the sideline for the moment.

If you love jazz as I do, you must visit Mr. Primack's page at YouTube. He has assembled a huge and varied collection of classic jazz performances on his JazzVideoLand channel. Many of them are his uploads but there are also recommendations of videos from other users. Make sure you have some time to spend before you click over there because I guarantee you will be ensnared by the great stuff you find.

Here's a wonderful tribute to Michael Brecker that Bret Primack created:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

More Video Lessons

Yes, I have been very busy creating video lately. Here is another lesson (in two parts) demonstrating useful fingerings for the basic seventh chords on the upright bass.

Friday, March 28, 2008

New Bass Instruction Video

I've just posted the latest in my series of instructional videos on YouTube. This one demonstrates upright bass fingerings for minor triads. I hope you find it useful.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I Love My Laklands, but...

This Sadowsky bass is something else. I've written elsewhere about the string length issues, but this bass is more than just a 34" inch 5 with a great B string. This MV5 has it all as far as I'm concerned: a maple neck (which I seem to be favoring these days), the famous Sadowsky pre-amp, and excellent mojo. As a well-known professional bassist pal of mine says: "Lakland makes very good instruments. And then there's Sadowsky..."

There's a reason Roger Sadowsky has made a huge name for himself in the bass world. These instruments are in a class by themselves. I can't believe I haven't owned one until now, but I guess now's the time.

I really do like used instruments. All of my basses, electric and upright, are older. I don't know what the age of this Sadowsky MV5 is, but it feels old to me. It has that wonderful played-in feel and warm tone that seem to be present more or less exclusively in basses that have have some mileage on them. My Amelot upright was built in 1820 and that bass could tell some stories, no doubt. Reminds me of Stanley Clarke's album If This Bass Could Talk. My other doublebass is of somewhat uncertain heritage but is easily a century old. My Lakland fretless 4 has one of their earliest serial numbers and it, too, has great soul.

I'm going to resist the temptation to wax poetic about the alleged joys of human middle age. Sure, a certain amount of wisdom and maturity may be a perk of being a little older. On balance I think I'd prefer to maintain a youthful attitude (especially about music) and simply play on older instruments.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

More Jazz Resources

In addition to the almighty All About Jazz, there seem to be more and more resources devoted to our music on the web. I've already mentioned the brand new and excellent Jazz.com and I recently came across a site with a good selection of jazz books.

If you have any site that you'd like listed here just drop me a note or leave a comment.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bass Humor

I've just posted a piece called When Size Really Does Matter on Jason Heath's doublebassblog. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dave Holland Track Reviews at Jazz.com

The good folks at Jazz.com have just posted a set of reviews I've written about one of my bass heroes, Dave Holland. The piece is one of their features called The Dozens, in which a reviewer picks twelve tracks that are somehow related and writes a brief essay about each one. Please check out The Dozens: Dave Holland by yours truly.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oliver Sacks' take on Music and The Brain

Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other wonderful books, has a new book out that has just moved to the top of my reading list. It is entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. This can't be a book report since I haven't read the book yet (although I suppose that doesn't stop some folks from "reviewing"). But the book sounds utterly fantastic.

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I just read an engaging review by Colin McGinn in the New York Review of Books that really whet my literary appetite. He compares this book to Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music, which I have written about here. While Levitin writes about the effects of music on listeners and performers with "normal" brains, Sacks focuses, as usual, on individuals whose neurology is impaired in some way. McGinn's review goes into some detail about the cases Sacks chronicles, but I'm going to wait on being more forthcoming until I've read the book. Next stop: amazon.com.

Monday, February 11, 2008

New Teaching Video

I just created a new video with suggested major triad fingerings for upright bass players:

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Check out Jazz.com

There's a new jazz website in town and it is well worth your perusal. Ted Gioia and his colleagues recently launched Jazz.com, a site devoted to evaluations of both historical and contemporary recorded jazz. How they managed to snag that domain name is beyond my ken, but I'm glad it went to a deserving bunch of writers.

So far, Jazz.com has articles about pianists Brad Mehldau and Billy Taylor, interviews with bassist Ron Carter and the founder of ECM Records Manfred Eicher and a variety of other innovative features. One I particularly like is a feature called The Dozens, where a reviewer picks twelve favorite tracks of a particular artist and writes a short squib on each. There's also a blog component which seems to be frequently updated.

It looks like I'm going to do some writing for them as well, so I'm looking forward to that.

Check it out and let me know what you think.