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 videos. This one demonstrates good rootless voicings for playing the blues on the piano.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jazz Piano Voicings video 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.