Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Jazz vs Classical Music Notation

The September '09 issue of JazzEd Magazine has a provocative article on jazz notation entitled Common Errors in Jazz Music Notation. The piece is by Lee Evans, a professor of music at Pace University and co-author of the book How To Play Chord Symbols in Jazz and Popular Music. Mr. Evans' central thesis is that jazz chord notation and spelling ought to conform to the standards used by classical musicians.

I contend that harmonic notation serves a different purpose for jazz musicians than for classical players. Jazz players use chord changes as a means of giving shape to melodic improvisation. The chords determine (or at least suggest) the scalar context out of which the improvisor operates. Classical musicians reading lead sheets or fake book arrangements use the chord symbols in a much more static way - to accompany the melody of the tune they're reading. The scalar context is unimportant to someone who is not engaged in improvising.

Hence, there is no good reason why the nomenclature jazz musicians use ought to be considered inferior, or "incorrect and sloppy" as Mr. Evans would have it. The way jazz players notate, read and interpret harmony is very well suited to their needs; classical notation is irrelevant and often impractical.

It seems to me that jazz players tend to conceive chords based on three factors: harmonic function (or context), readability and aural quality. In other words, for a jazz musician, where the harmony derives from, how easy it is to recognize quickly and how the chord sounds take precedence over the rules of classical harmony.

For example, Mr. Evans is adamant that the chord spelled C E G Bb Eb ought to be called C7b10 instead of C7#9, unless the top note is written as a D#. Of course he is correct IF you accept the point of view that the way jazz musicians generally think of chords is inferior. The dominant chord with an altered 9th is not found in any diatonic scale; it is extracted from the diminished (or octatonic) scale. Therefore, the "classical" rules for note spelling don't necessarily apply. It is equally correct, from a jazz perspective, to think of the altered 9ths on a C7 chord as Db and Eb, and, given our predisposition to favor flats over sharps when reading, Eb is preferable to D#. (Just ask any saxophone or trumpet player which spelling they'd rather read.) The alteration "b10" is simply meaningless to a jazz player because the significant implication of the diminished scale is the presence of both altered 9ths and the absence of the natural 9th.

Another example is the chord Cdim7, which he insists must be spelled C Eb Gb Bbb. Though I get his point that, on paper, C up to A is a major 6th and not a diminished 7th, I'm quite certain that most of us would prefer not to have to interpret a Bbb on the fly. How it sounds rather than how it looks ought to be the determining factor. No matter how you spell the notes, a diminished 7th chord consists entirely of minor 3rds stacked on top of one another, and A is a whole lot easier to deal with than Bbb.

Mr. Evans also has a problem with the minor 6th chord. He feels that Cm6 ought to translate to C Eb G Ab. The problem here is that he is taking the chord form out of its most commonly used context, namely, as a tonic chord in a minor key. Jazz musicians don't usually use natural minor as tonic; we think of that chord as being extracted from melodic minor. So Cm6 really is C Eb G A. We use the m6 designation to distinguish that sound from the minor 7th (C Eb G Bb), which most commonly functions as a ii or vi chord.

The final part of the article states that "until such time as the...questionable practices... have been modified or changed, it is imperative that musical purists learn to function within these broken rules of theory, if they are to participate successfully in the jazz world".

This is an elitist and arrogant statement. First, Mr. Evans dismisses the traditional and highly functional way jazz musicians communicate with one another, calling our nomenclature both "questionable" and "broken". Then he makes matters worse by implying that "musical purists", whoever they may be, can "participate successfully in the jazz world" by adapting to our "incorrect, sloppy and broken" system.

Seems to me that there might be a few more skills that need to be learned if a classical musician wants to play jazz. The implication that any classically trained musician can become a jazz player by adapting to our "broken" rules is as wrong as it is demeaning. Mr. Evans' assertion that the "language of jazz [is] unfriendly and difficult to comprehend" is based on a fundamental lack of understanding of how we use that language. The fact that it differs from classical harmony is a function of its practical application. Different doesn't mean broken, incorrect or sloppy, unless one views jazz as an inferior genre - and I doubt very much that this is what Mr. Evans intends to communicate.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Tale of Two Bassists

For a bass player, performing on the same bill with Dave Holland would have to be a daunting proposition. Holland is a bona fide jazz legend. He has been the pre-eminent craftsman on his instrument for at least four decades. Countless musicians (including many non-bassists) have been inspired by his compositions, collaborations and his commitment to the highest musical standards. Like going one-on-one with Michael Jordan in his prime, even if you play very well chances are that you are going to be out-matched.

Last night Symphony Center in Chicago presented a double bill: virtuoso pianist Vijay Iyer's trio played the first half of the concert followed by the Overtone Quartet, a project led by Dave Holland. Iyer's band included bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Justin Brown. The Overtone Quartet featured Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones (not alto, as stated in the printed program), Jason Moran on piano, and drummer Eric Harland.

So it was Stephan Crump who took on the unenviable job of playing bass opposite Dave Holland. I'd like to be able to say that Crump, who I'd not heard previously, astounded and delighted me in a way that made me forget Holland before intermission. Unfortunately, a combination of factors conspired to make this unlikely reaction impossible.

Things did not bode well when the first thing Crump discovered when he took the stage was that his G string had broken in the interim between sound check and gig time. He has his Czech-Ease bass set up with gut strings, and one of the risks of gut is that it is highly susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. To his credit, Crump pulled the string the rest of the way off his bass and gamely readied himself to make the best of the situation. Iyer cracked wise about how this would be truly "improvised" music and then led his trio through an interesting set of original compositions plus a couple of idiosyncratic arrangements of pop tunes.

Stephan Crump did quite well without 25% of his playing area. He is an excellent musician, as far as I could tell, but his sound was problematic for me. He is another one of these young bassists who has chosen to eschew an electronic pickup and bass amp combination in favor of using a small microphone mounted on his bridge and sent directly into the house PA system. That, combined with the diffuse sound of the gut strings, made it difficult to discern what pitches he was playing and exactly where he was placing his notes rhythmically. It was much better when he was playing arco, which he did more than the average jazz bassist, and he used the bow mostly to good effect.

I've written about this before, but I will re-state that I don't understand why any contemporary bass player would want to return to the bad old days of gut strings and no pickups or bass amps. Is it an ill-advised return to an allegedly "purer" tone? Is it a remnant of the Wynton Marsalis-induced indictment of all things electric in jazz music? Do some players actually NOT want to be heard?

Crump's old school "thumpy" sound contrasted wildly with the clear, focused tone that Dave Holland got out of (ironically) the same kind of instrument Crump played. Holland uses modern steel strings and a contact pickup on his Czech-Ease bass; he plays through an amp onstage and sends a signal through the house system. Amazingly, I could hear every note he played. He has ten times the chops Crump has, although who knows what the latter could accomplish with a more playable setup. Crump reminded me of the late Dennis Irwin, who I saw play a couple of times with Joe Lovano. I saw him but I couldn't hear much of what he was doing either.

Every musician has the right to make whatever artistic choices he or she wants, so I would never try to tell another musician what they "should" or "shouldn't" do. But I will be honest with what I hear, and I have yet to hear a bassist who comes across well in a live situation with gut strings and no amp. When good amplification became possible sometime in the 1970's it heralded a whole new era for bass players who no longer had to struggle mightily just to be heard in the context of instruments that can easily overpower the bass.

Not everything new is necessarily better, of course, but making a naturally soft-sounding stringed instrument audible in ensembles that almost always have drummers and horn players seems to me to be a uniformly good idea. This is called progress.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

More Jazz Poetry: Sonny and Joe

painting by Aida Emart

To Keep Him Alive
by Paul Freidinger
(soon to be published by New York Quarterly)

The embouchure directs action:
tongue, lips, curve of the cheek,
seek solution with the reed; a need
for saliva on the sliver of wood,
sense of sound by breath, wet wood
makes the moan that makes it good.

Sonny Rollins said
without music he’s dead;
without the embouchure he can’t play,
without practice
the embouchure evaporates into air,
a balloon without breath;

without practice he can’t play,
without the embouchure there is no music,
without practice he’s deceased,
without the reed (essential seed
of vibration) sound is memory
of something not there.

He used to practice sitting
on the Williamsburg Bridge,
his sound swallowed by the sea,
lights of Manhattan swaddling him,
tankers floating beneath him on their way
to the ocean; no one noticed day or night;
no one stopped to listen.

New Yorkers are too sophisticated
to bother with art or let it bother them
he remarked, thankful for anonymity and presence
of the ideal audience of cars and pedestrians
and maritime traffic—and the reed

in concert with lips, tongue, lungs, spit,
the heart of sound from practice, embouchure
a link to the horn around the neck, crucifix-
of-sorrow-mix into joy, shriek and honk,
to seek, to keep him alive, to keep him alive,
to keep him alive, alive, alive…

Don't Ask Me Now
by Paul Freidinger

Joe Henderson climbs the stairs of his tenor sax,
the scale in scale (above the minor chords by McCoy)

to reach accord. Then, tremolo and a flurry
of sixteenth notes fluttered with honks and screeches

bent to blue and a dissonant melody forged from pain
that all resident boppers long for. Monk lives

in the intervals, dreams in the spaces we can’t transcend
or remember how he stood at the piano

as the sax man pierced the night, his silhouette bobbing
like a branch of leaves in a spring downpour.

In this version of “Ask Me Now,” Joe embodies his mentor
and weaves echoes of Thelonious through the bell

of his gleaming horn. Listening to this on an old cd,
I rise and mime a soft-shoe in tribute. My minor moment

raining down with joy. Don’t interrupt. Don’t ask me now.
I’m bobbing and dancing, too

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jazz Education Network

I am certainly not one to get all weepy over the demise of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE). For a variety of reasons I was not a big fan of that organization, which, it seems to me, had outlived its usefulness and grown far too unwieldy for its britches.

However, I do have reasons to believe that IAJE's successor organization, the Jazz Education Network, will do a far better job for all of us who play, teach and love jazz. JEN's mission statement reads:

The Jazz Education Network is dedicated to building the jazz arts community by advancing education, promoting performance and developing new audiences.

It seems like the folks behind the Jazz Education Network have the right idea, in terms of starting small and using the experiences gleaned from IAJE to do things a better way. There are some excellent people involved in the new project, which is just over one year old.

PlayJazzNow is a proud member of JEN, and I invite you to visit their website and join with your fellow musicians in making this organization a success.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Concert Review: Scofield Scorches the CSO

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - Symphony Center, Chicago

Third Stream music, that quasi-experimental blend of orchestral textures with modern jazz, has had a rocky history, at best. To my ears, when composers or arrangers try to bring so-called classical music together with a swinging rhythm section disaster normally ensues. Neither genre is served well, to the frustration of many listeners and (I can only imagine) the musicians. Some of the music of Gunther Schuller, George Russell, and Stan Kenton falls into this category of good intentions gone awry.

Not so with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Scorched, which received its United States premiere this week here in Chicago. The piece is a collaboration between Turnage, the CSO's Mead Composer-in-Residence, and John Scofield, one of jazz's most enlightened and open-minded guitarists.

(SCOfieldORCHestratED) is described by the composer as "a European composer's view of an American player". Turnage selected about a dozen of Scofield's tunes and, over a period of five years, re-imagined them for a variety of different sized hybrid groups ranging from a trio (guitar, bass and drums) to full orchestra. What emerges are neither arrangments nor completely original pieces. This music is truly collaborative, depending not only on Turnage's skills as a "translator" (his term) but on the interpretive skills of the members of the trio.

And there was nothing left to be desired by that trio, consisting of the man himself on electric guitar, John Patitucci yo-yoing back and forth between double bass and 6 string electric bass, and the masterful Peter Erskine on drumset. These guys could no doubt make a Barry Manilow medley sound good, but when the material is as eccentric and wonderful as Scofield's, great things will happen.

Scofield was most in the limelight, exuding sincerity and wry in equal measure in both short bursts and extended soloing throughout the evening. The guitarist has carved out a unique style, using his earthy collection of amplified sounds and very personal melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies. Listen to one phrase and you'll know you're hearing Sco. Like Monk, Coltrane and Haden, there's no mistaking this musician's sound for anyone else's (except for the imitators, who can't touch him). My favorite Sco moment on this occasion was his Cadenza, a halting, touching introduction to Turnage's homage to Gil Evans entitled Gil B643. John Scofield is a guy who knows how to let the music breathe.

John Patitucci is one of my favorite bassists on both acoustic and electric instruments. His muscular tone and great rhythmic feel were the cornerstones for most of Turnage's movements (he got a well earned break once in awhile). He also contributed a couple of nice solos on electric, demonstrating his signature fluid, guitar-like approach to the 6 string ebass.

Drummer Peter Erskine is without peer in terms of flexibility and restraint, no matter what style of music he's playing. His playing is so fresh that it is easy to forget that he played with Weather Report and Steps Ahead in the 80's, and has powered all kinds of jazz and pop groups throughout his prolific career. Erskine helped keep things together between the trio and the CSO, although it seemed that the orchestra mostly didn't need his help. He has a way of keeping things groovy without being stiff, even in this highly structured environment. I'd love to get a chance to play a tune with this man before either of us retires.

Scorched consists of 16 sections (or movements) in all, including a couple of versions of the opening piece Make Me and the two great versions of Fat Lip. The piece would probably benefit from a bit of trimming, though on first hearing I'm not sure what I'd cut. Favorite sections include Kubrick, Fat Lip 1 (scored for pizzicato strings - very exciting), Let's Say We Did and Protocol. The latter two sections featured the work of a friend and colleague Jim Gailloreto, who played the slinky unison melody (on soprano sax) with Scofield on Let's Say and a smoking 8 bars or so of alto sax solo on Protocol.

As for Mark-Anthony Turnage, this concert makes me want to find and listen to as much of his music as possible. Apparently he has spent his career straddling the worlds of jazz and contemporary classical music, having first been a devotee of avant garde composers like Boulez and Stockhausen and then becoming "obsessed" with Miles Davis in the 1980's. This musical schizophrenia might be the reason why Scorched works so well. Turnage isn't "slumming" or dabbling with jazz elements like one could justifiably accuse the likes of Milhaud, Copland, Ravel and Stravinsky of doing in the early 20th Century. He's likewise not a tunesmith who is in over his head trying to stretch songs into symphonic forms ala Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue being the prime example of this). There may well be other contemporary composers who are equally at home crafting concert music that includes both improvisation and groove, but, if so, I am not aware of them.

There's a live recording of Scorched, featuring the same trio with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was released in 2004.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Akio and Harvie S Jazz Video

I just got back in touch with an old friend and colleague, jazz guitarist Akio Sasajima (thank you Facebook). He sent me a link to this clip from his forthcoming DVD, which contains a beautiful arrangement of the famous Concerto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. In addition to Akio's marvelous playing, the clip also features masterful playing by one of my favorite bassists, Harvie S. He plays some of the theme arco and sounds wonderful.

The collective sound of the classical guitar and the double bass is a hugely satisfying texture, and when the music is being played by the likes of Akio and Harvie, it is quite a treat.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Jazz Poetry by Paul Freidinger

This image by Ann deLorge is available at Jazz Art Paintings

There are intimate connections that exist between jazz and poetry. I've written a little about this HERE. Sometimes the poet will use the music or its makers as the subject or in a fleeting image. Sometimes the rhythmic idioms of jazz are used structurally. Illinois poet Paul Friedinger brings his love of modern jazz into his work in all of these ways and more. He has given me kind permission to publish his work on this blog. Here are two pieces related (at the very least) by their invocation of Miles:

All Blues

In Antarctica, the ice is blue
due to extremes of light.
An entire continent composed
of light that bends through a prism
of cool to cold curled to pure burn
at one end of the world. Miles knew
about the poles and the need for seasons
to flip over, after having been fed up
in St. Louis as a teen in humid summers,
and hot for more than a decade—
until lifted aloft by Bird. In ’59
he released Kind of Blue with its own sizzle
of dry ice, blowing “Blue in Green”
and “So What,” the sober result of logic
tunneling through the ear to find that
mind was at the end of its tether.
If any of us listening then would have peered
around the corner, we should have intuited
Miles would let the world go
at the first sign of global warming.
He rocked across the electric stage the rest
of his career, more about a flashpoint
than any hint of new direction.
Last year, a chunk of ice the size of Texas
spliced from the Antarctic shelf and drifted
the Southern Ocean like a giant cloud
shifting into northern climes. Over time
Miles moved, too, with little love
and less notice. He grew thinner
and cantankerous. In his last days,
Miles’ eyes turned a curious shade
of turquoise against his grizzled skin.
His world had flipped in and broken off,
prepared to flood the land with the kind
of sea it deserved. An aqua-vision
of a planet, viewed from the moon,
retrospective light all blue again.

*italicized line is by H.G. Wells

Your Turn
In memory of Paul Chambers

The jazz is existential, angular
in the dimly lit clubs,
away from the snow,
the killer cold that creeps in.

In the city
Monk still matters.
Sonny still matters.
Trane still matters.

The city rusted and ruined,
in tatters.
The homeless huddled
on a corner under a street light,
sipping a half-pint of Ancient Age,
passing the bottle in a ritual
back and forth like a chalice
in the chaste breath of winter.

Inside the sax is a knife
that severs the heart
and finds the inside surfaced
with another inside
waiting for the blade.
We can slice forever
and never touch the core.

In the trumpet’s blue glare,
a cymbal crash is symbiotically
ice and ember.
Wind roars across Chicago
in December, the lake
a metaphor of deeper chambers.

The bassist plucks his way
up the ribs of space.
In memory, Miles nods
to him and mutters,

Your turn, Sucker.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jazz Video Guide

Musician and educator Brad Sharp has spent some time scooping up links to jazz videos at YouTube. His Jazz Video Search page has a ton of links, organized by instrument and then by musician. He's got the musicians listed chronologically by date of birth, a very interesting way to view the history of jazz. I don't remember ever seeing a list that includes both Buddy Bolden and Chris Potter.

Warning: Only go there if you have some time to burn, because there are many hundreds of jazz videos represented on that page. And you WILL get mesmerized, I guarantee.

Here's some rare footage of Charles Mingus' Quartet I found via Brad's list:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Workin' Cheap: Addendum

OK, sometimes you win.

The day after turning down the gig I described in my previous post, I got called to do another engagement for the same week in March.

This one is 6 services for AA scale, which comes out to around $1300. That's about 2.5 times what the previous job offer would have paid. Plus, its a more interesting show, with top notch players.

I feel vindicated. And extremely lucky.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Workin' Cheap: A Conundrum

What are a few hours of making music worth? For those of us engaged in this endeavor as professionals, there's isn't a more trying time than during a recession to ask this question.

I just got offered a week's worth of work. Its a gig I've done every March for the past 4 years. The first time I played it (2006), it paid $750 for 6 services. Not bad. The following 2 years I relented to a $100 pay cut because, well, March is generally slow and a couple of good people were going to be on the gig as well. Plus, I figured that it was at least $100 per service, which is not terrible. This year the pay for the same amount of work was offered to me at $540 and I said no.

Yes, I know we're in the midst of an economic downturn. Yes, I need the money. Yes, March is still painfully slow. But I said no anyway, and here's why:

If I agree to work for $200 less than this particular gig paid just 4 years ago, then there is zero incentive for the folks doing the hiring to even consider raising the pay scale in the future, even if the economy starts going gangbusters and they have money to burn. If they can get someone with my level of skill and experience to play the job for this ridiculously low rate, that hurts not only me but everyone else in the talent pool of capable musicians.

Musicians tend to think mostly about the short term. I know because I generally do it myself. Gotta make the mortgage this month, which means I need to make x number of dollars between my performing and teaching incomes. If this was the only way to look at it I'd have to say yes to whatever work gets flung in my direction. But, of course, in the long run I'd only be shooting myself (and my peers) in the foot.

This is a very tough decision to make, as any freelance musician will tell you. I don't have another gig to fall back on for that week in March, although something might come in between now and then. So this is an educated gamble I'm making about my future in this business.

But the sad truth is that once I start working for sub-standard compensation it will be very difficult to convince those who would hire me that I'm actually worth being paid a living wage for the service I provide. And that's not good for any of us.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Concert Review: Dave Holland Quintet at Mandel Hall 1/25/09

What an inspiring pleasure it was to experience Dave Holland's wonderful band last night. Playing to a packed and enthusiastic crowd at the University of Chicago's premier concert venue, the Quintet demonstrated why it has garnered such a great worldwide reputation.

I've been a fan of Holland's for well over three decades, but I've never been more impressed with any of his ensembles. With the exception of drummer Nate Smith, this group has been together for 10+ years. It takes that kind of time to develop the musical empathy and kinship that is evident in this band. There's a level of listening and group dynamics that goes far beyond the norm for jazz groups. It is the kind of group communication one can hear in the recordings of Ellington's band, the first Bill Evans trio, Coltrane's classic quartet, Miles quintet from the early 60's and very few other bands.

Each player is a virtuoso in his own right. Robin Eubanks (trombone) and Chris Potter (saxophones) each possess prodigious technique and a strong musical personality. Both horn players have contributed some cool tunes to the book, a couple of which we had the good fortune to hear last night. Vibist Steve Nelson has developed into a masterful accompanist as well as a powerful soloist with a wry sense of humor. Nate Smith had to fill some pretty big shoes when Billy Kilson left the band, but he has proven to be a worthy addition. He's got great groove, sensitive ears and doesn't overplay, even when the music is at its most intense. Dave Holland is not only a great bassist, but has established himself as one of jazz's unique master composers and band leaders.

For more insight into Holland's career, check out the piece I wrote for a few months ago.

Rather than give a tune by tune review of the concert, I'm going to describe what makes this music work so well from my perspective. First of all, Holland's group concept is very democratic. While it is clear that it is his band (he gets the gigs, pays the cats, writes most of the material, etc), there is more than ample room for every musician to express himself. Unlike so many mainstream jazz groups, the Quintet puts the emphasis on ensemble playing rather than operating only as a collection of soloists. So many jazz players seem to be in a hurry to get to their own solo, seldom thinking about the composition as a whole. This band functions much more like a true ensemble, where the players all contribute to collectively shape each piece.

Holland arranges the music with a careful ear for orchestration and soloistic balance. Each tune features one or two musicians as soloists; various players lay out at different times. We got to hear Nelson and Smith play as a duo on How's Never; Potter and Holland teamed up without the others on another tune. The leader laid out a few times, allowing Smith and Nelson to play behind one of the horn soloists. These players all seem to revel in supporting one another, something I don't see or hear often.

The Quintet works with unusual song forms and meters. It seems like a matter of principle that Holland almost never walks straight 4/4 quarter notes. This group is quite comfortable with compound meters like 5 and 7, and with mixed meters. They make these thorny rhythmic underpinnings feel groovy and natural - so much so that the ease with which the group handles these complexities makes one forget the odd meters altogether.

There's a terrific sense of playful give and take with this band. These musicians are generous with one another, as they are with their audience. I've barely mentioned the high level of skills and chops these players possess. That may be because, despite their ability to execute both complex and subtle ideas, there's very little "showing off" or grandstanding in evidence when they play.

Finally, a word about the audience at this Dave Holland Quintet concert. I was thrilled to see such a large and sophisticated crowd, and even more delighted to see how many young folks were there to hear this music. I'm sure there were a lot of musicians present, but I didn't overhear much technical talk on the way in or out. This leads me to believe that a decent percentage of the attendees were interested "civilians", perhaps the same kind of folks who turn out for jazz festivals and gigs at Symphony Center or the Jazz Showcase. Even if the music might be too harmonically, rhythmically or texturally "advanced" for some people, I think the integrity and playfulness of the group is contagious.

After the last tune of the set, the crowd jumped to its feet and roared for an encore. Holland quipped that we were "very persuasive", so the band played another tune. I'm sure it was just another gig for them, but for those of us fortunate enough to be listening, it was a special night.