Jazz Blog - July 19, 2015

Dave King, Rational Funk

I've been traveling a lot lately (I'm in Copenhagen right now), so it's been hard to find the time to write new blog posts. But then Dave King decided to share his expertise, wisdom, and life-lessons in a series of goofy YouTube videos... and that's how you get the inspiration to write a new blog post.

As I'm sure everybody (anybody?) already knows, Dave King is the drummer for Happy Apple and the slightly more popular band, The Bad Plus. I've seen The Bad Plus a few times, and frankly, I feel like I've been cheated. Ethan Iverson, their erudite and gifted pianist, typically does all of the talking. Yet now I know that Dave King has probably been sitting there the whole time with a hilarious joke that he's dying to share. But he can't share that joke, because jazz is serious!

Jazz may be serious, but drumming is hilarious. At least, it's hilarious when Dave King talks about drumming in his Rational Funk YouTube channel.

On one hand, Rational Funk is a silly, geeky, and satirical take on the world of drumming and instructional videos. On the other hand, Rational Funk is a brutally-honest criticism of popular music and the so-called music business. And on the other other hand, it's just a guy having a laugh with his usually off-camera cohort, Joe Johnson (aka, the professor). I'd ask Dave King for his take on the videos, but killing cats like him are too busy shedding so he can shred on the gig.

As of the time of this writing, there are 30 episodes of Rational Funk. The last 5 or so have inexplicably featured jazz trumpeter, Ron Miles, in a buddy crime-fighter intro that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the show. The Ron Miles intro is never explained, but thanks to its awesome 80s-themed soundtrack and hard-hitting action, I've found it to be a pleasant reprieve from all of that drum talk.

So, this is my plug for Rational Funk. If you've got what it takes, I'd recommend that you start with the first episode and work your way through all of them. If you just want a good laugh, though, I'd start with the following video on rap rock. It's the best of the best (and it talks about the worst of worst). Like all of the Rational Funk videos, it features lots of censored bad words, so thankfully, it's totally appropriate for children.

Ear Training - February 27, 2015

Ear training tool - version 3.0

Today I launched version 3.0 of my free online ear trainer!

online ear trainer - v3

This new version of my ear trainer runs natively in modern web browsers, without the need for Java or any other type of plugin. It's a nice change of pace from the security warnings and Java installation headaches. Unfortunately, it isn't without it's problems. The main issue is that the performance varies depending upon your web browser. It runs best in Chrome, Opera, and Safari (as of my May 2nd update). Firefox is pretty good too, but the notes sometimes drop out, as if some of the audio files haven't loaded. Unfortunately, it's so bad in Internet Explorer that I've decided not to support IE. With the availability of the Java version, my free iphone ear training app, and the ease of acquiring a Chrome or Opera web browser, I hope that won't be too much of an inconvenience.

Anyway, enough about boring old web browsers. Fire up your Chrome, Opera, or Safari web browser and give my new ear trainer a try!

UPDATE 5/2/15 - I added a new soundfont which greatly improves the piano sound for Safari and other browsers that don't support Ogg files. With this change, I think my new ear training application runs almost as well on Safari as it does on Chrome and Opera.

UPDATE 5/1/15 - This update fixes several bugs, adds keyboard support for controlling playback (left arrow=repeat, right arrow=next, space=play/stop), and it includes a few new chord progressions (jazz blues, minor blues, etc). The biggest change is the addition of accounts. Once you register for your free account, you can save your custom melodies and chord progressions. I still need to improve the documentation and examples for the custom markup, but hopefully the existing samples will give you enough to start customizing your ear training exercises.

Jazz Blog - October 22, 2014

Keep On Keepin' On - the movie

This week I'm visiting Chicago, where I first lived as a student while attending DePaul University's music school. After my brief time at DePaul's music school, I changed majors and enrolled in DePaul's business school, where I eventually dropped out to begin my career as a software engineer and entrepreneur. In total, I lived in Chicago for nine years and I still regard those years as being some of the most exciting years of my life.

Each time I return to Chicago, I enjoy revisiting some of the places that shaped who I am today. One of those places is the Music Box Theatre. It was there that I first saw art-house films like "2001 a Space Odyssey", "8 1/2", "Wings of Desire", and "Laurence of Arabia." It's also the theater where I first saw a double feature of "This Wonderful Life" and "White Christmas" with the woman who would eventually become my wife.

Like most of our trips to Chicago, my wife and I had a few things planned, including a visit to the David Bowie exhibit at MCA, a Keith Jarrett trio concert, and catching up with some old friends. Aside from that, however, our schedule was fairly open. I hadn't yet told my wife this, but it was my intention all along to see if we could squeeze in a showing of the movie "Keep on Keepin' On."

"Keep on Keepin' On" depicts the bond between legendary jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry, and a 23-year old blind piano player named Justin Kauflin. At the beginning of filming, Clark Terry is 89 and suffering the debilitating effects of diabetes, including the loss of his own eyesight. Clark Terry becomes a mentor to the young piano player, teaching him tunes, and coaching him through stage fright during the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition. In return, Justin Kaufman and his seeing-eye dog become part of Clark Terry's support system, bringing joy to Clark Terry and his wife while his health deteriorates.

"Keep on Keepin' On" is currently in a limited distribution run, with just a few days of screenings in a handful of cities. Right now, it's playing for a few days in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and Asbury Park, New Jersey. After that it moves on to other cities and beyond that, who knows where or when I'd be able to see it.

Being a fan of Clark Terry's music and a jazz trumpet player myself, it's no surprise that I'd want to see this movie. I'll admit, though, that I expected it to be a tough sell to my wife. I imagined the conversation going something like, "Hey, I know we're only in Chicago for a week, and we both know you don't like going to the movies, but there's this movie about an aging jazz trumpeter player and a young blind piano player. The trumpet player has diabetes, loses his eyesight, and . . . um, are you still listening to me?" At least, that's how the conversation might have gone were it not for the Music Box Theatre.

When I told my wife that the movie was playing at the Music Box Theatre, she instantly became nostalgic for those earlier years when she and I went to the Music Box Theatre for the holiday double features. Without a second's hesitation, she agreed and we were off to the 3pm showing on a Sunday afternoon in Chicago.

I'm pleased to say that my wife and I both loved the film. And to our absolute delight, after the screening we were treated to a live performance by the film's young piano player, Justin Kaufman, and a Q&A session with the film's director, Al Hicks.

Clark Terry is one of the most recorded jazz musicians of all time, with over 900 recording sessions. During his long career, Clark Terry also mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of jazz musicians, including Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. Despite these and many other accomplishments, Clark Terry is barely known beyond jazz circles. As a trumpet player and fan of jazz music, I'd love to introduce more people to the life and music of Clark Terry, and this movie is the perfect vehicle to make that happen.

"Keep on Keepin' On" isn't just for trumpet players, nor is it just for jazz fans. Rather, it's a heart-warming story of friendship, inspiration, and the power of music to bring people together and instill hope in our lives. Amidst a movie landscape of vapid CGI blockbusters, "Keep on Keepin' On" is a breath of fresh air and I wholeheartedly recommend it. As the film's director mentioned after the screening, the only way the movie will succeed is by word of mouth. So this is my mouth, making words. Go see this movie!

About Me - October 16, 2014

Twelve-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years

It's now been twelve years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. Here's another anniversary article.

MORE TRAVELING IN 2014

After my first trip to Europe in 2012, when I didn't play for a month and it took me two months to rebuild my chops, I now bring either my regular trumpet or a pocket trumpet anytime I travel. When traveling, I don't practice nearly as much as I do when I'm at home, but I manage to put in enough time to keep my chops in decent playing condition.

I've done quite a bit of traveling this year, beginning with an amazing trip to Chile. After Chile, I spent a month in Manhattan, followed by six weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies. And this past weekend, I returned from five weeks in Spain!

toledo, spain

Although the traveling puts a damper in my progress on the trumpet, I have had a few rewarding playing experiences while on the road. When I was in Portland over the summer, I had two playing opportunities. The first was with the clarinet-playing owner of our AirBnB rental, and the second was with a drummer who I met at one of Portland's many food truck parks. My favorite jam, though, occurred while I was in Patagonia, with Torres del Paine national park in the background. I don't know if I'll ever top that.

PLAY BY EAR ANDROID APP - THE END

As I mentioned at the end of last year, I decided to make the Android app available free of charge after hearing about some problems with newer OS versions. The problems persisted and after receiving a dozen or so emails, I removed the Android app from Google's app market earlier this year. I don't own any Android devices, and since download numbers were so low on the Android app, I couldn't justify the time and expense of its maintenance. If you're one of the former Android app users and you're looking for an ear training replacement, I'd definitely suggest my online ear trainer. It's what I use.

PLAY BY EAR IPHONE APP - PROBLEMS WITH IOS 8

If you've used my Play By Ear ear training app with iOS 8, then you've surely noticed that the audio isn't working when pitch detection is enabled. After the first exercise plays, the microphone turns on for pitch detection and it fails to reopen the audio channel for subsequent playback. I haven't used my Play By Ear app in a while, so I didn't realize there was a problem until I began receiving your emails. Thanks for letting me know!

Fortunately, it didn't take too long for me to identify the culprit and I've already uploaded a fix to the app store. Assuming Apple approves the update, it should be available within the next few days. While I was making changes to the app, I also improved the pitch detection algorithm and I modified the layout a bit so it stretches to fill larger iPhone displays. Hopefully you'll enjoy the new changes.

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS - THE OUTCOME

About a year ago, I started taking jazz improvisation lessons with one of my friends from the Atlanta jazz scene. In last year's anniversary article, I wrote that the lessons had me feeling discouraged about my playing. And if anything, I felt that I was playing better before I started taking lessons. I wish I could say things improved over time, but that just isn't the case. After several more months of lessons, I realized that the teacher's approach wasn't working out for me and we parted ways. The teacher and I are still good friends, but the experience was a classic example of how everyone learns differently.

Jazz Improvisation - May 16, 2014

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2014

recordingThis page contains my jazz improvisation recordings from 2014. As you'll hear below, these jazz recordings feature such highlights as cracked notes, poor note choice, unsteady rhythm, and meandering phrases! And that's why recording myself is so important. It's the best way to evaluate my playing and to chart my progress over time. I don't expect that I'll ever become a great jazz trumpet player, but I am anxious to hear how much better I can get with practice. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014

MAY 16, 2014

iwasdoingallright - audio clip Aebersold #50, Nardis

As I explained in my 11-year anniversary article, in 2013 I bought a new laptop and I lost the ability to use my old Firewire recording interface. That's why 2013 passed by without any new jazz improvisation clips. At the end of 2013, I solved this issue by buying a new Scarlett 2i2 USB recording interface. And after waiting six months, today I finally decided to use it!

In this clip, you'll hear me play a solo to "Nardis," a tune written by Miles Davis. Actually, since Miles never recorded "Nardis" and since Bill Evans played "Nardis" all the time, I figured it was actually Bill Evans who wrote "Nardis," with Miles snagging the publishing credits. In this YouTube video, however, Bill Evans sets the record straight. Miles Davis wrote "Nardis" for Cannonball Adderley, but the tune because associated with Bill Evans when "no one else seemed to pick up on it."

Usually, my audio clips are mixed down to "mono" so the trumpet and backing tracks are merged. I thought that Garageband did that for me in the past, but I couldn't figure out how to do it in the latest version. I don't particularly like the separation. It makes it too easy to nitpick my playing!

Ear Training - March 23, 2014

Ear training breakthrough

In 2002, when I started playing the trumpet again, I couldn't play anything accurately by ear. If I wanted to play something simple, like "Happy Birthday," I'd either need to have written music in front of me, or I'd have to work my way through the tune, picking out each note through trial and error. Mostly error.

During the next year or two, as I continued to rebuild my trumpet chops, I read several jazz interviews and jazz biographies, hoping to gain some insight that would help me to become a better jazz improviser. I learned a lot during that period, most of which you'll find distilled into my learning to improvise series. The most important lesson, however, was the importance of being able to play by ear. To help improve my ability to play by ear, I eventually built some ear training tools and I added at least a few minutes of ear training to my daily practice routine, which I've stuck to for the past nine years.

Over the past nine years, I've made noticeable progress in my ability to play by ear, but until recently that progress wasn't especially evident in my playing. That's because I couldn't do much with the earlier stages of my development. For example, the first time I could play "Happy Birthday" by ear in any key, I could only do so very slowly and with an unsteady rhythm (i.e. hesitating between notes). That was a major accomplishment for me, but it wasn't something I could really use in a jazz setting where I have to play at faster tempos and in time with a band.

Within the past few months, however, I feel like I've made a huge leap in my ability to play by ear. I can now listen to a jazz recording, and more often than not, I'll pick up my horn and accurately play the tune's melody or a phrase that I heard during somebody's solo. I can also listen to the rhythm section and enough notes will jump out (either from the bass or piano) that I can land on a chord tone or play something else that sounds good over the chords. I still need to improve my consistency and overall accuracy, especially at fast tempos, but I'm finally at a point where I can hear something in my head and confidently play it by ear while improvising.

PATAGONIA JAM SESSION

I recently traveled to Chile, where I spent five weeks, culminating with seven days at Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Traveling is still relatively new to me, but so far Patagonia is the most mind-blowing place that I've visited. It's so beautiful and remote that I felt like I was on a different planet.

patagonia

Adding to the beauty of the region, we met several other travelers and guides who made us feel like we were at a home away from home. One day, while hiking to the base of the towers (torres), I told one such guide that I play the trumpet. He asked if I had my trumpet with me, and when I told him it was at the hotel, he said, "We should have a jam session! One of the other guides plays the guitar!"

Normally, I might have panicked or made excuses to get out of the jam session. After all, I'm not that good, I didn't know what kind of music they were going to play, and I hadn't been practicing that much during the preceding weeks in Chile. Any one of those excuses would have gotten me out of the jam session, but at that point so I was inspired by Patagonia that I said, "OK, let's do it!"

patagonia-jam-session

I don't know about you, but I'm a view guy. I'm captivated by beautiful views, and I can gaze at them for hours without a care in the world. With my pocket trumpet in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I emerged onto the hotel's outdoor patio, took one look at the mountains you see in the above photo, and any fears I might have had about the jam session instantly vanished.

As we settled into our places, I introduced myself to the guitar-playing guide and another hotel guest who had brought his ukulele. I was still looking at the mountains when the guitarist asked us what we wanted to play. Transfixed by the view, I replied, "Whatever you want," to which the guitarist replied, "How about a blues?" I didn't pay attention when he mentioned the key, but once they started playing, I relied on my ears and played a passable solo over concert E blues. The ukulele player had a tougher time with his solo, but he hung in there and made it through the tune.

After the blues, the guitarist started to play a Chilean song that neither the ukulele player nor I had ever heard before. The ukulele player asked the guitarist for the chord changes and they spent a few minutes going over them. Once we started playing, though, the ukulele player was having difficulty remembering the chord changes and we had to stop once or twice. When we did finally get going again, I just closed my eyes and played another decent solo by ear.

By the start of the third tune, I was feeling confident about my ears and had decided to just play everything by ear that night. Unfortunately, the ukulele player wasn't faring as well. He struggled with the changes again on the third tune and I could tell he was getting a little frustrated. It didn't help that by this time we had a small audience of hotel guests and staff watching us! After three or four tunes, the ukulele player decided to call it quits and he took a seat next to his wife in the audience.

What began as a trio had now become a duo. The guitarist and I continued playing for the next hour or two, never discussing keys or chord changes. He'd start playing, I'd listen for a few measures, and then I'd accompany him, playing everything by ear. I don't know if I actually sounded good that night, but our audience clapped after every tune and everyone seemed to enjoy a wonderful evening in paradise.

The next morning while strolling along the shore of a nearby lake, I saw the ukulele player and his wife. After exchanging pleasantries, the ukulele player mentioned how he was struggling to keep up with us at the jam session. His wife then chimed in, telling me that her husband was feeling discouraged about his playing. After three years of playing the ukulele, he thought he was getting pretty good, but he was totally unprepared for the jam session. And then he said, "Yeah, I can't play by ear..."

I smiled and said, "Please allow me to introduce myself." Ok, so I didn't say that. I did, however, tell him that I too couldn't play by ear at one point. I've worked on it over the years, and I've developed the skills over time. I then told him all about my site and my ear training tools. He was so excited that he downloaded my Play By Ear iPhone ear training app as soon as we got back to the hotel.

I have to say, it was amazing enough to experience the culmination of so many years of ear training practice at a jam session in Patagonia. To then have the opportunity to get somebody else started on their ear training journey -- wow, how cool is that?!

About Me - December 30, 2013

Eleven-year anniversary

All of my anniversary articles: 2 years - 3 years - 4 years - 5 years - 6 years - 7 years - 9 years - 10 years - 11 years - 12 years

It's now been eleven years since I started playing the trumpet again, after quitting for a period of seven years. In the tradition of traditions, here's another anniversary article.

JAVA APPLET STATUS

Ear training has been a major focus of my jazz blog since it first went online in 2004. I built my first ear training tool soon thereafter, and the most recent version of that tool is the online Java applet known as Online Ear Trainer 2.0. In recent years, I built my "Play By Ear" ear training apps for iOS and Android devices, but the free online ear trainer continues to be my favorite tool due to the rhythm section and sequence modulation features.

As much as I like my online ear training tool, I fear that it might have a limited future due to recent issues with Java applets (an "applet" is a Java application that runs in your web browser). In 2012, Java security threats were discovered which allowed applets to directly access a computer's file system. Web browsers initially battled this threat by blocking all unsigned applets, including my online ear trainer. Various Java patches have been released since then and all applets are once again allowed to run. Unfortunately, those applets now carry the burden of ominous security warnings that appear every time they are loaded. Update: as of Jan 17, 2014, my ear training applet is now signed so you should be able to accept the security warning once without having to see it every time the applet loads.

With the security problems, the general disdain for browser plugins (e.g. Flash), and the move towards HTML5 alternatives, I wouldn't be surprised if Web browsers stop supporting Java applets entirely in the coming years. If that happens, that will be the end of my online ear trainer. It's not all doom and gloom, though. A few weeks ago I began tinkering with a possible replacement that uses a new JavaScript MIDI engine. It might not be as powerful as my Java ear trainer, but I think it will be a decent substitute. Once I have something worth sharing, I'll let you know.

ANDROID EAR TRAINING APPLICATION GOES FREE

In last year's anniversary article, I mentioned the disappointing sales of my "Play By Ear" Android ear training application and my decision to discontinue its future development. I've kept the app in the Google Play/Market/WhateverThey'reCallingItToday store, though, since I think it's a useful app and it's still probably worth the $1.99 price. Or so I had thought until a few days ago.

Last Thursday, I received an email from somebody who had just purchased my Android ear training application for his Nexus 5 (Android 4.4.2). Upon starting the application, he saw an error message and then the application froze. This is the first I've heard of any problems with the Android app, but if it's happening to one person, it's probably happening to others. Since I don't have any android devices to test on, and since I don't want to spend any more time on the app anyway, I went ahead and refunded his purchase and I made the Android app free from this point forward. If I receive more complaints about the app not working, I'll probably take it down entirely, so get it while it lasts.

WHERE ARE THE 2013 JAZZ IMPROVISATION RECORDINGS?

Ever since 2004, I've been sharing some of my jazz improvisation clips on this jazz blog. The recordings are a valuable part of my jazz studies since they allow me to return to my jazz solos and study the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of my solos. And by sharing the recordings with all of you, you can marvel at the precision by which I have equally distributed the good, the bad, and the ugly in each solo. For the first year in the history of this website, however, 2013 has come and gone without a single jazz improvisation clip. Hopefully you've found another source of laughter to fill the void.

I have wanted to record some clips this year, but I lost the ability to do so when I bought a new MacBook Air at the end of 2012. Until that point, I was using an MAudio recording interface with the FireWire port of my computer. The MacBook Air doesn't have a FireWire port, though, and since I spent a good portion of this year traveling, I wasn't in any hurry to find a new solution.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new Scarlett 2i2 USB recording interface, so I can finally record myself again. Unfortunately, this development coincides with a bit of a detour in my playing, which I'll discuss next.

JAZZ IMPROVISATION LESSONS

Three months ago, I began taking private jazz improvisation lessons with one of Atlanta's top jazz musicians. My goal was to focus on ear training, mostly to get a fresh perspective from somebody with many years of ear training research and teaching experience.

I'd like to say that I'm enjoying the lessons and I'm playing better than ever, but unfortunately that isn't the case. If anything, I'm more discouraged about my playing than I've been in a while, and I feel like I've lost some of the progress that I had made prior to taking lessons. Maybe this is one of those situations where the teacher has to break down his student before he can build him back up again. You know, like the totally awesome 80's movie, "North Shore," in which a hot-shot surfer (also named "Rick") ditches his 3-fin surf board in order to first master the tree log board, the long board, and every other shape, at which point his soul-surfer teacher allows him to return to a modern surf board just in time to (nearly) win the Banzai Pipeline competition. If you haven't seen the movie, I doubt you'll understand. But suffice it to say, I'm hanging in there for now, with the hope that Nia Peeples will make an appearance.

Happy New Year!