Last week I attended a master class hosted by jazz trumpeters Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish at Carere Music. As you may know, Joe Gransden is one of the best jazz trumpeters in Atlanta. You can hear him at a variety of Atlanta venues including the wildly popular big band concerts at Cafe 290 (1st and 3rd Monday of each month) and the Tuesday night jam sessions at Twain’s. Joe’s also the owner of that beautiful Monette trumpet that I played a couple of months ago. You'll see that horn in the photo below (Joe is on the left, Andy on the right).
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. They’re both playing Monette Prana 3 trumpets.
Perhaps less familiar, at least to my Atlanta readers, is Andy Gravish. Andy Gravish is a New York City based jazz trumpeter who has toured throughout the United States and Europe, playing in bands with notable leaders such as Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw, Paquito D'Rivera , and Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Joe Gransden met Andy Gravish several years ago, when they both lived in New York City. The two became fast friends and would regularly get together to practice jazz improvisation. In a typical practice session, they’d spend hours trading solos, with one person improvising while the other plays a counter melody or bass line. Or sometimes, the person not soloing would simply listen and absorb new ideas to incorporate in his next solo. Which reminds me, I actually had the opportunity to do this very same type of thing with Joe Gransden about a month ago. For about 30 minutes we improvised over the chord changes to Cherokee, without any accompaniment. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was happy to have (barely) been able to keep up with Joe. And by that, I mean I didn’t fall flat on my face. Well, except for a couple of times. But I digress...
Joe and Andy began the masterclass with a demonstration of their old practice sessions. For about ten minutes they played, bouncing ideas off of each other as their solos intertwined. When they finished playing, Joe asked the master class audience to name some of the prerequisites for that type of improvised jazz soloing. A variety of skills were mentioned including having good time, knowledge of the changes, and good trumpet chops. All of these skills are important, but Joe was looking for a different answer that just so happens to be one of my favorite musical topics. Ear training!
JOE GRANSDEN'S INTRODUCTION TO EAR TRAINING
The ear training discussion started with a brief recollection of Joe Gransden's early days in New York City. Fresh out of college, with a degree in jazz performance, Joe was hoping to make a name for himself among the best jazz musicians in with world in New York City. Unfortunately, things didn't go quite according to plan. Try as he might, he couldn't keep up with the New York City jazz musicians. The disparity was especially noticeable when he was forced to play unfamiliar tunes and/or tunes in non-standard keys. For example, if somebody asked Joe to play Cherokee in F#, he would have to transpose the changes in his head from Bb (the standard key). That might be doable at a slow tempo, but I think most of us would struggle if we had to do that in real-time at ~300bpm. Yet, the great NYC jazz musicians could do that and more because they were able to play accurately by ear.
The turning point for Joe Gransden came during a discussion with the great jazz trumpeter, Joe Magnarelli. Gransden mentioned that he owned several transcription and jazz pattern books and was looking for some pointers on how he could use them to improve his playing. Magnarelli's advice was simple and to the point. He told Grandsden to throw the books away. Magnarelli saw the books as a crutch that would hinder Joe's ability to play by ear. In other words, if we aren't exercising our ears by forcing them to guide us through music, then we're likely not to develop them. So, instead of reading from written music, Magnarelli advised Gransden to listen to recordings and learn jazz by ear. And that's what he's been doing ever since.
During the years that followed, Joe has spent many hours playing along with recordings, practicing call and response with other musicians, and testing himself by playing along with random notes he hits on a piano. He can still work with written changes if he needs to, but when he solos it's pretty much all by ear.
As I've mentioned before, I used to be one of those players who are totally dependent upon written music. I was one of the best high school trumpet players in the state of Florida and more than anything I wanted to be a professional jazz musician. It might have been an attainable goal, except for one thing. I couldn’t play anything accurately by ear. There simply wasn't any way I could have succeeded as an improvising jazz musician without the ability to play the ideas in my head. So, I quit playing the trumpet. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized how foolish I was for not working on ear training when I was younger. Although I guess it wasn't entirely my fault since nobody ever told me about it until my freshman year of college. The good news is that when I finally started playing the trumpet again, I created some ear training tools and have been making steady progress with ear training ever since.
CALL AND RESPONSE WITH THE AUDIENCE
At the end of the master class, Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish played some call and response ear training exercises with the master class participants. About 30 trumpet players were in attendance, with the youngest being high school age. They were all serious about playing the trumpet and a few of the audience members were professional trumpet players who give trumpet lessons. Keep that last part in mind as you read on.
The call and response exercises consisted of Joe or Andy playing a short phrase followed by the entire audience playing the phrase back on their trumpets by ear (i.e. without written music). To keep things simple, the phrases were all based on a concert Bb blues. I was really impressed during the first few attempts since it sounded like most of the people were able to play back the phrases accurately by ear. That changed, however, when Joe asked them to do it with their eyes closed so they couldn't look at his fingers. Since I didn't have my horn, I looked around the room during the closed-eye attempts and noticed that most people were stumbling through the notes as their fingers moved frantically from one valve to another after guessing incorrectly. And it wasn’t just the young players who were fumbling. Even some of the professional musicians, the ones giving private lessons, were unable to play blues phrases accurately by ear.
In truth, the professional musicians in the master class don't actually need the ability to play accurately by ear. To my knowledge, none of them are jazz musicians and I'd assume that just about everything they ever need to play is written down. But that doesn't mean they should neglect ear training studies with their students. On the contrary, their students absolutely deserve exposure to ear training. And the sooner the better. You never know, one of those students might dream of becoming a professional jazz musician someday...
STRIKE FIRST, STRIKE HARD, NO MERCY EVER!
To close things out, here's a video clip of Joe Gransden and Andy Gravish playing at Churchill Grounds on the final night of Andy's visit to Atlanta. The clip begins with an energetic drum solo by Kinah Boto. At the two minute mark, you'll hear Joe and Andy as they engage in a friendly trumpet battle (to the DEATH!!!).
- My ear training tools which feature exercises for all sorts of things including: intervals, chords, melodies, call and response, jazz licks, and more!
- Learning to Improvise - Introduction - Here I discuss the absence of adequate ear training in my jazz education
- Learning to Improvise - Ear Training - Ear training is essential for jazz improvisers!
- Dave Douglas on Ear Training - Yes, THE Dave Douglas