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 treasured life-lessons in a series of goofy YouTube videos... and that's how you get 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 been sitting there the entire time with a funny comment that he's dying to share. But he can't share that funny comment, 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 off-camera cohort, Joe Johnson. 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.

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!

Jazz Blog - September 24, 2013

Jazz podcasts

During my lunch hour, I like to go for walks and listen to jazz podcasts. Podcasts are also great for those times when I can't find anything good to listen to on the radio. In the interest of sharing, here are my favorite jazz podcasts.

MARIAN McPARTLAND'S PIANO JAZZ

marian mcpartlandYou probably know all about Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz radio program, but just in case, here's a brief summary: During each show, one or more guest artists join Marian McPartland for an interview and a live performance in her studio. That's one way to describe her show. You could also say it's the best show of its kind, ever, in the history of the world.

A professional jazz pianist herself, Marian McPartland began her career in the 1940s and she led her own band throughout the 1950s in New York City. Unlike most radio and podcast hosts, she didn't just study jazz history, she lived it! While chatting with legendary jazz musicians on her radio program, Marian's recollections are often as fascinating as those of her guests. And her guests are truly the best of the best. During the 25 years that she hosted her show on NPR, she's interviewed and performed with Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and several hundred more of the best musicians of our time.

Over the years I've listened to several of Marian McPartland's radio programs, but there are so many that I missed. And only a limited number of the older programs have been available online or as albums. With Marian McPartland's recent passing, however, it appears that NPR is beginning to make more of the old programs available. I say "beginning to make... available" because the list seems to be growing by the day. I first started downloading the old programs a couple of weeks ago and there are more than twice as many available today. For now, you can't easily download all of them as podcasts, but you can listen to them online. Here are the various places where you can access the recordings:

Online - this is where you'll find the largest number of programs

Go to the official Piano Jazz at NPR.org page. Once you've opened the NPR page, click "View Full Archive" near the bottom of that page. From there click the "Previous" links to access the older shows. Although you can't download all of these as podcasts for offline listening, the site works well from a mobile device so you can still take this with you wherever you have network connectivity.

Podcast via NPR app - about 30 programs are available here

In the NPR application for iPhone or Android, click the Programs button, then scroll to "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." From that page you can add them to your playlist and play them from within the NPR App

Podcast via iTunes - about 15 programs are available here

Here is the iTunes link for Marian McPartland's podcasts in iTunes.

GORDON VERNICK'S JAZZ INSIGHTS

gordon vernickI mentioned Gordon Vernick's jazz podcast a few years ago, but since that time it has changed locations within iTunes. Since the old location stopped receiving updates, I assumed he wasn't making any new podcasts. While chatting with Gordon a couple of months ago, he told me that the podcast is still going strong, so I looked it up and found the new iTunes location. If you had subscribed to his old podcast, you're in luck. There are dozens of new recordings. I especially enjoyed the ones on Tito Puente, Nat King Cole, and the new Miles Davis podcast. Also, if you're an aspiring jazz musician, be sure to listen to the recording with Joe Gransden. Joe Gransden is one of the most successful gigging jazz musicians here in Atlanta, and in that podcast you'll hear about all of the work it takes to achieve that success.

ADDITIONAL PODCASTS

Here are some other shows that I enjoy, but for one reason or another, I can't recommend them as much as the ones I mentioned above.

  • NANCY WILSON'S JAZZ PROFILES - The great vocalist, Nancy Wilson, hosted a long-running program on NPR called "Jazz Profiles." This is a fantastic program, but I can't really recommend it as a podcast since so few of the shows are available outside of the NPR website. A few years ago, a handful of the programs were available in iTunes, but I can't seem to find any of them anymore. Hopefully NPR will make more of these shows available on iTunes and/or in their mobile app.
  • NOISE FROM THE DEEP - this podcast, by trumpeter Dave Douglas and his Greenleaf Music label, features interviews with various jazz musicians. This relatively new podcast has ten segments thus far. I've listened to about half of them, and I'd definitely recommend them to any fans of Dave Douglas and/or his Greenleaf music label. This jazz podcast probably doesn't have the mass appeal of the aforementioned podcasts, though, since this one features lesser-known and/or up-and-coming jazz musicians (some of whom play free/experimental music).
  • JUDY CARMICHAEL - JAZZ INSPIRED - this podcast was recommend by "Marlon" in the comments. Judy is a stride pianist and her podcast contains interviews along with recordings from her featured guests. The guests are mostly jazz musicians, but you'll also find interviews with magicians, actors, directors, and other members of the entertainment industry.
  • JASON CRANE - THE JAZZ SESSION - this is another recommendation from "Marlon". Jason Crane is a DJ and his podcast features interviews with a wide variety of jazz musicians. This is definitely worth checking out.

YOUR SUGGESTED JAZZ PODCASTS

If you know of any other great jazz podcasts, please share them in the comments to this post. As they come in, I'll add them to this section.

Jazz Blog - September 2, 2013

Traveling and trumpet practice

My wife and I both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anyplace with Internet access. With this in mind, we've dreamt of a future where were can pick up and go to a different state (or country!), rent an apartment, and divide our time between working and exploring our new surroundings.

Last year we took the first of these extended trips. The first trip was a five-week visit to Portland, Oregon and the second trip was a month-long journey through Europe. I absolutely loved both of those trips, but they were terrible for my trumpet playing. During the first trip I barely practiced and I didn't practice at all during my month in Europe. I would have hoped to rebuild my chops in a couple of weeks after those trips, but it ended up taking several months of frustrating practice sessions before I was back to my pre-trip level of playing.

Wishing to avoid another lengthy period of chop rebuilding, I promised myself that I'd maintain my daily practice routine on all future trips. After all, I'm already bad enough on the trumpet -- I can't afford to get any worse!

VISITING AMSTERDAM

After visiting Europe for the first time last year, both my wife and I couldn't wait to return. We weren't quite sure where we wanted to go, but we ended up picking Amsterdam for its beautiful canals, architecture, arts, and bicycle-friendly culture. We rented a lovely apartment near Prinsengracht and Reguliersgracht, bought a couple of used bikes, and quickly found ourselves falling in love with the city. I have so many wonderful memories from our month in Amsterdam, but one of my favorites was from a bike ride towards Bimhuis, the main jazz venue. As we approached Bimhuis, we saw dozens of people enjoying the afternoon sun, drinking beers, and sitting on the waterfront at Hannekes Boom, an indoor/outdoor bar. We stopped for a few drinks ourselves, and happily lost an hour or two as we dangled our feet over the lapping waves and watched the boats go to and fro.

I know, I know. You're all thinking, "Enough about Amsterdam. Let's get back to trumpet talk!" Ok, you win.

PLAYING A POCKET TRUMPET

A couple of years ago, I bought a Colin Pocket Max pocket trumpet so I could easily put it in my luggage and bring it with me when I travel. Expectations fell short of reality, though, and it hasn't gotten much use, neither at home nor in my travels. I decided to change all of that in Amsterdam, so I made a small wooden case for my pocket trumpet and I packed it into my check-in bag.

Some of you might think it's foolish to put a trumpet in checked baggage. Honestly, I don't think it's a good idea either. I know airlines allow passengers to bring an instrument as an additional carry-on, but I didn't want to juggle three bags while navigating the train stations and trams upon our arrival to Amsterdam. I also didn't want to put the trumpet in my carry-on (a backpack) because it was already full of clothes and other essentials that I'd absolutely need if the airline lost my checked bag. Even though it was a bit risky to put the horn into my checked bag, I was fairly confident that my wooden case would protect it. Thankfully it made it to Amsterdam and back unscathed.

Pocket trumpets tend to be an interesting topic among trumpeters, so I thought I'd share my impressions of the horn. As mentioned, it's a Colin Pocket Max. I bought the horn on eBay for about $400. At that time, I had only played one pocket trumpet, a used Carol Brass pocket trumpet that I tried at one of the Atlanta Trumpet Festivals. I didn't care for the tone and intonation of the Carol Brass horn and I felt it was too expensive for a horn that I didn't love -- I think it was about $700. Shortly thereafter, I saw the silver-plated (and now nicely tarnished) Pocket Max on eBay for $400 and figured it was worth the risk, especially since I had read some good reviews for the horn. As I'd learn, the Pocket Max is a decent sounding horn, but it definitely has intonation problems once the notes get below the staff. It might have intonation issues above the staff too, but I don't spend a lot of time up there! Due to the intonation issues, I probably wouldn't want to play the Pocket Max in public, but it served me well enough during my month in Amsterdam.

PLAYING THE TRUMPET SOFTLY

As I mentioned earlier, we were staying in an apartment building in Amsterdam. Playing the trumpet quietly was foremost in my mind because the apartment walls were thin, and I didn't want to annoy our neighbors who lived there year-round. I brought a Harmon mute to help lower my volume, but even with the mute I still felt that I was too loud. At that point my only option was to try to play more quietly. Note: I own a sshhmute and a Best Brass practice mute, but I don't like either of them. They cause intonation problems, making it difficult to practice ear training.

Over the years, I've heard several people discuss the benefits of practicing the trumpet at low volumes. For example, playing softly was recommended in one of the master classes that I attended at the 2012 International Trumpet Guild conference. And Cat Anderson, Duke Ellington's legendary lead trumpeter, was such a firm believer in playing softly that he recommended playing a single note at a whisper tone for 20 minutes as part of a daily practice routine.

According to the experts, playing softly is supposed to relieve tension and mouthpiece pressure while simultaneously strengthening the embouchure so it's more focused and responsive. For me, reduced mouthpiece pressure is perhaps the most important benefit of playing softly. Most trumpet players at one time or another have used excessive mouthpiece pressure to force out a high note -- or in my case, a "D" in the staff! The extra mouthpiece pressure stretches our lips making it easier to buzz faster, thus increasing our range. And it works wonderfully. That is, until all that pressure cuts off the blood supply to our lips and our embouchure storms out of the room yelling, "I can't do this anymore!" That's basically what happened to my chops back when I had my chop blowout.

I had tried practicing softly in the past, but it wasn't until Amsterdam that I was forced to do it every day for an extended period of time. At first, I could barely get my lips to buzz while playing quietly. Over time, though, I was able to complete more and more of my practice routine while playing at a very low volume. By the end of the four weeks, I could play my entire routine almost as well as I can play it at normal volume levels. My range also seemed to improve, as I was more consistently able to play two-octave scales beyond high "C".

FOUR MONTHS OF PRACTICING SOFTLY

After my Amsterdam trip, I decided to continue practicing softly on a regular basis. I don't use a mute at home, but I do try to match that muted volume while working through my practice routine. I also purchased one of those adjustable Denis Wick cup mutes, which I used to successfully play quietly during a recent six-week visit to Portland, Oregon. The cup mute doesn't distort my sound as much as the Harmon mute, and because it's adjustable, I have more control over the volume and tone.

For me, the true test of any change to my routine is its impact on my jazz playing. I can measure that impact pretty easily by looking at my performance in the jazz combo that I play in each week. With the combo, there's always a point in the night where my chops become fatigued and I resort to excessive pressure in order to keep playing. I'm still reaching that point during the sessions, but it's occurring later in the night. Actually, last week it didn't even happen at all. Granted, that session was a little shorter than normal, but for the first time ever, my embouchure didn't give me the silent treatment on the way home!

Jazz Blog - October 13, 2012

Traveling - taking a break

Things have been a little slow on this jazz blog lately. My last blog post was a jazz improvisation recording from August 4th, and I haven't written an actual blog article since June 1st. I'm not a particularly active blogger, but even for me, writing only one article in four months feels like I've been slacking. Even worse than my lack of blogging is the fact that I haven't practiced the trumpet very much during the past four months. In fact, I didn't play the trumpet at all during the month of September.

So what have I been doing lately? I've been slacking. Um, I mean, I've been traveling! I spent the month of July in Portland, Oregon and for the entire month of September, I traveled through Europe. What does this have to do with trumpet playing and jazz improvisation? Frankly, not much. But since I'm long overdue for a new blog article, I'm going to force a connection anyway!

In the first of my "Lessons from Traveling" articles (yes, there will be more than one), I'm going to talk about my attempts to practice while traveling. I'll also discuss some of the pros and cons of taking a break from trumpet playing.

PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN PORTLAND, OREGON

My wife and I have visited Portland several times over the years (my mother lives in a Portland suburb), and each time we visit, we wish we could have stayed longer to experience more of life in the Pacific Northwest. As of this year, we both work from home, so we can theoretically work from anywhere. With that in mind, we decided to spend the month of July working and vacationing in Portland.

I brought my trumpet to Portland so I could maintain my normal practice schedule. But even with the best of intentions, I barely practiced at all. Actually, the first week I was pretty good. I practiced at least every other day and tried to maintain my normal mix of practicing trumpet fundamentals, ear training, and jazz improvisation. As the trip progressed, though, I'd end up skipping more and more days. And during the last couple of weeks, I didn't practice at all.

The lack of practicing was mostly due to our accommodations, a one-bedroom apartment that we rented in Portland's Hawthorne District. Since we were staying in an apartment building, I had to play with a practice mute so as not to irritate our neighbors. Playing with a mute is nothing new to me. I always practiced with a mute back when I was a college student, living in a tiny apartment in Chicago. I had forgotten, though, exactly how much I dislike playing with a mute.

Some trumpet players are impressed by high notes. Others like to hear feats of technical mastery. The quality that's most important to me, however, is a player's tone. My preferred trumpet tone is warm, bold, and expressive. The last thing I want to hear is a pinched, thin, or muffled-sounding trumpet. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I get when I play with a practice mute. I can tolerate this lackluster tone in short doses, but after a couple of weeks in Portland, I didn't want to hear it anymore.

I knew a mute would deaden my tone, but I was surprised by the intonation problems of the sshmute, which I purchased earlier this year at the ITG conference. During my initial tests on the mute, I thought the intonation was pretty good. As I'd learn during my Portland trip, though, the intonation gets quite a bit worse in the lower register. Who knows, it might be bad in the upper register too, but with my terrible range, I don't spend much time up there! While the intonation issue might not hinder the practicing of trumpet fundamentals, it does pose a problem when practicing ear training and jazz improvisation. If a "good" note ends up sounding "bad" because it's out of tune, then it's hard to tell if I'm actually playing the intended pitches.

(NOT) PRACTICING THE TRUMPET IN EUROPE

My employer offers a one-month sabbatical after you've been with the company for seven years. Having recently passed the ten-year mark, I figured it was time for me to finally take them up on their offer. Neither my wife nor I had visited Europe before, so we decided to use the sabbatical to spend the month of September traveling through a few European countries. We started in London, and then made our way through Paris, the Swiss Alps, Milan, Florence, Cinque Terre, Genoa, Nice, Les Baux-de-Provence, Costa Brava, and Barcelona. Not a bad way to spend September, eh?

When we began to plan for our trip to Europe, I thought I'd bring a pocket trumpet in my bag so I could keep up with my normal practice activities. After our Portland trip, however, I knew that I probably wouldn't end up practicing very often, so it would be a mistake to lug a horn from city to city. A pocket trumpet might seem small and portable, but since I was only bringing a single backpack for all of my stuff, every inch (and pound) really mattered.

The day before we left for Europe, I felt guilty about not playing the trumpet for an entire month, so I threw an old mouthpiece into my backpack. Surely a little mouthpiece buzzing would be better than not playing at all, right? I know the answer to that question is "yes," but I don't speak from experience. As it turns out, the mouthpiece never left my bag. After ten years of diligent trumpet practice, I didn't play at all for an entire month.

THE FEAR OF NOT PLAYING

I've played the trumpet for about eighteen years. Eight of those years were back when I was a kid and the other ten are from my trumpet comeback. Throughout all of that time, I've been painfully aware of two rules of playing the trumpet: First, I won't be a decent trumpet player unless I practice. And second, if I miss more than a few days of practice, I'll pay for it in the practice room.

While all musical instruments require a certain amount of ongoing practice, I do think wind instruments, and especially brass instruments, place a unique demand on our bodies. For starters, there's the awkward coordination of our lungs, fingers, and mouths. If any one of these components gets out of sync with each other, we'll start to sound sloppy as we crack notes, miss articulations, and stumble through difficult passages. And if all of that isn't tricky enough, brass players also have the misfortune of needing to buzz into a mouthpiece. Most of us use our fingers, lungs, and mouths on a daily basis, but there isn't exactly a normal everyday activity that mimics the act of buzzing a mouthpiece. That's why it's so important for us to practice on a regular basis. If we don't use it, we lose it!

THE DOWNSIDES OF TAKING A BREAK

Physical Atrophy: After each trip, I immediately resumed my normal trumpet practice routine. During the first couple of days, my tone was pinched and strained, as I had to force my lips to buzz again. And once they did buzz, my accuracy was atrocious. I'd repeatedly over- or under-shoot notes by an entire partial.

I've been able to regain my tone after about a week of practice, but the real challenge is endurance. As of this writing, I'm a couple of weeks into my recovery from the Europe trip, and I can only play for about ten minutes at a time before my chops give out. I know from my Portland trip that it will probably take another week or two before my endurance returns to its normal state.

Mental Atrophy: A recent goal of mine has been to learn jazz tunes. I've made some progress toward that goal, but with each break, I end up undoing a lot of that effort. Various sections of the tunes have become hazy in my memory, so rather than learn new tunes, I've been relearning tunes that I had already knew. I had hoped to learn forty tunes by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely at this point.

I know I could offset the physical and mental atrophy simply by buzzing and reviewing tunes in my mind. That definitely was my intention prior to these trips. But once I got away, I lost the motivation to practice as my mindset shifted into "vacation mode." As I travel more, I'll definitely have to work on this. These extended trips have been wonderful, but I'd really like to avoid the subsequent month-long rebuilding periods.

THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BREAK

No doubt about it, I won't improve as a trumpet player unless I practice regularly. There are, however, some benefits to taking a break.

Fresh approach: When I'm practicing regularly and working on the same routine every day, there's a potential for getting into a rut. For me, this occurs mostly in my jazz improvisation studies. A musical phrase cements itself in my mind and I'll end up playing some variation thereof over and over again. The next thing I know, I'm playing the same lick every day, just because it's familiar. By taking a break, I can forget some of these licks and patterns. And with any luck, when I return to the instrument, I might have some new ideas that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: I love jazz and I truly enjoy playing the trumpet (most of the time). Unfortunately, though, music and trumpet playing don't come very easily to me. It takes a lot of work for me to improve as a trumpet player, and sometimes it feels like a chore to pick up the horn and practice every day. I won't say that I ever feel burnt out, but I do occasionally feel a lack of motivation.

I'll admit that I didn't exactly miss the trumpet while I was sipping wine on the bank of the Seine in Paris, nor did I think about the trumpet while I swam in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy. But, as my Europe trip woefully wound to a close, I did take consolation in the fact that I'd soon get to play the trumpet again. Now that I'm back on the horn and my chops are nearly back to their old form, I definitely feel a renewed sense of motivation to practice and improve as a trumpet player.

Of course, I could reap these benefits without taking an actual break from the horn. For example, if I spend a few weeks practicing classical etudes instead of jazz improvisation, it will be like taking a break, but I won't suffer the downsides of not playing. I don't know, though. A few weeks of nothing but classical etudes doesn't sound like much of a vacation to me.

Jazz Blog - April 28, 2012

Dave Douglas - master class

dave douglas master classIn 2008, Dave Douglas and I traded a few emails regarding his thoughts about ear training. That correspondence eventually led Dave Douglas to write an article about the practice of ear training, which he published on his blog. Since that time, I haven't communicated with Dave Douglas directly, but I have continued to read his blog and listen to his music. And he remains one of my favorite modern-day jazz musicians.

When I heard that Dave Douglas was going to be in town for a concert with the Georgia State University big band, I knew it would be an ideal opportunity for me to finally meet him in person. After asking around, I learned that he was going to be teaching a few master classes prior to the concert. I would have loved to attend his class on improvisation or his class on the music business, but due to previous commitments the only class I could attend was about composition.

MY EXPERIENCES WITH COMPOSITION

Over the years, I've written about twenty original tunes. Almost all of those compositions were written during a period of a few years, back when I lived in Chicago. The first few tunes were for a funk group that I played in during my second year of college. Once the funk group disbanded, I joined a jazz combo and I wrote a few more tunes for that group to play. The jazz combo lasted for about a year, and when it ended, I quit playing the trumpet and took up the guitar as my primary instrument. I also began playing the drums in a rock group.

The rock group inspired me to write a dozen more tunes. I never did anything with those tunes, but in my youthful imagination, I was quite positive they'd someday make their way onto my debut singer-songwriter album; an album which critics would inevitably compare to David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars." If not for its similar stroke of genius, then perhaps because it shares the same number of tracks.

Anyway, while sitting in Dave Douglas' composition master class, it dawned on me that I haven't composed any new music since I started playing the trumpet again, back in 2002. Why haven't I written any new music in ten years? I guess the best response I have is, "Why should I write something new?" I mean, what's the point? I'm not playing in public anymore. I'm not in a band. And I'm not going to record an album. And if I did record an album, I'd probably just rip off a bunch of Mace Hibbard's tunes (that guy can write!). My point is, if I wrote music today, nobody would ever hear it, so why bother?

To be clear, when I talk about "composition" I'm referring to the act of creating and writing down a new piece of music. While the act of improvisation also includes the creation of new music, there is a big difference: Improvisation is instantaneous. When you're improvising, you don't have the luxury of editing, nor can you think something through for a few days. In composition, however, you can take your time, changing your mind as often as you like until you're satisfied with the final product. Given this significant difference, composition uses a unique set of skills that don't really apply to my goals as a jazz improviser. At least, that's what I thought before the master class!

THE IMPORTANCE OF COMPOSITION

As I'd learn in Dave Douglas' master class, there are several ways in which composition can improve my skills as a jazz improviser. My favorites include:

Finding my sound

Most great jazz musicians have a unique sound or style of playing that sets them apart from everyone else. I'm definitely not a great jazz musician, but I'd still like to have an original quality to my playing that I can call my own. At least, I'd like for my sound to be characterized by something other than my inability to play above the staff. For the time being, that seems to be my trademark!

Due to the fact that improvisation is instantaneous, it can be difficult to develop a unique sound entirely while improvising. If I have an idea in my head that I'd like to play while improvising, I have a split second to think about it before it comes out of my horn. And if the idea is beyond my ability to play accurately by ear, I'll probably just ignore it and play something simpler. But what if something about that idea might help me develop as a musician and get me closer to my sound? This is where composition comes in handy.

By composing on a regular basis, we're more likely to have original ideas at a time when we can work them through and figure out all the notes. Those original ideas could very well be the building blocks for our original sound; a sound that might go undiscovered through improvisation alone.

Learning about other compositions

Since I don't write my own original music, I spend most of the time improvising to somebody else's compositions. Sure, I can read music and I can play along with chord changes, but that's all on the surface. Will I notice how the composer develops a simple motif from the first two measures through to the end of the piece? Will I understand how the chord progression supports the melody during the bridge? Subtle compositional nuances become more obvious when you're in the practice of composing yourself. Or to put it differently, it takes a composer to know one.

Familiarity with the art of composition will help us to more fully understand the intentions of other composers. As a result, our improvised solos might mesh better with the music and sound more like part of the composition and less like we're just blowin' through the changes.

COMPOSITION AND EAR TRAINING

When I wrote songs in the past, I'd typically noodle around on a piano, trumpet, or guitar to find ideas. Or, I'd sing something and then try to figure out the notes on an instrument before writing anything down. Regardless of where the ideas came from, I'd always rely on an instrument to help me find the notes. In the master class, however, Dave Douglas asked us to compose entirely by ear. This isn't something I would have tried before, but it turns out to be a fantastic exercise for both composition and ear training. And based on what I've said above, that means it's also useful for improvisation!

Here's the exercise: Compose a few measures of music, using a single octave of a piano's white notes from C to C. That gives you eight notes to work with (C D E F G A B C). Write everything down entirely by ear, without using an instrument to sound out any of the notes. When you're done, sing the composition aloud.

Let me just say, I love this exercise! The mix of ear training, transcription, and sight-singing really challenges your aural skills and your imagination. And, it has an infinite number of variations. If your aural skills aren't strong enough to use all of the white notes, you could begin by composing with just two or three notes (e.g. C D F). For extra variety, you could base your note selection on one of the scale modes, or you could pick a random group of notes from a chromatic scale. Similarly, you can add rhythmic restrictions, like using nothing but quarter notes. Or, you could force yourself to change meters every bar. See, the possibilities really are endless!

DAVE DOUGLAS, COMPOSER AND MUSICIAN

With about forty recordings as a leader, and even more as a sideman, Dave Douglas has a large and varied body of work that spans a number of genres. For better or worse, though, he's often classified as an "avant-garde" musician. In truth, very little of his music actually fits into that genre. There's nothing wrong with avant-garde music, but there are definitely those who see it as a haphazard, random, and perhaps unsophisticated art form. And by association, those same people tend to think Dave Douglas isn't as serious of a musician as his more traditional contemporaries. But that most definitely isn't true.

After the composition master class, there was another master class that was really more of a listening session. Dave Douglas played a variety of music, some jazz, some 20th century classical, and some world music. At the end of the session, he played one of his compositions for the 2009 SFJazz Collective. While the tune played, he wrote the entire form of the tune on a whiteboard, showing how one section built upon another, with the soloists weaving in and out. In total, the tune had about twenty different sections that seamlessly fit together to form a fully composed and carefully crafted piece of music. It was beautiful, too.

As I contemplated all that I had learned in the composition master class and as I watched the form unfold on the whiteboard, I couldn't help but think, if Dave Douglas isn't a serious musician, I don't know who is.

Jazz Blog - October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

steve jobs

In 1980, I used a personal computer for the very first time. The computer was an Apple II Plus and it was one of two computers at my elementary school. At the time, nobody aside from hobbyists and engineers knew anything about computers. So even though I was only in second grade, I was experiencing personal computing for the first time along with everyone else.

I'll never forget that feeling I had when I ran my first program. After typing a few lines of BASIC code, the computer screen flickered and lit up with text racing infinitely before my eyes. The program was just a simple GOTO loop that I had copied from a book, but it still felt incredible to know that I had made the computer do something. It was even more exciting when I realized that I could change the text, and the number of loops. So not only could I make the computer do stuff, but I could make it do anything I wanted! Before long, I was totally hooked and the teacher would have to beg me to get off the computer.

For the remainder of my elementary school years, I spent as much time on the Apple II Plus as I could. By the end of my fifth grade year, I had written the better part of a Zork-like text-based adventure game, complete with animated cut-screen graphics. At the time I thought it was an impressive accomplishment, but in reality it was terrible. I mean, you can't really have any fun when typing E(ast) instead of W(est) results in "You were killed by a wolf." Little did I know it, but those early years on that Apple II Plus ended up paving the way for my eventual career as a software engineer, which I've been doing full-time since 1995.

While Steve Jobs and the Apple II are responsible for getting me interested in computers as a kid, their influence was initially isolated to just those first few years. Steve Jobs had left Apple in 1985, and when he returned in 1996, Apple was a floundering underdog in the computer industry. I didn't even know a single person who owned an Apple computer back then. So when Apple began the "Think different" ad campaign a year later, with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jim Henson, I remember thinking it was pretty arrogant. "How could Apple (and Steve Jobs) possibly compare to the greatness of these icons? Apple will never be relevant again..." Boy was I wrong. In the next fourteen years, Steve Jobs led the rise of Pixar, and along with his stellar team at Apple, he brought us the iPod, iTunes, MacBook, iPad and iPhone, forever changing the way we experience movies, music, computers, and phones. Apple became the wealthiest public company in the world, and almost everyone I know (including myself) owns a Mac or some other Apple device.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been a full-time software engineer since 1995. To many people, computer programming is a geeky activity performed by introverted guys, in dimly-lit rooms (yes, it's just like jazz). While there definitely are some geeky people who program, I don't see programming as a geeky endeavor at all. Instead, I view programming as an art form. It's a magical way to create something out of nothing. I can start with a rough idea in my head and before long I've got something interactive that actually works. And as Steve Jobs and the past decade of Apple products have shown us, the final product has the potential to enrich and forever change our lives.

No, I'm not a brilliant programmer, nor are my applications life-changing. But, like so many other computer programmers and user interface designers, I constantly strive for the elegance and refinement that Steve Jobs cultivated in Apple products. For example, when I worked on my iPhone ear training app, I kept thinking about Steve Jobs and all of the changes he'd want to make. I knew I didn't have the time or skills to make it as good as he would have wanted, but I had to try -- I hope he never actually used it! And I know many of my peers feel the same way about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs raised the bar for all of us, making us want to design the best software possible.

It saddens me to think of a world without Steve Jobs, but I know he'll be a constant source of inspiration in my life. Anytime I think it's too late to do something great, or that I have to accept the status quo, I'll think of Steve Jobs. And I'll think different.

Thank you Steve, for everything. Sorry I ever doubted you.

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