Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Sound of Her Voice

I was a saxophonist caught in a mid-life crisis. I felt flickers of yearnings from my youth—for singing, dancing, kissing—but I was alone in crowded New York. I headed west toward Times Square, longing for female companionship.

A small sign above a doorway on West 48th street tempted my eye. Sultry jazz wafted from a speaker above the entry. I ventured in and up three flights. Posters of celebrities stuck to the wall akimbo. I tugged the door open on the third floor landing. Hunched behind the counter, the proprietor smirked. “Let me know if you see anything you like. You can use the room in the back.”

They were lined up against the wall, too many to count. My eye landed on three babes at the far end – alto saxophones awaiting a customer. They looked experienced but their beauty made my heart race. One wore silver. One wore brass. One wore gold.

I glanced at the gold one. She was American, a Midwesterner from Indiana. Pretty but dull. I held the brass one, she was French. Good bones but a little to plain for my passions. What am I doing here? I’m too old for this. I shouldn’t be wasting my time. I should have just kept walking.

Ooo, wait a minute. The silver one was the sister of the plain Parisian. She reminded me of a famous musician’s mistress I had admired in photographs. This might be fun. I took her to the back room and closed the door. I caressed her lightly and whispered in her ear, “Do I know you?”

Her voice was unique—passionate, mercurial, free—and it spoke to my heart. This silver-plated Modele 26 was born in Paris during the Roaring 20’s. I had to have her. Now. My wife would find out. How would I explain this affair?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jazz Solo Transcriptions

Earshot Jazz
August 1997

One of the ways I have learned to hear, play, write, and love jazz is through transcription. A teacher gave me an assignment to write down a solo from a record and share it with an improvisation class. I figured the blues was a good starting place so I picked Lou Donaldson playing "Wee Dot" with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The hours of repeated listening, scribbling notation - a bar or some-times a note at a time - was a humbling "private lesson" with Lou's tone, melodic creativity, swing, and expressive energy. The more I worked on the solo, the more fun I had.

After more hours of re-copying the music for legibility, then hours of playing along with the record to proof-read and pretend to be on the stand with the Messengers, I brought the transcription to my teacher. In return, he gave me Coleman Hawkins' solo on "Body and Soul." I was hooked.

I haven't been fortunate enough to study face-to-face with Miles, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine, Michael Brecker, Bob Berg, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Steve Lacy, David Murray, and many other great improvisers. But I have been able to learn from them, across time and space, by putting my curious ear right where the microphone was, then echoing their creative thoughts through the bell of my horn.

While transcribing is not spontaneous composition, it provides another way to glimpse the magic of jazz expression by a master. Jay Thomas is a consummate musician and it's a great pleasure to hear him in person and on a recording. As with most transcriptions, my depth of appreciation grew immensely throughout this project, from picking the solo to the final proof-reading (see accompanying Jay Thomas solo from "Seiji and Hiroshi" on Visiting Dignitaries, by Milo Petersen and The Jazz Disciples, Passage Records).

For those who can read music and play an instrument, here's one more way to dig the artistry of Jay Thomas. I can hear bits of Woody Shaw in measures 14-15 and 29-32, Art Farmer in measures 20-24, and a whole lot of original Jay Thomas through-out the solo. Notice how smoothly Jay moves from one chord to the next, plays such beautiful rising and falling phrases, and varies the rhythmic content to keep things interesting.

The practice of transcribing is not new and not everyone agrees that it is the best way to learn the jazz vocabulary, so I've included some interesting excerpts from other improvisers on the subject.

Jerry Coker in Improvising Jazz (Prentice-Hall, 1964)

[Transcribing] will benefit you in two important areas: (1) it will develop your ear and pitch memory to the extent that you will eventually be able to transcribe your own ideas while you are improvising; and (2) by studying the solos and styles of already proficient improvisers, you will gain a deeper understanding of the improvised solo and will discover various methods and ideas for the handling of improvised material.

Miles Davis in The Autobiography (with Quincy Troupe, Simon and Schuster, 1989)

I couldn't believe that all them guys like Bird, Prez, Bean, all them cats wouldn't go to museums or libraries and borrow those musical scores so they could check out what was happening. I would go to the library and borrow scores by all those great composers, like Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Prokofiev. I wanted to see what was going on in all of music. Knowledge is freedom and ignorance is slavery, and I just couldn't believe someone could be that close to freedom and not take advantage of it.

Bird would play the melody he wanted. The other musicians had to remember what he had played. He was real spontaneous, went on his instinct. He didn't conform to Western ways of musical group interplay by organizing everything. Bird was a great improviser and that's where he thought great music came from and what great musicians were about.

Freddie Hubbard in Notes and Tones (interviewed by Art Taylor, Perigee Books, 1977)

What did you do to develop yourself as a trumpeter? Listened to other musicians. By hearing what they play, I can judge what I would like to play or not to play. It's kind of weird. Like when I listen to Clifford Brown, I say wow, he does some beautiful things, and I get so many ideas which I can take and formulate into my own. I listen to all kinds of cats, like Eddie Gales, Don Cherry, Miles, Dizzy, Kenny Dorham, Bill Hardman. My whole thing is listening to music. I don't practice as much as I listen. I found out that practicing is not what jazz is all about.

Eddie Harris in Jazz Cliche Capers (Wardo Enterprises, Inc. 1973)

After about twelve years of copying the top twenty guys on your particular instrument, you should be able to construct your own ideas of a constructive solo. A musician who solos who has not copied from recordings of other artists may find himself soloing just like a certain recording artist without knowing it. The funny thing about it is the copier thinks he's the original player of this style. I think you should copy the solos from each record - note for note; by this I mean the "so-called mistakes" also. The "so-called mistakes" the artist made on the record are things I think you should do also - reason being that many times a soloist meant to do something that you thought might have been a mistake.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Eric Verlinde: Honoring Music's Core Values

Earshot Jazz
June 2013

At 10pm, the Tuesday jam session at the Owl and Thistle launches into “Solar.” Eric Verlinde sits Buddha-like on stage behind a battered electric piano tagged with the letters “des,” all that remains of the Fender Rhodes logo. His mouth hangs open, and he nods along with the brisk tempo. Under the dim stained glass ceiling lights, a small audience listens intently. Several have instrument cases next to their chairs, awaiting an invitation. Across the room at the bar, conversations are buried by the saxophone solo bouncing off the brick walls.
Verlinde’s piano solos explore melodic and rhythmic motives through repetition and variation. His playing doesn’t dazzle with technical fireworks, instead it smolders with joyful energy and balanced clarity. “I don’t always have preconceptions when sitting down to play,” Verlinde says. “But something always happens.”
The tables and chairs in front of the band have filled up by the break. While the band rests, musicians catch up with each other face-to-face. If jam sessions are musical networking events, Verlinde is very connected. In addition to the Owl and Thistle on Tuesdays, he performs at the Scarlet Tree “EntreMundos” session on Monday nights and at Tula’s for the Reggie Goings “Jazz Offering” on the first Sunday afternoon of each month. For several years, he performed with saxophonist Ronnie Pierce at the Whisky Bar. He used to host the Sunday evening jazz sessions at Tula’s and accompany DJ Kat on the Monday vocal showcases.
Verlinde is comfortable in a supporting role. “I like working with vocalists,” he says. “They are the picture. I am the frame.” He played in choirs growing up. “A lyric reaches people, instrumentals don’t.”
That doesn’t deter Verlinde from trying to connect through wordless music. He has written over 150 original songs, published 5 of his own recordings (Peace, What Child Is This?, I Remember You, Daily Grind and Firewalker) and performed on more than 20 other recordings.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Hot Java Cool Jazz

Earshot Jazz
March 2013

Popular and strong are two words that describe both Seattle’s hometown coffee and public school jazz programs. Starbucks continues to support Seattle music education through Hot Java Cool Jazz, an annual fundraising concert now in its 18th year. Five Seattle area public high school jazz bands will perform at the Paramount Theatre on Friday, March 22.

This year’s Hot Java Cool Jazz program will begin with Hamilton International Middle School ensemble performing in the Paramount lobby. The first half of the main-stage concert will feature Newport, Ballard and Garfield high school bands. During intermission, the audience can head to the lobby to pick up refreshments, shop for merchandise from the schools and enjoy a performance by an ensemble from Seattle JazzED. The second half of the concert will feature Mountlake Terrace and Roosevelt high school bands. Each group will play three or four selections.

At a recent Ballard High School Music Booster meeting, Band Director Michael James explained that Public school districts only fund rehearsal facilities and teacher salaries. All other expenses for instrument repair, music library, supplemental coaching, publicity and travel must be paid for from private contributions. At Ballard High School alone, the combined fundraising goal for choir, orchestra and band this year is $50,000.

Thank goodness one of Seattle’s most successful corporations helps foot the bill. Adina Johnson, the Starbucks liaison for the Hot Java Cool Jazz program, handed out concert posters to the Ballard Music Boosters, expressing her admiration of the high quality of musicianship presented and the broad community support. Kennelly Keys Music, for example, provides musical equipment for the event. Johnson has been involved with the program for the past eight years, and most of the concerts have sold out.

Victor Noriega & Gust Burns – 2 Trios Project

Earshot Jazz
March 2013

Pianists Victor Noriega and Gust Burns first crossed paths at the Port Townsend jazz camp in 1996 when they were both 17 years old. Now, 17 years later, they will celebrate the release of their joint recording 2 Trios at the Cellar in Vancouver, BC, on Sunday, March 3, and the Chapel Performance Space in Seattle on Tuesday, March 6.

The idea behind 2 Trios comes from the interplay between two different piano trios with the same bassist and percussionist. In 2010, Noriega and Burns selected bassist Jeff Johnson and percussionist Greg Campbell to join them in back-to-back sets at Gallery 1412 (formerly Polestar). After two successful shows at Gallery 1412, Noriega submitted a recording to the 2011 Jack Straw Artist Support Program. The award was used to create this 2 Trios recording.

Rather than play complete sets, Noriega and Burns swapped the piano seat during the recording session each time they had played two pieces. This rotation between observing and participating infused a stronger than normal influence between the pianists and offered a rare glimpse of how changing a single piece in a trio can impact the overall sound.

Noriega’s approach reveals radiant clarity, lyricism and wit, while Burns explores gesture, density and momentum. Johnson and Campbell deftly accommodate the change in direction and energy.
Spoiler alert: While the musicians influence each other and perform with sensitivity to the overall sound on 2 Trios, a unison groove seldom emerges from the musical interplay.


Luke Bergman: Making Music Tangible

Earshot Jazz
April 2013
Sunday night at Cafe Racer. Rows of empty chairs line the room. CDs cover a table. Regulars perch at the bar. A crowd appears at the stroke of 8:00 and chairs fill with listeners. The announcer introduces musicians and guidelines for the jam session to follow. Bathed in green light, performers channel melodies and rhythms that swirl like the ceiling fan above the stage.
In the front row of the audience sits Luke Bergman, eyes closed, nodding with the musical energy, twisting his short beard between thumb and index finger. He is one of ten organizers behind the weekly Racer Sessions that grew out of Cuong Vu’s free improvisation ensembles at the University of Washington. Bergman calls the Racer Sessions “a platform for any possibility.”
Vu pushed Bergman and the other session organizers to reach beyond improvisation and record the events, to make the music tangible. They assembled a record label, Table and Chairs, to document the music, post it online and create CDs for sale. Cafe Racer kicked in a percentage of the bar receipts to cover expenses. The result is the shortest production line possible. Music is created, recorded and sold in the same location. Bergman is responsible for most of the recording, mixing and editing.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Jazz Hero Julian Priester

The Greek root of the word "hero" is akin to the Latin "seruare" meaning "to serve" and the Greek goddess Hera as "protector." The Jazz Journalist Association selection of Julian Priester as a Jazz Hero officially recognizes the Seattle based trombonist/composer/improviser/educator as a devoted protector of jazz. Priester's lifelong career connects sophisticated swinger Duke Ellington to astral explorer Sun Ra, bebop pioneer Max Roach and genre chameleon Herbie Hancock. In Seattle, Priester's four decades teaching at Cornish College of the Arts spread his accumulated wisdom to future generations.

Radio broadcaster Jim Wilke presented the JJA Jazz Hero award to Priester at Tula's jazz club in Seattle in front of an intimate gathering of friends and fans on April 30, 2013, International Jazz Day. Several attendees took the stage to praise Priester's work. Kent Devereaux, Music Department Chair at Cornish, remembered Priester teaching him as an undergraduate in the 1970's. Chuck Deardorf, Professor at Cornish, admired Priester's ability to maximize teaching with minimal speaking. Deardorf demonstrated Priester's technique of emphasizing a lesson by slightly tipping his head forward and glaring over the top of his wire frame glasses. Journalist Paul De Barros admired Priester's moving tradition forward through fresh sounds and new collaborations. Tom Varner, Assistant Professor at Cornish, mentioned Priester's nurturing respect during Varner's early career tour with George Gruntz. Band mate Dawn Clement appreciated Priester's knack for bringing out the best in those around him.

Priester took the microphone and addressed the audience in his quiet rasp. He was overwhelmed by the award and would continue to "give back the joy and knowledge" of music to others. "I look forward to meeting on the bandstand," Priester said. As an improviser concerned with what comes next, Priester asked the crowd, "Dinner anyone?"

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jeremy Denk on Practicing

My favorite sentences from "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons" by Jeremy Denk in the April 8, 2013 New Yorker:
"As he revealed each audacious but logical chord change, I experienced both shock and comprehension--surprise at something that made perfect sense."
"Sebok said many times that you don't teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice--the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens."
"He believed that matching one's motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions in a piece."

Writing in Rhythm

In Writers Dreaming by Naomi Epel, Leonard Michaels said, "This is going to sound absurd but I think what makes the difference is rhythm. It's maybe the most important thing. You really can't be a writer without it. There might be rare exceptions, but every novel, every short story, anything that's any good has rhythm. And if it isn't moving in you, if you're not hearing it, if it isn't controlling your sentences, your feelings, your thoughts, it's unlikely the you're really writing. It's the most basic music. It has to be in your heart, in your brain, and then you get to talk. Rhythm is something that develops between two people. They have a way, they have a vocabulary, they have the beat."

Monday, April 15, 2013


"Ragtime is syncopation and improvisation and accents. We all played our own style, but if you could have heard those old fellas play, you would have heard ad lib and those accents. Though seldom written into the music, they're very important, but you just don't hear them any more." - Eubie Blake in the forward to This is Ragtime by Terry Waldo.