Sunday, July 13, 2008

Science Near and Dear to the Musician

Outside of my last, rather silly post, done in about 2 minutes—I’m not making excuses. Well, actually I am, here’s something more serious, elaborating on the theme of playing music from the heart. Here are two recent scientific findings that I think are relevant to jazz musicians, findings about marijuana and about keeping time:

1. Your skin produces a natural form of marijuana. This is from Live Science, July 11, 2008.
2. Your mind controls time, not just the counting of it, but moving both forward and backward in time. This is from Discover Magazine, July 12, 2008.

The first finding states that our skin produces quite a few psychoactive substances, that is, we don’t just think with our minds, we think will our whole body. We don’t have a mind and a body, but rather we have a Mindbody. No news there, other than science is just getting around to finding what we’ve known for a long time. The problem, of course, is that the way we organize knowledge is like a key that only fits in certain locks. The traditional western style of forming knowledge is tailored to fit into the mind only, and that means that musically, we are not unlocking the power of the rest of our being, the skin, the heart. And of course, as we think about jazz, about jazz music in such cerebral terms, the feeling is lost, since we’ve ignored the part of our being, the skin, that literally does both thinking and feeling. The way out of this problem, which has more than a little effect on our pocketbooks, is to reformulate how we think of music, how we teach music, so that every bit of our being is engaged. There’s no one way to do this, rather every musician will have to find their way. After all, we each found our own way to erect the barriers to our hearts, only we can unlock the steel doors.

The second finding is interesting, again it’s something of which we are already aware, but taken with the first finding—it simply means that we can control, create, different feelings with music—and if we can create feelings that are healthy, this will be much better than playing empty mind music. Feelings of joy, love, even pain and sadness would fall into the category of real entertainment—not art. Art has become a cerebral activity, the thing that only the mind can appreciate. However, if we’re not turning on the skin, then what we’re playing is a real turn off. And the public, which used to adore jazz, will accordingly, has been accordingly, turned off.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

If You Don't Play with Feeling, You're Screwed

It's science. So it's true.

Now where do people go to learn jazz, and come out of the program playing without feeling? Hmmmm. That's a tough one. Actually, it's a style of teaching, it's an approach that robs the music of feeling. What might that approach be?

I asked my friend Lydian who played so quotidian, and she said she had no idea. Then I asked my friend Dorian who said he was sorry and I'd have to ask somebody else. Then I asked my friend Locrian who said he was broke again and asked me for five bucks for beer. Then I asked old Aeolian who whined I'm on that roll again, about feeling and emotions and tears. So I went to Ionian who said look what I own again, some new equipment he just read about. By now I'm discouraged cause I don't have the courage to go the poker game at night. So I summon some bravery and visit the gamery and then take a look at the room. Well who's sitting at the table but five guys name Lydian--perfect mixolydians, one, who tomorrow will be a groom. Go away, they all said, we like our music to be dead, and I implored them to play from the heart. They said the heart's good but they don't know where it should--be....and besides it's so much easier to say the public becomes queasier when they hear just how hip we all are.

So I walked into the street where the cars made a beat and their windshields reflected the moon and the stars. Some patterns made swirls and I guess this is verse that mentions the girls, and the band played on.

But nobody cared.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Toronto Chet Baker Fountain Strikes Again

In their never ending quest to make sure no one gets to see Chet Baker film or video footage, and to make sure no one can hear Chet Baker play or sing, once again the Chet Baker Archives that occasionally pop up on Youtube are being purged--with the note that the Chet Baker foundation is stopping such things from being seen.

Add this to the long list of actions by jazz organizations and musicians who do things against their best interest.

Evidently there must have been a spike in record sales that alerted this fine organization that something is wrong somewhere--and Youtube must be the place.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Surfing

I know that I had good history teachers, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally understood why a person should study history. You study history so that you can cheat, at least it feels like cheating, it feels that easy. That is, if you can know the future, then making decisions, complicated decisions, decisions fraught with uncertainty, isn’t all that difficult if the decisions are much less complicated and much less uncertain. Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes. So, although I cannot tell you who will win the Super Bowl next year, I can tell you that there isn’t any mystery to history.

History comes at us in waves—from behind, so all of that gibberish about looking forward into the future should be rephrased into ‘wise statements and knowledge gleaned from studying the past’. Because if you can catch one of these historical waves and surf it, you’ll be just fine, certainly more fine than getting caught in the undertow. And as a result, life can be all or nothing at all.

We are at one of those wave moments right now. The waters of time are just starting to churn. So, let’s look back into the future and try to see what’s going on.

I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and my parents had me late in their lives—so my parents are the age of my peers’ grandparents. That means that my parents lived through the Great Depression, and it also means that they thought, for most of their lives, that I was nuts. Why was I nuts? I was nuts because I paid attention to what other people owned. I was nuts because I compared my toys to their toys, and I was concerned that I was using the right shampoo, that we had the right kind of car, that my parents weren’t as cool as others. I was, in short, just like everyone else in my generation. We were the first generation born and bred to be consumers, we lived to be the first one on our blocks to own, or the one’s to go tell Mom and Dad to buy.

All of this came naturally to us. There wasn’t one single moment of coercion forming what we considered to be our common sense. Of course we want the best one available and will accept no imitations. The newest model? Put me down for three. Because of our insatiable desire to buy love in a can, the US economy boomed along with us babies.

And that wave is about done. It is about done for the same reasons that there is no longer an aristocracy—and I don’t mean rich folks. I mean Dukes and Lords and Barons and Counts. There aren’t any more vassals and serfs, done, over, kaput. Industrial revolutions have a way of going through society like a tsunami, or a really cool wave, depending upon your decisions as the churning begins.

My generation looked to buy anything that sparkled or had marshmallows. We talked about the new models of cars, new toys, new anything—that’s how we socialized, that’s how we tied ourselves to one and other. My Dad’s generation didn’t do it that way. They didn’t even think the same thoughts—and their way, to them, was just as natural as our ways were to us. What they talked about—how they socialized, how they formed their society—they were all looking for an angle. Remember that phrase? Every conversation I had with that generation came back to the same things—looking for an angle, finding a gimmick. In other words, they were all poor, and they ‘kept their eyes open and their mouths shut’, looking for the crack, the opportunity to move up in society, to gather the wealth that now pays for their stays in assisted living and nursing homes. Their friends became friends not by what they owned, but by whether they shared the same angle. It was a completely different way of socializing—it was a completely different society.

Now we have factories sitting on the top of our desks, and we can communicate instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. This is a new industrial revolution, and once again, society will change completely. So why don’t we, as jazz people, pick up the surf board. Record companies no longer want us—but it doesn’t matter because we can make our own recordings. We can distribute them ourselves and reach just as many people as Warner Bros. could reach on a good day. Today, anyone with any artistic inclination can become their own studio mogul. But—and here’s the kicker, this is it, right here, right now—we have to relate to each other differently. We have to become as nuts to the Baby Boomers as I was to the Greatest Generation. We have to think and relate to each other in completely different patterns. That’s because we not only have the factory in our home, but we carry the outlet store in our telephone, in our pocket. You don’t go to the store, the store comes to you with each person that you meet.

Right Now, let’s call it the Factory in Our Pocket Generation, after hello, things are going to change, because it's another Industrial Revolution: What do you have? How can I connect you to what you are looking for? Can we trade links? We should help folks find the websites they need, buy the small wares that we produce—we should do after every hello what could only be done in board rooms and country clubs. And so when we build a website or write a blog, we should trade links, we should look to make a small transaction of five or ten bucks, buying or selling, or helping someone else find the music or book that they would love. This is the new society, this is our sociological future, and this is how we can revive this almost corpse of jazz.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Floaters

I get these floaters. Not the optic kind, not the swimming kind. I get these thoughts that seem to stay afloat in my mind, like corks, and they will swish back and forth until they come together like beads of mercury to form a question. Never an answer or a conclusion, always a question. So here are my floaters.

I’ve been having a hard time with recording lately, getting a sound so truly crappy that I considered, again, just stopping my playing and selling my equipment. Back in St. Louis, years ago, Steve Kirby told me that the tape recorder doesn’t lie. And if you’ve ever met Steve Kirby, you believe whatever he says. Steve used to tape everything he played. He could do a CD with several hours of tuning up, and that’s it. Yeah Miles, your tune “Tune Up” just lacks the realism of Steve actually tuning up. Anyway, I no longer believe that that tape recorder doesn’t lie, although I believe that Steve believes that it doesn’t. My reasoning—big damn studios with lots of very expensive equipment and highly skilled engineers who spend hours trying to do what our ears do so naturally. So my little broken down cassette player—it’s a liar.

The next floater is big screen plasma TVs. We don’t own one, and have no plans to do so. But you can’t help but watch them when you go shopping and stroll by the section. You what I saw? I didn’t see More Action. I saw pores, skin pores. I saw the skin’s recording of the chicken pox and the teenage years, I saw who needed to shave as opposed to who was cultivating ‘that look’. And those hot chicks? Uh, not that hot. Too much information, I thought.

Another floater is the fact that I love old movies.

Combined with the floater that the jazz that sells the most was, by today’s standards, poorly recorded.

And then the question crystallized. I think that our minds do quite a bit of filtering. It doesn’t seem like it, but I think that our minds discard scads of information—because in real life, we don’t notice those details that I couldn’t help but notice on the plasma television. When you meet a person you don’t notice any of the little things that they are afraid you’re going to notice. You’re trying to know their soul, who they are and it really doesn’t matter about how impatient they were as teenagers, or what is now growing out of places where nothing grew before. You just don’t notice. And truthfully, I could give a rat’s ass how white your teeth are.

What this means for jazz is that state of the art, the art, isn’t state of the art. In other words, the music seemed better when it wasn’t recorded so well—it certainly sold more. I’m wondering, are we now providing too much information—digitally, regarding what is played, and how a group melds. Was the microphone in the middle of the living room working in tandem with the minds’ natural process? And like the new Pore TVs, are recent recordings working against the mind’s comfort zone, is it now a physiologically unpleasant experience to listen to a jazz recording, no matter how great the players are?

I’m just wondering.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008

Psycho

Let’s follow up on the insights of Lew Prince, specifically on how, by paying meticulous attention to who came into his music store he defied the experts in St. Louis, and drove them out of business by creating, according to all who go there (me included), the best music store in the world. This of course wasn’t his main point—it wasn’t even his point at all to talk about his success. I was doing the interview, and in the middle of our typing on Google chat he calls me and asks me what the hell is going on, why am I asking about his business. So we get to talking jazz, as in the audience—defined as the thing that used to be a big part of the jazz culture but now barely exists—and he says, in perfect metaphorical form, that the problems of jazz are directly attributable to the jazz musicians’ lack of empathy with their audience, that is, the musician just wanted to get up their and blow and didn’t care a rat’s ass about what the listener might feel. The listener, acting as any normal human being who is being ignored, simply went elsewhere.

The musician, responding as any normal person would, rationalized the whole process and insisted that the music is actually Art, and it is beyond the limited artistic appreciation of the average American, further alienating the audience, further pushing the musician into playing for the sake of art (I’ll forgo all puns, you’re welcome), and giving energy to the death spiral in which jazz finds itself. I was rehearsing for a little demo this past week—bass, guitar, vibes. The bass player happened to remark how he just wants to stop playing when a horn player solos for 25 choruses—I just want to tell him, the bass player said, to call me when he’s done. I said the same thing--call me when you begin to actually play something. We were both talking about the hypothetical Monday Night Jam Session at any given night spot, and why you will never see us at said jam session. The point is, if even the rest of the band can’t stand it, how is the listener going to respond?—because that negativity is going to come across, and that is not why people listen to music.

So, here we are at the question of the day, when playing music, or if you must say it in the following way—when creating art, is the art compromised if you really consider the audience in this process? Will considering the audience force you to end up sounding like Kenny G or Chris Botti? Because I think even these two musicians will admit that no one actually listens to their music as much as many people have their music on while they are doing something else, such as making dinner. There’s no such thing as that catchy little tune by either that you can’t get out of your head—that pops into your thoughts as you are walking down the street.

So here’s where we are, with this question: Can you make great music and still connect with an audience? Because the jazz audience is shrinking and has been for decades—and the music hasn’t gotten any better than it was when it was the sound of our nation and the audience was something close to the number of every living American.

I have a modest proposal. I’d like to define point at which art and entertainment meet, and I suggest that if jazz musicians strive to hit that spot, there’s a chance for the rebirth of jazz.

Here it is. There was a recent study revolving around brain mapping. Of the many wonderful things science is mapping, the genome for instance, the quantum world, the grand landscape of spacetime comprising the cosmos, there are those that are busy mapping the brain. When you read something, or figure something, or math something, different parts of your brain ‘light up’, become active. Here's a bit from a recent article, summarizing a mapping experiment done while folks were watching movies:

To stimulate subjects' brain activity, the researchers showed them three motion picture clips: thirty minutes of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"; an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Bang! You're Dead"; and an episode of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." To establish a baseline, subjects viewed a clip of unstructured reality: a 10-minute, unedited, one-shot video filmed during a concert in New York City's Washington Square Park.
The results showed that ISC of responses in subjects' neocortex--the portion of the brain responsible for perception and cognition--differed across the four movies:
• The Hitchcock episode evoked similar responses across all viewers in over 65 percent of the neocortex, indicating a high level of control on viewers' minds;
• High ISC was also extensive (45 percent) for "The Good, the Bad an
d the
Ugly";
• Lower ISC was recorded for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (18 percent) and for the Washington Square Park, or unstructured reality, clip (less than 5 percent)
"Our data suggest that achieving a tight control over viewers' brains during a movie requires, in most cases, intentional construction of the film's sequence through aesthetic means," the researchers wrote. "The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions, turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuroscientific evidence for his notoriously famous ability to master and manipulate viewers' minds. Hitchcock often liked to tell interviewers that for him 'creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions.'


Well, Hitchcock had no exact science other than his own observations, his close monitoring of his own feelings, and the knowledge of good story telling. And he knew what he liked. He didn’t like his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but the Jimmy Stewart version was an unquestioned masterpiece. When the studio system collapsed the best he could do, afford really, was Frenzy, and by then he knew it was time to retire. And how many of us have practically memorized North by Northwest.
So I suggest that we try to play what we love rather than trying to please those who insist that we play all of the changes—since their brains don’t light up as brightly as normal folks, or that we play what we love instead of trying to sound like Miles or Trane. And if it turns out that the jazz player doesn’t really love jazz, fine. Because at those Monday Night Jam Sessions, I’m pretty sure the musicians don’t really love jazz, since the music is literally turning people off, especially the rhythm section. And what you want to do, brainwise, is turn people on.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Interview with Lew Prince

As I started this blog I didn’t know that I would be so thematically tight. It started with a memoriam to Oscar Peterson, how Oscar Peterson was somehow able to bring a sheet of notes and chords to life, a piece of paper from dead into big giant life, rain forest life, super hero life, big and powerful life that would blow your soul clean out of your body for a split second. And then we explored what might be inside of Oscar that would allow him to do this—was he showing us something that all of us had within us, an igniter—that little squeaky thing that sparks a blow torch—could we all find that part inside of us that illuminates a room, another person, a family, or in Oscar’s case, the world. When Oscar died, much of jazz died the same day, musicians being like bees without their queen, or in Oscar, their King. All that was left was scattered musicians with no sense of center—of even their own center, buried under more and more music theory, folks willingly burying their own musical soul. That’s how this started.

Then I interviewed Carol Sloane, who spoke from the perspective of being within a sensitive and beautiful band looking at the members of that wonderful band. This was followed by an interview with Paul Bollenback, a member of that band, who spoke of life as a musician, from the perspective of a musician looking at the audience.

And now we have an interview with Lew Prince—a member of that audience looking at the band, looking at jazz itself. Lew is more than a man on the street, although he started as a man on the street—opening Vintage Vinyl, the street being the Delmar Loop in St. Louis. When he began, the street itself was in decay, the patrons of some of the businesses being the few students brave enough to step off of the nearby college campus—the insulated and protected college campus. Most of the stores had no business, the landlords of the buildings allowing them to stay because as bad as things were, a ghost town was worse. Lew, Tom, and Joe Edwards (owner of Blueberry Hill) understood that their businesses would only survive if the street, once vital, returned to life. It is now one of the ten most exciting streets in the US, according to many national magazines. Lew has experience in bringing things back from the dead.

I remember, so take out your salt grains, a time when Lew needed to expand and the landlord was only too happy to accommodate this need. Next to Vintage Vinyl there was a dusty shoe repair store, old, with cracked linoleum tile and a little old man of a proprietor who stood on the street all day and watched the few people walking past. In the summer he would wear short sleeved shirts, and the tattooed number on his arm was a neon sign to everyone. Lew’s logical expansion would be through this little man’s store. Lew did not take this route. So the expansion was a store one over, that is, you go in the first store, and if you wanted to see more of Vintage Vinyl you had to go outside, past the shoe repair, and into the next building. The little old man could stay as long as he wanted, this was Lew’s precondition—even though the man had no customers, but piles of old shoes. Lew saw that this man had business, and that this man was doing his business of repair—but that it didn’t require customers.

In modern culture experts have a sound, they speak in a certain way, and it usually involves saying nothing but saying it with elegance. Lew defies the language of experts, and it is my hope that we change our expectations of experts—from sounding good and saying nothing, all the way to saying something important any damn way it comes out. So, here is my interview with Lew Prince, done through, again, Google Chat.

me: First of all, aside from the record and cd collectors, you may not be world renown. However, among this group, you are indeed well known, and you might just know more about the public's taste in music than anyone out there. Don't be modest, just say this is a true statement.
Lew: Yeah...I'm a regular fuckin' god. In fact in India there's a statue of me with 8 arms each holding a different music delivery system...the best is the Edison cylinder in my 3rd left. It looks kinda phallic.
me: Well doesn't this lead to the next question, the appeal of your store or stores. How many do you have now?
Lew: Just one...I decided to give up the other store when I gave up polygamy.
me: Seriously,how many did you have at the highest point?
Lew: Never more than two...The thing to realize is that the mothership is a 7,500 square foot store that is devoted almost entirely to music. We generally stock 40-50,000 titles. In comparison your average mall store stocks 2,500 -5,000. Big boxes--like a really well stocked Best Buy might have 10,000; Walmart or Target have less than a mall store. Keeping more than one store really well stocked actually is harder than keeping several wives in diamonds and furs.
me: Let's talk about the history of the store, because I remember back before you opened. On the same street there was a least one used record store--this was before CDs, and one new record store, and both were predicting your imminent demise. What happened--take the story from there.
Lew: We started the business in a stand at the local farmer's market in Sept of 1979. It turned out that by Thanksgiving, even if we danced constantly to an endless loop of James Brown's Popcord we couldn't stay warm outdoors. So we rented a store front between the big local chain store--Streetside Records and one of the half dozen or so used record stores in town: Wuxtry. Wuxtry was part of a Chicago chain run by the idiot and coke addled son of the guys who ran owned Rose Records, the big local chain in Chicago. Neither took us very seriously. In fact, Tom ( my partner Tom Ray) and I had offered the All Used And Cut Out Record store idea to the owner of Streetside in exchange for guaranteed jobs running the store and they literally laughed at us.
me: And by the end of the first year...
Lew: We were swimmin' in cash. The first store was 400 square feet. So we only stocked records we liked; music we could defend in each genre. It turned into a meeting place for the musically literate or those that wanted to be musically literate. God, we thought we were the shit...The best part though was it became our jobs to listen to everything we could and have some idea of who that piece of music might make happy.
me: That certainly began my growth as a musician and jazz lover, leading directly to this blog. But what happened to the other stores?
Lew: Both chains decided they'd rather have lots of crappy stores instead of a couple of good ones. Mostly, in business the job of the highest level of management (in the case of Vintage Vinyl that would be me) is to predict the future and prepare your people and business to meet the future head on with a plan and a set of options in case the plan doesn't work. Both those chains expanded like crazy --Streetside at one point had 21 stores—when a combination of the arrival of CDs and the burgeoning of Punk/New Wave/ Alternative Rock came along and sales went crazy. We were offered lots of deals to do the same by bankers and venture capitalists. We talked about it and looked into it, but in the end, declined.
me: I remember you were asked by the other stores, used stores to buy them out--they went out of business, right? And what happened to Steetside?
Lew: Actually, Tom and I loved to show up at a dying store with cash, a step or two ahead of the their creditors and cream their inventory before the big record companies asked for their stuff back. We had a great time visiting the late, great Peaches chain. I helped the local Wuxtry partner, who was being screwed by his Chicago partners, extract his money and I ended up with their inventory. In Streetside's case they went through a bankruptcy, were sold a couple of times before their last 3 stores ended up as the property of the largest chain in America. Trans-world Distributing. Trans-world owns mall stores like FYE and Sam Goody's. They closed the store down the street from me, when the lease come up for renewal last December. At several points in the decline of Streetside they'd offer me the furniture in their stores for free, if I'd just pick it up before the landlord sued them to get it out. I don't think we've paid for a record/CD bin or piece of display furniture here since the late '80's. We went from 1,000 square feet in 1984 to 7,500 today without buying any fixtures. One of the secrets to our success is lots of high quality black paint, so we can make our dead competitors' furniture look like it belongs here.
me: That's where I was going with this. Allow this metaphor to go on for a moment--when the Orioles were a great dynasty they had a knack for picking up pitchers thought to be mediocre to poor and turning them into 20 game winners. Eventually, the rest of baseball had to adapt--because when the Orioles looked at a pitcher they saw something different than the other teams. And their success proved their point. So how is your approach to music and listeners different from the other stores?
Lew: The difference is we're all music lovers here. The other stores thought they were selling ‘product’. We’re selling music. Our job is to find the best stuff and match up customers to sounds they might not even know exist, that , based on their taste or sophistication level, we think they're gonna love.
me: You know the history of jazz, what do you see happening as record sales dropped, as there became a great disconnect between the music being produced to the public's perception and reception of the music?
Lew: Jazz started crapping out commercially when it graduated from entertainment to "Art". By the mid 1930's jazz was America's popular music. It was the music of youth, of ideas, of vitality. The range of the music was vast--from Louis Armstrong and the hot music of New Orleans to big dance bands like Benny Goodman. In this era Jazz musicians viewed themselves as being in the entertainment business. Jazz at this time performed the basic function of all popular music in all cultures. From the chants of Uruba tribesman to the music of Jennifer Lopez--it is music for mating rituals that begin with dancing.
me: Are you also saying that the 'art' that many musicians create isn't all that artistic?
Lew: No. It's not entertaining to most people and it's lost the element that made it entertaining. Look...most music works on one of three levels: physical, emotional or cerebral. Think: head , heart, genitals. The best pop music rarely works on more than one of those levels--usually it makes you dance or makes you cry. The best music works on all three. The magical quality of jazz is that it, more than any other form has the ability to work on all three simultaneously. That's amazing and it's what attracted me to the music. Then the second generation of be-boppers took a lot of the "hips on down" part of the music out for reasons that derived from their search for dignity as artists. That left
the cerebral and the emotional. By the '60's the Coltrane generation (decided that they weren't gonna reflect or connect with their audiences’ feelings or thoughts, but instead communicate their own...like I'm supposed to care what Archie Shepp thinks about the political situation in Alabama in 1964. ---that's what I mean by it became capital ‘A’, Art.
me: Is this trend continuing, and do you think the music will become extinct, or do you see hope for a revival, and if so, how should this come about?
Lew: Look this is a very complicated question and I'm gonna sound like an idiot, the way I'm simplifying it, but...Post bop music, where the band plays a head and then everybody solo's as if they were the only guy in the room, which is the vast majority of recorded jazz since 1970 or so HAS been dead for decades. What has saved jazz, insofar as it's been saved is great ensemble music; which is how jazz started out and which has always been the jazz that had traction with the general public. Wynton Marsallis understands this idea and it is the foundation of his success. The most vital jazz in America is played everyday in New Orleans where it is a living part of a local popular culture in the form of their local brass and mardi-gras bands. You can go to any kind of function from a wedding to a funeral and hear a hot local brass band made up of everyone from geezers to their grandkids and see people of the same age spread dancing to it. NO ENSEMBLE IN AMERICA PLAYS A BETTER COMBINATION FOR HEAD, HEART AND HIPS THAN THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND and that is the future of jazz...a future that is reflected in pop music in bands like Galactic, in the pop/jamband field to the re-emergence and discovery of forms like Klezmer, in the "folk" or "world music" genres. Lots of people who think of themselves as jazz musicians keep food on their tables playing in these kinds of bands. Most of the public has no idea ...hell most so called jazz lovers have no idea that these bands ARE the great jazz bands of our era.
me: Last question, so if you're a kid that somehow hears--anything recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, loves it, joins the jazz band at school, gets some praise, where is the next step to avoid going over the cliff? And where is the ledge of that cliff?
Lew: Get some friends together who like the same music and listen to it--find like minded players an play what feels good. Play what makes you wanna dance or cry or curl up in a fetal position. Play some girl's clothes off. Play until birds or coyotes start gathering at your door. Listen to the great ensembles—Armstrong’s hot 5'sand 7's, the Basie and Ellington bands, Sun Ra, the Ornette Coleman's bands, Miles’ and Monks’ bands, the great Coltrane quartet. Don't forget to dig into the pop music that moves you--hip hop culture is a fountain of rhythmic and lyrical innovation--and remember it's all branches of the same tree; the AMERICAN musical tree and there are no rules or boundaries for a musician who wants to connect with people.
me: my screen says that you are still typing, yes?
Lew: The ledge--you want to see the ledge--hmmm--Phil Woods once said that if music schools were for real they would ditch the classes and just hand everyone a band uniform, put them on a bus with no windows and drive them around campus for eight hours then have them set up their instuments on a band stand, sit there for a couple of minutes, then get back on the bus change into their street clothes and do it all again for about a couple of months...cause that's what being a PROFESSIONAL JAZZ MUSICIAN boils down to for a lot of people. If you can stay creative in that atmosphere or love it so much you are happy with your three hours between bus rides, then go for it. Otherwise feel lucky when you have people to play with and a place to play and get your satisfaction by getting off on your fellow musicians in whatever setting or context you get to do it.
me: Well thank you very much. It turns out there is a theme running through these interviews, from within the band, to the musician looking at the crowds, and now, the crowd itself. It's been enlightening to say the least, especially the connection, whether you intended to emphasize this, on growing your business and the feelings of your customers, to playing music and being cognizant of the feelings of the audience. Lots of wisdom there. Build the statue.
Lew: Build it out of cottage cheese...bye...love ya
me: Back atcha.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Paul Bollenback Interview--The Commentary

There are a couple of reasons to explore what Paul Bollenback said. One reason is that I’m going to believe him when he said in a roundabout way that he isn’t a natural talent, such as one singer I know whose middle name is Modesty. He compared himself to Joey DeFrancesco, who has perfect pitch and a perfect musical memory, and said that it just makes him work harder. Joey has natural ability, Paul has to work. And if you read the entire interview, that’s what Paul does and has always done, he has worked to become the masterful player that he is today. And he is still working.

When the rest of us put the guitar down after an hour to go have dinner, he was out there for two hours. Metaphor aside, I’m willing to bet that he has put in more practice hours than most professional musicians. And I’m also willing to bet that he believes we hackers can all reach the top of the mountain just like him, with the right practice regime and the right amount of time—which is why he’s writing his instruction book. And I’m going to believe him in that belief.

There was one surprising moment in the interview, when he said that his father’s Benny Goodman records didn’t do much for him, but Miles’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane really hooked him. He was into rock at the time, and if you think about it, who is really and truly rocking out—Eric Clapton or John Coltrane? Coltrane of course, without the electricity, just the stuff that turned on his soul. Yet this is an aside.

Paul’s career also hints at steady and hard work. Where Carol Sloane was out in front of paying customers at 14 years old—the path usually taken by the naturally gifted—Paul was with his friends in the garage, playing rock, providing an airtight alibi that they couldn’t possibly be the ones who T.P.’d the neighbor’s trees. But that’s the pathway of a hard worker. He studied, learned the guitar neck, learned some chords, eventually went to school—but not the big schools, the one’s who accept you if you are ready to be signed and recorded right away, he went to a school where he had to work hard and continue to struggle for the mastery of his instrument. And that’s what he did, probably putting in more hours of practice than everyone else in the music department.

In this way, he is every musician.

Now comes the twist, as he spoke of when the subject came up of Barney Kessel. Because in the process of climbing to the top, all of that education has to be unlearned. One has to forget the labels, the names of the chords and the scales until they are just sounds that correspond to the sounds in your heart, that you can reach and form just as that deep inner voice sings it. And he is still involved in the process of unlearning, as he said. The knowledge erodes very slowly, like a rock being polished by ocean waves, that is musical growth. And yet, the process of unlearning is so similar to learning, that you pick up the instrument, and your hands do what they’ve always done for as long as they’ve been holding the guitar—but slowly, secretly, the soul takes over and pushes the knowledge aside, it seeps into your fingers, and the unlearning begins to take place. It just feels exactly like it felt when you were learning. This is the key step, the invisible step.

Somewhere inside of him, our everyman musician walked off of the top of the mountain, the mountain made of knowledge and theory, into the rarefied air of light clouds—and he stayed up there.

And that’s how to become a musician.

Monday, April 21, 2008

An Interview with Paul Bollenback

I'll let this video speak for itself, which contains more superlatives than I could write. He is playing It Could Happen to You, which I have been practicing ever since seeing this 2 months ago.



Now the interview. We did this through Gmail instant messaging, which is lovely because there is an immediate transcription of the conversation.

me: You are just about the most versatile guitarist I've heard. Blessing or curse or both?
Paul: Definitely a blessing....mostly. It becomes a curse as a leader if you are not careful to define what you are into at a particular moment in your career...so I won't put out a raga-based recording with pop grooves on it......and then play standards on the gigs around that time. As a leader, people listening to you have to know they will get some level of consistency in your performances, even if what you are working on changes over time....
me: I've noticed that reviewers or critics have a hard time labeling you, because that's what they like to do, label. Has that been a bit of an annoyance?
Paul: I've been very fortunate on the whole with writers, as the best ones really "get it".....that I'm not trying to copy the past, but that I'm still essentially a jazz improviser....or even take the word "jazz" out and leave "improviser". As in every aspect of our culture today, there are writers who don't do their homework, who don't want to have to actually really listen to the music with any degree of attention. Everybody has to deal with this, so at a certain point, while pats on the back are great, and let you know people are digging what you are doing, it's important not to loose sight of your role as a composer/player.....and to forge ahead, regardless. I've been told it might take a while for people to understand what I'm doing....and that's fine, because I'm going to keep doing it anyway!
me: You've done so much, and as I said, it's been so varied. Let me just summarize briefly, because I think it's puts you in a very unique position to see the jazz world. You've played with Joey D a lot, backed up Carol Sloane, played contemporary tunes, done your own composing, played with Houston Person--and traveled the world playing. If you were Dr. Jazz, how's the patient, how's jazz doing?
Paul: Wow...I wish I was that smart to know that! But in my world, there is a LOT of creative music going on, and musicians seem like they are open to trying different things, but with a real sensitivity to groove, vibe, creativity and making the music come across strongly. Also, folks are not afraid to cross-pollinate with other music, or to take older forms of jazz and look at them from new angles. So on the musician's end, I think it's a great time for creativity. Unfortunately, media control being what it is, a lot of this music is not heard by the general public, and jazz is defined in the mass media as being a replay of what happened in the 50's and 60's. Maybe not all of it, but a lot of it. That can mean it's more difficult to get gigs and record dates, and that can really stifle some of the players who might be having a hard time making ends meet.
me: What styles of jazz, since you play them all, seem to connect most with the public, and which parts of the country, and world are most enthusiastic about the music?
Paul: I just got back from a 3 week tour of Russia, a trio singer Chris McNulty and Russian pianist Andrei Kondakov. No bass or drums, doing original music from each of us, and some standards, but with my arrangements. On this tour, everybody plays some percussion, and Andrei also sings. The styles varied from modal vampy things in a straight 8th groove, to ballads, and really interactive duets....and the venues were all full. We were really happy that people enjoyed it so much, because it was a risk....new music, no rhythm section...But I think people everywhere enjoy a groove, a melody, and seeing the interactive magic of players communicating with each other on stage. It's like...."how did they do that?" for the audience. The best groups that I've played with, regardless of style, all had success with that. Best places to play....I love to play New York, because it's home....Most enthusiastic is definitely Europe, (including Russia!).
me: You mentioned that the media's preconceptions about jazz seem to be some type of blockage (just driving this Dr. metaphor into the ground here) between the musician and the public, could you elaborate on that just a bit more?
Paul: Sure. It seems that most major media outlets...television, radio, major internet retailers, major record labels, concert promoters, brick and mortar stores, newspapers, major concert venues and clubs, are either owned outright or affiliated with companies like Clear Channel, or Universal Entertainment, to name two. So....if you are not in with one of these gigantic multinational corporations it's going to be a lot more difficult to get on certain concert circuits, get recordings put out, get critics and reviewers to come to performances. Ever wonder how somebody with no talent and only the ability to entertain, or even just to look good onstage, becomes a huge star out of nowhere? This is how. I'm not complaining for myself...I've been very fortunate to have gotten some recognition without the benefit of a huge machine behind me. A lot of that has to do with the musicians around who have always been so supportive of each other. But the way that the "jazz business" seems to be going in the same direction of one-dimensional, media driven pop culture (ala American Idol), with only 2 or 3 giant companies pulling the strings is very disconcerting......whew....
me: Yeah, I was going to say you've dispelled any notion that quickness on the fretboard translates to the computer keyboard.:-)
Paul: just takes some thought! Deep questions!
me: Anyway, last question on the big picture of jazz, do you think it is consigned to a small niche, or can it recover and become a dominant part of peoples hearts—deep questions because I'm assuming you're really smart, and you are.
Paul: lol-I'm no historian, but jazz was only ever a huge 'Pop" music in the big band era.....so it's always been a "niche" music relative to other more mainstream things. But I have a lot of hope these days, because I see so many young people digging the music, at concerts and buying cd's. Jazz is so strong and deep that it will be here in some way shape or form long after you and I are gone. Of that I am sure. How's that for speedy...?:)
me: Much better, but I had the same smiley issue with Carol, she figured it out first. I think I got it by luck.
Paul: all this new computer based language..
me: Let's talk about you as a player, your development--because this video I'm embedding is fabulous on so many levels. When you were a kid, you started with open chords, cheap guitar, right?
Paul: Exactly..folk music on a nylon string when I was 7.
me: Then at some point, you wanted to be, who, Clapton or...?
Paul: the Beatles...then Carlos Santana
me: So Carlos gets you to explore the rest of the fretboard, and you began playing in rock bands?
Paul: Yup...then Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, of course.....but all the time I'm listening to all the Motown stuff that was on the radio in the 60's and early 70's...so I know that went in there, too.
me: Did you have lessons, or were you wearing out the vinyl and driving your folks crazy?
Paul: I had a few lessons for the folk stuff, but then none until I was about 16, which was when I got interested in jazz. And yes I drove my folks, and my friends’ folks crazy, because by the time I was in junior high school, I was playing every weekend and a lot during the week with friends....just jams, really. But it was constant!
me: Do you have perfect pitch or relative pitch?
Paul: I've been working on my ears for a long time, so my relative pitch is ok. I wish I had perfect pitch. Every time I'm around Joey DeFrancesco (perfect pitch and an audiographic memory) I feel like I need to work 6 times harder on it:)
me: I'm going to ask about Joey later, his conception is about a generation or two older than he is, it seems, but that's for later. Did jazz hit you from your teacher, or did you discover it and bring it to your teacher?
Paul: My dad was a big Benny Goodman fan, and he had all those records in the house, but I never really did anything but listen a few times just out of curiosity. He also loved Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole. But it was so foreign to me then....I just needed to hear that raging rock beat. But to make a long story short, a friend turned me onto Mahavishnu Orchestra, and that led to Miles Davis "Big Fun", which led to "Bitches Brew" which led to Return to Forever and 11th House, and THEN....(jeez this is going to be boring to read!) my dad's colleague gave me a "Best of John Coltrane" record with "Giant Steps", "Naima", "Cousin Mary", etc. I must have been 16 or 17 at the time and that did it for me! Hooked!
me: Wow. Didn't expect that. The direction, that is. I would have thought you heard some jazz guitarist that just knocked you over. So at this time were you teaching yourself, or did you still have a teacher?
Paul: After hacking my way around trying to play some kind of fusion/vamp things, I went to Berklee in Boston for their 6 week summer course. When I got back from there I could play better, but still was mystified by the jazz thing, so I found a guy in DC named Steve Gray who showed me a few things, got me into playing tunes out of the Real Book (big mistake...better to learn just from records..but I had no $$ for records, so..). After I graduated high school I kicked around DC for a year while attending American University, trying to find a direction. Then I went to University of Miami in Florida for two years, in their jazz studies program. I studied under Randall Dollahan, and learned exactly how little I knew. But I should say that both the junior high I went to in New York and the high school I finished at in DC had great music programs, and I learned all the music theory basics, played in a big band (badly), and had exposure to basic ear training before I went to college.
me: Okay. Here's the key--at what point in your playing did all of your formal training melt away? In other words, at what point were you just able to let loose and play and not think about it--because that's one of the beautiful things about that video of you, that the music seems to flow without thought, right from the heart.
Paul: I'm still working on that one!:) No, seriously, it's only in the last few years that I've felt like I've gotten a little closer to being able to flow, and express in a more complete way. Still a work in progress, but thanks!
me: Congratulations on the smiley. I understand the elation.
Paul: Hooray....?
me: Oh, here comes the modesty part. I knew I would run into it at some point. No, you've crossed a bridge that not many cross--it's definitely flowing. Especially those with formal training, it's hard to pry the brain off the fingers.
Paul: Thanks! I'm glad it comes across ("modest is my middle name--Carol Sloane")
me: Yes, I'm reminded of this every time I tell her that her music is exquisite. So, do you still feel the brain gripping your hand?
Paul: Naw...nothing left in the brain....:) But the key for me has been to be able to "hear" what the notes on the fretboard sound like, so getting the fingers to them is just a matter of mechanics....hopefully.
me: So you can find what you hear?
Paul: It's something I've been working on for many years. It eliminates the need to rationalize. I mean, I do use what I know of jazz clich├ęs or stylistically based lines, and what I know of harmony and rhythm, but it's all dictated by the ear. So if I can hear it, and then know exactly where it is on the fretboard, then it makes life a lot easier.
me: I'm thinking of two things at once, I'm not sure if they're related. One is from a Barney Kessel video--the only one still in circulation, and I might have bought the last copy. He emphasized not naming chords, trying to keep the nouns and theory out for as long as possible--and I'm also wondering where you picked up this mastery of the fretboard. Just comment, I suppose.
Paul: It is definitely all about sound...not names. If you can hear it and play it but not name it, you are in better shape than naming everything but hearing nothing. Mastery.....? What mastery?
me: Oh please.
Paul: Well, you develop techniques for getting what you need out of the instrument. I should have some books coming out on these techniques sometime.....soon!
me: You know people can see it, the mastery. I'm going to embed the video.
Paul: Cool. The more the merrier
me: Which jazz guitarists--were there any jazz guitarists that just made your jaw perpetually drop?
Paul: Man....all of the greats. Lenny Breau is one who is less well known. Pat Martino and George Benson still kill me. John (how does he do that)McLaughlin. But the truth is that I try not to listen too much to guitar players, because all these guys sound so great that I want to be just like them. Which is silly, because I'm still working on my own voice. But I love listening to any good guitar player, and I always try to steal as much as I can without being obvious about it:)
me: That makes perfect sense. You have a sound that is unique, you've got your own voice, and that comes from walking a fine line between getting too close to another player and keeping your distance. I actually think that's the real barrier between the public and jazz, brain dominating hands, which hurts the musicians ability to find their own voice. So, to sum up this section--it just happened one day that the labels disappeared and you just were able to play what you heard. It was gradual?
Paul: Very gradual, and it still takes a lot of work. Music is sound, after all!
me: Last section, shouldn't be as long. Do you notice a different feel, even before the music starts when playing with fellows with an older conception, like Houston Person, or Joey, and younger more contemporary players? Remember, this is before the music begins.
Paul: Good question. I have so much respect for the older guys, it makes me feel honored to be with them, even just hanging out, because they've done so much. If I'm the older guy, then it feels like I can be the one with experience. But you know there is a great comraderie with most jazz players, regardless of age.
me: There may be no way to answer that, I mean you did, but there may be no way to ask that. I used to play with older guys in St. Louis, and there was a relaxed feel, either because of age or because of the classic swing that was just a part of who they were. It felt different when younger guys were playing.
Paul: Sure....I know what you mean...the voice of experience vs the wild energy of youth?
me: Could be, but you feel it too? I listened to a lot of your stuff yesterday, saved your record with Carol for last--I'm just blown away by the clarity of her harmonic concept, and I know she can't read, it's all natural. Do you find that as she sings, certain chords, shall we say, strongly suggest themselves, things you might not usually do?
Paul: Sure, and that's true in each situation. You have to treat as a thing of the moment and just find the right thing to say. Playing with Carol is much different than working with Chris McNulty, but the principle of finding the right thing is the same.
me: Okay, I just hear so much from her voice, but hey, I'm a fan.
Paul: Me too!
me: I guess we are at the point of guitars and strings and picks. What do you play--how are you set up?
Paul: Guild Starfire 4, .012 gauge round wound strings, Dunlop jazz 3 picks, and variety of amps, usually with tubes or a tube preamp in front.
me: So you don't lift your own equipment?
Paul: lol. Just one amp at a time.
me: The Guild is like a 335?
Paul: Yes, exactly
me: Well you make a great case for using that type of body. Are you planning a solo album, cd, whatever?
Paul: Yes. We own our own record label (not signing at the moment, sorry), Elefant Dreams (www.elefantdreams.com). I've put our Brightness of Being(2006)and Invocation (2007) and my next one will be a duo/trio recording with Andrei Kondakov and Chris McNulty. Then, maybe a solo guitar project, we'll see.
me: Do you think that nowadays it’s the wisest move for folks to have their own label?
Paul: Seems to be the growing trend.
me: One last question, unless your answer piques another one, is your book going to be written for the illiterate guitarist or for the literate, theoretically knowledgeable guitarist?
Paul: The illiterate one, of course. We all have to stick together...
me: Whew....
Paul: Amen.
me: Can't think of a better ending.
Paul: Thanks. I really appreciate your interest, man. It's guys like you who are keeping us working guys alive out there. Thanks! Gotta run--have a good one, too!
me: And thank you for spending the time, and I really hope your typing improves. I'm going to let GuitarPlayer know we've done this, and then Downbeat--and if they aren't interested I'll just polish it and post it. But they are editors and they don't like to respond to emails. I'll keep you posted.
Paul: Cool! Thanks and ciao!
me: chow
Paul: lol

Well you can see that there is quite a bit of material that we covered, and I'm going to do a parallel post after this, summarizing, highlighting all of the gems that Paul gave us. Of course, I could try to IM with him again, but that would entail letting him type, and...well, let's just not.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Musical String Theory

Science has this peculiar habit of not being quite as scientific as it would like to be. The main reason is that it is almost impossible to prove new theories because the instruments needed to get the hard data don’t yet exist. As I said in on another blog, the first person to invent a machine that measures ‘life force’, will win a Nobel Prize, even though every other culture in the world already recognizes this force as not only existing, but being a cornerstone of that culture. It took years before Einstein’s theory of curved space was proven. The latest theory on the table, pretty well accepted, seen in PBS specials, is String Theory, that the universe is made of these super duper extra special tiny strings. So tiny that one string has never been seen. So tiny that it is reasonable to assume no string ever will be seen. And yet, more like a detective story than a scientific investigation, the theory of strings just seems to fit the available facts. Most times that’s just the best we can do, toss out a theory to which the available facts stick for the time being.

The problem tackled by this blog, in many ways, shapes, and forms, is trying to figure out what happened to jazz. What happened to the most beautiful, inspired, elegant, moving, even life-saving music the world has seen—that it is now relegated to either an afterthought by people who know music, that those playing it can’t seem to reach the heights of their predecessors, that at present, it is, at the most, hip background music for various television commercials? And most importantly, how can it be saved, how can it be brought back to life?

Well, here’s a theory.

In western civilization we just don’t like to improvise. The western mind likes things to be ordered, formulaic, predictable, known, regulated, and rational. Western civilization has survived because of time periods, eras, of improvisation, but those only lasted for a short period of time. One of those periods was the Renaissance, covered over by the formula guys, the math guys, the orderly guys of the Enlightenment. Another one of those periods was when this Enlightenment world collapsed under the weight of its own discoveries, and a period began that we haven’t yet classified. We’re still close enough to it that no historian or sociologist could really get the old conceptual meat hooks into it.

Einstein was improvising, and then other physicists began discovering things that were supposed to be impossible, and then all of physics had to start improvising. This is when Louis Armstrong was born, and he also began taking music—that most ordered product of the western mind, and threw it into chaos, and it became more chaotic, until it crawled into the universities to become ordered and clean once again. I was just looking through a book last night on improving your skills at improvisation. Literally the guy was talking about formulas to use with certain chord progressions, and he wrote with no sense that he was mocking himself.

Jazz improvisation is walking down a dark alley, it is purposely making wrong turns—you the improviser are trying to do something that you haven’t done before. For every note you know, you’re looking for a note or phrase you don’t know. In other words, you’re looking to get into trouble, and then looking for a way out of that trouble. That one sentence is Charlie Parker’s life in a nutshell, it is Stan Getz, it is so many of the pioneers of jazz in one form or another. Or it was played by immigrants and the poor, those whose every day life was a form of improvisation. For Wes Montgomery, intense headaches would come as he discovered how to use octaves the way no one has since. But none of this can possibly be comfortable. And if there is one other thing marking this historical phase, it is that we certainly like our comfort.

For the early and great jazz musicians, it was nothing, soulfully, to walk over the edge of the cliff. They were pretty sure they would fly—but how can a human be certain of this? But they did fly. And we, the audience at the time, went along. That was the feeling of the music, that’s what the musicians were doing, that was the dominant new technology of the time, that was the name of the dance—the Lindy Hop. Jazz began to drop off when the fascination with flying dropped off, and that would be 1969.

Today, jazz players are concerned about making it through the changes, flying is not an operative concept. Comfort through the changes, that is the goal. The solo has become a quest for comfort, the opposite direction of their predecessors. It is learned in an orderly manner, with formulas, the western mind has once again taken control. It is the opposite of Horace Greeley’s frontier spirit, the call of Go West. Today, it isn’t even Go East, it’s Go to School.

And so, where is the life, where is the pulse of this great music? Is it now in Asia, another bud on their tree of knowledge—the tree of how to deal with life force, with chi, with prana, with nefesh? Because, this stuff within us, can only be dealt with on the improv. And who knows, maybe we can fly.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pushing Hands

Brief Note: In between this post and my previous post, Carol Sloane celebrated a birthday. Happy Birthday, and thank you for the exquisite music you've given the world.

The New Post:

It’s getting worse. In an earlier post I mentioned the day I heard Billboard would no longer track Jazz as a distinct category, mixing it into R&B. Yesterday I tried to get some figures on Jazz CD sales, and it’s hard to find. In fact, I couldn’t find any information. Then I went to Billboard, and jazz is no longer grouped with R&B. Now it’s grouped with Classical. And if that doesn’t say it all, then you just can’t hear.

Used to be, Jazz was the polar opposite of classical music, the latter being rehearsed and theorized to a point where if there was spontaneity it was as fleeting as a lightning bug’s light, as elusive as mercury, and more than likely it was a mistake. Jazz was always about spontaneity. That was the whole point of the music, that and blues, that and swing.

In the early recordings the great Louis Armstrong took liberties never before heard, and probably never before imagined. The Big Band Era solidified the base of swing, but still the musicians felt constrained. And then came the post-WWII small groups that marked both a rise is musicianship and recording quality. The recordings were done for various labels, usually in one studio, VanGelder’s in New Jersey. In each of these legendary recordings there was a feeling that the music wasn’t quite complete, the musicians didn’t fully know their roles. There was a roughness in each recording, there was a space that held uncertainty and suspense. The songs were both old and new, but they followed the template of Gershwin, Berlin, Ellington, and the blues, and the listener could join with the musicians, anticipate the drummer yet still be surprised and excited when Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, or Louis Hayes exceeded expectations, breaking your—you, the listener, the buyer of the album, breaking your expectations of what was humanly possible. You heard Kenny Burrell’s beautiful tone but also his mistakes—and it added to the music, it made it more suspenseful, it put you right there in what felt like the living room where they were playing. You heard Sonny Rollins plant a seed and grow the tree right in front of your ears. And these records, turned into CDs, continue to sell quite well.

And then very slowly, in the name of spontaneity, the bass line disconnected from the listener’s heart, the drums didn’t just kick at the perfect moment, but rather the style felt more like flailing—and the opportunity for hitting just the right cymbal at just the right moment, like Jimmy Cobb on So What, that moment disappeared in a tangle of percussion freely expressed. In the name of spontaneity, all notes became right notes, and the suspense was gone because there could be no wrong notes. The songs broke the template, they broke the form that somehow tapped into our deepest selves, and the listener could no longer go along with the musician on the ride through the solo. It became impossible to know when the musician was reaching his or her limit, when they were exceeding even what they themselves thought they were capable of playing.

The music sounded like risk, but there was no risk, the newer jazz ended up creating a huge safety net for the player, all the while disconnecting from the audience. And then the music moved from the clubs, from players learning by themselves or being taken under the wing of a wiser player, to the classroom and tests and one size fits all. And the practice patterns, the way musicians practiced changed—rather than practicing the act of improvising, they practiced what they were going to play over certain passages, and the spontaneity was then gone.

Sales dropped, it became harder to get gigs, rock jumped right into the void created by the shift in Jazz, and the Jazz musicians did what most folks do in times of crisis. They denied it was happening, they rationalized. They said, they thought, that what they were playing was so hip it was beyond the minds of the public—so that even when you went to hear them, instead of you being invited along for the ride, you are seen with some contempt—just enough to make sales drop even more, to make gigs even tougher to get. The musicians, being people too, became more frightened, angrier at the public, and they played this anger. It came through the music, just enough to make sales drop some more and make gigs tougher to get.

It does have that sound of a death spiral—

But it’s not dead yet. There are moments, there are still seeds. If the great guitarist Paul Bollenback plays a chord melody, are the seeds in his voice leading, or are the seeds the sound of his laughter as he surprises himself? The same kind of laughter we would hear in the background coming from Wes Montgomery, or the monotone hum that Oscar Peterson knew and proved to be an intricate melody. In the album notes to Kind of Blue, the quintessence of spontaneous playing, a moment when the musicians didn't even see the music until the tape was already recording, Bill Evans describes a type of Asian art--drawing and painting on a tight canvas, so tight that any hesitation will puncture and destroy the work. The act of the drawing must be immediate and complete.

And what can be more spontaneous than a good round of the Tai Chi exercise of Pushing Hands? And so Asian culture, on the outside, seems quite classical, and yet on the inside, there is a tradition of spontaneity, of practicing the act of improvising. Across the Pacific, some beautiful jazz is being played.

Once before, in the history of the world, Asian technology pulled the western world out of the Dark Ages, perhaps they can do it again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Interview with Carol Sloane

There’s a reason to write an introductory paragraph giving the highest praise to the artist one interviews. Here’s why. Carol Sloane is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. It’s a tall mountain to climb, jazz singing, and there is room for many at the top. Throughout Carol’s career those who have heard her knew within three notes that she belongs at this still exclusive pinnacle. Her voice is so fine and rare that there really isn’t anyone with whom to compare her. Just like Wes Montgomery and his miraculous thumb, Carol has a remarkable larynx. Most singers coordinate these muscles and fibrous tissue to generate one clear note. Not Carol. She has such control that she sings with chordal overtones. I’ll say it simply. She sings harmonies with herself. If you listen carefully, she is singing very subtle chords. Her concept of jazz singing, then, is the harmonic interplay between her and the piano or guitar, the small adjustments they make as the song moves on, one harmony for the A section, a variation on the second A, the bridge, and maybe a third way of doing the A section again. Who else can do this? Who else has that conception? On the mountaintop, the group shrinks considerably. But my experience with Carol’s voice is 99 percent listening to her sing Solitude or I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Her experience with her voice is 90 percent wondering out loud where she put the car keys, or, since she lives in New England, telling others how to drive. Not to mention forgiving Bill Buckner (don’t know if she’s gotten to that point yet, I know she’s striving for it if she hasn’t yet arrived) and blessing the Scion of Casablanca. So, for Carol, there is no mystique. For me, mystique is all there is. And that’s why one has to praise these great artists, because they are with themselves all of the time and are not in the least bit impressed, quietly confident is as good as it gets.

We did this interview using Google’s Instant Messaging, which transcribes as you talk, bless them. And so there are bits where we are both discovering how to do little Googly tricks, her succeeding, me flailing away. But we both had fun, and I believe she has offered some invaluable insights into jazz and jazz singing.

me: One thing I’ve noticed is that you tread where other musicians are afraid to go. The idea that you would not only try to sing the Frank Sinatra book, but ADD to it is pretty amazing. How did you muster the courage, or were you always on the courageous side?
Carol: lol ... I don't think that cd really succeeded although I had high hopes (a song I didn't include). And I did songs he had recorded.
me: It sounded pretty darn good to me. It didn't sound like Sinatra, but how could it? It added to the tunes. When I see a guitar album and the guitarist chose a Wes tune, I think, oh boy, how's this going to turn out. Usually not that good, we guitarists are all dwarfs compared to Wes. That wasn’t the case with your Frank stuff. You went at it eye to eye.
Carol: There was never any intention with it except to acknowledge that he'd sung those songs at one time, hence the title. I used the same for the Carmen album and the concept concluded with The Songs Ella and Louis Sang
me: Right, that's a bold musical move. Even Ella did songbooks about composers, not other singers.
Carol: The idea is pretty popular now, tributes to Ella for example, to Ray Charles. Oh just name them.
me: Yes, but...they, to me, make me want to hear the original singers. Your renditions stand by themselves.
Carol: Oh, that's nice of you to say. Thank you.
me: You're going to be modest, aren't you?
Carol: It's my middle name.
me: Okay. Then let's try it from another angle. A duet with a clarinet? That's not something people without confidence do. Have you always been so bold?
Carol: Well, if the musicians are as wonderful as (Ken) Peplowski or any of the true giants I've worked with, the concept isn't bold at all. It's more the essence of jazz singing (at least as I conceive it): no unnecessary embellishment, songs stand on their own and have more impact perhaps, at least that's what I strive for.
me: Okay, it’s not bold. (Yes it is). You have worked with the best of the best. No question here, I've just noticed it. Phil Woods, George Mraz…
Carol: Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Richard Rodney Bennett, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Kenny Burrell and lots more.
me: They feel honored to get the call?
Carol: Hope so. Mostly I'm just glad if they're available, and it's no lie to say they are all friends as well as colleagues. I've been around a long time. George Shearing told me long ago to always work with the best.
me: Let's talk about Kenny Burrell for a second. I noticed that you did some very intimate playing with Ken Bollenback. I don't know his style as I know Burrell's, but it seems as though Kenny usually sounds like Kenny, whereas Bollenback seemed to wrap his chords around your voice. Am I off on this perception?
Carol: Not at all. And I must confess Burrell and I only worked together on one track, on the Love You Madly cd. Bollenback is a member of my band WHEN I can get him. He's got such a terrific sense of the blues and is equally sensitive on ballads. Love the man.
me: That leads me to the next question. The later stuff is so perfectly done. I usually think, what would I play in this situation, and I was stumped. It seems as though your conception is so clear and beautiful that I would risk getting in the way. How well does your band know each other before the recording begins? Is there much rehearsal, how much is spontaneous?
Carol: Good question. I met PB at rehearsal for the "I Never Went Away" cd. Norman Simmons chose him and I couldn't have been more pleased. The band is now: Norman Simmons, Bollenback, Steve LaSpina on bass and Norman's lady-love on drums. She's just right for what I need, the band swings its a** off, and each time we do a tune, it's slightly different. Jazz is…jazz is exploration, and Norman or Paul play something new to my ears in every set ... great experience. And I wouldn't have it any other way, playing the same way each night isn't jazz. I'll be right back ... I'm going to get a glass of wine, want some?
me: Then I'll start tyopsdthol like this.
Carol: lol
me: There's another aspect to the small group, and that is that your voice implies chords. Even though only one note can come out, it sounds like there are harmonic overtones.
Carol: MY voice implies chords? I think it's the other way around. The musicians are so inventive—consistently they inspire me. The important fact is this: they treat me like a fellow musician, not the girl singer they are hired to play for.
me: They don't say this to you? That's one of the reasons I felt stumped, if you were thinking of a 7b9 and I end up playing a #9, it would feel as if I’d broken some crystal.
Carol: lol. That's very funny because I can't read a note of music. I'd only know the chord didn't sound right or might even be dead wrong. One has to KNOW the song before taking improvisatory leeway.
me: That's why they treat you like another musician. They have to listen and work like crazy, you can't just play anything behind you. It's possible to play the tune correctly and still sound like you missed something.
Carol: I suppose so ... another thing is I'm not working with kids fresh out of Berklee. I choose them because I know their own heads are filled with many of the same songs I know. That helps when we get a request or I just feel like singing something we hadn't rehearsed.
me: How is their feel? (Here’s where we were moving quickly, typing and reading, and I misunderstood what she just said. I thought I read that presently she IS working with kids fresh out of Berklee)
Carol: The best. And it's led by Norman (Simmons). His skill as an accompanist is legendary. He didn't play for Carmen, Anita, Sarah and Joe Williams and not learn a great deal about when to play and more importantly when NOT to play.
me: Ah, so it's not just a group of Berklee kids. There is a leader.
Carol: Well, I'm the leader in one sense. But I trust Norman to choose the right tempos. I choose the tunes, we all contribute.
me: Actually, and correct me if I'm wrong about this, but Berklee has musical coldness associated with it, at least it did.
Carol: Well, the kids graduating have little or no real exerience working with veteran players. Talent is one thing, the actual gig is another matter.
me: You said that you can't read a note, that only leaves singing from the heart. Could you comment on that.
Carol: I learned early on that I have a very good ear. I am not easily thrown and I worked when I was young with musicians who deliberately tested me on that. When I sing it's always as honest as I can make it, a reflection of who I am. And the music inspires my heart.
me: How did they test you?
Carol: Deliberately played the wrong chords, and then would laugh when I turned around with raised eyebrows. They knew I couldn't read music but they also quickly learned they couldn't keep me from singing the correct melody. I was able to concentrate and focus all the time.
me: You took charge of the band then?
Carol: Those particular musicians were not very professional in any sense of the word. It was a long time ago.
me: If you give them a look, it has some clout.
Carol: Like Benny's famous ray?
me: I wouldn't know your look. But Benny had business to do. I think his music allowed the guys to march across Europe, had his tunes going through their heads.
Carol: Benny was a character ... I worked with him too ... never got the ray though!
me: No, I've heard you. You wouldn't. I would.
Carol: Well, maybe not ...practice more.
me: I practice to keep up with my daughter. Do you do any workshops, work with young singers?
Carol: I haven't conducted classes in some time. I enjoyed it when I did. I subbed for an instructor some years ago at the NE Conservatory and half my students were quite dreadful, made for some tedious times. But my private group classes were a different matter, no one got in until they passed an audition.
me: I assume that several had classical training. Did that get in the way?
Carol: I never asked about it. It was clear from the start that some had, so trying to get them into a feeling of improvising wasn't easy, but I didn't allow anyone to scat. That's not jazz singing anyway.
me: Go ahead with that thought. That will turn a few heads.
Carol: As far as I'm concerned, scat singing's masters are very skilled and I appreciate their inventiveness. Scat can be very tedious and excruciating when singers use the technique just to proclaim how hip they are. Few are experienced as (Mark) Murphy, (Kurt) Elling, and (Tierney) Sutton.
me: Keep going.
Carol: That's about it really. I don't think scat singing can persuade me that the person doing it is therefore a jazz singer, some think it's proof positive. I disagree. Carmen could but didn't do much, Sarah couldn't help herself, Shirley Horn never did, I don't believe ... and I don't think Billie Holiday ever did. And they most assuredly were the voices of jazz.
me: Why do you think you and Billie had such different opinions about Oscar Peterson?
Carol: I'm not aware of what her opinion was, did she dislike him? And did she say why?
me: Said he played too much.
Carol: Well, she was dead right. He was not a great vocal accompanist, listen to his recording with Bill Henderson, it's impossible for him to play the subtle role of side-man. He's even a bit over the top when working with Fred Astaire. No: I take it back—he is over the top. I sat in with him on more than one occasion; he distracted the hell out of me, but then: my God, I was standing beside OP! THE OP!
He didn't throw me off my stride though :-)
me: This would be a smiley--oh you can do smileys? Let me try. Didn't work.
Carol: I clicked the smiley and then typed :-) ... it translated itself
me: like this? Nope. Didn’t work.
Carol: :-)
me: Show off.
Carol: Oh yeah! If you type a colon, a dash and a close paran .. it will convert itself.
me: Do you still practice, and what was your routine like when you were practicing the most? I'll try (the animated smiley) again when you answer this one.
Carol: I don't practice and I used to agonize about it, but I'm too lazy. Now I take medication to help with performance anxiety and nothing much bothers me anymore. I used to be sick before every performance. I nearly hyperventilated on stage at Carnegie Hall once.
me: Nope (no smiley). So if there ever was a natural, you're it.
Carol: Well, I know I need to warm a little before I perform but I haven't been put to the test for a long time, last time in NY I was only asked to sing once song, hardly seemed worth the train trip down and back. One song.
me: So, to summarize the last few points, your idea of jazz is more of a group interplay, the spontaneity of the musicians, not the vocal improvisation?
Carol: The musicians are playing for me and enhance my singing by choosing inventive chords, knowing the right moments to slip in an extra chord or lick. And so it's a two-way street; they play for me but we all work together. It blends into one element at times and then it's all me. If they do their job right, the audience focuses on me and my singing, not in some cases, realizing that I sound that good because I am surrounded with the most beautiful frame.
me: Does your band rehearse a lot?
Carol: We're lucky if we can at least get a sound check on the afternoon of the night we open.
me: But by now you know each other very well. Did it take long to get that level of familiarity?
Carol: Not really, but we grow more mellow and comfortable with each engagement we play, just not often enough. But then, I'm withdrawing from it all a bit. I hate to fly, there aren’t many clubs or really nice rooms outside of Boston and New York, one or two in LA but they don't pay enough to make the trip worthwhile. It's difficult for many.
me: Have you seen your discography on either Amazon or CD Universe?
Carol: I see it at my web site ... why do you ask?
me: To see if there's anything that we all need to hear but they may not have.
Carol: Who they? And how will they hear if with jazz radio in this country in such a mess, being replaced by ‘talk’ or ‘light rock’ formats. Which reminds me: I was listening to KCMS today. Did you ever investigate those urls I gave you? KCSM I mean, WICN, WGBO?
me: Didn't get to them. I think I'm holding out hope that WSIE will stream. The ‘they’ is Amazon and CD Universe. And if they don't have some, we go to the expert shops, like Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. They seem to have the ability to find anything.
Carol: But a lot of my stuff is OOP or very expensive in Japan or occasionally at auction at ebay, AND a lot is still circulating of course.
me: What are your favorites?
Carol: Of mine?
me: Is there someone else typing here?
Carol: lol ... Dearest Duke and Love You Madly…
me: Okay, I think I'm running out of questions--actually we're getting so silly that I might end on this--did Grady Tate sing for you? I saw he played on one of your albums.
Carol: He sang with me on a cd called The Real Thing, and we have sung together live in performance. Before we finish here: any idea what happens if I click Options and/or Pop-Out ... not as in wardrobe malfunction but I'm curious.
me: Well, on pop-out, nothing happens other that I wait. Options, I've never done. But I'm hoping that when we finish this whole thing is transcribed in my in box.
Carol: I'll get this ... how hard can it be for a woman who has been known to sing Lush Life a capella? Thanks for the chat
me: Okay. Thank you. I'll sign off and hope to hell this transcribes. Talk to you soon.
Carol: Fine ... happy to answer more if you wish ... Ciao
me: Roger and out.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Two Degrees of Separation, Greg Osby and Me

Sometimes the idea of ‘the public’ isn’t so nebulous. And with the issue of Chet Baker on Youtube, the public is showing a stand for principle, and even courage. They are well aware of the Chet purge, and have decided to dare Toronto into spending every minute of every business day trying to stop what only promises to be a deluge of Chet appearances on Youtube. There is wisdom in their conviction, that Youtube will only shut down sites, which will reappear under different names, and people will see Chet Baker. It will dawn on Chet Baker Toronto that they are spending all day stopping people who want to hear Chet Baker from hearing Chet Baker. Precious neurons in the collective Toronto Chet Brains will pop.

But this expression of will by the public, the refusal to be intimidated the Chet Baker Foundation of Toronto, this is what will take us to the next level—which I will describe below.

And so the public is showing what Billy Wilder described as a collective intelligence. He quoted Lubitsch, that individually the public may not be so smart, but collectively they are indeed smart. Odd thing. But judging from Wilder’s and Lubitsch’s movies, they do know something.

Many large corporations don’t see it that way, preferring to go with the line attributed to P.T. Barnum, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. And so record companies, publishing companies, movie companies, television networks, all tend to feed us watered down books, over produced recordings of people without talent, and lame-brained shows, about which many folks simply do not care.

Many artists make the same mistake, exploring their art in a disconnected way, not tapping into the collective wisdom and beauty within us, but choosing to create things which do not move us, do not touch us in any way. The artist simply interprets this as their art being too advanced for the public.

This brings me to two interviews I read and listened to this week. One with Barney Kessel, recorded in the sixties, one more recent, with saxophonist Greg Osby, who is from what will always be my hometown of St. Louis.

Kessel stressed, over and over, that the artist must go to great lengths to connect with the audience. The situation with Osby is more complex, that ended nevertheless, in abandoning the effort to make the connection, choosing instead to see the audience as not able to grasp what he is playing. In other words, an uncompromising P.T. Barnum.

As I said, the Osby situation is more complex. I spoke this week with former employers, who said only the kindest words about him. I remember playing in clubs when, during breaks between sets, we would talk about Osby, that he learned to play before he went to school, and that seems to be the way to beat the assembly line aspect of music schools, to learn to play before you go. That’s affected the way I raise my children, to prepare them before school can slow them down. And so without ever having met him, his influence is felt in my home, felt by my children who’ve never even heard of Greg Osby, who always traveled in pathways outside of established institutions, because those institutions simply could not meet his needs—to help him to grow at the pace he preferred.

This still leaves us with the question that every artist must answer, who is the public? Osby spoke of not being able to get gigs, and that, without the support of his producer, he would have no outlet whatsoever—his music, in other words, would fall in the woods with no one to hear the sounds. And so once again, without having met Greg Osby, he has taught me a valuable lesson about life, one I will certainly teach to my children, that one must work on the assumptions of Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Barney Kessel, and that we can see to be demonstrated by the public’s determination to hear and see Chet Baker, despite the institutions that are trying to stop this from occurring.

And now for the unveiling of what I promised. It's not really an unveiling, since I'm actually behind the curve. Our present technology is suggesting the possibilities, which are being worked on as I write this. It is a new economy, no longer dependent on large institutions, but eventually returning to the cottage industries, where individual artists can produce their own work, can use file sharing and streaming video to promote their work, and where artists and the folks who purchase the art, will think nothing of using Paypal, or it’s next incarnation, to allow the musicians and writers and artists to display what is in their hearts, and where folks will think nothing of supporting them with one, five, or ten dollars. It seems as if everyone knows this, and it appears as though this hard to define notion of public is working towards this. Hardly a mystery, hardly needs any unveiling. But the faster this becomes reality, the better it will be.

It is not unlike the invention of the car, where the possibilities presented themselves immediately, except that there were no roads. Eventually, the idea of getting in the car, of everyone even having a car, to travel the roads to get our basic needs met, this is now common sense. It happened once, I suspect it will happen again. But right now, the idea of the internet being completely free, an obstacle. I think we’ll get over it. It will be a good day when it does. It is always a good day when people can express their inner beauty.