Friday, October 30, 2009

Recording What?

We have to set up a studio and immediately all sorts of technological questions are raised, such as how much technology do we want, and that depends on what we think we're trying to record.

In a way this is an easy question because all we have to do is have some understanding of what the jazz establishment is doing, and just do the opposite. After all, nothing makes decision making as easy as watching someone get the exact opposite results they intend to get. People record jazz CDs to sell, and they don't sell. They wildly don't sell. So it's not like we can do any worse--and by following along with everyone else we know it's going to fail--therefore, just do the opposite.

We already have a quiet room for practicing, the floors are covered with heavily padded carpet, there are bookshelves, thick drapes, soft furniture. It might be something like Rudy Van Gelder's living room used to be. A room with a comfortable feel. Right here we aren't talking about recording studio with perfectly designed acoustics. No soundproof glass, no way musicians can't see one and other. Maximal human contact and interaction.

What was Rudy recording? That's the next question. There's something missing in so many contemporary releases. Again, using the same logic as above, we can rule out that Rudy was recording the sounds of the instruments. Why? Because they do that so much better now and the records aren't as good and they don't sell as well. Our hypothesis--and again, how can we do worse?--Rudy was recording the night. Listen to Midnight Blue, not listed on the credits is the night. I don't know if the album was recorded at night, in the darkest part of the night, but you can sure as heck hear the night on that album.

He was also recording their soul--which eventually came through their instruments. So how do you record the sounds of a person's soul, which I believe is slightly different than recording soul. Or, put another way, Rudy was recording the musicians themselves first, their instruments second. How do you do this? Well, this first step is certainly to put less emphasis on recording sound. So we aren't using state of the art technology. Garage Band, a pretty good audio interface (PreSonus Firestudio), and some reasonably good microphones.

That brings us to soul--does soul have depth? I'm old enough to believe yes. Do they talk about depth of soul in music school? No they don't. Is there a certain depth of soul that leads to good and possibly great music? Probably. How does one get that?

That's where we have to leave off.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Needle in a Field of Hay

Down in this neck of the American Woods it’s difficult to find musicians. There are musicians, but it’s not like St. Louis or New York, where there is a very great chance you’ll meet another jazz player just walking down the street of the Delmar Loop in St. Louis or wherever the New York hangouts may be.

We’re not looking for just anyone. It’s like a good marriage, that no matter what personality issues there are, and there will be some, the music comes out right—Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Dizzy and Charlie Parker, the Wynton Kelly rhythm section, Grady Tate and Ron Carter, Elvin Jones and…..Jimmy Forrest. Fooled you on that one. Here’s another trick question. John Coltrane and….Duke Ellington. Not McCoy Tyner. It’s got to be right. Right right.

This hasn’t been easy. We were lucky the first go around. Amy was 15, and we just used all of her teachers. That means everyone was checking their personalities at the door of the studio, they were teaching, still, even though the sounds were being recorded.

Then a funny thing happened when Amy was 16. She became quite good, so good and so happy with these unholy fast tempos that the bassist had to bow (no pun intended) out. His hands just hurt too much. He also had a rock back that, according to Amy, is showing some promise of success. He didn’t have time to practice our stuff for 5 hours a day, just to get a quarter inch more inside the pocket.

We’ve also decided to cut back on the drumming, cut it to congas—which will give the songs a deep groove, and fit with the vibes. But finding the elusive bass player, that’s some trick.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Beginnings

If you want to get rich, nowadays, there must be some way--it seems that the two tried and true methods are down to one, since real estate just went bust. The other way is to invent something that society desperately needs.

Producing Jazz is way down on that list. It is so far down on that list that it actually reaches into a new list--Things You Do for Love. It may also graze the list of Things That Are Nearly Impossible to Do.

We get a Jazz Channel with our cable TV setup, and they play contemporary artists. There is also a smooth jazz channel, but I don't listen to that. I started to listen to this straight jazz channel to see who's out there playing, how they sound. But I began to listen less and less. There was no question the musicians were good--but for the most part, they were indistinguishable from one and other, especially the guitarists. This is because jazz education is for the most part standardized. And wherever there is standardization, there is also a lack of heart. McDonald's may taste good, but you don't go there for a memorable meal or a signature dish.

So the first problem is finding musicians who sound like themselves, that is, they sound like their heart. There is plenty of documentation that music schools don't, can't, teach players how to connect with their heart. But this was always the strength and engine of jazz, musicians as the rugged individualists, John Wayne each and every one, forging their own frontier on the plains and forests of swing. Now the music hasn't the strength, nor the engine to continue. And like an airplane whose engine fails, it falls. That's jazz history. I don't think one can argue otherwise.

I was very lucky to have a teacher that insisted on each student connecting to their heart. In the age of McDonald's and suburbs and strip malls, this isn't easy. In my case, I knew that the method was the right one, but it takes a very long time. So I wasn't the hot guitarist in town when I was 20. I was getting blown away on the bandstand by the kids coming back from Berklee. It's not that they were playing great music, but they were MUCH more competent--and they would always want to play Giant Steps. And they weren't very nice, not helpful, just arrogant.

Given this, Mom and Pop know which musicians they will NOT be using.

A Little Bit of Business

I'm going to change the focus of this blog just a little bit, and before I do that I've got to post this little exchange between myself and Scott Yanow. Basically, it regards a comment he made on my last post, and I'll reproduce that comment here:

Scott Yanow said...

Hi Bob,

I just read your very intriguing analysis of an unknown reviewer and his or her lack of comprehension of classic jazz. Your ideas and assumptions are fascinating, but it is a pity that they are completely inaccurate.

I am the reviewer of the Yves Francois CD. I have nothing against spontaneity. Coleman Hawkins once said that it can't be jazz if there are no mistakes. I love early jazz, whether it is called dixieland, New Orleans or classic jazz. In fact, I wrote a book by the latter name. I have been listening to, writing about, and even playing in that idiom of music for 35 years.

Whether I know anything about jazz is of course open to one's opinion. Critics are not above being criticized. But I do prefer that criticism (whether of critics or of musicians) include at least a little bit of reality.

Yves Francois is a fine trumpeter and his playing always has the chancetaking spirit of the best jazz. However the CD in question includes some performances that are more important historically than they are musically. There are obvious mistakes and lost moments heard along the way, not just an occasional missed note, and a few of the selections probably should not have been released. The music is fun and has its enjoyable moments, but it is full of flaws.

Yves has since told me that he likes my writing and my understanding of early jazz. That is good enough for me.

In the future, when you criticize a review, do a little bit of research first. Perhaps you should actually listen to the music in question before criticizing the critic.


Scott Yanow

I replied that basically I would stand by my comments, although I would certainly back away from my strong language that he didn't know anything about jazz. Because he says that he's part of the jazz establishment and has been so for a long time, he has watched the slow and painful demise of jazz, and is in a sense part of the problem. The problem is that everyone professionally involved in jazz has been watching this demise occur for about 50 years and no one seems to understand why it's happening or how to stop the bleeding. So in that sense, there is a crucial bit of jazz knowledge that so many jazz folks seem to lack. Scott is in a large boat.

The other part of my response was very simple--and again, many jazz critics do the same thing--that they conflate the artist with the producer. These are two different skills. If Scott says that some cuts shouldn't have been released--that's a problem for the producer, and those skills. It isn't a matter of whether or not Yves can play, where Yves is playing, or who he can get to play along with him.

Which brings me to my little change in focus.

I could sit here and rail against that very jazz establishment, the jazz programs in universities, the music schools, the record labels--and all I would produce is one long whine. There's just no point to that. So I'm going to begin to chronicle what it's like to produce a jazz CD in these tough times. Occasionally I get an email from someone wanting me to post a review of a particular CD, and if I choose to do so, I will post a review. Other than that, it's diary time. A Mom and Pop record company is born. We'll also be publishing some novels.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Existential Bix: A Good and Proper Review of Yves Francois

Here’s an existential question for an artist—would you prefer a really good review from someone who totally doesn’t get what you’re doing, or a bad review from someone who gets what you’re doing, but points out that you didn’t do a good job of getting it done? Of course the answer is that you want the good review since that will generate more money—oh wait, I’ve just compromised the art. Okay, it’s a tough question, rent be damned.

I only ask this because someone showed me a good review of a CD by Yves Francois, a trumpet player walking along the pathway of Bix Beiderbecke. It was a good review, I don’t know who wrote it, the only thing I know is that the reviewer didn’t know a damn thing about jazz. I’ll insert some of it here:

"In the early '80s, the young trumpeter Yves Francois, who had only been playing his horn for a few years, decided that it was long overdue for saxophonists Eddie Johnson and Franz Jackson to be recorded in a freewheeling setting. He organized and recorded four sessions during 1981-1986, some of which was released on scarce LPs on Jackson's Pinnacle label. Now all of the music is available on one CD. The basic tunes allow the musicians to play swing, bits of Dixieland, 1950s-style R&B, and touches of more modern jazz. The spirit is certainly there and the rollicking feel and the spontaneity are quite appealing. There are missteps, mistakes, and brief lost moments along the way, but this CD succeeds as good-time music. Fortunately both Johnson and Jackson have recorded more extensively since this time and Francois has improved as a trumpeter. But even with its flaws, this is certainly a fun set."

Ah well, that is very comforting. He or she is reviewing jazz, and they find the joy and spontaneity appealing. Thank goodness for that. But doesn’t it seem like the reviewer might still like the music, but be put off by the spontaneity? Turns out that’s exactly what happens in the next sentence. The musicians make mistakes. Well we can’t all be Kenny G now, can we? But this is what happens when jazz is recorded in many takes with many tracks, with lots of dubbing, when it moves and has moved too far from its roots of stick a microphone in the middle of a room and let the guys and gals play. I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but years of highly produced overdubbed music, including jazz, has spoiled listeners so much that real music isn’t real enough anymore. It seems like this reviewer couldn’t recognize heart while watching an autopsy. And regarding soul, well, medical examiners don’t find that either.

Live music is living music. Live music, good music, is alive. Seems simple enough, but that fact is becoming more and more elusive. Popular music has many purposes—even after you get by the main function, which is to encourage sex. And really, it’s no accident that the word ‘jazz’ used to be a euphemism for sex. Of course, sex isn’t just sex either—you know, there are emotions that go with it, that, like it or not, just can’t be avoided. It’s emotions that get you into bed, it’s emotions that are happening during bed, and there are emotions that remain after it’s over. And sometimes, after nine months, there are children and a whole ‘nother set of emotions emerge that you never dreamed possible, if you take your sex seriously—joy and spontaneity that make all music sound shallow by comparison. But it started with music.

I’ve said it before, musicians need to become militant when it comes to emotions. That is, musicians need to fight with psychologists in the quest to define emotions. Emotions should be defined by music, not words. Words are too vague, music is very specific. And different kinds of music create different emotional universes. Louis Armstrong’s emotional universe is different than John Coltrane’s, whose emotional universe is different than Jimmy Forrest’s. In fact, creating an emotional universe is the hallmark of great music. If you listen deeply to Sinatra, there is so much more than just a song.

Yves Francois is a keeper of the flame, the transcendent universe of Bix Beiderbecke. If you read about the life of Bix, there was no other place the music could go but to transcend the daily agony of life. It’s all there with Bix, like a rocket anchored to the ground, ready to take off, and then it takes off. Mistakes do not matter. The spark that ignites the rocket can be a mistake, or not, because it’s the ensuing fire that matters. Yves Francois succeeds in creating that universe that is on the verge of being forgotten. Many people play jazz, enroll in jazz programs, and study Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke as quaint historical figures. They listen like the medical examiner, and choose to play like Miles Davis or John Coltrane whether they feel that way or not. They don’t explore their feelings, so wrapped up in their theory and degree, and peer pressure more than anything. Imagine, jazz squeezed to death from peer pressure. Young Louis and Bix couldn’t have thought such a thing was possible.

But for a musician to listen to someone and fall in love with the music, to fall into their universe and continue to create that universe—that’s a real musician. Here is some Yves, which will speak for itself.

And here's his channel:

Enjoy--oh, there is spontaneity. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Barney Kessel: The Edge of Soloing

In all honesty, this is a cheap attempt to import some favorites from Dailymotion into the Google system. The favorites are of Barney Kessel, and although there is no correlation to this post and any milestone in his life, I feel he's worth a mention of just what jazz is, what it can be, and what it isn't. In other words, there is so much more to learn from Barney Kessel than guitar.

First, he shows us what jazz is not. There are more myths about jazz than there are bits of real knowledge. The first myth is what we see in movies, the perfect stranger walking up to the bandstand, turning to the big band, giving the minimal instruction, and bang, an Ernie Wilkins arrangement comes out of nowhere. That myth has morphed into the Lone Ranger Jazz Musician, familiar with every tune and can play it in every key. There are some whose ears and mind have such gifted DNA, but for many players, and possibly most players, they find a group of songs that they feel best expresses who they are, songs that are the doorways to the soul, and they play those again and again, trying to find newness each time they play. This was certainly true of Barney Kessel, as their is plenty of footage of him playing his core tunes, such as Basie's Blues, Shadow of Your Smile, what is sometimes called Black Orpheus.

There is also the myth about unbridled creativity, starting from the first note. Not true. Once again, jazz musicians practice, some of them practice their licks over and over. Eventually, a good musician will, usually through mistakes, find new notes, ways to make a simple blues scale or major scale sound just the way they want--and these become known as signature licks, their musical identity. Barney Kessel certainly had those--and from what I've heard, folks never saw him without a guitar in his hand, that is, he was constantly practicing. I believe he knew more about harmony than any other guitarist who ever lived. The trick is finding the creativity, the newness, within the musical world the musician has created.

Many players never get there after creating their universe. That's because to get there one has to step off the edge of their universe, and that takes courage. That takes a lot of courage. But that is what Barney Kessel did every time he soloed, he stepped to the edge of his universe, and then stepped over the edge. There are many times during his solos that the listener, the viewer, the audience member isn't sure Barney is going to finish the phrase in time, find the chord he's looking for. There is genuine suspense in his playing. But he makes it. There is an apocryphal story about him, and then I spoke to someone who claims to have seen it, where Barney is playing and his high E string breaks, he doesn't stop, he (for him) simply reharmonizes the tunes and continues without his high E. But then the B string breaks, and once again he reharmonizes and continues. That, folks, is impossible, but he did it. Whether true or not, it says that he was a fearless player who sought newness on his own. And so when, in the case of the breaking strings, the newness is thrust upon him--it was business as usual. Here are some videos.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What I've Been Talkin' 'Bout

Here is Amy Levin and her teachers, forming the Amy Levin Quartet. The song, as you certainly know, is Boplicity. We tried to make it sound old, the way Jazz sounded when there was a real connection between the listener and the player. The music made your toes tap. The group is trying to sound like a unit, not individual players coming together on the same song, and all of the supporting players were simply trying to help Amy sound good. As you can hear, she doesn't need much help. At the time of this recording, she had only been playing the vibes for two years. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Where I've Been and What I've Been Waiting For

Quite simply, I cannot fathom how music critics can stand to be music critics. There comes a point where continuous writing about problems, and Jazz has quite a few problems, becomes a form of nagging and therefore counterproductive. The problems of Jazz are obvious, that so few people listen to or even like Modern Jazz that a confused archaeologist might say that Jazz was part of the lost Mayan civilization. It is not only headed towards extinction but to obscure extinction. It is moving towards a smaller and smaller corner of American culture and seems to be kept alive by the Japanese (thank you, Japan, by the way).

The other thing that music critics do, especially Jazz critics, is to artificially create hype and praise for the latest graduates of Jazz programs--with the understanding that the only people who will buy the CDs or listen to the music are folks who are enrolled in other Jazz programs. The Jazz establishment has simply written off the public, the record companies have written off the music, and so there is virtually no one pointing out the very obvious difficulties.

Jazz is now marketed the same way that a boring church service is marketed, that you must go, it's your duty, if you don't support this public radio station the music will be lost, it's part of the American Heritage and if you don't listen and don't give money folks will forget about the music and it will be all your fault.

In Daniel Levitin's book, This is Your Brain on Music, he makes two very interesting points, among many simply interesting points. The first is that when listening to music, the brain corrects mistakes the musician might make. This means that all the practice you in the Jazz program at local or national University might be doing, got to get that harmonic minor scale right in all twelve keys, going to be graded on it tomorrow--you are wasting your time because even though the professor might notice a mistake, no one else will. Especially the listening public, if they listen at all since you are playing Jazz.

Second great point, music will not register in the mind of the listener unless it is played with feeling. In other words, if you play with feeling, the brain acts as your personal recording engineer and will fix everything. The problem, the book states, is that music curriculums have so much technical 'knowledge' to get through in order to maintain accreditation that they never get to the part about playing with emotion. Put simply, if you wish to play music and go to school for it, you are wasting your money--if you care about the listener. The news gets worse, and this point is not in the book, this is one of those facts that everyone seems to know. The more stuff you store in your head, the more blocked your emotions become--which means that all of the theory you are learning is keeping you from expressing emotion, connecting with the public, and basically providing a genuine human need of making and listening to music.

So what we are doing here, right here in the room that I am now sitting, that will become a small recording studio, is trying to make some music that runs on emotion, we are going to keep the theory to blues scales and major scales and that's it, and we are going to recognize an organ that is not delineated in Grey's Anatomy, the heart. Not the pump, but the soulful heart. Stretch out your arms, fingertip of the right side to fingertip of the left side, right across the chest, that's your heart, one big long organ. We are going to treat it like a horn player treats his horn, the music is going to come out of that, and we will see what happens. There are technological problems we've got to overcome, but we're going to do that.

The preliminary results are quite good. The player is young, her name is Amy Levin, and has been playing for only two years. She plays the vibes, has already had a very simple recording played on the local Jazz Classics show, and folks called in saying that the player could not possibly be a 15 year old girl, but it had to be Milt Jackson. No, it was a 15 year old girl. She will be 16 when she is up on Youtube. People who have bought her EP have told us--you know, it happened over time, but this is what I listen to in the car. These people are not Jazz fans per se. But we are simply providing food for this biological need for music.

This cop even called in, saying he had to call to express his enthusiasm for the songs, for this player, and he'd just let three speeders go by, but he had to call.

And that's what Jazz has done in the past, and it can do it again.