Billy Strayhorn's motto, "Ever Up and Onward" seemed an apt title for the ruminations of a composer/arranger, jazz pianist, music educator, husband, father and Christian.
The Rocky Balboa of Jazz Pianists
I feel a bit like Rocky in training, preparing to make a come back. I haven't missed a day this week, but I'll admit it hasn't been easy.
I decided to narrow my focus to two things:
The Banacos lines are very chromatic and full of twists and turns. Charlie referred to them as being "snake-y". They make for great chop builders. I plan to stick with one line for a couple of weeks, until I can play it at a good clip, "double fisted" (in two hands), in all keys. For these I have alloted a 1/2 hour daily. I set the timer on my phone and commit myself not to leave the piano bench until I hear the buzzer sound. This has been a far greater challenge than I imagined, but I'm sticking with it, in hopes that it will get easier.Transcribing has been going relatively well. I've started using the Amazing Slow Downer software program, and love it! I'm surprised at how many details I missed in my first run-through "at tempo". I began with track 2, "Three Bags Full". I have already completed the right hand, and am moving onto the left hand comping. I will post these solos here, along with some analysis. I'm hoping to incorporate some Herbie-isms into my playing over the next few months.Here's the solo, starting at 3:05, after Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon.
- Practicing the twelve "super bop" lines given to me by Charlie Banacos a few years ago.
- Transcribing Herbie Hancock's "Takin' Off" record.
For the first time in a long time, I'm not practicing in preparation for a gig or recording. I'm back to just practicing to "sharpen my axe" and elevate my skills. It feels great.
“Meadowlark”, a collaborative UConn School of Fine Arts presentation
For about a year I have been working on my third collaboration with visual artists, Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff. "Meadowlark", as we titled it, is a lighthearted celebration of color, seasonal migration and the musical whistles of eastern songbirds. For this project we added Bart Roccoberton's puppetry as a third artistic dimension. Although he was involved in discussions and brainstorming at the onset, Bart's contribution was kept a mystery until the day of the presentation.
My music was recorded by my COW ensemble (the Creative Opportunity Workshop), which features Christopher Hoffman on cello, Kris Allen on saxophones, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and me at the piano.
A preview performance of “Meadowlark” was given on Tuesday April 23rd, at 12:30 p.m. in the Nafe Katter Theater. Colleagues, students, administrator, and members of the community attended.
I ran a video camera from the back of the room to capture the presentation, complete with the (newly added) puppets. I loved how the puppet troupe heightened the sense of movement, buoyancy and vitality. Here is the video:
We plan to show all three of our collaborative pieces in the Fall, projected onto the outside wall of the UConn Art/Music building facing the new town center. We also plan to release a DVD sometime in the near future. We will keep you posted.
Hit The Road Jack - Performed by the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble
My 10tet performed at the Polish National Home in Hartford, Connecticut on April 26th, 2013. That evening, I was joined on stage by Kris Allen - alto sax, Frank Kozyra - tenor sax, Lauren Sevian - bari sax, Tony Kadleck - trumpet, Greg Hopkins - trumpet, Shelagh Abate - French horn, Sara Jacovino - trombone, Henry Lugo - string bass, and Ben Bilello - drum set. It was a great night!
We opened the concert with my arrangement of "Hit The Road Jack", which I have tweaked since it's debut with the Westchester Jazz Orchestra. Here it is:
For more information about the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble, visit: http://www.earlmacdonald.com/new-directions-ensemble.html
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
I always think of Maynard Ferguson on May 4th. This would have been his 85th birthday. I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to tour in his Big Bop Nouveau band (from 1998 - 2000).
I enjoyed playing for him once more in the alumni band formed for his 75th birthday, at Ryles jazz club. I admit that I "teared up" while playing his walk-on theme, "Blue Birdland" again.
He was perhaps the most gracious, humorous and positive person I have ever known. Maynard's passing was very hard on me and I know I'm not alone in saying I miss him.
I chuckle when remembering a group of us buying him a pair of shoes for his birthday. When the salesman wasn't looking, we switched one of the two shoes to a 1/2 size larger as his feet weren't the same size. (Maybe that is the highly sought secret to his upper register!) Fun little memories like this often come to my mind at the least expected moments.
Happy Birthday Boss.
I'll Remember April
"When it rains it pours". This year's April showers were more like a torrential downpour of frantic activity as I look back over my calendar. Concerts, debut performances, arranging deadlines, album mixing, teaching, service projects, kids activities --- all wonderful, exciting stuff, but I'm glad to have it behind me. Although grading, juries and year-end report writing remain, I can now see the end of the tunnel and am starting to breathe easier.
In the spirit of friendship, my group performed Jackie McLean's composition, "Appointment in Ghana", arranged by yours truly, as our final number. Here it is, as we performed it the week prior at Lu's Cafe on the UConn campus. Enjoy!
New Directions Concert --- This Friday in Hartford, CT
Here is the stellar roster which will be joining me for Friday's concert and student workshop in Hartford:
alto sax: Kris Allentenor sax: Frank Kozyrabari sax: Lauren Sevianlead trumpet: Tony Kadlecktrumpet soloist: Greg HopkinsFrench Horn: Shelagh Abatetrombone: Sara Jacovinopiano: Earl MacDonaldstring bass: Henry Lugodrums: Ben Bilello
An Interview with Earl MacDonald by Gloria Franco of the Hartford Jazz Society
On April 26th, at 8 p.m., at the Polish National Home, 60 Charter Oak Avenue, Hartford, the New Directions Ensemble will perform under the direction of musician, arranger, composer, and educator, Earl MacDonald with the sponsorship of the Hartford Jazz Society. This Ensemble debuted in 2010 as the brainchild of Earl and co-director, Kris Allen.
EM: To be absolutely candid, I felt the jazz society was stagnating and needed to forge into a new direction if it wanted to be effective in expanding the audience for jazz in Hartford. I thought an active performing ensemble under the banner of the Hartford Jazz Society would help to cultivate a vibrant public image for the organization. It would give the HJS a very prominent, public face. By design, the group’s mandate is to assist in accomplishing the aims and purposes of the HJS – especially with relation to education and audience development. I pitched the idea to the board of directors and they embraced it. Together I hope we can do great things for jazz and the Greater Hartford community.
GF: I believe the Society would like to foster jazz education at the High School level, as well as at the university level. Is that something you might be involved in?
EM: Absolutely! As a part of this concert at the Polish National Home, we will be giving a free workshop for high school and university students from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. We hope to do much more of this kind of activity. Last year we gave a concert and worked with students at Glastonbury High School.
Josh Evans, New Directions Ensemble soloist
GF: As an educator (Earl is Director of Jazz Studies at UConn) you have said that you hope to inspire students to "reach their highest potential", rather than just passing knowledge on to them. I have found that this way of teaching often opens up a whole new world to students and fosters curiosity. Was there a mentor or someone in your past that inspired you? I ask because you seem to always be striving and constantly educating yourself.
EM: I’ve had many great teachers over the years --- Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Jim McNeely, Michael Abene, Michael Mossman etc. Each of them had something special and unique to share. I choose role models who are successful, evolving artists and people, who typically aren’t content with the status quo. In this way, trumpeter Dave Douglas stands out as someone who has inspired and influenced my thinking. I like that he has so many, varied ensembles functioning as his laboratories for experimentation and self expression.
GF: In 2006 you studied improvisation with Charlie Banacos. I've read that he teaches an ear training method. I've also read that most other countries use an ear training method, much more so than in the US. Would you agree with that, and do you use Banacos's method in you teaching?
EM: Strangely, my lessons with Charlie Banacos were via correspondence. I never met him face to face. We sent a cassette tape back and forth to one another through the mail. It was a unique experience and he gave me much forthright, constructive criticism that I value and appreciate to this day. My lessons were limited to one improvisational concept, so I didn’t get to experience his whole ear training method.
I do value ear training. As an undergraduate student, I didn’t take it too seriously, but later I worked very hard to develop my ear. I made tapes for myself of different chord voicings so that I could identify specific tensions and alterations on chords. Years ago, while teaching as a sabbatical replacement in Nova Scotia, I had to teach ear training and sight singing. During that year, my skills grew immeasurably, as I wouldn’t allow myself to falter in front of a class.
GF: As Musical Director for Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau band you traveled extensively. You've also recorded and performed with your sextet, quintet, trio, and as a solo artist. Do you find that you prefer teaching over performing? You've been called "an outstanding arranger"; how does it compare to creating and performing your own original compositions?
MacDonald conducting the New Directions Ensemble
I chose a career in university teaching because it is enjoyable, gratifying work, it pays the bills and supports my family, it allows me to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and I can be selective about what music I play. I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but I’d be lying if I said I prefer it to performing and creating music of my own. There’s truth to the joke “What would a jazz musician do if he won the lotto? He’d work until the money ran out.” If I won the lottery, I’d be playing and composing full-time. But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t found satisfaction in the route I have chosen to take.
As for the second question, arranging and composition are the same process for me. Whether it is one of my pieces that needs to be developed, or someone else’s, it doesn’t really matter. I try to put my own stamp on it, to make it uniquely my own.
GF: Being originally from Canada, was it pursuing your Masters at Rutgers that brought you to the US?
EM: Initially, yes, but I returned to Canada after completing my Masters degree. Like most jazz musicians, there was a period when I aspired to live and work in New York City. But when I did the math, it didn’t add up. Gigs paid next to nothing and rent was through the roof. I thought I’d have better luck in Toronto. Three times I planned to move to Toronto, but other opportunities presented themselves each time. The piano teacher at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia was on sabbatical, so they hired me to fill in for him after my graduation from Rutgers. The following year I took a similar one-year position in Bowling Green, Ohio at BGSU before accepting the gig with Maynard Ferguson’s band. While touring with Maynard I saw an online ad posted for my current position at UConn, and applied. That was 14 years ago.
GF: When is your next sabbatical and what plans do you have?
EM: I will be on sabbatical in the fall and have made arrangements to study film scoring. I look forward to doing some more consistent piano practicing too.
On my last sabbatical, I joined the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop in New York City. It was a great experience where I benefitted from the feedback of my peers and the workshop leaders, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. I am tempted to rejoin. We’ll see. I need to be careful not to overcommit myself.
GF: We are truly blessed in the Hartford area with talented and dedicated musicians. Is it because we have some good music schools in the area and a proximity to New York or might there be some other reason?
EM: I believe this results from a culmination of factors: 1) the close proximity to NYC and the affordability/desirability to live here compared to the city. 2) some excellent school band programs, 3) the affluence of West Hartford residents who’s children have access to lessons, top instruments, concerts, etc. 4) excellent musician educators who have “given back” to their communities --- Jackie McLean, Paul Brown, Dave Santoro, Steve Davis, Kris Allen, John Mastroianni, etc. 5) the Hartford Jazz Society has played a role by bringing great musicians to town to perform. Coming from Winnipeg, I didn’t experience a live concert by a truly renowned jazz musician until my early 20s. I only heard them on recordings. That’s not the case here.
GF: In an online interview, I heard you mention Dizzy Gillespie's influence in the birth of Latin Jazz. I read that he was in Cuba and was influenced by Cuban musicians. Having been there I noticed how they take their music very seriously and proudly. It was a joy to see. Anything you'd like to add on this important part of Latin Jazz history?
EM: Someday, I too would like to go to Cuba to experience the infectious joy, pride and studious nature of the musicians there.
As much as I love Latin Jazz, what I love even more is the idea of fusing jazz with different styles to create something new and keep the music interesting and vital. I see and hear this happening now with electronic dance grooves in addition to the obvious hybrids with ethnic musics. It’s very exciting and prevents the music from becoming inbred and dull.
GF: Thank you Earl for your time and look forward to seeing you on the 26th. Hear there will be some new arrangement and/or compositions the ensemble will be performing.
EM: I just finished a big band arrangement for an upcoming recording by Canadian drummer, Tyler Hornby. I will be adapting this piece for the 10-piece instrumentation. Also, since my last Hartford performance with the band, I have been fully engaged in a collaborative project with visual artist, Deborah Dancy. Much new music has resulted, some of which will be incorporated into our show. I also continue to tweak the music already in our repertoire, working out any little kinks and making slight improvements here and there. It’s an ongoing process for me.
So in wrapping up, needless to say this is a concert not to be missed. Earl MacDonald has received so many awards. So much more could be said about him and his prolific career. His website is www.earlmacdonald.com
The Newington High School Jazz Ensemble plays at 7 p.m. and the New Directions Ensemble starts at 8 p.m.
This semester, the UConn Jazz Ensemble has prepared the arrangements of Marty Paich, as recorded on the 1959 Art Pepper + Eleven album. The concert will take place this Thursday, April 18th at Lu’s Café, within the Family Studies building on campus.
Here is the program information:
The UConn Jazz EnsembleEarl MacDonald, directorColin Walters – alto sax, clarinetEmily Lavins – alto, tenor saxMatt Baum – tenor saxIan Jackson – bari, tenor saxDavid Dorfman – trumpetMichael O'Callaghan – trumpetEmma Reber - French hornMike Marsters – trombone 1Ryan Curtin – trombone 2Kim-An Do – pianoNick Trautmann and Lexi Bodick – string bassMike Allegue – drum set
Donna Lee by Charlie Parker
Walkin’ Shoes by Gerry Mulligan
Bernie’s Tune by Bernie Miller, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller
Anthropology by Charlie Parker
Move by Denzil Best, arranged by John Lewis
Shaw Nuff by Dizzy Gillespie
Walkin’ by Richard Carpenter
Airegin by Sonny Rollins
Appointment In Ghana by Jackie McLean, arranged by Earl MacDonald
Also... as our final performance of the year, the UConn Jazz Ensemble will perform at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford on Monday, April 29th. We will be part of the Connecticut College Jazz Showcase. Jazz Ensembles from WCSU (Western Connecticut State University) and the Jackie McLean Institute (the Hartt School) will also perform. The ensemble performances will take place between 7:30 and 9:15 p.m., and will be followed by a collective jam session. This is an event you won't want to miss!
UConn Jazz Combo Concert
The UConn Jazz Combos perform tomorrow night, April 11th. We have moved the venue to Lu's Cafe, a much more intimate and relaxed space than the formal, 500-seat recital hall. Lu's is located on the basement level of the Family Studies building. The music starts at 8 p.m. There is no cover charge, but donations are accepted towards our guest artist fund.
Here's the program:
Dolphin Dance by Herbie HancockRed Clay by Freddie HubbardCombo #3:John Mastroianni, directorMichael O’Callaghan - trumpetMike Marsters – tromboneKeith Chasin – pianoNik Hutnik – string bassAndy O’Sullivan – drumsPrince of Darkness by Wayne ShorterIris by Wayne ShorterfCombo #2:Gregg August, directorMatt Baum – saxophoneKim-An Do – pianoNick Trautmann – string bassSteven Jack – drumsPing Pong by Wayne ShorterDear Sir by Wayne ShorterCombo #1Gregg August, directorTom Lee – trumpetColin Walters – saxophoneAndrew Wysen – pianoLexi Bodick – string bassMike Allegue – drumsEddaCombo #1Combo #2A jam session will follow the formal program
Concert Recording - New Directions Ensemble
My 10-piece band, the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble performed a concert at the University of Massachusetts on January 29th, 2013 and it was recorded by New England Public Radio. I thought it was one of our better performances, so I am happy to share it with you here.
Here is the roster which performed at UMASS's Bezanson Recital Hall:
Kris Allen - alto sax
Frank Kozyra - tenor sax
Lauren Sevian - bari sax
Jeff Holmes - lead trumpet
Doug Olsen - trumpet soloist
John Clark - French horn
Sara Javovino - trombone
Earl MacDonald - piano, composer, arranger
Henry Lugo - string bass
Ben Bilello - drums
Because it is an hour and a half concert, which includes my blabbing between tunes, you might want to scroll around to find a specific piece. Here are the starting times:
2:09 - Woody n' You
10:30 - Mirror of the Mind
15:24 - Miles Apart
21:10 - Appointment In Ghana
Lauren Sevian, bari sax
- intermission -
40:22 - Sordid Sort of Fellow
50:05 - Hit The Road Jack
57:46 - East of the Sun
1:06:33 - Blame It On My Youth
1:13:03 - Hot 'n Ready
1:21:09 - Joshua
The next performance of the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble is slated for Friday, April 26th at the Polish National Home in Hartford, CT. The Newington High School Jazz Ensemble, directed by Stephen Brookes will be the opening act. A student workshop is scheduled from 4:30-6pm and is open to the public. The concert begins at 7 p.m.
New charts are in the works and the band sounds better every time we play. Purchase your tickets through the Hartford Jazz Society or at the door. See you there!
Piano For Beginners
Teaching beginning pianists isn't my forte, and given my son's temperament, I knew early on that my attempting to teach him to play the piano wouldn't be a good idea.
Truth be told, we had his first piano teacher selected while we could still carry him around in an infant car seat. She's a very experienced teacher with a large studio out of her home. We were consistently impressed when we heard her play at a local church, and weren't surprised to learn she had earned a Masters degree in piano performance from a respected conservatory.
We started in January (last month), when Logan turned 7. Here is a picture from his first lesson:
Logan's first piano lesson.The lessons and our practice sessions have been going very well. I am surprisingly impressed by the curriculum. We've been working from a series of books called "Piano Adventures" by Nancy and Randall Faber. We were issued four books, which are interrelated, but organized as: lesson book, theory book, technique and artistry book, and performance book.Up to this point (after 3 lessons), we have dealt exclusively with the black notes, thinking of them as groups of 2 or 3. Interestingly, no note names have been introduced yet. To me this makes total sense. The black notes are easy to identify visually, plus from the onset, kids are introduced to the correct fingering for black note keys such as Db, Gb and B.
Already he has been introduced to quite a few musical concepts: rhythmic values, including quarter notes, half notes, whole notes, as well as dynamics (quiet vs. loud).
Here is Logan playing "Old MacDonald". I was especially proud during this run through as he refrained from stopping or getting visibly mad when he made a couple of little mistakes.
sight-reading, improvisation instruction, and structured listening into rehearsals, as well as ideas pertaining to concerts and audience development. To wrap things up, I am posting excerpts from this semester's revised course outline. It summarizes and includes many of the ideas touched upon in my previous posts. In addition to describing the ensemble and my instructional goals, the outline includes a breakdown of how rehearsals are structured, and a new grading plan.
UConn Jazz EnsembleSpring Semester, 2013Course #: MUSI 1115, 5305, section 1 (one credit)Rehearsal schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3 – 5.Room: von der Mehden recital hallIn keeping with the selective nature of the UConn jazz studies program and the music department as a whole, the UConn Jazz Ensemble, unlike the typical 17-piece big band seen at most academic institutions, ranges from nine to twelve instrumentalists. The comparatively small size of the ensemble makes off-campus performances practical and facilitates instruction in improvisation and musical interaction within rehearsals. Each semester the Jazz Ensemble focuses on the music of a specific composer, arranger or professional band. Past composers include Michael Abene, Phil Allen, Bill Cunliffe, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Earl MacDonald, Rob McConnell, Jim McNeely, John Mills, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Rivello and Nathan Parker-Smith.This semester, the ensemble will prepare the arrangements of Marty Paich, as recorded on the Art Pepper + Eleven album (1959). Marty Paich's bio can be read at: http://www.martypaich.com. New music, composed and arranged Earl MacDonald will be a secondary focus. Professor MacDonald also encourages and welcomes student arrangements.
The instructor’s goals in directing this ensemble remain the same as in past semesters:
On-campus performances:02/25/13 (Monday), 7:30 pm UConn Jazz Showcase, Spring 2013
- nuture and develop skills in jazz improvisation, musicianship and interaction.
- prepare the students for professional performance situations.
- acquaint students with the stylistic nuances of swing, through instruction, demonstration, and the study of recordings.
- elevate the sight-reading abilities of the individual ensemble members.
- expose the Music Education majors (future band teachers!) to jazz literature and rehearsal techniques.
- inspire the students by inviting guest artists to campus or organizing off-campus field trips to see live jazz performances.
- present exciting, well-programmed concerts of the highest caliber.
- create a “buzz” of excitement both on and off campus about the exciting, swingin’ jazz ensemble at UConn!
- have fun, playing great music!
04/08/13 (Thursday), 7:30 pm UConn Jazz Ensemble concertOff-campus performances:02/14/13 Manchester High School Jazz Festival. 4 p.m. arrival. 4:50 – 5:40 performance.04/04/13 Benrimon Gallery, New York, NY (Chelsea)
04/29/13 Black-eyed Sally’s, Hartford, CT. 7:30 p.m. (w/ Hartt and WestConn jazz ensembles)
Professor MacDonald is currently investigating additional off-campus performance opportunities.
Grading will be based upon the quality and consistency of preparation (20%), “spot tests” (10%), improvisation and listening assignments (15%), transcription projects (15%), successful concert presentations (40%), attendance, punctuality/tardiness, and conduct in rehearsals.Three transcription projects (worth 5% each) will be assigned over the semester, consisting of two choruses (minimum) from any recording of Bb rhythm changes, F blues, Donna Lee or Airegin --- all of which are found on the selected Art Pepper album. You will notate, learn and perform these solos by memory. You will be taught how to extract licks from these solos to learn in 12 keys and apply to other tunes. Additional choruses/solos will count towards extra credit.Should you be assigned a solo on another piece from the Art Pepper + 11 repertoire, you may substitute a transcribed solo from that piece, to help in your preparations for the concerts.
Due dates: Feb. 21, March 28, April 11.Rehearsal Structure:
TuesdaysThursdays3:00 – 3:20:Group A: newbie improvisation instructionGroup B: drum set and amplifier transfer and set-up3:20 – 4:20:concert repertoire4:20 – 4:50:sight-reading3:00 – 3:20:Group A: newbie improvisation instructionGroup B: drum set and amplifier transfer and set-up3:20 – 4:20:concert repertoire4:20 – 4:35:testing – improvisation and jazz skills4:35 – 4:50:improv/jazz skills lesson
It has been just over a week since Wayne Shorter's Carnegie Hall performance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Since that time, a lot has been said and written about Wayne, but aside from one less-than-favorable New York Times review, eyewitness observations and opinions about the concert have been scarce. Here's mine:
Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci and the Orpheus Chamber Ensemble
Writing an orchestral suite is no small feat for a person of any age, let alone composing music which is truly spectacular. To my sensibilities, Shorter accomplished near perfection in achieving balance, on several levels. The balance between the jazz quartet's involvement and purely orchestral passages was just right, as were his choices of when, when not, and how to use drum set. Highly cerebral passages were offset by deep, funky grooves that had the entire audience bopping in their seats. I was struck by the beautiful, sweeping woodwind lines under and around larger ensemble hits and punctuations. By no means was this an orchestra providing background pads to a jazz quartet. True interaction was achieved, along with the exertion of strong individual statements from both the chamber ensemble and the jazz quartet.
This was a true example of collaboration working successfully --- when the sum of two separate entities joined together equals something considerably greater. As a composer and improvising musician, it was a performance that left me feeling inspired to experiment and delve into similar, "crossover vein" musical situations. (Stay tuned!!)
Orpheus Chamber Ensemble
in rehearsal with Wayne Shorter
After Monday's rehearsal, I couldn't imagine how the music could possibly come together. Much of it hadn't been fully addressed. Wayne barely played in rehearsal and I couldn't help but wonder what his part might sound like. Would he be improvising over the ensemble? Would he be doubling/reinforcing melody passages? Would he lay out as he did in rehearsal?
When I heard them again at Friday afternoon's rehearsal in Carnegie Hall, much had changed. They had rehearsed again in the meantime and had performed a run-through concert in Pennsylvania. Clearly, many issues had been resolved. I was impressed that the members of Orpheus fully committed themselves to bringing the best out of this new music. It was evident that they gave Wayne the respect he deserved as the man who wrote all those great tunes which now constitute the modern jazz canon.
Wayne played with absolute fire! It was a joy to hear his trademark, familiar sound intertwined with, and soaring above the orchestra. Without detracting from their performance, the quartet on the other hand, were more subdued than I have ever heard them. After peeking at the scores backstage, I attribute this to the amount of notes they were reading. I didn't see one chord symbol in Danilo Perez's piano part. It would have be a serious challenge to prepare for any jazz pianist.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet: Danilo Perez, Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, Brian Blade
I am blown away by the level of interaction achieved by this rhythm section. I'm still wrestling to put my finger on what makes them so distinctive as a unit. I question if the amount Patitucci plays (which is more than any bassist I have ever encountered), allows Blade to play gestures, rather than always assuming a traditional timekeeping role. Much more listening needs to take place before I make a definitive assessment, but for now I'm comfortable saying that this trio is doing something truly unique and special which has once again advanced jazz music in its ongoing evolution.
Live at Birdland
Although I had never before heard the Birdland Big Band, I had high hopes as I entered the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday evening. Big bands don't tour anymore. To be on tour, performing large ensemble jazz music in 2013, this just had to be a great show! I imagined that they might have figured out the magic formula to presenting big band jazz. In addition to having cutting-edge arrangements and stellar musicianship, maybe they even had a great light show. Perhaps they had an innovative stage set-up, like what Darcy Argue used in his recent Brooklyn Babylon production:
Darcy Argue's innovative big band stage set-up for "Brooklyn Babylon"
Alas, very few of my hopes transpired. Sure there were some great musicians in the band who blew exciting solos, but for the most part, this was just a stock big band, sitting in the normal stage configuration, with minimal stage lighting, playing typical big band repertoire which could be covered by most any metropolitan big band. In no way did they compare musically to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, Maria Schneider's band or the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.
Tommy Igoe's drumming. He is clearly a great contemporary, modern (rock) drummer with chops galore. Elements of his playing were impressive, but in my opinion, lacked a quality of sincerity which stems from the mindset of "check me out" rather than "how can I best compliment and shape the music?" [Seeing drummer Brian Blade the following evening with Wayne Shorter affirmed these thoughts.]
Jazz Education Network
I am writing this post as I fly home to Connecticut from the Jazz Education Network conference in Atlanta. The conference theme was "Networking The Jazz Community... Local to Global", and networking I did. Although I attended many performances and clinics, I decided beforehand that I wanted to emphasize relational building activities, rather than merely running from event to event. From the moment I stepped into the hotel conference center (on Friday morning), I was fully immersed in conversations with educators, university administrators, publishers, authors, musicians, arrangers, festival promoters, old friends... and new ones too. It was exhilarating to say the least.
From the scheduled conference offerings, the following stood out as being exceptional:
University Big Band Performances:
- University of Northern Colorado Jazz Lab Band 1 - Dana Landry, director
- University of Southern Mississippi Jazz Lab Band 1 - Larry Panella, director
- University of Miami Frost Concert Jazz Band - Dante Luciani, director
Professional Performances:The Mike Pope/Jim White/Stefan Karlsson Trio was truly fantastic. Because the three musicians are longtime friends, they demonstrated an uncanny degree of comfort in their musical report/risk-taking together. Technically impressive, super musical and fun.
Although I consider myself an experienced/expert user of the Finale music software notation program, I learned a number of valuable, time-saving shortcuts (which I will put into practice this week as I finish up a chart!) This clinic was pure gold.
- Effective Tools for Composing/Arranging Using Finale. Socrates Garcia, clinician.
Mike is a former teacher and ongoing mentor of mine. I admire the confidence he justifiably exudes, stemming from his comprehensive knowledge and experience as an arranger and seasoned New York City musician.
- Get Your Groove On! Michael Mossman, clinician
In addition to being great musicians, these guys know how to laugh and have a good time. I appreciate that!
- Jazz Composition and Arranging in the Digital Age. Michael Abene and Richard Sussman, clinicians
Of the jazz history texts I have perused, Mark Gridley's is my favorite. It provides a solid overview without getting too bogged down in details. I agree with his goal of teaching lifelong listening and jazz appreciation skills. It was a kick to meet him.
- Teaching Jazz History as a Perceptual Learning Experience. Mark Gridley, clinician
Bob Mintzer, John Clayton, Don Braden and Javon Jackson shared tips pertaining to the assemblage of a successful performance career.Although I'm feeling a degree of physical exhaustion, my two days at the JEN conference in Atlanta have recharged my creative batteries. I have ideas abound, including a performance project to propose at next year's conference in Dallas. Maybe I'll see you there!
- From the Classroom to the Bandstand:
... posing with the great jazz arranger, Michael Abene.
Wishing everyone a cheerful "Happy New Year!" doesn't quite feel appropriate this year. My heart is still heavy for the families of Newtown. My musical colleague and friend, Jimmy Greene lost his daughter Ana Grace in this tragic massacre. Despite the inspirational faith the Marquez-Greene family has demonstrated through this terrible ordeal, we know their adjustment and healing is only just barely beginning. I pray for them several times a day.
The theme of Ana's funeral was "Love Wins". I'm still wearing my purple bracelet with this inscription. The Greenes referred to the service as a "home going celebration", as they know with certainty that Ana is now with Jesus, in a better place. We also know that we are still here, in this flawed world --- a world that desperately needs our love to radiate. Despite my sadness and deep feelings of empathy for the Greenes, I left that service feeling inspired, changed and wanting to do my part. I resolve not to let those feelings dissipate as time passes.Like many people, I typically spend some time reflecting as I go into a new year, making lists of things I hope to accomplish. Usually this list pertains to my career in music, fitness and time management. To list the gigs I aspire to play, music I hope to write, and solos I want to transcribe just seems like a trivial exercise this year.Instead, I want to focus more on things of eternal consequence, rather than the ephemeral. I want this year's resolutions and aspirations to reflect "Love Wins". I want to show love in my life. I want to teach my kids how to be caring, and demonstrate love and compassion in their lives. I've got some serious work cut out for me here.Reading and memorizing scripture is a first step. This week my family, including our youngest, memorized Ephesians 4:32:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.My wife and I are also planning an alternative to traditional church, with a strong focus on building community and serving others. We are calling it Acts of Mansfield. Our first outing was singing Christmas carols with a group of neighborhood friends at a local nursing home. Future events will be listed on the Facebook page we created, where we described the group as:
We are Bible believing Christians who don’t seem to fit into Christian culture. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we saw the need for meaningful, lasting change in our lives. We have this strong desire to “press in;” to embody what it means to show love and compassion in a more tangible way. So, we have decided to leave our church pew and we are choosing to ACT. Each Sunday, we plan to love God and love God’s people through acts of service.
Our hope is that you will join us and that our mission is contagious. All are welcome – believers, seekers, doubters – truly, come as you are. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world (Gandhi).
...and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. -Acts 1:8
This description may evolve over time. Who knows? Maybe this idea will catch on and we will see similar groups pop up --- Acts of Chicago, Acts of Denton, Acts of Winnipeg, Acts of Scranton... I hope as a society we can all embrace the power of love, and work together. In honor of all of the victims of Sandy Hook, love wins.
Rethinking Concerts: One Idea
In response to my last blog post, "Rethinking Concerts", I have received some terrific ideas and suggestions for boosting concert attendance. Please keep the ideas coming.The following letter came from Shari Baum, the mother of my lead tenor sax player. I think her ideas make a lot of sense, especially in light of the tragedy in Newtown. Coincidentally, I had similar thoughts while leading some caroling at a senior's home last week with a group of friends.
I'm a social worker spending much of my time with senior adults....vibrant, engaged and brilliant people.....some still in their own homes, many living in independent living facilities, some in assisted living. Research tells us that the healthiest way for people to age is to be involved with others of all ages.....unfortunately this isn't always possible. So we have older people living together or isolated and they see our youth as wild, out of touch texting zombies. I am constantly the voice of optimism defending our youth.
Just this week I attended my niece's holiday concert at the _______ Academy. I brought my 88 year Mom and the music and the sight of all those bright young faces with their futures ahead of them brought pure joy to us all....I saw my Mom's face light up when the kids opened their mouths to sing.
In challenging times there is nothing more hopeful than seeing young people full of life and joy and hope. This is why I think the Newtown horror has really hit a nerve with everyone.....little babies gone in an instance at the hands of a 20 year old sick young man.....The seniors I work with are devastated......they feel powerless....what kind of future is there?
How can we ease some of the pain??? With music and the fresh faces of our young people.
I am sure, near Storrs there are senior living apartments or assisted living facilities. They usually have some kind of van or bus available to them, or if the school has a bus maybe we can pick them up. They are a receptive audience, always looking for activities that are reasonably priced and local. Von der Mehden is fully accessible if some have trouble walking......I think it's a win-win. You have an audience and the seniors have a reason to feel good about the future, while also listening to great music!
Sorry for the length of this....I got carried away, but I feel very passionate and think it could be a model for the entire fine arts department....especially music.
I would be happy to do some research on senior housing near the school, unless you already know some places, and invite them to the next concert. There's usually an activities director so I would start there and see what the response is. Let me know what you think.
Shari BaumI have already taken Shari up on her offer and am thankful to have band members with supportive, thoughtful parents such the Baums.
Besides modifying my university jazz ensemble's curriculum (to include improvisation, sight-reading and listening), I have been questioning the way in which we do concerts. I have been asking myself questions like: Who are we trying to reach, and how can we better reach them? Should we change venues? What are we doing right, that needs to stay intact? What can we improve? What are we doing wrong?
Poor concert attendance is one of my greatest frustrations as an ensemble director. After having spent hours in concert preparation, how can students not feel demoralized when they look out and see 20 or so people in a concert hall that seats 300? I am curious, is this problem unique to Storrs, CT or is it experienced by other university jazz ensemble directors across the country?
In an April, 2011 post entitled "Where Did the Audience Go?", I outlined my plans to have high school bands perform as opening acts at my concerts. My intention was to launch a new recruitment initiative, which would also expand our audience. Because it brought prospective students to campus and reinforced existing relationships with band directors, I consider it successful. But, as far as audience generation goes --- not so much. One or two parent chaperones typically accompanied the groups. Unfortunately, this plan was also limited to the winter/spring months, as most high school band directors switch their focus from marching band to jazz band during the winter months.I need a new plan. One that works year-round, yields consistently larger audiences, increases our visibility, and helps recruit quality students. On-campus performances, for a handful of people, simply aren't cutting it.
Before delving into some speculation as to why my ensemble concerts are poorly attended, I will state that I doubt it's for lack of promotional efforts. Here's a list of the marketing activities in which I typically engage:
- Music Department web page: http://www.music.uconn.edu/
- FaceBook pages: https://www.facebook.com/UConnMusic, https://www.facebook.com/UConnJazz
- personal FaceBook posts and event invitations
- encouraging students to link/share FB listings
- YouTube videos
- physical posters, for on-campus distribution
- blog posts
- UConn Daily Digest (LISTSERV)
- Hartford Jazz Society's Live Jazz Calendar
I am also curious to hear from my professional peers if they have designated marketing personnel at their teaching institutions, to promote concert events. Unfortunately, I currently do not. Much to my chagrin, marketing is becoming a bigger and bigger part of my job each year.
My guesses as to why concert attendance is abysmal for my ensemble's shows include the following:
If you have an opinion or idea, I would love to hear from you. I do have some schemes of redesign in mind, but it would be nice to collect the thoughts of concert goers, musicians, and educators before I formally chart my course.
- In size, the ensemble ranges between 9 and 12 players. Obviously a group of 12 ensemble members has less supportive friends and family than an orchestra or choir of over 50.
- People are venturing out less and less these days. Maybe concerts are obsolete. Live streaming and YouTube videos are perhaps more important today. Do we even need formalized concerts?
- We are possibly over-saturating our community with jazz. Within a semester we have a weekly jam session, a showcase concert featuring all the groups, a combo concert, a jazz lab band show and a jazz ensemble concert. The jazz lab band and jazz ensemble concerts have often been slated during the same week.
- Maybe the programming needs to be more inventive and appealing to the general public. ("Yule Be Swinging" seems to work while there aren't exactly line ups for "the Music of Jim McNeely".)
- We might need to rethink concert times. Most of my concerts are on Monday and Tuesday nights. Maybe afternoon, weekend times would be better.
- I hate the thought of mandating concert attendance, but when Jazz Lab Band members don't attend the Jazz Ensemble's concert (and vice versa), there is an issue which must be addressed.
- Jazz may just not be popular in Storrs, CT.
Today's post is more of a questionnaire than an opinion piece.
I want to include a structured listening component into the syllabus of the university jazz ensemble I direct. In rehearsals I often play recordings of the pieces we are preparing, so that we can discuss musical details we notice, but have not yet mastered. The students are also issued recordings of the pieces related to our current repertoire project. Over and above listening to the music we are preparing, I want my students to listen to a broad variety of big band music --- both historic and modern, so that they learn the expected stylistic nuances which aren't always fully notated. So here are my questions for fellow jazz educators:
- Do you assign listening homework?
- Do you play recordings during rehearsal time? If so, how frequently?
- What discussions ensue?
- How do you assess listening?
- How do you determine that the assigned listening has been completed?
I'm leaning towards implementing monthly "drop the needle" listening tests. What do you think? How else might I be successful in encouraging my students to engage in active listening.
For those who might be interested, here is a list of noteworthy big band albums, posted on my web site.
Sight Reading - the oft ignored, yet requisite skill
Perhaps the greatest disparity between school ensembles and the professional music world is the amount of rehearsal time. It is not uncommon for high school and college bands to spend an entire semester (20+ rehearsals) preparing material for a single concert. This weekend I played a commercial big band show, "The Rat Pack Is Back" at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. We had a one hour rehearsal prior to the show, and nailed it. Everyone in the band was obviously a great sight-reader.
If you can't read, you can't work in this business. If we are truly preparing and equipping our students to become competent, capable musicians, reading must be taught. It doesn't just happen on its own. For this reason, I spend the last half hour of each rehearsal sight reading.
For some unknown reason, the UConn jazz ensemble library has hundreds of dated (horrible!) disco, jazz-rock, and swing charts. We are working our way through them at a rate of about five charts per rehearsal. My rule is: even if the chart is "corny" and poorly written, it must be played with as much integrity and accuracy as possible.
Questions for my fellow jazz educators:
- How many rehearsals do you allot to prepare your ensemble's concert set?
- Is sight reading a regular part of your rehearsals?
- How much rehearsal time do you devote to sight-reading?
- What do you have them read?
- Do you think sight-reading should be done in rehearsals, or practiced on one's own?
- Would you ever consider having your band read a (simple) piece in a concert?
I will leave you with an anecdote. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of adjudicating an educational jazz festival with Canadian jazz education guru, Gordon Foote. I learned a lot from watching his post-performance critiques. After a nearly flawless student ensemble performance, he reached into his satchel and pulled out a piece of music for them to sight read. The band crashed and burned. Although this band placed well in a prestigious competition that same year, by not addressing their reading deficiency, I think their director did them a great disservice. What do you think?
Teaching Improvisation Within Jazz Ensemble Rehearsals
How many student big bands have you heard where the ensemble playing was acceptable but where the soloing was downright atrocious? Based on the adjudications and visitations I have done, I'd go so far as to say that this is the norm in most schools across North America. I admit that over the years, to varying degrees, my bands too could be described in this way. Despite typically having one or two star improvisers, improvisation remains a common area of weakness.
If improvisation is jazz's defining characteristic, why as ensemble directors are we prioritizing accurate mass ensemble playing over the development of soloing skills in our rehearsals? My rationale has been: in improv class, I teach improv, while in jazz ensemble I emphasize ensemble playing and exposing students to big band literature. The problem is, only a small portion of my band takes my improv class. In fact, some of them are not receiving any guidance in learning improvisation. This simply has to change. To quote Popeye,
"That's all I can stands, I can't stands no more."
Teaching a new lick to the UConn Jazz Ensemble.
My band rehearses from 3 - 5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Starting in January, half an hour every Thursday will be devoted to developing improv skills. There will be 15 minutes of instruction and 15 minutes of testing, based on the material assigned from the previous week.
As stated in my last post, we will be working on repertoire from the Art Pepper Plus Eleven album. Almost every tune is a commonly played jazz standard, thereby functioning as excellent vehicles for teaching improvisation. Learning these 12 pieces (sans arrangements) will be reinforced by assigning them as the performance repertoire for our weekly, Thursday night jam session at Lu's Cafe.
Students will be expected to play and sing the melodies, bass motion and arpeggiate the harmonic progression. A variety of directly applicable licks, patterns and scales will be taught and correctly inserted into the pieces.
Four transcription projects will be assigned over the semester, consisting of two choruses (minimum) from any recording of Bb rhythm changes, F blues, Donna Lee and Airegin --- all of which are found on the selected Art Pepper album. Students will notate, learn and perform these solos by memory. They will be taught how to extract licks from these solos to learn in 12 keys and apply to other tunes. Additional choruses/solos will count towards extra credit.
I would love to hear from my my fellow jazz educators in the comments below. Is teaching improvisation a regular part of your large ensemble rehearsals? Why/why not? If so, how much time do you devote to it? What do you require and assign? How do you assess it? Have you seen substantial improvement when improv instruction has been a regular component of your rehearsals? What do you think of my plan? In your opinion, am I asking for/expecting too much? Should valuable rehearsal time be devoted to teaching improv?
In the next few posts I will continue to share some thoughts about how I am planning to transform my rehearsals in the spring. Sight reading and listening will be the next two topics. Again, I would love to receive some feedback. Feel free to throw questions back at me too.
Every Ending Is A New Beginning
As the fall semester wraps up, I have been considering what musical project I will undertake in the spring with the UConn Jazz Ensemble. I have also been giving some thought to how I might change my teaching approach next semester --- but I will expound on that in my next post.
For now, here is a taste from the 1959 "Art Pepper Plus Eleven" album --- Groovin' High.
I plan to prepare all twelve selections from this recording with the UConn Jazz Ensemble next semester. Almost every tune is commonly played at jam sessions: Move, Groovin' High, Opus De Funk, 'Round Midnight, Four Brothers, Shaw Nuff, Bernie's Tune, Walkin' Shoes, Anthropology, Airegin, Walkin', Donna Lee.Because these tunes are perfect vehicles for teaching improvisation, this will be a strong focus in addition to ensemble playing. Plenty of rehearsal time will be devoted to "getting inside" these pieces and learning the changes (harmonies). It should make for a fun project.
'Tis The Season ...almost
Tonight marks my first holiday season gig of the year. I'm playing with my Jazz for Joy Quintet at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum for the annual Festival of Trees and Traditions event from 6 - 9 p.m. Tickets are $85 or $75 for Members, and can be reserved at (860) 838-4100. All profits from this event help fund the museum’s special exhibitions, educational programs, and operating expenses.Then on Saturday, I'm giving a concert at UConn's von der Mehden Recital Hall at 3 p.m. Billed as "Yule Be Swingin", the show will feature five of my top students, joined by me. Admission is free but a collection will be taken for W.A.I.M. (the Windham Area Interfaith Mission) to help local individuals and families in dire circumstances.There are also a couple of private parties on my calendar, so I will get plenty of use from my collection of seasonal jazz music this year. As I have often done in previous years, I am including one outstanding UConn jazz student on each of these professional outings, to give them the experience of working with a professional band. Saxophonist Colin Walters and bassist Nick Trautmann have been given the music in advance and through their demonstrated hard work for me, and the progress they have made, I believe they truly deserve this opportunity.I hope to see you at the Yule Be Swingin' concert on Saturday. It will be fun for the whole family --- and even Santa has committed to being there! Happy Holidays everyone.
Vintage Keith Jarrett
Those who say jazz was dormant during the 1970s have clearly forgotten about Keith Jarrett's European Quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Jon Christensen. Check them out!
I'll go out on a limb here and say I think this band should be mentioned along with Miles' quintets and Coltrane's quartet when it comes to groups that played a significant role in shaping modern jazz and pushing the music in a forward trajectory. Just look at the drummers alone: Philly Joe, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jon Christensen.
On occasion I like to dabble in the world of free jazz. Trumpeter John Allmark has been quoted as saying "they call it free jazz because no one will pay to hear it." Although I agree that free jazz is not the most accessible, easy-listening music, I definitely see merits to playing free --- both within jazz education and for my own personal artistic growth and expression.
When discussing free jazz, I like to ask the question, "Free of what?" The improviser can be liberated and encouraged to experiment outside of the usual parameters by subtracting one or more of the following musical elements: predetermined form, tonality, key signature, standard notation, set rhythms, melodies, harmonies, tempo, time signature, etc.
This tune, "Looking Forward, Looking Back", does have a roadmap and form (including a Dal segno and Coda), but is otherwise notated using an unconventional graphic format. Using contrasting, cued events, a story unfolds.
Here is the score, so you can follow along: (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
I refer to this type of composition as "guided free improvisation". In my recent recording session with the Creative Opportunity Workshop (COW), we recorded four pieces incorporating this compositional technique.
I have successfully used some of these pieces in educational settings, when working with beginner improvisers. Graphic scores provide "an in" (starting point) for those who don't yet know their chords, scales and the dauntingly vast amounts of theory required to outline harmonic progressions. Obviously I teach this material too, but I like getting them playing ASAP, and overwhelming them isn't always productive. Paralysis by Analysis --- as Bill Fielder used to call it.
Imagine the creative explosion/renaissance that might occur if every kid's first musical assignment was to make a list of 12 extended instrumental techniques to demonstrate at their next lesson.