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.
- My New Favorite Album (du jour)
Tomorrow's Jazz Program
Many university jazz programs today are doing a fine job producing graduates capable of sight-reading, interpreting a wide variety of written music, improvising, composing and arranging --- all at relatively high levels. In many regards, the curricular structure, guidelines and expected competencies outlined in the N.A.S.M.’s handbook appear to be working. The dedicated jazz educator must now grapple with how to balance traditional, proven methods of instruction with new systems, approaches and tools to best educate and equip our students for the future.
At increasingly younger ages, undergraduate students are becoming adroit in transcribing and copying master musicians, and assimilating their musical vocabulary. This adheres to the fist part of Clark Terry’s celebrated philosophy for learning to play jazz: “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”
Transitioning from copying to creating is where students often falter. As mentors/guides/coaches, we collectively need to ponder how to help our students make the leap to musical innovation and creation. Ways in which this could be accomplished include:
- subtly modifying our pedagogy to emphasize the conceptual.
- encouraging and rewarding experimentation with instrumentation.
- increasing the required presentation of original compositions.
- prompting upperclassmen to write and play their own melodic lines, rather than only drawing upon transcribed material.
- directly exposing our students to cutting-edge, innovative artists through campus visitations.
Tracking the career paths of recent fine arts alumni reveals a trend towards blended careers, encompassing several skill sets. Tomorrow’s jazz program will embrace this shift, by developing/offering new cross-pollinated degrees which partner with business, education and/or other fine arts disciplines, thereby better preparing students for “real life” employment situations. Emphases in jazz studies within arts administration or business management degrees would be both practical and attractive. Adeptness in grant writing, project management and marketing has become mandatory for musicians, yet these disciplines have not entered the core curriculum of most conservatories.
Accessing information has never been easier than in this current technological age. We must not only stay current, but lead in finding new ways to utilize technology to our advantage. There is a need for the development of helpful music “apps”. Entrepreneurial ventures could be explored, such as a university-run recording label with online distribution. Streaming concerts and lectures will become the expected norm.
Our current jazz programs have done well in embracing the use of notation software in arranging and composition courses. Similarly, we should further stress the use of new recording technology. In the last decade, affordable, easy-to-use home systems have replaced the large professional recording studios. To remain current and create job opportunities, we must provide our students with the skills needed to create music for films, jingles, TV, video games and other digital media, from their laptops.
With a pang of remorse, the time may come when it will be necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of our jazz ensemble offerings. We will ask, “Has the big band become an obsolete instrumentation outside of academia?” If so, should our time and fiscal resources continue to be channeled into this area? Should big band be the default “flagship ensemble” by which our jazz programs are judged, or should we branch out to include other instrumental configurations? Options are limitless, but might include 10tet (decatet), jazz/strings lab ensemble, commercial ensemble, art ensemble, and studio orchestra.
The jazz educator’s work is not complete in challenging lingering, negative perceptions about jazz music and its practitioners. Even within music schools, classically oriented colleagues joke about our being up late at night, hanging out in bars. The jazz educator of today and tomorrow must be willing to proselytize for their art form and the discipline and intellect it demands. Every performance must be well-prepared and of the highest artistic caliber, capable of enhancing our collective lives, by providing unique expressions of emotion, thought and spirit.
Should a student of jazz ultimately choose another career path, he/she should be exalted for the transferable skillsets learned through the study of jazz. In saxophonist David Liebman’s article for Instrumentalist, “Jazz Education In the Century of Change: Beyond the Music”, he eloquently addresses the question, “What values does a jazz education offer beyond the music itself?”
Discussions of vocationalism are sometimes avoided within academia, based on the notion that professors are only responsible for transmitting information and guiding students’ artistic development. However, savvy students and parents are understandably seeking more thoughtful, calculated responses to their occupational queries. The tremendous cost of post-secondary education obligates the leaders of tomorrow’s jazz programs to know a multitude of current career options, and the route to attain such work. Industry mentorship programs could be cultivated at radio stations, concert venues, record labels, recording studios, publicists offices, jazz festivals, etc.
Personally, I bubble over with enthusiasm when considering the many possibilities for tomorrow’s jazz program. I believe the future is bright for jazz education! I would love to hear from other passionate jazz educators about their vision for tomorrow's jazz program. Do we stay on our current path, maintaining the status quo, or should we start instigating some radical changes?
2/23 UCONN Jazz Showcase
On Sunday, February 23 at 3PM, von der Mehden Recital Hall will present the UConn Jazz Showcase. This is event is free for students, faculty, and children with ID and $10 for general admission.This performance will feature a full big band and jazz combos directed by Earl MacDonald, John Mastroianni, and Gregg August. The big band will perform arrangements by John Clayton, Chris Merz, and Michael Philip Mossman. A faculty duo of MacDonald (piano) and Mastroianni (saxophone) will also play several selections.
Reflections of Monk
I attended the "Reflections of Monk" performance at New York City's Birdland jazz club on Tuesday, Feb. 18th, and thought it might be fun to share some of my impressions.
This was my first time in the new Birdland, and I was highly impressed with the club's physical layout. The stage is well situated so that everyone sitting at tables has a clear view of the band. The $40 music fee was steep; nevertheless, the club appeared to be at near capacity.
The band featured:
photo by Brian O'KaneTom Harrell - trumpetGreg Osby - alto saxophoneAaron Goldberg - pianoBen Allison - string bassMatt Wilson - drum set
Producer, Milan Simich was given credit for assembling the ensemble. I imagine that a recording session might follow the week long stint, but this wasn't announced.
As the title infers, they played renditions of Thelonious Monk tunes. I could only stay for the first set, which was comprised of the following tunes:Who Knows?Let's Cool OneSkippyMonk's DreamFriday the ThirteenthRhythm-a-ning
To my ears, it was obvious that this was the band's opening night. Some of the heads (especially the opener) were a bit sloppy. The band interacted well, but clearly they were still "feeling out one another".
It was interesting hearing Greg Osby in this context. Monk's harmonic material forced him to play more bop-like than I have heard him play before. Only on Rhythm-a-ning did he really open up, let loose, and play the fast, angular, "slightly out" linear material I equate with his sound.
Tom sounded great throughout. No complaints. His tremor may have increased since the last time I saw him, but it didn't affect his sound drastically. His improvisational lines were beautiful and well executed. Some of the Monk heads weren't as polished as I would have liked, they aren't the easiest pieces to play, as any jazz musician will attest.
This was my first time hearing pianist Aaron Goldberg live, and I was impressed. He's got incredible facility and great ideas. In my opinion, his rousing solos consistently stole the show. I appreciated his ability to develop simple motifs and move them around harmonically. When pianists play Monk tunes, they often fall into the unfortunate trap of playing like Monk. Their touch changes, and they play more clusters and whole-tone runs than usual. Aaron did a nice job of sounding true to himself on this repertoire.
Ben Allison is a marvelous soloist. In fact, he may be one of my favorite string bass soloists, due to the beautiful, singable melodic content in his solos. I hate to be critical, but I'm not a huge fan of his walking. His quarter notes often sounded short and detached. Sometimes the pitch wasn't very distinguishable; it was just a nondescript thump. (I may be off base... no pun intended.) This was my second time hearing Ben live, and I had the same impression when I heard him at Smalls with Jonathan Kreisberg a couple of years ago.
Matt Wilson is a bit of an anomaly. Honestly, I can't decide if I love or take exception to his orchestrational choices on the drum set. He's a bit of a show boater which I find off-putting. I found myself closing my eyes to see if I'd be less critical without watching him. I admire his creative spirit, but at times its just too much for my tastes. There were some beautiful moments though, which he played a significant role in creating. What he played during bass solos was especially sensitive and complimentary.
Overall, I'd say it was a good night and I'd recommend the show for those interested in attending on subsequent nights. The band did a nice job breathing new life into Monk's timeless, beautiful compositions. I imagine that by the end of the week, the music will have reached a remarkable level.
Looking Forward, Looking Back
"Looking Forward, Looking Back" seemed like the perfect title for New Years' Eve, the day we look ahead to the New Year, while also spending some time in reflection. This is the fifth and final post in my mini-series providing insight into my graphic, aleatoric compositions.
This piece is designed to tell a story about a crucial, life-changing decision. The problem is, the decision is being made by someone other than yourself. Two possible scenarios are:
Here's the score (click on it to enlarge it to full size):
- a wedding proposal where she says, "Give me a day or two and I'll get back to you."
- a job interview
And here is a live performance of it, featuring my band, C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop). Note that all the trumpet parts are played by saxophone. You might enjoy following along with the score while simultaneously watching the performance.Happy New Year!
Jazz Meets Baseball
The game/piece requires a conductor and works well with a small group of musicians (probably no more than six players). The conductor builds a piece using the signals below, in any order. The various elements can and should be used more than once.
[Click on the score to enlarge it to full size.]
- A clenched fist is used to get the attention of the players before giving an instruction. The clenched fist is followed by...
- a conducted "downbeat" indicating a contrast in texture during collective, group improvisation. (loud becomes soft, dense becomes sparse, etc.)
- holding up 1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers and then pointing at specific players to cue an upcoming solo, duo, trio or quartet. The players continue with the previous texture until a downbeat has been given.
- a tug on the ear, which cues "cartoon sounds" (also known as, extended instrumental techniques). These could include playing a mouthpiece alone, tapping keys, closing the piano lid, blowing air through a horn, removing tubing from a brass instrument, etc.) Upon the downbeat, the conductor quickly points at individuals who reveal their predetermined, unorthodox sounds. The players must be "on their toes" and ready to react should they be pointed to next.
- touching his nose, signaling it is time to end the piece. The players don't have to stop abruptly; rather, they end the piece organically.
Let's play ball!
In Response To My Critics
I knew the gamble I would be taking by including some "free improvisation" on my new album. I anticipated that these tracks might not be as favorably received, but I wanted the CD to accurately represent the band's repertoire and it's original "raison d’être." Initially this band ONLY played "far out", experimental pieces, which makes it somewhat ironic (albeit expected) that critics are saying pieces like Where Thinking Leaves Off "seem out of place among more engaging tunes." Another reviewer offhandedly insulted me by saying Where Thinking Leaves Off was "appropriately titled" --- as if to infer that no thought went into the composition or performance.Where Thinking Leaves Off was written after reading Søren Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", and depicts the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, told in the biblical book of Genesis (chapters 17:1 - 18:15, 21:1 - 7, 22:1 -18). The title comes from a Kierkegaard quote, "faith begins where thinking leaves off." Emotionally potent content saturates every scene, spanning Isaac's miraculous birth to geriatric parents, to Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an alter. The contrasts, tensions and emotions make for a fertile improvisational playground.Be assured, the hours of preparation that go into my graphic scores overshadow the effort it takes to write a brief album synopsis without reading the press release, liner notes, band description and other written materials prepared to coincide with the album's release. This arrogant, misinformed trend in album criticism is disappointing and serious cause for concern.That said, I had hoped each piece could stand on its own artistically, without an explanation. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was expecting too much of my listeners; but then again, it's not as if I was inventing and introducing the free jazz idiom. It's been around for 50 years, but appears to be just as polarizing now as at it's inception.In no way does the negative response of a few critics make me think my explorations into graphic composition are artistically weak, unsound or invalid. In fact, I'm rather proud of this work.An audio player and the score for "Where Thinking Leaves Off" appear below. See if you can follow along with the score. (Saxophone replaces all the indicated trumpet parts.)
Dave Douglas, the trumpet playing composer, introduced me to the concept of graphic scores and aleatoric composition back in 2001 while I was a participant at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. I've done some further study since then, investigating the work of Earle Brown and R. Murray Schafer, among others, who utilized unconventional notation practices.
Gush - an avant-garde musical experiment
Today I am sharing my piece, "Gush" to further illustrate the concept of guided free improvisation. Gush depicts the affects of adding various stimuli to a water-based ecosystem. For it's debut performance it was scored for 3 saxes, 4 brass and rhythm section. The entrance and exit of each instrument is variable and cued by the conductor or a designated member within the ensemble.
Although "Gush" was later recorded by my quartet, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, it didn't make it onto my "Mirror of the Mind" CD. I decided to release a balanced cross-selection of our repertoire rather than focusing solely on avant-garde experiments (or arranged pop tunes or contemporary jazz compositions).
The following video was created by Ted Efremoff and Deborah Dancy, as part of a collaborative, cross-disciplinary suite entitled "Above the Surface of the Water", for I which composed the music.Can you hear the school of minnows frolicking joyfully in the water? How about the fisherman's hook interacting with the salmon? The motor boat stirring things up? The affect of pollutants on the fish and plant life?
I have heard it said that free jazz is a lot like masturbation; it is self indulgent and should be done in private. A few years ago I may have subscribed to this viewpoint, but I'm becoming more open minded. I now see free improvisation as a legitimate and effective form of self expression. But like any art form, it takes time to develop a level of proficiency (which facilitates the communication of plausible musical statements).
As a creative musician looking to stretch my imagination and further develop the intuitive side of my musicianship, I have found "playing free" to be beneficial. I think it has made me a better composer and improviser in tonal settings.
The author of the Wikipedia article on Free Improvisation defines it as "improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved." My compositional forays into free jazz tend to have some rules and guidelines, so as to steer the improvisors.
Here is a video of my band, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, playing a free piece I entitled, "Quaternary Triangulation":
The score is a set of instructions which looks like this: (If you click on the image, it will expand to full size.)
The result is four, short, contrasting trios. In the video, the suite unfolded as follows:
Mvt. #1: cello (leader), accompanied by piano and percussion
Mvt. #2: piano (leader), accompanied by percussion and sax
Mvt. #3: percussion (leader), accompanied by sax and cello
Mvt. #4: sax (leader), accompanied by piano and cello
As an educator, I have found this exercise to be helpful in getting students to consider and execute elements of contrast: fast/slow, high/low registers, long/short articulations, dense/sparse, loud/soft, etc. It doesn't hurt for professionals to be reminded of these devices either.
In an earlier blog post I touched on my experiences using "guided free improvisation" in educational settings. I have provided a link, so I won't expound here, although I see tremendous untapped potential here.
Over the next few days I will share several more of my free compositions, so as to provide some insight into a style which is perhaps too easily dismissed by the uninitiated.
Despite the joyousness of the season, there is always some sadness when we can't be reunited with ALL of our family members over the holidays. This song "Miles Apart" was written while thinking of the distance which separates my parents and my sister's family from my own. We live on opposite coasts.
The above video footage comes from my CD release concert which took place on Oct. 11th, 2013 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT. The members of the band are Kris Allen - sax, Christopher Hoffman - cello, Rogerio Boccato - percussion, and me.
I was somewhat miffed when a recent reviewer wrote, "The genesis of “Miles Apart” is murky, and whether it is meant to convey distance, or an allusion to Miles Davis, no amount of listening will sort out." A quick reading of my online liner notes would give the answer and much more. Detailed song descriptions for all the pieces on my latest CD appear on my website. Perhaps in our postmodernist world research is now passé.
CD Release Concert Footage
The CD release concert for my "Mirror of the Mind" recording took place back in October at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT. Two of my students, Colin Walters and Mike O'Callaghan filmed it for me, but I haven't had time until recently to edit the video and put it into usable, bite-sized chunks.
Here is my song, "Bottom Feeders", featuring Kris Allen (alto sax), Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion).
If you're wondering about the title, I provided a full explanation on my website, at the following link: http://www.earlmacdonald.com/mirror-of-the-mind/about-the-music.html
Developing Musical Ideas
The commute to New York City is without question the least glorious aspect of my participation in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop. I drive for two hours and then take the train for an additional two hours. EACH WAY. The up side is that it gives me some uninterrupted time to think, problem solve, or listen to some new music.On my way to the last meeting I found myself obsessing about how I might lengthen or add to my piece. Currently, it's duration is just under 5 minutes, which seems a bit short. It dawned on me that I haven't consciously utilized any of the conventional development techniques used in music composition. I have been so focused on adhering to rhythmic clave, and staying within the parameters and spirit of salsa, that I somehow overlooked the obvious.I often tell my arranging students that "everything we write is viable for development". It's funny how when we are personally in the act of creating, we sometimes don't see the obvious, or forget basic principals, because our focus is too narrow.So... I've decided to take a step back. My plan is to distance myself from the piece for a couple of weeks, and then dive in again, with the understanding that everything is "up for grabs". Any and all aspects of the piece are subject to development, including:
[I included this reading session recording in my last post, but here it is again for reference:]
- all salsa elements: rhythms, montunos, bass tumbaos, brass hits, instrumentation, repeated figures, form, etc. They can all be developed, and they don't have to sit in the expected/standard 4-bar format.
- melodies (backwards, upside down, etc.)
- the harmonic progressions (move, transpose, modulate, elongate, truncate, etc.)
This may sound strange, but when writing this piece, I intentionally tried NOT to incorporate a clearly distinguishable melody. I wanted to see if rhythm alone could carry the piece. In lieu of a "melody" I wanted to integrate some weird, chromatic "Eric Dolphy-esque" lines. Somehow this notion may have "obscured my vision" and hindered my process. By accepting that these weird lines ARE in fact a melody or THE melody, I can proceed to take these lines, or portions of them, and work with them using conventional techniques of good composition and arranging. This material could be used elsewhere in the piece!
So... that's what I came up with during the commute. At the actual workshop, I also got some valuable tips from my colleagues. Their general consensus was that my piece was too dense --- both in orchestration and with too much going on at once, thereby overwhelming the listener. Overwritten brass and backgrounds which obscure and detract from the soloist are other valued criticisms I received and plan to address.
Clearly I've got my work cut out for me. But in the meanwhile, I have two other new pieces on the go. I'll fill you in about those later.
A Work In Progress
As I mentioned in a previous post, I have rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop this year, partly as a sabbatical project, but mostly for the purpose of sparking my imagination and pushing myself to try some new things as a composer.
For my first big band piece of the season, I elected to write in the salsa idiom. It had been a while since I had written in clavé, and I thought this would present some interesting challenges, while being fun. Before starting, I wrote down a few parameters, goals, thoughts, and questions for myself, to guide the piece's direction. Some of these included:
- How can I stretch the salsa idiom?
- Would "hipper" lines and harmonies work in the salsa style?
- How important is having a distinguishable melody? If rhythm is the driving force behind salsa, does the piece doesn't need an obvious, singable melody?
- Try approaching salsa from a sideways angle/vantage point.
- Experiment, yet meet the approval of the SALSA POLICE! (avoid cruzado!)
- Include a mambo section with added layers of complexity.
Jim McNeely conducting the BMI Jazz Orchestra during the 10/01/2013 reading session.In my piano practicing this summer I worked on superimposing bebop-ish lines into harmonic situations where their chord tones reflected upper structure extensions and alterations to the given harmony. I decided to use these types of lines in the chart to give it some edge. I equate this sound to what saxophonist Eric Dolphy was doing in the 1960s. I decided to call the piece "Dolphy Dance", picturing Eric playing in a dance band.We had a "reading session" on Oct. 1st, so I got to hear my experiments sight-read by a full big band of professional players. It's still a work in progress but here's a taste (note: the music starts 9 seconds into the playback):If any experienced Latin jazz/salsa players have some suggestions or criticisms to share with me, I'd love to hear them. I'm questioning and considering how I might expand the piece even further, while not making it tiresome.
I went through the above recording and made the following list of revisions. Beside each point I will include the corresponding time on the recording, so you can follow along and see what caught my attention:
So there you have it. Tomorrow I head back into New York City where I hope to benefit from the reactions and ideas of the other workshop composers. The brilliant, experienced composer, Rich Shemaria will lead the discussion, as both Jim McNeely and Mike Holober will be out of town. I have admired Rich's work for a long time, and look forward to meeting him in person. (Until now we have only corresponded a couple of times through e-mail or Facebook.) I am eager to hear his thoughts and welcome your input too!
- Eliminate flute and harmon trumpet from the intro. Flute is inaudible until m. 7, then appears to come in out of nowhere, and is uncharacteristic of the expected ensemble sound. Re-orchestrate melody in m.7 from flute to 3 trumpets and alto. [0.18]
- m. 6 and 7: the bass line is weak because range prohibits going to the low C in the bari and bass trombone. Take the D flat up the octave in m. 7. Have everyone play a half note on beats 3 and 4 of m.6 to break up the line, so it sounds intentional, and not a poor solution to range limitations. This also better reflects the clavé rhythmic pattern. [0.16]
- m.17: sound final chord longer. Tie it to a dotted half note instead of a quarter note. [0.29]
- m.38: Simplify the brass hit, to make things more comfortable, and "lock everyone in" rhythmically. [0.55]
- m.45: change rhythm of saxophone line slightly, so there isn't too much space before the ensemble response. End phrase with a quarter note on beat 4. [1.03]
- m. 56 and 64: change half note to a short quarter note to let the backgrounds breathe. [1.17 and 1.26]
- m.66: change the articulation to an accented tenuto. [1.29]
- m.81 and 82 (before "J" --- restatement of intro material): add two measures of G/Ab harmony and a melodic bass figure played by the bass, piano, bari sax and bass trombone. [1.46]. Also add this at the 2nd ending. [3.13]
- copy changes made to the intro into m. 83 - 90. [1.49]
- m. 42: add the brass hits played during the first repeat. (behind soloist) [1.00/2.26]
- At rehearsal letters "F" and "G": add a trombone soli (entire section), during the second repeat, so it builds. [2.38]
- m.109 (4th ending): add 6 measures of G/Ab montuno. "Double" montuno in the horns the last time, leading to m. 110. [3.44]
- At rehearsal letter N: saxes enter "p" (quieter) [4.10]
- At rehearsal letter O: bring trombones 2 and 3 up the octave. 3 up and 1 down. [4.20]
- At rehearsal letter P: Only the lead trumpet should play up the octave. 1 up and 3 down. No optional 8VA on the last note of the phrase. [4.30]
As the date of my CD release approaches, I have been doing many radio interviews. Here's one which I really enjoyed, with Ken Laster at WHUS 91.7 FM in Storrs, CT.
Ken's program is shared weekly as a podcast. He calls it "In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond". It gets about 10,000 downloads per week. Ken is a great interviewer. I felt relaxed throughout and really enjoyed our "on air" conversation.
I have two more upcoming radio appearances before my concert at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Oct. 11th:
- Wednesday, Oct. 9th, starting at 7:15 a.m., I will appear on the Wayne Norman Show - WILI 1400 AM, broadcasting out of Willimantic, CT. After being aired, it will be archived at: http://www.wili-am.com/audio_archives.htm
- Thursday, Oct. 10th from 8 - 10 p.m. I will be a guest on Chris Sampson's "Gravity and Chaos" program on WHUS in Storrs. It can be streamed live at: http://www.whus.org/listen-live
I am making all of these appearances to promote the following concert:
Friday, October 11, 2013 – 8pm - $15 / $10 UCONN Faculty & Staff / $5 Students
EARL MACDONALD AND THE CREATIVE OPPORTUNITY WORKSHOP (C.O.W.) - CD RELEASE CONCERT
Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts – 2132 Hillside Road - Storrs
MacDonald’s Jorgensen Center performance will celebrate and coincide with the release of his new CD, Mirror of the Mind. By drawing upon outside influences and incorporating cello into his ensemble palette, MacDonald has again achieved the element of surprise for which reviewers have called him “visionary” and “startlingly original”. Much of the music will be performed in sync with projected visual imagery and videography by artists Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff. Earl MacDonald – piano, Kris Allen – saxophones, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Rogerio Boccato – percussion.
I hope to see you there!
I have rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop while I am on sabbatical from university teaching. I participated twice before, in 2003 and 2007. Traveling to New York City regularly (almost weekly) from Storrs, CT is a considerable commitment because I basically lose a full day of productivity. I rationalize that it will be worthwhile for the following reasons:
- benefiting from the feedback of a peer group, as well as Jim McNeely and Mike Holober, the workshop directors.
- having regular deadlines, thereby forcing me to complete plenty of new music
- trying some new techniques, and gathering ideas from other composers in an effort to escape my compositional ruts/routines
- networking --- making some new friends and professional contacts
- hearing my new pieces and musical experiments played by a band of skilled, professional NYC musicians.
- setting myself on a forward/creative trajectory which will continue well beyond my sabbatical.
It was made clear that merely arranging and developing our small group tunes was discouraged. Although this is a valid and often used technique, McNeely and Holober encouraged us to stretch and experiment. We are to experience starting from nothing and building from the ground up --- trying techniques outside our usual 'bag of tricks'. Exclusive use of repeating, cyclical forms, such as experienced in 90% of jazz repertoire, was also discouraged. To a degree, this will be a stretch for me; but I welcome the challenge.
If all goes well, this should be a transformative musical year.
I adore my Heintzman upright piano. It's solidly built, speaks equally in all registers, sounds beautiful, and feels great to play. By looking up the serial number (41146), I learned it was constructed in 1912 in Toronto, Canada.
Legend has it that Theodor August Heintzman worked side-by-side with Henry E. Steinway in a Berlin piano factory, prior to their immigrating together to North America. The superior craftsmanship between the two piano brands is certainly comparable.
My piano tuner and longtime family friend, Garry Varty found it for me. Mr. Varty was born blind and enjoyed the irony in saying he "looked long and hard" for an instrument of this quality, specifically for me.
With great difficulty (a long story), I shipped it to Connecticut in 2003 after getting married and buying a home.
Earlier this month I spent a week in Kincardine, Ontario performing and teaching at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival. I was overjoyed when I lifted the piano lid at the performance venue and saw that I would be playing a Heintzman all week. I was a bit perplexed, because it looked new, and I was under the impression Heintzman pianos were out of production for some time. I have since learned that the Heintzman name was purchased by a Chinese manufacturer, who claims to build them according to the originals specifications.
The new Heintzman was a huge disappointment. They may have replicated the original dimensions, but something is clearly lacking --- "T.L.C." and old-school craftsmanship which reflects pride in one's work. The instrument's quality was on par with Young Chang pianos, which deflate my sails every time I am forced to play one. Notes stuck. The upper register was weak, thin and metallic sounding. It didn't hold it's tune. As the week progressed, the piano became more and more unravelled. It was a despicable instrument and I hope to never encounter one again.
At times I envy horn players (did I really just say that?!!). It must be nice to bring one's own, maintained, reliable, predictable instrument to a gig. Pianists on the other hand are at the mercy of the instrument they are dealt.
I pride myself in getting a decent sound out of even the poorest of pianos, but some nights it is harder than others to overcome, compensate for, and not allow myself to become entirely distracted by poor workmanship or lack of proper maintenance.
They don't make 'em like they used to.
Jazz Camp takes a lot out of me. After a week of teaching during the day, performing at night, and socializing with old friends, I'm wiped.
An evening concert with tenor saxophonist, Ralph Bowen
I just returned from the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, which is organized by my friend, trombonist Jules Estrin. The faculty was comprised entirely of friends with whom I went to McGill University in the late 1980s. They are now all highly respected jazz educators and players in Toronto and Montreal.Kelly Jefferson - tenor saxBrian O'Kane - trumpetJules Estrin - tromboneMike Rudd - guitarMike Downes - string bassTed Warren - drumsWe performed together almost every night, including concerts accompanying Toronto singer/radio DJ Heather Bambrick and saxophonist, Ralph Bowen.
Ralph was one of my jazz professors at Rutgers and he played on both my "Schroeder's Tantrum" and "Re:Visions" CDs. It was great to see (and hear!) him. What an inspiring player!I also really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the KSMF. The students in my ensemble were bright and inquisitive. They eagerly took notes and asked plenty of thoughtful questions. I probably gave them a full year's worth of practice material.
On Friday I played an afternoon concert with the JazzFM Youth Big Band, comprised of Toronto's top high school jazz students. These kids can really play! Drummer Ted Warren and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson were also featured guests.
An outdoor student performance at the KSMF Performing with the JazzFM Youth Big BandI have taught at many jazz camps over the years but this one is by far my favorite. I highly recommend it to aspiring young jazz players. The location is gorgeous, the price isn't exorbitant, the faculty are superb, and the evening concerts rival what you would hear in a Toronto or New York jazz club. For info about next year's camp, visit the Kincardine Summer Music Festival's web page: http://www.ksmf.ca. I hope to see you there next summer! Ralph Bowen and Earl MacDonald
enjoying the view at Lake Huron
I do a lot of listening to music over the summer months. Here's a list of what's been on my CD players lately:
Arrangements by Michael Abene:Judi Silvano - Let Yourself Go (2004)
Nneena Freelon - Maiden Voyage (1998)
Maceo Parker - Soul Classics (2012)
Fay Claasen with WDR Big Band - Sing! (2010)
Patti Austin - Avant Gershwin (2007)
Netherlands Metropole Jazz OrchestraJim Beard - Revolution54 [w/ John Scofield] (2010)Ernestine Anderson - Isn't It Romantic (1998)Vince Mendoza - Nights On Earth (2011)
Piano trio albums:Keith Jarrett - Up For It (2003)
Keith Jarrett - Setting Standards. New York Sessions (2008)
Ketih Jarrett - At the Blue Note (1994)
Fred Hersch Trio - Alive at the Vanguard (2012)
Eddie Palmieri:Sun of Latin Music (1974)
Obra Maestra w/ Tito Puente (2000)
El Rumbero del Piano
Listen Here! (2005)
Simpatico w/ Brian Lynch (2006)
Bruce Gertz:Open Mind (2013)
Thank You Charlie (2010)
It Wasn't Me (2007)
Reptilian Fantasies (2008)
Misc. Big Band recording:US Army Field Band Jazz Ambassadors - The Legacy of Hank Levy (1997)
Stockholm Jazz Orchestra and Jim McNeely - Jigsaw (1991)
Orchestral Jazz:Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge - River Runs (2013)
Maria Schneider - Winter Morning Walks (2013)
What are you listening to?
"Clark" - the autobiography of trumpeter, Clark Terry
"Emulate, assimilate, and innovate." (Clark Terry)Clark Terry's formula for success is prominently displayed at the top of all my jazz improvisation course syllabi. A more succinct and accurate summary of the learning process doesn't exist.
I just finished Clark's autobiography and recommend it highly to anyone even remotely interested in jazz. Having played in the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington (among countless others), he has an incredible wealth of stories to share about his colleagues and employers, as well as valuable insights into how he learned and progressed as a player.
As I read, my recurring thought was how could he not sound the way he does, having lived all those wild experiences? Clark lived more life by the age of twenty than most do in a full lifetime.
The stories are as colorfully told as Clark's solos are played. Jazz history, directly from the source. It doesn't get any better.
Below is some extraordinary footage of the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer Quintet from 1965, which I had not seen until today. Isn't YouTube an amazing treasure trove? I especially dug the expressive, blues drenched version of "Things Ain't What They Used To Be", starting at 19:10 (complete with a taste of Clark's famous Mumbles routine).
Reaching this goal on day 11 of the 21 day campaign is especially exciting. I can breathe easier, knowing with certainty that the disc will be released.But on the flip side, there is much more work to be done.I sure hope no one will be deterred from pre-ordering a disc or download because Kickstarter says we've reached 100% of our goal. All money pledged from now until the end of the campaign will be used to promote the recording. Advertising is very expensive. Copies will be mailed to reviewers and radio stations, and (hopefully!) ads will also be purchased in DownBeat and JazzEd magazines, in an effort to expand my audience.
If you haven't done so already, please visit the link below and pre-order your copy today. Most of the itemized rewards will be issued before the Oct. 1 release date of "Mirror of the Mind".
The Bidwell Tavern
Before we had kids, my wife and I probably visited "the Bidwell" at least once per week for beer, wings and people watching. We made a fun game of looking around the room and guessing how the various customers made their living.
One memorable evening there was a noticeably wide array of people gathered at the bar, representing many different walks of life --- bikers, bagpipers, cross-dressers, professors (in tweed jackets with patched elbows) and even someone wearing a large, red and white striped Dr. Suess hat adorned with buttons. This visit inspired the writing of "The Bidwell Cronies", a quirky little piece that functions as a theme song and set ender in concerts for C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop), and to a lesser degree, my sextet.
The Bidwell's chicken wings are even better
than the Anchor's in Buffalo, NY!
Here is a newly created video for your listening & viewing pleasure:"The Bidwell Cronies" will appear on my forthcoming CD, "Mirror of the Mind". Until July 1st, I am pre-selling copies through Kickstarter. As of today, 36 backers have pledged $1281 towards my $1500 minimum goal, through advanced purchases of the recording and other incentives (commissions, lessons, concert tickets, etc.) This equates to 85%!I should clarify that $1500 is the bare minimum I need to manufacture and release the disc. All pledged funds above and beyond my goal will be used to promote the recording. Copies will be mailed to reviewers and radio stations, and hopefully, ads will also be purchased in magazines, in an effort to expand my audience.Please visit the following link and pre-order your copy today. Most of the itemized rewards will be issued before the Oct. 1 release date of "Mirror of the Mind".Thanks for your support, and maybe I'll see you at the Bidwell Tavern.
This month I have had several gigs playing at private parties and functions. I quite enjoyed myself on these outings, despite not having pursued this type of work in recent years. It got me thinking about how both the nature and frequency of my gigs has changed. During the '90s it wasn't uncommon for me to play at least three nights a week in hotels, bars and restaurants. The material was always standards, which I will define as American Songbook repertoire mixed with pieces by celebrated jazz musicians. I spent hours learning and memorizing tunes, daily.
During the past ten years or so, most of my performances have been concerts focusing on original music or arrangements by myself or the bandleader. It's a completely different ballgame.
"Calling tunes" and revisiting the familiar, old jazz standards is a lot of fun. Plus, the interaction within the band is typically elevated when no one is staring at a music stand and reading. On the last gig, I jotted down the song titles as I went along. Here are the set lists:
- It Could Happen To You
- Star Eyes
- You Don't Know What Love Is
- How Deep Is The Ocean?
- Up Jumped Spring
Maybe it's time that I try to achieve a better balance between the types of gigs I'm doing. Finding a nice venue for a weekly jazz trio gig, to play tunes, is something I may be seeking for the fall.
- My Foolish Heart
- Pent Up House
- Speak Low
- Giant Steps
- Dolphin Dance
- Blue Monk
Who says pop and country music artists are the only ones who can have music videos?! Move over Britney and Shania, there's a new game in town, and it's infinitely hipper.
Here's the NEW music video for my tune, "It Was Whispered". This song will appear on my forthcoming CD, "Mirror of the Mind", which features Christopher Hoffman (cello), Kris Allen (saxophones), Rogerio Boccato (percussion) and me (piano). Advanced copies of the recording can be pre-ordered through Kickstarter from now until July 1st.Many of the pieces on the "Mirror of the Mind" album were written for cross-disciplinary, collaborative presentations with visual artists Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff. "It Was Whispered" appeared within the "Beneath the Black Earth" suite (which debuted in 2007). When the music is combined with the video, it still gives me the chills. It has a spooky "other world" quality to it. To a degree, the music was inspired by Ornette Coleman. I thought a freer, somewhat less structured approach would compliment the jumbled mishmash of twigs in the photographs.
Although avante-garde/free improvisation doesn't intrinsically define our sound, it is one of the many musical facets explored within the Creative Opportunity Workshop (COW).
Please consider supporting this project and spreading the word. Every bit helps. Thanks!
Kickstarter campaign. I'm pre-selling advanced copies of my new recording, "Mirror of the Mind" to pay for manufacturing and promotional costs. While you listen to the music on the link below, kindly consider spreading the word and supporting this latest project.
By writing specifically for an odd-ball instrumentation of cello, sax, piano and percussion, I think I’ve created something strikingly unique here. It may be my best disc yet!
The campaign lasts only until July 1st, so please order your CD, download, or one of the other incentives today!
Herbie Hancock transcription - Three Bags Full
As I mentioned in my last post, one of my summer goals is to transcribe all of Herbie Hancock's solos from his "Takin' Off" record, from 1962. For years I've had a hang-up about studying Herbie's playing in depth. I've felt intimidated and ill-equipped for the task. Anyways, it's time to overcome these feelings of inadequacy. By starting with Herbie's first solo album, maybe I can work my way up to being able to transcribe, play, comprehend, and incorporate material from his later solos.
I started with track 2, "Three Bags Full". Now that I have it written down, I'm practicing learning to play small sections along with the recording at a reduced speed. Learning it slow actually makes it harder to perfectly replicate his "feel". I'm using the Amazing Slow Downer software program, which I highly recommend. I transcribed the solo without it at first, and then checked my work at a slower speed and couldn't believe how many details and notes I missed.
You'll notice that I didn't write many of the left hand chord voicings, but used simple rhythmic notation instead. That's because he's playing mostly stock rootless voicings that all jazz piano students learn at some point. Scribbling down these notes seemed like a waste of time for my purposes.
I added some analysis, but I'm still analyzing as I go. I hope to really "get inside his head" over the next few months.
If you would like to listen along as you glance through the solo, here's a YouTube link where someone uploaded it: http://youtu.be/nzkd-N6UrYE
Herbie's solo starts at 3:05.
Now, onto "Empty Pockets".