Something I Need to Remember When I Start to Get in Trouble at the Piano

Take my hand(s) off the keyboard.

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What is a Musician?

I’ve been looking at those new Gap ads around town – some skinny people (most of whom I’ve never heard of) labelled “actor or musician”. They look cool, but I don’t see any instruments and I’m wondering exactly who they are and what they do. Usually when our culture discusses a musician they’re referring to a rock star. Obviously there are many trained musicians who take up pop music. But is there a standard for calling someone a “musician”? Is Rod Stewart, who once acknowledged in an interview that he literally knows three chords on the guitar, a musician? What about a rapper who does not and cannot engage melody or rhythm? Is anyone who makes music a musician, or does being musician require a certain skill set, whether technical, intellectual or aural?

In your opinion, what is a musician? Please comment!

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Check Out Lena Bloch’s New CD – and Read My Liner Notes

I wrote liner notes for saxophonist Lena Bloch’s debut CD. Check out this great album featuring tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch with guitarist Dave Miller, and long-time compadres bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Billy Mintz. (Did I really say “compadres”?)
 
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“In jazz”, muses Lena Bloch, “many opposites come together: mind and feeling, responsibility and abandonment, looseness and precision, improvisation and composition. I just love that.”

What a perfect way to describe Lena’s long-overdue debut CD. Lena, Dave, Cameron and Billy are masters of technique and capable of great musical intellect; but they understand that those qualities exist only to serve the greater goals of feeling and spontaneity. Through the delicate balance of opposites, they create art that is in the moment, yet timeless: a perfect tribute to Lena’s musical forebears, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano.

Born in Moscow, Russia, Lena immigrated to Israel in 1989, attending the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. At the start of the Golf War she fled to Holland. “In Holland, I practiced constantly and ate up the great Utrecht Library collection of recorded jazz.”

In 1991, she moved to Germany, where she was accepted by the prestigious Cologne Conservatory. There she found two mentors: drummer Keith Copeland and trumpeter John Marshall. She began gigging with them, as well as with the drummers Alvin Queen and Steve Reid. She also toured with the German ethno-rock pioneer band “Embryo”, playing Arabic and Turkish classical music, and started her first quartet.

Around this time Lena met Lee Konitz. His impact would be deep and everlasting. “He introduced me to the music of Warne Marsh…. What Lee had, and what I heard in Warne’s playing, was this unity of profound knowledge and profound feeling. It was the ultimate sound for me.”

In 1994, Lena received a full scholarship to attend a summer jazz program in North America, where she studied with Yusef Lateef. She was offered an academic scholarship to attend full time, but for personal reasons she returned to Germany. “I had a hard time living, although I kept playing.”

Lena returned to North America in 1999 on a full scholarship to the prestigious Banff Workshop in Canada where she played sessions with Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Ari Hoenig, and Kenny Werner.
Back in Cologne, she graduated from the Cologne Conservatory. Over the next several years she continued to compose, as well as play and record with her quartet, winning several accolades and awards.

In 2003 Lena attended U. Mass, Amherst as a graduate student, receiving a teaching assistantship. She moved to New York in 2008 and began playing with several Tristano disciples: Ted Brown, Connie Crothers, and Joe Solomon. She now lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she has widened her circle and become an active participant in one of the most fertile and interesting jazz scenes of recent memory.

Feathery begins, appropriately, with Hi Lee, Lena’s tribute to her mentor and good friend. The huge bass sound and swinging, melodic phrases that open the program are instantly recognizable as those of Cameron Brown. Listen, next, to Lena and guitarist Dave Miller as their improvised phrases intertwine, creating a spontaneous counterpoint that sounds composed. (Just one example of those opposites Lena spoke of.) Billy Mintz’s responsive drumming rises and falls with the intensity of Lena and Dave’s interaction. It’s almost impossible to imagine any other drummer “allowing” this piece to develop so organically and completely.

Rubato, by Dave Miller, is a vehicle for collective free improvisation of the sort Tristano pioneered. “Dave’s has extraordinary empathy and intuition,” Lena says. “He has exciting melodic ideas and can improvise harmonically, which is a rare quality.”

Cameron Brown contributes Baby Suite, in which an intriguing melodic line is interspersed with solos approached in a fascinating variety of ways: Cameron’s virtuosic solo bass improvisation; Billy’s masterful brush solo; Dave’s ideas of bell-like clarity that build with the rhythm section; and finally Lena’s thoughtful and assured linear explorations, during which the entire band modulates as one into a medium tempo groove with no set changes.

Of Cameron, Lena comments: “His sound and approach have always fascinated me. He has such translucent beauty in his tone, this lightness, precision, projection out of the deep, and – oh, how he swings!”

Lena effectively reharmonizes Gene de Paul’s Star Eyes as Starry Eyed. “I was intensely thinking of Warne Marsh when I wrote it,” she notes.

Marshmallow, a rarely played composition by Marsh himself, follows. It’s easy to hear why this great tune is underplayed, with its challenging rhythmic displacements and angular lines. Dave’s compelling solo avoids the inherent traps of a tune based on a classic standard such as Cherokee. Instead he probes for new ways through these very common harmonic changes.

Lena explains the pensive and dark Farewell to Arms: “The title relates to a certain point in life when you no longer care about protecting your own ‘self.’ You give up all your ‘arms’ and go unprotected, only giving what you have to give.”

After this lovely introspection, Ted Brown’s Featherbed is a delightful release, beginning with Billy’s melodic drum solo. Following their relaxed yet precise unison statement of the head (there are those opposites again) Lena and Dave solo in turn, supported by the telepathic team of Cameron and Billy, whose forty-year friendship is audible in every beat. Cameron’s walking solo is a lesson in how it’s done.

There are no solos on the lovely ballad, Beautiful You, composed by Billy Mintz. Instead, the melody is etched and ornamented in many different ways by one or more of the musicians.

Lena says, “Billy Mintz had done only a couple of gigs with my quartet before this date. It feels as if playing with him goes beyond conventional time and space… an incredible continuity. Billy is a spontaneous orchestrator.”

Feathery closes with a brief reprise of Hi Lee, a reminder that, while she is dedicated to musical growth and exploration, Lena’s roots in the jazz tradition are strong and deep.

“Our recording was done all in one room, no headphones, in one or two takes. There was such mutual trust, intuition, and interaction. We hope to keep this ‘organic’ quartet together.”

Indeed, we the listeners should be so fortunate. Getting to know Lena has been a pleasure and a privilege for me, as I’m sure getting to know her music will be for you. I, for one, am glad she finally made it to Brooklyn, from Russia, with love.

Roberta Piket
October 2013

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All the Things You Are – Cezanne January 2014

This is an excerpt from All the Things You Are, which I played at last month’s gig in Houston with David Craig on bass and Keith Karnaky on drums. I have a lot of “outside” music posted on my youtube channel, and I wanted to posted something a little more swinging. I love playing standards.

 

The piano a little out of tune and it was recorded with my iPhone, but you can hear all the instruments pretty clearly. And how about these Houston musicians? Love Keith’s Zen Bebop solo.

I posted the entire tune, including my solo piano intro and David’s fine bass solo, on youtube.

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http://lindachorney.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/how-does-an-indie-compete-with-the-majors-for-a-grammy-nomination/

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What is “Accessible”? (Part 2)

In a previous post, I started thinking about what makes music “accessible”. This is a dirty word in some quarters, but I think it’s the highest compliment. If we could take the billions of promotional dollars spent pushing garbage out of the equation, I suggest we would see that accessibility in music has nothing to do with harmonic simplicity, tune length or “dumbing down” the music.

A few years ago, I played a concert of completely improvised (“free”) music at a venue in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I had thought the drummer Klaus Kugel was going to be in town so I asked a couple of his colleagues to play – the bassist Hilliard Greene and the tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis. (It turned out Klaus couldn’t make the gig due to visa issues but I’m so glad we did the gig anyway, with Billy Mintz on drums, because it was the first time, but not the last, that I got to play with Louie. I had played with Hill several times in the distant past, but always in a straight-ahead situation, mostly backing up a very good standards singer named Francina Connors. This Brooklyn gig was the first time we played free together and I suspect it had something to do with Hill asking me to play in his free-playing-on-standards In and Out trio which is always a complete blast.)

But I digresss. I wanted to talk about accessibility. So for reasons I can’t recall now, my brother and my mother came to this gig of “avant garde” music with no pre-ordained structures. They both loved it. Now, my brother is himself a very good musician with amazing ears, albeit with more of a taste for straight-ahead jazz. so you might have expected that he would at least have some appreciation for the abilities of these musicians. But it was deeper than that. Talking to him right after the concert, I could see that his mind had actually been a bit blown, in a good way.

If you’re reading this you probably don’t know my 87-year-old mother, at least not well. So you will have to take my word for it that she is not that kind of mother who thinks everything her kids do is wonderful, the kind who freely heaps praise; quite the opposite in fact. And, while as a young woman she was an amateur singer of the American Popular Songbook, she had no idea that completely improvised music was a “thing” until I explained it to her immediately before the concert. And yet my mother, too, loved this concert. Not in her typical “that was very nice” sort of way of tolerating the fact that her only daughter (who “would have made a good lawyer”) had spent most of her adult life up to that point doing an excellent imitation of a starving artist, but in a delighted, even transformed, way.

So I have seen first-hand that accessibility has nothing to do with genre, structure, level of complexity or anything else but the sincerity, focus and depth of the musicians themselves.

By the way, I will be performing standards (played freely, but accessibly) with Hill Greene and drummer Newman Taylor Baker at the Paterson Public Library in New Jersey on November 2nd, soon after which I embark on a European tour with the amazing saxophonist Roby Glod and his quartet featuring Christian Raymond on bass and the afore-mentioned Klaus Kugel on drums.

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Another Great Show Tonight

… In Santa Barbara. Four shows in a row and it just keeps getting better and better. Another standing ovation after a 90-minute set. Thanks to Joe Woodard’s feature in the local paper we had a very good crowd. So grateful to be playing with these transcendent musicians: Putter Smith, john Gross, Billy Mintz. Tomorrow is our last night – Alva’s showroom in San Pedro.

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What is “Accessible”?

Doug Ramsey has written a wonderful review of Mintz Quartet in his exemplary Rifftides blog. Interestingly, he uses the word “accessible” to describe the CD, which features only Billy’s originals. The recording has a few free pieces and one thirteen-minute power-vamp in 7 + 5; and at least one tune starts with a quiet drum solo. In theory, according to all the criteria of industry “experts”, this should not be an accessible recording, at least not in the way the word is traditionally used. However, Doug’s description rings completely true for me. “Accessible” is a great word to describe this album.

Billy’s writing and playing has a rare straight-forwardness about it; it’s completely lacking in artifice. The same goes for the playing of John Gross and Putter Smith. Such focus and clarity of thought. (It takes a long time to attain that kind of mastery and it is why I feel privileged to be on the CD and to be playing all this week in southern California with them.)

At first it seems counter-intuitive that in order to be accessible, one needs to reach the highest level of accomplishment and expression but it actually makes sense. Musicians often discuss how jazz was more popular “back in the day” and of course this has a lot to do with the music having been more danceable (as well as the general decline and corporatization of American culture). However, not being danceable didn’t stop sensitive laypeople from listening to Bird or Miles.

I wonder if the decline of jazz’s popularity is more about the fact that jazz has become glutted with incredibly competent players who have memorized all the rules and can regurgitate with ease, but do not have that quality of directness that Billy, John and Putter have. It used to be called “telling a story”. Some people associate that term with pre-bebop jazz but I personally don’t think it has anything to do with genres. However, that’s for another post.

Just saying.

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RIP Marian

I just found out that Marian McPartland passed away last night. I can’t even begin to say what a good friend and wonderful person she was, in addition to being a great musician and radio host of course. The last time I saw her was a few months ago when Huey and Paul DeBarros held a screening/book reading in her honor and asked me to play a few of her tunes, mostly in the background while Marian and the authors autographed DVDs and books. It was her day, and yet she expressed concern to me (twice actually) that someone should announce me before I played, and offered to do so herself! Such thoughtfulness and generosity.

Another great thing about Marian: she could swear with the best of them. It was hilarious to hear her cursing with her proper British accent.

I will miss her.

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Playing Jazz: Forget Your Scales and Patterns

Young musicians are often very concerned about what scale or mode they are using. While it’s important to have a strong knowledge of theory, at some point in the maturation process one must get beyond thinking about scales to the concept of playing musical ideas.

The title of this post is admittedly a bit sensationalistic. I’m not advocating that you literally “forget” the scales and patterns that you’ve learned (Okay, maybe most of the patterns, except for the really hip ones, which are probably the ones you came up with on your own. Just lose the ones you were fed from a play-along record.)

Improvising using specific melodic material or motives, without worrying about “making the chord changes”, is a practice device for learning to think motivically and develop your ideas in a logical progressive manner, as opposed to playing a sequence of unrelated “jazz patterns”, which all too many musicians (even some professionals) lean on.

To begin practicing, pick a very short motive or phrase from the tune on which you’re working. Don’t worry about playing the changes for now; begin with a series of three-note phrases.

Here’s an example of a solo that is completely “motive-based”. What I mean by that is that I am ignoring the changes altogether. When I play this introduction to Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Dream”, my goal is to squeeze as much as possible from these short, simple motives.


 
As you progress, focus on varying the patterns through transposition, inversion, retrograde, diminution, augmentation, etc. (If you don’t know what these terms mean in a musical context then look them up.)

When you feel ready, you can try this exercise over the chord changes of a tune. I suggest you start with a tune that has simple changes that are easy to navigate so you don’t have to think about too many things at once.

This is a practice exercise. At first you will sound forced, mechanical and awkward, just as you did when you first tried to play over changes. As the process of motivic development becomes more intuitive your playing will develop in maturity and coherence, and you won’t be just another purveyor of licks.

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