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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For School Band Directors: How Can I Maximize the Impact of a Visiting Clinician at My School? Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I talked about how to maximize the positive effects of having a visiting artist give a clinic or master class at your school. I’d like to discuss some other thoughts I’ve had on this subject over the years that I’ve been an educator and clinician.

3. Start on time. If at all possible, prepare the room where the clinic will take place ahead of time. If the artist has to stand around for 30 minutes while the previous class clears out, chairs are being moved, and amps are plugged in then you are wasting the artist’s time and your money.

In some circumstances it may not be possible to set up in advance of the class time – if, for example, there’s another class in the room immediately before. However, there’s no reason the artist should have to be around for that. This is not a matter of the clinician being a prima donna, but more of a practical matter. Usually visiting artists are on a tight and often grueling travel schedule. They may be performing in a local club until 2am, and then getting up bright and early to be at your school (hopefully) on time. Respect the artist’s scheduling and sleeping needs by being realistic about what time the clinic will really start. An artist who is well-rested and feels that her time is being respected will be a better clinician, and more willing to stick around after the “official” clinic has ended to answer questions.

4. Live music is the best teacher. My final suggestion for clinics may seem self-serving: If the artist is performing in your town, whether at a concert in your school or at a local venue such as a jazz club, encourage your students to go to the performance. There’s no substitute for hearing live jazz, and seeing the artist put his words into practice is an invaluable learning experience for your students that simply cannot be duplicated in the classroom.

As in Part 1 of this article, comments, especially from clinicians and band directors, are welcome.

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