Friday, December 31, 2010

A Prophesy

On December 21, right on this blog, I prophesied an encounter.  On December 28, that encounter happened:  I saw the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard, and after the first set, I introduced myself to Ethan Iverson in the musicians' room in the back of the club.  So what, right?  Well, maybe.  It wasn't a trying introduction, or a long one.  I really just wanted to show him my face, in person, to perhaps shake his hand (I did).

We both have jazz blogs, are tangentially related on the jazz internet, and I wanted to add another dimension to that relation.  I don't think online connections are superficial.  They can be--like any sort of connection.  I used to think blogs were lame, nerdy, uninteresting.  And some are.  But if you have a blog, and you work hard on it, and people read it, then that can be very satisfying, for you and for those reading it.

When I started this blog, I felt embarrassed--like I was declaring my self-importance.  I didn't want my blog to resemble a personal diary.  (You decide if I've been successful.)  I wanted to write about jazz--and I ended up mainly relating the music to my life.  I don't really feel embarrassed about having a blog anymore, but I am self-conscious of having one.  It's hard not to be.

I'm sitting in a cafe right now, there are three other men typing away on their laptops in my vicinity, and I'm wondering what they're working on.  Is it possible they're blogging, too?  Yes, but if they are, they're probably not blogging about blogging.

I don't really know who reads my blog.  I know some who do.  But when I look at the statistics--the page views (about 50 a day), the traffic sources (how are people finding my blog through a Russian furniture website?), the audience (22 page views from India this week)--I tend to think more about the purposes of blogging.

Every so often, I search my name on Google and find, to my surprise, websites and other blogs that have linked my entries.  You may control what you write, but once you unleash it on the internet, you can't know where that writing will end up.  In fact, it doesn't really end up anywhere, which doesn't mean it's not going anywhere.

I think that's ultimately a good thing:  It's one of the primary, albeit incidental, purposes of blogging.  So, on December 21, when I wrote I would introduce myself to Ethan Iverson at the Village Vanguard, it felt like a bigger deal than it might actually have been.  (Incidentally, that entry was linked on WBGO's Twitter feed.  I found it when I searched my name on Google.)

When I walked into the musicians' room, saw Ethan and introduced myself, I wondered if he had read my entry from December 21.  I didn't ask him.  I told him I was home for winter break, from McGill University, that I enjoyed the show.  He asked me if I am a writer or a musician.  I told him I play the drums, some piano, but at the moment, I consider myself more a writer than a musician.  He thanked me for coming out, said that the recent blizzard had almost prevented the band's timely arrival from Minnesota.

As I talked to him, I realized that my blog persona might actually just be my blog persona.  I try to be honest, to write what I think, but the tangible me, the one sitting before the computer right now, typing out his thoughts, the one studying political science and Arabic at McGill, the one who went to the Village Vanguard on December 28, the one with inhibitions--he is a separate person. 

That doesn't mean the connections I make on my blog are artificial or superficial.  They're just different.  Those connections allowed me to meet someone in person, someone I wouldn't have imagined meeting a year ago, someone who knew my name.  In a way, it wasn't even an introduction.  In the musicians' room, I didn't want to keep Ethan for too long, so I shook his hand and thanked him for talking to me.  "I'll see you on the internet," he said as I walked away.  

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010, Jazz and Me

 Last week, Anthony Dean-Harris, the editor in chief of Nextbop, asked me and a few other contributing writers each to write a top five list of jazz albums for 2010.  After thinking about it for a while, I realized I couldn't do it.  I just didn't think my list would be sufficient--because, simply, I hadn't listened to enough  albums released this year.  I didn't want to pass off a shoddy list.  Thinking about the year, I realized so much in my life had to do directly with jazz.  So I made a different sort of list.  Find it here

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The System(s)

This happened a week ago, but I think it deserves a mention here to round it out:  Ethan Iverson, pianist of the Bad Plus, added me to his blogroll, which was a a nice surprise.  Mr. Iverson first linked me on his blog back in September to refer to a post I wrote on Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi.  I was surprised about that, too, so I wrote a sort of glowing, thankful essay about it here.  That essay was called "The System"--I was referring to the blogosphere, how you need to keep linking and posting and commenting to get some notice.  I mentioned a lot of people in that essay whom I had met through my blog, making a case for online connections. 

But it had a sort of meta feel to it, because in that Masabumi Kikuchi post--in which, after seeing Mr. Kikuchi play at the Village Vanguard, I praised him for his refreshingly bizarre approach to the piano--I also mentioned Mr. Iverson.  He was sitting at the table next to me that night at the Vanguard. 

About a month ago, I commented on Mr. Iverson's blog, asking about Mr. Kikuchi.  He responded:  "Matthew, I was so amused when I searched for Masabumi and found your description of me lurking behind him and taking notes."  I hadn't considered his view of it before, but it really must have been quite funny to find what I wrote:  "[Ethan Iverson] was there, sitting at the table behind the piano, staring with stolid curiosity, the night I first encountered Mr. Kikuchi."

I never thought Masabumi Kikuchi would bring me closer to jazz, but I never think a lot of things.  I should probably be aware of that.  In a week or so, the Bad Plus will be performing for about a week-long run at the Village Vanguard.  I'll be there on the twenty-eighth, and I hope to introduce myself to Mr. Iverson.  Maybe after that I'll start calling him Ethan in my posts(?).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Shape of Jazz to Come

There is a common posture among jazz fans, a Miniver Cheevy-like regret about jazz's fate.  I went through that regret.  When I noticed about three years ago that most of the jazz music I listened to was recorded before 1965, I started to think about what that meant.  Was I an atavism?  That seemed too simple.  Was jazz an atavism?  I didn't know enough to decide.  I still don't, but I now know that jazz is special, for one reason, because it led me to these important questions.

In my profile for this blog, I write:  "I care about jazz immensely--not as a zealous advocate or a surly eulogist."  It's clear I'm doing some advocacy just by having this blog.  But when I started writing in August, I didn't want my entries to seem like pleading.  I didn't want to reinforce some false sense of jazz's victimization.

I don't think hope hurts, though.  For me, it's always a pleasure to go out and see a great live performance.  I think most jazz fans get into jazz through records.  I did.  If you start out listening to older records (as I did), you eventually start to realize that most of the musicians you're listening to are dead, or very old.  I saw Oscar Peterson at the Blue Note about a year before he died.  I was 18.  He was about 80.  The experience depressed me. 

When I wrote hope doesn't hurt, I didn't mean hope for jazz's popularity.  I meant hope for yourself.  Because ultimately, I've noticed jazz doesn't really have problems.  Its listeners do.  Here's a quote from the great French pianist Michel Petrucciani: 

“To me, there is the creator of that music.  You know, they are creators of that music, like the classical composers.  And Trane was one of them, and Bird, and Bill Albert Evans was one of them, and Tatum, you know, people like that.  I think they really created what we call now, jazz.  I mean, it was jazz then too, but somehow, they really give so much information so that young people, like me for example…I mean...It’s so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there’s so much information.”

As a guest on Piano Jazz, he was responding to Marian McPartland's question about what he thought of John Coltrane.  That was in 1986.  He died in 1999 at the age of 36.  But if his words were true then--"It's so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there's so much information"--imagine how much truer they are now, about 25 years later.  Here's another quote, from New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff:

“Jazz is in a funny moment.  It’s big cultural moment may have passed, I mean, I wouldn’t argue against that.  We want things—in popular cultural, in entertainment—we want things, you know, fast and succinct.  And jazz takes a while.  You know, jazz is sort of always going somewhere.  It doesn’t just declare what it’s all about in two and a half minutes.  And yes, all these people have died, but also, you know, in an earlier time, up until the early sixties, the media was much more focused on jazz.  There was a time when jazz was just about semi-popular.  Well, it was popular further back in the swing era, but then in the late fifties and early sixties, it was sort of semi-popular.  Now it’s not even that.  But, there’s tons of musicians, young musicians coming out of music schools.  I mean, more so than ever before.  You know, there’s been this great explosion of jazz education since the seventies.  And I mean, a lot of these young musicians don’t have enough gigs, they don’t have enough places to go.  But tons of people are playing jazz now.  And I still hear great musicians all the time that I’ve never heard of before.” 

He was responding to Tavis Smiley in an interview from 2008 about, basically, the loss of jazz icons and the shape of jazz to come.  I think the two quotes fit well in succession.  There is so much information out there--on recordings, in transcriptions, in books, videos, interviews, pictures, blogs.  There's a lot for a musician--and a listener--to take in.  Of course there really aren't enough places for jazz musicians to go.  That could be a result of jazz's dwindling popularity.  Or it could be that there are so many more jazz musicians--the competition is higher.

It's probably a combination of the two, but that problem is not endemic to jazz.  I'd like to be a writer.  (That's ultimately why I have this blog.)  I'll graduate in the spring, and then I'll start looking for jobs.  I have no idea how hard it will be to get a good one, but I imagine there are a lot of people like me who want what I want.  The competition is high, and there aren't many jobs. 

I've come to the conclusion that to get closer to what I want, I'll have to work very hard.  I'll have to keep learning by doing--to never think I've learned enough--to get better at what I want to do.  I might never get a job writing.  I'll never know if I don't try.  And in a way, I think that jazz musicians just graduating from school have to think in the same way if they want to differentiate themselves and perhaps succeed.

Sure, that mentality is not new.  It could always apply.  But now, when it's hard even to get an unpaid internship--when so many recent graduates are moving back in with their parents--it seems truer.  When you decide to go into the arts, that's a brave move.  When you decide to go into jazz--in these rough times--I think it's noble and brave and worthy of attention.  That doesn't mean jazz musicians will ever get the attention they deserve.

It may be harder and harder for jazz musicians to differentiate themselves--because they have to deal with about 100 years of recorded material, and because there are just so many jazz musicians.  But in a way, that's fitting for jazz.  When I listen to a jazz record, I'm not listening just to jazz, I'm listening to Ben Webster's vapory tremolos, Albert Ayler's earthy wail, Pat Metheny's radiant guitar notes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba's sensitive touch, Gretchen Parlato's nimble enunciation.

Perhaps the main point of playing jazz is to develop your own sound, your own musical voice. That may be getting harder and harder to do.  But there's no reason to regret this.  Because it's harder, it makes the music more valuable.  Earlier I wrote I'll have to think I've never learned enough in order to differentiate myself.  I think that the best jazz musicians are those who have thought like that, who have regarded their sounds as constantly unfinished, always in need of revision and scrutiny.

I look forward to graduating in the spring, to finding work I enjoy.  That might not happen right away, but I imagine it will happen.  I don't know what jazz will look like in the next few decades.  But I look forward to finding out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The John Escreet Project

John Escreet

This happened a while ago, but the review I wrote was just posted on Nextbop, so what can you do?  I saw the John Escreet Project on the night of Saturday, November 27 at Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal.  I had to sit at the end of the bar, with a limited view of the stage, but that's just something you have to deal with.  I still enjoyed the show because everyone in the club seemed into it.

I've always wanted to walk into a jazz club and have the owner know my name.  Now it's a reality.  Of course there's an exchange going on.  I write a review of the show to watch the show for free.  And that's fair in my mind.  I'm only a student.  I don't expect to get paid, though it would be nice if I did.

I often feel a bit awkward when I'm sitting in a club, taking notes, thinking about what I'll write about later.  I'm hoping that doesn't limit the emotional experience of seeing live music.  I have to write things down to remember them--like song titles, descriptive words, quotes--but when I sit down to write a review, I tend to remember a lot more than I thought I would.  You have to rely on your notes, but more importantly, on an afterimage of the performance that sits in your mind. 

Of course I fear being wrong.  But that's also just something you have to deal with.  You can only try not to be wrong.  It's fun for me, though--like slowly taking a risk.  I'm only twenty-two.  I could be wrong a lot, but I try to stay within my means.  I only know so much, but I can only know more as I gain experience.

I'm not completely comfortable being a critic.  Not that I am one, but when I write these reviews, I have to be one.  I don't really like uncritical writing about jazz, though.  I don't like seeing praise where no praise is due.  It makes for empty writing.   

So I try to maintain my critical insight without abandoning everything else--warmth, humor, anger.  I try seriously to not take myself too seriously.  That's what keeps me going when I walk into Upstairs Jazz Club and Joel, the owner, walks me to my seat.  That's what keeps me going when I open my notebook before a show, uncap my pen, and get ready to learn.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gilad Hekselman and Ari Hoenig Interview

On the night of Friday, November 19, I sat down to talk with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Ari Hoenig between sets at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. (Find the review of the show here.) They were performing in the Rick Rosato Trio, and I caught them in the musicians’ room about thirty minutes before the second and last set of the night. It was a pleasure to talk for a bit with these fine musicians.  Find the interview here.  Also, happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings

Below is a review I wrote of Mary Halvorson's (relatively) new album, "Saturn Sings" (Fireside 12) for my school's newspaper, the McGill Tribune.  Find the review on the newspaper's website here.  Because of space constraints, the editors had to remove the second to last paragraph, but I figured I'd include it here, as it seems important to me.  This album was really a delight to listen to, and I recommend you listen to it as well.  Also, for those of you who do not follow hockey in Canada, you might not get the joke about Don Cherry.  Go here if you care.    

Mary Halvorson

This is tense, spooky music with a delightfully playful side. In “Saturn Sings,” her second album on the Firehouse 12 label, Mary Halvorson adds alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson to her already formidable trio with drummer Ches Smith and bassist John Hébert.

Wthout Halvorson, that combination might recall the special musical partnership of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry (no, not the hockey commentator). And with her, it still does, as in the unsettlingly beautiful ballad “Crack in Sky (No.11).”

If you can pull that off, it means a lot. But it’s not only a matter of instruments—it’s an aesthetic. In this group, Halvorson comfortably imbues her playing, composing and arranging with styles and methods in and out of jazz to create her own sturdy framework.

It’s the sound of Monk’s humor, noise-rock, expressionism, hard bop, Ornette Coleman’s insouciance. It might be a disservice to Halvorson, reducing her music to components. But the point is that those components have coalesced.

In Halvorson’s playing, you get whiffs of referential sounds. But they’re just passing, ephemeral. When you think you’ve identified them, you’re left, refreshingly, with her sound and her sound alone.

Near the end of Jon Irabagon’s solo in “Leak Over Six Five (No. 14),” you hear some warped, spacey noodling, like a radio broadcast played backward at high-speed. Is it Saturn singing? No, it’s Mary Halvorson’s guitar.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Rick Rosato Trio

Mon Pays, Montreal
Last Friday, I saw the Rick Rosato Trio--with Gilad Hekselman on guitar and Ari Hoenig on drums--here in Montreal at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill.  Find the review I wrote of the show here.  It's not only about the show.  It also has to do with my inchoate feelings about jazz in Montreal--in relation to New York and as it stands alone--and how I relate to the jazz community.  I hope to expand on those ideas soon.    

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Peter De Vries and Confrontation

It might help if you first read this story by Peter De Vries, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1950.  You don't have to, but it's short and good and will better inform your understanding of my entry. 

I wish he hadn't broken the record, but perhaps that's what makes it a good story.  I can't really say what I would have brought to the party, as it seemingly took place in 1950.  But really, I hope I never end up at one of those parties at all.

I've written about this before (see this entry), but I think about it a lot, so why not bring it up again?  Jazz doesn't have to be so sacrosanct, but often it is.  In De Vries's story, Jam Today, he's ridiculing snobbery.  But there's more to it than that.  He's also ridiculing the narrator.  I should sympathize with him in this story, but I really don't, because he doesn't defend himself.

You know he could.  He could tell all those high-hat connosieurs to go to hell--that swing is jazz, and Benny Goodman is its king.  But he lies about his tastes and ends up, I imagine, feeling bad about himself.

I try not to lie about my tastes.  I try to be honest with myself and with others.  But sometimes, even when I'm telling the truth, I feel dishonest.  This often happens when I talk about jazz with those who don't really listen to it.  But my feeling dishonest also has to do with assumptions I make about other people. 

I often think in retrospect that there is a difference between what I have said and what I have really felt.  I love jazz, but sometimes I temper my enthusiasm when talking about it because I don't want to seem snobby.  Jazz is often deployed as a sign of sophistication, and I don't want it to seem like I'm reinforcing a hierarchy.

But maybe I don't put enough faith in other people.  Passion is important to me.  I'm sure it is to others, too. 

I don't want to be like the man in the story.  I want to defend myself by being honest.  I have a feeling people lie because they fear confrontation.  But confrontation is healthy--and often, it might not happen the way you thought it would, as in, it might not happen at all. 

Some of the most important confrontation goes on inside you, between what you think and what you say and what you think others heard you say.  When I think, I try to sift through those factors, balance them out, but never really come to a satisfying conclusion about them.  It seems to me that all we can do is hope others understand us.    

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Aaron Parks Interview

Aaron Parks

A few weeks ago, I sat down with pianist Aaron Parks between sets at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill here in Montreal.  I had never met him before, but he was gracious and willing to field my questions.  We talked about all sorts of things for twenty minutes or so.  You can find the interview here, on Nextbop.  I hope you enjoy it.   

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jeff Coffin Interview

Jeff Coffin

Last week I did a phone interview with saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who plays notably in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and the Dave Matthews Band, along with his own group, the Jeff Coffin Mu'tet.  He was driving out to Saint Louis for some saxophone workshops and had a lot of time to talk.  

How do I know Jeff?  Well, I don't really, which is what makes him a special person.  I twice saw him play with the Flecktones in high school, but I first talked to him this summer.  I was taking a course in the master's program in jazz history and research at Rutgers Newark (read here for more details), studying with Lewis Porter, a brilliant jazz historian and pianist.  

I decided to write my final paper on the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, recorded in 1963.  Lewis, who is Jeff's friend, told me that Jeff knew a lot about the album and that I should interview him about it.  So I did.  It was that easy.  (I'm often amazed at how easy some things turn out to be.)

He was very knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking to him.  We sort of kept in touch and finally talked again.  This time I recorded the interview.  Below is the transcription.  It's quite long, but worth reading.  Jeff makes good points about himself and his music and his life that might inform your way of thinking.  He poignantly retells how Michael Brecker saved his career and changed his life.  (MK is me, Matt Kassel; JC is Jeff Coffin.)  I hope you enjoy it:


MK:  Are you going to a show right now?

JC:  No, I’m going out to do some clinics there [St. Louis] actually.  When I’m not on the road, I do a lot of music clinics.  So I’m doing something at University of Missouri and Springfield.  I’m doing something at a high school and also a place in St. Louis called Saxquest.  It’s a big saxophone shop.

MK:  That’s good…umm…you just finished your tour with Dave Matthews, right?

JC:  Yeah, just finished the tour with Dave, I’m heading back out again on Monday with Dave for three weeks, mostly East Coast stuff, playing up in Buffalo actually.  Just did some recording also with my group the Mu’tet. 

MK:  Where will you be going for the tour?  Are you going to be in Montreal?  That’s where I live.

JC:  Uhh…I don’t think so.  I think the closest we’re getting to Canada is probably Buffalo.  And I think maybe we’re in Albany also, I can’t remember, but we’re kind of going through the North East and down into the south, ending up in Charlottesville at the end of the tour in November, I think around the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth or around that area.

MK:  Sounds good.

JC:  I wish we were going to Montreal.  I love that city.  Montreal and Toronto, I love those two cities a lot. 

MK:  Yeah, Montreal is a…I really love it here.  I’m glad to be going to school here.

JC:  Yup, I’ve played the jazz festival there a couple of times with the Flecktones.  And every time I’ve been up there, man, it’s just been spectacular. 

MK:  Are you playing with them anytime soon?

JC:  I’m playing with Bela [Fleck] in December for about three weeks. 

MK:  Oh, OK, do you keep in touch with them?  I saw Bela Fleck with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain in Pennsylvania this summer and that was a good show. 

JC:  Oh, yeah, nice, yeah, I talk to Bela fairly often actually.  Just talked to Future Man a few minutes ago, and you know, I talk to Vic [Wooten] when I’m home usually.  So yeah, we all stay in touch. 

MK:  That’s good.  Which group would you say you’re most comfortable with now, if that makes any sense?

JC:  Umm…they’re both really different, you know.  It’s like with the Flecktones my role is different because there’s only four of us, so my role isn’t as a supporting role, it’s as primary-role as you can get in an ensemble.  So the parts that I’m playing with the Flecktones are much more complicated and much more woven into the fabric of the music, whereas with Dave, it’s more of a supporting role cause obviously, he’s the vocalist, and it’s more centered around what he does.  But within both of those ensembles I get a lot of solo space and I have a lot of responsibility.  It’s just a different sort of responsibility.  I play a different role in each of the groups.  The difference with my group also, with the Mu’tet, because my role in that group is as, you know, the front guy, and the person who sort of directs traffic in a way that kind of focuses the direction of the group. 

MK:  Mhm.

JC:  But at the same time also, I’ve learned a lot from being around two great leaders:  being around Bela and also being around Dave.  And they both lead by sort of not leading, which is an interesting way to do things, and very effective obviously, by trusting the musicians and allowing the musicians to be creative and feel like they’re an enormous part of what’s going on, because they are. 

MK:  Yeah.  So do you…does he give you parts, or do you write your own parts?

JC:  In which ensemble? 

MK:  I guess both of them. 

JC:  Well, it’s a combination of things, you know, with the Flecktones there’s a very collaborative writing process.  We all sort of work out different things together.  Now with Dave’s, it’s a little different, I usually defer to Rashawn [Ross] a lot because he’s the ranking member of the horn section, and for him having come directly out of LeRoi’s [Moore] tutelage, you know, I think that he has a really great understanding of what that music is looking for.  And so again, it’s still a collaborative effort, but it’s a little more like, “OK, what does this song need that still sounds like the group but that we can still put our stamp on it?”  You know, especially with the newer material, then of course that will change over time also as we develop newer material. 


MK:  How did you get involved with the Dave Matthews group?

JC:  Well, originally it was through the Flecktones.  We had done some opening dates, so we knew them, and then when LeRoi had his accident in very late June of two thousand eight, I got a call on July first that he was incapacitated and it would be two or three months before he’d be able to be back on the road, and was I available to come out to sub for him for a couple of months.  So basically I had to, you know, change all my plans for that summer to be able to do it.  And I was certainly willing to do it, you know, I knew those guys, and obviously when somebody has something like that occur, you want to try to do everything you can to help them out and get them back playing as quickly as they can.  So I agreed to do it, and tragically a month and a half later, he passed.  And at the end of the year they asked me to stay on with them, which I did, and obviously I talked to the Flecktones about that.  And you know, it was an emotional decision for me because I had been playing with Bela for… thirteen years at that point.  But everyone agreed that it seemed like the right thing, and you know, those relationships continue, of course. 

MK:  Well, it sounds like you fit in well with them.  When I think of whom you play with, and all the different groups, it sort of reminds me of Michael Brecker a little bit, because he just sort of played everywhere I think.  Like I know he played with Paul Simon, and he just would play straight-up jazz.  So I was wondering if you ever knew him, and if so, if you were influenced by him. 


JC:  Yeah, Michael was a huge influence for me.  One of the reasons that I use effects on my instrument is directly related to a record that he did with his brother Randy called Heavy Metal Bebop.  I remember hearing him using a wah-wah, which ended up being an envelope filter on saxophone, and at the time he was using what’s called a Mu-Tron, which is made by Electro-Harmonix, and for a long time that was discontinued and they have a Q-Tron envelope filter that I use now, which I absolutely love.  And so from a very early time, you know, I was really attracted to his sound and to his agility on the instrument.  You know, to me it felt like he was so nimble that he could basically play anything on the instrument.  The way that he would come up from the low end of the instrument.  The shape of his phrases.  I love his sounds, and I’ve always been attracted to a very vibrant sound on the saxophone.  And I felt like I could really hear the history of the instrument, but I also felt like he had an incredibly contemporary thing going, and he was very much a chameleon on the instrument, meaning, like you were saying, he played with a lot of different people and played in a lot of different situations.  And the challenge was to retain who he was in those situations, to bring energy, professionalism and style to those different situations, and try to, very successfully so I think, try to serve the music in a way that he still retained who he was. 

MK:  Yeah.

JC:  Does that make sense?

MK:  Yeah, I feel like he was always him wherever he played. 

JC:  He was a brilliant musician, a brilliant composer also, you know, I love his compositions.  I think he was a very thoughtful player as well, and I remember meeting him a couple of different times and talking with him and he was kind of a gadget guru also.  But very disciplined, I remember he was, as I said, you know, he was very thoughtful, too.  I remember he sent Victor, Vic Wooten, an e-mail that he had read Vic’s book, “The Music Lesson,” and you know, how much it had meant to him.  And this was when Michael was in the hospital actually, and I think there’s a quote on Vic’s book from Mike Brecker, it’s like, “The best book on music I’ve ever read,” or something along those lines.  And for him to reach out, I just thought it was really wonderful, and I remember one of the times that I saw Michael in New York:  we had just played in a television show with the Flecktones, it was early, and we were loading out at about eight thirty, nine o’clock in the morning, and he’s walking down the street on his way to a session.  So we hang out for a few minutes and talk, and as he’s walking away, he leans over his shoulder and yells, “Don’t forget your long tones!”  You know, and we just both cracked up, and he was a funny cat also.  I could sure go on and on about him but there’s this one story in particular.  He basically saved my career. 

MK:  Really?

JC:  And I don’t mean that in like, you know, “Oh, he was so influential,” or something like that, but literally, when I moved to Nashville I had been going through a lot of neck problems, a lot of throat problems where I was sort of bull frogging under my jaw, like Dizzy Gillespie in his cheeks.  I was having that happen under my jaw, because there was so much back pressure that it felt like the muscle group that goes around my throat was tearing, and I was going through all these issues.  So I got his address through the New York union because I didn’t know anybody else who was going through this type of thing.  And I wrote him a letter, and about a month later I get this phone call and caller asks for me and he says, “Hey, this is Mike Brecker.”  And I’m thinking, “Oh, right, yeah, ha ha ha.”  Because you know, guys always would call each other at school and pretend they were Miles Davis, you know, or whatever.  And he says, “I got your letter and wanted to call to see how your neck problems were going.”  And I knew at that moment it was him because I hadn’t told anybody I had sent this letter out. 

And so we talked for about twenty minutes and you know, we were talking about how I play, what my setup was, what situations I was in, et cetera, et cetera, and he said, “Look, I’m going to send you this literature because most people don’t really know about this condition.”  And he explained to me what he had gone through and what he was dealing with at the time.  So he sent me this whole packet of literature from his doctors and he said, “I’m also going to give you my home phone number.”  He said, “Call me any time with any questions you have because this is really not something that’s very well known but there’s a lot of people that are dealing with it.”  And I saw a video and he was wearing some kind of wrap.  So I called him back about two or three weeks later after I saw this video and I said, “I don’t know if you remember me but we talked a few weeks ago.”  And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, how’s it going, how’s your neck?” et cetera.  And so we talked for a while, I asked him what the wrap was and he said, “It’s an ace bandage that I put around my neck every time I play to sort of hold in the muscles.”  And he said it allows the neck to heal, it keeps it warm. 

And at that time I went back to the fundamentals also, of doing long tones, working on my breathing, I changed setup. I changed reed strength.  All these things were things he recommended that I do.  So I basically went with the knowledge that I had of a professional musician, back to the fundamentals and back to the basic building blocks of the instrument.  And I used the ace wrap, I kid you not, man, every single time I played for a year.  Every gig, every practice session, every long tone I played, every note that I produced on the saxophone or clarinet, I’d have this ace wrap on.  And after a year, I decided that it was so cumbersome and so bulky, I just decided:  it’s either healed or I’m done.  I had decided that I was in that place.  And I stopped wearing it and I’ve been fine ever since.

MK:  That’s great.

JC:  So I had a couple of different opportunities to thank him in person, and that’s something, for me, that I’ll never forget.  You know, that I’ve been able to do what I’ve been able to do, literally, because of him.  So you talk about an influence?  Not only musically, but, but fundamentally in the way that I play, and that I’m able to play, but also that someone of his stature, not even knowing me.  I had just gotten out of college; I was like six months out of college.  And for him to take that time with me, I mean, for me, it meant more than I can possibly put into words.  And it influences how, obviously how I play, but how I teach, how I spend time with students, how I spend time with other musicians.  Those things are huge.  That ripple is enormous. 

MK:  It seems like it changed your way of life. 

JC:  It changed everything for me, man.  It changed everything.  Yeah, it changed everything. 

MK:  I was reading your blog, your latest post about relationships, and who was that written by?  Where’d you get the…

JC:  Oh, an Indian writer named Krishnamurti.

MK:  Do you read a lot of, sort of Eastern thought? 

JC:  I have actually, yeah, it’s very interesting to me…umm…the connectivity of that way of thought:  that we’re all connected up.  You know, even my record says…the titles of my records have sort of harkened to that.  You know, when I first moved to Nashville I really felt like a duck out of water, the first record was called Outside the Lines cause that’s really sort of where I felt like I was and my next record was called Commonality which has really a lot to do with, you know, the realizations that we are connected, that everything’s connected, and sometimes you can’t see it, even.  I remember learning music theory and thinking, OK, how is this stuff related to anything else?  You know, how are these scales related to improvisation?  How are these chords related to scales, or to this piece of music? You know, it’s like we’re dissecting it in a way that it seems like it’s completely disconnected.  And I just kept thinking, well, it’s all connected, though, in some way or other.  And it took me a number of years to sort of put all that together.  Then the record after Commonality was called Go-Round.  The one after that was called Bloom, which has a lot to do with my photography and what I was into at the time, but also the idea that we continue to grow as people and that as an artist also, as a human being, as a parent, you know, we have these opportunities at every moment to grow and to expand. 

And it’s part of who we are.  It’s part of what a flower does.  You know, all through our lives, there’s many opportunities to grow and to bloom and expand.  And so that’s kind of where that came from.  And the next one was called Mutopia, the most recent one.  And that has a lot to do with, you know, the idea of utopia, which never works.  It’s a beautiful concept but it never works because it’s a lot of times very rigid.  And so the idea of Mutopia—the word Mu’tet, which is the name of my group, comes from the word mutation, which has a lot to do with the kind of music I’m into and the style that I write in—but that everything is in constant change, and that really true utopia is one that changes; that our lives are constantly in change and that we have to accept that.  And that’s part of the beauty of it, that’s part of the struggle, so the idea of utopia has to do with the idea that change comes in mutations, that we’re constantly mutating, and that that is the utopia, this is…the moment that we’re in is the greatest possible moment that there can be. 

And uh, but that it’s always changing, the next moment is different.  So to me, you asked if I’m into Eastern philosophy.  And I would say yes because of those things, because of the connectivity of things, because of the relationships that we have through music.  It all seems to make a lot of sense to me when I think about it.  And I think about it quite often.  Somebody asked me one time, and I think I put that in the blog, if you have two notes, is it a relationship or is it a chord?  And I think that’s a really interesting question to ask.  And that got me thinking about a whole lot of different areas. 

MK:  Yeah, it was thought-provoking.  Along the lines of…when you took the wrap off, and you sort of gave yourself an ultimatum, what were you thinking you would do if it didn’t heal? 

JC:  That’s a good question. [Laughs]  I don’t know, man, because this is all I really know how to do, quite honestly.  I really don’t know.  I don’t have any idea…

MK:  I mean, it’s an abstract question.

JC:  It’s so hard for me to think hypothetically cause again, there’s not a lot of things that…there’s nothing that moves me like this.  And you know, I love that I’m able to roll in education.  I love teaching, I love working with younger players, students.  So that might have been part of it, had I not been able to play.  I don’t know, man, because even my love for photography didn’t come in until a number of years after that.  So yeah, I have no idea.  I’m just so grateful and so thankful that I’m able to play.

MK:  Yeah, I didn’t expect an answer, but just figured I’d ask.  So how do you know Lewis Porter, how did you guys meet?

JC:  How did I meet Lew?  Umm…I’m trying to think of how we met.  I can’t remember if he came to a gig with the Flecktones…I feel that we’ve known each other for a long time, man.  I know we have.  I can’t remember how we initially met.  Maybe it was in Princeton, or Rutgers—maybe the Flecktones were playing there or it was just through e-mailing.  We’ve done some gigs together, and you know, we’ve kept in touch.  I’ve actually been bad about keeping in touch with him over the last year or so I’ve just been so crazy busy.  But he’s one of those guys, man, that is just so open and so great to be around, even if it’s six months or a year, two years, you kind of just fall back into it with him, and you know we have a lot of common area as far as what we enjoy musically also and he’s just a great guy, man.  And he’s so knowledgeable and so highly regarded professionally and artistically.  He’s a really sweet human being. 

MK:  Yeah, I sort of have a similar story related to your Michael Brecker story, because I e-mailed him last year—I was a junior last year in college—asking him just if he knew of anything I could do relating to jazz, and he said that I could take the course with him in the master’s program [at Rutgers in Newark] for the summer.  And I told him that I liked Ben Ratliff, the jazz critic, and he told me that he knew him and he connected me with him.  And it was just that easy.  I had never even met him and he just set me up with everyone, which was very nice.  He didn’t have to do that.

JC:  Yeah, and that’s the beauty of people like that, you know.  I think one of the most amazing things about being a musician is that we have an opportunity to share the things that we love.  And the greatest musicians I’ve ever known are probably the most altruistic musicians and altruistic people I’ve ever known in the sense that they recognize that this information we have is supposed to be shared.  You know, I called Ornette Coleman out of the blue about two and a half years ago, and I’ve been over to his place three or four times now and he’s always been incredibly gracious and humble.  And the first two times I was there, I was there for about six hours at a time. 

MK:  That’s great, yeah, I think of John Coltrane as a very open person, I’ve read. 

JC: Yeah, to think about that kind of thing, man, to spend time with that caliber of artist…Joe Lovano’s the same way.  You know, Joe is the salt of the earth man, and you know, people just want to talk about and share the things they love.  And Lew Porter’s like that also. 

MK:  Have you had any situations like that?  People have, you know, called you or…

JC:  Oh sure, absolutely.  I have situations like that a lot, man.  You know, people who have heard me play with Bela, or with Dave, and young horn players that are interested in taking a lesson or spending some time.  You know, if they’re really interested, I’m into it.  And I always tell people:  Don’t take a lesson with me, or don’t study with me, because of who I’ve played with.  Study with me because you want to learn.  I know that a lot of times that’s sort of an in for people: they hear me playing with somebody, and they go, “Oh, he’s playing with them, so he must be good.”  And that’s not how I look at it all.  I have to be on top of my game at every moment.  So I’m working and working and working, trying to get better, all the time. 

And that’s what I encourage with young players also, is that you have to work on the fundamentals.  And when you think about going to a basketball game or a baseball game, you go early and what are they working on?  They’ve been working on fundamentals.  If LeBron James isn’t executing, then what isn’t he executing?  OK, he’s not executing the fundamentals.  So those are things that I talk to players about, those things that allow me to do what I do, those things that allow people like Carter Beauford, Jack Dejohnette, and Mike Clark…and you know, all of the great players on every instrument.  The things that they’re doing come back to the fundamentals, come back to the ability to execute when you’re in the heat of the moment.  And those are the things that I think are so important I think to every player.  Those are the things that are going to get you through it.  If you’re comfortable there, you’re going to be comfortable in most situations. 

So yeah, I have those situations a lot.  When I go out and do clinics, like I’m doing tonight, and tomorrow and Friday and Saturday, those are things I talk about with young players.  I love spending time, man.  I love being able to take questions and sort of put those questions back to somebody, you know, and ask them what their answers are.  Because my answers work for me, and that’s great, but I want to hear what they think also, I want them to sort of crack open the proverbial nut and see what’s inside and have them realize that their answers are as valid as mine are—and a lot of times more so because they’re answering their own questions. 

MK:  They just don’t realize it? 

JC:  I don’t think they knew that they could.  I think that a lot of times, especially in academia, we are encouraged to listen to what somebody else has to say.  Most people don’t even know what the word education even means.  It comes from the latin root of educato, which, literally translated, means “to draw out.”  And so the idea that we’re being told certain things is important to sort of begin that process, but the idea of drawing out to me is like discovering something.  And when you discover something it becomes part of who you are, and you own it.  And when you start discovering art and music and your own ideas and your own philosophies, they start to become who you are.  And you own that part of it.  And it doesn’t mean that it’s etched in stone.  Again, it’s mutatable, it’s changeable, and it’s supposed to change as you gain different perspectives on things. 

MK:  So, would you say that…yeah, that seems very important to realize in music because there’s just so many different kinds of it and it’s hard to see where people are coming from if you don’t think too hard about it.  I don’t know how to express it, but…especially, I guess after, to give a concrete example, when Coltrane died, it was like “Where do we go now?” and like “What do we do?” and “How can you be true to yourself but develop more?” 

JC:  Right, and what I would say to that also is, you know, if you asked that question to John Coltrane.  If you said, “Look man, you know, after you’re gone, what next, what do we do?”  And I think what he would say is “Be yourself.”  You know, there’s no way you can be the next John Coltrane.  You know, even Ravi Coltrane doesn’t sound like his dad.  I’ve been playing with Felix Pastorius for the last almost ten years, and where they’re influenced by their dads is very apparent.  But they still have their own thing, you know, and you know, so many people try to sound like Coltrane or Sonny [Rollins] and it’s like, “Look, man, that’s a dead end street.”  An absolute one hundred percent dead end street.  The influence, certainly the influence, and be inspired, certainly be inspired, but what draws us to those players, to those sounds, to that depth of expression, is that they didn’t sound like anyone else. 

Coltrane wasn’t trying to sound like Dexter Gordon, he wasn’t trying to sound like Sonny Rollins.  And that strong individualism is what draws us to those players.  We’re always going to sound like ourselves, no matter what.  You know, it’s a matter of developing and discovering how we hear music.  And I think that one of the keys to that is composition.  Obviously you have to have the fundamentals down, you have to be able to play the instrument.  But how is it that you hear music?  How is it that I hear music?  And that’s one of the things that composition has really broken open for me, and that allows me to, again, sort of play a chameleon role in a lot of ways of being able to insert myself into a lot of different situations and feel comfortable in those situations based on the diversity of music that I listen to and that I write and that I play. 

MK:  That’s a good point about the composition. I hadn’t considered that. 

JC:  I think also the other thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that they don’t need permission.  They don’t need permission to express themselves.  They don’t need permission for composition.  I’ve never taken a composition lesson in my life.  And I have five or six albums filled with my compositions.  And I’ve written over two hundred tunes, you know, my tunes have been nominated for Grammy awards, have been on other people’s records.  And all I’m saying is I don’t need someone else’s permission for that.  I don’t need a jazz studies degree to say that I can play my instrument.  That’s why I originally went into my ed. degree:  first of all, because I like teaching.  But secondly, I thought, “Well, I don’t need a piece of paper, I don’t need someone else’s recognition that tells me I can play this instrument.”

You know, and that was probably a bit naïve and ignorant on my part, but it was something that I truly believed, and I truly believe that today.  There’s going to be people who like my playing and there’s going to be people who dislike my playing.  And I have to be OK with that.  There’s a beautiful quote by Ornette Coleman that says, “All listeners are equal in their opinions,” and I carry that with me every single day.  I hope that everybody enjoys what I do, man, but I have to realize, too, that not everybody is going to.  And that’s all right.  I remember there was a…I think one of my favorite critiques, or criticisms, you might say, or reviews of my playing came early on with the Flecktones.  And they said, “The saxophone with the Flecktones is like a jackhammer in church.”  [Laughs] 

MK:  That’s rough.  [Laughs]

JC:  Well, man, I really gotta give it to you, I mean this guy really hated the saxophone. [Laughs]  And I thought, it’s sheer poetry, man.  And I just thought, “Wow, how can I possibly be offended by someone’s opinion?”  You know?  It’s like, “Wow, I wish you’d dug it, but OK, man,” you know?  “Fine.”  So the idea that all listeners are equal in their opinions on one end validates and on the other end invalidates at the same time.  You know, Ornette told me a story about one time he was soloing somebody came and literally took the instrument from his hands and put it in a trashcan.  And I’ve never been through anything like that. 

MK:  Well, that’s rude. 

JC:  And I’m thinking, “How do you keep going after something like that,” man? 

MK:  I don’t know.  That’s a good question.  Well, he’s a special person. 

JC:  There’s a great friend of mine, who you should interview, named Bert Wilson.  And Bert is a master of the saxophone.  He is one of the few masters of the instrument on the planet, and since the age of four, he’s been in a wheelchair from polio. 

MK:  Really?

JC:  And this guy has overcome adversity like you would not believe, man.  He literally plays to live.  And he’s so inspiring.  If you e-mail me, Matt, I’ll send you over a track that’ll knock your head off. 

MK:  Yeah, I would appreciate that. 

JC:  And Bert would send you a bunch of stuff, and he’d be very open to an interview.  I’m telling you, man, this cat is full of knowledge.  So you know, when people overcome stuff like that, you know, how can you not develop your own thing?  I think that’s the whole point of it, man.  It’s like I don’t want to see someone painting like Picasso, I want to see Picasso.  Why would I want to see an imitation?  Why wouldn’t I want to see the real thing?  When I hear somebody play, why wouldn’t I want to hear them play?  I don’t want to hear somebody sound like Joe Lovano, I want to hear Joe.  I want to hear people influenced by that of course, man.  You know, I want to hear people influenced by Joe Henderson, but I don’t want to hear somebody playing like Joe Henderson, or Wayne [Shorter].  I want those influences, but I don’t want that imitation. 

MK:  No, it’s useless.  [Laughs]

JC:  So I think that through imitation comes individuality.  And I think that it has to be that way when you hear any of the greats talk about their influences, when you hear Sonny talk about Coleman Hawkins, and you even hear that record they did together [Sonny Meets Hawk!], Sonny doesn’t sound a thing like Coleman Hawkins.  You know, Ornette Coleman came out on Sonny’s eightieth birthday gig…

MK:  Oh yeah, I read about that…

JC:  …in New York, and you know, they were just bouncing off each other, two of the great improvisers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, and you know, they sound nothing like each other.  But they’re influenced by one another.  They don’t need each other’s permission to sound like themselves, that’s who they sound like.  And in my opinion, that’s the way it should be. 

MK:  I think that’s a good opinion. 

JC:  And it’s through composition, I believe, that that happens.

MK:  I guess it’s the best way to see how you hear music, as you said. 

JC:  I think so, I think so, yeah.  And I find that with Wayne Shorter also, as a perfect example.  Coltrane also, the way that he developed his style was through working on his compositions.   


MK:  Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. 

JC:  Sure, man, my pleasure.  Thank you for taking the time as well to reach out. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Rick Rosato Quintet

Rick Rosato

Last week I saw the Rick Rosato Quintet perform here in Montreal at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill.  Find the review I wrote here.  Please check it out.  It was a delight to see. 

After the show, I interviewed pianist Aaron Parks (who played in the group) in the musicians' room upstairs of Upstairs.  We talked about his projects, his compositions, his influences, New York, Gretchen Parlato, many things.  The interview will be posted soon on Nextbop

But it was sort of interrupted when Peter Schlamb, the vibraphonist in the group, walked in on us.  It didn't matter, though.  Eventually, everyone in the quintet had entered the room to hang out for the maybe excessively long hour and a half break between sets. 

Almost immediately my role was reversed.  Now they were interviewing me, asking me where I'm from, what I study, what I was doing in the room.  We talked for about twenty minutes or so and then I left, wishing them all good luck. 

It's documented.  The digital recorder was still running, and I have been enjoying listening to it, even if it embarrasses me a bit.  Why do I laugh so nervously?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Fighting to Sleep

I’ve wondered about
Charlie Parker’s dreams—
if they frightened him,
if he spoke of them,
if he remembered them.
I’ve wondered if
he looked forward
to sleep.
I do,
but maybe not falling asleep.
Sometimes you go
so hard, sleep
just takes you.
Sometimes that’s
an evasion.
It’s brave
to try to fall asleep,
to get into bed,
close your eyes,
slow your mind
and confront the tyranny
of guilt,
of embarrassment,
of what happened.


This is the second poem in a series of unrelated poems I hope to be writing and posting throughout the next few weeks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jazz Poetry

For the last two months, I have been reading poetry in my free time.  I used to run from it.  But I've realized that good poetry can be very beautiful and refreshing, even if you think you don't understand it.  Throughout the next month or so, I'll try to write one poem a week for this blog.  There is, I believe, a genre called 'jazz poetry,' although it doesn't always have to do with jazz, but the sort of free structures and rhythms often associated with the music.  The poem below is about jazz, but not an example of 'jazz poetry.'  I have no idea what I'm doing, by the way, but I hope you like it.


I Love Jazz

I love jazz because
it makes me feel
so damn cool.

Sometimes I wonder
if I'd have any confidence
without it.

but I'm glad
I'll never know.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Chris Potter Quartet

On Friday, October 8, I saw the Chris Potter Quartet at the venue l'Astral in Montreal.  Once again, I went as a Nextbop writer.  Find the link below to the review I wrote:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Portico Quartet

Last weekend I saw the Portico Quartet play at l'Astral here in Montreal.  I went as a Nextbop writer, not for my blog.  But in the end, I figure my blog has to play some part in this event.  So here's the link to the review I wrote.  Check it out if you'd like:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Finding Meaning

You might notice that I don't mention jazz in this entry.  But in a way, it's related to jazz, especially jazz artists.  I hope you see how.

Writing blog entries isn't hard for me.  I choose to write them.  That's not to say writing is easy for me.  I'm a slow writer, a finicky writer.  But when I sit down and start a new post, I am basically searching for meaning.  That's why I primarily write personal essays--because I think I can scrape out some meaning by examining myself.  I don't know if I'm successful, but I do feel better after I write.  It's like therapy.  Therapy's not easy--there's crying, confession, concealment--but it's worth it.

Yesterday I wrote an essay for a class I'm taking in radical political thought.  I didn't want to write the essay, but I had to.  I thought it would be easy to write it because I had been writing frequently for my blog, for the school newspaper, for myself.  But when I sat down to write, I faltered.  It seemed so deliberate.

Of course my problem was not uncommon.  Another case of someone who didn't want to do his homework.  Eventually, I got what I considered a good idea and started writing.  I never really got into it, but I finished.  And it wasn't until tonight that I realized my problem:  I thought writing would be easy--that I wouldn't have to think as hard because I had been thinking more than usual about writing.  I was wrong.

Writing gets easier when you come to terms with the fact that you have to sit down and think and start over and be frustrated and think some more and start over again.  You might get lucky with a good idea here and there, but really you can't outsmart hard work.  This doesn't only apply to writing.

If you've read some of my blog posts, you might have noticed how much I admire hard work.  Who doesn't, right?  But I'm also puzzled by it.  Work can be so sacrosanct.  There are so many secrets involved.  Few want to admit how long they've worked on something.  But meaning takes a while to concoct.  If you spent an hour writing a sentence, it might be that you're slow, or too careful, or bored.  But it also might be that you value meaning.

I think I'm a hopeful person.  That's probably why I thought writing would become easier.  Not that it hasn't in some ways.  But it still takes me a long time to express a thought, a thought that never seems to fully show itself.  I don't think it'll become easier to find those thoughts.  But for me, it's meaningful just to look for them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The System

For the sake of forming a system, click this link--Do The Math--and then click the link on that website directing you back here--to Cold Jazz.  (Click the Cold Jazz link if you want--just for the hell of it.)

I'm not completely serious, but if you did it, I'm glad.  Blogging is awkward.  It's hard to know who you're affecting if you don't know who's reading your entries.  When I started blogging about two months ago, I had a few agendas:  to have a reason to write on a regular basis, to have a focus, to build an online portfolio of my thoughts.  I didn't really know how to go about establishing online connections.  I had just heard of Patrick Jarenwattananon's A Blog Supreme and thought it would be nice if I got his attention.  I eventually did, here.  But most of the time, I felt like I was only writing to myself. 

I didn't know there was actually a jazz blogosphere--that musicians and journalists and aficionados and self-made critics are actually writing about each other and responding to each other on the internet, right now.  So when the excellent pianist George Colligan, of jazztruth, commented on--by way of aggreeing with--one of my entries last month, I was happily surprised.  It made me feel sort of validated.  It felt good to know he had sat down, gone to my site, read one of my entries and actually considered it.  I wondered how many other people had.   

Maybe the internet depersonalizes relationships, but I'm pretty sure that the people I've met through my blog are good people--including Sebastien Helary and Anthony Dean-Harris of Nextbop (whom I've written for here and here); Alex W. Rodriguez of Lubricity (who recommended my blog here); cristin in Chicago, who comments on my blog (and also blogs here). 

I've never met Ethan Iverson (of Do The Math) in person or online, but he has apparently read my blog. (If you didn't actually click the first link, you should now.)  I know I've read his.  I remember the first time I saw Mr. Iverson perform, in Princeton with the Bad Plus.  I was in high school, was listening to a lot of jazz from the 1950s, but I didn't have any preconceived notions of what jazz should be.  The Bad Plus are like the Jacques Derrida of jazz.  They interrogate the binaries, they deconstruct, but not at the expense of their sense of place, their empathy.

Mr. Iverson served as spokesman for the band the night I saw him--introducing the songs, revealing who wrote them, wryly unspooling anecdotes.  He was quite funny and interactive.  I remember wondering that night where his next show would be, how long he had been on the road, how many audiences he had performed for in his life, how many people he had affected.

It's hard to qualify that last thought.  But it's helpful to think that affection is usually better when reciprocal.  In my second semester at McGill, I took a jazz history class with local Montreal drummer Dave Laing.  I had seen him play the semester before with the singer Ranee Lee, and I had really admired his playing.  I was surprised to find that he would be my teacher.  Surprised to the point of shyness.  I never told him that I saw him, that I enjoyed his performance.  I should have.  He seemed a confident musician, but I'm sure he could have taken a compliment.  We could all take a compliment. 

So I felt complimented when Ethan Iverson linked me from his blog.  It's not a momentous occasion, but it means, maybe, he likes my writing.  I hope he feels complimented by the first link in this entry.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Brother Ray

Ray Charles (1930-2004)
When I listen to Ray Charles--which is quite often--I like to imagine his face.  That's probably because there are so many pictures of his face--sunglasses on, head cocked back, mouth agape, cheeks tightened up.  If you didn't know him, you might think he's being tortured in such pictures (look right and think about it).  But it's also because his enunciation seems to require the whole face take part--like when he's reaching for one of those gravelly falsetto notes, staring up and squinting his eyes as though there's too much sun; or he's knee-deep in a blues, growling in breaths, frowning with seeming desperation.  I don't want to idealize a persona:  it's not that his emotions made him a genius.  He was a fabulous, hardworking pianist with one of the finest voices in music.  But when he looks in pain, I believe he is.

Ray Charles would have turned 80 today had he not died six years ago of liver cancer.  The cover of DownBeat's October issue pictures a black and white profile of his face, commemorating his eightieth birthday.  He looks solemn in that picture.  The accompanying article discusses Charles's liminal sort of relationship with jazz, bringing to attention his influence on jazz musicians, the jazz musicians who were his influences, his forays into jazz, his work methods.  I enjoyed the article because I learned a little more, but there was an underlying question that I believe did not need to be broached.  Did Ray Charles play enough jazz for jazz fans to claim him as a jazz musician?

It is true that Ray Charles played on records that are unabashedly jazz records, including, notably, "Soul Meeting" and "Soul Brothers," which he cut in 1958 with Milt Jackson, who had as much or more affinity for the blues as Charles.  They are fine records.  My favorite is "Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David 'Fathead' Newman," from 1960.  Listen to "Hard Times" from that album and try not to feel wistful.  There is "Genius + Soul = Jazz," from 1961, featuring such great jazz musicians as Clark Terry, Thad Jones, Al Grey.  But they do not make this album great.  In fact, the sharp, jarring sound of Charles's organ on this album makes it not great.  There is "My Kind of Jazz," recorded in 1970, produced by Quincy Jones.

So sure, let's claim Ray Charles as a jazz musician.  He did play jazz.  But wanting to claim him misses the point of his genius.  For he did play jazz, but the songs that made him great--"I Got a Woman," "You Are My Sunshine," "A Fool For You," Night Time is the Right Time," "Careless Love"--are not jazz songs.

Some might disagree.  In Gary Giddins's essay "Hard Again," he writes, "Ray Charles had one of the best hard bop bands of the '50s."  But Giddins does not pretend that Charles played strictly jazz when, he writes, "rhythm and blues was tweaking jazz for its loss of soul." (1)  And surely Ray Charles had soul.  Watch the video posted below (mentioned in the DownBeat article) and see for yourself.  (As you'll see, it wasn't just his face that moved with the words.)

Here's how I see it:  Ray Charles sang at the Republican National Convention in 1984.  Was he a Republican?  Maybe, but that shouldn't define him.  Ray Charles played jazz.  Was he a jazz musician?  Perhaps, but let's be thankful that's not all he was.  


(1) Giddins, Gary. Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the '80s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.  Page 133.

Ray Charles plays the slow blues in Madrid

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jazz in the Background

I can't deny that music sets a mood. It can set your mood. When I first started listening to jazz, I was going to the school library, checking out jazz CDs randomly, seeing what I liked. I remember one album fondly: Oscar Peterson's "Saturday Night at the Blue Note" (Telarc) recorded live in 1990. In the first track, "Kelly's Blues," I was awed by Peterson's virtuosity on the piano, his powerful block chords, the way he ended his solo with such authority as to make it seem the only way: his way. I didn't come to admire Peterson's playing all at once. At first I was put off by the album's sound quality. But for some reason, I went back and listened again, and again. By degrees, I started to consider the interplay, the dynamics, the methods in jazz.

I wasn't drawing any conclusions; I was learning something about listening. About the value of paying attention. One spring day in grade eleven, I put on that Oscar Peterson CD as I drove two friends home from school. They were talking as I turned it on, so I listened alone for a couple of minutes. Eventually, I interrupted their conversation, asking what they thought of the music. They hadn't really noticed it and stopped to listen. Peterson had just ended his solo with thunder and Herb Ellis was emerging from the wake, stating a line that would remain in my head for a long time to come. They both agreed that it was good, that it was something they would play at a party, in the background. Good friends that they were and are, I was still frustrated by their appraisal, even more so because I think they meant it as a compliment.

I sensed they were saying it was music to set a mood, to accommodate an environment, perhaps a quiet affair with martinis and beef wellington, or sugar cookies and mulled wine. But there was a contradiction in my frustration: I agreed with them, though not for the same reasons. Sure, I thought, I'd play this at a party. That's because I'd want to listen to it, to enjoy it with others. I felt that my friends implied it was music not worth listening to, that you'd play it at a party because it seems like a sophisticated thing to do.

I would get a similar feeling two years later, in February of my first year at university, when my roommate told me he liked jazz in the winter as I listened in the living room to Clifford Brown. Once again, I agreed with him, but not for the same reasons. Only in the winter? I thought. Why not all the time? But then again, he seemed to listen to the same Joanna Newsom song every night. I certainly wouldn't have done that, but I'd play "Joy Spring" so many times that I could whistle along with the solos.

I don't lament such instances anymore. You can be offended by a lot of things if you try. I imagine my feelings were hurt in high school because I was younger, excited by something, wanting to share that excitement with someone my age. (I never really did, in high school at least.) My friends didn't know then how much I loved listening to jazz, how heroic I found it and how badly I wanted to understand it. How could they have? How could I have known it would serve as the background music for my life?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Devin Roth

Fall weather makes me reflective. It might have to do with the imminence of winter, the dampness, the start of school, the sweaters. I'm not sure. But in the fall, I tend to learn something about myself that I might not learn in another season. I tend to make decisions. Last fall, I decided I would take piano lessons. It had been something I wanted to do since perhaps the start of high school. In fact, I had done it, twice. But the lessons never went very far; I would lose my motivation and decide it wasn't worth it. I would never learn, I thought. I was too impatient.

In my third go at piano, I decided to take lessons from Devin Roth, a music student at McGill. He was studying jazz piano--was in his last year--and didn't seem offended if I skipped practicing for a week. In the first lesson, we discussed what I wanted to learn. I told him about my love of jazz, that I wanted to learn, if possible, jazz piano, although I wasn't sure if that would be like stepping into rushing water. I didn't want to deal with Bach's minuets, or the best easy piano classics. They didn't interest me in high school, and I figured I should learn from the past. I had a Real Book and hoped we could start using it right away. We did, the next lesson, with "Autumn Leaves." But before I left, we jammed a C blues. (The blues scale in C was all I knew at the time, although that might still apply.) He told me that I played well, that he liked my ideas. Maybe he lied. But if he had, he was nice; if he hadn't, good for me.

I never did fully learn "Autumn Leaves." But it broke me in. I had never seen chord changes before, dominant sevenths or flat fives or sharp nines. Eventually fall passed and I grew tired of humming "Autumn Leaves" as the snow fell. We moved onto "All The Things You Are." This time I learned it. He guided me through useful chord inversions and I went home, sat down at my electric piano and put it all together. I still couldn't solo, and most often in jazz, that comes next. So we moved on. "Blue Bossa" would be easier--about two keys, sixteen bars, simpler melody. I figured it out quickly, the chords and melody, but we spent a few weeks working on the soloing. He showed me some nuances of the song, when I could play the wrong notes. I could finally play a jazz song through--maybe not well, but maybe that's not what I was going for. The lessons ended there. He graduated, I went home for the summer.

When I started studying with Devin, I thought I was doing it to better understand jazz. But that started to seem so conceptual, so technocratic, after a few lessons. When I put my fingers to the keys, there was a lot more going on than I had imagined. I soon realized I wouldn't be a good pianist. It bothered me at first. What was I taking lessons for? But it didn't seem to bother Devin. Sure, I was paying him, but he never treated me as though I didn't deserve to learn jazz, as though I couldn't be good. Maybe that's why I kept on studying with him.

Last weekend, Devin visited Montreal from the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where he is getting his master's degree in composition. I sat down with him to talk about his studies, his goals, his musical interests. He had only been in school for less than a week, had not been to many classes--which happen to include one on Oliver Messiaen, another on composing for film, yet another on Lydian chromatic concepts. He told me he wants to compose for film when he graduates, but for now, he is thinking about forming a band outside of school, about having a life in Boston away from the conservatory.

He acknowledged the downside of what he calls "educational inflation" in jazz. But he's not indignant about it. (Perhaps his hefty scholarship has swayed him.) "You need to go to school," he says, "and you can still experiment." Besides, it's hard to complain when your teachers are some of the best musicians in jazz. At NEC, he will learn from Fred Hersch and Jason Moran, Cecil McBee and John McNeil. I asked him if the prospect of working with such formidable musicians intimidates him. He says no. This summer he studied at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Meeting and talking to and playing with jazz musicians there, including one of his influences, Darcy James Argue (who has a blog), changed his views about jazz as a constellation of artists below which we can only crane our necks and admire from afar.

What I sensed in Devin's comportment was a sobering air of professionalism which might come from years of melding work with creativity. But it also might come from the prospect and reality of spending time with real live professional jazz musicians, people who have decided to be artists and who have become successful artists.

"Talent is hard work," he says, as if to imply they are indistinguishable, which may or may not be true. But that doesn't really matter. If he believes it, why shouldn't it be true? After an hour or so of good conversation, I decided to go. We shook hands, wished each other good luck, and went our separate ways. He seemed brave. It's hard to choose to be an artist. For some reason, though, I'm not too worried about him.


You can find Devin's website and MySpace at the links below:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Good Taste

I didn't start listening to jazz because I thought I should. I started listening because I liked it, maybe loved it. I still do. For a time--about the last five years of my life--it was almost all I listened to. When I listened to other music during that time, I would often compare it to jazz--not for constructive purposes, but to see it for what it was not. I still compare other music to jazz, but no longer with the same agenda.

I think I can say for sure that I will never grow tired of jazz--that it is my favorite music. Which is not to say I think it is the best music. I do believe in bests. I do have convictions. But I try to take things for what they are. I don't know exactly what jazz is, but that doesn't really matter. For all practical purposes, I can tell what jazz is by listening to it. I've done a lot of listening. But I still have a lot more to do.

I had to listen to a lot of jazz before I started to think about understanding it. When I could recognize Red Garland by ear, or Art Blakey, or Stanley Turrentine, or Stan Getz, I thought maybe I could contain the story of jazz--with all its sounds and textures and victories and blunders--in my head. So I kept on listening, and listening--and realized I couldn't. I also realized that I may have been in a trance.

Recently, I've been wondering if there is a difference between what I think I should be doing and what I want to do be doing. I started listening to jazz because I liked it, but eventually listening took on a whole new form. Music is huge. The music you listen to can define you, in one way or another, whether you like it or not. Sometimes a thing becomes more defined by what people think it is than by what it actually is. It can be hard to distinguish between the two because thought is very real. If enough people think something, it seems true, might be true.

Many people think jazz is for sophisticates, aesthetes, that it's an art music, that it's intellectually challenging. In other words, if you like jazz, it is usually assumed you have good taste. That may be true for some, but I can think of so many jazz fans whose puritanical belief in jazz as the best precludes them from appreciating other beautiful music.

Last night I went to a party. I do that a lot here in Montreal. As I sat sipping beer, talking with a friend, a song came on to distract me--a hip-hop song. I began to tap my foot, wondering who the artists were. And then I began to wonder why I liked this song--and why I was hesitant to say I liked it. What would it say about me? Not that that makes any sense. But I wondered away, about what makes good taste, about snobs, about enjoyment, about embarrassment.

I started to think maybe, for some, liking jazz is a guard: it defends you from explaining your tastes. But really there aren't any pure streams in music. It's all out there--in our ears, in the air, in our memories. The sound waves have intermingled.

When I listen to other music now, I try to take it for what it is. Because I think I should and because I want to. Because jazz is out there and so is everything else. Because maybe music says something about you, but really it says something to you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Ending

Since I started playing music, I've felt that ending a song effectively is harder and more frightening than starting one. This has to do with my confidence as a musician, but it also has to do with the way I see endings. To me, there is more at stake at the end of something than at the beginning. That might not be true: For something to end it must begin, right? But something doesn't have to end if it's begun. The question is, where does it end? How? Why?

When I first started listening to jazz, I was amazed that jazz musicians could end songs in what I considered perfect unison. I now realize that raw improvisation might not exist, but I still value the intuition of jazz musicians. I find effective endings heroic--in music, but also in literature, film, art. In art, as in a painting or sculpture for example, the work exists as an ending in itself. You just have to trust that the artist decided to stop painting or sculpting at the right point.

But that's what I find heroic, that an artist had the confidence to stop, to move on--even if he was not completely satisfied with the piece as a whole.

In the first volume of Susan Sontag's journals, she writes:

"Joe [Chaikin] asks me tonight how I feel when I discover, say, three-fourths through something I’m writing that it is mediocre, inferior. I reply that I feel good and plow on to the end. I’m discharging the mediocre in myself. (My excremental image of my writing.) It’s there.

"I want to get rid of it. I can’t negate it by an act

"of will. (Or can I?) I can only allow it its voice, get it 'out.' Then I can do something else.

"At least, I know I won’t need to do that again." (1)

Despite the seemingly self-loathing bombast about excrement, Sontag is saying that she works extremely hard. Even though she might not keep writing better and better works, she has the courage to keep trying, the will to write more. That means a lot coming from someone who wrote prolifically while battling cancer.

In "The World According to Garp," John Irving writes:

"Garp threw away his second novel and began a second second novel. Unlike Alice, Garp was a real writer--not because he wrote more beautifully than she wrote but because he knew what every artist should know: as Garp put it, 'You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.' Even if these so-called endings and beginnings are illusions. Garp did not write faster than anyone else, or more; he simply always worked with the idea of completion in mind."(2)

Even if you haven't read the book, you can understand what he means. If you're going to move on, do it, whatever way you can, but just do it and know that you'll keep on moving, except when you sit down to work again.

An artist may seem timid, unsure, aloof, but if he's finished anything, he had to be sure of something. I don't know if people favor confidence, but I think there is an honesty in confidence that often attracts respect. Perhaps that's what William Strunk was getting at when he said: "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"



(2) Irving, John. The World According to Garp. New York: Pocket Books, 1979. Print. Page 159.