Monday, November 30, 2009

What I've learned from Jam Sessions

Blog # 33: What I've learned from Jam Sessions

I think I've learned something from every jam session I've attended; What works and What doesn't work.

1. Interact with the rhythm Section

I can't tell you how many times I've seen saxophone players or guitar players let the 8th notes fly with no regard to what's going on in the rhythm section, their phrases punctuated only by their breathing. If you play without listening or interacting with the rhythm section, you might as well stay home and practice to an aebersold play-along. Granted, there will be situations at Jams where the rhythm section might not be very good, in which case, you might be better off charging ahead in spite of them, but why not test the waters first? See what they have to offer; throw something out there, wait and see how they react.

2. Don't just play continuous 8th notes

If you play nothing but 8th notes without pausing except to take in air, you'll put the audience to sleep. I'm sure this doesn't come as any revelation, but rhythm may be the most important element of jazz. There is a world beyond 8th notes, just pick up any Joe Henderson Album. Listening to someone play nothing but 8th notes is quite boring.

3. Build a Solo

Strangely enough, most people have no idea how to build a solo. A solo is supposed to take people on a journey. A good solo is like a good movie, it has a beginning, middle and end. It has character development, a plot, a message/concept and a climax. The most obvious way to build a solo is to start with a simple melodic idea, leave some space, then play another idea that is a reaction to the first. Continuing this way becoming increasingly busy until you reach a peak. DYNAMICS ARE VERY IMPORTANT, use them to help build your solo, sometimes they are hard to use at a jam session because of the format, but it can't hurt to try. Your solo can build in more ways than described above, but that is the most obvious way. (What if you built, and then came down, and then built up again?)

4. Try to make something happen

As a musician in New York, I can say that there are a lot of people that can play, but that's not enough any more. I think its important to try to MAKE something different happen. If the band is playing a bop tune and everyone is playing in the same style, why not try to imply a different feel with your solo. Try to break it up so that things don't get repetitive or boring for the audience(or the musicians). Think of Tony Williams' playing with Miles Davis' Quintet. Was there ever a time when Tony wasn't trying to make something happen?

5. Develop a concept

I think one thing that is good to think about is having a concept to your solo. I think improvisors sometimes forget that we have a lot more options than we think. What if we made the concept of the solo something pointillistic, or based off of held out notes?(this would certain give the rhythm section different things to think about). What if your whole solo was based off the concept of octave displacement? What if you played rubato on top of a moving rhythm section? What if you based your solo off of chord inversions, or voice leading? Or extended arpeggiated figures covering the whole ranger of your instrument? Or off a totally different super-imposed rhythmic idea? What if you forced a 12 tone row on top of a standard? Maybe its time to just sit deep in the pocket and swing? The point I'm making is that there are a lot of options out there to explore.

6. Be Different; More Bebop--why bother?

One thing that I've noticed in attending Jam Sessions over the years is that most people play the same old shit. I'm not going to argue about the validity of the bebop tradition, clearly it is a working system of playing jazz, but if one alto player finishes a solo where he's done nothing but rip Charlie Parker Licks, the last thing I want to hear is the next guy do the same thing and rip MORE Charlie Parker Licks. If you want to be remembered, Separate yourself from the pack or be forgotten. I think it is important to try to be different. Its nice to offer some contrast to the other soloists. Try to make your solo a reaction to the one before it, or just do something completely different. With that said, if the guy before finishes a solo where he's played very chromatically, it might be a good time to play very inside.

7. "I'd rather play a bad solo than a boring one"

A few months back after attending a session, I came to the conclusion that this was going to have to be my new motto. That night I saw a lot of people just 'going through the motions'. The musicians that night seemed to be playing it safe. I came to the realization that I would rather go big and fail than play a safe boring solo. I would rather try something different and make mistakes than take play a dull or predictable solo. I have no problem making mistakes, missing notes etc, I would rather hear these things than someone 'playing it safe'. So whether I am succeeding at this or not, this is what I strive for. A Jam session is a great time to explore and try new things(Obviously we all have different concepts of 'what is boring')

8. Keep it short, don't ramble

I mentioned this in my last blog, if you're at a jam session this is not the time to take a John Coltrane style 15 minute solo. A Jam session is not your gig, the people are not there JUST to see you. Play a few chorus and get out.

9. Its hard to fly when you're draggin' weights

One thing I've learned at Jam Sessions is that you're only as good as your rhythm section. I've seen great players sit in and play with shitty rhythm sections and not sound very good The reality is that not every drummer is going to be creative, not ever bass player is going to have good time and note choice and not every piano player is going to know how to comp. Sometimes you just gotta make the best outta what you got.

10. Singers.....

Call me a snob or an elitist, but I avoid playing with any singers I haven't heard before. I've seen so many Jam Session train-wrecks that were the Singer's faults. I've seen singers ask for tunes is specific keys and have a rhythm section set the tune up and STILL come in in a different key, then the band has to find what key the singer is in and adjust. I've heard enough tone-deaf scat solos to want to avoid playing a song at a Jam Session with a Singer. The moral I've learned is be prepared, you might be getting yourself into some funny business.

Lastly, I want to say, that I know I'm not perfect, but these thoughts above are things I think about when approaching music, they are ideals are what I strive towards. Learning to play improvised music is about the process and my thoughts shared here are just my reactions to this process.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jam Sessions pt 1

Brooklyn Jam Session, Jon Crowley-trumpet
Front Door at Systems Two Studios, Brooklyn NY
Horns Set-up for my Recording Jan '09, John Beaty(pictured)

Blog # 32 Jam Sessions

Jam Sessions have always been an important part of the jazz scene since the very beginning. I've had some fun times and some, and also some of my most frustrating musical experiences at others

One thing is for sure ; I've learned a lot from Jam Sessions both in what to do and what not to do.

Worst Jam Session Stories:

I've seen a trombone player finish his solo, then sit behind the piano player. While the piano player was soloing, the Trombone player starts playing 'quietly' to himself; only it really wasn't that quiet. It was completely rude and the piano player had to stop, turn around and say 'Come on man!"

I was at a session earlier this year in Brooklyn where the bass player called "There will never be another you", somehow the piano player heard 'There is no greater Love'. The sax player counted off the tune and then didn't play the melody, instead launching into a very chromatic solo. The result: a train wreck as two different tunes were played simultaneously.

A few weeks ago I was at a real doo-zee of session in the Village. The piano player spent the entire time looking at himself in a mirror and making sure he really 'looked like a jazz musician' instead of actually playing and paying attention to the music. The drummer on the stage bashed away at the set having no concept of form or phrasing and was dropping and adding beats haphazardly. After he finished sitting in, he sat at the bar 3 feet from the band and proceeded to sing loudly while the band played. SO INCREDIBLY RUDE! A fight almost ensued between him and the leader, as a result of this horrible etiquette.

One thing that happens quite frequently, is a singer will call a tune is a specific key, then ask for a rhythm section intro. The band will play the most obvious intro and then the singer will STILL come in in a different key. Knowledge of form is arguably the most important thing in music.

I've seen someone call a blues and then 10 horn players pull out their instruments and bum rush the stage. It is my opinion that there should be no more than 5 soloists per song. I don't think I'm alone in not wanting to hear a 45 min version of a blues.

If you are sitting in, play one or two tunes and then leave the stage and let someone else play. If there is time at the end after everyone has played you may get asked to play another tune. If you get invited up, don't just stay on stage all night and keep playing tunes. Let everyone get a chance.

Lastly, a Jam session is not your gig. Play a few choruses and get out. No one has come to see you and only you play. More than a few choruses and you're just being rude self-centered. I've seen people sitting in take some VERY long solos.

Next blog entry: What I've learned from Jam Sessions

***Please feel Free to Comment with your Jam Session Horror Stories***

Monday, November 16, 2009

Era of the Unrehearsed Band

Jon Crowley Quintet @ Chris' Jazz Cafe, Jan '09 (1 week before recording the album)

Blog # 31: Era of the Unrehearsed band

Years ago, when Jazz was at its peak of popularity, many bands roamed the earth performing frequently, developing their own 'band sounds' and playing 'tight' arrangements. We've all seen the photos of club fronts with signs reading; "Miles Davis Quintet tonight, Horace Silver Quintet tomorrow".

From my experience over the last year, those times have changed, if they ever existed in the first place. I question if they ever existed because there are a lot of myths about the jazz scene of the past that simply aren't true.

I can tell you this, as a trumpet player on the scene in New York City; most bands you see are pick-up groups. This does not mean that the musicians have never played together before, but it very well could mean that they have never played together in that combination or playing that music. I know this might seem impossible considering the incredible performances you might hear at any club on any given night, but those performances are possible due only to the incredibly level of musicianship possessed by people like Chris Potter, Ari Hoenig, Ben Monder ETC. (Just check out their schedules on myspace, they play with different bands each night)

I remember a few years ago when I first moved to NYC and was going to NYU. My band at the time consisted of friends of mine that were also students and the general mentality was that we all had a fair amount of free time so we would rehearse, hang, play and perform frequently.

Life out of school in the real world is very different. Young musicians are taking work where they can find it. Teaching two days a week, playing a wedding gig out on long Island, a few days on the road with a band, doing some copy work for pop act, Church Gigs and Subway hits. This makes everyone's schedule's a hodgepodge day-to-day scheduling nightmare. Rehearsing a band weekly, and doing gigs with the same group just doesn't happen. Now, when you book a gig you make some calls and say "Can you do the gig on this day and the rehearsal on this day", if they can't do both you get someone else.

There are steady working bands that still tour and play, like the Dave Holland Quintet, Terence Blanchard's Groups, but they are the exception. The jazz apprenticeship system is loosing steam simply because the older generation of 'well-known' musicians are either dying or taking jobs at Universities, which keep them off the road. It would seem there is a great separation in class structure between the very rich and the very poor.

Perhaps the scene has always been like this, and its the idea that there are tons of well rehearsed bands in New York City that is purely fiction. I know that before Miles Davis was signed to Colombia he toured with Philly Joe Jones picking up local rhythm sections in whatever town they played in.

I will leave with this; last month I saw a band at Cornelia Street Cafe consisting of a lot of up-and-coming talent. The performance was pretty mediocre due to the fact that the musicians were so buried in their music stands. It was obvious they were under-rehearsed. and the real shame is that that music would have really taken off with more time to prepare.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Blog #30: Charts

Here are all the Charts from my Album "Connections". For simplicity of reading, I included only the horn parts(melody), and left out the bass, piano and drum parts. Everything is in Concert Key. For those of you that have the album, I thought it might be interesting for you to see the written music. Everything is published and copyrighted.



(if you have trouble opening the charts, you can first click them, then use the right click "copy image address" and paste that as your web address)