Sunday, November 28, 2010

Playing in Tune



AutoTune (Kanye west fans? haha!), A great Tuning fork Picture :)





Blog #63: Playing in Tune


I think that playing in tune is strangely the last thing many musicians learn. Many jazz musicians spend so much time working on quick phrases, articulation, range etc we overlook pitch accuracy perfection. Its pretty easy to neglect it when so many jazz musicians play so many notes, and its usually only noticeable when a musician holds just one note for a longer duration. I actually believe a lot of horn players 'hide' in all those notes. Recently I was listening to some early recordings of John Coltrane was he playing pretty sharp. Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean are two other examples of guys who regularly play sharp.(and I say this without disputing their greatness).


Whether you're aware or not, most instruments are inherently out of tune. I could get all scientific and talk about the pythagorean comma, and the creation of the equal tempered scale, but I'll keep it simple. I'll speak about horns, because that's where my knowledge is, if you're familiar with the harmonic series(the ascending notes on a give fingering) the notes become increasingly flat as you ascend. To give you an example: C# and D below the staff are sharp, D 2nd from the top line is slightly flat, E and Eb are pretty flat...etc. Really every note on the trumpet has a particular tendency whether that be slightly sharp, very sharp, slightly flat, very flat and as a horn player you have to adjust using your lips and your slides. This means playing in tune is a lot harder than just adjusting the tuning slide and blowing away. If you're a horn player you really have to listen to the rhythm section(piano, bass, guitar) and use that to guide your ears into playing in tune. The slower you play, the more obvious it will be as to if you're in/out of tune.


Besides just 'playing in tune' with the rhythm section, there is also playing in tune with the other horn players in the band. Saxophone seems just as naturally out of tune as trumpet(especially alto, though soprano can be downright painful in untrained hands). I remember when I was in school and did an ensemble with John Scofield. He told us that there is an art in doubling melodies and the key is to put one ear on yourself and one on the other horn. I know this is really simple advice, but you'd be surprised how many people just put themselves into the music stand and don't listen to the other horns. The key to playing well with the other horn is to try to make yourselves into one thing. You try to make the two horns sound like one peson and you try to make your phrasing identical. Besides articulation and breathing, a big part of that is Tuning.


One thing I've been checking out recently is using alternate fingers to play certain notes in tune better. One of my songs "Progress" is in Concert C#(my Key of B). The melody I wrote(on piano) is super hard to play in tune and I've realized in the past few days if I play D# top line with 2-3 fingerings, instead of 2, its easier to play in tune. I'm going to experiment with this sort of stuff more.


Lastly, one of my big pet peeves is vibrato. I've never liked it, and that's one reason I never got into early jazz and swing. The vibrato is just too much for me. I prefer horn players with straight tone, and I try to keep mine very straight and clear. I've always been partial to players like Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Woody Shaw etc. I think certain players use vibrato as a way to hide their pitch accuracy. The straighter the tone, the more obvious it will be if you're playing in tune. Certain bass players like to put the vibrato one when they get in the upper register: gag me. That shit sounds terrible. I'm not even going to try to sugar coat it or be polite on that one.


Playing in Tune on naturally out of tune instruments is hard, but I think its a very important thing to be aware of.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Post Bad Gig

I've decided to put certain music on the 'back-burner', unless its adequately rehearsed.




Blog # 62: Post bad gig.


I usually don't blog impulsively, but I'm in a certain mood this morning. I played a gig last night in NYC under my name with a band playing my original tunes. Once I made all the calls and knew who was playing the gig, I tried to schedule a rehearsal. We had an email chain that was 20 messages long, until we accepted that we weren't going to get a chance to play before the gig because everyone was so busy and the band would have to read my tunes on the gig. I emailed them their individual parts, full scores of the music and mp3's of the tracks from other gigs.


We had a pretty good turn-out, and people seemed to like the music, but to my ears(because I wrote it), it was sloppy, stiff, and sounded like we were all reading. The music we were playing wasn't even that complicated(no mixed time signatures or super crazy changes). I remember playing and trying to build my solos, and feeling like the rhythm section wasn't listening to me. It was pretty frustrating and while in life its almost impossible to get me mad, it seems that music is the one thing that can do that for me when its not going well. It pisses me off when people play my music wrong because in my mind it makes me look like I can't write.


I've been thinking a lot about my 'minimalist-jazz' project, which will be my next record and I think it might be time to put it on the back-burner or make it a 'studio project'. Unless the band is rehearsed, the music doesn't sound right. I think I'm going to write more lead-sheet-type tunes that bands can read without rehearsal, and if we DO get a chance to rehearse, than I'll dig out some of my more complicated stuff. The good news is I have a band called 'Red Light Growler' that plays some of this music in a more rock setting and RLG is a well rehearsed unit. New York can be a frustrating place for a composer, everyone is doing so many gigs, its almost impossible to get your band tight and rehearsed. On most gigs in New York, all the musicians are reading. It sucks. I would rather see a well-rehearsed band of no-names, than an all-star band stumbling through complicated music.


It seems like there are 3 options:


1)If you want to play more complicated music, rehearse.


2)play simpler stuff that the band will be able to read on the gig


3)Hire some REALLY great musicians(and hope for the best)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time Away

Coltrane liked to Shed in the attic of his house. I do all my practicing in my apartment in Brooklyn, and occasionally go back to my parents house outside philly to get away



Blog # 61: Time Away


This past month has been an interesting one for me. When I'm in New York, I tend to play a lot of house sessions, rehearsals and Jam sessions(2-4 a week usually). I also like to practice about 5 hours a day(and I haven't taken a day off since I had my wisdom teeth removed in 2003). But scheduling rehearsals, practicing that much, and booking gigs was burning me out. About a month ago I was playing duo with my friend Deric Dickens and he sent me the bootleg recording he made afterwards. We were playing in a drum room(totally dead acoustically) and I heard a ton of things that I felt I needed to work on in my playing. Soundproof rooms are pretty unforgiving on trumpet. I decided I needed to get away for a while and doing some very specific shedding on weaknesses I heard, work on some bad habits and avoid playing with people for a while.


So for 3 weeks I didn't schedule any sessions, avoided all music related calls and just practiced like a madman. I even went back to my parents house in Philadelphia for a week to get further away from any distractions. I was practicing about 6 hours a day, but my practicing was lot more focused, specific and I felt that it was a lot more productive. I learned there is a big different between practicing just to maintain your ability and stay in shape and specific goal-oriented practice. When your mind is clear and focused you can get a lot more out of your practicing. It felt really good to get away and work on some things and last week got back into the scene and scheduled a session/rehearsal everyday. I definitely felt that I had made some progress during my time away(with music, you're never going to feel completely satisfied, but I felt I made some significant improvements).


Its been good to come back out, see my friends, play some sessions and gigs. I still feel like I am riding an intense practice period, but now I'm going to try to balance it with playing with people again, at least for a while. The funny thing about the little hiatus is that it felt so productive, I have the urge to take another one already. I may try to do this once or twice a year. I want to continue to improve and that's why I've been so drawn to music. Its really endless as to how far you can take it.


Its good to make a list of weaknesses and things you want to fix in your playing and then to get working on 'em. Bad habits die hard, so you gotta be mindful of them everyday. The practicing never ends, but there are times its more productive than others. I always really liked jazz/improvised music because I view myself as the thing I'm working on and the performances and CD's as just a gauge to where I am at any moment.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Reality of History

A photo looking into 'Smalls', a jazz club in NYC




Blog # 60: The Reality of History


Like many other music students, when I was in high school and college I listened to all the greats; Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham etc. I was blown away by the talent of these people and really viewed them as I'm sure most kids view sports stars(I never followed sports). These guys were untouchable; they were perfect, even when they made mistakes. And in my view of history, I imagined jazz to be very popular before I was born. I saw photos of billboards saying 'Miles Davis Quintet Tonight, Horace Silver next week'. I assumed that these musical hero's of mine were playing sold out shows, with lines around the block. But the more I learn about Jazz and History, the more I question these thoughts.


Recently I downloaded a Kenny Dorham live recording off itunes from a club in Queens called 'The Flamboyan'. Its a good live recording, with Joe Henderson and Kenny Dorham in their prime being broadcasted over the radio. The disk jockey tells the radio audience that they can call in with requests. He also repeatedly tells people they should come out and that there is no cover, no minimum and that the band will play every monday night until 3 or 4 in the morning.(he even says the band needs the bread!). But most tellingly he implies that there is no one in the audience(!) and that they are essentially playing for an empty room. The announcer also says there are dance nights and latin music nights later in the week, and that monday is jazz night. (doesn't really sound like The Bluenote, The Vanguard, or Birdland)


I think we forget that no matter the talent, most musicians have played some shitty gigs during their career. We all play shows with packed houses, and have done some really depressing nights playing for just a couple people at the bar. I used to think light audiences were just a product of current music tastes, but apparently even great musicians like Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson played some crappy gigs. While these guys are still just as great in my eyes, maybe its history that let people realize how great they are and maybe they were under-appreciated in their time too.


Another musician that comes to mind is Eric Dolphy; who I consider to be a phenomenal musician. He had his own voice on 3 instruments: flute, alto sax, and bass clarinet. Despite his talent, Dolphy had great difficulty finding any work during his life. I've heard stories of him surviving on a large bag of beans that he kept in his closet, because he couldn't affort any thing else to eat. He may have also developed diabetes from this diet, which later lead to his early death. He wasn't a junkie, his death may have been just the result of people not 'getting' his music.


Pop Jazz sells out tourist trap jazz clubs and big festivals. These musicians are on magazine covers and are sponsored by instrument companies. They are popular today, and will be forgotten in 20 years, because 'Pop Jazz' isn't really jazz. Its a watered down version for the general public and its stars have bright smiles and seductive eyes.


But Real Jazz is a different thing. It isn't necessarily glamorous, well paying, or popular. And these real jazz musicians probably won't win any beauty contests. But Real Jazz, as part of history, lives forever. People will never stop listening or talking about Real Jazz, but it will never be appreciated as much in its time.