Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Another unsung hero!

Check out this footage of Victor Feldman's trio playing in '65. The drummer is Ronnie Stephenson. There has been a lot of talk about Jazz lately and what it means, and who it belongs to . (More on that in a coming post.) Certainly no one would disagree that Jazz was initially an African American music, and the many innovative people who pioneered the music never got the credit they deserved. Like much art in the 20th century, however, mass communication allowed people from all over the globe to discover and begin playing Jazz. In some circles, one is lead to believe that no one outside of the states can really play this music. This clip certainly shows the quality of playing that was going on in England, as there still is today.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A different kind of coordination

Many years ago I read an interview with Shelly Manne where he talked about the fact that he thought the idea of mechanical independence (now called independent coordination in most circles) was over emphasized and not enough people discussed the independence a drummer needs to have between what they're playing and what they're hearing. For a long time I didn't quite understand what he meant. What I feel he was getting at though was the ability to play through any type of material (licks, ideas, beats, and whatnot) while still hearing a song form in one's head.
To that end, most of the time I learn some idea on the drums I then apply it to a tune. In other words I sing the tune in my head while I play the lick, idea, or beat. There are many things you can gain from this approach.

1) You will play the idea for much longer if you have to get through a whole 32 bar tune while playing it. I often would play a new thing I learned twice or so before I moved on and would be lucky if I could play it again in the practice room 5 minutes later let alone on a gig in a musical context!

2) You will have to know the lick well enough to be able to play it without focusing on it exclusively.

3) When you apply everything you learn to song forms and melodies, you learn to be able to play anything you want when playing Jazz tunes without losing where you are in the piece. I really like being able to start things like metric modulations where ever I want without having to think in terms of numbers and Math. That has never worked for me! If I'm singing the tune to myself however, I feel very free!

Here's 3 examples of me playing various ideas while singing tunes out loud. The singing may be a bit hard to hear, but that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Here's the first one, I'm singing "Stomping at the Savoy" while playing a five beat lick where the sticking reverses between bass drum beats.

In the next one, I'm playing the exact same beat but apply it to a 3/4 (Someday my Prince will come) and a 4/4 tune (Savoy again). For those who are interested, the right hand is playing 8th notes, the left hand is playing 2 and 4, the bass drum is playing an on again/off again 5/8 pattern, and the hi-hat is playing on beats 2 and 3 in a bar of 3/4. Same beat, 2 different tunes in different time signatures, but it works because I'm hearing the tune and hopefully I can make the listener hear the tune too!

In the last example, I'm using the same beat but I put the right hand on the hi-hat and also sang "Stella by Starlight" for a change of pace.. What's also interesting about this one is I meant to put the click on 2 and 4 but put it on 1 and 3 instead. Also in the second example I made some "errors" with the bass drum part. But you know what? I didn't lose the melody or the form and that's actually the much greater "mistake" to make. When you're going for something in an improvised setting, only the person playing knows what they were going for anyway. As long as you can hear the tune, you'll be fine, no matter what happens.

Now, to start this don't get too ambitious at first. It takes awhile to develop this mental coordination. Try singing a blues while practicing doubles on the snare only, for example. Also make sure you REALLY know the tunes you're singing well.
Good Luck!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Drummer, Your Musical Tour Guide!

Hi folks,
Quick one today. I've been busy trying to get my harp chops more together so not so many posts lately, will try to improve in the future!

I was just watching some great Art Taylor footage at Four On the Floor and it got me thinking about something I often talk about in ensembles I coach. Mr. Taylor (at least in the first tune I saw, the clip itself is 30 minutes long, so there's something to look forward to seeing in its entirety) rarely touches his left hand side cymbal, yet he creates various moods and shapes throughout the piece. An important role of the drummer in any ensemble, which I feel sometimes gets pushed aside somewhat, is that he/she is always signaling events within a performance. Some examples (in a Jazz context) might be the intro, the in head, the start of the solos, the different soloists, and the out head. Often I really don't hear the drummer making any textural or volume differences between these sections and the piece tends to sound monotone.
I feel ideally what we want is for someone who has never heard any of this music before to be able to understand the above events I've described purely by the actions the drummer takes. Let's talk about a couple of ways of outlining different sections of a tune.

1. Rapid volume changes- One of the things I noticed that Art Taylor did in the tune I saw is that even though he didn't switch cymbals for each soloist, he did change the volume level of his cymbal throughout the piece to cause a texture change. This is very handy when you only have one cymbal. (Although you can also have your hi-hat function as any type of cymbal as well. Roy Haynes does this beautifully on "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" where the flat ride and the hi-hats are the only cymbal colours in his set up.) Also check out how Art Blakey often smacks his left hand cymbal on beat one of a solo chorus, then mutes it with the same hand while still keeping quiet time on the right hand cymbal. This way we get the signal that the head is over and the soloist is starting, but he also gets that loud cymbal out of the way of the soloist.
It doesn't always have to be a loud to soft change either. Listen to "Japanese Folk Song " by Wayne Shorter (I posted it on December 5th) and once the head is over, Elvin really plays very aggressively! It sort of sounds like we've left the room that's the in head, and now he's kicking down the door to the blowing! Very effective!

2. Changing cymbals- This is probably the most common and easiest way of signally changes between soloists and sections, however, it is most effective when you know the form of the tune you're playing! Even if you're reading or playing by ear, really try to be aware of the form. Even if you miss the start of the next soloists's chorus (and nine times out of ten they will start on or near the start of the form), switching cymbals a bar or two in isn't a disaster. (you could be signaling the same surprise the listener might feel when a solo is quite short, for example.)

3. Changing comping textures- Another great thing I noticed in the Art Taylor footage was how when he went from the Tenor to the piano solo, even though he didn't change cymbals he went from quite prominent bass drum/open snare comping to mainly a click on beat 4 and very quiet bass drum. You could also switch from mainly snare to tom comping as well (although we'll talk about some exceptions to that later).

4. Changing implements- Going from brushes to sticks is a great way to let the listener know the head is over and the soloing has started. It's also a great way of creating less volume for quieter instruments so it works well to switch to brushes for a piano or bass solo.

5. A couple of more things about bass solos- Bass is not only usually the quietest thing in the band, it's also the instrument that gets lost most easily due to low frequencies being harder to hear. (This is even true of electric bass, where volume isn't as much of an issue.) So it's generally a good idea to thin out the texture of your timekeeping as well as the volume. Don't thin out the strength of the time or the commitment to the form though. If anything, you need to be even more on the case with this stuff because the bassist doesn't have anyone walking quarter notes for them. The bass player has been supporting everyone throughout the tune, so it's important to return the favour when it's their turn to solo! Also, watch out not to play too much toms or bass drum, or you're heading right into their frequency range and it will be even harder to hear what they're doing.

In closing, I thought I'd post the first part of this amazing documentary on Lenny Breau. The rest of it you can find on youtube. My only criticism with what I've seen so far is that a lot of the people playing with him aren't credited (e.g. the great Winnipeg based drummer Reg Kelln) because it also is a great snapshot of the people who playing Jazz in Canada in the 60s and 70s.
Anyway, check it out, it's killing!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Musicians and Aging

Hey everyone,
I recently got into a debate with someone regarding a legendary musician. The individual I debated saw the legendary musician in his twilight years after a long and fruitful career. The great musician was not well physically or mentally, and did not put in a great performance. The individual commented on this performance as if it was an accurate representation of everything the great musician did as well as throwing in some classless, insensitive, and frankly ignorant comments. The plus side to this is it got me thinking of my own experiences of watching musicians play at various stages of their careers and an experience I had that I'd like to share.

I was (and am) a huge Art Blakey fan. I bought my first record of his when I was on a band trip in 10th grade. Although I didn't really understand much about the music I certainly felt like I "got it' on an emotional level right away. I continued to check out many of his recordings as a sideman and leader but didn't get an opportunity to see him play live for quite a while. Finally, in 1990, he came to Montreal when I was living there. I was so excited! I had front row seats.
Time came for the concert and the first thing I noticed was how small and frail he looked, in contrast to most of the pictures I'd seen where he looked quite robust. The other thing I noticed very quickly is playing seemed to be difficult for him and the band played several numbers without him while he appeared to be getting his strength back. In short, it wasn't the sort of performance I was used to hearing from him on records. He obviously wasn't well, and he passed away less than 6 months after that concert.

I left the concert feeling quite disappointed and sad. It brought up questions for me. Why didn't he retire and relax after all the great music he gave us? Will I quit playing when I'm older? Keep in mind I was 24 when I experienced all this and for how little I knew about music, I knew even less about life!

I saw an interview with Blakey's last wife where she said she asked him what he would do when he couldn't play and he replied he'd die then. Music wasn't just an occupation for Mr. Blakey, it was an all consuming passion for him. His band wasn't called the Messengers for nothing! It was his mission to hip everyone to the great American art form called Jazz and he devoted (and gave) his life to it. He wanted to play as long as he could and it was nobody else's decision to make. After I realized this my perspective on seeing live musicians changed. We may not always get to see people play at the top of their form. Some people get sick (physically or mentally), have substance problems, or just might not be able to recover from travel fatigue as well as a younger person. But when we see a musician who has devoted their life to the music, we are also honouring them by going. We are telling them that we love and respect their whole body of work and appreciate the inspiration they have freely given to us over the years. I certainly have no regrets about being in the same room with Art Blakey, as well as many other greats I saw when they weren't having a stellar night (which can also happen to anybody of any age, especially when playing improvised music.) Let's celebrate all artists that have given to us, no matter where they are in their career.

Also, let's have someone tail Roy Haynes, because if there's a fountain of youth, he's being filling up a lot of Big Gulp cups from it!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Transcribing vs. lifting

Just a short one today. I've been seeing a lot of great transcriptions lately, particularly at Cruise Ship Drummer. Well done Mr. Bishop! Transcriptions can be a record of something we've learned, we can use them in books, blogs, and articles to help others learn, etc. They are an important resource. I would also like to stress the importance of "lifting", which is learning something by ear and then translating it to the instrument, no paper involved! In my formative drumming years I was a pretty book-based learner so I came late to learning stuff from recordings. I really feel this is a indispensable part of learning. The cool thing too is that learning anything using your ears will help you. A beat, a fill, a solo, a melody to a tune. You'll get something out of all these things. Also, the more you do by ear, the faster and more accurate you'll get at it. Reading is also a vital part of playing. reading music helps you learn things quickly but I find I tend to not learn things as deeply. There are some recordings I've done where I was reading charts, and I listen to them and don't remember anything about the music I recorded! In sharp contrast, barring any unforeseen mental disfunction, I expect I'll remember "Sonnymoon for Two" for the rest of my natural life!
I would hasten to add that if there was any way of playing all the music I play from memory, I would love to do it. That isn't practical but this reminded me of something the great trumpet player from Chicago, Brad Goode, talked about at a clinic I was doing with him. He talked about the fact that as soon as we read music, we are using the practical/task oriented hemisphere of our brain. This is a very important part of the hard drive, but when we have stuff memorized it tend to reside more in the intuitive brain hemisphere. Now, it doesn't take a brain surgeon (sorry, I couldn't resist!) to see which part of the brain might be better for improvising.

So I've decided to try an experiment. I'm working with Mike Downes' quintet at the Rex this weekend. I'm going to try to commit as much of the music to memory as possible. Some things in my favour are: Mike writes great well constructed tunes with beautiful melodies and changes, and the forms etc, always make sense. Some things working against me are: the tunes are challenging with lots of shifting meters, the head and blowing forms tend to be different, and there's a lot of material. Anyway, I'm going to check it out and see how it goes!

Anyway, here's Mike's Tune "Gemini" from his CD "Winds of Change". Come by and see us at the Rex on Friday if you can.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Gig : Your Blank Canvas

I'm going to get slightly conceptual and talk about some ideas I've struggled with over the years.
Like many drummers, when I was first learning to play, I would listen to great players and was amazed at what they were able to do with any music they played. How they made the music feel. their sound and ideas, and how they made decisions on the spot yet always seemed to do the "right" or even "perfect" thing. When I was going to McGill University in the late '80s, I had a fair amount of opportunities to play live Jazz in front of an audience. On most of the gigs I was playing, people weren't playing much original music (in sharp contrast to now, I might add). I started to realize that while playing a lot of these tunes that had been played by great artists on famous recordings, I would start to experience hearing what I call "bandstand ghosts" in my head. By this I mean I would often find myself doing similar things to what I'd heard the drummer on the recording do on similar tunes. Sometimes I would even get the feeling that other people in the band wanted me to do what they had heard the drummer do on those records. I struggled with this sometimes, because I often felt like I wasn't improvising. Sometimes I went and played the complete opposite of what I'd heard the famous drummer do, just to be different. That also felt weird, because playing something different than what I heard on the record felt arbitrary and unmusical. I think, over time, I am now able to do something that is somewhere between these 2 approaches. If some part of the drumming on a tune seems part of the signature or personality of the tunes, I might play it verbatim (although rarely) or use the original idea as a jumping off point or play variations on it. Sometimes I might still deliberately turn left from the original. I believe why both these approaches work for me now is due to all the listening I've done over the years. If i want to be reverent to the original drummer on a recording, I can do that without feeling like I'm just sampling it. If I want to venture far away from another drummer's concept of a tune, I have logged a lot of time listening so I can find a new approach that is still tasteful and respectful to the piece.

I think, in a way, every time we listen to something we are developing our own aesthetic and instincts. There's no point in having a bunch of ridiculous technical things to do on the drums if we can't actually apply them to the music. I also feel that we listen in 2 ways, depending if we're learning from recordings or playing with people. When we listen while were playing we have to keep in mind that the world of the bandstand we are inhabiting is our world. Not Brian Blade's, not Vinnie Colaiuta's, not Art Blakey's. They aren't on the gig, you are! Base the decisions you make on your own judgement and experience. When I am playing the drums with you, you are in Tedland, and I am Tedland's (mostly benevolent) dictator. That's not to say I don't listen to or get feedback from the rest of the band, I certainly do. But ultimately i make the decisions about what the drums do and don't do, what I think is valuable or not, and how I react to the sounds around me. This is a great responsibility, but also a great privilege, one that I relish and celebrate every time I play!

I thought I'd end by posting the title track from John Scofield's Shinola. Go buy this recording! It's great. I love Adam Nussbaum's muscular tom work and time keeping with drums on this one!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Found some more!

I think part of the reason I'm posting so much brushes lately is the pressure I feel to finish my book but also I'm wondering if I long for a peaceful yet romantic beginning to 2012. :) Regardless, here's a couple of more patterns incorporating my "brush flam" concept. Please note that although in the diagrams and the video I'm playing static ride patterns you can really put the skip beat (played with the right hand as a legato stroke) wherever you want.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chris Donnelly's blog competition.

Hey people, the great pianist and blogger Chris Donnelly is having a competition for the best article for his blog. Details are here.
Now, any of you that know me may find this a bit strange that I'm listing this because of my own somewhat fraught relationship with music competitions. (Full disclosure, Addo records has submitted the Broadview "Two of Clubs" CD for a Juno nomination, and I was certainly pleased that they did.) In this case, however, I thought this competition was a very good idea. Why? A) Is limited to artists 25 or younger. B) it's based on how you write, not necessarily how you play or compose. Let me elaborate on these two points. Especially with the younger crowd, English grammar and spelling is tending to erode pretty badly. I'm not saying this is true of everyone, but even the emails I tend to get from people under 30 point out that English writing skills often aren't very strong. Now, if you're like me (and I know I was! Thanks Don Thompson! :) ) I tended to say that the skill of my writing and playing was what was important and it did not matter how well or badly I wrote English. That's true once you get on the bandstand but if you don't present your ideas clearly or make a lot of careless mistakes when writing it will certainly limit the opportunities you will have to present your music to people.
The written word is still your conduit to grants, gigs, and tours, even if it's only an email. You can't believe the number of spelling, usage, and grammar errors I see everyday from very talented young players. With most of these players, their emails are not my first contact with them. If it was though, and I was in a position to hand them money for a grant or a gig, I might think, "If he/she doesn't care enough to know the difference between its and it's, maybe they won't care enough to make a truly great recording either." If you spell and use English well it also says, "I care about you, the reader of this message and I also have self-respect for what I do". This is important folks! When I finished my B. Mus. recently, I have to admit I got a lot out of the English courses I had to take. Most of you will have to take some courses like that yourself, so pay attention and try to do the best job of it you can. View it as an investment in furthering your career.
So all of you 25 and under, get writing. The deadline is Jan. 30th and the winner gets $200.

Here's my own competition. First person who tells me who else is playing here with Joe Pass on this version of "The Song is You" and "Sonnymoon for Two" gets a free Broadview CD. Swinging!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2 More brush patterns

Here's 2 more brush patterns in diagram and video form. As you can see, I still don't have a tripod some I'm still playing the patterns on a chair with a phone book on top. I'm hoping everyone will find this charming, right? No, I didn't think so!

Anyway, here they are, let me know if you have any title suggestions for the first one.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Nice treat via George Colligan

Do yourself a huge favour, check out George Colligan's Jazz Truth blog for this awesome interview with Jack DeJohnette. This may just my impression, but I get the feeling the incredible candidness that Jack answers George's questions may be due to that he is speaking to an actual member of his band rather than a journalist. Regardless, it's a great interview. Bravo George!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year

Hey everyone,
I'm hoping to get into the blog again now that the holidays are tapering off.
However, I'm not exerting myself too much today. Here's some nice footage of John MacLeod's big band playing at a Rick Wilkins tribute concert a few months back. There will also be some new brush patterns in the days ahead as one of my resolutions for this year is to finally finish my brush book!!!!

Be back soon, I promise!