Thursday, January 7, 2016

Two Paul Bley Stories That Might Be A Little Boring

If you’re reading this, you probably know that Paul Bley passed away on Sunday January 3, 2016.  He was one of my favorite pianists.  The thing about Paul is that everyone seems to have interesting stories about him.  I’ll share a couple.  First, a memory of a concert, then a story I heard about a recording session he participated in.  


It was either December 2003 or January/February 2004.  I was set up to go on the one and only blind date of my life.  The plan was to meet my date, T (I’ll respect her anonymity) along with some mutual friends in Times Square, and then go see Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and Paul Motion in concert at Birdland.   So I met her as planned, and we walked to Birdland.   However I didn't really know where the club was.  I had walked by it a couple months before, and I thought I’d find it no problem.  But it didn’t work out that way.  We circled the area a few times.  It was cold out.  It was before smart phones.  I think I made a great first impression on T, obviously.  

Eventually we found the club.  We got student tickets at the bar, which were actually pretty good seats, especially if you were on the stage side of the bar, which we were.  I actually hadn't checked out much Paul Bley at that time.  But I knew he was an influence on Keith Jarrett, who I had been pretty obsessed with at that time.  And I knew Gary Peacock and Paul Motion quite well because of their associations with Keith, so I was there to see them just as much as to check out Bley.  

The concert was great - spacey piano trio, low piano notes.  Interplay on a high level, meaningful, thoughtful notes.

What stands out clearest in my memory though, was how slow Paul Bley moved.  At the end of the set, during a well-deserved standing ovation, he began to walk off stage.  It was obvious that there was going to be an encore.  After about a 5-minute walk (or shuffle) he had made it about 75% of the way to the end of the stage.  He paused, raised his hands slightly as if to say “Well, screw this, I ain’t going to make it all they way off stage.”  He turned around and slowly shuffled his way back to the piano - another 5-minute, applause-filled journey - and played an encore. 

I don’t know what T thought of the concert.  I called her a day or two later to see if we could go out again.  She kind of dodged the question, and asked if I could help an aspiring actor friend of hers move in to an apartment in Times Square.  I helped, like a gentleman, but to my surprise T wasn’t there herself to help with the move.  I called T the next day, but she was unavailable to meet.  The next time I called her, same thing, and right before hanging up she said, 

“Wait.  Jesse?”  

“Yeah?” I said.  

“I’m not like really interesting in anything beyond like being friends.  I mean, I like you, and I’d like to hang out sometimes as friends, but I’m not interested in like a serious relationship or anything.”  

“Oh.  No problem.”  I said.  “That’s fine.  But let’s hang out sometime.”  

“Ok. Sure.  Ok.  Bye.”  


I never spoke to her again. 


In 2009 I went to Systems Two in Brooklyn to record my second trio album, called Magnolia.  Joe Marciano was engineering and the day before he had engineered a session on which Paul Bley was a side musician.  Joe couldn’t stop talking about the experience of having Paul in the studio.  

He said that at first they couldn’t get him out of the control booth.  Apparently he was drinking coffee and telling stories to no end.  Joe said after about 2 hours they finally managed to him to the piano.  However the piano bench couldn’t be adjusted high enough for Paul’s liking.  He indeed sat very high as one can see on many YouTube videos.  Joe said they kept adding phone books one by one until they eventually they had a stack of them duct taped to the bench that Paul was essentially leaning up against.  But now that ended up being too high for Paul.  So they began taking them away, until some kind of compromise was reached and it was finally acceptable for him.  

They managed to get a couple hours of recording in before taking a break.  After listening to some takes the bandleader (I cannot recall who it was) asked everyone to return to the studio so they could continue recording.   But Paul was nowhere to be found.  After searching the building, one of the interns at the studio said that Paul had said goodbye to him.  He had just up and left the session.  It reminds me of a quote of his from the liner notes of the Paul Bley Paul Motian duo record called Notes.  “My Goal is to do the record date in a single swoop.  We like to think of keeping the taxi waiting while we make the record, as opposed to spending three months in the studio.”  I guess his cab fare was getting a little too high that day.  

Rest in peace, Paul Bley.  Thanks for all the great music and stories.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Recordings and Memory Satisfaction

I've had some thoughts lately on the impact that recorded music may have on us.  These thoughts were spurred by listening to pop songs that a student of mine has been learning this year.  In just one listening of a three-minute song, it can become lodged in my head for days.  

The craft of pop song writers is quite remarkable when you think about it.   There was an interesting New Yorker article a year or two ago about the songwriting team Stargate, and Ester Dean, and how they work.  I think the key element of their craft is their use of our memory.  I think memory is perhaps the most important factor for my enjoyment of recorded music.  Some recorded music that is.  

It has to do with the anticipation and then the experiencing of moments.  When I first hear a recording, I might experience some enjoyment.  But its usually with repeated listenings that I really begin to enjoy it more and more, because there are moments that I like for some reason or another - some melodic fragment, or a chord progression I like, or something one of the musicians improvised.   These moments become gifts that I can't wait to open.  And I can open them again and again, by listening again and again.  Anticipation.  Realization.  Then satisfaction.  Repeat.

It seems that pop song writers use this phenomenon very well.  They know how to create this memory satisfaction in a song on just one listening.  The hook.  Simplicity.   This also occurs when a listener attends a concert; because he or she had heard the song many times, there is a satisfaction of memory when the song is heard live - especially pop songs in which the recording is the standard, and the live performance is simply a live reproduction of the recording.  It is even common for things that were improvised in the recording studio to be played in exactly the same way in concert.  

I feel that modern classical composer Morton Feldman worked with memory satisfaction also.  I'm thinking of his String Quartet No. 2 and the piano piece For Bunita Marcus, as well as many others.  He activates my memory with the use of repeats.  Often a phrase of only three or four pitches is repeated three, four, or even more times.  As this happens in his typically slow music, I begin to anticipate the pitches as they repeat, while at the same time solidifying the whole phrase in my memory.  Often times, Feldman follows this repeated phrase with some kind rhythmic augmentation, which makes the anticipation of certain pitches more intense, and the memory satisfaction even greater.  He makes you wait for that note you like.  

Furthermore, in Feldman's String Quartet No. 2, certain phrases come back again and again.  Sometimes after an hour of different material.  (The piece is over six hours long without breaks!).  This has a similar effect to the hook of a pop song.  It's built in repeated listening.  

This memory satisfaction is perhaps the most important factor for my enjoyment of many styles of recorded music, but it's not important at all for other styles.  I'm thinking of extended improvisations.  A few years ago I did some serious investigating of these kinds of recordings.  I listened to The Schlippenbach Trio, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and others.  The Schlippenbach and Taylor were extended group or solo improvisations.  The Braxton was mainly his quartet from 1985 with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser, and Gerry Hemmingway, which was a mix of compositions (often more than one at a time) and improvisation in 40-60 minute tracks.  

I was curious as to why these recordings existed.  Who was willing to fund them, when there was almost no memory satisfaction at all, at least in the sense of a pop song, or even a conventional jazz recording.  I had to listen many multiple times to begin to remember musical events, and even when I did begin to remember them, they didn't have the same effect.  Why was the Downtown Music Gallery full of records like this?  Obviously people buy them, or else they wouldn't be made.

I began to take notes as I listened.  When a distinct change in texture, dynamics, etc. occurred, I described it and noted the time in a notebook.  Then next time I listened I followed my notes and added new observations.   This way I thought my notes could aid in some memory satisfaction.  While this activity did help me focus as I listened, my memory was not often satisfied.  I didn't give up, but naturally moved onto other things.  Later I realized that memory satisfaction is probably not the point of such recordings.  Today, three or four years later, don't remember any of the melodies on these recordings.  Rather, I remember the energy and expressiveness.  The clearest thing from these recordings in my memory is the timbre of the instrumentalists.  Braxton's clarinet sound is there, as is the sound of Paul Lovens' muted snare drum.  I remember the vibe.  

Recently I've been thinking about the invention of the phonograph and recorded music, and the effect it may have had.  For a moment I was thinking that it may have ruined music, but now I think that's probably a bit overstated.  Before records people heard music by going to concerts, by listening to friends play instruments or sing for them, or by making it themselves.  At a concert, a piece of music was not heard over and over again, the way a record is played over and over again.  

With music recordings, we now have a musical statement frozen in time, allowing repeated careful inspection and analyzation.   Did Beethoven intend for his music to be heard again and again and analyzed in a short period of time?  Or did the audience have better memory for such music back then, so that they remembered it after just one listening?  Most classical sonatas and symphonies have repeated expositions, probably to aid the listeners of the day in remembering the themes before they are fooled around with in the development.  But is the repeat necessary on a modern recording that will be played again and again?  

In my mind, a drawback of a classical recording is that a certain interpretation can become standard.  There is a lot to be learned from a master's recording, but perhaps individuality is harder to come by since recordings have been our primary mode of listening.  Before recordings listeners probably remembered the vibe and the sound of the performer, not the way he or she chose to play a particular phrase.   Of course sound and vibe can be emulated from a recording, but all too often it's the specifics of a performance that are emulated, and then worse yet those specifics might become expected of subsequent performers.  In any case, recordings allowed the possibility of direct emulation of finer musical elements.

Now, I suppose this kind of thing was always happening in classical music from teacher to student.  This teacher studied with so and so who studied with Liszt..."Liszt played this phrase in this way and now I'm passing it down to you."  So that contradicts my point a bit, but I'd still like to think that emulation through a teacher is less intense than emulation of a recording.   A teacher is hopefully responding to the pupil's specific needs and challenges.  A very good teacher is coaxing the unique interpretation of the student to the surface.  

Now back to the pop music.  How many times have you heard someone say that a band is so much better live in concert than on the record?  I hear that all the time.  So it could be argued that recordings are a somewhat poor representation of a live concert.  At least they used to be.  I would agree with that argument in reference to most of the history of music recordings.  However, it seems like nowadays studio techniques might be used to create something just as special or even more special than a live performance.  The way that Stargate and Ester Dean work together is at least somewhat a result of modern studio capabilities.  And the myriad of effects and sounds available there are finally allowing the recording to be it's own thing - not just a representation of a live performance.  Could it be that music recordings and the recording studio are finally living up to their full potential through pop music?  In any case, we could say that many pop recordings are no longer representations of live performances, but in fact the opposite is true - live performances are now (often very literal) attempts at representing music that was created in the studio first.  I would like to note the ironic fact that the author is not at all involved with making such music, and listens to it very infrequently.  And of course this could be true of many different styles of music.  

In summary, I've come to believe that for most styles of music the joy of listening to a recording is in the phenomenon of memory satisfaction.  However, memory satisfaction is not the point of all music recordings.   The invention of music recordings might have significantly changed the way music is learned and interpreted.  And the music recording might be living up to its full potential in pop music and other modern music, which is no longer a representation of live performance - rather a separate entity with it's own features and purposes.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013


It's been a while since I've posted anything here.   I've felt like I should post more often...I should keep it going, etc.  But on further thought I've concluded that honesty is most important, and that I should only post when I've really got something to say.   And today I've finally felt like I have something worth blogging about.

First I'd like you to know that the Andrew Hill listening project is indeed happening and going well.  I've been enjoying it.  Some records I've enjoyed more than others, but I'm definitely getting to know Hill's music much better.  I envisioned myself blogging about it more, but I haven't felt the genuine need to write about it, so I haven't.

Now onto what made me want to post today.  Inspiration.  This weekend is the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where I spent six happy happy years as a music education major.  I loved it there.  The jazz festival was a highlight ever year and I found myself thinking a lot about it this morning.

The festival was like a mega injection of inspiration, especially my first couple of years as a student at UWEC.   The first jazz festival that I attended happened in 1997 and the guest artists were Michael Brecker and Byron Stripling.  I'll never forget sitting in the audience of Zorn Arena and being awed by these guys and the UWEC Jazz Ensemble I.  I remember Byron sustaining a note and revolving his trumpet from one side of the auditorium to the other.   His sound hit me like a laser beam as it went by.  Very powerful, especially at that time.  There's so much to learn about stage presence and "brining it" from a guy like Byron Stripling.

In those days inspiration came infrequently, but in super high doses.  There weren't many opportunities to hear guys like Brecker and Stripling in Eau Claire.  Only occasionally would I make trips to the Twin Cities to hear international jazz stars play at the Dakota Bar and Grill.  But one concert was fuel for weeks of practicing.   The jazz festival was especially powerful because I was able to hear the masters play with my upperclassmen friends.  The fact that my friends were playing with them seemed to demystify them a bit.  I was somewhat able to see a potential path or progression from me to the upperclassmen to the guest artists.

I should also mention the strong influence of the upperclassmen themselves during those years.   I've always gotten very inspired my peers, especially those that were just a few years ahead of me on the path.   The music department and especially the jazz department at UWEC had such an incredible vibe.   There were very few egos among the students there.  Usually if someone came in with that,  it quickly dissipated and was replaced with openness, humbleness, gratitude, and a desire to learn.   It was very valuable to live in that environment for those years.  I feel like the thread of that that has remained with me has gotten me through tough times here in NYC.

As I got older, I noticed that it became more and more difficult to get blown away inspired like I did for the first several UWEC jazz festivals.   I think it's because as I learned more and improved more as a musician the mystery of how to be a great performer dwindled.  I was still inspired, but these guys didn't seem to have superpowers anymore.   It seemed possible.

Now having lived in New York City for ten years, it's pretty clear why I don't get blown away as often as I used to.  It's simply because I've been hearing great music every week since I arrived here.  Not every show I attend is on the level of a Byron Stripling performance, but there are a lot of great great musicians playing here every night.

It's funny, on first thought, the music I am mainly involved with now seems to have very little in common with what Byron Stripling does.  But on second thought, maybe it's not so different.  One can be playing the most adventurous out atonal whatever music, but if it's done with intention, conviction, and presence, it can be just as powerful. There's plenty of cross discipline, not only in music, but among all art forms.

In recent years the UWEC jazz festival has grown into the greater community there.  It's now the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and are many venues and many more groups performing.  I haven't been back to the festival for several years, but it always comes to mind this time of year.  There are countless inspiring memories from those weekends, as a young student in the audience, and as an older student performing with the guests, and I will always look back in them with gratitude. It's great to remember Byron Stripling's sound wizzing past my head.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Andrew Hill -a-thon (Part 1)

It can feel like we waste hours on social media sites. And maybe we do. But they can be used as important news sources, and they can allow for important conversations to happen. Sometimes posts spin off into threads that become heated conversations between people who might never have the possibility if being in the same room together. So Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, etcetera are in incredible resource if they're used as such.

Having been thinking a lot about records and listening lately (see my previous post), I was lucky to see a Facebook post by my friend and colleague Mara Rosenbloom last Friday. Her post read:

"Spotify, itunes, youtube,'s what I want - 1 monthly delivery: Andrew Hill Records in chronological order, on vinyl. Or how bout something like a bi-weekly CSA pick-up, except instead of vegetables, I get records...or how bout records & vegetables...that will cover most of the bases."

My first reply said that she could set up her own listening  schedule, but it would take some discipline.  But then I thought that I should do it too, or better yet Mara and I should coordinate our listening and do it together.  We could keep each other on track.  So I proposed this and happily we decided to spend two weeks on each Andrew Hill Blue Note record in chronological order.  The first is Black Fire with Hill, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, and Roy Haynes.  The plan is to get together to listen to and discuss each record and the end of each two week period.

This project is perfect because Andrew Hill has been a gaping hole in my study for far too long.  I've tried to get into his Blue Note records a few times and always failed.

Andrew Hill was a musician that seemed to be largely avoided in the jazz education world, at least in my upbringing.  I remember getting these Jamey Abersold jazz theory booklets and the Double Time jazz record catalogue, which had a list of "100 historically significant" jazz recordings.  This was a very valuable resource for me and my friends in college.  I purchased nearly all 100 recordings during those years.  This list was full of Blue Note records, perhaps even 50%, but there were no Hill records on it.  The only record I remember getting wind of during my undergraduate music studies was "Point of Departure".  The focus was on the great Blue Note records Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and Horace Silver, to name a few.

So began this hole in my study.  The Herbie records kept me pretty busy anyway.  But while I was at Manhattan School of Music, I found the Andrew Hill Blue Note Mosaic box set in the library, which I must admit to importing into my iTunes Library.  Sorry.  However, I never got that far into it.

There are three reasons why I think I didn't get far.  One is that Hill's music (at least the little of it that I have actually heard) is more complex and dense than the Herbie, McCoy, etc of the period.   I feel it is music that needs to be digested slowly.  There is a certain rhythmic element to Hill's piano playing that seemed a little off to me in the past. I was fine with the Herbie.  During my time at MSM, and afterward, my tastes were expanding into the free jazz world, and for awhile I was actively avoided straight ahead music all together.  The Hill stuff seemed to be in kind of this middle territory.  Straight ahead in some ways, though definitely left of center, but not far enough out to satisfy my free jazz curiosity.

The second reason has to do with how I acquired the recordings - all at once.  I wrote about this a bit in my previous post.  Box sets are nice for the packaging, the new liner notes, perhaps the organization of having the tracks presented in the order they were recorded.  But wow are they hard to digest.  I think box sets serve a listener better if he or she had previously owned the individual records.  Especially if he or she collected them as they were released and was able to spend periods of time with 40-minute batches of music.  I found that when I'd occasionally try playing the Andrew Hill Blue Note box set that it would pretty quickly all start sounding the same.  It was too much to digest for me.

The third thing that prevented me from getting into these records it pretty stupid.  It is actually the sound quality of them.  The piano sound of the Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note records of the 60s is not very good.  However it is not the quality that really bothers me, rather the characteristics and the memories associated with it.  It's psychological.  When I was in Wisconsin studying music I was so deeply into music of the 50s and 60s.  I was constantly listening to these records (other than Hill's) and thinking about these musicians.  When I imagined New York City, I imagined that period.  I had very little awareness or interest of the current music.  Exceptions were Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, and Dave Holland - that's about it.  While I was doing my master's at MSM, I was slowly (and fortunately) pulled into the current happenings, and then toward the free jazz and improvised music.  The pendulum swung fully.  As I mentioned earlier, after finishing my masters I felt the need to distance myself from straight ahead jazz and my music studies - shed the training wheels if you will.  For many years, hearing even just a snippet of that Blue Note 60s piano sound brought me back to the mindset of my jazz training too hard.  I had to avoid it.  It actually bothered me right up until I started this project with Black Fire.  After listening a couple days, the piano sound wasn't bothering me anymore, and that stupid psychological hang up is gone.  Ah, the mind, what a joy.

So, I am thrilled to have come across Mara's post, and that we have begun this listening project.  I am already getting so much out of it.  I've been playing Black Fire every day since Friday, usually multiple times a day.  I'm starting to know the record.  This reminds me of how I used to listen to records.  I think it mainly happened in the car, actually.  Aside from the road noise, driving seems to be perfect for listening to music.  You have to be awake.  Your eyes are occupied.  Your brain is in kind of a passive mode, being partly occupied by driving.  Perhaps I don't absorb records as easily anymore because I don't have a car.   I've actually found that while riding the subway I listen well when I'm playing some easy game like solitaire on my phone.  Again, my eyes are occupied, my brain is passive, I can listen without getting distracted every two minutes.  Of course focused and directed listening is best and I try to do this as often as I can.

My first impression of Black Fire was that they sound a little drunk, especially rhythmically.  It's rougher and not as precise as the other Blue Note records by other artists of the period.  There is a wide feeling of the pulse. But as I have began to absorb the recording more, what is popping out now is these amazing compositions and forms.  The opening track, Pumpkin, has this great rhythmic hemiola interruption in the form.  The second track, Subterfuge, has a very cool funky rhythmic figure that keeps returning.  These tunes sound like they would be really fun to play over.

Another first impression is that Roy Haynes is killing it.

I look forward to getting to know Black Fire better.  And I'm really excited to get to know Andrew Hill's work much better.   I'm already thinking of what musicians to do this with after Hill.  I also have the Herbie Nichols Blue Note box set, which has also been a problem....  I'm thankful that a few years ago I reluctantly created a Facebook account, and that recently I've been paying more attention to it, and to how it can be beneficial, and that because of that I saw Mara's post, and that she agreed to do this project.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Should We Make CDs?

I want to ask you a question: Should we make Compact Discs?

In the last ten years or so, I've gone from being an avid CD collector, to being a not-so-avid CD avoider. In 2012 I bought maybe five all year, all of them purchased at shows that I attended. I acquired many more as gifts from those who made them. And I am thankful for these artists sharing their work with me via CD.

I gradually stopped shopping for CDs a few years ago as my iTunes collection became a more prominent feature of my life. At first I was concerned about the sound quality of the digital (as in iTunes/iPod etc) version being lower, but I can't honestly say I notice a difference. Perhaps if I did an A/B comparison I would notice something, but I never find myself thinking the quality is lacking when I'm listening digitally. Besides, many of my favorite historic recordings have crappy sound to begin with, and that's never bothered me.

What I do notice a difference in is the packaging. Obviously, we don't get anything but a picture of the cover in the computer version. CD artwork is nothing special when compared to vinyl, but as a jazz collector, the liner notes and credits are nice to have. My students who are checking out jazz records often have no idea who the side players are on the records they're hearing. But there are websites such as that are good for getting this information.

To me the biggest drawback to digital music collecting and Spotify, etc is the rate at which we acquire the stuff. Now if I discover a new musician or band, it's really easy to suddenly hear everything they've released. This can make it really hard to digest. I've made a conscious effort for myself to acquire an artist's work slowly. I even noticed this problem back in my CD buying days, when I'd buy a box set. The larger the amount, the harder to digest it seems.

I actually went through a vinyl phase two or three years ago. This was done in effort to feel the tangible object fully, and to force myself into a more interactive form of listening. Vinyl is not portable, it needs to be flipped over, the artwork is large, it smells great. One Saturday morning I found a great collection of contemporary classical vinyl that a street vendor had tossed in the trash can. It was amazing.

The vinyl period was fun while it lasted, and I still play vinyl at home occasionally, but there is one thing that killed it for me. It's called Spotify. There is plenty debated about Spotify, which you can find all over the Internet, but for me it comes down to two things: convenience, and no risk.

I subscribe to Spotify's premium service which means I pay $10 a month and that allows me to listen commercial free at supposedly a higher quality, and download music to my phone. Needless to say that this is very convenient. No trip to the store, no shopping online, no waiting. Just search and play. I connect to a wireless speaker in the house, so when I want the volume up or down, or I want to change songs, I just reach into my pocket and take action. I feel somewhat guilty that I often listen to records I own streaming on Spotify, while the CD version sits on the shelf. It's also very handy for teaching. If a student needs to hear a recording, I most likely have it with me in my pocket.

Even more influential than conveniences is the no risk factor. I can listen to anything on Spotify without buying it. This means if it sucks, I can simply stop listening to it, and it didn't cost me a thing, and it won't be taking up space on my shelf or on my hard drive. How am I supposed to take the $15 risk of buying a CD that I might end up not liking, when the free version is right there in my pocket already? Mind you that this is written by an independent musician who would benefit from people buying CDs. If I feel like the risk is not worth taking, there's no way the average listener will take it.

I would like to note that I still believe in albums. I listen to albums on Spotify. I enjoy the arc of a good album. I am not suggesting we should stop making albums and put out singles, although occasional singles wouldn't be a bad thing. And other ways of putting material out there are great as well. YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, etc are fast and efficient ways to share one's work.

Anyway, back to my original question. Should we make CDs?

Right now I see only two arguments for making CDs. 1.) They allow an artist to mail a physical object to a writer or venue. 2.) It might be advisable to be on every possible format, to meet the buyer wherever he or she may be.

I originally had a third argument in mind, which was having CDs to sell to your fans at shows. This is a nice thing to have, but on further thought, I've concluded that I'd prefer to buy vinyl that comes with a download coupon for the digital version. A 10" vinyl with great artwork and a handful of songs from the full record is something I'd much rather go home with than a CD.

I put out a couple of records in 2012, and I was actually surprised that most critics still wanted physical CDs. It seems like a horrible inconvenience to me. All this packaging and junk for something that might get listened to once or twice and then either take up space or have to be thrown away. Plus postage seems to be getting mor expensive - I actually lost money selling a CD to someone in Spain via my website a couple weeks ago! It seems like a digital version via email would be much easier for critics to deal with. But, I suppose we need to offer any format that they want. And perhaps a physical object is more difficult to forget about or ignore, than a digital copy.

The same goes for the listener. As hard as it may be to convince people to listen to our stuff, we should get rid of as many barriers as possible, including not being on the format that a listener prefers. With that in mind we should be on CD, vinyl, and all forms of digital and be selling in every place possible. If CD listeners are two percent or five percent of our audience, it might still be worth it to make CDs. This I think is the strongest argument to continue making them. But I'm not sure it's a winning argument. How important is the CD collecting minority to our cause?

What do you think? Artists and listeners, should we keep making CDs?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

VAX! This Is It!

On Friday February 1st, 2013, I attended a concert at the apartment of drummer Devin Gray. The night featured an eclectic variety of entertainment.

First was a short film by Zach Caldwell, complete with strobe like effects and plenty of dog footage.

Second was a mesmerizing solo improv set by clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst. It was the kind of playing that makes one listen to the instrument in a different way. He created textures that accompanied themselves, and timbres unlike any I had previously heard.

Third was a standup comedy set by Evan Davis. His set was good, and it was made funnier because despite his effort to dumb down his pop culture references for the predominantly jazz musician crowd, many of them still went over our heads.

But the real mothership of the night was VAX, a group consisting of Devin Gray playing drums, Patrick Breiner playing saxophone and clarinet, and Liz Kosack playing Nord Stage keyboard. I was expecting a good set, but what ensued was way beyond good. They performed a piece that was through composed in form, but featured plenty of improvisation. There were pretty moments. There were abrasive moments including a sustained high loud piercing sound from all three musicians (Gray on melodica) for something like five minutes -- much longer than one expected. There was plenty of humor in the show, for example Gray pausing a moment to put ear protection on before the aforementioned long note. There were sudden shifts and connections that came out of nowhere. There was laughter, there was composed rapping/dialogue/chanting. There was choreography. There were costumes. The set ended with a seamless transition into a dance party starting with a Justin Bieber song.

There were no scores. They had worked at this piece in over twenty four hours of rehearsal. They weren't paying each other with money, rather commitment and time. They had found a common goal among them, and decided to pursue it. They were a group. They were a thing. I am so happy for them that they found this. I'm envious. I'm inspired to work toward something like it myself.

Recently I watched a youtube video of some respected, big name jazz players backing a vocalist at a club in NYC. The music sounded fine, good composition, well-played, but these guys had their heads buried in the charts while the vocalist was out front entertaining the audience. And I immediately thought, "No. This is not where it's at." My reaction was not in regard to the music, which was not bad at all. It was in regard to the presentation, and the common NYC practice of hiring some great, but busy, players and doing one rehearsal (if you're lucky) and then the gig, paying them out of your pocket, and hoping you do well at the door. I think the economics of NYC have a lot to do with this norm, but that's another post. I feel this model doesn't always allow the music develop to it's fullest extent, although I must admit to following it more and more recently for my own music.

VAX was the antidote to this. It was so refreshing. It was an example of the highest potential of the great musicians of this city. It is my hope that more people follow their lead and start bands that find a similar commitment to each other and their art. Devin, Patrick, and Liz, if you're reading this, thank you thank you thank you! You have something special. Go with it. Get in a van and go play it everywhere you can. People need to experience it.

VAX : Devin Gray, Patrick Breiner, and Liz Kosack in Brooklyn 2/1/13

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Best Note I've Ever Heard

Improvisers exercise the freedom of choice to the fullest extent. In truly open musical contexts we have to make decisions -- first simply whether play or not, and then what, how, when, and why. Recently I've been fortunate to hear some musicians who have been playing much longer than me; musicians that can teach us a thing or two about these choices, in particular the why part of it.

I must admit to questioning the reasons why we proceed in this music with business being the way it is. The record industry has all but collapsed. When I first started making records I honestly thought that I might see some money flow in from selling CDs. Not much, but perhaps enough to cover the cost of making the things. I'm not in this for the money, but I would like some financial justice in it. It's hard to justify spending thousands of dollars every year, just to play some gigs and document the music, if its not going to start generating some income. It's easy to get lost in these kind of thoughts, and they can interrupt the creative flow.

I spent a couple nights checking out the 2013 Winter Jazz Fest a few weeks ago. It was a great time -- saw a lot of friends, heard a lot of music. The standout set for me was The Fringe (George Garzone, John Lockwood, and Bob Gullatti). These guys have played a weekly gig together in Boston for over thirty years or something. Their music was a swirling, sometimes abstract, ebb and flow of energy. But the real beauty in it was the meaning behind it, which can't really be described, only felt. Garzone's sound has a meaning- perhaps different meaning for different listeners. The highlight of the set for me was a rendition of Soul Eyes. Toward the end, Garzone played a very high, very quiet, and very long note. That sound has been echoing in my head ever since. I've decided it was the best note I've ever heard. Some saxophone player might come along and tell me that he has the best breath control and technique of something or other. But that's not important. What's important is that this note said something. What is said is probably different to everyone who heard it, which is part of the beauty of music. Music expresses an unspecified message or feeling that can mean many different things to different listeners.

The Fringe at the Winter Jazz Fest 2013, NYC 
(sorry for the crappiness in quality of this photo)

The meaning behind Garzone's note reminded me why I am playing music. I play for the moments just like this very note of his. The important thing to remember is that every opportunity to play is valuable and should be cherished. Let it be up to each musician to decide how much to push for commercial success. While the record industry is what it is, the Internet also provides new ways of sharing your music that are often affordable, and possibly more satisfying.  So there's hope.

Just last weekend I heard the band Hush Point with John McNeil, Jeremy Udden, Aryeh Kobrinsky, and Vinnie Sperrazza. I was so blown away by McNeil's playing. Again it was full of meaning. I don't know John personally, but it is apparent that he has some health issues. He does not appear to be very comfortable. Yet his sound and choices were so beautiful and meaningful-probably more meaningful because he really valued the opportunity to play. Now he might of been feeling and thinking something completely different, I don't know. But again here lies the beauty of the subjectiveness of music. It might not matter what the artist's personal reason for playing is, or that I as a listener might interpret differently than the artist intended. What is valuable is that it inspires others to work, or to be happy, or to love.

Hush Point at Douglass St. Music Collective, Brooklyn Jan 26, 2013 
(this photo is pretty crappy quality too)