Monday, 9 December 2013

Contrasts in Individualism Pt 1

Next month I'll be premiering a new work called Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The long winded title is a reference to the incredible contributions both of these men made to music on the saxophone, an instrument that was previously considered a novelty instrument. It is impressive how two African-American men from the mid-west were able to rise above the segregated landscape of 1930's America and change the history of music. Their ideas would revolutionize jazz and lead the development of Be-Bop, Cool Jazz and Rock 'n Roll. When you hear the classic recordings of these gentlemen it is immediately apparent just how good they were. But in todays world it is easy to loose the lineage of exactly how Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz or John Coltrane come out of these schools. Then there was the Avante-Garde, fusion and the young lions. Today's pyro-technical approach makes it easy to miss or dismiss the influences that Hawk and Pres have had on generations of saxophonists.

Because of his virtuosic and aggressive sound, Coleman Hawkins is associated with Hot jazz and was one of the first Americans to travel abroad and infuence European musicians. I see his influence as pretty widespread but here's a list of players that seem to follow an evolution of Hawk:

Coleman Hawkins > Lucky Thompson > Sonny Rollins > Archie Schepp > James Carter

Lester 'Pres' Young came out of Kansas City and is synonymous with Cool jazz. He's also known for his unique language and style of dress. For ex. the term 'crib' for apartment is his. The 'Lady' in Lady Day (Billie Holiday), also his. If you've ever heard Charles Mingus's Goodbye Porkpie Hat then you know how much he meant to him. Here's a lineage of players I think come straight out of Pres:

Lester Young > Charlie Parker > Stan Getz > Warne Marsh > Mark Turner

Along with his incredibly relaxed approach Lester could also wail. He often used false fingerings to achieve a repetitive effect. Instead of repeating the note with the same fingering he'd use an alternative fingering and get the same note with a muted timbre. i.e. Doo-wah when a brass player uses his hand to cup the bell. It wasn't necessary to even use the effect, simply hitting the root and repeating it ad lib in time with the band would send the audience into a frenzy. Flip Phillips would make this his schtick and then the Rhythm and Blues players took it to another level all together. Before the electric guitar was dominant, this aggressive style would be the most revolutionary sound in American music. Hawkins also contributed to R&B music by vocalizing or 'growling' through the horn.  He also wailed but in a different manner: Pres would hold the horn up at an angle, eyes staring ahead, head back, observing the scene around him while Hawkins usually played with his eyes closed, blowing with intense concentration. Here they are on Art Ford's TV program in 1958. Lester wouldn't be around much longer. Hawk managed to play right through into the mid '60's.

Watching this, how can you not love how they are all having some serious FUN! That's Pee Wee Russell on clarinet. My first instrument and my favorite 'modern' clarinetist. He started in the 1920's and recorded with Hawkins in 1929. More about that later. At 4:00 Pres starts 'wailing', using the false fingerings I was talking about. At 6:26 Hawkins enters with a classic motif and you can hear those riffs that are so indicative of R&B at 6:40. Check out how trumpet man Charlie Shavers provokes Pres to start exchanging with Hawkins after his solo. It seems neither of them expected to 'trade fours' and I'm so glad Shavers got that to happen but i wish it went on longer. There's a reason these two were so revered and thanks to YouTube it's out there for the world to see. I used to go to great lengths to get videos like this and I was almost as surprised by this as to find out that Coltrane once played with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz on TV!

Many years ago I was in a funk and I attended a workshop with the composer/bassist Dave Holland who I had studied with in Banff when he ran that summer jazz workshop. He was always very supportive of my playing and liked my natural approach. I think even though I was far from refined I had a good feel and instincts for improvising. He always pointed out that I wasn't trying to play all my licks. Well i didn't really have any licks! At the workshop I expressed how I had lost my way trying to emulate the players who emulated Coltrane. In his kindest tone he said, "How about Don Byas?". It sparked my interest in discovering new ways of seeing innovations on the saxophone and from then on I never really compared players as being more or less 'modern'. In fact the rhythmic and sonic quailites of the pre-bop saxophonists can be linked to post-bop generation.

Between 1968-76 I heard almost as much funk and soul on the radio as rock. I loved Sly and The Family Stone, Ray Charles and especially Stevie Wonder. I also liked Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. When you hear Hendrix you are hearing an innovator of sound. It's incredible that his psychedelic guitar style made it into pop culture but it did. And who influenced them? R&B artists! And what kicked off R&B? Yup...the saxophone, that's what. Jimi's sound broke the sonic barrier in electric pop music. Some people revolutionize art and even mange to cross over into the mainstream. So it's not completely absurd to think of Pres as the Hendrix of his era. With his original style, innovative phrasing, strange and beautiful notes he brought something new to popular music. Hawkins would become an icon after his version 'Body and Soul' made him a star. If Coleman Hawkins could be compared to an elevator, traveling up and down through harmonic passages then Lester Young was the escalator, taking his time and finding a different way to get to the same place. They both brought us to the future. There's a lot of life experience coming through in their music. The ability to communicate that feeling through the horn is what made me interested in playing jazz.

In my next blog I'll expand on how both individuality and intelligence play a large role in the music of Hawkins and Young. I'll use some samples that show how Pres and Hawk evolved and influenced the next generation of jazz musicians. Eventually, as the premiere grows near I'll play some samples of the work and show how Pres and Hawk influenced me.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Bringing Us Together

Me and Scotty in Brooklyn
The daring engineer/producer Scott Harding (aka Scotty Hard) has worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, jazz, alternative and creative music. Over the last year, I have been producing Party Hard (for Scotty Hard) with the intentions of both helping out my friend and making a point about the value of intellectual property. Myself and the community of musicians behind Party Hard (for Scotty Hard) are proud to announce the release of this very special track in tandem with the Music Frees All Festival; a three day benefit for Scott happening this weekend (July 19th - 21st). Party Hard is a funky furlough that takes the listener through a gamut of musical territories, with spine tingling solos from John Medeski, David Tronzo and Marcus Rojas. All of the musicians played from their hearts, bringing a unique brand of soul and musicianship to every beat. The track is available here!
In 2008 after a near fatal car accident that left him paralyzed the eclectic engineer/producer Scott Harding spent many months recovering in NY hospitals. After being diagnosed with a severe spinal cord injury Scott worked his butt off in rehab to regain the strength, independence and skills required to start a new life. The outpouring of support on both coasts was immense. The Scotty Hard Trust was set up in his name to help raise funds that provide him immediate and long-term financial support. Unfortunately, not long after his recovery, his health took a left turn. For over a year a circle of friends helped Scotty get the rest he needed in order for him to heal from a pressure wound. While he had limited access to his wheelchair and thus less time to work, his trust has been depleted. Scotty’s patience has finally started to pay off! The wound is healing and he is slowly getting back to work.

Kingdom of Champa Session: Rufus Cappadacio, Billy Martin. Scott Neumann, Bryan Carrott, Tony Scherr
Scott Harding, Marcus Rojas, Teo Macero, David Tronzo, Thomas Chapin, Cteven Bernstein
Michael Blake

Scott and my relationship goes back to our college days but a pivotal recording - 1997’s Kingdom of Champa with the legendary producer Teo Macero at the helm - introduced Scott to a new generation of innovative musicians. Afterwards Scott recorded landmark albums with Medeski, Martin and Wood, Sex Mob, Charlie Hunter and Vijay Iyer, among others. I know that musicians will come together for big reasons and as much as I know Scott deserves an album - NO, a double album! - a tribute was in order. I want  to mention that the bed tracks were recorded by my NYC based band with Ryan Blotnick (guitar), Michael Bates (bass), Greg Ritchie (drums) and Landon Knoblock (fender rhodes). Because of the large line-up only Landon's tracks made it to the final mix but all of their energy and musical contributions are worth noting. I'm grateful to my boys for throwing down for Scotty that day. 

Scott with Medeski, Martin and Wood
Scott with guitarist Charlie Hunter
We recorded the bed tracks at our friend Leif Arntzen’s home studio, later adding Miles Arntzen’s driving drum tracks, John Medeski’s B3 organ and a horn section. When it was time to start editing and take the track to the next level I asked the versatile engineer/producer Teddy Kumpel to step in and help man the console. Teddy also added electric bass and recorded all of the remaining tracks. Scotty asked old friends Joel Hamilton to mix and Mike Fossenkemper to master. And just as the track was about to be released, musician/actor/artist John Lurie allowed us to use one of his beautiful paintings for the cover art! It is the cherry on top of a project filled with amazing surprises and world-class artists.

Like so many performing and recording artists I'm interested in the debate about royalty and licensing rights for Internet streaming. In light of new technology and distribution methods musicians are at a crossroads with the music business as to how much money should be allocated for musicians rights. All of us involved in this project think it's important to raise awareness about the negative effects and long term destructive nature of deeming our music an entitlement to a 'free culture' and not worth paying for. With all the funding from downloads directly funding Scott's trust its irrefutable that there is not only value in a recorded work (worth protecting) but it also proves that this money provides an important source of income for artists that we can't afford to loose.

"Party Hard was a pleasure to work on. All of the musicians and engineers donated their time to this cause. I am so proud and grateful that I can share the inspiration and influence of our friend Scott Harding with YOU!” – Michael Blake

Scott and Tom Camuso at their Brooklyn studio.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Beats and Tweaks

Starting Thursday, February 21st I'll be hosting a night at Bizarre Bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I'm leading The Bizarre Jazz and Blues Band there every week where we'll be playing some old jazz and blues. Stay tuned for more information.

I had a great time last month touring in Canada with The Variety Hour promoting our CD In the Grand Scheme of Things. We played in Edmonton,  Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Guelph. Many thanks to everyone along the way, especially Ron Gaskin and the band (Dylan, JP and Chris). I will admit touring there in January when the hockey season starts up (post lockout) is no easy feat. Some rooms were lightly attended but the Ottawa Winter Jazz Fest, Montreal's Casa de Popolo and Toronto's The Rex, among others were fun shows and people came out to hear us. I also had the pleasure of making a few radio shows which were all hosted by people that know their jazz. I even made the cover of The Ottawa Citizen. Great big thanks to The Canada Council for the Arts for their tour support.

Nest up, I will rerelease my album Elevated online with more of my CD's to come. I also plan to release some unreleased sessions and live performances for download. Elevated has been out of print for quite a while although some copies of the original Knitmedia CD's still exist. I hope with this new venture that I will gain more skills at self promoting and managing my catalogue.

Another bit of news is the CD One from None, recently released on Fresh Sounds and colead by bassist Michael Bates and trombonist Samuel Blaser. This marks my debut on this label which has produced hundreds of albums. These guys both write and play their butts off as do their sidemen. Look for a follow up soon to come.