Friday, 30 September 2016

Confessions of a 70's TV Junkie

Session musicians are rarely acclaimed or even credited for most of their work. All you have to do is watch The Wrecking Crew to learn about it. That documentary came right on time because it connected musicians to so many of the TV shows I once watched. Spotify/YouTube in the early 70's was called radio and TV. You had to actually get up to switch channels and reception was terrible and anyone under the age of 30 years old is tired of hearing this right?

When I hear any of that TV music nowadays I'm way more aware of the individual contributions to an arrangement and what goes into it. "Who is playing the violin on Young Frankenstein? Who is the sax player on Blade Runner? Wow that drummer on the theme to The Bob Newhart Show was throwing down!" And so on... For a while my son watched the old Spider-Man cartoons and on occasion when things got really tedious I made it through the day on that background music.

When I was a kid growing up in suburban California I can recall a few important musical events that changed my life. I don't mean live music but just stuff that was going on in the culture that I picked up on TV and sometimes radio but I really loved TV. One was The Beatles break up which saddened me greatly despite the fact I was not old enough to really understand the lyrics or emotional content but I knew that in some way the world was not as good a place with them leading solo careers. Another, probably because of our proximity to the Bay Area was that some dude named Sly Stone was making the coolest music ever. I remember it made me happy and hopeful but it was the raw beat and those clever vamps that kept me on edge and excited. The other big moment was when I was watching the Thrilla in Manila and Ray Charles sang America the Beautiful before the match. I literally cried to that rendition right in front of Ali and Frazier and later when my family had moved back to Canada I saw him on the local telethon and he brought tears to me eyes then too.  It was so deeply emotional it made me want to be a musician so I could say something as powerful in that same way. Pretty dramatic for a 10 year old! I know I was a very sensitive little boy but damn it - I felt that pain like it was my own. When Animal House came out I knew without a doubt that soul music was something I loved but I still didn't search it out, I just waited for the songs to come around on the radio; usually on the AM rock stations because they played the hits of Bill Withers and Roberta Flack. I didn't know this music was meant to cross over but I was glad it was getting played after Elton John and Led Zeppelin. Thanks to The Variety Shows of the 1970's I heard a lot of R&B and Soul music on TV.

After my Mom and Dad split I lived with her and her parents for a while in their big house. TV was supposed to be a treat but I watched it as much as I could. One day my Grandpa bought himself a nice new color set and I was so exited to enjoy it. But he had other plans and so he could watch what he wanted without me bothering him; "Tommy Hunter...Golf?! But Grandpa..."M*A*S*H is on!" I would plead, he set up his old B&W set in the basement and spliced the cable from the antenna so I could watch what I wanted. I remember staying up way too late on many occasions in the storage room surrounded by boxes and it was cold so I got a blanket and he put this nice old padded chair in the corner and I ate snacks and watched a shitload of TV alone in a storage room in the basement. But I had so many cool folks to keep me company; I had my laughs with Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, weird specials like Battle of the Network Stars, cool dudes like The Six Million Dollar Man, sexy ladies like Charlie's Angels! I could go on and on. And so I canped out in that room eating pepperoni sticks, cheese slices and drinking OJ (with ice) and I got pretty fat.

But there were also movie features on the networks and one night Play Misty For Me came on and for those of you who don't know that's Clint Eastwood's first directorial film and a terrific thriller. The crazy girlfriend psycho genre was born, like Fatal Attraction but way more 70's like. Anyway it has its soft moments too and a big feature song in the film was The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Well I just couldn't believe that song. Strumming guitars and folky jazz chords gently hum along as Flack croons effortlessly about the first glimpses of a lover. It's so sweet and beautiful and to this day it calms me down when I'm a little stressed out. It was a bold move to use a long love song in a thriller because afterwards all hell breaks loose. I fell in love with soul music again but this time it was dressed up to meet up with my smooth rock needs. Those motherfuckers at Atlantic Records sold a long ass song about yearning and intimacy to a 10 year old boy. That is genius. I paid attention and never forgot her so if she did appear on a TV show I'd stay up late or find a way to catch her. The same goes for Ray Charles and especially Stevie Wonder.

Anyone hip to Flack knows her writing partner for many years was Gene McDaniels. Well he didn't write The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face but he did write many other hits like the other make out tune made famous by Flack from her album Feel Like Making Love. And oddly enough I have a connection to him.

I'll talk more about that next time.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


Man have I have been lagging way behind on this blog. Here we go!

I'm still making albums the old fashioned way and this year is no different. I'm releasing my 3rd album entitled Fulfillment on Songlines Recordings right now! There's a promotional film about it by Lee Hutzulak that captures one of the recording days. The particular day that Lee shot was ruled by a laborious set up, mic checks and all that comes with getting things going at a recording session. The following day we recorded most of the music but Lee's film stands out as a unique and objective view of the session. There is a blog from 2013 about the backstory and premiere of the work The Komagata Maru Blues. A year later we got Canada Council of the Arts funding to record the music. I feel really honored to get one of these rare and wonderfully well crafted grants that support the documentation of non-commercial oriented music. I have the core members of my Vancouver music group The Variety Hour plus several special guests. There are 2 vocal tracks with lyrics I penned and the recording is beautifully recorded by John Raham. All the credits, lyrics and details about this album are one click away. You can check out a track on the Songlines page and buy the CD or download the album here.

In March I had an inspiring and incredibly productive tour of the US West Coast and Western Canada. We played 8 concerts and conducted 3 workshops in 9 days. Huge thanks to the Tiddy Boom band, Ben Allison (bass), Frank Kimbrough (piano) and Rudy Royston (drums), the venues, audiences and volunteers for making it all work so smoothly. I sold several boxes of CD's which left me very satisfied and allowed me to pack my suitcase with beer and wine for the trip home!

Tiddy Boom...oh ya

In Arcata, CA with The Redwood Jazz Alliance 
Double rainbow in La Jolla, CA

 My Mum (left), Aunt and daughter Iris were in the audience in Vancouver!

I also returned to the wonderfully magical land of Italy. Maybe that's an exaggeration but I got to visit the legendary Borgani Saxophone factory in Macerata! A pretty magical experience for me.

The band included Giovanni Guidi (piano), Joe Rehmer (bass) and the always inspiring Jeremy 'Bean' Clemons on drums. We stopped at a terrific restaurant on the Adriatic coast for some spaghetti a la vongole.

L to R Joe Rehmer, Bean, Giovani Guidi, MB
The Torreone (Jazzclub Ferrara) my favorite club in Italy. 

There are a few new albums on the horizon...!!!

One with a new trio I'm part of with Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser and drummer Michael Sarin. Our album Made in China will be released on Fortune Records in May. We are still a ways from having promo, links etc but it's coming. Scroll down a bit on the china blog to see pics from our 2012 tour that sparked this unique little band. Sometimes great things come from unexpected circumstances.

Another new project is a life's dream for me: I recorded an album of soul/jazz with a bunch of NYC colleagues who like me have spent many hundreds of hours in the bars and on stages making music similar to this. We covered Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Lana Del Rey and Ray Charles. I wrote a few originals inspired by the boogaloo and soul music of my youth, scored several arrangements, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk's' Volunteered Slavery but most of all I just had the pleasure of spending 2 days in a great studio (thank you Andy Taub at Brooklyn Recording!) with friends making great music. Along with my tenor and soprano sax are Tony Scherr and Avi Bortnick (guitar), Tim Luntzel (bass), Tony Mason (drums), Erik Deutch (keys) and Moses Patrou (perc). I can't wait for this to come out and to share what I think is some of the best music I've ever made. I've been at this music thing for over 30 years now and I think I'm finally getting good at it.

L to R Tony Mason, Moses Patrou, Erik Deutch, MB, Tim Luntzel, Avi Bortnick, Tony Scherr

Last but not least is another project that came out of a long friendship with pianist Richard Bennett. We call ourselves Honk & Tonk. This past winter we started to play some old tunes together and we just kept working on it. The music has taken on more of a NoLa and noir like attitude of late. We play the last Friday of every month at a Red Hook meat lovers paradise called Hometown BBQ. Of course any gigs I'm on can be found at my website. Thanks for reading!

About a year ago I switched my facebook page into an artist page. I am still posting about gigs, albums and sharing anecdotes, etc at my artist page. the more likes the better. Give me give me give me some of your love today!

Monday, 27 October 2014

A Little Tiddy Boom Please?

Recently a small group of Canadians (and a few Yanks too) paid tribute to our dear friend Ross Taggart who left us far too soon. His ex-wife Sharon Minemoto was a rock during his illness and held it together through a very dffcult time. She was very generous to bring his ashes to NYC where Ross had expressed he be distributed. On a calm and clear Columbus Day morning we spread his ashes in Marcus Garvey Park where our friend Rudy Petchauer thought Ross would feel the good vibes. Many great cocnerts have taken place there, especially through the legendary organization Jazzmobile. It was a bittersweet occasion and a nice gathering of old friends. This memoriam connects to something quite positive for me which is the new CD of music I’ve dedicated to Ross coming out tomorrow on Sunnyside Records called Tiddy Boom. I have written several blogs about this project (just review the history in the menu below) so I won't get into the details of the music here but let's just say it is a work of mutual respect and admiration to several musicians that came along before us.

Ross and I spent about a year together in NYC when we were quite young. I was about 27 and he was 23. I had just gotten in the Lounge Lizards and was finally making a living. He was studying here on a Canada Council grant and going out to hear everyone he could. We saw a lot of great music together, listened to a lot of great music and we had a lot of fun. I was able to help Ross get an apartment and even a few gigs under the table. We bonded over most tenor legends but especially Clifford Jordan and Dexter Gordon. Ross was a remarkable pianist but he could also play the hell out of the tenor sax. So when I started working on Tiddy Boom it only seemed appropriate that it would be dedicated to Ross. I think this distraction helped me through the loss. 

That loss only piled up when another wonderful spirit and music lover left us. I met Holly Schneider through my ex-wife Elizabeth. I believe our first meeting was at the Filmore in San Francisco after a Lizards show. She had us over to her apartment and showed me her vinyl collection. I was floored and upon other visits I’d stay with her and her family and she’d hip me to all sorts of great music. A real mind opener was Quincy Jones’ Gula Matari. It’s hard to find but she gave me a rare vinyl of it. Years later while doing the musicians show on WKCR I  played a track from this (pops and scratches included) when the phone lit up. It was an elderly man who called to say that while he was doing time at Sing Sing Prison upstate he’d go to the library and listen to records to help him get through his imprisonment. Turns out that Gula Matari was one of those records and he thanked me for playing it. He said, “That music kept me alive”. That really blew me away…I believe that music is a serious healing force and it should remain something we respect and hold dear to us as individuals. Holly ended up playing drums and teaching music to kids. She was a remarkably kind and beautiful woman. I really miss Holly and it is unfair she became ill and passed away so unexpectedly. She’s left us with a great talent in her young son Ari and she lives on in our hearts. 

What a strange year for jazz in the media. In July The New Yorker published a satire about Sonny Rollins that to any sincere jazz lover was in bad taste and just unpleasant on many levels. Then the Wall Street Journal paid another young man to write an op-ed on the fact that we jazz musicians are simply wasting our time pursuing an unpopular intellectual indulgence, insinuating that the Rollins satire is a symptom of an art form on it’s last legs being played out by a bunch of college grads. FYI the writer is a disgruntled music school drop out! I didn’t comment much on these topics because I felt the best response was to ignore them. There's always room for good humor and jazz musicians certainly enjoy it as much as anyone else. All you have to do is search youtube for jazz robots, shredders or Hans Groiner

Recently the young and talented band Mostly Other People Do the Killing created a wave of controversy by releasing an identical copy of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s seminal ‘modal’ album that has been the biggest seller in jazz for decades, called 'Blue'. Along with many of my generation, I found myself reacting quite strongly to this work. At first it was a, “Really?…oh man did they have to?” sort of groan of disapproval. However in MOPDtK's defense Jimmy Cobb - the drummer from Kind of Blue - was quoted giving it his approval, although he said it lacked feeling. Well yeah and how could anyone think you can transcribe that feeling? This could be a piece of art for observation or scrutiny but it’s not a new way of playing jazz or even a classical interpretation. All of us who grew up after music schools took on jazz had to learn by imitating other players. Ethan Iverson's piece on Lester Young has some great quotes of Lee Konitz saying how he and many of Lennie Tristano's students/peers memorized Lester Young solos. I’m not going to belabor this topic any further but if anything what 'Blue' shows us is that a new generation of jazz musicians and writers have entered a dimension of satire, analysis and research that has left some of us scratching our heads with clenched fists. I prefer hearing these guys and most anyone trying to create new music and facing the efforts of that type of challenge rather than projecting a post modern imprint of Kind of Blue on us. For the record I did say they may be among the first jazz 'aethiests' and the inventors of zombie jazz, in jest of course but maybe not so far off?  Remember what people said about trad, swing, bebop, modern jazz and the avant-garde! Whatever comes after is always a scandal and jazz is a young persons 'sport'. One thing is for sure, I don’t have the memory to play someone else’s music note for note, that’s why I chose to play jazz! 

Tiddy Boom is probably my most traditional album to date. I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, rather show how well it still works. Like a big ‘ol American car I hope you enjoy the comfortable ride and the way it hugs the road. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Komagata Maru Blues

On May 23rd, 1914, the steamship Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India. Only 24 passengers were allowed to disembark and after several months under lock down, the ship was forced back to India by exlusionists. Several years ago, upon learning that my Great Grand Uncle, then Conservative MP H.H. Stevens, was responsible for the detainment and eventual deportation of the passengers aboard the Kamagata Maru, I felt the urge to compose a work meant as a gesture of atonement and reparation for what was at the time a sad and regretful moment in Canadian history. On the other hand I think H.H. was acting in the best interest of 'white' Caandians and doing what his constituants asked of him. This doesn't mean I am embracing the connection with my relative nor am I trying to vilify him. In the words of Adam Gopnik, “Historical criticism, which is ostensibly about trying to understand things as they were seen then, too often spends its time hectoring the dead about not having seen things as we do now.” The music is resonating with a sense of adventure which suits the spirit behind any person who is willing to leave ones home in search of a good life in a new land. All of us who have done the same can relate to that experience and essentially that's what this music is about. 

Featuring an expanded instrumentation of my Vancouver group The Variety Hour, I'm proud to announce that I'll be premiering the piece at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival on June 22nd. Many thanks to both Coastal Jazz and Blues and Barking Sphinx Perfromance Societies for their support in the creation of this new work!

Coastal Jazz and Barking Sphinx Present:
Michael Blake's Komagata Maru Blues

Michael Blake - tenor and soprano saxophones
JP Carter - trumpet and electronics
Peggy Lee - cello
Chris Gestrin - piano and moog
Ron Samworth - guitar
Andre Lachance - bass
Dylan van der Schyff - drums

And Special Guests:
Emma Postl - vocals
Nellamjit Dhillon - tablas

After discovering that fellow Vancouverite and musician Neelamjit Dhillon was also writing a piece commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, I rethought about how to approach the work. We chatted a bit on Facebook about the coincidence and spoke about each other's intentions. We both seemed to be heading in a similar direction. But once I knew where Neel was going and after further discussion with Barking Sphinx director Dylan van der Schyff,  I decided to take on a different perspective and rather than write music solely about the Komagata Maru I would treat the work like a series of musical 'essays' about assimilation and identity. This was a difficult subject matter to work with and I didn't want  to add insult to injury by sloppily fusing Indian music into my own work. Knowing that Neel had a much better knowledge and cultural right to express that side of the story helped me to dig down into my own thoughts and feelings about the immigrant experience. I'm honored that Neelamjit will be joining us as a special guest on tablas.

The great free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler once said, "Music is the healing force of the universe." Because I've chosen to work within the structures of jazz I think the art from and it's history serve as an excellent metaphor for acceptance, social democracy and believing in building a better society. After all I've spent most of my life playing a music that I assimilated. In my heart I feel that jazz is a universal music but it was built on the courage, genius and vision of African Americans. As a matter of fact at the time of the 
Komagata Maru incident a young Louis Armstrong started cutting his teeth on the streets of New Orleans playing what was to become jazz. After an art form is claimed outside of the culture responsible for its very existence, does it loose vitality or meaning? Is there a disconnect to its very source? As far as jazz pertains, when only whites were the first 'interpreters' this was a pretty common argument but it didn't take long for jazz to break loose from the confines of being a solely American music; as new sounds blended in from Cuba and Brazil and other cultures began to inject new influences into the music. For decades now jazz has become even more of an International music with leading players from South Asia, Israel, Europe and Latin America - and even Canada! - contributing new ideas and pushing the art form forward. And so I believe it is the same within a democracy, that is, when laws are designed to protect all of the people. Sadly at the root of the Komagata Maru there was a serious abuse of power led by H.H. Stevens; thwarting the efforts of anti exclusionist Gurdit Singh and reining in an era of discord that lasts to this day.

To me what the Komagata Maru incident makes me feel is akin to what I hear in the blues. I also hear that wail in the most socially assertive and progressive sound of what is known as free jazz. My ear and the affects of the blues was exponential in my early development. Naturally I thought it best to work within my element as that is where the title comes in and what the work means to me.

I've travelled a lot and through observation I find there are always common denominators in how different societies experience both intolerance and acceptance. Earlier works of mine touch on the 'fish out of water' story (Kingdom of Champa) and another was inspired by the pioneer spirit of early European settlers in BC (Amor de Cosmos). The music is all instrumental so the meaning behind the concept is really up to the listener to decode. This is the great thing about jazz. And what better way to express my/our respect for the victims of the 
Komagata Maru then to let their voices be heard through the spirits of sound waves. Waves seem play a big part in much of my music.

For those interested in learning more about the Komagata Maru incident, this is an excellent documentary by Ali Kazimi.

Recently I participated in a CBC radio special on the Komagata Maru incident that is availble for stereaming here. Anyone visiting Vancouver this summer should visit the Maritime Museum and see their marvelous exhibit . Unfotunately the link appears to be dead???! Another is at The Mueum of Vancouver and just out of the city limits is another exhibit at The Surrey Museum.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Contrasts in Individualim Pt 3

First of all I'd like to thank everyone who came out to hear the new work at Kitano in January. The premiere was on the heels of a trip to New Orleans and I was inspired to play the new music for all of you! Next week we will perform the music for the second time at Jazz Standard.

Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
Michael Blake's World Time Zone A premiere of my new work "Contrasts in Individualism: Reinterpreting the Innovations Of Hawkins and Young"! Made possible with support from Chamber Music America's 2013 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Michael Blake (tenor sax), Ben Allison (bass), Ferenc Nemeth (drums) and special guest Frank Kimbrough (piano)

Exploring the stylistic innovations of my heroes has been a truly humbling experience. This year I'm turning 50 years old and I still can't believe it. I've been really fortunate to make a life playing and composing music and despite the challenges I face in the music business I have no complaints about the business of making music. Things have changed a lot since I came to NYC in 1986. At the beginning I was completely lost as to what I should do... how to play, what tunes to learn, etc...Despite taking lessons with one of that eras strongest contemporary saxophonists I always felt like I didn't fit in to that mold. I found my niche working with the Jazz Composers Collective members and The Lounge Lizards. Both were made up up of completely different thinkers and that was just what I needed. I began t think for myself and work with sound and substance rather than style. I remember thinking back then that I was going to have to change the way I thought about getting my music out there. Fortunately I had a lot of support from several small labels that always supported my new releases and gave me a platform to sell and distribute my music. I am especially proud of my latest effort 'In the Grand Scheme of Things'. I have never  produced an album that doesn't absorb some concept otuside of the straight ahead jazz niche. I always felt that if I was going to make an album it should stand up to multiple listens and capture something fresh that is encircling my mind and imagination. But this time I'm setting aside the quirky instrumentations to record a mainstream jazz quartet album.

This music is about two incredible saxophone players and in order to pay them tribute I went into the woodshed and spent many hours reviewing the qualities that define their music. Ultimately I came out of the premiere relieved that all that work paid off. I wanted to play at my best and not choke while trying to measure up to my own expectations. A forthcoming album of the new music confirms in my mind that the cliche is wrong - you can teach an old dog new tricks. In fact just before the premiere I was working for my old friend Steven Bernstein and I received some friendly advice from him on what not to play in a secific situation. I was reminded that you are never too old to learn how to be a better musician. 
Back to work!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Contrasts in Indivualism Pt 2

The year got off to an interesting and challenging start for me. I was asked to fill in for the brilliant multi-instrumentalist/composer Peter Apfelbaum in Steven Bernstein's Hot 9 Band. This group contains the front line of his own Millenial Territory Orchestra, a long surviving band of brilliant characters who manage to both keep one foot in the past and another in the future while playing Steven's vibrant arrnagements in the present. Steven's new band has been backing up the truly amazing pianist Henry Butler. I had the pleasure of performing with them in front of a capacity crowd last fall at BRIC. Earlier this month at Jazz Standard Steven and Co kicked off the New Year with a week long stint before recording with the great New Oleans master. It was a thrill for me to sink my teeth into this music right before going to New Orleans myself. Not to mention that it also meant wokring with many of old friends (Doug Wieselman, Charlie Burnham, Curtis Fowlkes, Erik Lawrence, Matt Munisteri) and new friends Donald Edwards, Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal.

This experience was just what I could wish for a few weeks before premiering my new work 'Contrasts in Individualism' with my group World Time Zone. A few recollections from NoLa are obviously worth discussing. This video of clarentist is the best example I can share of just how deep the music is down there. Doreen Ketchens is screaming the blues through that clarinet with such power and intent that she might change the world for the better in one chorus. In fact a street artist pointed out that, "Down here a horn can save someones life". Now that's what I want to hear! In NoLa music not only provides meaning and connects locals with a sense of New Orleans history but it can also change the lives of anyone lucky and open enough to listen. You don't see it so well in this video but there's a young girl at the drums (around 12yrs old I think) and the drummer is sitting next to her on a break. She's keeping time and along the way he's pointing to different parts of the drum kit and teaching her on the spot what is the right thing to do. She switches to hi-hat for the sousaphone solo then at the end goes around the kit and chokes the cymbal at the end. I was really inspired to see this type of conduction happening ON THE STREET and it made me realize what Butch Morris's conduction was an extention of this technique. On the job training!

Lester Young
Lester grew up on the road but he was born in Algiers LA, a suberb of New Orleans. Ethan Iverson's blog Do the Math contains one of the best resources on 'classic' Lester Young performances I've ever seen compiled. Made even sweeter by Lee Konitz's comments and insights, together they should be able to turn every jazz lover into a 'Presophile' and anyone who already loves Lester will be in jazz heaven. Thanks to him I'm able to reference the famous early solos and use the samples he has so diligently transcribed.

My fascination with Pres began when my jazz history teacher played the famous small group session recordings of Count Basie ie Shoehine Boy and Lady Be Good solos. Plenty has been written expounding the genius of these gems but there are a few others that are equally sublime and one version of Lady Be Good is rather prophetic. In fact this solo inspired Ethan to go on his quest to uncover the mystery of Young's work, made even more interesing considering that critic have said this solo is a wasted effort. I agree with Ethan and believe this is the gateway to improvised music or 'free jazz'' in that Lester uses a chromatic rather than diatonic apporach to this solo. It's weird and wonderful in every way. The transcription is mandatory reading for any doubters. Check out the chromatic leading tones at bars 8-12! And then at the bridge, in a surprising burst of bravura, he rides a C major 7 arpeggio 5 times and then continues that phrase over the I chord (F > D7).  I love the lovely flourish at the end which is truly the icing on the cake.

A key moment of understanding of Lester's genius has to be this single chorus on the blues Fine and Mellow recorded on The Sound of Jazz for TV in the 50's. It captures him with fellow tenor giants Ben Wesbster and Coleman Hawkins. As good as they both are here, it's Pres's melancholy and achingly lyrical solo that stands out. Billie seems especially entranced by his vibe. It's almost a lost art, this way of developing a musical statement through melodic improvising.

Coleman Hawkins
The first time I heard Coleman Hawkins was on an album with Earl Hines that my father had bought as part of an incredible jazz collection that was sold before I came into my own. It's a live album from the 60's and he is swinging hard as ever. I started on the clarinet and I was immediately intrigued by Pee Wee Russell who my Dad always raved about after reading Whitney Balliet's essays on him in The New Yorker. I also liked Goodman, DeFranco, Guiffre and Bigard but for some reason Pee Wee was my man. Another standout was the New Orleans native Alvin Batiste who at the time (1980's) was one of the few clarinetists playing fusion. He appeared on a Billy Cobham album or two. Anyway, Pee Wee and Hawkins recorded together with famed trombonist Glenn Miller back in 1929 along with Red McKenzie on 'comb'. It's fascinating to compare these solos and hear the evolution from 1929 - 1963! Hawkin's solo on If I Could Be with you (One hour Tonight) from both periods are glorious in their own right. The big difference is in the phrasing and how relaxed his lines ahad become compared to '29. Might that be some of Lester's cool influencing Hawkin's own sensibility? The later solo was one of the first tenor solos I cherished and the entire album 'Jazz Reunion' is a gem. I transcribed Hawkin's passionate solo from All Too Soon off of this album and it still gives me goose bumps.

In Closing
While walking along Royal St a came upon a music store that had my first reed brand in stock - Rico Regular. I had been trying to find the best sound possible for this new music and I wanted to go back to my vintage set up and a cane reed. On a whim I bought a few for kicks and once back home I put one on my mouthpiece and gave it a blow. It was like an old friend came home to visit and I think I'm going to ask that old friend to stay a while because it all fits together now; Contrasts in Individualism is the culmination of 30 years of playing, working and studying music on the tenor saxophone. I'd like to thank all the musicians who have influenced and helped me along the way! Good music is timeless and I feel some relief knowing that the struggle and hardship these great jazz pioneers had to endure really does carry on for generations. New Orleans has shown me another side of America that every musician should discover. As a matter of fact I bumped into a pair of Danish hornmen on their way home after spending 2 weeks hanging out there. It was immediately apparent that they (like me) were aware that they had just spent some time in a sort of musicians fairytale. 

We premiered the work last Thursday at Kitano in NYC. There was a full house and the music came pouring out just as I had hoped it might. It was especially nice (that word always sounds so uncool) to be reviewed by Ralph Miriello. His article is up on the Huffington Post! Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough and Rudy Royston brought exactly what I needed to pull it off, so many thanks all round.

We'll be playing the work again on Tuesday, March 18th at 7:30 and 9:30pm
Jazz Standard 116 E 27th St, New York, NY 10016 (212) 576-2232

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.