I am often asked, “Why should my child take private lessons?” Here are my thoughts.Read More
About a year ago, my friend Thomas Helton had the idea to put together a group that specialized in early/New Orleans/hot/trad jazz* and featured trumpet, clarinet, trombone, guitar, banjo, and tuba. The concept was a fresh one for Houston (in that it was 100 years behind the times) and instantly appealed to me. Why? Because it would rely on the chemistry of playing together in various roles instead of playing over one another.
Academically, this is referred to as "collective improvisation", an approach that was pioneered and popularized in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the landscape of collectively improvising groups has dwindled down to practically none at all but you can still find traditional and interesting new examples if you look deep enough. Popular music has moved on from this practice, for better or worse, and so it's considered archaic in certain contemporary jazz circles.
Today, when many musicians attempt to play early jazz, they don't seem to know the first thing about the style. I've heard many try to apply modern practices and it doesn't work. Top offenses include:
- Playing notes, rhythms and ideas that are too advanced or complicated
- Playing "busily" for the sake of playing fast
- Playing too many choruses on a solo
- Trading solos exhaustively and to the boredom of the audience
Musicians take note: DON'T DO THESE THINGS! They make the music suffer as a result of being too clunky and complicated. Early jazz and swing music are styles made for dancing, not endless solos. So, keep it simple and (most of all) fun. I would always remind myself of the Joe "King" Oliver style before performing:
- Don’t get in each others’ way
- Try to invent melodies that complement each others’ melodies
- Strive to create an exciting feeling
- Use interesting rhythms that will make people want to dance
There's more to it, of course, but my time playing with Boomtown Brass Band was a fantastic musical experience. The challenge of spontaneously creating group chemistry is much harder than it first seems, and it was always a great feeling to pull it off!
* I refuse to call it "Dixieland jazz" because 1) We're not from Chicago and 2) I hate that stupid name.
For the past year or so, I've been making "cool" jazz sounds with a group called Idol Gossip. And I'm so happy to tell you about it now, because it only took that long to settle on a name!
I transcribed this in a weekend earlier this year as a favor to a friend for a performance. Honestly, I was very unfamiliar with it prior to his approaching me for the transcription job.
One thing that struck me was how conventional it sounds for 1958. Between Sonny, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach, they play it all pretty straight. It's a melodic series of improvisations and Pettiford's presence (I feel) helps to keep it tightly confined and on track. There's very little stretching out, harmonically speaking, on this chord-less trio date which may strike many listeners by surprise, as it did me. This is what a lifetime of studying John Coltrane will do to your perspective if you aren't careful. We are chronologically removed from the outgrowth of Coltrane's massive harmonic risks so that something like "Freedom Suite" sounds tame by comparison. It's impossible to compare Coltrane's 1960s works (which often featured piano-less trio) to this.
I was refreshed to find a great recording full of the many melodic links and themes that Rollins so well-known for, so I highly recommend it. Throughout the entire 19-minute suite, however, I find myself listening to the drums more closely each time. Roach's melodic playing make this recording special with his weaving of time and interesting rhythms guided by a concentration on the melody above all. I've put my transcription here for all to enjoy, study and (hopefully) perform in the interest of keeping these experiments alive and well.
I did enjoy a (very slight) hint of the famous "Giant Steps" chord progression in the opening improvisation section. While this pre-dates Coltrane's eponymous album by a year, it's interesting to hear the device as a neat little bebop trick before Coltrane expanded it so dramatically.
Composer Darcy James Argue sent out a tweet that piqued my interest over the past weekend. https://twitter.com/darcyjamesargue/status/457670302273912832
He then proceeded to retweet several great responses. I've listed as many as I can here for a quick reference; partly because I think that everyone should see the true value of Twitter, and partly because I am a lazy blogger who struggles to update with more original material.
There are several more great mentions that you can find in @darcyjamesargue's feed. I suppose the only major missing example would be Louis Armstrong's dramatic 1928 reinvention of "West End Blues".
I've made a (partial) playlist here for easy reference. Enjoy!
On February 10, I will again be performing Miles Davis' classic The Birth of the Cool organized and led by my dear friend Thomas Helton. This concert will be slightly different, however, in that it will feature three new arrangements by yours truly written specifically for the nonet. In addition to that, the second half of the concert will feature the various incarnations of the famous Gerry Mulligan Quartets.
This concert is being produced by Richard Nunemaker for the Houston Tuesday Music Club on Sunday, February 10 at Emerson Unitarian Church at 4pm.You can hear Thomas, Richard and myself discussing the concert on KUHF's "The Front Row" by clicking here.
Of the new arrangements, I chose to write three features, one each for alto saxophone ("Opus de Funk"), trombone ("Lament") and baritone saxophone ("Ghengis"). Here's a playlist of the concert, in backwards order:
"Opus de Funk" is really just a transcription and re-orchestration from the 1959 album, Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics. While the original Birth of the Cool selections are wonderful, there isn't a straightforward blues among any of them. This recording has long been one of my favorites, with plenty of room for the alto to blow through the blues. That, plus the excellent arrangement by Marty Paich make this a great pairing to the original album (and great practice for me to learn how the unusual nonet instrumentation can be handled).
"Lament" is trombonist J.J. Johnson's well-known jazz ballad. I wanted to pay tribute to Johnson's presence on the original recordings and feature his talents as a great writer, since this ballad is truly one of the best written in the idiom. My arrangement sought to capture the "Gil Evans sound" heard most prominently on "Moon Dreams". There were many things to consider here: where to draw the line on using dissonance, Gil's careful placement of voicing, the development of the main theme throughout the piece, and so on. It was a real challenge, as students of Gil Evans' style are surely aware.
Finally, I chose "Ghengis" from Gil's Guests written by the late, obscure multi-saxophonist Gil Mellé. Mellé was a bit of a renaissance man in modern music, he dabbled in various ensemble sizes and structures, had a strong interest in atonal music and unusual forms and was even a featured painter on several jazz LPs of his peers in the late 1940s. "Ghengis" is an unusual tune with an unusual construction. The melody itself is raw and atonally inclined, with several instruments providing a (somewhat) pointillistic melodic shape. While the tune is just a head arrangement, there is an obvious tape splice to include the improvised solos before returning to this head to end the piece. Mellé's baritone sax is front and center, however, and the original arrangement made for a great place to jump off and experiment with combinations and sounds within the nonet.
Enjoy the music and I'll see you at the concert!
A musical memoir for this Father's Day. My youth is drenched in the blues-inspired guitar rock that was in constant rotation in my dad's car and at home. Artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Eric Clapton and ZZ Top can give a rough outline of his musical tastes from the 80s to late 90s. Classic rock staples like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were strictly forbidden, as they were deemed "too poppy" by Dad. As all young children do, I blindly agreed with Dad's position. The British Invasion and soul music would have to wait for me until my late teens when I moved out on my own.
Despite this, I still remember being exposed to a variety of good music living at home. Rock, blues, country and everything in between was played. But it was Dad's passion for the guitar solo that affected me in such a way that led to my pursuit for finding (and critically listening to) the perfect instrumental performance. Before I ever began to study music, I remember listening to SRV's Texas Flood endlessly, memorizing each note of every solo and the way it sounded. I would often sing it back trying to mimic with the right articulation. Anything was fair game because I was learning: Santana's "Oye Como Va", Clapton's "Layla", Hendrix's "Fire" and even (the forbidden) Jimmy Page's solo on "Heartbreaker". It was the kind of active listening that is required of any serious music student, and I can still sing most of these solos verbatim today.
I strongly recall evenings listening together with Dad to his old LPs and discovering all the cool music that he listened to in high school and college. I remember my excitement when I first heard Jimi Hendrix's "Gypsy Eyes" for the first time and my initial puzzlement at Buddy Guy's guitar style. There were also occasions when we took a timeout while woodworking in the garage to hear Albert King deliver another furious guitar solo ("Crosscut Saw" was always my favorite). These are memories that I still treasure and these days, I understand how great it must be to experience those moments with your son.
Dad's passion for music was always there, and it's proven to be a strong bond between us still. There are so many lessons and skills that the man taught me over the years, but I think this was the one that he never planned out. When I think of all the times I was chauffeured to and from band rehearsals or lessons or gigs or whatever else, Dad was more than happy to be there. Mom and Dad both were, really. I can't neglect my mom's constant support of my musical path. They loved to hear what I was doing even when they didn't like or understand the music I was pursuing in the same way that I did.
I'm sure that he was eventually won over (even just a little) by my involvement in jazz, ska and reggae music, too. Dad always had an open ear and an opinion of my practice sessions, recordings and live shows, for better or worse. That kind of communication meant a lot in those formative days, because he was my first critic of content and taste. It's because of my dad that I was able to find the path that I've been on for as long as I can remember.
Thanks Dad. I'm eternally grateful.
I've decided that something needs to be done to aggregate and organize all the information relevant to this city's expansive jazz history. Therefore, I'll start putting all the collected information that I can find in one place, and you can find it here: http://ryangabbart.com/music/houston-jazz-history/ I'll post the significant updates here on the blog, but I invite everyone to contribute submissions by either emailing me directly or posting a link in the comments section of the History page. Photos, articles, videos and interviews are welcome (and needed!). Eventually I'll be able to categorize and sort everything for quick access via search.
It's inevitable. You will attend a party this holiday season and the music playlist will include some God-forsaken Christmas album that you will drive you up the wall. Main offenders (in my opinion) usually include Kenny G, Mannheim Steamroller or The Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Don't let your party get to this point! Instead of playing these worn out, tasteless choices, why not something interesting and fun?
I've never been a fan of Christmas/holiday music, not even a little. It's been a topic of loathing for me ever since I was old enough to develop opinions. I guess the whole "Christmas Creep" thing is a sore subject for everyone. Artists usually turn out a holiday-themed album as a secure entry into their cannon as a marketing ploy. After all, Christmas music sells at least once EVERY year, so why not? Right? Unfortunately, most of this music (also: movies) really REALLY stinks. So, why not trade that bad music in for something better?
For an incredibly thorough list, check out eMusic's Ultimate Guide to Holiday Music. But I'll list just a couple here:
For the traditionalist
Rock, R&B, Soul & Jazz Rockin' Little Christmas Joey Ramone, Christmas Spirit...In My House Stax Records, Christmas In Soulsville James Brown, James Brown's Funky Christmas Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin'
For the Classicist
An Esoteric Christmas Various Artists, Badd Santa The Mexicali Brass, Christmas With The Mexicali Brass Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa's Bag Andy Cirzan's Annual Holiday Mixtape (for a limited time!)
If you're in the Sugar Land area for New Year's Eve, why not drop by the Town Square for the free, family friendly festivities? The highlight (of course) being that I'll be playing with Fried Ice Cream and the big Sugar Cube Drop that will take place at midnight. It should be pretty neat, right?
I'll be playing with Thomas Helton's Tribute band on January 9 at Ovations. I'm really excited about this because we'll be performing Miles Davis' classic Birth of the Cool in its entirety. It's my first time playing any of these tunes, so I've been really studying up on my classic bebop and cool jazz improvisation styles. Sometimes orchestras perform historical concerts on period instruments, and I feel like this is no different from that. But The Birth of the Cool is an historical artifact that I feel is still relevant and influential to many jazz musicians. It's going to be a lot of fun!
Finally, on February 25 & 26, the 13th Annual Moores School of Music Jazz Festival is taking place. This year's guest artist is trombonist Andy Martin. He will be giving free noon clinics and a performance with the MSM Jazz Orchestra on Saturday night's concert. You won't want to miss the spectacular concerts on both nights, though.
You can always keep up with what I'm doing by checking out my calendar of events, too.
It's been a busy semester, which may not actually make me special (no matter how much I think it does), but I'd like to take some time out to chart this fall's ups, downs and everything in between.
I'm still rehearsing the MSM Jazz Ensemble, but I've also added to my load with a music appreciation class this semester. Instructing a class is a lot of work, even my little class! While I never thought I'd be on the other side of the grade book, I have found it to be an enjoyable experience. Teaching students how to comprehend music has been an exhausting challenge, one that I hope I've been successful at. The learning curve has been difficult, though. Preparing lectures, organizing materials for presentation, handouts & guidelines for assignments, grading those assignments takes a lot more time than expected.
My big goal has been to offer solid, practical advice on understanding jazz music as an art form. The ability to communicate one's thoughts are critical, and I only hope that I've sharpened some students' skills when it comes to expressing their opinions more clearly. It's a lofty goal, I know. But one that I'm interested in seeing accomplished, if only marginally. Between the classroom and the rehearsal room, I'm constantly telling people that they need to be clear in their message. My days are filled with a longing forclarity. This is most certainly a metaphor for my life, I just haven't pinpointed exactly what yet. Too busy.
There have been some great moments, however. My favorite comment from my class this semester has been from this listening journal entry (in reference to this video of the Stan Kenton Orchestra):
It's the first time I've seen a big band drop all of their instruments and sing together with June Christy. The sound is good but honestly the lyrics ruin the song I think. It's almost like they are complaining about all the cheap products in Mexico. Nobody likes a complainer. June Christy's voice is good though. Malaguena >Tampico
And my favorite quote from another jazz history class: "Jazz is more profound when it doesn't help pay the bills."
JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology
Speaking of jazz, history and jazz history...did you know that the Smithsonian Folkways label is releasing an updated collection of jazz recordings? It's about time, since their last update was nearly 30 years ago. With it, there is a revised track listing and several [drumroll] NEW recordings! There's a better representation of the last 60 years, especially, with a more diverse selection of cool, hard bop and avant-garde artists. It seems that they could have done a better job with newer material from the past 15 years, but I appreciate the inclusion of newer artists all the same. Maybe a completely new set featuring jazz music from 1970 and onward? Just a thought.
As part of their marketing campaign for the new set, Smithsonian Folkways has posted a jazz history listening test for all 111 tracks. If you're on limited time (like me) you can also take the shortened 25-track test. I'm pleased to say that I named all 25 fairly easy: usually identifying the artist better than the song title.
The Beatles are the J.S. Bach of popular music. Their output is both prolific and incredibly influential. More than any other pop group EVER. Time well tell, but I'm fairly certain that I'm correct in this assumption. Which is why there are so many analytical and historical reports on the guys. As a musician, though, I get totally excited whenever I see study of their musical compositions, like this infographic:
Michael Deal did a great job of compiling several strains of information (from song keys to lyrics to collaborations) on the Beatles, resulting in this fantastic page of graphic goodness. For a complete musical analysis of their output, I suggest reading The Beatles As Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology by Walter Everett.
I'm loving the recording of "Love for Sale" by the Miles Davis Sextet on The '58 Sessions album. Especially noteworthy is Cannonball Adderley's solo. I need to transcribe this and use it in an arrangement for big band. I've never spent a lot of time listening to The '58 Sessions, but if my Listening to Jazz class has done anything for me on a personal level, it's been a joyful revisiting and rediscovering of jazz classics.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLYogj8QpHA] Watch Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense. Just watch it. There's something for everyone. Young or old. Black or white. From the Lincoln Center to Europe to New Orleans to Africa. It's the only documentary I've seen that gets to the point about jazz music as it stands today. No punches are pulled, no histories are re-cast.
Wow! It's an exciting time to be a jazz fan (especially if you're a jazz historian) because a HUGE amount of treasures from the 1930s and 40s has just surfaced in New York. William Savory's personal collection of jazz discs total is well over a thousand and feature several extended and (most importantly) LIVE performances by the most notable figures in jazz history. The chance to be able to hear recordings by several jazz masters in their prime in a live setting is very rare for this time period, so you can imagine my excitement. Savory worked as an audio engineer in New York City and recorded radio broadcasts that were previously lost to the ages, but have now been generously donated by his heirs for restoration and digitization. Luckily, The New York Times has been reporting all the latest news in a frenzy. You can read the full story there.
So my big news this month is that I'll be teaching a new course that I developed with a colleague at the Moores School of Music. You can read all about it at the new UHjazz.com site. In the process of gathering and organizing information to teach people how to listen to (and appreciate) jazz music, I've discovered a couple things and formed opinions that I did not previously hold. In other words, I really need to unload my brain.
Assembling a YouTube playlist
As part of the course, I've decided to implement a journal for students to record their listening habits and tastes as a means of developing their "active listening" skills. To help with this, I've started to build a YouTube playlist for each student to remotely access and write about. (Remember less than 10 years ago when copying CDs for playlists could be such a hassle?) In a recent post by another Houston jazz artist/advocate, I noticed the phrase, "Isn’t it funny...how YouTube has become the world’s largest free music jukebox?" This is so true, and yet, I'm a little apprehensive about the notion of assembling a large playlist of videos to obligate students to write about.
Should I program their listening selections? They will already be responsible for knowing a handful of truly great landmark recordings for exams. Is it smart that I should try to continue to cram this stuff down their throats? Would that give me or the student a more honest depiction of their habits and observations? At first, I thought that maybe I should instead open up the listening journal to all musical styles, but this seems counter-productive. After all, I'll need to be reading these entries and I don't really need to read 20+ entries on hip-hop or country music or whatever else. Instead, I'll just try to include as much significant jazz music (and jazz-based music) that can be had on YouTube, whatever I feel will be relevant to the course. I just hope it doesn't discourage anyone from exploring a new realm of music, something I consider to be the most exciting aspect of listening.
YouTube has those darn user comments. Do we really need to be subjected to some anonymous person's pretentious and/or racist remarks on ANYTHING? I just read a great CNN article on this. My vote? Eliminate these completely from YouTube.
Future of Jazz?
Here's another good read on the future of jazz, or better yet: jazz today. I'm really looking closely at the history of jazz music in the United States, its cultural impact and its significance. I'll have to be teaching this to people who I assume will have had little to no encounters with the music in their past, and if they did, it was probably unpleasant. Because of this, I've been reassessing all those big artistic questions that need to be answered in order to explain and defend anything deemed "relevant" or "important". I have no problem doing this and I think it's something that a lot of artists should do more often, especially in the 21st century. (For instance: "cool" ≠ "art")
I have yet to watch Icons Among Us, but I speculate that it's a worthwhile documentary that appeals to both the jazz enthusiast as well as the newbie without being shackled by the pre-conceived notions of historical conventions of the art form. And really, that's my goal for this course. I want new people to appreciate a music that has played a crucial role in the development of our country, in addition to understanding why it's still significant and NOT dead. While you must acknowledge the history and the classics, you cannot also lose sight of the present and future.
I just hope this works. (crossing fingers)
I'm proud to (finally) announce that the University of Houston Moores School of Music Jazz Department had finally gone live with a new website. You can find it at UHjazz.com. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @MSMjazz on Twitter for updates, news and events relating to jazz at MSM. Our goal is to keep a good amount of content coming your way with contributions from faculty, staff, local professionals and students in the name of jazz history, pedagogy, listening and other referential material. We're VERY excited to finally have something available to the public directly!
It's commencement day at the University of Houston. That means we're unleashing a whole new batch of young and energetic college graduates into "the real world". Regardless of their major, age, interests or skills acquired while in college, I encourage these new graduates to continue to focus on a bigger goal: communication.
Whatever it is that you want to do in life, it's important to know that you can't get there alone. People need people, and building a supportive constituency is critical. So please, work on your communication skills in order to spread your ideas and goals to people outside of your immediate circle. In 2008, Robert Krulwich over at WYNC's Radiolab gave what I consider to be the best advice to a graduating class at California Institute of Technology. Do yourself a favor and give his speech a listen. It's worth every minute you have.
It's a bit of a (much needed) slow week. The semester's practically over and now I'm getting prepared for summer projects. I figured it would be good to post this transcription that I did years ago. From the 1954 album, Jay & Kai, the recording features J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Billy Bauer, Charles Mingus and Kenny Clarke. It was one of the first solo transcriptions that I ever completed, and features some great techniques, licks and basic chromatic ideas typical of Johnson's playing. In addition to being a superb blues solo, it's also a good teaching tool. Enjoy!
If you're a wind player, particularly a brass player (and ESPECIALLY a trombone player!), then you are probably aware of the Remington warm-up method. It's probably the most used warm-up method and tuning exercise for band students. But, just in case you are NOT aware of this method: the idea began with Emory Remington trying to teach his trombone students how to play 1) in tune, 2) with good sound and 3) with a good legato articulation. Eventually, he developed this exercise (expanded and published by Donald Hunsberger): [slideshare id=1798433&doc=theremingtonwarmupstudies-090801081739-phpapp01&type=d]
Simple, eh? That's why it's used so often. The idea is that by limiting the notes to those on the same harmonic partial, the trombone student focuses solely on articulation, sound and slide positioning (tuning). Because it's an incremental exercise utilizing descending half-steps, it should be easy for a student to hear and understand when each interval is in or out of tune. At the University of Houston Moores School of Music, the wind ensemble program uses a similar warm-up based on the descending F major scale, a method popularized, and probably initiated by, Director Emeritus (and Texas band legend) Eddie Green.
That being said, you can imagine my challenge directing a bunch of wind ensemble students for their first outing in a jazz ensemble. In wind band, these students usually only encounter the major, minor and diminished chords; so they're only used to hearing the I-3-5 and sometimes 7 or 9 chord tones. My goal was to get 15 horn players to start hearing the extended jazz harmonies that rely on 7-9-11-13 chord tones and their varying alterations. So as a transitional tool, I wrote out the Remington warm-up harmonized in a jazz context. It's my gift to you, the jazz band directors of the world:
It has proven to be quite useful. It not only gets the students to hear extended harmony, but it also allows the the rhythm section to participate and work on getting around the keys. I tried to keep the exercise simple, with each written note occupying only a 1-3-4-5-7-9 chord tone. This way, it's not too hard a stretch for the horn players to hear how the chord progression relates to the written "melody". It's also endlessly variable:
- The exercise can be re-harmonized infinitely and there are numerous substitutions for the chords written here (but I do stress that each variation maintain a chord progression rather than unrelated chords back to back)
- Sometimes I would have the lower instruments play the roots to even out the balance of 15 horn players to 4 rhythm section players
- I would often substitute a rhythmic idea for the whole note to work on articulation, style and phrasing with the horns
- It's also great for music theory pop quizzes: "What chordal tone are we on now? How does this chord progression function?"
I hope this helps, and best of luck to anyone who uses this exercise!