Category Archives: Jazz

Miles, Mulligan and more

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.

Birth of the Cool

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!

Houston’s jazz history

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:

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.

Can’t talk. Busy.

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.

Infographic Madness!

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:

Click to enlarge

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.

winter Project

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.

Jazz music, presently

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.

The newly discovered William Savory recordings

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.

Also, check out this great interactive feature.

Teaching a class: some thoughts

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 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)