Thursday, May 3, 2018

Rhythm Business

After another long interval between posts a theme appears, that being the business of rhythm (and the rhythm of business)...

Switzerland with Christian Weber and Michael Griener

This trio, begun in 2011, this acoustic improvising group has quickly become one of my favorite projects.  We released “Sensations of Tone” (Intakt) in early 2017 and will be following that up with a new release in early 2019.  We’ve continued to mix our program between free improvisations and renditions of early jazz music, this time including “Eccentric Rag” (Robinson), “Magnetic Rag” (Joplin), “The Pearls” (Morton) and “Jive at Five” (Basie/Edison).  Look for us in Europe, May and December of 2019.  

Earlier this year we did a number of concerts in Switzerland as well as a festival date in Wiesbaden, Germany in which I got to hear legendary saxophonist Heinz Sauer perform live for the first time.  Part of our time was spent in a beautiful small town in the French speaking part of in Switzerland called La Chaux-de-Fonds.  Having a long history of watch-making this town plays host to a wonderful museum called the International Museum of Horology (the study and measurement of time).  Beginning with obelisks, sundials, water clocks and all manner of early devices used by human kind to keep track of time, there are also numerous early mechanisms and clocks that are large enough to see how the inner workings relate and function.  Seeing all of this together under one roof was surprisingly energizing and gave me much to think about upon finding myself awake at 3 am (jet lag).  

What is time?  If you play music you probably have some ideas about that.  Perhaps because it was on my mind it seemed to come up a lot during the next month in the teaching residencies I just finished.  And in the recent passing of two people I knew the question shows itself in yet another way, in the rhythm of life and death.  One question, many aspects.

NYU Masterclass (and Podcast Interview)
In January I spoke with a group of graduate students at New York University.  Part of this came in the form of an interview with David Schroeder, director of jazz studies, which was recorded for a series of podcasts that Dave has done with a number of jazz artists.  We start with some basic orientation as to the “kind” of music I play and talk about how that happened.  But I think the meat of the interview takes place in the later half in which we begin to ask “what’s really going on when we play music?” You can listen to this interview here as an iTunes Podcast (free). It’s also available to listen to and download directly from NYU’s website.

Towson University Residency
In April I did my fifth week-long residency at Towson.  The focus this year involved the exploration of solo, duo and trio improvising and towards that end I worked daily with a group of ten students.  At first I said very little, simply timing them as they cranked out five minute improvisations one ofter the other.  Little by little I would mention things to get everyone really listening.  Each day I’d put a little more attention on where the seats were placed, how close we were, making sure the floor was clear of stuff, small but important details.  By midweek we identified some issues and I devised some exercises to address challenges.  We discussed musical roles and all manner of pre conceived ideas that are often taken for granted.  When not playing we maintained active listening and attention.  Towards the end of the week I found myself asking them “what is time?” But rather than look for answers we simply kept paying attention.

For the final concert the students decided how the stage should be set, trying things out until everything felt right.  After introducing the group to the audience that evening, I turned to the musicians seared behind me and asked if everyone was ready.  To my surprise the audience laughed since it was quite evident that before the music even started these musicians were  utterly present.  So I quickly exited, took a spot in the front row and enjoyed every moment. I  don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that even the students were likely surprised by the music that came out of them.  And yet it can come out quite naturally.  Not that all those hours in the practice room don’t mean anything.  They very much do.  Which brings me to the repertoire group that week.

One of the classes I sat in on was devoted to students performing repertoire and being assessed by the teachers and other students.  After hearing a rendition of “Chi Chi” (by Charlie Parker) I was faced with choosing one of many aspects of the performance to critique so I decided to focus on the one essential issue that was lacking.  “What you’re playing at any given time either serves the groove or it doesn’t”.  I spoke a bit about movement and phrasing and how that functions to do one thing, swing.  They got the point and on the second rendition all of the details somehow smoothed themselves out and every aspect of the performance was better. The other challenge for them is to discover how to learn, assimilate and internalize these tunes more quickly.  Personally I find that going deep on a dozen tunes and learning them as well as if you’d written them yourself is a good way to go.  New ones then seem to come easier and faster.  And at that point, the kind of freedom that is experienced when improvising freely can also be experienced when playing jazz repertoire.  

One aspect of this challenge is in dealing with harmony.  I shared with the students my own struggles when I was in their position.  And how at some point I realized that what I thought harmony was, was not at all what it was. The way we are often taught about harmony is like taking a snapshot of musical action, in a sense stopping the action.  In discussing this with a few friends and colleagues over the past few weeks I find myself saying “harmony is actually rhythm”.  Meaning it's all about movement.

Music Industry Class, Technology and Performance
or “How the Business of Music is Still Music”

This may have been the most surprising experience of the week.  I was not sure I had much to offer here.  I’ve sort of done my thing tangentially to the old business model and now even that’s a thing of the past.  So I asked them what was happening, what they thought, what they saw for themselves in the next two, five or ten years.  There was hope but also concern.  I certainly have concerns of my own but did not want to be the "old guy" bringing things down so I kept asking questions.  I offered some thoughts from an article I wrote in 1996 called “Taking the Steps”. Most of that article is probably antiquated in terms of how things are done now but the premise still holds. 1. Take care of the music first.  2. Don't wait for an invitation. 

Interestingly, I find the proliferation of articles written these days about how to make it in the music business are often long on word count and short on content.  I really don't think anyone has "the answers" and that looking for them as divorced from one's own experience is never really going to work.  So we had a wide ranging discussion in which we all seemed to agree that doing it all from your bedroom using social media ain't it.  Like any other meaningful activity it's really about the need for other people, creating and fostering relationships. One of the biggest challenges we face as artists today is that of wearing too many hats.  "Do it yourself" has become increasingly important but there are limitations. Getting paid has always been an issue but if our work suffers then we really have problems. And that is a real concern that can become anxiety inducing,

Given the fact that the internet and social media have become such a focal point to these discussions I tried to continually steer the conversation back to the importance of what we were doing in the room at that time.  Face to face, unmediated communication. And I kept stressing that this was the essential quality of whatever "product" we are selling as performers. And in a sense, that also applies to the documentation that we create and sell.  It's best when the listener experiences that form of communication with undivided attention as well.  And yet how often does that really happen?  And if the trend is moving away from that kind of experience, what does that say about the health and longevity of our art and craft?  And what can we do about it?

Interestingly, the subject of honesty came up.  One student suggested that on-line anonymity created a more honest environment regarding reactions we receive about our work.  I pointed out that there would seem to be a glut of negativity and meanness in that anonymity.  But the subject was fruitful in that it lead to a very spirited conversation about how business (money) affects our artistic decisions.  It was here that it became apparent that our empowerment as artists lies completely within our control.

After having complained about how many hats we have to wear I realized that our business is just like the music.  We can only really take care of one thing at a time.  And the way that we do what we do is very important. What's the overriding premise here?  What is the one thing in common between all these various activities we do?  Including the ones we think have nothing to do with music? Rather than answer that I'll leave it to each of you to consider this from your own perspective.  But I will say that by the end of this class my fears were greatly alleviated and I did feel some genuine hope of my own.

University of Michigan Residency and Performance
Andrew Bishop is a wonderful musician (saxophonist, woodwind specialist and composer) who I had the pleasure of hanging out with a few times when he’s visited NYC in the past couple of years.  I’d mentioned to him that I’ve been interested in getting some chamber music written to showcase an improvising soloist, having once done this on a past residency at Towson with an extended work written by Dave Ballou.  Andrew found the idea intriguing enough to offer writing a piece of his own.  We had the chance to perform both Dave’s and Andrew’s work (a string quartet) earlier this month during a teaching residency at the University of Michigan.  I was thrilled to visit there given the great legacy of saxophone teaching and performance established by Donald Sinta and now being carried on by Timothy McAllister and Andrew Bishop.  In addition to daily lessons and classes there were late night rehearsals and a late night performance of these new works.  Late night because there was much going on towards the end of semester and student musicians were involved in multiple projects.  The results were documented and I’m happy to present some excerpts here.  I hope to continue on this direction and get more works of this nature commissioned.  Kudos to all of these students whose hard work and dedication made this music come alive.

A Recent Concert...
On a related note, I should mention a stellar concert in NYC this past January by a young group of saxophonists coming out of Michigan called the “Donald Sinta Quartet”.  Quite simply put, some of the most serious saxophone playing I’d heard. Period.  One of the compositions they did, “Rush” by David Kechley was particularly notable.  Have a look and a listen on this video.

Anthony McGill, principle clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic was guest artist for one piece, Carl Maria von Weber's Clarinet Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 34 (1815) arranged for saxophone quartet and clarinet soloist.  For whatever reasons, this is not a piece I might have gravitated towards, perhaps for stylistic reasons.  Fortunately Anthony McGill brought this to life in such a way as to simply destroy any notions of time and place.  It was here and it was now.  Totally beautiful.  A rare experience in music and I’m grateful I was there.  It's events like this one that continue to inspire faith in the value of music and art in society.  Whether or not these kinds of concerts are well publicized (this one was very well attended) it's great to know that people are doing great work, just because.

Solo concerts

I also played solo concerts at both the Towson and Michigan residencies.  These are completely improvised however I decided to try something new and preface each of these concerts with a short reading.  This is an excerpt from a longer work from Dōgen Zenji, a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, written in 1242.

“Now, mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, the moon, and stars are mind. At just this moment, what is it that appears directly in front of you? “Mountains, rivers, and earth” do not merely mean the mountains, rivers, and earth where you are standing. There are various kinds of mountains, such as Great Sumeru and Small Sumeru; some mountains extend widely, some rise up steeply. A billion worlds and innumerable lands can be found in a mountain. There are mountains suspended in form; there are mountains suspended in emptiness.” 

Afterwards we had a short discussion with the audience, which was composed of students, some folks from the community (who might be thought of as aficionados of this kind of music) and a fair amount of folks who simply attended because it was something offered to the community by the university.  In other words, they were not necessarily jazz fans and otherwise unlikely to attend an improvised solo saxophone recital.  It’s these folks that I am especially interested in, finding out how they experienced the music.  I always want to be sure that I can communicate on some level regardless of a listener's knowledge or interest.  I think the reading helped them feel a part of it.  

I’ll be doing a solo show in NYC on May 11th at the Greenwich House Music School on a double bill with the great Anthony Coleman who will do his own solo set as well.

A Mystery Unravels…my lesson with James Houlik

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been practicing the Bach cello suites for saxophone.  Hopeful to one day perform one of them in public, I’ve also felt that it’s equally possible that day will never arrive.  Given the many technical issues (mainly dealing with smoothness and connectivity moving quickly between registers, across octaves and between large intervals) I sometimes despair that the saxophone was simply not built for this.  But at the very least it’s been great practice in addressing aspects of the instrument that I might not have investigated from the “jazz” side of things.  And so I’ve always wanted help in this.  

In 1978 tenor saxophonist James Houlik came to Towson University where I was a freshman music student.  James Houlik is perhaps the only classical saxophonist soloist who plays exclusively the tenor.  His sound is rich and robust with a slow and deep vibrato.  A very energetic man and vital performer and educator, he left a strong and lasting impression. So much so that in recent years I’ve been trying to connect with him as I strive to understand the saxophone in a deeper way through these Bach suites.  After five years of attempts I finally had my chance and met with him at his office at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.  He’s 75 now and every bit as robust as I remembered and full of many great stories and anecdotes.

I played him some of the Bach and he basically stopped be in my tracks after a few measures on the issue of phrasing.  Seems I was playing it far too square.  He started using language that I thought was in the domain of jazz, such as “play across the bar-line”, to think of the time as more like a pendulum, there should be a conversation, movement, dance.  And it’s not on the page.

More specifically, he told me about note grouping, so for example, in the first suite all of the measures are in sixteenth notes in 4/4 meter.  Rather than phrase according to the way the notes are grouped on the page (in sets of four) he suggested grouping the first five notes then the next four.  This uneven grouping then carries the phrase across the bar line.  By pushing bit here, broadening a bit there, all within the time there suddenly is a sense of momentum to the line rather than the plodding, metronomic thing I was doing, landing heavily on the first beat of every bar.  

I’m in the very early stages with this but in cluing myself into the contours of the phrases in Bach, seeing the ups and downs and more or less disregarding the bar-lines, the music comes to life and so many of the technical issues that I’ve fretted over seem to take care of themselves in the process.  It’s ironic, because I pointed out this exact issue with respect to the aforementioned jazz repertoire class at Towson a few weeks ago. So it would seem that classical interpretation is every bit as rhythm oriented as jazz, just in it’s own way.

And it would seem to reveal a hidden bias towards classical music that I did not quite see, as much as I love it.  It’s not that I never sensed this aspect of playing.  I could hear that something was going on, I just didn’t know exactly what.  And it’s hard to imitate it if you don’t share that same sense of internalization.  We on the “jazz” side often say this about classical musicians when we hear them try to swing.  Now the shoe was on the other foot.

James Houlik recommended two books on this subject:

“Note Grouping” by James Morgan Thurmond and “Sound in Motion” by David McGill.  I’ve begun reading the Thurmond and find it to be very helpful in terms of articulating the ideas behind phrasing in classical music.  It’s good to be reminded that the bar-line in music is not an interpretive notation, or that meter is a design of the measure, not the phrase.  One aspect of the book that is difficult is the tone or style of the writing, in which the student or for that matter any musician mentioned is invariably “he”.  And that there is a less than subtle bias or blind spot with respect to cultures and traditions outside the western canon.  But there is essential information to be found here.  It’s almost ironic that the author points to so many perceived limitations in the way classical music is taught and misses what (to me at least) are myriad potential connections to other traditions, including improvisation.  The entire notion of up-beats and down-beats as a fundamental aspect of our bodies and lives did not become realized exclusively in the domain of western music.  In a sense he’s trying to remind us to get “off the grid” of notation and see that this “across the bar” phrasing is where the life of the music is to be found.  When I look at some of the analysis provided, or analyze music I’m working on in this way I see that what’s really happening is a kind of rub between the rhythm of a particular phrase the underlying count of the measures (meter).  This is common to so much music around the world and would seem to reflect something very basic about human beings and the way our minds and bodies work.  It reminds me a bit of something I read on cross-rhythms written by Ewe master drummer and scholar C.K. Ladzekpo.  This is perhaps a bit far afield from the topic of phrasing the music of Bach but I do sense there is something in common, something deeply rooted:

"At the center of a core of rhythmic traditions within which the composer conveys his ideas is the technique of cross rhythm. The technique of cross rhythm is a simultaneous use of contrasting rhythmic patterns within the same scheme of accents or meter.  In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, the technique of cross rhythm is a highly developed systematic interplay of varying rhythmic motions simulating the dynamics of contrasting moments or emotional stress phenomena likely to occur in actual human existence.  As a preventive prescription for extreme uneasiness of mind or self-doubt about one's capacity to cope with impending or anticipated problems, these simulated stress phenomena or cross-rhythmic figures are embodied in the art of dance-drumming as mind-nurturing exercises to modify the expression of the inherent potential of the human thought in meeting the challenges of life. The premise is that by rightly instituting the mind in coping with these simulated emotional stress phenomena, intrepidity is achieved.  Intrepidness, or resolute fearlessness, in Anlo-Ewe view, is an extraordinary strength of mind. It raises the mind above the troubles, disorders, and emotions the anticipation or sight of great perils strives to excite. By this strength, ordinary people become heroes by maintaining themselves in a tranquil state of mind and preserving the free use of their reason under most surprising and terrible circumstances." CK Ladzekpo

I have just begun reading “Sound in Motion” by David McGill as well and am reminded that the purpose of these books is to address a potential shortcoming in classical music pedagogy.  And yet I have misgivings about the author advocating for a certain kind of “rationalization” with respect to certain aspects of musical performance without taking the implications of what happens in music to a deeper and broader level of human experience than is typically addressed in western thought.  According to both of these authors the area of phrasing has for too long been considered to be in the realm of “you either have it or you don’t”.  I find it very interesting to encounter that phrase here in as much as it’s exactly the phrase I heard over and over with respect to teaching jazz when I was first coming up.  Clearly, there are ways.  And while I have no problem talking about all aspects of the musical process I kind of wince when these books seemingly over-compensate towards an almost scientific approach.  Of course, this is coming from an improvisor, but still.  Bringing life to music involves much more than our rational mind, to be sure.  No need to limit ourselves.  

And I should point out that I’ve found jazz education to be conspicuously lacking in addressing the issue of phrasing as well.  And the fact is, it does work in particular ways and can (and should) be dealt with.  And it’s also something particular to each person.  I would not turn the study into some kind of system, to be codified like so many other aspects of the music.  But there are certainly creative ways to address it in our teaching.  

I might also mention that this re-investigation of so called “classical” saxophone brings up the idea of modeling the sound from other instruments.  Andrew Bishop shared with me that Timothy McAllister had expressed a desire to emulate the euphonium on the saxophone.  Interestingly, James Houlik takes inspiration in the Duduk, an Armenian double reed instrument made of apricot wood dating back at least 1500 years and possibly as far back as 1200 BC.

Here is an excerpt of one of his recordings.

Sonata III. Fast by Arthur Frackenpohl.  

I don't know if the influence of the Duduk comes through in this performance but you can listen to Tigran Aleksanyan and see what you think.

Stray phrases...

Stephan Crump’s Rhombal has continued to be active and develop with new music being written by Stephan since the original body of work he composed (for his brother Patrick).  Adam O'Farrill is featured on trumpet, yours truly on saxophone. The drum chair has been handled of late by a couple of wonderful musicians, Ritchie Barshay and Kassa Overall.  The group went to Europe last fall and is now doing some stateside work, most recently Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh and coming up in Baltimore and NYC.

And be on the lookout for a new recording by pianist Jacob Sacks' Quintet coming in very soon on clean feed records.

And a Final Note...

Bob Feldman (1938 - 2018)
Bob Feldman was a saxophonist, actor, friend and neighbor and long time NYC resident.  We had many conversations about music and the saxophone.  He always had stories of hearing this or that great musician.  There’s a lot I could say about Bob but here is a short video in which he speaks for himself.

Till the next installment, hope to see you out there...

Monday, January 15, 2018

For M.L.K. (and for all of us)

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day.  I’m not sure how I feel about the implication one might infer from the idea that there is a particular day that might suffice for the purpose of reminding us of…

What? What does this day offer us?  

I can’t answer that for you.  But I feel as though it might be a good time for me to remind myself of some things.  Perhaps writing them down is a good way of clarifying.  And as I’m writing this, I’m not sure I’m really going to post this.  It feels like a risk.  Is it self indulgent?  Perhaps I’ll be misunderstood.  Maybe that’s ultimately harmful.  Or maybe it’s more harmful not to.  Putting this on line risks losing context.  Next to any other thing you just saw before finding this, and the next unrelated thing you’ll see after leaving, what is it?  More words.  Sometimes silence is louder.  And certainly actions are the real deal.  But in the end, something feels as if it’s rising up in me and needs to be said.  If for no other reason than for my own benefit in living in this world.  A world that I’m not sure I really understand.  But here we are.

I do feel some innate intuition about a few things.  Music taps into something that feels deeper than my limited sense of self.  I play music, and I like to talk about the process, and to teach.  But do I really understand music?  Is there truly any way to understand music (or anything else) at a remove, at an analytical distance?  At a certain point you simply have to give up, and listen.  Deeply.  So deeply as to lose yourself.  Interesting, that in investing ourselves fully, we can lose ourselves fully.  How does that work?  I can’t really say, except that a sense of separateness in the first place may not be a complete picture.  I think we actually know this as being fairly obvious but it’s so easy to carve the world up into pieces that we lose sight of or take for granted our connectedness.  And so how wonderful is it that we have music to remind us of what’s true?  It doesn’t just remind us.  When musicians fully invest themselves, and fully lose themselves, it is true.  And of course music is just one thing, one form.  Of liberation.

Maybe that sounds great to you.  Positive, inspirational, aspirational.  But it’s words.  So if it resonates, it must be resonating as something in you already.  And that’s great.  But I can’t say that I’m quite satisfied with it.  There’s something missing.  Something I’m not seeing.  I’m not sure what it is, I just feel it.  Maybe it’s too lofty.  Not untrue, but if it’s that easy, why so many problems down here on the ground?  I suppose it’s good to move towards the positive and away from the negative.  But just as positive words might resonate, so do negative ones.  And so really, how can I possibly move towards or away from something that is already “in me”?  And this is the tricky part, because in saying “in me” I’m talking about the innate truth that we all sense, that we are in fact not separate from each other.  And yet we separate in ways every day.  That’s why this discussion is potentially painful.  The pain is the separation, the separation is the pain.  So this is where the discussion becomes real.  Maybe you don’t feel it.  Maybe you’re already comfortable.  Maybe you already understand.  Sometimes I feel that way.  I want resolution.  I want peace.  I don’t want to be uncomfortable.  I don’t want to experience pain.  And yet I’m often uncomfortable, I often feel pain that I can’t identify.

And then there is this reminder, from Martin Luther King, Jr. written from a jail cell in 1963:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

As I get older and this discomfort and pain remains, less responsive to distraction, I am forced to realize some truths.  And even though there are certainly political ramifications I really see this as a central moral and ethical issue in American life, for everyone.  There’s no way to avoid being conditioned by our shared history, no matter what we think of it, even if we think we see through it.  But rather than take the lofty approach, I’m going to walk towards the unresolved, the potentially painful.  And I’ll use the only tools I have, which are based in my own experience.  Yes, I am a musician, but specifically one who plays a form of African American music that is seemingly based outside of my experience as a white person.  I grew up in Baltimore and had many opportunities to learn directly from some master musicians.  Micky Fields, Gary Bartz, just to name two.  And to play for audiences who often came together, black and white.  And in some situations in which I was the only white person in the club.  I miss those days.  So it’s certainly a central issue in my life as a musician, even if I’m not always forced to look at it deeply enough.

But I feel as if I was afforded an opportunity to see life from a perspective that I would not have had if not for music.  That was amazingly positive, that music could be a form of medicine, addressing the conditions I saw, the pain I saw around me.  But what might I have missed?  It’s difficult to say.  You don’t see what you don’t see.  So I have to look at my perspective and how it was formed.  Over time, as a musician, I began to see myself as separate from the larger society.  I thought I saw through the superficial romanticized version of the bohemian ideal, and that I was somehow living a “real” version. I thought I saw into certain truths about hypocrisy, greed, materialism and injustice.  That because I saw it, I was somehow apart from it.  But to think that I am apart from any of those things is an illusion.  And it’s an illusion that is compounded by being unwilling to deeply look at what it is to be white.  Ultimately I can say that “white” or “race” is also an illusion.  But for that to be true, I need to deeply understand.  And I do not, because I have not yet seen all of the ways in which I am connected.  I might say that race is an illusion but if I’m not willing to see my role in maintaining this illusion then I’m trapped.  And more importantly I’m causing harm in ways that I don’t see.  Other people see it though.  You can rest assured of that.  So what to do?  How to move?  Is this a trap?  A neurosis?  What keeps this from ultimately being an exercise in narcissism?  Let me throw a few things out there…

1. It’s not about me.  It doesn’t exclude me, but it’s not about me.
2. Nobody signed up for this, none of us choose this situation for ourselves.
3. I can recognize how race functions as a social construct in the United States and yet in a very positive sense I can take responsibility to do the work of addressing it without the need for guilt, shame, anger or defensiveness.  It requires sincerity and humility.  A sense that the situation is in fact intolerable.  And yet there is no need for or benefit from self righteousness and anger on my part.   Just compassion.  Love for others, love for self.
4. It’s not easy.  There is fear.  And yet we are each perfectly able to meet the situation as it affects us and others around us.
5. We will fail.  And try again.  Over and over.  If I can learn, there is freedom in this.

So I apologize.  To everyone.  And vow to operate less selfishly.  It feels transgressive to write that, because I know that there is so much that I continue not to see.  It’s hypocritical.  Preaching ethics and morality can be dangerous.  Just words.  I might just say that I’m completely bullshit.  Which is certainly true if it were just about me.  So I’ll remind myself again, this day and every day.  It’s not about me.

I still don’t fully understand the reasons my life has lead me to this music.  It simply feels like a larger truth, unseen but felt.  I make no claims.  It’s too humbling.  And the truth is annihilating.  Because it destroys the limited perspective that I use to live by.   And liberating, if I can truly embrace it.

Enough with the words…

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Chess and Music, Meeting Levon Aronian

Back in July of 2016 fellow saxophonist Ned Rothenburg set up an informal get together at his apartment one evening for a number of his chess playing musician friends.  Ned had become friends with the Armenian chess master Levon Aronian, who was in town and on his way to a tournament. Levon is a big music fan and especially loves jazz so Ned thought it would be fun to have a chess party, with Levon taking on a bunch of musician chess enthusiasts.  It was a small affair, about a half dozen of us, and needless to say, an immense opportunity to meet and play with a legendary chess champion, the fourth highest rated player in history.  

Of course this was going to be a complete blowout for us.  So in order to make it more sporting for Levon, he played three of us at a time.  Simultaneously.  While not looking at any of the boards.  And having what sounded like a delightful conversation on many other topics with other invited guests in the room.  And drinking a cognac.  We would call out, “Board one, E4!”  and he would give his reply, using the letter and numeral coordinates involved for us to move the pieces.  While one board is awaiting a reply another board might also call out a move.  Levon might make a couple of moves in one game before getting back to another.  So it was seemingly all out of order, and yet he kept track of all of this without even breaking a sweat or stumbling in his conversations.  

And while it may seem silly to talk about sweating during a chess game, I can tell you from experience that it’s real.  Years ago I played in a tournament here in NYC in which I had a make or break game that I was losing.  I could afford no further mistakes and it took six hours until I somehow managed to pull off a win.  The concentration and intensity made my heart pound like I had run a footrace.  But back to Ned’s place.  At a certain point, Levon said to us, “You’re playing like improvisors, you need to think more like a composer”.  Meaning that we were moving too quickly, not carrying out any kind of real plan.  I appreciated this comment, and in terms of music, this idea is actually close to my heart.  I often tell my students to improvise like composers.  As it happened, “Chess Life” (official magazine of the United States Chess Federation) found out about our little get-together and interviewed me for an article on “Chess and Music” in their December 2017 issue.  Have a look.

So what about this idea of planning in the context of improvising?  Isn’t improvising about spontaneity?  How can we plan anything when it’s the “non-thinking” mind that we use when improvising?  Isn’t it some kind of contradiction to say that we strive to make meaningful statements, create form, express depth…and at the same time keep this a simple, natural, unencumbered process?  This is of course the reason we practice.  This simple, natural, spontaneous, non-thinking process is not haphazard and reactive.  Rather, it’s deeply informed.

In practice, information is constantly being acquired and skills honed and developed.  Learning, assimilation, and embodiment take place.  And then we forget it all in the moment of putting air into the instrument, or touching a key, pulling a string, hitting a drum.  Yet somehow in forgetting it all, we have access to it all. This simple act is informed by what you know. And if you keep going, you’ll soon discover that it’s also informed by what you don’t know.  Sometimes I tell students to meet the instrument fifty-fifty.  Bring full intent to everything you do and meet the moment with openness and flexibility.  Your instrument is telling you something.  The other musicians are telling you something.  Sometimes I find myself saying to students “your instrument is your teacher”.  I kind of wince at language like this but it’s actually true.  Your instrument does the only thing it can do within the circumstances that you create.  It does not fail to register exactly what you put into it.  It’s completely consistent that way.  And no, I don’t want to hear about saxophone reeds being inconsistent.  You can work with your reeds.  But you have to be flexible there as well.  They are telling you how to play them.  You just have to listen.  

So what of the idea of planning?  How does that fit in?  How to we improvise like composers?  I think it boils down to intent.  We start with a definite impulse, a physical gesture, a sense of movement.  The content of that gesture does not get fully filled in until it’s actually played.  But it must be deliberate.  We must “know” what we’re doing, what we’re carrying out.  And yet there is no way that we can fully know what will happen once the music has started.  There are other people playing as well.  Just as in chess there is your opponent.  This “opposition” is actually an agreed upon form of cooperation.  In music we don’t talk too much about opposition, although if you think about it, counterpoint is a means to accommodate multiple, independent voices within an overall form or structure.  In chess, even though I have a plan I must also take into account my opponent’s moves.  So to improvise like a composer means to see this relationship as the music itself.  Not just paying attention to your own moves, your own part.  We bring something to the music and are prepared to change and adapt all along the way.  Fluid might be a good word here, as in water.  With water, when it’s at rest it conforms to the shape of whatever holds it.  When it’s moving it can carry tremendous force.  And there’s everything in between.  All shapes, forms, directions.  Everything.  So it’s about this interaction with others, right?  But if that’s the case, what about solo playing, one person alone, improvising?  Well, you’ll recall that I mentioned being informed by what you don’t know.  Our personal expression does not exist in a vacuum, apart from everything else.  Because we ourselves are not apart from everything else.  Even the composer, alone with pen and paper, is unleashing forces, accessing what they don’t yet know.  

In other news, just got back from Europe with Christian Weber and Michael Griener (all acoustic, no amps, no PA systems!) as well as dates with Stephan Crump. Earlier in the season I played at the Middelheim Festival in Belgium with Jozef Dumoulin and Dan Weiss (Dan was at that chess party!).  Saw Charles Lloyd there.  Met Billy Harper as well.  Thinking of this, I recommend the Lee Morgan documentary, "I Called Him Morgan" in which Billy Harper is one of the voices.  And speaking of voices, I loved the fact that we heard directly in that film from those involved, first hand.  And speaking of documentaries, I also recommend the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane” although I wish that it had not taken 50 years for us to be sharing his story in this form.  It was especially moving to see Coltrane in Nagasaki, at the site of the dropping of the atomic bomb.  Which also reminds me…while in Europe this past tour, I had a day off in Dachau, Germany.  I took advantage of the time to visit the memorial at the site of the World War Two concentration camp of the same name.  Words fail.  

I’ve also been thinking about the passing of Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the music’s most important leaders and composers.  As it happened, he also lived on my block here in midtown Manhattan.  I would see him pretty often but we never had the opportunity to play together.  It got to feeling kind of awkward passing him by and not acknowledging or expressing in some way my admiration.  So one day I introduced myself and mentioned some folks we knew in common.  Having made a connection in this way I later decided to share some music with him.  I had some copies of a new CD with me and while chatting I took one out and offered it to him.  He declined.  I realized that the offer was unsolicited and that this could be taken as an imposition.  He explained that he did not want to be obliged to have to tell me what he thought of the music.  I understand that.  In fact, I kind of feel the same way myself.  Music is bigger than that.  Bigger than what I think of it.  I think he may have been pointing to that.  And of course, he was certainly busy enough with many things let alone seeing me again and possibly being asked about it.  But I explained that he was under no obligation whatsoever and that I simply wanted to give him that music as a gift, a way of saying thank you for all that he had done for so many people, myself included.  At that he accepted.

I live in a building with a lot of musicians and actors.  Muhal Richard Abrams’ passing also reminds me of the passing of some other inspiring musicians who were also my neighbors.  Saxophonist Harold Ashby (1925 - 2003) once played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and would periodically lead dates at the Village Vanguard and release recordings of his own.  I would see him almost every day, sitting outside with a group of folks (writers, musicians, neighborhood people).  I’d join them from time to time.  He was gruffly good natured and usually replied to my inquiries about events back in the day with “nobody want’s to hear about that old stuff”!   And there was bassist Fred Hopkins (1947 — 1999), a great musician from Chicago perhaps best known for his work with Henry Threadgill.  Some years back my wife and I invited a bunch of folks to our new apartment and Fred came.  Life of the party!  And then there was saxophonist Frank Lowe (1943 — 2003) who got his start with Alice Coltrane.  I fondly recall many chats with him about the music and the tradition.  He took it seriously!  And he loved Lester Young.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Some Perspective on Time

with Drew Gress, NYC.
I don’t like for too much time to pass without maintaining the blog in some way.  And yet it seems to be averaging once every six months.  So my perspective on time itself may be an issue worth exploring.  At any given time there is a lot to respond to, comment upon or advocate for.  And for this saxophonist, living in NYC (a place that seems to exemplify over-stimulation as a virtue) writing here serves as a means to try and clarify a single perspective and perhaps look towards a larger view. On the other hand I’m writing at the computer and so it actually bothers me to some degree that in posting this I’m essentially asking you to stop what you are doing and look at your phone. So if you’re reading this I’d like to humbly suggest that it not interrupt any activity that you might otherwise be involved in.  Or that it not take the place of time spent doing nothing.  That’s very important as well.  In fact, if you chose not to read this post and instead did something else entirely, you’d probably be better off.

But if you’re still with me, back to the question of time.  I’m thinking about time especially in the context of a recent performance involving long-time friend and bassist Drew Gress.  This gig was organized by drummer Devin Gray and took place at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  As we were getting set up Drew and I mentioned to Devin that we’d known each other since 1977, starting our first year of college together in Baltimore.  We played countless gigs in those early years and continued on as we each eventually moved to New York.  Many more gigs, tours and recordings followed. Drew observed that this year marks 40 years that we’ve known each other.  That’s a formidable number to contend with.  And yet it feels almost like nothing.

In recent years we seem to cross paths less than either of us would like and yet the music always feels fresh and immediate each time we get together.  I heard so many new things in Drew’s playing that evening, yet all delivered in his own recognizable voice and with an astonishing depth.  It made playing together seem the simplest thing in the world, requiring almost nothing, 40 years of time condensed in a single musical moment.  In the way Drew pulls the string.  The sound he gets.  His own personal timing.  It’s all right there.

I wonder about this kind of experience in the context of the kinds of conversations I see/hear on improvising, jazz (assuming that’s a word you relate to) and being an artist that take place in the community at large.  Conversations that often emphasize methodologies, approaches, techniques.  Or concern validity.  Or commodification.  What is it that I’m offering here, towards any of these conversations, that you might take away for your benefit?  Turns out, not much actually.  What I’m talking about is revealed in the music itself.  You have to be there.  And enter into it not knowing.  Of course we need to bring clear intent.  And it does pay to think about these things and be aware of the multitude of perspectives each of us bring to this activity.  But when it comes down to it, I got nothing.  Zip.  I don’t know.  And that somehow feels right.

One thing I will say.  While I don’t like seeing musical training reduced to “information” I also see the danger in reducing musical experiences into…”experiences”, that can too easily be  compartmentalized, compared and rated.  Peak experiences are one thing, but this quality of completeness that I’m talking about is more subtle than that.  It was there in Drew’s playing that night.  And maybe because I’ve known him for so long I was able to recognize it in such a clear, matter of fact, yet profound way.  I really don’t know how to talk about it except to say that it was as if the past, present and future were all going on at the same time.  I don’t even like to say stuff like that because it seems to privilege “this” moment over “that” moment, as if one thing were starting and another stopping.  What if we saw our awareness as more continuous, not so broken up, not so compartmentalized?  How would that affect our perception of time?

with Adam O'Farrill and Tyshawn Sorey, Philadelphia.
I’ll tell you about another deceptively simple musical moment.  A few months back I was on the road with bassist Stephan Crump in a quartet with trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  In the van one afternoon, on the last day of the tour, I was relating a story to Tyshawn that came from Pops Foster’s autobiography.  In it Pops Foster talks about what it was like to play music in New Orleans in the early 1900’s.  He spoke about a group led by a violinist, containing horns and drums, playing for dancers.  Because the violinist needed to be heard over the ensemble they all needed to play quite softly.  And because they were playing for dancers they needed to swing with some real energy.  Foster says that most of the time the music was so soft you could hear the sound of the dancer’s feet sliding along the floor.  I don’t know if this story had anything to do with the music we played that evening but I think Tyshawn may have taken some inspiration since at the end of the evening he announced, “I played the entire gig without using sticks”!  Perhaps a first for him, I’m not sure. What was most surprising was that I hadn’t actually noticed.  I did notice that it happened to be a particularly great gig.  In using brushes (and those thin rods bundled together, called rutes I think) Tyshawn managed to open up sonic territory and infuse great energy and intensity in this space without actually filling it with sound.  What am I saying here?  It’s not a comment on drum implements or relative volume levels.  It really raises two questions, what is silence and what is sound? Tyshawn understands.

I’ll sign off with a stray thought…some years ago I was chatting with dear departed friends Stephanie and Irving Stone (who had heard a LOT of live music in their time) about the scene in the 50’s and 60’s as they experienced it.  Seems the bottom line criteria in evaluating a musician was “does he/she have something to say?”  That stuck with me.  So what do you think that might mean? And where might that come from? And how would you access that?

Till next time…

P.S. I want to especially thank Devin Gray, Stephan Crump and Adam O’Farrill for their total involvement.  Also thanks to Devin for the photo with Drew and thanks to Stephan for his photo depicting the glamour of road life, with Adam and Tyshawn.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sensations of Tone...

I’ve just returned from Zürich, Switzerland having performed at the Unerhöert Festival with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener.  We have a new recording scheduled for a January 2017 release on the Intakt label titled “Sensations of Tone”.  This title is taken from a nineteenth century text by Hermann von Helmholtz on acoustics and perception of sound.  The program consists of a series of improvised pieces in alternation with a number of early jazz compositions.  What’s of most interest to me is they way in which basic raw materials, “tones”, can elicit very different “sensations” with the juxtaposition of both approaches heightening perception of the similarities and the differences.

“Sensations of Tone” is currently available as a pre-release CD from my website.  Cost is $15.  I’m continuing the website sale (3 for $30) so please have a look at the list of available titles and consider filling out your collection with items you may not already have.  This sale is especially beneficial for international orders.  The shipping cost outside of the US is the same for 1 CD as it is for 3 CDs.  Take advantage of this opportunity!

Order your copy of “Sensations of Tone”

“Sensations of Tone” was recorded in New York City earlier this year and the improvisations are titled based upon some of the locations involved in the development of the music.

1. Orchard and Broom (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
2. Shreveport Stomp (Jelly Roll Morton)
3. Cornelia Street (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
4. China Boy (Boutelje/Winfree)
5. Ditmas Avenue (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
6. Moten Swing (Bennie Moten)
7. Dumbo (Eskelin, Weber Griener)
8. Ain't Misbehavin’ (Fats Waller / Harry Brooks)

Listen to excerpts from "Sensations of Tone".

The Political Sphere

This past October I did a very nice tour of the UK with Chris Sharkey and Matthew Bourne which was organized by the Orpheus Project.  There is to be a BBC radio broadcast of one of our concerts in December.  I’ll keep you posted.

It was great to spend a couple of weeks getting to know folks and get a little deeper into the scene, comparing cultural notes.  Of course, the recent Brexit vote was a topic of conversation.  What was not widely expected to happen, happened.  Or perhaps we should say, it was much closer than many of us would like to have thought possible.  This was before our U.S. presidential election and so I certainly didn't want a similar "not widely expected" result to occur here. Which leads me to the following…

I think that most people who are deeply into music would agree that this “playing / listening” thing often feels like a freeing of the spirit, if you will. Seeing and feeling a bigger picture, bigger than our sense of self, bigger than time and events. At this fundamental level, there are no divisions. And yet music exists on a very functional level as well, in this very world of divisions, distinctions and conflicts. In times of crisis we tend to revisit the discussion of art and it’s role in society. Whether you, the reader, feel this past election represents a crisis may well depend upon how you voted. But given the fundamental issues at play and the very real risks involved I hope that we can agree on the need to see this bigger picture. No divisions means that we are not as separate from each other as we may sometimes feel. It’s realizing that this very feeling of separateness creates so many of our problems.  At the same time, we do need to see and respect the very real dynamics of difference (based upon politics, culture, race, religion, gender, sexuality) that we experience in this life in order to fully experience that bigger picture of no divisions.

So how (and why) do we make music in this problematic and often violent world? Do we keep our heads down and hope that the healing power of music does it’s job?  Or do we become activists, connecting our art to the causes we believe in and taking concrete steps to address real issues? Both approaches contain truths, both carry risks.  Too “hands off” and we risk being aloof and ineffectual, in essence denying the suffering going on all around us. Too “hands on” and we risk generating self righteousness and anger, an intoxicating combination especially when we think we are “right”. We can be “right” and still fuck up.  It’s important to acknowledge these feelings but in action I want to be careful.  Careful not to disengage out of anxiety and helplessness. And careful not to create further division and harm out of self-righteousness and aggression. Personally I find that acting from these feelings can become a form of self-violence if I don’t recognize that what I do to myself I do to others and what I do to others I do to myself. So rather than pose any answers I think it best to keep asking the questions (over and over) all the while trying to see more clearly and act more compassionately.  I sense that it’s never going to be “enough” but I don’t want that to stop me either.

So I hold no judgements about what you or anyone else may feel the need to do with respect to art and politics.  These are challenging circumstances. Do what you need to do. I simply share this as a way to articulate and clarify my own intent.  During the lead up towards the Iraq War I actively engaged in protests and wrote strongly worded opinion pieces about what I saw happening. It felt very necessary. As a result I was invited to play at a political gathering and found myself asking some very difficult questions about the role of music in this arena.  There seemed a dilemma in associating my music with a particular political stance. I don’t like the idea that this music that has served to reveal greater truths throughout my life could be used to limit or distance myself from other people who may hold differing political views. So I drew a line and decided not to accept that invitation.  I don’t hold this as a “rule” and maybe I’ll change that stance, I don’t know. I certainly do support and love many musicians who make political music or otherwise contribute their art towards political expression.  But there is no argument that I can make with respect to politics and music, one way or the other.  I’m not trying to defend a position or to negate one.  It’s just that if I am to honor the music in the ways I often espouse in this blog I must especially honor the humanity of all people in doing so.  Especially when it’s difficult.  And I do realize that this does not negate being political with music. So when speaking out I want to constantly strive to be aware of the need to speak from the same place of humanity and compassion that the music comes from.  Not to divide, but to hopefully bring together all people, including those with whom I may disagree or feel challenged by.  I used to bristle at the idea that music and art are inherently political.  But we do pursue this spiritual quest (above politics) within the very circumstances of our daily lives as we create them. Both of those realities are true.  And they are not necessarily in conflict unless we make them to be so.

One thing I am already doing after this election is spending less time on-line.  And more time face to face with you all…see you out there…

Two Items of Interest...

A couple of projects I'm involved with...Bassist Stephan Crump’s new recording "Rhombal" also featuring trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Tyshawn Sorey is now available from Stephan’s website.  I have a special fondness for this group and will be announcing some upcoming dates soon.

And catching up on an earlier tour (May 2016) with The Red Hill Orchestra (Jozef Dumoulin leading, and featuring drummer Dan Weiss), there’s a nice video taken from one of our concerts in France.

Roberta “Bobbie” Lee (1940 - 2016)

I wrote about my mother some time back on the blog.  About her musical upbringing and how it affected my own trajectory.  I want to publicly announce that “Bobbie Lee” passed away on September 16th, 2016.  She was 76 years of age.  Too young to go in my opinion.  But I feel her everywhere. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Summer 2016...

Gonna keep this post short and simply wish everyone a rewarding summer on whatever level you want to approach that.  I will be taking a bit of a break from traveling until this fall, when I will be touring the UK for the first time in some years.  I’m looking forward to that and will share more details as we get closer.

So that means I will be in NYC all of July and August, available for private lessons to saxophonists in particular although musicians on any instrument are welcome for improvisation lessons.  Please contact me via e-mail for more information.

In other news, I recently tried the new Selmer saxophone reeds and was very impressed.  I personally find many so called “jazz” style reeds to color the sound somewhat artificially towards something louder and brighter.  So I appreciate that these reeds, which are not made towards any particular style of playing, seem to allow the natural sound of the instrument to emerge, balanced and well proportioned, naturally vibrant but with a dark, focused core that has a bit more density than many other brands I’ve tried.  I was impressed enough to accept the Selmer company’s offer to become an official endorser of these reeds. Thank you Selmer!

Also, I’d like to remind you not to let the summer pass without picking up a copy of “Trio Willisau Live”.  If you don’t know what that is please read all about it here.

I kind of feel that posting on the blog should require something a bit more substantial than any of this.  But after that lengthy interview I did for Point of Departure last month I have the feeling there’s going to be little to say for awhile.  Kind of emptied my head on that one.  So I’ll simply offer something short and obvious, not original to me, but something that I remind myself of from time to time, as an improvisor. And that is…just start from where you are.

Enjoy your summer…

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Point of Departure Interview…

The online music journal “Point of Departure” has just published a rather extensive interview that I’m happy to share with you. I appreciate POD for offering a space in which to get a bit deeper into this whole music/life thing. Areas of focus: comfort zones, jazz as “the truth”, established practices, repertoire, studio versus live, state of the industry, technology, creativity and simply being human. Read the interview HERE.

And a reminder that:

The CD sale commemorating the release of the new recording TRIO WILLISAU LIVE continues with the addition of a few back catalogue titles that have previously been unavailable. Have a look at the discography page for specific information on these titles.  You can order them here.

ARCANUM MODERNE Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black
VANISHING POINT Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser, Matt Moran
TEN Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs


TRIO NEW YORK Ellery Eskelin, Gary Versace, Gerald Cleaver
is nearly sold out…there are less than 10 copies available!

And Finally...

A one time only special offer…I do have a very limited number of “out of print” titles that are not listed on the ordering page. Occasionally I put together packages of 30+ titles for folks who want the entire catalogue. I’m down to my last such “package offer”. It’s a very discounted deal for anyone interested but is sold only as a collection. Have a look at the ordering page for more information…

Monday, June 6, 2016

Paul Smoker

The first time I met and played with Paul Smoker must have been in 1987, just prior to Joint Venture’s first recording project.  Joint Venture was formed out of a series of regular sessions at drummer Phil Haynes’ Corner Store loft in Brooklyn.  We had a trio with bassist Drew Gress and Phil suggested we invite Paul to come in from Iowa (where he had been living and teaching) to make a recording with us.  Paul was Phil’s teacher at Coe College and Phil became part of Paul’s speed / power trio with bassist Ron Rohovit.  They had made an LP or two, one of them featuring Anthony Braxton as guest artist.  Phil told me all about Paul, we listened to the recordings and somehow it seemed right to do this even as it was something of a risk, agreeing to make a studio recording with someone I’d never played with.  Paul was also a good twenty years older than us so it wasn’t quite like inviting one of your peers to go along with a speculative deal.  I wasn’t even completely sure about the “do it yourself” thing myself but Phil was thinking big and talking persuasively.  We agree, Phil makes the call. Paul agrees and books his flight, joining us a couple of weeks later to rehearse and get acquainted.

The night arrives and in comes Paul, tall guy, cowboy hat, cigarette. And of course his trumpet. His image would seem to match his reputation for candor and directness.  You could be forgiven for feeling a bit intimidated although he was also very relaxed and genuine, no games.  This is our first meeting.  A little small talk and now we’re gonna play.  I suggested we try “Just in Time”.  Paul kind of scoffed, in a good natured way, but still, tinged with a bit of incredulity and probably deeper down, a sense of WTF!?!  I think he may have wanted to give me a hard time but was giving me the benefit of the doubt instead.  So after a bit of hemming and hawing, subtle posturing and a couple of well placed sighs he reached back into the memory banks as we counted off the tune.  What came out of his horn could not have been more at odds with the attitude expressed just moments before. Total commitment, unabashed, emotionally engaged and dealing with the tune on multiple levels at once.

After this ended we kind of took a few minutes to let it all sink in.  A pretty intense performance for a first time meeting.  Almost a bit of a shock. Nothing much to say afterwards. Paul gradually catches his breath and comes back to that attitude he was working on before, saying, in a somewhat confrontational tone, “Man, you know how long it’s been since I played Just in Time”?  Pause. “Yea, about five minutes ago”, I shot back. At that point Paul’s face lit up with a beautiful smile and we all laughed at the fact that in spite of all the protestations to the contrary, we still could not have imagined Paul Smoker (or anyone else for that matter) making “Just in Time” any more “real” than we had just witnessed.  At that moment I think we all realized that this “Joint Venture” might work pretty well.  The music and the connection was palpable and just cut through everything.

We kept the band going for three recordings on the enja records label, which helped us all get a start in the recording and touring business branching out as individual leaders over the years. Joint Venture had a unique chemistry, four musicians each with individual and strongly felt approaches to the music, exploring common ground while allowing ourselves to be pulled in other directions at the same time.  As a result of this healthy tension I think we were able to touch on that “whole is larger than the sum of the parts” kind of thing.  It’s really beautiful when something like that can happen.

So thanks Paul for sharing such a wonderful spirit in your life and music.  Many people loved you deeply and you live on through them and through their music.

Paul Smoker passed on May 14, 2016 at the age of 75.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Trio New York LIVE - Now Available!

It’s here now!  Order from the web site...

Trio New York LIVE…or in this case Trio Willisau LIVE

Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - Hammond B3 organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

Recorded live at the Jazz Festival Willisau, Switzerland, August, 2015

This new CD recording is from a live performance at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland last August.  I wrote a bit about the gig in a previous post and am very happy to report that hatOLOGY records has just released the project in their inimitable style and packaging, including a full color photograph of the band on an enclosed postcard. Hear our extended improvisations on "My Melancholy Baby", "Blue and Sentimental", "East of the Sun", "We See", and "I Don't Stand A Ghost of A Chance With You".

So, get your hands on a copy and wrap your ears around the latest sounds from the New York / Willisau axis. Take this link to my official web page and have a look at all of the titles available for immediate world wide mail order.  To further commemorate this release I will be instituting a special sale, for a limited time only.  The standard price per CD is $15.  Choose any two discs for $25. Choose any three discs for $30. Very simple.

Please note that I have added a couple of additional titles to the CD ordering page:

TEN (from 2004, a series of improvisations from duos to sextet)
Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, Jim Black, Jessica Constable, Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs
hatOLOGY 611 CD

LES INDIGNES (recorded in Amsterdam after a tour in 2011.  Very nice compositions from Celano and Baggiani plus improvisations)
Guillermo Celano - guitar
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Clemens Van Der Feen - double bass
Marcos Baggiani - drums

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Spring 2016 update...

This post can serve as a momentary place maker for the transition from winter into spring.  Let’s see…

In January, bassist Stephan Crump’s “Rhombal” was in the recording studio.  Stephan Crump, bass and compositions; Adam O'Farrill, trumpet; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. The results of this session, “Brothers”, will be released in a couple of months.  Next NYC appearance by the group will be on April 22nd at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.  Here’s video from a live performance by the group, Stephan’s composition "Loose Bay”.

In February I had the chance to reconnect with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener and follow up on a project that we began in Zürich in 2011.  This group had a very particular sound from the very first time we played together.  Partly it’s to do with the fact that Christian plays the bass without an amplifier and that Michael played a set of drums that were a bit smaller than the standard sizes used in most groups.  This allowed me a bit more freedom to explore some other timbral possibilities on my instrument.  We also performed at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland later that same year which you can see a video clip of here. We played exclusively improvised concerts at that time but in hanging out together we discovered a mutual love of early jazz.  I kept that in mind over the years hoping that we might address that musically at some point.  As it happened, Christian recently spent six months in New York City which allowed us the luxury of getting together regularly to play some of this early material and think about how we might incorporate it into our sets.  Michael came to NYC for a few weeks in February and so we rehearsed extensively, did a concert in town and went into the recording studio soon after in order to document our work together.  Included are renditions of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp”, a Fat’s Waller composition and a couple of early jazz standards.  These are alternated with free improvisations so as to highlight aspects of both approaches to the music from a somewhat different perspective.  We hope this project will be released by year’s end.  The group will be performing in Europe in November of 2016.

Looking ahead at the performance schedule, I’ll be in Europe for two weeks in May with Jozef Dumoulin and the Red Hill Orchestra.  That’s Jozef on Fender Rhodes piano & compositions, myself on tenor saxophone and Dan Weiss on drums.  Really nice combination of textural elements and multi-directional rhythmic propulsion.  Here is a track called "The Gate" from Jozef’s recording “Trust”. This is where we'll be in May 2016:

May 4th, De Werf, Brugge BELGIUM. May 5th, Le Bocal, Apt FRANCE. May 6th, Festival Koa, Montpellier FRANCE. May 8th, Le Périscope, Lyon FRANCE. May 9th, De Singer, Rijkevorsel BELGIUM. May 10th, Bravo, Brussels BELGIUM. May 11th, Le Petit Faucheux, Tours FRANCE. May 12, Jamboree, Barcelona SPAIN. May 13th, Valencia SPAIN. May 14th, Bogui Jazz Club, Madrid SPAIN. And for all of you folks in the Big Apple...May 25th, (le) poisson rouge, NYC

When not traveling I enjoy taking advantage of the many offerings of contemporary chamber music that are available in New York City.  One of my very favorite ensembles is the Argento Chamber Ensemble.  Very often after their concerts there is a question and answer period in which the audience can speak with the composers and performers.  I always enjoy these although they do present some potential challenges to the participants.  One such occurrence took place after the ensemble’s performance at the Brooklyn Library last month.  The program featured works by Tristan Murail, Huck Hodge, Oliver Schneller, Bert Van Herck and Oliver Schneller. I had the impression that a significant portion of the audience may not have been accustomed to modern chamber music and some of the questions reflected that.  This is an excellent opportunity for the ensemble to get feedback from listeners and for listeners to gain insight into the processes involved in creating this music.  One of the great things about New York audiences is that you are liable to get some very forthright opinions, especially if folks feel challenged.  I was encouraged by the feeling that while some may have struggled with what they were hearing, overall, seeing the musicians on stage and hearing a series of different pieces allowed for a more intuitive sense of what is going on.  I’m a firm believer that we do not need to understand the music we hear on an intellectual level in order to “hear” it.  Of course, some knowledge about the traditions involved and the intent of the composers may well enhance the experience.  I could also point out that our knowledge of what we are hearing may also be a kind of filter than can actually diminish our perceptions of what we are hearing if we are not careful. Toward the end of this session, after about twenty minutes of discussion, a woman in the back stood up and shared her experiences of the concert in some of the most starkly negative terms I could imagine.  It was not as if she was criticizing the proceedings, it was clear that she was sincere in what she was saying and how she felt.  After describing the desolate and bleak landscape conjured by the sounds she heard she wrapped it all up by asking, imploring even, “where is the love?”  That really got everyone’s attention.  After a momentarily uncomfortable pause each person on the panel offered an equally sincere and compassionate take on what their personal experiences and intentions were with regard to music making.  This got to the crux of everything really, in a way that we do not often encounter in public settings like this.  The emphasis on intellectualization and technical terminology was set aside for a very heartfelt and affirming exploration of why we make music.  In spite of any differences in approach between the panelists there was clearly a deep commonality shared among them. And it is  this commonality that points to the essence of what makes music such a powerful force in our lives.  It can go by many names but past the conditioned and superficial associations we may have with certain sounds, music generally speaks to something beyond or larger than our sense of self.  Something we may not even fully understand.  We may feel it quite strongly and yet how we respond to it can be varied and unpredictable, deeply positive or deeply negative or anywhere in between.  But it is reaching us.  So walking home after the concert with friends we discussed the issue and came away feeling that in fact asking “where is the love” does not mean that this audience member didn’t "get" the music.  I think she did, and quite strongly, in spite of the fact that I did not relate to her reaction.  And as we know, there is no correct reaction.  It was affirming to have been witness to that conversation.  I might also point out that there is sometimes a kind of trite attitude concerning the idea of provoking an audience into having a strong reaction and then associating some kind of merit to such work on the basis of that.  Personally I find controversy and provocation to be highly overrated without something deeper underneath it.  But a genuine challenge, one that does in fact come from love, is a rare thing to encounter and be open to.  I commend that listener for bringing up the question.  There was one final question after that one, actually more of a testimonial, on the part of a very elderly woman who was sitting in the front row.  I could tell that she also was not a devotee of modern music but her response was highly energized and very positive toward what she had heard.  She continued speaking for some minutes on the importance of this kind of forward looking activity in our culture and she related the experience to a number of topics although we could not always clearly understand what she was saying.  But she was excited.  After some time her husband put his hand on her back in order to signal that maybe she should finish but she kept right on going.  At a certain point one of the staff from the library who was leading the event kindly stepped over to motion for the microphone but she just waved him away.  All in all a wonderful affirmation that this music is not restricted to experts or aficionados.  It speaks to anyone who will listen.

Every other year I do a week long teaching residency at my Alma Mater, Towson University in Baltimore.  Each time, we’ve taken up a particular theme or investigation.  The first year, I worked with the improvisation ensemble in developing a concert.  The second year I brought a batch of my own compositions from over the years and adapted them to a student ensemble for their concert.  The third year was devoted to the exploration of “swing” as a creative act in which the jazz ensemble presented a concert of early jazz works from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.  This year’s theme was chamber music containing improvisation and took place this past March.  In discussing the idea with Dave Ballou (who runs the program at Towson) I described for him my idea about commissioning a chamber music composition in a modern  classical idiom that would feature an improvising soloist.  (This is something I’d already set in motion and have been working towards for a couple of years now and hopefully in 2017 we may have the results.) Dave, being a wonderful composer in addition to a great instrumentalist (check out Dave’s new “Solo Trumpet” recording) offered to write a piece for student ensemble (actually, recent alumni as it turned out) for us to tackle on this residency.  I’ve been working with a so called “classical” set up on saxophone in my practice (Rascher mouthpiece, Vandoren reed and Buescher tenor, for my fellow saxophone geeks) and this was a great opportunity to give this idea some momentum.  Without writing a "jazz meets classical" piece Dave’s sensitivities as a fellow improvisor made for a work that allowed great flexibility in my approach.  Rather than working with highly restricted materials as prescribed by the composer (often the approach in chamber music that uses improvisation) I was allowed to have a compositional voice, meaning that my role might shift freely from being “inside” the ensemble to a more front a center “soloist” voice as I felt the need.  For this performance I stuck rather close to the material at hand but I can easily see many more possibilities of approach in future performances.  Maybe we’ll even get to record this.  Until then, here is some audio from the concert.  Recorded sound is not optimal but I think it’s worth offering.  It is an eight movement composition for two violins, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, piano and tenor saxophone. The first is movement four.  The second is an excerpt from movement one leading into movement six.


It’s called “For 7 instruments and Ellery Eskelin” and is dedicated to pianist Reynaldo Reyes who taught at Towson from 1962 until just this year, passing away some months ago at the age of 82.  Mr. Reyes accompanied me on my very first recital at Towson, in 1978.  I wish I could recall the name of what we played but it was a rather thorny piece of modern classical music for saxophone and piano and he sight read it perfectly on the first rehearsal.  He was known for doing that.  A wonderful musician and teacher who will be dearly missed.

As part of my activities I’m asked to present a mid-week concert of my own music.  Being that the the focus was on chamber music I thought it only appropriate to invite pianist Sylvie Courvoisier to perform in duo.  We’ve been doing duo concerts (as well as trio concerts with Parisian cellist Vincent Courtois) since around 2000.  This was our first concert in about a year or so and it was great to catch up musically and see what we had each been up to in the interim.  Here’s an example, a bonus track “Number 19”,  from our recording “Every So Often”.

Other activities during the week involved working with students on how to learn the song “Cherokee” (in which at one point while listening to student performances of this tune involving questionable note choices I had to point out “your ear would never let you do that!”), a series of private lessons on a range of issues (probably my favorite thing to do) and coaching the improvisation ensemble (in which we explored each musician's natural tendencies and discovered what things made them uncomfortable).  Actually, being uncomfortable in these situations is not a bad thing.  We used uncomfortability (not a real word but for sure a real feeling) as a way to address strengths and weaknesses. This became a way of fine tuning the entire ensemble's sensitivities so as to best allow each musician the opportunity to fully contribute to the music. Some players are more naturally supportive while others more naturally assertive.  And of course you don’t want too many of one or the other. Both in being true to themselves and by having to carry the music at any time, often unexpectedly, showed us quite clearly that there is no place to hide, neither in being too passive nor in being too aggressive.

There were many discussions during the week and after each concert there was a question and answer period in which students and members of the listening public could discuss the performances.  As in the case of the question and answer session that I referred to above, there were folks in attendance that were not all that familiar with the kind of music being presented. I was told by someone in the audience that as the improvisation ensemble started playing a couple sitting behind them was heard to be discussing “what kind of music is this” and “maybe the second half will have some Charlie Parker jazz”.  They stuck around and seemed to enjoy Dave Ballou’s chamber music piece even though that would certainly not qualify as “Charlie Parker jazz”.  After the duo concert with Sylvie I sensed during the discussion that perhaps this was a challenging concert for some folks.  We do our very best to “tell a story” in our improvisations, to play structurally and compositionally.  But I had to ask “did anyone completely loose the thread of the music?”  Fortunately one person raised their hand and said as much. This lead to a fruitful discussion about how to communicate in music and what is being communicated. Personally I cannot second guess what I think will work in any given situation and so it reminded me (again) to trust the music completely.  And so I come away from this experience encouraged and asking myself, is there really a separation between listener and music?  It certainly doesn’t seem that way, no matter the myriad responses that we all have in any given situation.  Whether you thought it was good or bad, liked it or not, reached you or didn’t, all that seems less important than the knowledge that there is always something more.

I enjoy these residencies more with each one that I do.  Pianist Bill Murray (founder of the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency) deserves our deep appreciation for setting this all in motion.  Plus everyone at Towson including Dave Ballou and Jim McFalls.  And each and every student and alumni who took part.  It was rewarding on so many levels.  Thank you.

There was also one off-campus event that I want to mention.  On Tuesday of that week I got to sub for Dave Ballou on his regular gig at Bertha’s with the Mike Kuhl Trio (Mike on drums along with Jeff Reed on bass).  Bertha’s has been around for I don’t know how long.  It’s situated in Fell’s Point in Baltimore, close to the harbor just east of downtown.  When I was living in Baltimore (I left in 1981) this area was a bit deserted at night and seemed to carry the heavy feeling of lost seafaring days along the old docks and bars that lined the low buildings and cobbled streets.  It’s more brightly lit these days and a center of nightlife but you can still get a sense of the ghosts of Fell’s Point, maybe even that of Edgar Allen Poe himself.  It’s great to see that some of these old joints have not changed all that much from what I remembered. Dark inside, old instruments hanging from the rafters, vintage furnishings. And speaking of vintage, in visiting the men’s room you’re confronted with the largest and possibly oldest urinal still in use in America.  Or at least that was my impression.  Rising up from the floor to the height of a grown man it’s like an enormous white porcelain coffin stood on it’s end.  Interacting with history is what that felt like.

Playing at Bertha’s was a ton of fun.  I also got to see my friend and fellow tenor saxophonist from my Towson University days, Brad Collins.  We played together in Hank Levy’s ensemble and had not seen each other in thirty five years!  Brad plays around Baltimore a lot so check him out.  This was a straight up jazz gig, calling tunes as we went, of the kind I did frequently all around Baltimore at one time.  In fact, somewhere in the second set it occurred to me that I used to play John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” on every single jazz gig I ever did in town. My good friend and fellow tenor player Tom McCormick taught it to me back in the day.  So I called the tune and as we played I could feel just what it was like playing places like Bertha’s in the late ‘70s.  Tom and I had another good friend and tenorist named Mike Carrick who was older than us and instilled much in the way of the Baltimore tradition to our approach at that time.  Mike would say to me, “yea man, you got that Baltimore honkin’ thing!”  That made me feel good.  So I couldn’t help but let loose with Mike in mind.  Mike passed a few years ago but his spirit is still strong among those who remember him.

As I’m writing this, after being back home for a couple of weeks, I received some very sad news about the passing of another musician who was in Baltimore at that time, bassist and composer Terry Plumeri who was also a formative influence on us younger musicians.  I played a number of times with Terry, once in a trio with drummer Harold White (who had also played in Horace Silver’s band) and another memorable occasion at a Fell’s Point jazz club called The Bandstand, which was my first real opportunity in town to lead a group for a weekend at a club that also headlined New York artists. Terry had recorded in the early ‘70s making an LP called “He Who Lives in Many Places” with Herbie Hancock, John Abercrombie and Eric Gravatt.  Terry also toured for some years with Roberta Flack.  After leaving Baltimore Terry composed for film and symphony orchestras around the world. His signature sound on the bass was his arco playing.  This is a photo of Terry as I remember him from those days.  Here is a video of Terry in recent years doing a solo contrabass piece called “The Caves of Peacock Springs”. While we have access to no end of recordings and documentation of this musical tradition I’m convinced that it is the spirit of musicians playing together, learning from each other and sharing their lives with each other that makes this a living tradition.  Each one who passes has had an effect on those around them, and that is the real spirit of what keeps this alive.  Never take that for granted, not even for a moment.  Thanks Terry.