Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Paul Bley…on the subject of playing forever…

Upon hearing the news of pianist Paul Bley’s passing on January 3rd, 2016...

I met Paul Bley at the Ravenna Jazz Festival in Italy sometime in the early ‘90s.  He was playing with Steve Swallow and Jimmy Giuffre.  I was there with Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” and we were sharing the bill with them.  The concert took place at the Teatro Alighieri, a beautiful opera house built in the 1800’s.  It was great to hear them play and Paul was very complementary towards us.  After the concert I was walking back to the hotel, taking my time as the streets were active and it was nice to see what was going on.  Along the way I happened to glance into a coffee shop and to my surprise saw Paul standing alone in the back having a coffee.  I really wanted to talk to him about a musical issue that was on my mind so I went over and said hello and we began chatting.  I explained that for some years I had been investigating ways to play rhythmically free while retaining the harmonic form of a song in time, something that I hadn’t heard that many people do. I told him that I’d been trying to trace the impetus of this idea and that I had the feeling that he was the guy to ask.

While it’s a bit problematic to single out one person I had always suspected that Paul was at least close to the source of this.  He had played with Ornette Coleman very early on in his career. Ornette Coleman’s phrasing was very organic to my ear, insinuating a freer sense of harmony by virtue of his melodies and how they were placed.  Paul also played with Sonny Rollins, who on the other hand was right on it with respect to the harmony but with an amazingly flexible time feel and use of phrasing that bordered on free.  I remember driving home late one night after a gig in Baltimore and hearing a long cut by Sonny on the radio, a twenty minute vamp on one chord.  His playing was powerful and his ideas were abundant, a fountain of imagination.  But his phrasing was loose to the point that it almost sounded drunk, except that the nuances were very detailed and his timing was incredibly precise.  I almost had to stop the car just to listen.  It made a big impression on me.

I’ve told the story a number of times about how this idea of loose and organic phrasing combined with an exact sense of time and harmony came together for me one afternoon at a jam session.  And how that same evening I had the opportunity to sit in on a gig with Paul Motian (a long time collaborator with Paul Bley) which catalyzed the whole thing in a “never look back” kind of way. You can read about this in more detail in a previous post that I wrote about Paul Motian.  And so in looking to find out where this all might have come from I began listening and tracing more deeply some of the musical currents that lead up to it.  In retrospect, I can hear this going all the way back to Louis Armstrong.  But somehow it seems to have gotten lost amid the mostly eighth note oriented approach to jazz playing that dominated when I was coming up (and in many ways still does).  But there was this one “modern” recording that particularly stood out, “Sonny Meets Hawk” from 1963.  I’d never heard Sonny Rollins play quite the way he does on this recording, rather startling, and I’ve always wondered what was going on there.  Did it have something to do with Coleman Hawkins’ presence? How could that not affect a person, especially another saxophonist? Paul Bley plays on this date and his solo on “All the Things You Are” was equally startling and multidimensional.

So I spelled all of this out for Paul Bley right there in the coffee shop. And I asked “what was the dynamic between Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins?  And “where did this way of playing come from that I heard in your solo?” I think these were the only questions I asked.  It was certainly all I said for the next hour or so.  Paul took my questions and spun an elaborate and somewhat confusing (though I didn’t dare interrupt) story that began with his time on the road with Sonny Rollins and gradually morphed, spilling into all kinds of other tangental areas finally ending with the proclamation that in six months time the CD will be dead and we’ll all be forced to create visual imagery to go along with our music, just to stay in business (this was 1994). It was a wild ride, hugely entertaining if not somewhat illogical and contradictory at many turns.  And I never got a straight answer to my question.  I’m not sure he even addressed it.  But I do remember very vividly his description of what it felt like playing in Sonny’s band.  He said they were playing every night plus these matinee gigs on Sunday afternoons.  He spoke about how over the period of some weeks Sonny kept upping the ante during his solos and how it made Paul feel in trying to keep up.  Sonny would play longer and longer solos in which the intensity went unabated.  It got to the point where Paul felt that the attitude became one of playing forever.  When Sonny was playing, he was simply going to play forever.  And when it was time for Paul to play he was in turn going to have to play forever as well.  Imagine that kind of commitment. Forever.  I’m going to play forever.  There are a lot of ways you could take that, both positively or negatively, seriously or not.  But it was almost as if he were reliving the experience in telling it to me.  I was kind of in awe of this even as I was also a little confused.

To be honest I’m still unsure what he really meant or what he may have been trying to get at.  But it’s a great thing to wonder about.  Now, in thinking about Paul Bley’s passing, twenty years later and moving through the imaginary barrier between one year and the next, is it time to reflect? Or time to look ahead?  To sum up the past or forecast the future doesn’t seem right somehow.  Lately I’m beginning to feel more and more as if it’s all right here, right now. Nothing’s missing.  In spending that bemused hour with Paul I could only make sense of what he was saying as a flow. But what was he getting at? Perhaps he was just being mischievous but I sensed more than that.  That’s why I didn’t want to interrupt him.  I knew there was something special in his story telling, something in between the lines, and I knew I might miss it if I wasn’t paying close attention. And here I am, still wondering.  Best not to try and sum it all up.  Being a little confused can be good.  Things are messy, agendas are many.  And yet there is truth all around us.  Learn from what’s right in front of you, an idea that I try and instill in my students.  Good to keep reminding myself as well.  Thanks Paul.

For those who read Italian there is a review of that evening’s concert.

Rodd Keith plays...Tenderly

Here’s a short excerpt of a recording of my father Rodd Keith, playing piano sometime in the mid 1950’s. He was around the age of twenty and largely self-taught.  I don’t have many examples of his music other than the song-poem material that’s drawn a certain amount of attention.  I’ve always been told there was much more to him and this early example perhaps points to that.  It would have only been a few years prior to the time my mother and he played music together.  They even did a television program in Kansas in the late 50’s.  I always wondered what that sounded like.  Maybe a little bit like this…

“The Soul of Baltimore”

I mention my hometown of Baltimore not infrequently.  The experience of growing up there has left an indelible impression in ways that I’m still working out, even after thirty-plus years in New York City.  I often speak of my mother, who played organ in nightclubs throughout the city in the early ‘60s. Not jazz clubs but lounges.  With lots of drinking. She was there strictly for the music and to make her living.  But there’s no getting around the fact that the reputation that many of these clubs had was not completely underserved. There was often a criminal element around the edges.  Or at least you didn’t have to go far to find it.  And yet the ways in which the musical and social culture interacted with every other walk of life…religious, workaday, political, educational, you name it…were much more fluid than not.  Boundaries were not always cleanly delineated.

Being a musician afforded me the opportunity to see life from a number of perspectives, sometimes contradictory and confusing, that I don’t think most folks get to experience.  If I was a writer I think I’d try and do a book on Baltimore, from the 50’s or so on up. I may have said this before somewhere, that while in Baltimore it’s hard to imagine anything outside of Baltimore.  And when outside of Baltimore it’s hard to imagine Baltimore as having been a real place, almost having been part of my imagination.  But it’s quite a real place.  And it’s quite unique in my estimation. In looking back there is much to value although while living there I often found a certain kind of frustration with limitations that I could not fully understand.  I sometimes do research on the musical and social fabric of the city. I’m fascinated with history as it was lived on the streets, the kind that does not always find expression in history books chronicling the main events and important figures of past generations.  There were many people who were integral to the culture of Baltimore who’s stories may never be properly told.

And so when I come across something that speaks from this place I like to share it.  Especially when the content resonates directly with what is still happening in Baltimore. The University of Baltimore hosts archival material on line including this WMAR-TV documentary from 1968 called “The Soul of Baltimore”.  It’s a time capsule of sorts in which civil rights activist Walter P. Carter speaks at length on conditions in the city from a number of perspectives. If you can get past some of the narration Mr. Carter goes into some depth in his own words on a range of subjects including the role of jazz in Baltimore.  In fact there are a couple of short excerpts of a live concert from the Left Bank Jazz Society by saxophonist Lee Konitz with Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums (at 5:25 - 6:26 and again at 14:36 - 16:01). He also speaks of Coltrane’s last concert having taken place at the Left Bank.

Here's the link:  “The Soul of Baltimore” 1968

Thursday, October 1, 2015

“Trio New York” Live at the Willisau Jazz Festival

Some years ago I got a call from my friend, drummer Bobby Previte, asking me if I knew that there was a poster with my name on it hanging in the architecture and design gallery of the Museum of Modern Art here in NYC.  In fact I hadn’t known and thought it rather odd and unlikely.  Bobby said it was from Willisau (Switzerland), a poster for a concert I did with Dutch drummer Han Bennink.  So I gathered the family and we walked through midtown, found our way to the gallery and there it was. Turns out the poster was made by Niklaus Troxler.  Niklaus Troxler has produced countless concerts in Willisau over the past four or more decades.  And he’s made his own concert posters for each one of them as well.  I knew they were wonderful posters but I did not realize that Niklaus’ work was showing in galleries around the globe.  In fact he has won many awards for them over the years.  And so here were some of his posters on view at MOMA.  I was impressed and flattered that one of my own concerts was represented.  Taking a moment to assure that my young son (he was about nine or ten at the time) fully appreciated the import of this I looked over and said, “so what do you think of that?”  Without missing a beat he replied, “that’s nice, can we get something to eat now?”  Keeping priorities in order.

Photo of Trio New York by Adrian Baer, NZZ

I first played the Willisau festival in 1997 with a group formed to perform music associated with the great saxophonist Gene Ammons (with Marc Ribot on guitar and Kenny Wolleson on drums).  We recorded “The Sun Died” for Soul Note records (which is available on iTunes).  I’ve played in Willisau at least a dozen times, as I was reminded by Niklaus this past August.  The forward looking festival is now produced by his nephew Arno Troxler, who had invited me to bring “Trio New York” to perform on the festival this year.  As we were sitting down to dinner Niklaus proudly showed me a book titled “WILLISAU AND ALL THAT JAZZ - A Visual History 1966 – 2013” which was recently published chronicling the scene there since 1966 containing over 700 pages with many beautiful photographs as well as his concert poster reproductions.  It simply amazes me that a small town in Europe can host, nurture and develop such a deep and long running celebration of musical art and culture and document it in a way that so often eludes us here in the States.

We see many friends and familiar faces each time in Willisau and it’s always nice to reconnect with folks over the years.  This very warm and relaxed feeling combined with a heightened energy and awareness of the special nature of this annual event makes playing there very easy. One of the nice things about the festival is that it is not maxed out with so many bands that one is overwhelmed or unable to hear everything that is presented.  When it was our time to play we hit the stage and started in on the music without even thinking twice. I formed “Trio New York” in 2010 along with Gary Versace on Hammond B3 organ.  The drum chair has been occupied by a great many wonderful drummers; Tyshawn Sorey, Ted Poor, Tom Rainey, Nasheet Waits, Gerry Hemingway, Jochen Ruckert, Rudy Royston and Gerald Cleaver (who is on both of the band’s recordings). Each of these musicians brings a different chemistry to the band. For this occasion I invited Gerry Hemingway to reconnect with the group. I have about twenty years of experience playing with Gerry and so that’s a pretty deep bond to draw from. The concert was recorded for Swiss Radio and the combination of good vibes and good technical acumen on the part of the recording engineers resulted in a document that I think is worth sharing.  We’re already underway with getting that mixed and mastered for a spring release on hatOLOGY records. I’ll be making plenty of noise about it when the time comes so do stay tuned…



posters by Niklaus Troxler

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Summer 2015 - Listening to the Audience…

Enjoying the summer here in New York City. Consciously taking a slower pace. This helps with daily saxophone practice. It also serves to deepen my engagement with everything that is right in front of me.

In May I traveled to Australia (for the first time) with pianist and composer Marc Hannaford (his group with trumpeter Scott Tinkler and drummer Tom Rainey). Marc and Scott are both from Melbourne although Marc has been living in NYC for the past couple of years pursuing his PhD at Columbia University. We recorded a program of Marc’s music in 2014 and this tour was our first real opportunity to develop the music over the course of multiple performances. We played Melbourne, Hobart, Canberra and Sydney. The music scene in Australia seems vibrant and audiences were very enthusiastic all around.  The same could be said for Aussie folks in general.

Also had the chance to do some teaching workshops which I find to be an increasingly rewarding and important aspect of propagating the art. I enjoyed all of the workshops however there was one, at Monash University in Melbourne, that was particularly memorable. A question was asked about free improvisation. I can’t recall the question exactly but I think it had to do with a perceived problem about just what was being communicated in performance, particularly with a potentially challenging type of music. It was one of those questions that is too general for a pat answer and yet it was a sincere question and I could sense that this student was somehow stuck or troubled by it. So I responded by posing my own questions about the nature of music making from a performers standpoint and from a listener’s standpoint, eventually arriving at the question of “what is the essential quality that makes for a great communicator?” Students responded with their ideas and I kept asking more questions, attempting to design a line of inquiry even if I was not completely sure where we would wind up. This process gained some traction, more and more students began to offer ideas and at a certain point one student became so excited she decided that the only way to address the discussion was to play something at the piano. Unable to hold herself back, she invited the student who posed the initial question (a drummer) to join her.

At this point the inquiry went from being an intellectual process to an experiential one. And were there any answers? Hard to say since I can’t even remember all the questions. But with a clear and directed intent our pianist got her point across to everyone in the room and our drummer seemed to have gotten his head around something that he may not have completely understood but definitely felt. And what I do remember, very vividly, is sharing with the students this experience of “finding out” through doing something, together. Doing the workshop (teacher and students), doing the line of inquiry (speakers and listeners), doing the music (musicians and listeners). It was during this process that I realized the entire workshop could be summed up with one word.  Attention.  That’s what we were really talking about and that’s what we were really doing. That was the lesson. Whatever the original problem was, it was faced directly. Whatever that essential communicative quality is, shared by great musicians or great orators or great actors, it has everything to do with attention. The attention of the musicians guides the attention of the audience.  The attention of the audience guides the attention of the musicians. It’s in this space that our questions got addressed, in a deeper, non-verbal way. I might have described such a process to them but what good is that really? Limited at best, just like this blog post. But it is interesting, in that this process does not stop when the music is over. Our attention guides every aspect of our lives, from the smallest things to the largest.  In thinking about the role of music in the world, in the context of so many urgent issues, it seems we may have a potential model for how to approach things.

To play music is an act of giving. And likewise, to listen to music is also an act of giving. The idea that I, as a listener, am to be completely satisfied in terms of getting what I want is limited. I’m there to participate, to serve the situation. And the idea that I, as a musician, will play only for myself is also limited if not absurd. We’re both, musicians and listeners, looking for some form of truth as experienced together. As listeners we often say to the musicians, “thanks for the music”. And the musicians usually respond by saying “thanks for being here”. A simple recognition of an interdependent dynamic. I grew up in Baltimore and often played in African American jazz clubs where this dynamic was always in full effect. Listeners were active, physically and vocally. Participation was essential, you could hear and feel the audience helping the music along.  And it made you play better. And if you didn’t play well you’d hear about it. I was about nineteen years old the first time I went to the Bird Cage Lounge to sit in with saxophone great Mickey Fields. I thought I was really showing everybody something only to have a member of the audience tell me “you need to slow down!” I was a little taken aback but I knew it was coming from a place of love for the music.  And it was a larger lesson as well, showing that it wasn’t just about me, it was about every person and everything that was going on in that room. And there was a lot going on in that room. Everyone played their role. I just happened to be the guy with a saxophone. We were at each other’s service. And we were all at the service of the music. And the music was at the service of our lives. I considered it a privilege to be there.

And that’s a word that has come to the fore recently in our shared national conversations, although in a different context. Privilege as it relates to inequality, insensitivity, injustice. But there is a connection I think. I don’t pretend to offer any answers but I can think of some questions. What’s important? Where is our attention? Using music as a model to frame this issue may be of limited usefulness. But music is an essential aspect of being human, even if you don’t play it. So I think it’s OK. I’m a musician, that’s my skill, that’s what I do, that’s all I’ve got. I sometimes ask myself if that’s enough. Trying to see the bigger picture is never ending. There are blind spots. Like where you think you are and where others may see you from their perspectives. In playing music, we keep track of what we’re doing at the same time that we keep track of what the music is doing. That’s the only way things can function. Outside of music, in society, our attention needs to be engaged similarly. We have to keep track of what we’re doing at the same time as we keep track of what’s going on around us. And in fact there’s really no separation between the two. Except by virtue of blind spots, inadvertent or willful. And the consequences can be dire.

Again, no answers. I really don’t have much to say. We've all got our own work to do, our own part to play. Better to pay attention and be engaged, because every situation is fluid. Getting back to music, some audiences are more demonstrative and some less so. When I started to travel and do concert tours I used to think that quieter audiences were somehow not digging the music. But I would always stick around afterwards and chat with people only to find that there was a multitude of responses and that often times these quieter audiences were deeply engaged in listening. So I had to learn how to listen to them during the concerts as well. I had to change my perspective, not think of the audience as separate. We’re all individuals with our own thoughts and feelings. And yet when we do something together we often get a glimpse of that larger picture. All it takes is our attention, at all levels and across every interaction, large and small.

Gerry Hemingway Residency at The Stone, NYC

I first heard drummer Gerry Hemingway playing with Anthony Braxton’s quartet (along with pianist Marilyn Crispell and bassist Mark Dresser) at the Knitting Factory in the early 1990s.  I was later introduced to Gerry musically through Mark Dresser and from there I was invited to play in Gerry’s newly formed quartet (with Mark Dresser and trombonist Robin Eubanks) beginning what would be a long and continuing relationship right up to the present day.  Gerry has always seemed to thrive on the “full plate” concept of juggling multiple projects complete with all of their attendant responsibilities. Writing tons of music, extending himself in every way, getting things organized, booking his own tours, mixing his own recordings.  I get dizzy just thinking about it.  But I’m grateful that he finds these kinds of situations to be so energizing as so much great music has come out of his efforts.

Gerry will be doing a week long residency at The Stone in NYC from July 28th to August 2nd.  I’ll be taking part in four projects during this week, the final one being my own group, “Trio New York” with Gerry on drums.

Thursday, July 30th at 8 pm, “Songs” 
Lisa Sokolov - voice
Michael Winsch - piano
Terry McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Thursday, July 30th at 10 pm, “Riptide” Quintet 
Oscar Noriega - alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Terrence McManus - guitar
Brad Jones - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Saturday, August 1st at 10 pm, “Quartet” 
Herb Robertson - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Mark Helias - bass
Gerry Hemingway - drums & composer

Sunday, August 2nd at 8 pm, “Trio New York”
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Gary Versace - organ
Gerry Hemingway - drums

See the entire schedule on Gerry's Website.

Summer Festivals in Europe

JazzFestival Willisau (Switzerland) & Saalfelden Jazzfestival (Austria)

Both of these festivals have been important annual events presenting contemporary jazz since the 1970’s. Both take place in small, beautiful European towns and draw an international audience. I'm looking forward to revisiting each of these festivals, seeing old friends and making new ones. For anyone traveling the continent this summer either of these events would be worth going out of your way for.

Friday, August, 28th
Willisau, Switzerland

      Trio New York 
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Gary Versace - Hammond B3
      Gerry Hemingway - drums

Saturday, August 29th
Saalfelden, Austria

      Angelica Sanchez Quintet

      Angelica Sanchez - pianist and composer
      Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
      Marc Ducret - guitar
      Drew Gress - bass
      Tom Rainey - drums

More hatOLOGY catalogue available…

I mentioned some time ago that all of the recordings I’ve done for the hatOLOGY label would eventually become available on iTunes. As of now, almost all of them, otherwise long out of print, are waiting for your ears

on clean feed records:
Mirage - Ellery Eskelin, Susan Alcorn, Michael Formanek

on Soul Note Records:
Figure of Speech - Ellery Eskelin, Joe Daley, Arto Tuncboyaciyan
The Sun Died - Ellery Eskelin, Marc Ribot. Kenny Wolleson

on Songlines Recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black - Jazz Trash

on prime source recordings:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Jessica Constable & Philippe Gelda / Quiet Music

on hatOLOGY records:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Day
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / The Secret Museum
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Five Other Pieces (+2)
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Erik Friedlander & Joe Daley / Ramifications
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / 12 (+1) Imaginary Views
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black + Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs & Jessica Constable / Ten
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / One Great Night...Live

Forms / Ellery Eskelin, Drew Gress, Phil Haynes
Vanishing Point / Ellery Eskelin, Mat Maneri, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser & Matt Moran
Dissonant Characters / Ellery Eskelin, Han Bennink

still to come:
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Kulak 29 & 30
Ellery Eskelin w/Andrea Parkins & Jim Black / Arcanum Moderne

I also have physical copies of some of these titles as well as “Trio New York” and “Trio New York II” which are only available in CD form.  You can order those directly from my web site.

New Projects Department...

I also want to call attention to a new and developing project from bassist and composer Stephan Crump. This band shows great promise.  We’ll be playing at Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, NYC on Saturday, October 10th, 2015.

Stephan Crump’s Rhombal

Stephan Crump - bassist and composer
Adam O’Farrill - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tyshawn Sorey - drums

photo by Bonnie Wright

Saturday, May 16, 2015

SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local

New Release...“Live at Snugs / 61 Local”…now available by direct mail order from my website…

The hatHUT label (based in Switzerland) has been steadily producing recordings since 1975, nearly forty years of documenting the creative music scene. I’ve released over a dozen projects with the label since 1996, representing the bulk of my recorded output. Continuing in this relationship I’m very pleased to present this new release, a live solo saxophone recording made this past December in Brooklyn, NY as part of the Snugs concert series at 61 Local, produced by Anabel Anderson.

My first solo concert took place in 1992. In developing these performances over the years I often explored some of the further reaches of the saxophone. This solo performance represents a somewhat different approach, giving me a chance to work more deeply with the instrument’s core qualities, taking inspiration from the words of Hector Berlioz after hearing the saxophone for the first time:

“La voix du saxophone…Son principal mérite, selon moi, est dans la beauté variée de son accent, tantôt grave et calme, tantôt passionné, tantôt rêveur, ou mélancolique, ou vague, comme l’écho affaibli d’un écho, comme les plaintes indistinctes de la brise dans les bois, et mieux encore, comme les vibrations mystérieuses d’une cloche, longtemps après qu’elle a été frappée. Aucun autre instrument de musique existant, à moi connu, ne possède cette curieuse sonorité placée sur la limite du silence.”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (21 april 1849)

“The voice of the saxophone…Its chief merit, in my opinion, is in the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious and quiet, sometimes passionate, sometimes dreamy or melancholy or vague like the faint echo of an echo, as indistinct laments breeze in the woods, and even better, as the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it was hit. No other existing musical instrument, known to me, has this strange sound placed on the edge of silence .”  Hector Berlioz, Le Journal des Débats (April 21st, 1849)

Order ELLERY ESKELIN - Solo Live at Snugs / 61Local on CD, from the website for world-wide mail order via Pay Pal.  Price is $15 USD.

~limited time sale offer~

For a limited time we are offering a “2 for $25” sale. Order a copy of SOLO LIVE AT SNUGS and chose any other item on the order page and get both for $25. Be sure to use the “2 for $25” Pay Pal sale button. Then simply mention your second choice item in the additional notes field of the Pay Pal order page.

Click here to go to the website and order your copy.

Watch the Promotional Video and listen to an excerpt of “Unwritten Rule” from SOLO Live at Snugs / 61 Local:

Ellery Eskelin - Solo Live at Snugs / 61 Local
Recorded live at 61 Local in Brooklyn, NY by Jon Rosenberg on December 1st, 2013. All selections by Ellery Eskelin.  Tuhtah Publishing/Suisa.  Produced by Ellery Eskelin.  Executive production by Werner X. Uehlinger. hatOLOGY 731 CD.

Turning a Phrase 13:52
State of Mind 11:25
Unwritten Rule 10:29
Weave / Warp and Woof         14:40
Total Time 50:29

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring 2015...

Meredith Monk and Friends at Carnegie Hall

Composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer (and maybe more, I’m not sure) Meredith Monk has been creating work in New York City for fifty years.  To my mind she has created an entire artistic world of her own and yet it is a world that speaks beyond stylistic or aesthetic conventions and connects to the world at large in a very direct engagement with our senses and emotions. When I was first confronted with her music (WNYC radio played her music often in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s) I did not understand it nor did I connect well with it. That’s embarrassing for me to say but it’s the truth. Her music utilized the voice in ways that I had never heard in any musical context before, sometimes sounding silly and childlike other times exaggerated and humorous and other times startling and nearly frightening. Her music also made heavy use of repetition, something I was not used to and in fact rather resistant to. But every time I heard her music it took possession of my entire attention.  I could not ignore it.  On one level I wanted to reject it and tried to justify thinking that it was somehow not valid. But the problem that it presented was too big to dismiss.  I couldn’t rationalize it away.  But I still couldn’t figure it out and it remained a somewhat frustrating experience whenever it came on the radio.  I listened to WNYC almost daily at that time and her music was being played regularly so this went on for some months.  Then one day, for what reason I’ll never be able to say, the whole thing changed.  Her music came on unexpectedly just as it had many times before.  But this time it made total sense.  Not only that, it spoke to me on a direct and emotional level that cut through any questions or intellectualizations. It wasn’t necessary to figure any thing out, it was OBVIOUS! How could I have missed it? What was my problem? From that point on her music made total sense and opened up a whole world of new issues with which to work through in my own music. Reexamining the role of memory, perception, time and proportion (things I had previously taken for granted) have led to a deeper appreciation for and awareness of the potential for music to resonate in ways I had not known possible. It’s even influenced my own compositional process.

This kind of musical awakening does not happen frequently. I think of myself as open minded and accepting of possibilities even if they do not particularly resonate with me. So it’s rare that I hear something and react with strong aversion.  Before that it was probably my first encounter with John Coltrane’s recording “Interstellar Space”. I was probably 14 years old and had been playing the horn for three or four years. I had already heard “Giant Steps” and loved that. But I had never heard music like he and Rashid Ali were making and more to the point, I couldn’t imagine why he was making a lot of the same kinds of sounds that I was trying to avoid making on the saxophone. I couldn’t understand how that was intentional. So I put the record away for a few years and kept practicing. At some point in high school I decided to revisit this record and gave it a spin. This time I heard the music. And it was a musical experience unlike anything I had experienced before. I realized he was making use of every potential sound he could get out of the instrument, maybe even trying for some that didn’t quite come out but you could feel what he was feeling. That level of communicative power was astonishing and revelatory.  It was as if he was confronting the big questions of life right there in the moment of playing the saxophone.

Likewise, in Meredith Monk’s music the use of the voice was deceptive at first, due to my expectations. In retrospect I think it was a recognition that the voice was being used like an instrument that changed my perspective that day. Not that she uses the voice to imitate instruments, in fact quite the opposite.  She embraces the most fundamental and essential qualities of the voice and yet organizes the sounds and events in ways that reflect abstract processes often used in instrumental music. Because vocal sounds in general are so personal we often regard them differently than instrumental sounds (which ironically often strive for a vocal quality). And in Meredith’s case, the way she structures her music seems to distill these personal essences, heightening their potency.

These kinds of moments are powerful and memorable. Sometimes we tend to equate a certain greatness to the music because of the power of these experiences. But that would be a bit of a trap. The music is what it it is. What changed was my relationship to it. And over time my feelings for Meredith Monk’s music and John Coltrane’s music has deepened such that it helps me connect with that thing that we all have in common even as we express it it different ways, though different cultural experiences and different traditions. Our shared humanity. It would be tempting to associate these unnamable qualities with particular sounds or approaches but the beauty of music is often encountering the unexpected. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out someone or something comes along and turns it all on it’s head. Then again, not all music does that and it would be a mistake to place a certain value (or lack of value) on the fact that you got your world rocked or not.  So I appreciate these moments even as I do not want to be trapped by chasing them. I may never have another experience like those, which is fine. To expect that would be an imposition on music and on myself.  These moments were simply sudden openings, personal to me at the time. Yours will be different. The fact that they were dramatic should not influence my expectations on other music heard at other times.  To do so would be to miss the opportunity to open in those moments. So the lesson is not to attach to the opening, but to continue to be open and continue to learn. And so for that continued opportunity I say, thank you Meredith!

I mention all of this in order to provide some background regarding a recent concert that I participated in at Carnegie Hall.  First off, it was my first time performing there so there’s that. And I live close enough so that I could walk to the gig, that’s always cool. But the real thrill was to be able to participate in a large scale presentation of the music of Meredith Monk along with a broad cross section of New York’s musical community, all of whom are deeply inspired by her work over these many years. Participants included Bang on a Can All-Stars (Ashley Bathgate, Cello - Robert Black, Bass - Vicky Chow, Piano - David Cossin, Percussion - Mark Stewart, Guitars - Ken Thomson, Clarinets), Don Byron, Future Quest (Theo Bleckmann, Vocals - Ellery Eskelin, Saxophone - John Hollenbeck, Percussion - Tony Malaby, Saxophone - Erik Deutsch, Organ), Ha-Yang Kim, Lukas Ligeti, The M6, Missy Mazzoli and Victoire, Courtney Orlando, Cynthia Powell, Lee Ranoldo, Todd Reynolds, Nadia Sirota, DJ Spooky, Young People's Chorus of New York City (Francisco J. Núñez, Artistic Director), John Zorn, Cyro Baptista and was hosted by John Schaefer of WNYC radio. And of course Meredith Monk performed as well.

The project I participated in is called “Future Quest” and was put together by percussionist John Hollenbeck and vocalist Theo Bleckmann, both of whom have been members of Meredith’s ensemble for many years.  Erik Deutsch played organ and Tony Malaby and myself played saxophones. This is a group of improvisors at heart and yet there is little improvisation involved in the music. Improvisors usually want to take existing material and work with it, often dramatically changing the material in the process. But in this case we wanted to stay as close to the essence of the music as possible. The lesson for the improvisor in a situation like this is to learn how to inhabit the material, how to inhabit a melody, how to deliver it simply as what it is, not with additional commentary or ornamentation. Future Quest first performed at the Whitney Museum in 2009 as part of a similar presentation and has performed a number of times since then and I’m always reminded of this important lesson.  It’s consistently been one of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve been a part of.

(Photograph of Future Quest by Steven Pisano)

Down Under...Australia 

In a previous post I mentioned a new project led by pianist Marc Hannaford that we recorded here in New York City.  This group will soon be heading to Australia for a two week tour of concerts and teaching engagements.  Here’s the rundown, mate…

Marc Hannaford - piano, compositions
Scott Tinkler - trumpet
Ellery Eskelin - saxophone
Tom Rainey - drums

Wednesday, May 27th - Hobart Conservatorium - Concert and Workshops
Thursday, May 28th - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day)
Friday, May 29th  - Sydney Conservatorium - Workshops (day) + Sydney Improvised Music Association performance at Foundry 616 (evening)
Tuesday, June 2nd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop
Wednesday, June 3rd - Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Bennetts Lane Jazz Club
Thursday, June 4th - Melbourne International Jazz Festival - Artist Workshop, Monash University Music Auditorium
Friday, June 5th - The Street Theater - Canberra

Here’s a track from the recording, “Framed”.  Available at BandCamp.

Out West...Denver, Colorado

This past February I spent some time in Denver, Colorado doing workshops and teaching at Metro State University and University of Denver. Saxophonist Mark Harris is professor of saxophone and improvised studies at Metro State, trumpeter Ron Miles is the coordinator of Jazz Studies.  At University of Denver saxophonist Art Bouton is professor of saxophone and chair of the woodwind department.  Art and I attended Towson University in Baltimore together when Hank Levy ran the band.  Hank was a great writer with a signature sound and the band played his music exclusively. In fact, it was one of Hank Levy’s compositions, “Whiplash” that was used in the recent film of the same name. I hesitate to even mention that since the film portrayed a bizarre kind of boot camp - music school that in no way resembled anything that I could personally relate to in terms of learning and playing music.  Athletic, quasi militaristic and devoid of any joy or humanity and I’m not particularly sure what the point of the film was.  In any event, our time at Towson was rigorous but rewarding and joyful and there was a lot of love for Hank on the part of a great many people. He brought out the best in his bands in all of the most positive ways. I can only hope to bring some of that positive spirit with me when I visit music programs as a guest artist. Music has changed a bit since we were in school but music making is the same. I enjoyed the time in Denver, the students were very much engaged and enthusiastic.  Very easy to relate to and work with.  I’m also encouraged to see an awareness on the part of these programs that the needs of students today is also a bit different than in years past. As music changes, as the business of music changes, music programs need to serve these realities and offer solid foundational study with opportunities for creative and eclectic activity.  So kudos to both of these programs.

I also had the great fortune to connect with pianist Art Lande for two concerts in Denver, one at Dazzle Jazz Club and one at Metro State.  I’ve been aware of Art’s reputation for many years and so it was great to have this opportunity to make some music. Having never played together before I was hoping to have a chance to get together before the first concert and see how things felt, decide how we wanted to structure things.  But given the schedule we only had a brief amount of time at the club to do this before the actual concert.  Our plan was to improvise freely utilizing standards, something that I’ve been also doing with my group “Trio New York”.  Once the piano was set up and the stage cleared and ready to go Art played a few notes and I joined in.  Within five seconds I was completely assured.  It was as if we had been playing together for years.  Art and I both try and play with very clear phrasing and clarity of intent, mixing and matching ideas off of each other and never falling into default roles of solo and accompaniment. There were some almost telepathic moments that surprised us both. All in all a wonderful experience.  Thanks to everyone in Denver for making this happen!

And while I'm thinking of it, here is a rendition of Hank Levy’s composition “Whiplash” as performed by the Don Ellis band in 1973 (that’s more than forty years ago!)

Spirits Rejoice

Jason Bivins, musician, writer and professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, has written a new book on the subject of jazz and American religion called “Spirits Rejoice” (named after the Albert Ayler recording).  The relationship between secular and sacred musical traditions in the United States runs deep and yet it’s generally not directly addressed in most musical criticism or discussion.  Given the potential complications it’s perhaps easy to see why that is.  Yet this is a deep part of our history no matter where you may see yourself in relation to the subject.  As such, I think a fuller understanding of this music requires that we look at this history in order to better understand where we are and how we got here.  Jason has done some considerable research and has reached out to the community of musicians (of which he is a part) for some fascinating insights into the many differences and commonalities of approach among musicians.  In the process we gain some insight into the music as well as the many traditions of religious practice taking place in America through the lens of improvisation.  I’m only half way through it but I can already sense that this is a necessary book.

I should mention that Jason and I got together one afternoon a few years ago for a discussion, which is referred to in the book. As much as I see and feel the connections between music and what we generally refer to as spirituality I’ve never been quite comfortable in compartmentalizing some experiences or activities as spiritual and others not. I get hung up on words and intellectualization. One of the beauties of playing music is that it’s non-verbal and even if there are lyrics involved there is a complexity of ideas and emotions that resists a completely literal interpretation. Jazz music in particular is one of the only things that made real sense to me in the world, something I recognized early on in life. As such my identity has been completely enmeshed with being a musician. If I had a religion it was jazz music. I’ve been playing long enough now that I can begin to entertain the idea of asking "who" it is that is playing. But I still don’t like to name things. At it’s best music is experiential and unnamable.  Same with life. I’ve sometimes struggled in order to create a music that integrates my perspectives and experiences, experiences that sometimes seemed at odds. But over time things seem to come together. You realize the continuity and reality of your life and you write your own story. To do that in the context of American music is to also be connected to a deep and powerful tradition, born out of the African American experience and yet speaking to our shared humanity as Americans and as world citizens around the globe. To talk about that story and that history invokes a great deal of pain.  But it also demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in both suffering and in joy. Given that American music and American religion have an inextricable and complex relationship it seems impossible to talk about the music without addressing or at least being aware of the relationships. Jason’s book should move this conversation forward in a positive, productive and meaningful way.

Different But the Same

I’ve written before about “Different But the Same” (Dave Liebman - tenor saxophone, Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone, Tony Marino - bass, Jim Black - drums). We’ve been playing now for over ten years. We had such a great time on the last tour playing without any written music that we decided to go into the studio and do the same. Always good to document the growth of a band, we’ll see what happens with this. I’ve known Dave now since 1981 and so it’s been rewarding to see his continued artistic trajectory over these many tears, a true keeper of the flame. Dave was honored with a NEA Jazz Masters award in 2011 and recently there has been a book “What it Is - The Life of a Jazz Artist” that chronicles his life. It’s a rewarding read and offers a vivid portrait of New York City in the late 60’s and into the 70s.

More hatOLOGY on iTunes

I mentioned in a previous post that my catalogue of recordings done on the hatOLOGY label (over a period of more than ten years) will eventually be available in full on iTunes.  The first title “One Great Day…” (1996) has been up for some months and now there is also “One Great Night…Live” (2009).  Additionally two of the titles I’ve done in collaboration with fellow saxophonist David Liebman in the group “Different But the Same” are available.

One Great Night Live
Different But the Same - Renewal
Different But the Same - Non Sequiturs

The Art of Street Photography - Lee Friedlander

In one of my previous posts I mentioned seeing Lee Friedlander on the street here in town one morning. I’ve been a big fan of his work since seeing his retrospective at MOMA back in 2005. On that morning, passing him on Eighth avenue I wondered what he was seeing, what he was shooting. After all, he's been shooting urban portraits for fifty years. Given the almost romanticized filter through which we might see images from the 1960s the comparison to today's street scenes is jolting. In earlier photos of the city there was more of what we might call independent culture (shops and business) while today we see more of what we might call mass culture (chain stores, corporate advertising) such as we see all over the country and even abroad. Not to mention people on cell phones. Because of my attitude surrounding these things I sometimes recoil at the idea of taking photos in the city, especially in midtown. But there was Lee Friedlander with his camera doing just that. So I really wondered what he was shooting and would have loved to have seen whatever work he did that day.

This morning in the New York Times we got a chance to see what that might have been. In the Sunday magazine section there is an article on Friedlander (by Teju Cole) with about a dozen street shots, all centered on people and their cell phones. Here are a few quotes from the article that resonated:

“The Friedlander effect is properly encountered not in a single photo but in a group.”

This is something that struck me deeply when I saw the Friedlander retrospective. Sometimes the images seem chaotic or unintentional, dense with information and it may not be easy to make sense of what you are confronted with. But in seeing a group of his photos it becomes easier to see what is going on in common, his “voice” if you will.

“What makes Friedlander’s photos distinct is the scrupulous inclusiveness. He shows us the tangles, the interruptions, the mess, the disorder — all of it. His photographs should fall apart, but they don’t: The catholicity of optical description, and his wide-angle lens, large depth of field and subtle middle tones, hold them together. Everything is seen with a kind of ecstatic candor.”

But I disagree with the author on the following point: “But this time, out there on the street, he’s just another American glued to his gadget, thrilled by the passing scene. Like his subjects, Friedlander is not distracted but rather is deeply absorbed in the task at hand. He is a part of the flow that he records.”

In fact, there is a major difference in that Lee Friedlander is paying a great deal of attention to what’s going on around him. The people he is photographing on their phones are not. He is tuned in, they are tuned out. And that's something I find admirable beyond my respect for Lee Friedlander as an artist. How often do we really see what is in front of us, without interpretation and bias? Of course a great photograph does offer a point of view, an opinion. Maybe even a truth. But in order to find these things the photographer must be able to strip away their own attitudes and conditioning to see simply what is. In doing so they open the possibility of discovering something that they did not know was there. In seeing such work we are often astonished at what we miss in our everyday walks and travels. This is one of the reasons I love photography.

Getting close...

I’ve been mentioning the upcoming solo saxophone release “Solo Live at Snugs” for some months now.  We’re actually getting quite close to having the discs in hand.  I expect that to happen sometime in the first week of May.  Once I receive the shipment I’ll be making more noise about it and letting you know how to get your hands on a copy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Welcome to 2015…

Going to start the year off with a short post regarding some recently released recordings. As many of you are aware, since 1996 I’ve recorded more than a dozen projects for the Swiss hatOLOGY label, which is celebrating it’s 40 year anniversary this year.  As they were pressed as limited edition CDs most of these titles have been out of print for quite some time and so I’m pleased to report that in the coming weeks and months they should each become available again, now on iTunes. The first project “One Great Day” (from 1996) is now ready.

This past November I had the pleasure of touring Europe with a promising new project led by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin and featuring Dan Weiss on drums. Our first recording, entitled “Trust”, is now available from Yolk Records.  You can also find "Trust" on iTunes.  Plans are in the works for upcoming tours and a followup recording. You'll be hearing more about this band.

Also recorded last year is “Can You See with Two Sets of Eyes” by pianist Marc Hannaford along with Scott Tinkler on trumpet and Tom Rainey on drums.  This is currently available on BandCamp and I’m told that physical copies are also on the way in the very near future. This group will be traveling to Australia in the spring, more news then. I wrote a bit about both of these new projects in the Spring / Summer 2014 post below.

I’ve been mentioning the pending solo saxophone recording on hatOLOGY and am happy to report that were are on track for an April release.  There will be a promotional video and further information on this release as we approach the street date. In the meantime you can have a look at the cover. I took the photograph while traveling in Belgium some years back.

Finally, just revamped the website for the new year. Appearances are always updated and recordings are available for mail order. More news to come...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Spring / Summer 2014

The Way Things Feel

Living in midtown Manhattan it sometimes seems as if it couldn't be possible to add any more people into the mix, any further noise, any further activity. And then for a few weeks in late August there is a marked decrease in the amount of people. Less traffic, less sound, less movement. While many folks choose this time to vacate the city I find it to be one of my very favorite times to be in town. A little more room to think and feel. And perhaps catch up on maintaining this blog.

I realize that the posts here have been coming less frequently as of late. Not sure entirely why that is except to realize that the intuitive mode of working often requires a degree of retrospection in order to articulate and make sense of what’s been done. Or perhaps it’s OK to simply admit that I have little to say for a particular length of time. 

Writing about music tends towards intellectualization. Not that it can’t be done. Good writing is it’s own form of expression, not a substitute for experiencing the things it is describing. The direct experience of hearing music is by nature non-verbal (lyrics aside). So how is it processed, before the act of intellectualization? What does the music sound like? “Like” in this instance is a comparative word. Perhaps we can better ask, what does the music feel like? Feel is experiential, direct, even physical. If there is any theme or cohesion in this lengthy post, it may center around the issue of how things feel.

I turned fifty-five this year, and that feels good. This past summer has been a time to more deeply connect with family and friends while considering just what it means to make a life in music. In this culture, devoting ones life to music requires making a living at it, being able to do it as much as you can and to the highest degree you can. Certain sacrifices may be required. There can often be pressure to compromise our artistic goals as we figure out how to earn a living. And yet there is another potential compromise if in the pursuit of these goals we somehow miss out on too much of what life has to offer.

Having raised this issue, perhaps it’s best to start with a philosophical essay, inspired by some recent statements by one of the masters in this music.

Who’s playing?

Sonny Rollins did in interview recently with NPR which was titled “You Can’t Think and Play at the Same Time”. There was one quote in particular that got me to…thinking…

“The thing is this: When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don't want to overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time — believe me, I've tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast.”  

That’s something I can strongly relate to, as I’m sure most of you can as well.  By the time you calculate, or separate yourself for even an instant from the music you’ve lost your place. If we try and be too clever about intentionally putting this or that idea into action we may actually derail the process. Then he went on to say:

“I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that's when it's really happening.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment among musicians, especially improvisors. And while I understand what he’s saying, the way he says it draws my interest in a bit more deeply. At the risk of reading more into it than was intended there are some fundamental questions raised that are worth considering.

The first thing that caught my attention was the idea of “I’m not supposed to be playing” and that the music is coming "through" us. That seems to imply that the music comes from some other source. But if we’re not the source of the music, who or what is? As for “standing there with the horn, moving my fingers", if I disengage to the point that I am letting my fingers go on their own I will likely wind up playing rote, practiced ideas that may not relate very well to the music in the moment. Obviously Sonny Rollins does not have that problem so let’s look a little deeper.  

If the music is coming “through” us perhaps we need to think about the words “me” and “music” in some other way. Let’s consider “me” in the context of “thinking”. It’s very easy to identify with our thoughts as being “me”. But clearly this can create problems. Thoughts change. And they may well get in the way of doing certain things. Playing music requires a sense of flow. So how do we turn our thoughts off when improvising? Simply by turning our attention towards how it feels to actually do the thing you’re doing, without distraction or personal commentary. If we entertain the possibility of losing ourselves in the music, then we won’t perceive any separation between ourselves and the music. Perhaps asking where the music is coming from is not the correct question.

What are we really talking about here? More than just playing the saxophone, we are also listening to the sounds being made around us, interacting with other musicians in real time. In order for a group of musicians to improvise a coherent and compositionally balanced piece of music there has to be enough overt connection and development of ideas between the members of the group to create a sense of continuity.  And there has to be enough variety, initiation of new ideas and independence among the musicians to create contrast and keep things moving. This involves issues of intellect, organization and negotiation. And yet we leave all of this to our intuitive, non-verbal, non-thinking minds to accomplish. What could possibly go wrong?

If the participants each took too passive a role little music may actually take place. Too aggressive a stance and the players get ahead of the music. How to balance being pro-active and being responsive? I would suggest that by placing attention on the overall music and intuitively asking, “what does the music need right now” we remain engaged in the moment and ready to guide the music in any particular direction or achieve the proper balance at any particular time. Our intellect and years of training and study inform the process but the music is guided simply by the act of playing the music itself. Our attention stays on what we are doing at the moment we are doing it, no more no less.

You may have noticed that I left out “feeling” or “emotion” when discussing what is involved in playing music. I attended a chamber music concert earlier this year which was followed by a discussion with the composers and artists involved.  Someone in the audience asked the vocalist about the role of emotion in the process of interpreting the music. The vocalist surprised me by bringing up the fact that if she were to become emotional during the performance it would physically interfere with her ability to sing. Even as I understood the obvious truth of that statement I didn’t want to fully accept it. I don’t like to think of music as being cold or cerebral. But of course that’s not an idea that she was endorsing. In some way this could be similar to the idea of ”thinking” as it interferes with the process, and yet intellect is still present. Emotion may also interfere with the process and yet feeling is still there. Intellect and feeling are accessed naturally in the act of “doing” music. To the point that we may even say that playing music is not “about” these things. If we want to be intellectual there are ways to be intellectual and if we want to be emotional there are ways to be emotional. And yet music involves both. Clear away notions of intellectualism and emotionalism, remove any baggage that we may potentially bring to the process and what is left? Only the music. And the music contains everything.

Swing as a Creative Act - Towson University Residency 

I'm not an idiomatically “correct” player. When placed in any particular musical situation I'm usually predisposed to situate myself somewhat left of center, meaning that I understand the context I find myself in yet there is a desire to expand that context just a bit. And yes, there is a fine line between expanding the music and imposing one’s self on it. I’ll be honest, there have been times in which I’ve crossed that line. I’m tempted to point some of them out. But I won’t. So don’t ask.

Expanding the music simply means adding something, ones own voice. But what if you are consciously trying to recreate a music on idiomatic terms? There may well be a set of unwritten rules by which one is guided. Asserting one’s own voice may be problematic, raising the question of the appropriateness of such a notion in recreating a music that was new, say, eighty years ago. The problem is that we know too much. Too much history has taken place since then. So we have to edit the creative process to such an extent that it becomes questionable whether it’s still a creative process. If anything it’s a re-creative process, a different dynamic than the one that was in place at the time that music was first played. 

If you listen long and hard enough to early jazz at some point you may get beyond the style and hear the creative process that was going on. And you may recognize that process with such familiarity that you think, “that sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. That sounds modern.” At least that’s what happened to me in the past few years. So the question then becomes, can that music be replicated? I’ve raised that question before but I haven’t closed the door on the possibility that it can be done.

It might be accomplished by simply dealing with the musical raw materials as such. If we understand the conceptual parameters of the music (as determined by the materials) we should be able to find creative choices within those parameters. But what of the fundamental relationship we, as individuals, have with the music? You may respect the music, even revere the music. You may in fact love the music. But do you love to play it? What does it mean to pick up an instrument and play from your own feelings of how it feels to be alive, no agenda, no function, in this moment. Letting go of everything else, obligations, requirements, the word “should”. No need to prove anything to anyone, particularly yourself. What would you play?

I won’t risk projecting any of that onto musicians from generations back. There were agendas, conventions, obligations, of course. But at certain times in history it seems that particular values come together, values of entertainment, art and personal expression, resulting in a music that speaks to it’s time and yet remains vital well beyond that time. To the degree that we perceive a form of honesty and directness in that music, a sense of pushing at the boundaries, a sense of expanding the music even as it’s being played, we hear musicians who were creating music, not recreating it. Is it safe to assume that they loved playing it because it was a personal expression as well as a collective expression geared to the realities of it’s time? If so, would we regard this as an essential ingredient in trying to play this music today, beyond the technical issues?

There are many musicians who play very well in these early styles yet I sometimes yearn for them to break the rules and go a little wild. But if I’m honest, I never have that feeling when I listen to the original recordings from years back. So maybe it’s not rule-breaking and mania that I’m missing. There are also many musicians playing this music from a less reverential stance. They sometimes surprise me with how much vitality there still is in this music when having some fun. But I often wind up feeling that these performances tend towards a degree of shallowness, lacking in a certain depth that is evident in the early recordings. So just what is the proper balance, the missing ingredient? Again, I’m not saying it can’t be done, just looking at the issues.

This past April I had a chance to experience firsthand how these issues can play out. I was invited to do a week long teaching residency at Towson University in Baltimore. When doing these types of workshops with students I'm often hired to bring a "creative" improvising ethic to the proceedings. I have no problem with that. It’s only natural given the music I make. But there is a troubling implication in making a distinction between creative improvising and jazz improvising. The former is often regarded as a personal expression while the later is often regarded in terms of style. This results in a tacit omission of certain essential musical elements in the stance of being "creative" or “modern”, namely swing. But swinging is one of the most creative acts we can manifest in our music. To simply regard it as a style diminishes it's power. 

Addressing this issue head on there seemed no better place to start than to have the students play some early Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington compositions. I've been listening almost exclusively to early jazz for the last couple of years but that alone could not prepare me for what I was getting into. I had never done this before with a group of students. Thankfully much of the heavy lifting had been done by director Jim McFalls in preparation for my arrival. We knew this was not going to be a straight repertory project but we had to find the essentials of the music in order to find our own approach.

As I walked into the first rehearsal the band was already there and warming up. They had been working on the music for some weeks so I asked to hear something. I didn’t know quite what to expect (as there were a number of freshman students in the band) but was pleasantly surprised by how well they navigated the chart. There was one issue however that deserved immediate attention. The bass sounded muddy and indistinct. This affected the way the drummer played and by extension the way the entire band played. I figured the amplifier was turned up too high and suggested turning it all the way down then incrementally raising it until the proper level was reached. But as soon as the bassist turned off the amp and started playing time with the drums the difference was clear to everyone. They were swinging so hard I wanted to pick up my horn and join in. There was now a clarity to the sound and a sense of the proper weight on the proper part of the beat that was lacking just a moment ago. Now we had a foundation for the rhythmic feel, the essential quality of the music.

As a result each member of the ensemble was able to feel their own relationship to the time. And being able to hear every other person in the band allowed the ability to interact with various subsets of the group at any given time according to the orchestration. This became the entry point for making creative choices based upon the issue of “how does it feel”. As the rehearsals progressed we picked up on certain textures or events in the music that seemed to be viable points for further exploration, designing introductions, endings or insertions of improvised material. Some of the pieces we played more or less verbatim according to the scores, even replicating some of the solos as they were done on the original recordings. What’s so creative about that? Making that decision in and of itself. There were numerous choices available in the playing of these pieces, and most of them are not arrived at by looking at the music. How to phrase, how to articulate, issues of dynamics, blend, contrast, and of course how to make it all feel good. In deciding whether to open a piece up or play it straight the only obligation we had was to explore the inherent creative possibilities that the music offered. 

We continued to rehearse using no bass amp nor any microphones at all, either on the piano or for any soloist. Playing completely acoustically cleared up many things but would it work in performance? The concert hall was rather large and some of the students had their doubts but I insisted we try it. We set up for one last rehearsal, this time in the performance hall and to my own surprise I could hear every instrument with no problem whatsoever all the way to the back of the hall. When this music was written there was little if any amplification used. That meant that composers and arrangers had to know how to orchestrate accordingly. This was like listening to chamber music, both subtle and powerful at the same time. The students got a first-hand lesson in the meaning of creativity beyond the issue of style. I and learned a bit more about just how this music works. The questions raised at the beginning of this essay remain open. But I take that as a positive sign.

As part of these residencies I’m also invited to present a concert of my own music. The natural choice in this case was to bring “Trio New York” to explore our version of free improvisation as it relates to the Great American Songbook. The lineup of the group (tenor saxophone, Hammond B3 and drums) also speaks to a time when Baltimore was a bonafide organ town. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey joined us for this engagement along with Gary Versace on the organ. It was very rewarding to deal with the very same issues that I had been working with the students on in lectures, rehearsals and private lessons that week. 

As always, there is quite a lot of work involved in making something like this happen. Getting a proper Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker on a gig is sometimes a risky proposition. In this case however we were very fortunate in that one of Baltimore’s great organists, Dennis Fisher was in a position to provide an instrument for this event. I remember Dennis from many years ago as part of saxophonist Mickey Fields’ group. All of us young musicians would regularly go to clubs like the Birdcage to sit in. We got one education in school and we got another education on the streets of Baltimore from folks like Mickey Fields and Dennis Fisher. Thanks Dennis.

And kudos to Dave Ballou for building up a vital program at Towson University. Thanks to the Music and Arts department and thanks also to the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency for continuing support.

The Classical Saxophone

Another area of practice that has emerged in the last year involves investigation of the classical tradition of saxophone playing. As with early jazz, my interest is not based on style but rather on issues of sound. The manner of playing saxophone in classical music and in early jazz was not nearly as different in those early years as it is today. As to who borrowed from whom that’s an interesting question. Marcel Mule claims in an interview that he was the first saxophonist to introduce vibrato to the classical tradition, having been coaxed into it by a composer who had heard him playing in a jazz band. This composer wanted Mule to utilize that same vibrato as soloist in his symphony orchestra piece. Over time Mule employed it more consistently in his performances. Prior to that it is thought that classical saxophonists did not use vibrato.

I'm currently practicing a transcription of the Bach cello suites and in the process gaining insight into issues concerning the saxophone as well as issues concerning interpretation. As with improvising or playing jazz, there are choices to be made with respect to each note, each phrase. The choices are often different than the one’s I’d make in a jazz context but again, rather than be guided by notions of style I prefer to be guided by the process of figuring out how to make everything speak clearly and feel the best it can feel. 

Saxophonists may be interested in the gear involved. I find that my Buescher Aristocrat tenor along with a Rascher mouthpiece and Vandoren reed make things much easier. As an experiment I sometimes try to play the Bach suites with a “jazz” mouthpiece. It becomes immediately evident how far we’ve gotten from certain tonal aspects of the instrument in the name of increased volume, power and brightness (increased high end) of sound. None of that is bad in and of itself but it is instructive. 

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m in the process of commissioning a chamber work in which I can utilize this kind of tonal pallet yet in a modern language. News of developments will be made as things move forward.

Different But the Same

“Different But the Same” European Tour Spring 2014

David Liebman - tenor saxophone
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tony Marino - bass
Jim Black - drums

I first met David Liebman in 1980 when he came to Baltimore to do a teaching workshop. When I moved to NYC a few years later I tracked him down for some lessons which over time led to informal jam sessions and occasionally hanging out. Over the years we have continued to keep in touch and in 2004 David proposed that we combine forces and start a two-tenor quartet. We call the group “Different But the Same”. The band has made three albums for the Swiss hatOLOGY label tours Europe regularly. Each member of the group contributes material to the book, which has grown considerably over time. One night on this most recent tour however, we got the idea to hit the stage without the book, improvising the entire set. Given the history of the band it proved none too difficult and the process opened up territory that we had not fully addressed in the past. We completed the entire tour in this fashion. Aware of the potential challenge to the listener (generally a continuous piece of music lasting nearly an hour) we focused on creating a vivid aural journey, providing a sense of structure that invites the audience in with us. Very direct playing and a very rewarding experience. As long as I have known David I have been impressed and inspired by his continuing thirst to learn and his capacity for artistic development. I never fail to learn something from playing with him, every time out.

The band does not often play in the states so it was a special treat for us to play the “New Music in Bryant Park” series this past August. This is a free concert series curated by Chamber Music America presenting a jazz group and a classical group on a double bill. The concerts take place outside in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. People walking through the park are able to stop and take in sounds they would not likely be exposed to otherwise. It was a terrific feeling to stand in the heart of the city playing what I’m sure to many sounded like some pretty weird music. Folks seemed to be listening intently but what did they make of it all? Did they understand the music? Personally I don’t think understanding has that much to do with it. But it was clear that they were feeling something. Their focus and attention demonstrated that. All in all a very gratifying experience. There should be more opportunities for musicians and the public to intersect like this.

Swing as a Physical Act - NYC

If you’ve been paying any attention to this blog over time you’ll know that I’ve been immersing myself in the listening of early jazz and finding all kinds of inspiration from the sound, emotional directness and above all the rhythm of this music. One night, somewhere in that strange middle ground between waking and half-way dozing off, losing myself in these sounds I began to hear the music in a different way, and it occurred to me that this was really dance music. Not that I didn’t already know that, but I felt it in a way that I had never felt before. It was if there was no other reason for this music to exist if not to swing and move people, and quite literally at that. I’ve always regretted that I never learned to dance. Seems not an uncommon situation among most musicians. After all, we’re always on the other side of the dance floor. So I got to thinking that if I were to be able to dance to this music I might learn something more about the essence of it. My wife loves to dance so I decided this year to take some lessons. Fortunately there are a good number of dance events in NYC during the summer both at Lincoln Center and on the Hudson River. But still, I’m embarrassingly awkward on the floor. But even though it’s tough at times I always come away feeling very good about having done it. In trying to figure out the reasons for this stereotype (that musicians can’t dance) I’ve come to sense that dancers seem to feel the beat in a different, perhaps looser way than musicians. There’s also the fact that musicians typically use smaller muscle groups and fine motor control for very precise movements while dancers use large muscle groups and in a much larger range of space. Given these larger movements it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly where certain movements originate, especially given my initial preoccupation with where my feet are at any given time. After some humbling experiences on the dance floor I decided that rather than worry about what I was learning in the lessons I should simply begin by connecting with the movements of my body in an improvisatory way (safely in the confines of my room). Not being afraid to look like a goof I was able to open up my physical awareness as a whole. Not worrying about where my feet go made it possible to concentrate on moving the core of my body. I soon realized the connection here to playing music. If all we do is concern ourselves with the rules we may never give ourselves the chance to explore our natural musical tendencies and idiosyncrasies. And without that, without feeling something, what are we doing? This has not immediately resulted in me becoming a good dancer but it’s essential if I’m going to get any better. And I’m also not sure that I’ll reconcile the different modes of hearing and feeling the beat but if nothing else it’s great fun.

Two New Projects

Marc Hannaford
Jozef Dumoulin

I’ve taken part in two new projects this year, both centering around a current musical trend of sorts, that of odd or mixed meters in jazz and improvised music. This area of the music has been developing steadily for some time and is now reaching a stage where an entire generation of young musicians is able to play fluidly in a rhythmic language that is quite complex while making it all sound and feel quite organic. The first of these projects is led by by pianist Marc Hannaford (from Melbourne, Australia). This past March I worked with Marc’s ensemble here in NYC for a week of rehearsals, a concert and recording session. The band includes trumpeter Scott Tinkler (also from Australia) as well as NYC based drummer Tom Rainey. The second project is led by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin (based in Paris, France). Jozef’s project took place in June with a week of rehearsals, a number of dates in Europe (including the Jazzdor Berlin Strasbourg Festival) and a recording session in Paris. Jozef plays Fender Rhodes piano and NYC based Dan Weiss is on drums. Both of these projects involved cultural grants. Given the state of finance for the arts in general (and jazz in particular) in the context of economic recession, politics and technology these grants are often an important part of the overall equation in getting projects off the ground.

Musically these new projects have been very stimulating and challenging. While my phrasing has developed along different lines (and is not particularly metrically based) I feel a strong kinship to the overall sound and feel of this kind of playing. Drummers Dan Weiss and Tom Rainey are able to make any kind of mixed meter or cross rhythm feel loose and relaxed while grooving intensely. It’s kind of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in this area in the past thirty or so years. The first measure of one of Marc’s compositions contains groupings of 5, 7, and 3 with irregular portions of note groupings tied across beats and the occasional quarter note triplet feel superimposed on top. As Tom said at the recording session, “when we were coming up we were just happy to play in 7/8!"

Both of these groups will be releasing CDs in the near future.

Nine Musicians, No Music - Sibelius Academy Workshop in Finland

This year I was invited to travel to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland to do an extended teaching workshop. This event, however, had a twist to it. I was to work directly with the faculty, no students involved. It’s an idea borrowed from a similar workshop in Denmark but it’s also in keeping with the idea of ongoing teacher training which is maintained throughout Finland’s school system. In discussions about the state of education in the US the educational system in Finland is often held up as a model for the rest of the world.

I was also invited to bring some of my own music with which to put together a concert from a group made up of the participating faculty members. There would be two other groups as well, one led by drummer Obed Calvaire and another by pianist Antonio Faraò. I explained that most of my music involved either pure improvisation or utilized compositions in which open improvisation plays a large role. Rather than try and adapt music to an ensemble I suggested putting together a program using no written music whatsoever. The idea was received enthusiastically. 

On day one I entered the rehearsal room and was faced with eight musicians; vocalist, pianist, bassist, drummer, another drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, saxophonist. And myself. That makes nine. Thinking back to my original suggestion I was now  faced with the issue of “where to start?” 

First, in order to simply hear the sound of everyone playing together I asked for a five minute piece of improvised music. I gave no direction, wanting to be able to learn something about the group as they operated within uncertain parameters. Afterwards we discussed the sound and what it felt like to play. Various issues came up depending on the perspective and orientation of each musician. It was these very challenges that became the catalyst for creating structure and form over the coming days.

I then posed a question, “How do we know when a piece is finished? How to we recognize the ending?”  I suggested that endings are not created but are achieved when the balance of elements is correct, requiring no further need of playing. By being ready for the ending to occur potentially from the the very first note we play we’re brought into and kept in the moment. There’s little or no time to think and analyze during this process but there are a couple of guiding principles that seem to help. Any time we might experience doubt as to what to do or second guess the value of what we’re doing simply listen harder to everyone else and ask yourself, “what does the music need” Then simply do that. It may require you to play or it may require you not to play. In either case you are actively engaged in what is going on.

We then improvised in trio configurations in order to get to know each other’s playing better and to be able to hear a little more clearly what was going on. In between each short piece we discussed what it felt like from each musician’s perspective. In this discussion we investigated the idea of independence, when to maintain one’s idea against the others and when to match ideas heard from others. As a practice device to develop our ability to better “hear” contrary forces within the group we started a series of overlapping trios, each maintaining it's idea while the other entered with its own idea. We discussed how to play and influence the music without necessarily signaling one another musically or visually. At a certain point I asked the participants to play with their eyes closed in order to see if we could all agree on the ending of a piece (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean stopping together). In each case I asked with respect to the ending, ”did we get it right?"

Over time certain issues became clearly important to certain musicians. “Why does it have to be atonal?” asked one of the keyboardists. “Who said it had to be atonal?” I replied. “What about groove?” asked the guitarist. “Great question!” I said. The bassist brought up the difficulty of differentiating his sound (textures and ideas) from moment to moment in the midst of a large group. At this point I suggested that free improvisation not be thought of as a style and that the music could be inclusive of any musical devices that we were interested in trying out. We then began assembling a structure based upon some of the practice ideas that emerged involving internal groups within the larger group. We introduced tonality against atonality, groove against non-groove, soloists against small groups and so on. From this came a large structure piece that lasted about twenty minutes and which could have easily gone longer had we wished. 

Sensing that members of the group may have had some remaining concerns or musical interests I went around the room and asked each person to suggest an idea for a short group improvisation about one thing and then instruct us in how to proceed. This proved to be a excellent way to find out what was really on people’s minds as they addressed issues that were personal to them that might not have come up in discussion.

After an evening’s relaxation (involving a very hot sauna and a very cold lake) we looked at things the following morning and decided on some clear strategies with which to create our improvisations on the next night’s concert. In the process of playing versions of these pieces we discovered that success or failure was determined by our ability to perceive the collective whole while we were each involved in smaller internal groupings which were sometimes in opposition to each other. There seemed to be a fine line between the exciting musical tension created between contrasting events and undifferentiated noise. Someone walked into the room when we were deep in the middle of two diametrically opposing grooves, each drummer self contained yet listening deeply to the other. Our visitor stopped in their tracks laughing. “What kind of groove was that?” he asked. He really wanted to know. It was then I knew we were on to something.

At the sound check I made sure to ask for the minimum required amplification. If everything were to go through the PA system it would be much harder to differentiate who is doing what. We needed to hear where sounds were coming from and balance our own sounds accordingly. It was a somewhat tricky proposition with this size ensemble but in the end the concert was a success. Why? Because the music felt good. I had advised the group to perform with an ear towards the greatest clarity, imagining what the music might sound like to a listener. Could we convey to the audience what we were doing? In the end that might not even matter. Whatever the intent or however created, music primarily communicates on the basis of feel. 

I learned a great deal about how musical energy is translated from intent to result. And it was a real pleasure to work with a group of professionals who were open minded and willing to try and create something from nothing. Of course we weren’t working from nothing. In the end we learned just how much is there to work with in the moment once we begin to turn challenges into advantages. The moment contains everything.

Teaching Principles

This workshop also provided the opportunity to address the issues of learning jazz in an academic setting in an extended discussion with all of the teachers present. The issue of using the ear as the major tool (as opposed to reading) was the largest area of discussion.

My basic position is: 

By using the ear as much as possible (rather than rely too heavily on the written page) we better internalize the material we are dealing with. This work is internalized experientially, not from a book. By doing the work ourselves we make discoveries. Even if these discoveries have been made before by others they become personal to you. This is a direct relationship with the music. The ear becomes strengthened to the point that we are more agile, spontaneous and creative in our playing.