Tuesday, March 31, 2020


What does that mean?  I see the word being used a lot.  It seems to have as many meanings as there are forms of engagement.  In the simplest of terms it may mean saying yes.  It may just as easily mean saying no, depending on the circumstance.  When you say yes to something, consider that you’re also saying no to something.  And when you say no to something you’re also saying yes to something.

That may sound silly but I ask myself, what is it?  In specific terms, in each seemingly solitary choice made, what are the multiple choices being made?  I’m not trying to complicate the situation, I’m actually looking at how this really functions on an elemental level.  Are choices a set of fixed options, as in right or wrong?  Why do too many choices lead to indecision?  What is it about a questionable decision made in the past that feels irrevocable?  Or a looming decision in the future, is that a barrier?  There are certainly challenges and regrets involved in making choices.   Dealing with these challenges and regrets becomes the means towards our survival.  I think that’s very keenly felt right now.  But current events are forcing simplification and clarity.  Combine that simplicity with life and death implications and you can’t help but feel a sense of connectedness.  Each simple common sense act becomes a form of engagement.

As musicians we intuitively recognize this dynamic, ongoing and ever changing process for what it is.  Music falls away as soon as you make it.   Putting frames around the process is a means to differentiate and communicate, in order to function.  But we know the frames are fluid, temporary.   To experience the movement of this framing is perception, of life.   As perspective changes, thoughts and actions change.  Perception of life includes awareness of death although we tend not to speak too much about that.  When you hear Albert Ayler, he’s playing as if his life depends on it.  I think any serious musician of any kind of music knows this.  I feel it when I pick up the horn but when writing about it I don’t know what to say.  We generally live in a world of ideas but I don’t think life or death are ideas.  Ideas are ideas, regardless of their content.  I might say that the breath that we take in, the life force that breathing is, knows life and death, is life and death, every moment.   I don’t want to be overly heavy, but rather to alleviate some of the apprehension around what we are doing and how we are doing it.  Especially now, when the stakes are high and many folks are enduring great hardship.  There can be clarity.

I think we actually do know many of the things we “think” we don’t know.  Across the street from our apartment building a neighbor has a large sign in the window saying “You Got This”.  I think that’s true.  

Having said all that, I want to bring up a specific and practical issue concerning artists and musicians…

I’ve been asked occasionally whether I offer on-line lessons by skype.  The short answer is no, I don’t.  I don’t think it’s possible actually, at least for me.

My thoughts and feelings about the use of technology have been expressed in this blog and elsewhere.  In short, I regret that so much of our activity and experience in and of the world has been replaced by the use of screens and speakers.  The words effort and resistance come to mind as I write this.  Do those words have a negative connotation for you?  They might, since so much of our culture seems to appeal to the idea that we might apply less effort in our lives and experience less resistance in getting what we want.  It’s pervasive actually.  Saxophone players know very well the appeals made by mouthpiece manufacturers, more (sound, power) with less (effort, energy).  But that does not actually work.  The saxophone is all about resistance.  Too much and you can barely get a sound out.  Too little and the sound is thin and wildly out of control.  We need something to work with, some resistance.  The resistance requires effort to counteract.  It’s that dynamic that we use to shape our sound.  It’s the reason the sound of a saxophone is so personal and vocal.

I remember well the yearning and angst I felt around getting the information and opportunities I needed when I was coming up.  It took some effort to buy records or books or to get a music lesson.  I wanted to come to New York but it took much time and effort to make that happen.  There was a lot that felt like resistance, even insurmountable resistance.  But the beautiful, simple and sometimes painful reality was that I could only do things one at a time, one day at a time.  There was simply no alternative.  Fast forward to today…you want a book?  Takes a few minutes and it’s on the way.  You want to find a recording?  Mere seconds are all that is required.  You want to take a lesson?  Take your pick…everyone is offering…

This morning I was asked by a fellow saxophonist if I would be willing to give them an on-line lesson.  Under the current circumstances it’s difficult to say no.  When someone reaches out I don’t want to come up short.  

Going back to the first paragraph, when I say “no, I don’t teach on line”, what might I be saying yes to?  Perhaps I’m letting you know that this is not what it seems.  Perhaps I’m saying dig a little deeper, feel your desire a bit more acutely and think about what it may take to get yourself to someone who can help you.  Perhaps this takes a different form than you expected it to.  Dare I say that back in the day, when we got motivated enough either from boredom or urgency, we got out of the house and found other people to live our lives with.  This is the essence of community and community engagement.  Of course that’s not at all possible at the present time.

So I am proposing something a bit more…engaging…

Let’s start by recognizing what the technology is and what it is not.  An on-line exchange in any form is not and will never be a replacement for a music lesson.  The aspects of music-making that I most emphasize require our physical presence, full senses and ability to respond spontaneously to the smallest detail.  Otherwise there is a risk that the lesson is reduced to information rather than being an experience.  Even in my day to day teaching I often feel that students have the tendency to present their idea of what a musician is, rather than being the musician that they are.  I can work with that very easily in person but not so well on a computer screen.

But the technology does have certain strengths for a different way of working.  Rather than trying to figure out how to do a music lesson in real-time at a distance I propose working together over a longer period of time, some days or weeks.  Using that time as a positive element you can go a little deeper and put in the effort involved in articulating in words what your questions may be, what your experience of certain issues in music making are.  My role will be to listen, guide and challenge you as part of a process that unfolds more slowly.  We would rely upon writing, sharing audio files and at certain key moments utilizing a phone or video call as a means of checking in and expediting the process.  This is asking a bit more of you.  But it affords the opportunity within a certain amount of time to be a bit more thoughtful and bring out greater clarity of intention, to better know what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you might proceed.

I’ve always emphasized process in teaching.  Content is not some external element to be plugged into your practice sessions.  Your practice sessions are part of a process in which content is revealed, experientially.  Even when we are practicing a given, tried and true set of materials, something is revealed, assuming you are paying attention.  It’s never the case that certain elements of practice are “creative” while other aspects of practice are not.  To think this way is to put yourself at a distance from what you’re doing.  Let’s close that gap…

As to the practicalities and specific shape this may take for you, please contact me via e-mail at ellery.eskelin@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NYC, March 2020

The feeling is almost enormous.  The relative stillness and quiet of New York City.  For how many days now?  Not really that many but a far greater length of standstill than I’m guessing has ever happened here.  And because it’s so different and seemingly impossible it begins to take on a kind of inverse quality of the power the city usually wields.  The outward becomes inward.  But still here, always reminding us that this is New York City.

I know this is happening far and wide.  Checking the news regularly although less frequently.  Business and communication slowing to a trickle.  Making no real effort to avoid the discomfort or otherwise distract myself.  Just taking care of the day to day, just like everyone.  The silence and simplicity is starting to speak.  What’s unnecessary falls under it’s own weight.  The experience is direct.  I can do nothing to stop it.  Nor is there any need.  It’s shared.

So this is an entry from an ambivalent blogger.  Not sure why I’m writing.  Not sure what there is to add.  But I know that what I’m feeling is not mine alone.  Even solitude does not belong to me.  It too communicates; receives and transmits.

I spoke about words at some length in a previous post.  I still don’t know.  I’m not even sure what I was expecting after that analysis.  So this is simply a post without a reason, without a commitment.  It could be some kind of acknowledgement.  I can’t help but think about the city since 1983 when I moved here.  And about many of the people I know and knew.  Of those in the latter category, there are a few that I would have mentioned here had I been writing more regularly.  I want to do so now.

I offer these as affirmations of life…

Jeff Andrews 
Jeff and I were roommates in the mid-eighties.  We shared a small apartment in Chelsea with another musician.  The whole place was $350 a month and included all the story-book elements that create that oft-romanticized telling of the artist’s life.  I will spare the details.  You can use your imagination.  And all the things that accompanied the bohemian lifestyle.  Again, I invite you to think about it.  But we were there for one reason alone.  To practice, to hang, to create a life in music.  Jeff was extremely talented and dedicated to the art.  He spent hours practicing his electric bass during the day and hours spent out at night.  Sometime around 1984 he got a call to play a duo gig with a guitarist at a dark, dank old bar on Christopher street.  It was a depressing little joint inhabited by mostly alcoholics, a fair number of whom seemed to be ex writers and painters.  There’s a whole story about how this place slowly transformed into the jazz bar we now know it as, the 55 Bar.  In fact, there are a lot of stories I could tell about NYC from those days but I should probably give it more time.  Either that or I’d have to use pseudonyms.  Anyway, the point being that it was Jeff’s efforts that turned the tide for that place.  I know because I was there and saw it.

Jeff used the 55 Bar and the scene it created to launch himself into the larger scene, soon playing in bands led by Mike Stern, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter and a whole bunch more.  I left that apartment around ’86 and our paths began to diverge musically.  But we shared our early days deeply.  We both had shared roots in Baltimore as well.  Jeff passed a year ago, in March of 2019.  I know he was battling pneumonia in the months prior.  He had a large spirit and he knew what to do with it.  Still, I know there were challenges.  And I mention that out of deepest respect.  This person that you may or may not have known, had an effect.  Those who did know him understand from experience and those who did not can still know by virtue of what I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this entry.  It's all shared and there is nothing that can hold it back.  Thanks Jeff, for everything.

Brian Sjoerdinga
Brian was a fellow tenor saxophonist and we met in 1982 while on the road with trombonist Buddy Morrow.  Same age, same influences, same aspirations.  Brian studied music at Berklee and could really play.  I couldn’t help myself from stealing anything I could glean from his solos.  He had a goodnatured saltiness about it all.  Very bright and understated sense of humor.  After our road years we also became NYC roommates after I left the Chelsea pad and moved to Inwood (otherwise known as “upstate Manhattan”) in a largish apartment serving as a home for itinerant musicians.  Guitarist Ben Monder was also there in that period.  One of the great pleasures of that time was hearing Ben’s uncontrollable laughter at Brian’s relentless and often ruthless stream of critical observation.  He’d be doubled over and laughing so hard nothing would come out.  But Brian was a sweet guy really.  He left NYC after a year or so and wound up near Chicago.  The last time I saw him was in 2010.  He came to a gig I was doing and we had a chance to catch up.  He was happily married and genuinely happy in a way that I’d not quite seen before.  It really touched me.  It was also about a year ago that I received the news that Brian was ill.  He passed a matter of days after that.  I always wished that more people might have known Brian’s musicianship and spirit.  But over time I begin to trust that what may be lost simply takes other forms and energies.  Just like they do when they come together in a particular person at a particular time.

Steve Dalachinsky

Steve was a poet and a large figure in the downtown NYC scene.  I can’t even really express it.  If you were around you probably met him.  Even if you didn’t, you did.  Trust me.  I’m just going to post the text that I wrote in September of 2019 after I heard the news...

A Remembrance…for Steve Dalachinsky

It was a Saturday evening, the 17th of August to be exact. Maybe 7:30 or so. A perfect New York late summer day.
We were returning home, Michelle and I, from Chinatown.
On our bikes, we entered the west side bike path turning north. There was Steve, crossing the path at Spring street, just as we were passing. I yelled out “Hey” and we stopped right there. Within seconds immediately engrossed in conversation. Had to be warned out of the way by passing cyclists. Pulled to the side, gave a hug and continued, catching up, seeing, hearing what’s what.
Steve. Fully animated, all smiles, telling stories, what’s happened, what’s coming up.
One of many similar unexpected meetings over many years.
He was often everywhere, sometimes I saw him, other times heard that he had been there. He is on his way to the Stone to hear Ben Goldberg but first,
he says he wants to catch the sunset, from along the Hudson, from just the right spot at just the right time. He knows where it is, and he wants to get there in time. So we wish each other well, secure in the knowledge that we’ll be seeing each other soon at some point. Just like always. We close up the conversation and offer our salutations.
Several times in fact, there’s always one more thing…
But the sun is setting and he wants to meet it. So on he goes,
still talking, still gesticulating, smiling, laughing, while walking towards that moment.
We take our bikes up a block, I have to check mine into the citi bike station. And we hear Steve. He’s walking along, farther away now, seeing us and talking some more.
I can’t make out what he’s saying but he’s very enthused.
And I’m loving the fact that he hasn’t skipped a beat.
Still walking, still talking, still gesticulating, still smiling.
We wave back…

That’ll have to be the last time, I guess…
But I can still see his arms flying. I can still hear the sound of his voice. And I can imagine him standing in his spot, watching the New York sun set over the river…

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Given our current shared situation I suspect house-holding has probably gotten just a bit more real for all of us.  So…a big chance to really notice every little detail…

Being something of a news junkie it takes some effort to regulate my intake.  That’s something I noticed years ago and technology has made it even more challenging.  But it’s designed to do that, to keep us coming back.  And even when I’m not on it I feel the pull.

So today, rather than continue complaining about this (to myself and the folks around me who are probably tired of hearing it) I’ve deleted my facebook page.  Not that I used it all that much but still, I checked it regularly in the name of keeping up with business.  It has it's uses but I’ve known for quite awhile how it affects my mind.

I’ve very happy to receive e-mail and correspond with you one to one.  My website remains up and active.  You’ll find the address there.  www.elleryeskelin.com

And I suppose I may be inclined to use this blog a bit more perhaps.  About a year ago I felt it had run it’s course.  But I’m not quite ready to become a complete hermit just yet.  So…we’ll see…

I feel a bit lighter already.

Take good care…

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"Trio New York" & "Trio New York II" now available on Bandcamp

"Trio New York" (2011) and "Trio New York II" (2013) 
were CD only releases on my label (prime source recordings) and are officially out of print. 

Now, for the first time they are available in digital form (streaming and downloads) from Bandcamp.  

Please have a look / listen...       elleryeskelin.bandcamp.com

PS There are in fact a small number of CDs remaining of “Trio New York II”.  For those of you who value the collectable, physical musical talisman please contact me.  While I’m no longer shipping many single CD orders I am happy to offer discounted prices on orders of multiple CDs.  Have a look at the list of what’s available.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Just a short announcement…

In 2019 I will be placing more emphasis on teaching and somewhat less on traveling.  With teaching becoming more personally and artistically rewarding these past years this is a natural shift towards a more balanced mode of activity all around.  I enjoy working with students towards their own personal musical discoveries and I find myself learning from them in many ways.  Read a bit more on my approach here.

If you are planning to be in Manhattan or need another reason to visit please consider contacting me to discuss what’s on your musical mind.

send me an e-mail 


Friday, March 29, 2019

House Cleaning…

In my previous post I spoke about the trajectory of this blog as being more or less complete.  Since that posting I was forced to move my main website to a new server and in the process gave it a re-design.  You might have a look as I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to create an audio archive of selected tracks going back to 1987.  However, there was some archival material on the previous incarnation of the website that I have decided to post here since this blog now stands as a sort of archive in itself. First things first…

The new website is up and running at:   www.elleryeskelin.com

When I designed my first website I created a page on The Left Bank Jazz Society of Baltimore (my hometown) concert listings from 1964 to 1967.  I have simply taken that page as it was and created a pdf file of it.  You can see and download the pdf file here.

I also had a section devoted to archival material concerning the jazz scene in Baltimore that is available from the Friedheim Music Library of the John’s Hopkins Peabody Institute.

Sounds and Stories - The Musical Life of Maryland's African-American Communities. This site is a collection of interviews with musicians and people associated with the Baltimore music scene in the early days. I recommend starting with the Henry Baker and Reppard Stone interview. Henry ran a club called "The Closet" that I played at for years when I was living in Baltimore. I met a lot of great musicians there. Bob Berg and Tom Harrell, Gary Bartz, Clifford Jordan. I even got to sit in with Woody Shaw. Henry has stories that go back to his days hanging with Lester Young and Charlie Parker. There's also an interview with Ruth Binsky. Her husband Mike ran a club called "The Bandstand", another place I played at. I once sat in with Pepper Adams and Philly Joe Jones there when I was about 19.  You can access the collection at this link.

Finally, there was a section devoted to Bobbie Lee & Rodd Keith, my musician parents.

I’ve written about my mother Bobbie Lee on the blog, (here) particularly about her musical life and early development in the Pentecostal church.  Since posting that entry I have come into contact with a dear friend of my mother’s from that time in her life.  She is also a musician (pianist) and her family was deeply rooted in the church.  She’s given me quite a bit more insight into how she and my mother learned to play and what the environment was like at that time.  At some point I will probably update that post accordingly.

At one time I had created a Rodd Keith website, which is now unavailable.  I’m not sure whether or not I will create a new one, at least not in the near term.  So for now you can read the 1996 article I wrote on Rodd Keith for the WFMU Radio magazine “Lowest Common Denominator”.  It’s on the WFMU website at this link.

In 1997 the long running radio program, “This American Life” interviewed me about Rodd Keith’s work.  You can listen to that here, on their website.

Also, on February 11, 2003 PBS aired "OFF THE CHARTS: The Song-Poem Story" on the series "INDEPENDENT LENS". The film explored the "send us your lyrics" music industry and profiled my father Rodd Keith as well as some of the song-poets themselves. I was in there too, being interviewed. You can view the documentary on Netflix.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Backwards / Forwards

It’s February of 2019…wow…

I guess “wow” can be applied in just about any way you want.  What’s your outlook?  How do you articulate it?

Here's a photo from 1966, taken at one of those in-between moments.  Before I knew too much...

I started this blog in 2010 in order to help clarify some things.  About process, music and doing this today, in 2019 as it currently stands.  Before that I had written articles, liner notes and done many interviews all starting around 1996.  Before that I guess I didn’t really have much to say or a platform from which to say it.  Somehow the whole internet thing seemed to coincide with a need to say in words many things that I used to think were not possible to say in words.  I recognize that need to say things as the need to speak to what you know, take a stand, define or even defend one’s turf.  That’s important.  But there is another side of that which is essential to understand.  There is no turf to defend.  Knowing, standing for, defending, let alone talking about those things is only possible because of that fact.  That’s because there are no things, there is only activity.  And that includes the activity of speaking and naming things. 

What are words?  What do they do?  They point to something, call attention to something.  They refer to something.  Refer.  What does that word mean?  The Oxford Dictionary gives this bit of information: 

Late Middle English: from Old French referer or Latin referre ‘carry back’, from re- ‘back’ + ferre ‘bring’.

To bring back.  To bring back what?  Anything, it would seem.  And the reason that works is because there is no fixed meaning with respect to words.  There are only situations which require the need for expression.  Why?  For functionality I suppose.  So we do need to agree on some baseline definitions of words.  But in order to reflect reality in any kind of way those agreed upon definitions need some flexibility in order to accommodate perspectives.  And who has perspectives?  People.  You and I. 

In spite of all this preoccupation with speech I’ve always been intuitive when it comes right down to it.  I figure out how to say things after the fact.  And the process of verbalizing seems to make the music clearer and more direct.  Then I can let it go and move on. But it’s that direct, intuitive encounter with music (or whatever you’re doing) that reveals everything, before you really know what you’re doing.  That happens even when you think you know what you’re doing.  Even the basics, the well worn prerequisites for learning your instrument are encountered by someone who doesn’t yet really know what they are dealing with.  You, me, everyone.  All the time in fact.

In my own musical practice these days I feel as if I am starting at the beginning again, with those basic fundamentals only this time I’m going backwards.  What does that even mean?  I think it means taking an even more careful look at “I don’t know.”  Learning to articulate in words what we’re doing is important.  But the trick is not to lead from that.  Better to lead from “I don’t know”.  “I don’t know” is completely wide open.  No need to think about the little that you know when there’s so much “I don’t know” in front of you, all around you.

I’m noticing this in teaching as well.  Over the years it’s gone from me thinking that I have to impart some kind of knowledge or information to realizing that it’s all about the student’s experience of encountering what they don’t know.  Acquiring the skills and knowledge they need and then letting it go.  That’s done by learning how to build a line of inquiry, meaning simply, how to ask questions. How to see what it is that’s being taken for granted. 

So what do you do with these questions once you find a good one?  Simply ask yourself the question and then respond on your instrument.  Like, "can a saxophone be ... ? (fill in the blank) Can I take the movement I see out my window and bring it into sound?  In looking at that building down the street is there any difference between that and the sound I'm making?  The more impossible the question, the better.  But it should come from a real need.  Try it.  Ask yourself a question and answer it on your instrument, without thinking anything out.  Take your time and really try and answer it.  Because it’s impossible.  Be open. Listen. Feel. The result might be subtle or it might be jarring.  Or it might not work at all or do anything whatsoever.  But it’s open.  And the response, whatever it is, good, bad, or indifferent, is definitely coming from somewhere.  You can always work with that.  Because you don’t know.  Because you’re encountering these things as they happen. If you think you know what they are, you may have missed an opportunity. 

Back in the day an upcoming musician wasn’t really told too much.  You had to get it by being there.  Listening with everything you had.  Pick it up and learn by trying, doing.  Practice, discipline and common sense all play a role.  But nothing was handed to you, you had to want it, need it.  And it was only made real by getting up on the bandstand and not knowing for sure what was going to happen.

Appreciating this anew, after all these years, seems to be very much related to the fact that I don’t seem to have much to say these days when it comes to writing about music.  It’s been almost a year since the last post! Playing music is it’s own experience, for the musician and the listener.  Teaching music is it’s own experience, for the student and for the teacher.  The deeper and richer that experience becomes, the less there seems to be to say about it.  And yet I’m not giving up on words or writing.  I just want to see it for what it is and not try and use it as a substitute for the experience of what the words refer to.  Meaning that I want to experience more directly what is happening, before things are named.  And things are named very quickly, almost immediately, in the name of understanding and knowing what we’re doing.  In fact, here is a little thought experiment…

Whatever you “think” is after the fact, after the experience.
“Awareness of thinking” also comes after the fact (the fact of thinking).
By the time a thought registers, it’s a memory, a reflection.  
That’s the speed at which this happens.  
So if I say, pay attention to the experience itself 
(meaning what you are doing), rather than thinking about it, that would imply that 
naming the experience comes after the experience that is being referred to.  
But if thinking is an activity (rather than a thing) then 
the naming of a thing comes before it’s named.  
Meaning that it happened before you were aware of it.  

So of what use is this little excursion?   For me it’s a way to let go.  We can compare it to music.  As soon as it’s there it’s gone.  It has no meaning, therefore it might mean anything.  And you can’t hold on to any of it.  Why?  Because it’s life.  Not just part of life, but life.  There are no parts of life, there is just living.  So thinking is alright.  It’s more than alright, it’s amazing.  But we have a choice of where to live.  We can live in our thoughts or we can live in our actions.  Our actions include thought.  Thought sometimes thinks that it includes actions, includes the world, includes reality.  But that’s probably just a false thought.  So what’s next?

Oh right, I was writing about language.  And the point?  Well, perhaps I’m suggesting that there would be far fewer conflicts in the world if we were able to see the mistakes in our thinking, which I suspect are often due to linguistic errors, especially around ideas like "I", "me" and "mine".  At the same time, I also notice more and more how the collective scene (people doing things together) seems evermore scattered and diffuse, due largely to the way we use our phones and computers.  Even when we’re “here” we’re not really “here”.  Social media seems to have some kind of pull on us.  And I want to point out that I cannot truly criticize this because I am just as much a part of it.  I may not like it, that’s for sure.  I don’t use a smart phone and I don’t like the intrusion when people around me bring them out.  But I’m on the computer too much at home.  It often affects my thinking in negative ways when I could very well be doing other things. That has to change.  So in addition to seeing thought for what it is I also want to be very clear about what it is I’m actually saying and why.  There is always some kind of self-interest involved.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but seeing it is a good thing.  Because what is it really?  Perhaps a form of ownership. 

Ask yourself what you can really own.  And then play your instrument.  

Ownership tends to lead to the need to protect or defend.  It is true that we do need to protect ourselves (and others).  There are very real threats in the world.  Most of them can be traced to a misunderstanding with respect to thought.  And it becomes entrenched.  So while we work to see it in ourselves we also need to work to see it in the larger society, the larger system.  We create it and it creates us. 

Here’s another thought experiment.  If I have something (you name it) and give it to you, do I not have it any longer?  Seems obvious.  But what might I give that does not take anything away? 

Or put another way, does my ownership of something come at someone else’s expense?  Probably so, if you look deeply enough.  But if I give it away, does that come at my own expense?  It may well feel that way.  What to do?  I have my thoughts on that but I won’t say.  You might pick up your instrument and ask.

Writing an article like this tends to evoke ideas relating to freedom, liberation, good feelings.  Thing is, that so easily becomes a “thing”.  And you know what we do with “things” in our culture.  We package and sell them!  But I think you can see that the activity of going a bit deeper, in continuing to ask more questions and assess what’s being taken for granted we’re likely to meet resistance.  In ourselves or from others.  That can be very challenging, maybe excruciating at times.  But in music, I’ve never met a challenge that did not also invite a positive action. I might not have known what that action was, how could I?  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. 

One of the things I find myself saying a lot is “trust the music”.  That extends to everything really.   What does the music need right now?  What does the current situation need right now?  What do you need right now?  It’s 2019.  Wow.  Does it need more commentary?  More of anything?  We should know what we’re doing to be able to speak the truth, which is that we really do not know at all, as we speak.  And there is plenty to be done.  It’s happening right now.  We can pay attention, or not.

With all of this I’m prepared to say that this blog may have largely served it’s purpose.  Perhaps there will be something to share here or there but we’ll see.  As for practical matters, the website will continue to be updated with news of concerts and recordings.  In fact, there will be a new recording to talk about later in the year.  But the music is moving stronger than ever and I do look forward to sharing that with you sometime, somewhere, before too long.  And I trust that all of you will be moving things forward in ways that we can’t even imagine.

If any of this sparks anything, feel free to drop me an e-mail.  And I’m happy to set up music lessons anytime you’re in town (NYC) and interested. 

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.