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...

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