Good-Bye, Phil Woods: In Honor of an Alto Sax Legend

When I got the news last night that Phil Woods had died the day before, on September 29, 2015, I was stunned. Not Phil Woods! Not my main man, my hero on the alto sax whom, among all the luminaries of the instrument, including even Bird and Cannonball, I have admired and learned from the most. Not Phil. But of course, why not? We all go at some point, and Phil was eighty-three and in poor health. He had lived a full life; he had seen a huge slice of jazz history and carved his own considerable niche in that history; he had accomplished things that most musicians only dream of; and in the process, he left a legacy of music richer than the mines of Moria. I first heard of Phil back in my early twenties in music school. I heard him described as a "lyrical" player, and while I didn't know what the word meant, I determined to find out. So I purchased an album of Phil's titled I Remember, and "lyrical" acquired meaning through melody and timbre. Here was this beautiful tone, so full of warmth and joy and body, married to an incredible sense of swing. And here was a way with a ballad that just . . . well, I listened to the tune "Paul" over and over and over, mesmerized. The way Phil played it—so beautifully, so sensitively, so full of emotion—moved me to tears. I mean that most truly. Phil Woods could render a ballad with such sublimity and freshness and, above all, sincerity, that I would quite literally weep. His solo on Michelle Legrand's "The Summer Knows" took my breath away the first time I heard it, and it still does. Lyrical? The word doesn't begin to describe what Phil Woods could do with an alto sax. But of course, ballads were just a part of what Phil played with excellence. He could cut through the most harmonically complex changes—bop tunes such as "Hallucinations"—at frantic tempos with an ease and inventiveness that left other players, even the most accomplished, in the dust. And you always knew it was Phil playing. There was no mistaking that sound and that approach. I heard Phil play live three times. My most memorable was with my brother Pat, who, when I visited him years ago in Port Townsend, Washington, had made reservations for dinner at Jazz Alley in Seattle. There I sat, dining on steak while Phil and his combo blew incredible sounds from the stage just twenty feet from our table. It doesn't get any better than that. Now Phil is gone. The man and the horn that blazed their long, meteoric trail across the jazz firmament have flamed out at last. But like Bird, whom he so deeply admired, Phil lit a torch whose brightness burns in the horns of countless altoists worldwide. Phil Woods has many children. I am proud to be one of them. Thank you, Phil. You gave this world much beauty, and you showed the way beyond Bird for alto players like me. Now you reside among the legends. You will be missed. And the music you made ensures that you will never, ever be forgotten.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: Part 2

Having dispensed with my rambling prelude, in part 1 of this article, to the question “What is jazz?” let’s get to the question itself. What is jazz? The answer used to be fairly simple, involving such concepts as syncopation, swing, improvisation, and African-American roots. The formats in which those elements played out were fairly straightforward. There was Dixieland. There was swing. There was big band. There was bebop. But wait . . . bebop? In its day, there were those who maintained that bebop wasn’t jazz; it was cacophony, confusion, a bunch of chromatic scales played lightning fast and signifying nothing. “Let them beat their brains out till their flatted fifths are gone, then they’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest,” taunted Louis Armstrong in “The Boppenpoof Song,” but his abilities as a prophet didn’t match his brilliance as a trumpet player. Today no one would seriously contest the prodigious contribution of bop to the evolution of jazz. Then along came Coltrane. Repeat the scenario. A lot of jazz buffs couldn’t stand him. Sheets of sound? Endless modal droning? That ain’t jazz, or so said the purists—then. Today it’s a different story; Trane has a lot of children and grandchildren. The thing called jazz broadened, embraced another icon, and forged ahead. Then came fusion, and more cries of protest. So it went, and so it has gone, and so it goes. Cool jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, smooth jazz, punk jazz . . . from Miles to Trane to Ornette to Zorn and beyond, the list goes on, and after a while, I feel bewildered and my head hurts. Look, I just like good music, and I like improvisation, and I admire combinations of artistry and skill at a high level, and it gets to where I honestly don’t care all that much about categorizing it. This article can’t begin to cover all the complexities of a subject that so many, many writers have already addressed, and will continue to address, in far greater depth. So in the remainder of this post, I want to share what a few others, both musicians and non-musicians, have to say about the nature of jazz. Nothing definitive, just personal, insightful, and even humorous. Responses to the Facebook Survey The first to respond to my question "What is jazz?" was keyboard man Bob Van Stee: “Good question. Allegedly, Louis Armstrong was asked, and his response was, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” My good friend Ed Englerth wrote, “’Jazz is restless.’ [It can be played on] any instrument. I prefer jazz that has improvisational elements, but [it] can be written out as well.” Camera artist Myrna Jacobs doesn’t play an instrument, and her husband, Dan, is a superb jazz trumpeter and flutist. Myrna shared in-depth:
I think a lot about jazz, and to some extent why it isn't popular music (for the most part). But what I've decided is that what often passes for jazz today isn't really jazz. It lacks life and is static, trapped in some other time, much like classical music. Creating in the moment, being true to your own emotions and being in touch with the time and place you live. A willingness to get emotional with the music is so vital. I don't play jazz. I listen to it and, honestly, feel that much of what is played is not good.. simply copies or ideas of what it should be, rather than it just being musicians who love playing, love creating, know how to listen and being willing to put themselves out there emotionally through their notes and spaces. Great jazz can take you someplace... to another world. It's not even about the right chords (though it plays a part and doesn't 'feel right' if the player doesn't know them in his gut). I am a huge fan of jazz music that doesn't isolate soloists . .. but rather, all the players in the band are part of the solo in some way. They are all listening and knowing when to contribute, like a conversation. Most of all I guess that jazz at it very ultimate is a conversation.... sometimes a soloist has a lot to say, like a monologue . .. but like, in conversation, the others come in and 'nod', accent, repeat parts of what was said.. take off on it.. use the idea, the concept (musically). It's not just a speech... but a conversation. I love Dixieland for the beat.. for the interplay of instruments. I love big band when it's exciting and the power that can be generated by that many instruments is used effectively... and when it is written so that it is not just one solo after another with no relationship to each other in any way. I love a duo... of whatever instruments are used... when they are playing together.. creating together.. moving the conversation forward Sorry... I could go on and on. I have thought about this a LOT and talked about it a lot, trying to figure out why so many people do not like jazz.
Trombonist Jason Lester offered the following thoughts:
Jazz is typically defined by having extended improvisation relative to predefined melodic material: it is further distinguished from the stuff of "jam bands" and blues by harmonic content-- ii V I's, extended chords, elaborate harmonic substitution. Instrumentation is not a factor, as Bela Fleck and many other groups have demonstrated. The boundaries of jazz are (and always have been) designed to be stretched and blurred: third stream, fusion, acid, etc have allowed players to stretch and blend. This symbiosis brings new life to both jazz and to the genre it hybridizes with-- some of the best Rock sax solos were dealt down by cats like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins; bringing in guitarists like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern gave Miles an entirely new sound. But improvisation and harmonic content are still the signature elements.
My response to Jason:
Given the interplay of other genres with jazz, the lines get fuzzy, don't they. Improvisation, for instance, has long been a hallmark of rock as well as jazz (though jazz came first). Yet there's an obvious difference between the extended improvisations of David Gilmour in Pink Floyd and John Coltrane in his classic quartet; both are masterful soloists in phenomenal groups, yet there's no question that Floyd is rock and Trane is jazz. However, there does come a point in modern music where it's hard to say whether you've got fish or fowl. You've mentioned harmonic complexity, and that one hits the nail on the head for me. Even the supposedly static harmony of modalism in jazz involves a complex harmonic approach not just for the soloist but also, significantly, for the rhythm section, and in particular for the chording instruments (e.g., keyboard, guitar). Once you cross over beyond swing feel into rock and Latin rhythms, it may be the harmony that's the determinant.
Jason again: “The lines really blur when you listen to Steely Dan, James Brown, Frank Zappa, or Medeski, Martin& Wood!” Finally, Bob Van Stee alerted me to the following video clip in which Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme answer the question “What is jazz?” in their own inimitable way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off this post.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook: "What is jazz?" Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they'd opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches. At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!” In Light of Today Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all. Though, is that really the case? I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no. It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It's not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days. You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you. Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not? The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that's not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now "What is jazz?" can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion. In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry "What is jazz?" as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter. (To be continued.)

Playing the Sax Again after a Forced Hiatus

Back in April 2012, I wrote about how it felt to pick up my sax again after weathering the worst case of bronchitis I have ever experienced. In short, after three miserable weeks away from my horn, it felt wonderful to pick it up again. I was rusty and had a little ground to reclaim, but that was okay; where my technique had suffered a bit, my creativity seemed to move to the forefront, and my playing felt fresh. A year-and-a-half later, I'm here to share a similar experience. And I'll begin by saying that I'm truly fortunate--graced, blessed by God--to be able to write about it, because I could be dead. It was no nasty cold that took me down this time but a bad car crash in Indiana last November. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but, sitting in the front passenger seat of the car I was traveling in--which was mine but with a friend driving--I took the brunt of the collision. Upon emerging from the car, I could tell that something was wrong with my chest. I felt no pain at the moment, just discomfort, but I had a hunch that would change pretty quickly, and it did. For the next several days, my chest hurt pretty badly. I figured I had bruised my sternum, perhaps even cracked it, and probably sustained several levels of injury involving my muscles and ribcage. Four or five days later, the pain gradually began to subside, but it took yet another week or so before I was able to cough freely or sneeze without ruining myself for the next hour. Finally, last week, I picked up my sax for the first time and blew. I'd like to tell you how great that felt, but "great" isn't the right word. It just felt...normal. Kind of flat, really--like pretty much any practice session in which I haven't felt particularly inspired but practiced anyway because I needed to. As best I could, I simply picked up where I had left off before the accident, playing through the Bird tunes "Confirmation" and "Ornithology," including some transcriptions of those solos, and reacquainting myself with a couple of dominant seventh patterns I'd been working on. But wait a minute. Both of those tunes are pretty complex bebop tunes, and a year ago, I couldn't even play "Confirmation." To be able to just jump back in the saddle with it after five weeks of not even touching my horn--that tells me this last year in the woodshed has been a profitable one. I've raised my baseline of ability on my instrument; music that once seemed formidable has been internalized. I've had two practice sessions since, and last night's felt great. Time to work on some new ideas as well as brush up on the stuff I'd been working on prior to the crash. But here's the take-away: Developing musical proficiency isn't about emotion or instant gratification. It's about discipline. Your practice sessions don't have to feel creatively inspired; they just have to be consistent. You just have to stick with it. If you do, and if you practice the right stuff, then you'll grow. A farmer's job is to plant his seeds, water them, and nurture them. If he does, then the seed will germinate and grow, and in due time, the farmer will reap a harvest. That's how it works. It's not about inspiration; it's about hard work and dedication, and the same holds true for learning to play jazz or any kind of music. Get your priorities in place and the moments of inspiration will come.

Jazz Jams in Grand Rapids

Something is happening with jazz in Grand Rapids. Overnight, it seems, the art form which hitherto has garnered lots of respect but little support is coming into its own in this area. People are turning out to hear live jazz. It has been a long time coming, and it's good to see. Last night I went to a jam session at the Winchester, located at 648 Wealthy Street SE. Running from 9:30 to 12:30, the session is hosted by trumpeter Chris Lawrence, with John Shea on keyboards and a rotating lineup of bass players and drummers. Besides being an incendiary improviser, Chris does a splendid job fronting the session, and he has an enthusiastic audience. A number of great area jazz musicians showed up to share their talents, among them veteran drummer Scott Veenstra, vocalist Kathy LaMar (she's a marvel!), and keyboard wizard Steve Talaga. Steve arrived after wrapping up his own earlier jam session down the street at Billy's in Eastown. I haven't made it to that session yet, but it's on my list. Like the one at the Winchester, it's new, and it amazes me in the pleasantest way that, suddenly, not just one but two Tuesday night jazz jam sessions have emerged right down the road from each other. Steve's runs from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. at 1437 Wealthy. A guest musician could close out that session and then, if so inclined, head over to the Winchester and still have plenty more time to play. Both of the Tuesday sessions are recent and very welcome developments, and the Winchester and Billy's are to be saluted for supporting them. But that's not the end of it. Across town on Sunday nights is where the session with a history to it takes place. At SpeakEZ Lounge, 600 Monroe NW, well-known drummer and harmonica man Randy Marsh hosts this town's longest ongoing jam session. The session began a couple years ago at HopCat, where it ran for quite a while before moving to SpeakEZ. The second location is an excellent venue for Randy, who rotates a consistently topnotch cast of section players and provides a welcoming setting for visiting musicians to air out their chops. Blowing sessions are a part of the jazz tradition, and to see them emerge and succeed here in Grand Rapids seems to me a litmus test of the state of the art. West Michigan has got some world-class musicians as well as a heap of upcoming talent, and I'm delighted to see room being made for all. I have an idea that there's a link between the explosion of craft beer in this town and the ascendance of live jazz. Beer--good beer--is art, and artists recognize and support other artists. In a town that has been named Beer City for two years running in the Beer City USA national poll, and which in recent years has also garnered national attention for its three-week-long, citywide ArtPrize contest, a new and positive mindset toward things aesthetic has become apparent, and it is sweeping up jazz into the mix. Bravo for those restaurant owners who see value in live jazz and are choosing to support it by giving it a venue in their establishments.    

Getting the Feel of a Key

Before I launch into the topic of this post--a quick tip of the hat to Big Band Nouveau for Thursday night's outstanding performance at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. I think this was our best show yet. The guys were simply scorching those charts, and the crowd was hugely responsive. A standing ovation is a pretty good indication that we're doing something right. Mike Doyle deserves major props for having the vision to pull together some outstanding musicians in a creative effort of such high caliber. Thanks to Mike, and thanks to all the cats. You guys rock to the third order! With that said, I turn my attention to tonight's feature: Bb7. Yes, Bb7--or really, the key of Eb major. I just happened to be hashing it out via its dominant chord during my practice session earlier this evening. I've been hammering on that key lately because two of my solo numbers in Big Band Nouveau modulate briefly to Eb major, and I want to do more than just get by in those sections. I want to play the crap out of them. And the way to do that is to saturate myself in the key of Eb. I've written previously about key saturation. The idea is to steep yourself in a key in as many ways as you can think of until you know it inside and out. Until you own it. And you own it when you hear it in your head and feel it in your fingers. Every key has its own feel on the saxophone. Most of us get the feel of certain keys early on. As an alto player, I'm quite comfortable in the keys of D and G, and, to a slightly lesser extent, E and A. I'm also comfortable in C and F, and of course, a number of minor keys. And I can get by decently in all the remaining keys, both major and minor, some moreso than others. But my fingers know the feel of just a select few keys in a way that I would describe as intimate. Why is that? After all, there are only twelve tones that a musician has to deal with. True. But those twelve tones relate to each other in entirely different ways from one key to the next. F# is not just F#.
  • In the key of D, it is the third of the tonic chord.
  • In the key of G, it is the seventh.
  • In B, it is the fifth.
  • In C, it is the augmented fourth; in Eb, it is the sharp two; and in both of these keys, it is a non-diatonic tone.
  • And let's not forget the obvious: in F#, it is the root.
And that is just how F# relates to the tonic chord. There are six other chords besides in every major scale, not to mention various harmonic formulae, many of which include altered and borrowed chords. And F# has a unique relationship with all of them. Your fingers feel each of those functions of F# differently, and some functions may be more familiar to your muscle memory than others. Your fingers may, through constant use, know exactly what to do with F# in the key of G, know how to get onto it and off of it from and in every direction and use it in all sorts of creative ways. But move the key center a tritone to C# and now how familiar are you with that same F#? It has become a completely different animal, and your fingers may not know its feel. The note that you felt utterly at home with in one key can seem like a complete stranger in another. And while it's true that certain keys get used far more than others, ultimately you want both your fingers and your mind to instinctively know how to treat every one of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale in all twelve major and all twelve minor keys. The way to achieve that goal is key saturation. I've already offered some good suggestions on how to approach the saturation technique in another post, so there's no need for me to repeat myself here. My point is simply to mention that every key has a feel that is all its own, and it behooves you and me to master all twenty-four of those "feels." Yes, it's a big task. But it's also a fun one. Just pick a key and work at it. Mine right now is Eb. I find myself focusing especially on the third and seventh of the major chord and the seventh of the dominant chord--G, D, and Ab, respectively. Once I become conversant with those notes in any key, the other notes--both diatonic and non-diatonic--all seem to fall into place. Okay, enough for tonight. It's after one o'clock in the morning, and I'm getting sleepy. The rest is up to you.

Video Tutorial #3: Circular Breathing

Circular breathing has something of a sensationalist aura about it, but its mystique exceeds its mystery. There's no secret to acquiring the skill other than to learn how it's done and then work at it till you own it. And it's worth the effort, because circular breathing is a useful tool to have. When you find yourself playing an extended passage and need to come up for air, circular breathing will let you replenish your lungs without having to break up the flow of music. This video tutorial piggybacks on a post I wrote a couple years ago on how to circular breathe. I highly recommend that in addition to watching this video, you read that post as well. Either may provide that flash of insight that you might not get with the other. By the way, contrary to what all my fidgeting may lead you to believe, I do not suffer from Tourette's syndrome. I shot the video at a nearby park in the evening, and mosquitoes as big as fruit bats kept trying to establish fracking operations on my skin. Between swatting constantly at the little blighters and puffing my cheeks out like a blowfish and then thrusting my face into the camera, I will probably not secure my reputation as a suave, cool kinda dude. But that's okay as long as this video achieves my goal of helping you to learn circular breathing. If you find the tutorial helpful, drop me a note and let me know. It helps to know that my efforts are making a difference, and supportive comments are like bars of gold in my emotional Fort Knox.

A Crummy Storm Season and an Upcoming Video Tutorial on Circular Breathing

Well over a month has elapsed since my last post. I look at the date of that post, April 1, and think, Right. April Fool, everybody. It sure fooled me. My exuberant expectations for this storm season, particularly compared to last year's, have fallen so far short that they'd need to climb a step ladder just to be upside-down. Last year by this time, I'd at least gotten in two productive chases, one of them spectacular and the other decent. This year, nada. I didn't think it was possible to have a worse chase season than 2012, but 2013 is demonstrating just how a wrong a man can be. Now, I know what everyone says: you can't judge the latter part of a season by its early part. I believe that. The past has proved how dramatically things can change. Chase seasons that started out crappy suddenly shaped up and started cranking out some great setups. I hope that proves true with this one. As it stands, my traditional target date of May 22, nigh sacred to me for the great chases it has provided, has been consistently flatlining on the GFS. That long-range model has me gazing wistfully at its the far, far end, willing for a shadow of hope to show up at 384 hours and remain hopeful--a nice, robust trough that survives successive runs and moves through the timeline into the Plains, where--you'll say I'm dreaming--it actually overlays moisture and instability. There's actually such a shadow lurking in this morning's GFSM. I don't trust it, no sir-ree, not at all. Yet I hope it will show better integrity than its predecessors. Regardless, I'm crossing my fingers for late May and June. As for this blog, its inactivity is due a depressing lack of anything stormy to write about. Oh, yeah, there was the history-making April flood that put a number of Michigan communities underwater and came within inches of overflowing the floodwalls in downtown Grand Rapids. I heard of a golf course on the southwest side of town that was under four feet of water. That's not something you see every day around here. So I made a point of going out and snapping some photos in my own neck of the woods along the Thornapple and Coldwater rivers. The 84th Street dam on the Thornapple was like a giant firehose, the jewel-like Coldwater Park was underwater, and a couple miles further east, vast acres of wooded floodplain had opened up to exploration by canoe. It was something to see, but I didn't much feel like writing about it. Fortunately, when the weather refuses to cooperate, music keeps me occupied. Last Thursday, Big Band Nouveau debuted at The B.O.B. in downtown Grand Rapids. We played our butts off and enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. I see great prospects for this band. More immediately, I've been working on a video tutorial on circular breathing. In fact, I shot some video yesterday and uploaded it last night to YouTube, with every intention of posting it on Stormhorn.com today. But in reviewing it this morning, I realized that it wasn't up to snuff. So I deleted it from YouTube. I need to do another video session before I can post. In other words, everything you've just read is really a substitute for the post I had planned, featuring the video tutorial. That post is in the works, so consider this a heads-up, particularly if you're interested in learning circular breathing. That's all for now. A full day of editing a client's manuscript awaits me, and I've got to get to it. Sayonara.  

Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

Jazz Jams at Noto’s: An Interview with Guitarist Steve Hilger

Every other Thursday night, guitarist Steve Hilger hosts a jazz jam in the lounge of Noto’s Old World Italian Dining at 6600 28th Street SE. Located in the Grand Rapids bedroom community of Cascade in southeast Kent County, the restaurant is easily accessible from the main drag. There, from 7:00–10:00 p.m., Steve provides a topnotch rhythm section for jazz musicians to sit in with and air out their chops. While seasoned players are always gladly welcomed, Steve is particularly interested in giving high school and college musicians the chance to perform onstage with a live band. That kind of opportunity doesn’t come often or easily in West Michigan. Thanks to the vision and persistence of well-known jazz veteran Randy Marsh, downtown Grand Rapids has had a jazz jam venue for the last two years on Sunday nights, first at HopCat and lately at Speak EZ. Now Steve offers a similar opportunity to the outlying southeast area, within easy reach of musicians in the Forest Hills, Caledonia, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Lowell, and Middleville school districts. This is the kind of thing I longed for as a younger player--and as an older player, for that matter. Let’s face it, West Michigan is not New York or Chicago. There are plenty of musicians here but not many chances for them to get together informally and blow.  So the jam sessions at Noto's are a boon to developing and even professional jazz instrumentalists and vocalists. The setting is one where parents can feel comfortable letting their teen musician hang out with other players, and the rest of the family will enjoy it as well if they wish to listen. The sessions have gotten off to a slow start, but there's plenty of reason for them to take off once area musicians find out about them. Word just needs to spread. So I’m doing my part with this post. I’ve had a blast sitting in with Steve and the guys, and I invite you to do the same if you’re a jazz practicioner. And that’s enough from me. It’s time to hear from Steve. _______________
Question: How long have you played guitar? Who are some of your influences? Steve: I started playing guitar in the eighth grade with a cheap nylon string classical guitar and a borrowed Peter, Paul, and Mary songbook. I started with “Don’t Think Twice, Its Alright.” I actually learned the finger picking before the strumming. My influences are many. I am a fan of a lot of different types of music including jazz, blues, acoustic folk, rock, and classical. Some of my influential guitar players include Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I would have to say that the most influential was Carlos Santana, because even as a kid, I marvelled at his melodic lines. It was not the number of notes he played that mattered, but which notes he played. Yet musically overall, my influences are more from horn players such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Miles Davis was another example of playing the right notes instead of a lot of them. Q: You’ve had your own bands for quite a while now, and you’re well-established in the Grand Rapids and West Michigan music scene. How did you get started? S: In college, I had a friend who I started a band with. We wrote our own tunes and eventually recorded them in a studio in New York. The music took a back seat while I was raising a family and starting a legal career. After a divorce, I rekindled my lifelong passion of guitar playing and song writing. Nothing quite like a divorce to inspire you to write lyrics. I went into the studio in 2005 to record some of the new tunes, and then we performed them live at the 2007 Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts. Shortly after that, we started to play blues and started performing around town. Q: You started with a blues band. More recently you formed a jazz combo. What led you to diversify? S: Ever since I heard Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” shortly after it came out, I was fascinated by jazz. Then, in the mid-70s, when The Allman Brothers put out “Live at the Fillmore East,” I discovered the blues. I’ve always loved both genres. So when I realized I had a blues band full of really talented jazz musicians, I decided to do both and started a jazz band as well. Q: You and veteran drummer Randy Marsh are doing your utmost to uphold a vital tradition of jazz: the jam session. Randy hosts a Sunday evening session at Speak EZ in downtown Grand Rapids. You host one at Noto’s in Cascade every other Thursday, and you’re particularly interested in encouraging high school and college musicians to participate. Why are you doing this and what would you like to see happen? What do younger musicians get out of a jam session that they can’t get other ways? S: When I was in high school in a small town thirty-six miles west of New York City, I played trumpet in the school jazz band. Our band leader played gigs in New York City and was pretty well known as a trombone player. She was able to attract top talent to come to our school and give clinics. I do not remember all of them, but I specifically remember Count Basie and Doc Severenson. That was a huge opportunity, and it would be nice to pass it on in some small way. Student musicians need a chance, and have the right, to make mistakes. Once they get past the fear of failure, they can start to experiment, learn, and develop confidence which carries over in all aspects of life. If, for as long as I do this, I am able to reach one student in this fashion, all the effort will be worth it. Young musicians really need a place to come out and give it a go. Q: You provide a unique tie-in between the Noto’s jam session and the selection of young musicians for this summer’s GRandJazzFest. Please tell us about it. S: Every other Thursday, my jazz trio, TrioJazz has been performing at Noto’s. We thought that Noto’s would be a good venue for students to sit in and work their chops on jazz improvisation. I am on the selection committee for musical acts for the 2013 GRJazz Festival. The Board thought it would be a good idea to have students participate in the festival, and we needed a way to reach out to jazz students to see who was willing and able to perform. It’s part of the GRJazz Festival’s commitment to include education as part of its goals. The Thursday night Noto’s gig provides a perfect opportunity to find student jazz musicians who might play in the festival. The Noto’s gig is really the only way I will get the chance to meet student musicians in the community. And if a young musician feels they did not do as well as they would have liked on a given night, they can always come back and try again. There is no point-scoring here. While we hope to pick some of the top students to participate, everyone who comes out and plays is a winner in their own right. We will be selecting five or so musicians who will be given a chance to jump on the big stage at the jazz festival to showcase their talents. Q: It can feel intimidating for a high school kid to set foot onstage and play with professional musicians. But you and your musicians are hugely encouraging and love to have younger players sit in. Talk about what a student can expect when they walk in with their instrument. Do you have any advice for them? S: They and their family can expect a casual, wholesome setting and a warm welcome. They can listen as long as they want, assemble their instrument when they feel ready, and then play the tune or tunes of their choice. My first piece of advice is, relax. Have fun! Enjoy the moment. Nobody is scoring anything here and you have nothing to lose. All of us started out at some point. So pick a tune, preferably out of the Real Book, or bring charts, and let’s see if we can have some fun! Q: Jam sessions aside, what are you striving for personally in your own growth curve as a musician? S: I strive to be the best musician I can be. That applies to all the music I play. I practice a lot. One common experience among many musicians, me included, is that you always hear other musicians who do something better than you. What you don’t realize is that you yourself do some things better than anyone else. I remember an interview with a jazz great who was so disappointed with a solo he played because he hit some wrong notes, or so he thought. Then he noticed that everyone who was following him started playing those wrong notes because the “wrong notes” had now become hip. So I am always listening, always trying to get better, always trying to hear what other musicians are doing to see if there are any take-away things I can do or use. Q: A steady diet of nothing but music makes for a great player but a narrow life. You own your own law firm, and I know that you absolutely love what you do. What other interests and activities do you have which round you out as a person? S: First and foremost, my interests are my three wonderful kids and the lovely Deborah Richmond. They are the foundation of my life. I truly enjoy my work and the firm I started and have helped to grow. We have great partners and a wonderful group of clients. I am also an avid photographer and have traveled throughout the United States on photography trips, focusing mainly on nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. I have published articles and photos, and started all that as a news photographer in the late 1960s when photographers were somewhat of a novelty. For many years, I traveled the country competing in archery, which ended in multiple state and national championships, records, and even the 2004 Olympic trials. Now, my son and I are into the shooting sports such as skeet and big-bore, long-range rifle shooting.