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.)

Storms and Jazz: A Late Summer Update for 2015

A few months have elapsed since my last post, which covered the Great Galesburg Earthquake.* I've been quite busy with book editing and copywriting and with a move in June from Caledonia to Hastings. So storm chasing this year has once again been mostly theoretical. If there's anything good about that, it's that missing out on yet another chase season hasn't bothered me as much this year as it has in the past. There's a lot to be said for loving what one does but not being owned by it. That's not to say, though, that there weren't times this spring when memories of past chases washed over me, and thoughts of towers punching up into the troposphere, of gorgeous storm structure, and of the smell and feel of Gulf-moistened inflow whisking across the prairie grasses toward an updraft base, made me wish like anything that I was out on the Plains once again. Well, one takes life as it comes, and part of its lesson is to look for and appreciate the good one has rather than bemoan the good one is missing. Lack of chasing has been compensated, at least somewhat, by an increase in musical opportunities. And at this time in my life, I think it is important that I take those opportunities, which are rewarding aesthetically and which augment my finances and pave the way to more gigs, more musical involvements, and a broader future doing the other thing besides storm chasing that I love. Don't misconstrue this to mean that I've died to chasing. That's not likely to happen; once chasing is in your blood, it becomes a part of you, and it has been in my blood for many years. No, it's simply to recognize times and seasons, and to refuse to be shaped by the obsessiveness that is a very real aspect of storm chasing culture. I'm too old not to know better by now, and I'd be a fool not to live by the wisdom I've gained. One of what Paul the apostle called the "fruits of the Spirit" is self-control. Restraint. The ability to judiciously govern one's impulses—not squelching them, but rather, choosing not to let them run roughshod over other very important things in life. With that little preamble . . . severe storms are in the forecast for later today, and playing my saxophone has been very much in the foreground of my life lately, and this post will cover a little bit about both storms and jazz. Weatherly Speaking Yesterday evening I gave a presentation on storm chasing at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland, Michigan. It was a great time with a small but engaged audience of roughly twenty people. My presentation runs around an hour-and-a-half, including time for questions at the end. However, I encourage my listeners to ask questions during the presentation as well, as I think an interactive format makes things more interesting and develops a connection with my audience. This presentation was my second at this library and my fourth in all, and in my opinion, it was my best. With each one, I feel more familiar with my material and more at ease and spontaneous as a public speaker. Once I share the ten-minute clip of my March 2, 2012, chase of the Henryville, Indiana, tornado, I've got a captive crowd, and I can then move on to basic storm forecasting, supercell structure, and tornado safety, with a strong emphasis on safety. In the process, I make a point of advocating for NWS forecasters, explaining why weather professionals in Michigan have a particularly tough job protecting the public; and of debunking the largely mythical mantra of "We had no warning," strongly insisting that the responsibility for safety rests in people's own hands. My sister, Diane, came with me and in fact did the driving, and it was a blessing to spend time with her. She's a busy gal these days, and I'm a busy guy, and we just don't get to spend much quality time together. So the chance to get away with her for an afternoon and evening was a gift. Plus, now she knows what my presentation is like, and how it can be adapted if the school where she teaches, Forest Hills Northern, wants to bring me in sometime. All in all, yesterday went beautifully. And now today the potential exists for severe storms this afternoon and evening, contingent upon sufficient CAPE and adequate shear. The SPC even indicates a 2 percent tornado risk, but that's Michigan for you—just enough to tease, and maybe there'll be a spinup or two on the east side of the state. As I write, noon is at hand, a brisk southerly surface wind is playing through the tree branches in the backyard, and breaks in the clouds and a dry slot moving in from the west suggest a buildup in instability. Time will tell, but I anticipate some kind of local chase and am ready to roll. Music These past few weeks have been filled with more music than I've seen in I don't know when. I played my first gig as a strolling saxophonist for the VIP pre-grand opening of Tanger Outlets here in Grand Rapids. That was fun, and a nice piece of change, and it was all the more enjoyable thanks to a chance to sit in with Mark Kahny and Bobby Thompson, who were performing onstage at a different location in the outdoor mall. Then two days later came the first of two Saturday evening gigs with My Thin Place, a collective led by bassist Dave DeVos and featuring Mike Dodge on guitar, Dave Martin on vibraphone, and Ric Troll and Fritz von Valtier alternating in the drum chair. The venue for both dates was the outdoor patio at Sandy Point Beach House, a restaurant right by the lakeshore between Grand Haven and Holland. It's as idyllic a setting as you can imagine for a jazz gig, and the music this combo performs—a mix of ECM-style tunes, original compositions, and American songbook charts—was the perfect complement to outdoor dining. After the gig at Tanger Outlets, Mark Kahny contacted me about joining him and Bobby for a gig at the What Not Inn in Fennville. I was delighted! These guys are superb, not only musically but also as entertainers who know how to engage their audience, and we gelled beautifully in that small but popular setting. The result was musical magic. Guys, if you read this, please bring me aboard again real soon. I love making music with you! Now let's talk about Big Band Nouveau. Whew! Three major gigs in a week in Grand Rapids, starting with the West Michigan Jazz Society's Monday evening Jazz in the Park concert at Ah-Nab-a-Wen Park on the riverside; then Thursday night at Bobarino's at The B.O.B., with a wonderfully supportive audience; and concluding with a Sunday afternoon encore performance at the GRand Jazz Fest on the Rosa Parks Circle stage. What can I say about this band? The charts are contemporary, challenging, and tasty, giving soloists plenty of room to stretch; and the musicians are outstanding—a bevy of strong soloists with individual voices. No wonder this band gets standing ovations! Its star is rapidly—and deservedly—rising, and I am privileged to be a part of it. To top it all off, later Sunday afternoon I attended Mark Kahny's annual music bash at his house in northeast Grand Rapids. This was my first time there, and I had an absolute blast. Mark clearly designed his outdoor deck with the idea that it would serve as a stage for performances, and I joined him and Bobby to provide music for a legion of Mark's fans. He's been doing music for a long time, and people love him because he loves them. The party is for them, and they come, and it's a beautiful thing. My old friend Freddy DeGennaro was also there with his guitar, as were several vocalists, and the music just flowed. I left Sunday evening feeling both tired and elated, appropriately depleted yet also energized. It was a great time, and an inspiring ending to a hot, humid, sweaty, and totally fantastic August day. Speaking of which, another such high-humidity August afternoon is unfolding, and it's time for me to unfold with it. Dewpoints are ranging from 68 to 72 degrees and the first line of storms has organized east of I-69/US 27. I bid you sayonara, dear reader. I've got a shower to take, a book to edit, and, in a few hours, storms to enjoy. ________ * Update: reports of prehistoric reptiles released from magma-spewing fissures remain unverified and should be viewed as suspect.

How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane's tune "Giant Steps" now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I'm not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I've even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on "Giant Steps" titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key. In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind "Giant Steps" is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn't the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren't the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you'll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle. The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I'm supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you'll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them. One-bar pattern: 002     One-bar pattern through the cycle: 003     Two-bar lick: 004     Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle: GS 1-Bar Pattern       And now, here is the video. It's obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven't figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I'm signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn't aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I'm going to do a redo just for that? It's part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too. Go ahead and chuckle. But if you're a jazz improviser who's tackling "Giant Steps," then I think you'll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.  

Book Review: The Scale Omnibus by Francesco Balena

Francesco Balena operates the website Saxopedia, a tremendous resource for saxophonists and jazz musicians of every stripe. If you play the sax—or, for that matter, any instrument—and you are not familiar with Franco's site, then I highly recommend that once you have finished reading this post, you go directly to Saxopedia and acquaint yourself with it. The exhaustive collection of links to solo transcriptions alone is enough to place Saxopedia in the upper echelon of saxophone resources. But there's much more besides, and that now includes Francesco's new masterpiece, The Scale Omnibus: 392 Scales for Instrumentalists, Composers, Vocalists, and Improvisers. The amount of material covered in this 429-page, downloadable book is simply staggering. And it's free. Did you get that? Free. In the author's words, "The primary objective of this book is making in-depth knowledge about scales available to the largest number of people as possible. For this reason The Scale Omnibus is free. Free as a free lunch. No strings attached." There are a few commonsense stipulations in the use of the material, but the bottom line is that Francesco, in keeping with the spirit of Saxopedia, has created what has got to be the most comprehensive repository of scales ever assembled, and now he is making it available to musicians at no cost whatsoever. It's a fantastic accomplishment on Francesco's part, the fruit of considerable time, research, insight, and plain, solid labor; and it is an equally remarkable gift to jazz musicians in search of fresh ideas for improvisation. Organization The Scale Omnibus is well-organized and easy to use. Following a thoughtfully written, insightful introduction, the book plunges directly into the material, beginning with the common major and minor scales and their modes and then progressing, per the table of contents, through
  • Symmetrical Scales
  • Jazz Scales
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Modal Scales
  • European Scales
  • Asian Scales
  • Indian Scales
  • Miscellaneous Scales
Every scale is allotted its own separate, full page. Scales are presented in ascending form in all twelve keys—with the exception, for obvious reasons, of the chromatic scale—and in descending form as well for a few of the Indian ragas whose ascending and descending forms differ. Each scale is preceded by brief, helpful notes that cover its alternate names, modes, construction, harmonic applications (i.e., which chords it works well with), and in some cases, its country of origin. Following the presentation of the scales themselves, the book includes four appendices that provide a scale index and scales by name, interval, and chord. The last appendix, Scales by Chord, strikes me as particularly useful, providing a quick match-up of chords with scale options. Many of the options will be familiar to experienced improvisers, but there are surprises. For instance, until a short while ago, I had no idea that the Romanian scale could be used with a minor seventh chord. (For that matter, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Romanian scale.) This particular appendix is by no means exhaustive, given the vast array of possibilities covered by the book, and Franco might consider expanding the list of scale choices in a future edition. However, the amount of time required to do so would no doubt be considerable, and the appendix as it stands is an eminently useful tool, furnishing a greater selection than similar lists such as Jamey Aebersold's chord/scale syllabus. About the Scales The Scales Omnibus gives all scales, both the everyday and the exotic, equal coverage. But while it begins with the major and minor scales all Westerners relate to, whether trained musicians or everyday listeners, it goes far beyond those scales into territory most of us aren't familiar with. For instance, turning to the first page of the section on Asian scales, I come across something called the Honkoshi scale, which, I am informed, originated in Japan; generates, as its modes, the Raga Hamsa Vinodini, the Raga Manavi, and the Insen scale; and works well with a half-diminished chord. Following it is the Ichikotsucho scale, also known as—are you ready?—the Major-Lydian Mixed, Gregorian 5, Genus Diatonicum Veterum Correctum, Kubilai, Raga Bihag, Raga Gaud Sarang, Raga Hamir Kalyani, Raga Kedar, Raga Yaman Kalyan, and Raga Chayanat. Stick that in your horn and play it (preferably over a Cmaj7 or Cma7#11). Does this book cover every possible scale under the sun? No. Francesco has screened out scales of fewer than five notes; such scales exist, but when tones become so sparse, the use of the term scale becomes questionable. Also, significantly, the book covers only scales that fit easily within the twelve-tone, well-tempered system. Francesco writes, "Microtonal scales, scales that use just temperament, and scales that use equal temperament obtained by dividing the octave in a different number of intervals—as is the case of some Arabian scales—are not included." In Summary A book so vast in its scope as this can only provide the basic scales and insights on their use. From there, it's up to you to determine which scales interest you most and develop exercises that will help you master them. No way will you or anyone ever internalize all of them. But even one new scale is a tremendous acquisition for the improvising musician, and to that end, The Scale Omnibus is a treasure trove of possibilities. Franceso could easily ask $25.00 or more for this volume; instead, he's offering it for free, and in so doing, he has added even more value to an already immensely valuable website for jazz instrumentalists, particularly saxophonists. A work of such excellence and heart as Francesco's book, given so generously to others, deserves support, and it is in that spirit that I have written this unpaid and unsolicited review. Bravissimo, Francesco! You've given a gift to musicians everywhere. Thank you.

Rhythm Changes: An Etude to Build Jazz Technique

rhythm changes, jazz improvisation, jazz etude 001Here's a little bop-style etude I created to help build your chops for rhythm changes. No surprises here; I wasn't striving for cutting-edge ideas but for simple building blocks of jazz vocabulary. Me being an alto sax guy, I've written the material in the key of G, which is the alto transposition for the standard "Rhythm" key of Bb. Tenor players, flute players, and so on--sorry for the inconvenience, but you know how to transpose, right? Or just play it as written and hone your facility with the key of G. Click on the image to enlarge it and then have at it. And have fun! I've written in the past about my predilection for rhythm changes as a means of developing a fundamental jazz vocabulary. In their essence, the changes can be construed as simply a succession of turnarounds with a bridge based on the cycle of dominants. You can get as fancy with that as you want to, but the basics are just as simple as the word basic implies. For more on rhythm changes, click here. I also encourage you to read the point-counterpoint between Kurt Ellenberger and me which evolved out of that post. Whether you love rhythm changes or, like Kurt, hate them, you'll find food for thought. If you enjoyed this post, click here for plenty more articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions. Also, a quick plug for my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. If you'd like a practical, hands-on practice companion to help you master "Giant Steps," well...that's why I wrote it.

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.