Category: Thoughts

The Forest For The Trees

Today I realized that the way I want to experience music is the way my 12-year old self was learning and experiencing music before the idea was educated out of me.

To begin, let me say I totally value all of the musical education I have received in my life. I would not subtract any aspect of my private tuition or higher ed training.

I do wish that somehow through it all I would have retained the larger view of what it means to make music. To me the larger view is this: my job is to pay attention to how music affects me, and somehow find a way to share that with others.

I remember a specific practice session with my bandmates in 7th grade where I passionately implored them to take inspiration from a specific recording (Spacehog, if you must know) and use the techniques in our own compositions. I was so excited by what I heard, I wanted to be able to capture that feeling and share it.

I don’t remember whether my suggestions carried any weight, but today—20 years later—I had a flashback to that moment as I felt the excitement of really listening to something great (Brad Mehldau) and wanting to capture some essence of the music and share it with an audience.

Somehow in my long journey through music history, study of repertoire, and music theory (Victor Wooten says “it should be called note theory, not music theory, because it doesn’t teach you Music!”), I forgot this basic impulse.

Or maybe not forgot. On reflection, I do recall several occasions as a student that I let inspiration guide me to share charts and arrangements with others in rehearsal and performance. And certainly my capstone performances for my degrees were reflections of my own musical preferences.

But I do remember the feeling, after a few years of higher-ed music training, that I was missing out on something great that my middle-school self used to know.

Today I realized I was missing the music forest for the music theory trees.

As I said before, I have no complaint about the education I did receive, only gratitude for this awareness, and an eagerness to guide future students to the canopy for the view.

Christmas Music I Like

Taking inspiration from Austin Kleon’s “Books I Like” page,  here’s a list of Christmas music you would listen to in 2015, if you were me.

“Santa Clause is Coming To Town” by Bill Evans

The quintessential jazz pianist interprets this classic Christmas tune in his characteristic style

Santa Clause Is Coming To Town – Trio 64 (1964)

“Greensleeves” by Coleman Hawkins

Greensleeves (or, What Child Is This) as interpreted by one of the finest tenor saxophone masters.

Greensleeves – Soul (1958)

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

A swinging version of this tune by another tenor master.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Gotham City (1981)

“Christmas Waltz” by Dianne Reeves

A brilliant collection of contemporary jazz musicians create a reggae-inspired groove on this Christmas classic.

Christmas Waltz – Christmas Time Is Here (2004)

“The Nutcracker Suite” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

A wonderfully reimagined arrangement of pieces from Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet. It can be difficult to find the original album, so you can find it as the first nine tracks on the album Three Suites.

The Nutcracker Suite (1960) – Three Suites

“Jingle Bells (Bonus Track)” by Diana Krall

I originally heard this as a bonus track on Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs (2005). The fully orchestrated version of jingle bells with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is great too, but Krall’s solo piano/vocal version can’t be beat.

Jingle Bells

“Snowfall” by Claude Thornhill

This tune is often performed with lyrics (written by Ruth Thornhill). This is the original instrumental version.

Snowfall – Snowfall Vol. 1

“Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” by the Classical Jazz Quartet

An interesting premise, to take timeless “classical” compositions and interpret them in a jazz style. The artistry here is phenomenal and Bach’s “Jesu…” is a marvelous vehicle.

Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring – Christmas

Matt Wilsons Christmas Tree-o

Instead of picking an individual track, just listen to the full album. Warning: you’ll burn your ears off!

Matt Wilson’s Christmas Tree-O (2010)

Mulgrew Miller on listening deeply

“The greatest musicians are the greatest listeners”

I recently listened to the 2002 interview with Mulgrew Miller on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. The entire show is worth a listen, but one anecdote stuck out to me about the importance of listening deeply.

About halfway through the show, Marian asks about Mulgrew’s private teaching practice and what he tells students in a private lesson. Mulgrew replies:

I tell them I think the most important thing to their development is to learn how to listen.

It turns out that Mulgrew had to learn this lesson the hard way on the bandstand. He recounts a learning experience he had playing the tune Four on a gig with Clifford Jordan:

After I cam to New York, I was on a gig once and I was playing the tune Four. This was with one of the veteran musicians in New York, Clifford Jordan.

I was playing some changes that I had learned from a fake book, and they were not the original changes. Although I had been listening to recordings of Miles playing Four and they were playing the original changes, I just didn’t listen beyond what was on the surface, you know?

Clifford came over to me that night and said, “you know you’re playing the wrong changes on Four”

I said “really?”

And he said “yeah, they’re this…” and he showed me.

I said “wow, that’s amazing. I’ve been listening to that record for years and I hadn’t noticed that.”

I went back home and I put the record on, and there it was, as plain as day, the changes that he was showing me.

What I learned from that is that I had not been listening deep enough—in enough detail—to get all the proper things.

This anecdote has inspired me to increase the amount of practice time that I spend with recordings. To me, listening deeply can mean literally transcribing melodies or harmonies I hear. It can also mean trying to feel the groove on a deep level, or hear specific phrasing or dynamics. Sometimes I will put a record on and simply play along with it, beginning to end. Each time I do, I find that I hear something in a new way, and get inspired to go even deeper.


Transcribing the Slow Way

I recently started a new transcription project with the goal of learning as slow as possible. Well, not really—but in appreciation of the idea that “the fastest way is the slowest way,” I’m in no rush to finish the project.

The project began the way many of my transcriptions do: I was listening to music that I’ve heard many times before, but this time I heard it in a new way and was intrigued. The transcription is Herbie Hancock’s solo from “Oliloqui Valley” Empyrean Isles (1964).

Empyrean Isles” by Herbie Hancock. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

I was actually playing along on drums and trying to match Tony Williams’ feel when something from Herbie’s solo caught my ear. I ran to the piano to figure out a few notes and then hastily wrote “Oliloqui Valley” on the whiteboard to remember to come back to this solo.

When I came back days later to work on the solo, I decided to take it phrase by phrase and really try to digest each bit before moving on. As I go, here are some questions I’m thinking about:

  • can I sing the phrase or pattern?
  • do I understand the rhythm and can I apply the rhythm elsewhere?
  • do I understand the intervals and their sounds?
  • how does the melodic phrase relate to the harmony?
  • how does the melodic phrase work with other harmonies?
  • how does the phrase relate to what comes before/after?
  • etc.

For me, a phrase might be four measures, or it might be just a few notes, there are no additional parameters beyond “go slowly.”

This takes more time than just playing (or writing) the notes, but I’m convinced that I am learning the language more thoroughly than if I were rushing to get to the end.

Vijay Iyer Redefines the Musical Conversation Metaphor

Vijay Iyer, speaking with Christopher Lydon on the Open Source podcast:

When we say [music is] a conversation, that’s being employed as a metaphor. When we think linguistically about conversation we think about the transmission of information. But that’s not all that conversation is. What it is first is music, which is to say it’s a way of harmonizing with one another. So using the conversation metaphor for music is a little bit backwards to me, because really music came first. That’s the sound of us being together. That’s what music is. So conversation is inherently musical, because it’s about harmonization with another person, it’s about grooving with another person, it’s about improvising. It’s all those things already.

Iyer turns the traditional language metaphor on its head by saying that spoken language mimics music, not the other way around. If I were looking for a definition of “jazz” in the 21st (or any) century, I’d say he’s on to something here.