Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Phil Woods Celebrates his Diamond Anniversary

Why the internet is a truly wonderful thing: "WGBH 89.7FM's Jazz From Studio Four host Steve Schwartz celebrates the 75th birthday of alto saxophonist Phil Woods (born Nov. 2, 1931) with a four-hour retrospective of his ongoing career, which began more than 50 years ago. One of the true masters of the bop vocabulary, Woods has played with an impressive array of artists—touring and recording with jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Benny Goodman and playing on pop albums by Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Steely Dan."

When is this thing happening?
Friday, November 3, 8pm—Midnight (EST)

How can I hear it, I'm not in Boston?
Streaming LIVE worldwide from WGBH Studios in Boston at wgbh.org/jazz.

The picture on the left is a screen capture of Mr. Woods with David Sanborn and his band from the Night Music show. It was a great show that aired in the late 80s at an ungodly hour. The time slot and the music ensured that it was seen by no one. It featured interesting groupings (one performance had Carla Bley and Bootsy Collins) and I still have some of the videotapes I made from it. When I get the time, I’m going to upload them to YouTube. I’ll post a note when I get there.

Happy Birthday, Phil !!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Elements of Jazz

A friend sent me this article a couple of days ago. The author is unknown. (If anyone knows who wrote this, let me know and I’ll add an attribution.)

The Elements of Jazz

Pianists are intellectuals and know-it-alls. They studied theory, harmony and composition in college. Most are riddled with self-doubt. They are usually bald. They should have big hands, but often don't. They were social rejects as adolescents. They go home after the gig and play with toy soldiers. Pianists have a special love-hate relationship with singers. If you talk to the piano player during a break, he will condescend.Bass:Bassists are not terribly smart. The best bassists come to terms with their limitations by playing simple lines and rarely soloing. During the better musical moments, a bassist will pull his strings hard and grunt like an animal. Bass players are built big, with paws for hands, and they are always bent over awkwardly. If you talk to the bassist during a break, you will not be able to tell whether or not he's listening.

Drummers are radical. Specific personalities vary, but are always extreme. A drummer might be the funniest person in the world, or the most psychotic, or the smelliest. Drummers are uneasy because of the many jokes about them, most of which stem from the fact that they aren't really musicians. Pianists are particularly successful at making drummers feel bad. Most drummers are highly excitable; when excited, they play louder. If you decide to talk to the drummer during a break, always be careful not to sneak up on him.

Saxophonists think they are the most important players on stage. Consequently, they are temperamental and territorial. They know all the Coltrane and Bird licks but have their own sound, a mixture of Coltrane and Bird. They take exceptionally long solos, which reach a peak half way through and then just don't stop. They practice quietly but audibly while other people are trying to play. They are obsessed. Saxophonists sleep with their instruments, forget to shower, and are mangy. If you talk to a saxophonist during a break, you will hear a lot of excuses about his reeds.

Trumpet players are image-conscious and walk with a swagger. They are often former college linebackers. Trumpet players are very attractive to women, despite the strange indentation on their lips. Many of them sing; misguided critics then compare them to either Louis Armstrong or Chet Baker depending whether they're black or white. Arrive at the session early, and you may get to witness the special trumpet game. The rules are: play as loud and as high as possible. The winner is the one who plays loudest and highest. If you talk to a trumpet player during a break, he might confess that his favorite player is Maynard Ferguson, the merciless God of loud-high trumpeting.

Jazz guitarists are never very happy. Deep inside they want to be rock stars, but they're old and overweight. In protest, they wear their hair long, prowl for groupies, drink a lot, and play too loud. Guitarists hate piano players because they can hit ten notes at once, but guitarists make up for it by playing as fast as they can. The more a guitarist drinks, the higher he turns his amp. Then the drummer starts to play harder, and the trumpeter dips into his loud/high arsenal. Suddenly, the saxophonist's universe crumbles, because he is no longer the most important player on stage. He packs up his horn, nicks his best reed in haste, and storms out of the room. The pianist struggles to suppress a laugh. If you talk to a guitarist during the break he'll ask intimate questions about your 14-year-old sister.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians' capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surreptitiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as "...jazzy." Viola! A star is born! Quickly she learns "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," and "Route 66." Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of musical terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe. The vocalist will try to seduce you and the rest of the audience by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, make your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her "manager."

The trombone is known for its pleading, voice-like quality. "Listen," it seems to say in the male tenor range, "Why won't anybody hire me for a gig?" Trombonists like to play fast, because their notes become indistinguishable and thus immune to criticism. Most trombonists played trumpet in their early years, then decided they didn't want to walk around with a strange indentation on their lips. Now they hate trumpet players, who somehow get all the women despite this disfigurement. Trombonists are usually tall and lean, with forlorn faces. They don't eat much. They have to be very friendly, because nobody really needs a trombonist. Talk to a trombonist during a break and he'll ask you for a gig, try to sell you insurance, or offer to mow your lawn.

Picking the Tune
Every time a tune ends, someone has to pick a new one. That's a fundamental concept that, unfortunately, runs at odds with jazz group processes. Tune selection makes a huge difference to the musicians. They love to show off on tunes that feel comfortable, and they tremble at the threat of the unknown. But to pick a tune is to invite close scrutiny: "So this is how you sound at your best. Hmm..." It's a complex issue with unpredictable outcomes. Sometimes no one wants to pick a tune, and sometimes everyone wants to pick a tune. The resulting disagreements lead to faction-building and under extreme conditions even impromptu elections. The politics of tune selection makes for some of the session's best entertainment.
Example 1: No one wants to pick a tune (previous tune ends) (silence) trumpet player: "What the f..@*? Is someone gonna to pick a tune?" (silence) trumpet player: "This s%!* is lame. I'm outta here." (Storms out of room, forgetting to pay tab). rest of band (in unison): "Yes!!!" (Band takes extended break, puts drinks on trumpet player's tab).
Example 2: Everyone wants to pick a tune, resulting in impromptu election and eventual tune selection (previous tune ends) (pianist and guitarist simultaneously): "Beautiful Love!"/"Donna Lee!" guitarist to pianist: "You just want to play your fat, stupid ten-note chords!" pianist to guitarist: "You just want to play a lot of notes really fast!" saxophonist: "'Giant Steps'." (a treacherous Coltrane tune practiced obsessively by saxophonists.) guitarist and pianist (together): "Go ahead, a$%^hole." trumpet player: "This sh^%& is lame. 'Night in Tunisia'." (a Dizzy Gillespie tune offering bounteous opportunities for loud, high playing.) saxophonist: "Sorry, forgot my earplugs, Maynard." (long, awkward silence) pianist, guitarist, saxophonist, trumpet player all turn to drummer: "Your turn, Skinhead." (drummer pauses to think of hardest possible tune; a time-tested drummer ploy to punish real musicians who play actual notes.) drummer: "Stablemates." trumpet player: F..@* this! I'm outta here." (Storms out of room. Bartender chases after him.) ("Stablemates") trombonist: "Did someone forget to turn off the CD player?"
-- Not only are these disagreements fun to watch; they create tensions that will last all through the night. (As an educated audience member, you might want to keep a flow chart diagramming the shifting alliances. You can also keep statistics on individual tune-calling. Under no circumstances, though, should you take sides or yell out song titles. Things are complicated enough already.)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Alice Coltrane

Some reminiscing in tempo: Last week, I got to be a recruiter as part of a career fair held at my alma mater, UCLA. As I was driving home, the iPod was playing Charlie Parker’s version of "Laura." The composer, David Raksin, was on the staff of the UCLA music department back when I was a student there. (I used to see him occasionally at Schoenberg Hall) This in turn reminded of a poster I recently came across from a concert at Schoenberg Hall from way back in 1978. One of the things that tell you it was ‘way back’ was the ticket price - $2.50! Now, that doesn’t even cover the fees on a ticket.

Alice Coltrane had Reggie Workman on bass and Roy Haynes on drums backing her. Quite a crew! They played some challenging stuff and it’s still that way today. How do I remember? Because this was one of the few concerts I’ve ever been to that was recorded (legally, at least) for posterity. It became a double album called "Transfiguration." She didn’t come out with another new recording for 26 years!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Time for some new jazz stamps!!!

With each postage increase, the previous set of commemorative stamps becomes obsolete. It was way back in 1995 when the stamps you see at the left were released. Other honorees over the years have included Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday.

There’s criteria that an honoree must meet to grace a stamp. For one thing, unless they’re a former president, they must be dead at least ten years. Here are the complete rules. (Anyone know somebody on the selection committee?)

If I were to choose the next series, I would pick (in alphabetical order):

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959)
Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931)
Art Blakey (1919-1990)
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Stan Getz (1927-1991)
Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)
Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)
Woody Herman (1913-1987)
Earl Hines (1903-1983)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1935-1977)
Lee Morgan (1938-1972)
Sun Ra (1914-1993)
Lester Young (1909-1959)

Any thoughts on this out there? (How cool would a Sun Ra stamp be?)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stephane Grappelli

One of the best features on the iPod is the shuffle function. I have almost 12,000 songs on mine, and it can lead to some interesting transitions. It can be a little jarring to go from Bessie Smith to Anthony Braxton. But still, it makes for some interesting listening.

A couple of days ago, three songs in a row by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France played sequentially. Besides guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), the group featured violinist Stephane Grappelli (1908-1997).

I had the pleasure of seeing Grappelli in the mid-90s at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw him taken backstage in his wheelchair before the concert. He looked extremely frail and weak and I had serious doubts that this concert would be worthwhile. I got him to sign my book (reproduced above). I even got to talk to him a little bit. His English wasn’t very good, but it was better than my French!

When it came time for his concert segment, Grappelli was walked very slowly to his seat by his nephew. The entire Bowl was silent at the sight of this man who looked like he should be in a hospital instead of center stage. He picked up his bow and started the first number. It was as if we all had been transported back 60 years! Miraculously, Grappelli had lost nothing of his technique – there were no blurred runs, no intonation problems - nothing. It was as if the music had the power to melt the years from him. I know it sounds odd, but at the start of the first number, you could hear the entire audience smile.