The Act of Creation

In recent years, I’ve become more involved in writing music, thanks in part to the fact that I co-lead a band, Acme Jazz Garage, that plays frequently and is quick to learn new originals (and often helps with arrangements).

So I’ve given more thought to a)what it takes to create a tune that appeals to audiences (still don’t have a clue) and b)the process behind creating something from nothing.

I have a background as a journalist, and I’ve studied creative writing, and written a few short stories, only one of which has been published (in the journal Florida English). That story, probably not coincidentally, had something of a music-oriented theme, as it’s titled “The Night Frank Sinatra Saved Pop’s Life.”

I’ve been thinking about the similarity between the two arts, in terms of the task of — again — taking a blank page, and putting words or music together that add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

In both cases (journalism/creative writing & composing), what I write has been deeply influenced by what I’ve read, or what I’ve heard, respectively.

For Acme Jazz Garage’s first “major” collection of original compositions, all penned by me (so far), there are two tunes that were directly inspired/influenced by others: “Sandprints” takes some cues from Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” while “Mr. G.P.” is named for bassist George Porter, Jr. of the Meters and inspired by that band’s swampy, funky old-school R&B, although the Acme version of that sounds also features a horn section (flugelhorn, bari sax and tenor sax). The title of the latter tune is a play on John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.,” itself named for bassist Paul Chambers,

For me, a song can start with a riff I hear in my head — once, I heard a tune in a dream — or something that I come up with while noodling on bass, piano or guitar. “Last Call,” the most jazz-oriented of the tunes we’re recording, actually is rooted in a little guitar progression I first messed around with 30 years ago or so.

The point to all of this, I guess: The act of creation is a mystery.

And there’s also that head-space conundrum to deal with, at least for me: Why would anyone care about something I write?

What I do know, for sure, is that the more I do it, the easier it gets for me to achieve the desired result — the more proficient I get at translating my ideas into stories or songs. Something similar happens when playing an instrument. When it comes to music, I’d be even better equipped if I had a stronger understanding of theory and harmony.

Will the end result of our creativity and hard work, a full-length recording, have an impact beyond our local fans, friends and family? Are the tunes any good?

Stay tuned.

Happy 80 Candles to the Village Vanguard!

village vanguard

Has it really been 30 years since I interviewed Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard for The Villager newspaper, for a story on the 50th anniversary celebration of the venerable Seventh Avenue South nightspot? Hard to believe. That summer, during my brief stint as a grad student in cinema studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hardly seems so long ago. In addition to Gordon, I spoke with some of the many jazz greats who played the anniversary show, including trombonist Al Grey.

Gordon, the short, somewhat gruff, cigar-smoking, Lithuanian-born owner of the Vanguard, opened his place in 1935, and in its early years it became a home to poets, singing/acting revues, Caribbean artists (Harry Belafonte), folk and blues singers (Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie), and comedians (Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen).

Its most lasting legacy, though, is that rooted in its late-’50s rebirth as the city’s finest listening room for performances by great jazzers, of the bebop variety and beyond, many of whom are immortalized in the gorgeous photos still hanging in the basement club. John Coltrane and Miles Davis played there. So did Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra (which became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which still plays there Monday nights).

Christian McBride quintet

The Vanguard is practically a temple to the high art of jazz, and I’m happy to have seen bassist Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet (above; see my review of his December show), guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and the late guitarist Tal Farlow at the Vanguard over the years.

Sunday, the Vanguard turned 80. Tuesday, it kicks off a week of concerts presented by pianist Jason Moran. Pianists Moran, Fred Hersch, and Kenny Barron, and saxophonist Charles Lloyd‘s quartet (with Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland) are among the artists slated to play March 10-15.

While other NYC jazz institutions have come (Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Smoke) and gone (Bradley’s, the Village Gate), and others have routinely upgraded and renovated and even changed music policies, the Vanguard has kept folks coming in part because it has stayed the same — a generally low-dough admission charge, a focus on music listening (loud talkers get shushed), and a decision to not introduce food to the mix.

“One thing that’s great is that, through all the years, they’ve had the wisdom not to mess with it,” as Hersch told The New York Observer. “I like the Vanguard for its purity.”

Lorraine Gordon, Gordon’s wife, took over the club in 1989, when he died; at 92, she and her daughter, Deborah, run the place, with the Vanguard’s longtime manager, Jed Eisenman.

For more information on the Vanguard’s 80th anniversary celebration, click here.

The Unstoppable Christian McBride — Remembering His Vanguard Show

Huge tone, impeccable technique, compositional acumen, big personality, ambition — just a few of the traits that have driven bassist Christian McBride’s success as a recording artist, bandleader and, lately, NPR show host.

In coming weeks and months, he’s leading his trio — with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. — at venues all around the United States, and taking his big band to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a weeklong stint at the end of March.

It’s unlikely that I’ll make any of those shows, but I’m still feeling the afterglow of the McBride performance I caught last month at the Village Vanguard in New York. I caught the late show on Tuesday, Dec. 2, a cold and rainy Manhattan night, and the first evening of McBride’s week there with his Inside Straight group, to be followed by another week with his trio.

Here’s what I wrote about the show, for Relix magazine (click here to go straight to the mag), along with the iPhone pic I shot that night:

“It’s been quite some time since we’ve played together,” Christian McBride said, on opening night of the bassist’s weeklong stint with his reunited Inside Straight band. “It’s like putting on your favorite shoes.” Whether walking his upright or leaning in the direction of funk or Latin grooves, McBride led saxophonist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, pianist Peter Martin and drummer Carl Allen through an engaging set that indeed sounded like they picked up right where they had left off before turning their attention to other projects.

The quintet, playing for a packed house of reverential listeners at the Village Vanguard, the holiest of the holiest of New York jazz venues, largely drew from the group’s sophomore CD, People Music, released in 2013. Alto saxophone and vibes sounded the melody of McBride-penned opener “Listen to the Heroes Cry,” with Wolf, during his solo, throwing in a reference to Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and the bassist alternating short bluesy stabs with speedy runs; the tune closed with a long outro, group improv and fade out.

McBride and Allen excelled at crafting dynamic rhythmic sculptures that drove the band on two other pieces from the 2013 release — Wolf’s churning “Gang Gang,” featuring barn-burning vibes and drums turns, and Wilson’s delicate, soprano-led ballad “Ms. Angelou.”

The set’s second half ventured in some different directions, starting with the Caribbean and New Orleans grooves of a piece with vibes and alto on the front line. McBride played a bowed solo on a relaxed, expansive version of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” and the five turned up the intensity on Freddie Hubbard’s “Theme for Kareem” (heard on the group’s 2009 Kind of Brown CD), with the leader shifting into full doghouse-bass mode at the song’s start. McBride, also leader of a trio and big band, and host of NPR’s “Jazz Night in America,” shines regardless of the setting.

 

 

 

Buster Williams & Jay Leonhart Talk Touring With An Upright Bass

(originally published in JazzTimes)

“Is That a Cello?”
INSIDE THE PLIGHT OF THE TOURING ACOUSTIC BASS PLAYER

Acoustic bassists of a certain age will remember Rufus Reid’s step-by-step, photo-illustrated instructions on taking a double bass on a plane, included in his classic book The Evolving Bassist, originally published in 1974. In those days, a traveling bassist could opt to use a fiberglass trunk to transport the instrument in luggage, or simply purchase a half-fare ticket for it and place it in the cabin.

“When I first started traveling, we didn’t have bass cases, we just took the bass on the airplane and put it on a bulkhead seat and strapped it in,” says Buster Williams, 71. Williams, whose Something More group has U.S. and European dates in 2014, has played a prized, century-old Hawkes bass since 1963, when he bought it in London while on tour with Sarah Vaughan. “You never knew what to expect, as far as the flight attendant standing in the way or the captain refusing to allow the bass on the plane. But you always found a way to make it work.”

Later, airlines variously refused to let basses be transported in the cabin. Fast forward to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent heightened security: The upshot was a profusion of confusing size restrictions and additional charges that often varied from airline to airline. As several bassists have recounted, the answer to the gate-security question “Is that a cello?” was always, “Yes.”

Jay Leonhart addressed the traveling bassist’s woes humorously in “Bass Aboard a Plane,” a song from his one-man show, The Bass Lesson. “If you wanna ’cause a problem, if you wanna ’cause some pain,” he sings, “simply go down to your local airport, and try to put a bass aboard a plane. … The ticket lady looks at you in horror, she stares at you in disbelief.”

Not long ago, Leonhart, 73, decided to quit fighting with the airlines and stop flying with his primary bass, an Italian instrument made for the Gibson factory in 1939 and renovated by the Kolstein shop that was formerly owned by George Duvivier. “I’ve left too many basses in storage at airports in the last two years,” he says. “They don’t want your bass on the plane.”

Williams reached the same conclusion: “Up until about five years ago I traveled with my bass. But it became so stressful—the closest to impossible that you can get. If you did take a chance and take your bass on the road, the cost would sometimes outweigh the real practicality of it. And then you’d run into situations where they just refused to take the bass, for no other reason than they’d made a decision not to take basses or cellos.”

So what’s the solution? Some bassists, including Williams, Esperanza Spalding and Dave Holland, have used basses with detachable necks, including David Gage’s Czech-Ease Road Bass, which has an abbreviated body but boasts playing dimensions similar to a standard upright. Many have tried upright electric basses, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Leonhart says he’s been thinking about picking up the electric bass again, at least as a backup, after having played it in the ’70s with guitarist Jim Hall.

Williams and Leonhart, though, both prefer to rent or borrow a good upright for any gig requiring a flight. “I just jump on the plane and arrange it in advance,” Leonhart says. “That means keeping a nice page in your book about where you’re going to try to get a bass from, and who’s going to pay for it.”

Adds Williams, “I have a very stringent tech sheet that specifies an adjustable bridge, and the sort of pickup I want, and the type of bass it should be.”

Flying with a bass could get much easier soon, thanks to the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was slated to go into effect by February. The American Federation of Musicians successfully lobbied for an addition allowing musical instruments to be checked as long as the linear dimensions do not exceed 150 inches and the weight does not exceed 165 pounds, far more lenient than before.

The International Society of Bassists is urging its members to carry a printed copy of the legislation when they travel. “We need the airlines’ support so that musicians can work,” says Madeleine Crouch, the ISB’s general manager. “Airlines could even promote themselves as job creators if they’d only be nice to us!”

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period!” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period! The Criteria Sessions (Omnivore)

Modern American Music … Period!, released on CD, multicolored vinyl and via download, offers the unfettered 1974 Miami demo sessions for bassist Jaco Pastorius’ 1976 solo debut. These recordings, previously unissued in full, unedited form, have been in the possession of Jaco’s brother Gregory, as Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, a co-producer of the project, explains in the liner notes.

Jaco, at the time, was 22 and playing R&B with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, jazz with saxophonist/trumpeter Ira Sullivan and big-band music with Peter Graves. Within two years, he would make his first appearance on a Weather Report album and play on recordings by Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. Modern American Musicsuggests that nothing would stand in the way of his becoming, as he put it, “the world’s greatest bass player.”

For the demo, Jaco was joined by drummer Bob Economou, pianist Alex Darqui, steel drums players Othello Molineaux and Sir Cederik Lucious and percussionist Don Alias. “Donna Lee,” the jaw-dropping first track from the Epic debut album, is here in not dissimilar form, although it’s completely absent of Don Alias’ congas, which added urgency and interaction to the final version, and it closes with a long harmonics fade-out rather than that familiar segue to “Come On, Come Over.” Several other songs—or concepts for songs—would also reappear on the debut: The beautiful ballad “Continuum” is here twice, once as a stand-alone and once connected to “Havona,” which later landed, in a version with more sharp edges, on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. There’s also “Kuru,” punchy and hyperactive and without the strings heard on the debut, and “Opus Pocus (Pans #2)” (called simply “Opus Pocus” on the debut), a blast of Caribbean-tinted groove music largely given to the whirling sounds of Molineaux’s pans. The stately, somber “Forgotten Love” here, unlike on the debut, is all Jaco.

The new-to-us tunes don’t quite trump any of the material that made it onto the final 1976 album. “Balloon Song (12-Tone),” with its tricky, speeding piano-bass unison melody, hard-driving groove and loads of open space for the leader’s soloing, comes in two versions, and has Jaco touching on the kind of harmonics derring-do that later came into play on “Portrait of Tracy.” “Time Lapse” is essentially an extended fusion jam, with Jaco madly slamming a riff in tandem with Alias’ churning congas, driven by Economou’s urgent drumming and topped with Darqui’s inside-and-outside Rhodes playing.

Is Modern American Music the holy grail of Jaco recordings? Maybe. The collection does provide revealing, once obscured views of a not-so-secret talent in bloom. It also makes another case—if we needed one—for the degree of influence Jaco exerted on Weather Report, as composer, colorist and rhythm-section driver. And, of course, as a barrier-breaking musical virtuoso.

Nathan East: Consummate Sideman Releases Solo Debut

(originally published in JazzTimes)

NATHAN EAST

“Daft Punk’s Nathan East heads in his own direction,” a
recent headline in a large-circulation newspaper read, announcing the bass
 player’s first solo album, titled simply Nathan East and released through Yamaha. Nice blast of attention
 for the journeyman musician. Truth be told, for three decades East has been a well-known
 session and touring player for the likes of Eric Clapton, Toto and Michael
 Jackson. He also cofounded popular contemporary jazzers Fourplay in 1990, long before 
his steady-pumping bassline helped drive Daft Punk’s catchy,
 eminently danceable “Get Lucky” to mega sales and a Grammy for Record of the
Year.




“Anything to get you a headline,” East says, chuckling, from
 Los Angeles, his home since relocating from San Diego, where he grew up
 and earned a bachelor of music from UC San Diego. “After being in the business for
30 to 35 years you don’t get surprised by anything.




“[Daft Punk] reached out to me,” he continues. “They had put together a list of 
people they wanted to work with. I had just seen Tron: Legacy, so I was
 familiar with their electronica and the fact that nobody knows what they look
 like. [They said,] ‘This is the groove. Let’s throw some ideas out there and we 
could loop it in Pro Tools. We recorded prior to Nile Rodgers putting his
 guitar part on it. Later, they said we have to redo the bass to really lock it
 in with him and get that Chic sound.”




Not long after appearing alongside Daft Punk at the Grammys,
East, 58, is celebrating the completion of a larger career goal. Why the long wait? “I’ve aspired to do
 this for years—for decades,” he says. “My biggest excuse is that I’ve been
 extremely busy. I had to find a time when I wasn’t on the road and I wasn’t
recording somebody’s project.”




The album, with East joined by guitarist
 Michael Thompson, pianist Jeff Babko, organist Tim Carmon, late drummer Ricky Lawson and other
 longtime musical associates, is intentionally rangy. Variously playing his 
five- and six-string
 electric basses as well as an electric upright, East offers new 
takes on old favorites, including two by Stevie Wonder—a reharmonized “Sir
 Duke,” with Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, and “Overjoyed,” with Wonder guesting on harmonica.
Michael McDonald sings “Moondance,” and two Fourplay bandmates appear: pianist Bob
 James on “Moodswing” and guitarist Chuck Loeb on “Sevenate.”

The bassist sings
 on several tracks, including the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” also featuring East’s 13-year-old
 son, Noah, on piano, and Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with Clapton on
 guitar.
“It’s a celebration of my musical relationships—I have
lots of my friends on the album—and these pieces all have special meaning,” East says. “I
 remember playing ‘Moondance’ in my first band. I used to sing that song. With ‘Sir 
Duke,’ I sat in with a big band in Norway last year when I was on tour with 
Toto. I looked around, and everyone was smiling and having so much fun. That
 tune is like an instant love fest.”




East switched from cello to bass at age 14, and began
 playing in his high school jazz band in addition to Top 40 groups around San
Diego. For a while, he tuned his cello like a bass. “I pretended that it was an
 upright,” he says. “It was a weird thing to do.”




His musical interests were diverse—Wes Montgomery, Clapton
and Cream, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Santana. And he took
 some bass playing cues from the likes of Tower of Power’s Rocco Prestia, Earth,
Wind & Fire’s Verdine White and Paul McCartney, among others.
 After a stint with singer Barry White, East quickly made 
inroads on the L.A. studio scene in the early ’80s, competing against such session 
stalwarts as Abraham Laboriel, Chuck Rainey and Max Bennett.




For his solo album, he handily demonstrates his skills on his instrument, particularly on the African-tinted “Madiba,” one of several tunes he
co-wrote (including the Fourplay favorite “101 Eastbound” and “Daft Funk”), and “America the
Beautiful,” which opens with his unaccompanied lead and chordal work.




But he made the album a song-focused effort. Says East, “I think
everybody expects a bass player to kind of jump out there and [expects] it to 
be a bass fest, and so I kind of consciously opted not to go that route.”

 

John Patitucci Talks “Melodic Arpeggios” (his new ebook) and online lessons

(originally published in JazzTimes)

GearHead: John Patitucci’s New ebook and Online Lessons

Technology beyond technique

John Patitucci, the first-call double bassist, bass guitar virtuoso and current member of Wayne Shorter’s critically acclaimed quartet, draws from a wide variety of teaching experiences in Melodic Arpeggios and Triad Combining for Bass, a recent Kindle eBook published by David Gage String Instruments, the renowned New York bass shop.

The book, aimed at double bassists and bass guitarists alike, is being released in multiple instalments. Episode One offers six chapters, with exercises ranging from moderately easy to challenging; the lessons open with a focus on intonation and single-string shifting before moving to arpeggios and closing with a major arpeggio etude based on a theme by Bottesini. The project is something of a sequel to Patitucci’s book 60 Melodic Etudes.

“I felt like it would be good to do a book that would show the directions I’ve been going as a teacher and as a player,” Patitucci said recently from Atlanta, where he was playing sessions for a recording by pianist and composer Ted Howe. “A lot of books offer exercises in a very rudimental, up-and-down technical way. I wanted to develop a book using arpeggios in a very melodic way. Instead of just sounding like you’re running scales, you have the melody that arpeggios can bring. That has been influenced by Wayne—his stuff sounds like these combinations of sounds and arpeggios. There is obviously some chromaticism and scales mixed in, but the lyricism from the way he combines arpeggios is quite astounding. Obviously it’s a little harder to get around on the bass, but it’s a worthy challenge.”

Episode One also includes an emphasis on hearing and understanding intervals. “That helps with ear training,” the bassist said. “Using your ear to identify what intervals are coming at you is a powerful thing.”

The Kindle project isn’t Patitucci’s first foray into new media. Last year, he launched an interactive bass school through ArtistWorks; the online program has Patitucci provide video tutorials and written materials to students all over the globe, and give commentary on students’ work. “It takes kids from, ‘This is how you stand and hold it,’ all the way through grooving and tradition and jazz playing and information about Brazilian and Afro-Cuban stuff,” he said. “There are hundreds of lessons there, and basically a bass book of downloadable stuff you can get.”

The end game, Patitucci explained, is always to lead players in the direction of freedom, achieving technical mastery and accomplishing high-level “hearing” in order to free themselves up to more fully play in the moment, to connect directly with the music and fellow musicians: “If you’re struggling technically, it gets in the way of your rhythm and everything else. It’s all really about tools that will help you play more musically and expressively, with more richness, no matter what style. It’s to help you be freed up on the instrument no matter what music you play on the bass, to get around freely.

The Brooklyn native, 53, who spent his teenage years in Northern California and later lived in Los Angeles before returning to the New York area, has plenty more on his CV in terms of education. He recently began his second full year as an artist-in-residence at the Boston-based Berklee Global Jazz Institute, headed by his Shorter Quartet bandmate Danilo Pérez. A music professor at the City College of New York for a decade, Patitucci, who followed his hero Ron Carter into that position, earlier served as artistic director of the Bass Collective in New York. He has also worked with the Thelonious Monk Institute and Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program.

To some degree, Patitucci views today’s culture of formal jazz education as akin to an alternative mentorship. He thinks jazz degree programs might be the next-best substitute for the type of informal on-the-road training once more widely available to younger players.

“Schools are trying to pick up the slack,” he explained. “Nothing can replace being on a gig for years and going on the road and playing hundreds of gigs, but we’re trying to do our best to mentor and put students in performing situations and teach them history and practice and theory—and the practicality of it.”