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 twist on that sound 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 of 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.

Michael Janisch, in Bass Player Magazine

I recently spoke with Michael Janisch, the U.S.-to-U.K. bassist making a splash on the international jazz scene, for a piece published in Bass Player magazine. Check out the story here, or read the text, below:

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WISCONSIN-BRED MICHAEL JANISCH obsessed over Flea’s lines, played electric in rock bands, and earned a history degree on a football scholarship before studying jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. There, he refocused on the upright, deepened his love for the playing of Paul Chambers and Ray Brown, and prepped for a period in New York. In 2007, he permanently relocated to London.

Janisch’s debut solo CD, Purpose Built, recorded in Brooklyn, is a transatlantic effort that highlights Janisch’s fleet-fingered fretboard work, and features superb performances by the likes of pianist Aaron Goldberg and drummer Johnathan Blake. The group takes on an eclectic set of challenging, inventive original compositions, and bracing arrangements of standards.

In your early years playing, who inspired you the most?

The deep feeling Ray Brown put forth when he played, and his consistent quarternote groove, are things that I still try to emulate today. In terms of tone, I’ve always been into Larry Grenadier. He was really hitting the scene ten years ago, and that huge, dark sound of his was what I wanted to get into.

What did you want to accomplish with your debut solo album?

I knew it was going to be pretty ambitious, in terms of personnel and compositions. I ended up deciding on 12 tracks, and using nine different musicians from here and the States, since I had freelanced in both countries. I wanted to present a mix of things that I’d been up to, hint of what’s to come, and showcase different kinds of compositions.

How does the London jazz scene differ from that of New York?

In America, it’s beaten into your head to learn standards. Here, they don’t teach that in schools. It’s more like you’re encouraged get your own concept together when you’re very young, instead of spending so much time on the tradition. But knowing standards really helped me when I got here, because it helped me get across in all the different cliques.

BP0310_bn_mj_nrHEAR HIM ON

Michael Janisch, Purpose Built (Whirlwind, 2009]; Gary Husband’s Drive, Hotwired (Abstract Logix, 2009); TransAtlantic Collective, Traveling Song (Woodville, 2008); Paul Towndrow, Six By Six (Keywork, 2007)

Danton Boller in Bass Player

I recently spoke with Danton Boller, who has worked with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and others, for a short piece published in Bass Player. It’s now available online.

Click here to check out the story in Bass Player, or see the text of the feature below.

INDIANA NATIVE DANTON BOLLER played electric bass in teenage rock    bands  in Southern California, but a switch to upright under the tutelage of Dave Brubeck Quartet bassist Eugene Wright sent him in entirely new directions. Boller has since applied lessons from Wright and California State University Long Beach instructor Chris Kollgaard to high-profile gigs with Roy Hargrove, Seamus Blake, Robert Glasper, and Anthony Wilson. A New Yorker since 1997, Boller has focused lately on his own recordings, a forthcoming duo release with Wright, and a new piano trio project. He also works with drummer Ari Hoenig and singer Kat Edmondson.

Is there a particular New York jazz bass sound you’ve gravitated toward?
When I first moved here, a lot of the guys I was watching were heavily influenced by Paul Chambers. I was too … and still am. But then I started checking out guys like Richard Davis, Doug Watkins, Jimmy Merritt, Eddie Jones, Buster Williams—styles that I wasn’t hearing so much from younger guys.

What lessons did you learn from Eugene Wright?
He wouldn’t necessarily say, “play these lines,” or “play these notes,” but there’s one thing that has stuck with me: I asked him why he played what he did on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” He said, “I just picked something that would be easy for everyone to latch onto.” That’s kind of the way I approach playing. I try to think of what’s going to enable everyone to play their best.

What was it like recording duos with Wright?
Playing in the correct range so the melody would sit well over another bass is something I never had to think about before in a recording situation. It was incredibly fun to shift gears, and to get the opportunity to play over Eugene’s undeniable groove. “Theme For My Ladies” [a three-movement composition by Wright] captures a lot of different moods. We got into trading solo phrases where I was playing arco and he was playing pizz. That is one of my personal highlights, because it sounds so conversational.

How do you approach soloing?
I try to tell a story with a good melody, and let it develop naturally. I’ve never considered myself to be a great soloist—I want to be a really good rhythm-section player first. Soloing is the icing on the cake.

Jazz Legends: New Dual Biography of Miles and Coltrane

What defines a musical legend?

Tricky question to answer.

When it comes to jazz, my list of legendary artists, those whose playing, compositions and band leadership had a significant and unique impact on the music would have to include — d’oh! — Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The musical careers, and lives, of both, are examined in a recently published dual biography, Clawing at the Limits of Cool.

My review of the book was published in today’s St. Petersburg Times. Click here to go directly to the story, or read it below:

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There’s no shortage of books addressing the work of jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane, either individually or as separate chapters in larger histories. Two top-shelf recent examples are Howard Mandel’s Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, both penned by music journalists and published last year.

Unlike its predecessors, Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever goes for something new: a dual biography. It’s an entirely sensible approach, given the titular musicians’ collaboration on trumpeter Davis’ blockbuster album Kind of Blue, released in 1959, and the impact these players had on each other, as instrumentalists, composers and bandleaders.

Farah Jasmine Griffin, a Columbia University literature professor, and saxophonist and Brooklyn College music professor Salim Washington mostly fulfill expectations, capably weaving together the story lines of these artists’ remarkable lives, offering valuable insight into how and why they connected, and sizing up the seismic results.

The co-authors also turn in generally well-informed musical analysis, some of which is sure to go over the heads of nonmusicians; readers would have been well served if the publisher had opted to include a CD or offer free downloads of a few key tunes — Milestones, Straight, No Chaser, Flamenco Sketches discussed here.

In a recording age marked by digital downloads of instantly disposable hip-hop, tween pop and country hat acts, it’s easy to forget the centrality once held by jazz art and commerce, particularly in the black community. Davis, born the son of a dentist in a Chicago suburb in May 1926 and raised middle class in East St. Louis, Ill., and saxophonist Coltrane, born four months later, son of a tailor in small-town North Carolina, were creative artists who made jazz their professional and spiritual home.

They spent their lives pursuing their art. In doing so, Davis and Coltrane changed the music’s architecture, as Griffin and Washington point out, although critics and other listeners might argue with their first-page suggestion that the two “were the last major innovators in jazz.”

Few serious jazz trumpeters or saxophonists alive can honestly say that they haven’t been influenced by Davis’ use of space in his solos or his muted playing on ballads, or by Coltrane’s note-spraying sheets of sound. Their contrasting personality types — the trumpeter brash, flashy and sometimes arrogant, the saxophonist quiet, unassuming and usually gentle — have also been emulated by subsequent generations of musicians.

The authors touch on a related irony: “However, these qualities are reversed in their playing. When the two men came together in the mid ’50s, Coltrane’s style already displayed a ferocity not evident in his personality, whereas Miles possessed an extraordinarily tender, lyrical approach to his instrument.”

Still, trumping their work as instrumentalists were their achievements as bandleaders, redefining the limits to which groups could take jazz-rooted ensemble work — variously, bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz and jazz fusion.

Griffin and Washington, of course, focus on the musicians’ work together, in the Miles Davis Quintet and later, from 1958 to 1961, the Miles Davis Sextet. The latter group, which Coltrane joined after quitting heroin cold turkey and playing and studying with pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, was responsible for the groundbreaking Milestones album and, with a different lineup, the vastly influential Kind of Blue.

Davis, and Coltrane on tenor saxophone, proved ideal foils for one another on such now-standard pieces as Freddie Freeloader and All Blues. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb added indelibly to an understated but subtly intense album cited as the bestselling jazz recording of all time. It’s an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible if the paths of these two “cultural icons,” as the co-authors call them, had not crossed.

Times correspondent Philip Booth writes about music for Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and other publications, and plays bass with Tampa jazz group Trio Vibe. He played with ”Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb in a Nat Adderley tribute concert in 2000.

Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever

By Farah Jasmine Griffin and Salim Washington

Thomas Dunne Books, 294 pages, $24.95