Second Act / Expression

•October 18, 2015 • 1 Comment

We meet again, everyone! After a short two year hiatus, I’ve decided to continue writing again. Quite a bit has happened in my absence.

Long story short, I was in a bus crash, got better, save for some dead nerves in my arm(which has thrown my playing into relative chaos, which is slowly improving), and I’m now working for a production company which books Jazz Standard.

This means that the structure of the blog has to change somewhat, as I can no longer commentate on music I see in the city, as it would be a conflict of interest. I’ll deal mostly with the music of people who are deceased, and non-musical commentary about people I meet on the Jazz highways. I’ll be offering some in depth commentary about recorded music, general musical practice, and philosophy, things like that.

Posts will be less regular but hopefully more in depth.

Thank you for all of the support during my recovery, I sincerely appreciate it. I couldn’t have done it without the kind smiles, company, and favors I received. Thank you all.

Now let’s get into it.

During my considerable downtime, I got a little restless and depressed. I was stuck in the house, couldn’t do anything, and had the pressure of finding a new job looming over my head.

To remedy this, I did what I usually do, listen to a ton of music. I found myself not gravitating towards new things, as is my default setting, but rather old workhorses, those deeply personal records guaranteed to put a smile on my face. Not the Love Supremes or any other powerhouse records, but the records that have a quirk or a memory attached to them, some of which I’ve mentioned on the blog, like Daddy Plays the Horn by Dexter or Out Front by Jaki, and others which I haven’t, like the Oscar Peterson Songbooks or Ella and Basie.

I did at one point stumble upon A Love Supreme, which I love to death but never listen to, out of respect and fear that I’ll start embedding not only the feeling but the notes from the record into my own playing. The record stands as one of the most purposeful and personal statements in all of art, every second of it a riveting piece that at once breaks your heart and sets it on fire. It’s enough to get anyone impassioned, but especially musicians who more or less speak the language.

Truly, John Coltrane was an artist of such magnitude that he commands the respect of all who made art after him. One can listen to the history of musicians who came after him and hear his shadow looming over them. There are groups of extremely dedicated musicians who rifle through every recording, searching for the perfect “My Favorite Things” from the obscure European festival recorded by an avid Finnish fan who happened to have his wire recorder running. And why not? Many people would agree that Coltrane perfected his style, and set jazz on its course for the next 50 years. He’s a gargantuan figure who deserves every ounce of respect he gets, a Beethoven or Bach of his time.

However, there is one thing that has always bothered me, and continues to bother me.  While people are absolutely entranced by Coltrane’s quartet, most are horrified by the music that came after it.

While there are many great artist through history, Coltrane remains at the top for me for a few reasons, the first and foremost being that he went down swinging, and not in the musical sense. Coltrane was always reaching plateaus and surpassing himself. In the Mid 50s, he became a master of chord changes in the style of his predecessors. When he became one of the best at that, able to hold his own with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin, he began working with the most complex harmonist around, Thelonious Monk (as did the other two. Crazy how that ended up with all of them being so distinct). After that—various circumstances notwithstanding—he moved forward and just added more chords by himself, and created the harmonic complexities of Countdown, Giant Steps, and the multitude pieces using those devices. After that, and alongside it, he went from playing as many chords as possible to as little chords as possible. Then, in the great quartet, he explored dozens of other things, spirituality, rhythm, arc, parallelism, group dynamic, and many more.

This is where most people stop. But after that, true to form, Coltrane continued to explore. Spoken word, chanting, drones, percussive experiments, freedom from form, freedom from notes, tonal explorations etc etc etc. He continued on that path until death.

Not all people are against that period of Coltrane. In my (spitballing) estimation, let’s say 80% of Coltrane lovers dislike or lower their appreciation of his late work. Of the 20% who listen and enjoy it, 10% write it off as something only Trane could do, elevating it on a pedestal as the brilliant work of a spiritual man that no one dare emulate or consider. Something along the lines of “I’m not going to try to playanything like that, I’m not Trane. Only he can play that kind of music.” Often, this way of thinking comes with a refusal of some of Trane’s successors as well, be it Anthony Braxton, early Gato Barbieri, or a slew of others. The way the music evolved by and large stemmed from the quartet.

Students of Coltrane, however, should know that he quite literally died an explorer. He never stopped his path to mastery of new and old music. And quite frankly, he enjoyed help on his journey. Between calling Sonny Rollins and exchanging phrases over the phone in the 50s, his friendship with Eric Dolphy and their mutual love of Indian Music, his long practice sessions with Wayne Shorter playing classical music and harp studies, his connection to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, or his relationship with Pharoah Sanders in his final ensembles. He was not in it alone, and he was not carrying the music directly on his back. He had help, and enjoyed having it, pushing the music forward as it always has been.

There was no financial motivation a la Miles Davis, there was no hiatus a la Sonny Rollins, and there was no retirement a la Monk. He marched forward until the end, and the least shall we say “palatable” period was right at the end.

In classical music, people speak of the “shadow of Beethoven”, and how his influence was unavoidable for composers for decades after his death. His late work was also his least palatable, and only the most cutting edge composers, musicians, and critics acknowledged them as the momentous works they are, which has continued to be the verdict to this day, as they have inspired a century or two of music since then.

There is undoubtedly a shadow of Coltrane as well. In Coltrane’s case however, he gave us a convenient out, which is being ignored and dismissed. To honor Coltrane’s legacy and revere him as a deity of the music is to honor not only the musical styles he created, but also his mentality and devotion to mastery and creation, his unending foray into the challenging and unknown.

There is no such thing as the Avant Garde, only those who are a little bit late. –Edgard Varèse


Interlude: Things Happen

•October 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Due to a bus crash I was in, I will be taking a hiatus from the blog. Upon my return, I’ll be finishing The Bad Minus series up, and then going on into uncharted territory. Who knows, maybe all of this bed time will allow me to get into some real nitty gritty.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support.


The Bad Minus (Part 1)

•September 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment


Donna+LewisBeing in NYC for two years, I’ve gotten a kind of feel for what a show is going to be like before I go. When times are tough financially, it really makes you realize what kind of music you like to go see, or at least what you think is important to go see.  There are a few people who I’ll always go see no matter what, just personal favorites who I like to see in various situations. There are some athletes who I like to see once or twice a year, people like Chris Potter or Tain, real technical geniuses who remind you what real comfort is like no matter what type of music they’re playing.  9 times out of 10 I’ll go see anyone who’s over 80 play. Recently I’ve been studying up on free music, so at this point in time I always go see people who are pillars of that community, Evan Parker, many AACM members, people like that. Of course there are a few ensembles that I never miss, The Bad Plus, The Dan Weiss Trio, The Miles Okazaki Quartet, The Ralph Alessi Quartet, The Bandwagon, The Bill McHenry Quartet, Trio 3, among many others.

But there’s another type of show that I’ll go to without fail, and that’s a show that I can’t imagine before I go. If I’m looking through listings, and I don’t have an inkling about how it will sound, I go without fail. Donna Lewis’ gig at Drom was one of these gigs.

For those of you who think you don’t know who Donna Lewis is, you do.

Everyone alive in the mid 90s does, at least.

Now I was made aware of this gig due to a rip in the jazz/time continuum, not through my normal methods. On paper, it read: Donna Lewis presents her new album, a David Torn produced disc, featuring Aaron Parks, Reid Anderson, and David King.

So I ordered tickets online and got there early. How in the HELL are these three going to sound behind Donna Lewis?

Unsurprisingly, they were great. I like seeing people in circumstances where they have to rest on nothing but their musicality and professionalism. I love gigs with subs, I love thrown together supergroups, I just love watching musicians feel each other out, and simply play the gig. It doesn’t necessarily make for the best music, but it’s damn good theatre at the very least.

Now, Donna Lewis, to my surprise (call it a hesitance to accept pop music, I guess) is a fantastic singer in technical terms. She was nailing pitches, had a great voice that melded nicely with the band. The situation was slightly strange, because Donna came out onstage and admitted out front that she has no idea what she’s doing in a Jazz context, which was extremely impressive to me. Were it that all pop musicians at some point made an honest leap into some different music and threw themselves at the mercy of the musicians that play it, taking their ego out of the picture!

Two things excited me at this gig: Reid Anderson can make a massive amount of impact with very little action, and Dave King needs to be crowned the current king of straight-8th rock beats.

Now the first point isn’t so surprising, but Aaron was playing rather sparsely, and Dave was making the action happen, but I must say that every single time I heard Reid do something out of the ordinary, it was great. He never made any extraneous movement, and when he did move, it had tremendous impact on the tune. Amazing watching that kind of show, where you’re just waiting for someone on the bandstand to make a move because you know how great the move is going to be.

Dave King needs to be put up in the pantheon of modern beat makers such as Brian Blade and Herlin Riley, people who have endless variations on these personal, deeply grooving beats that they play. I could listen to Dave King play beats with no variation for a long amount of time without feeling the slightest bit bored. His feel and orchestral choices fascinate me.

I have never come close to achieving a feel like that, mostly because I don’t love that music. The history of rock and its drummers are pretty much a mystery to me, although I can always feel when something is grooving and when it’s not. There are a few Jazz drummers that I’ve seen in NYC that really make me groove in a rock feel—Kenny Wollesen, Dan Weiss, John Hollenbeck to name a few—and Dave King is right at the top of that list. I feel like in the current trend of straight 8ths Jazz, the groove gets lost, and the only two ways you can save it are through the beats of hip-hop and rock(that’s a huuuuuge topic for another post).

Regardless, it was great seeing these guys work in this context. It was even better when they went into a post-Bley freakout session in the middle of a tune, breaking out of the context.  I really wish those guys would play that kind of music more, but that’s just a fanboyish request, I think. It’s not like I dislike what they’re doing now.

This is the first of three posts dedicated to Bad Plus members playing in un-Bad Plus settings. Who’s next? Tune in to find out.

“Nothing dates more quickly than whole tone writing, being circular. . . Even Debussy could not entirely avoid this failing.”—Gunther Schuller, on the use of whole tones in the swing era


Motor City Music 2013 Edition

•September 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

the-joe-louis-fist-scuplture-with-the-gmSo once again I made my annual pilgrimage to Detroit to see the largest free Jazz festival on the planet (That’s Jazz without price, not Jazz without form)

It’s still a great scene, and this being my 5th year, coming home to the RenCen for my annual vacation was great. Every festival should house all of its musicians in one hotel with one lobby, it makes for amazing situations involving old friends catching up and much needed meetings between generations of musicians.

The lineup this year was rather strange, there was no real ringer aside from Ahmad Jamal, at least not in the Jarrett/Metheney/Rollins/Coleman/Marsalis/Shorter stratosphere, and instead there were a large number of performers from the tier second from the top, which was great, of course.

The best shows of the weekend (I left on Monday morning, unfortunately) were in some way few and far-between. The Detroit festival has always been a proponent of “keeping the flame alive”, however this year there was a distinct lack of old-guard musicians, former hard bop pioneers in their 70s. In years past, there were Blakey alumni, Blue Note veterans, and a distinct focus on young musicians who were completely devoted to a certain part of the tradition. This year brought in more of the young NYC musicians, hard blowing, rough and tumble types who are more suited to cutting sessions at Smalls then gigs with elders.

The swerve away from the tradition, however slight, made for some interesting programming in the rest of the festival. David Murray’s big band, for example, would never have played on the main stage three years ago(under the direction of former director Terri Pontremoli, especially had the featured artist Macy Gray not been involved. It was great seeing the band’s atonal cries in Detroit, among the buildings of downtown. Murray sounded amazing, and his band seemed to consist of many young improvisors (none of which I had heard of) committed to the avant-garde and high level ensemble playing. Macy Gray was a different story, and although she was quite the hostess, her performance failed to deliver. Unfortunately, the rest of the concert was cancelled due to rain.

The next night brought an extremely interesting show: Charles Lloyd with guest Bill Frisell. As soon as I heard about this, I was extremely excited to hear Frisell alongside Lloyd collaborator Jason Moran, until I found out that my mother was seeing Jason Moran in Chicago the same night, and that Frisell was a sub.  It was still a very engaging listening experience. Hearing Frisell’s perfect textural playing alongside the groove-focused section of Rueben Rogers and Eric Harland was a compromised to behold. Charles, interestingly enough, seemed to tilt Bill’s way, creating a great combination of starting points for the ensemble.  Charles sounded much better and freer than when I saw him on his birthday, really responding to the new atmosphere created by Bill.  I’m starting to think more and more that the sound on his birthday was terrible on stage.

Right after them was the Sax Summit, with Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano, with Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, and Phil Markowitz in the rhythm section. I got to see Cecil and Billy together twice over two days, and I’m so happy I did. The sound, unfortunately, was terrible at both shows in terms of the bass, McBee was far too loud both times. Honestly, the sound guys at Detroit were not at their best all festival, it was a real let-down. McBee and Hart still sounded great through all of the problems, though.

Liebman and Lovano are two saxophonists who are always great when given a little nudge, and having the other onstage was nudging enough to get things going. Now, I am a firm believer(and this probably is my Cleveland roots talking) that given the correct inspiration, Joe Lovano could cut any living saxophonist. I’ve seen him in various situations where he’s motivated, and no one can touch him. This night was no exception, especially on the first tune, “Alexander the Great”.  Lovano soling after Liebman while being poked and prodded by Cecil McBee and Billy Hart? There’s not much better than that. That’s not saying that Liebman didn’t show up to play. On Coltrane’s “India” he was as fiery as ever. Liebman is one of the most consistent musicians I know. I’ve never seen a disappointing performance of his. He’s always committed to the music at hand, always 100% in the moment. I wish other musicians with his visibility played in the same way.

The other show with Hart and McBee was with the Cookers, and man, was that a show.  There were so many shows that I walked in and out of that were hard-bop influenced, with this sheen of academia or hollywood that I hate so much. However it only took one bar of Billy Harper’s “Capra Black” to send shivers up my spine. The rawness of the players and the honesty and drive of the rhythm section was so great, so evocative of a kind of Jazz that is almost dead. The dark and mysterious playing of George Cables(who honestly doesn’t always play with that kind of dark fire), McBee, and Hart is something that I’m not sure you can really see anywhere else.  I had just seen Liebman, Lovano, James Carter, Gary Smulyan, Charles Lloyd, and David Murray, but I have to say that Billy Harper’s raw, brutal sound spoke more honestly to me than any of the others. Simply said, it was truth.

Also, a shout out to Billy Hart. I’ve seen him for a long time now, and as I see him in more and more situations, I realize that he is the consummate professional, bringing exactly what is needed into every gig he plays.  Billy’s intensity and George’s powerful accompaniment were matched by Billy, and it was interesting to see how much more he pushed the band with the Cookers than with Liebman and Lovano, even though the performance with Sax Summit was not in any way lacking. It just needed some different juice.

Liebman’s show with Richie Beirach was great too, although I had seen them before in NYC. As I said, they are a hallmark of consistency. The technical level is always amazingly high (especially Beirach, who seems to be in fine form lately), and the connection they have to their tunes is really special. Seeing them together is great because not only do they have a long friendship and history, but a specific harmonic world which both of them love to swim around in.  You hear imitators constantly, so to see the real thing is great.

The reason I wouldn’t have missed this year was Ahmad Jamal. When are you going to get to see Ahmad for free? His band consisted of percussionist Manolo Badrena, Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal. I’d never heard Herlin live, but of course it was magnificent. He is so great at creating original grooves and feeling out what the situation needs, and it was great to hear him work with Reginald to support Ahmad. Unfortunately, that’s about all the gig came to. Ahmad is still in decent pianistic form, although he is sticking to certain devices, not unlike Herbie is. He was more atonal that I imagined he’d be, and he seems to be thinking more about phrases and shapes than notes themselves. One such device was a trill in the left hand and wild arpeggios in the right, not clean, but rough and sloppy. I didn’t expect him to play that way.

What struck me about it was the presentation. It was a real show, one that all of the lay people in the audience absolutely loved. It was incredibly groove based, with no real songs or forms. The set consisted of 8 or so vamps, with Blue Moon in the middle, not so forward moving, but very groove based as well. They also played a burner, but in the Jamal style, with no real solos as expected in Jazz these days.

I was happy they played Poinciana, but very sad that there wasn’t more swinging.  Ahmad’s tone is glorious, and the extent I got to hear his great subtle swing feel was half a chorus during the encore.

Now, someday, when I’m a 70 year old pianist, I’ll probably understand why Ahmad had a percussionist in this trio. Maybe I’ll understand why there were percussionists on some of Bird’s recordings. I’ll understand why Sonny Rollins uses a percussionist. Why dizzy Gillespie used a percussionist on his bebop recordings. Right now, I don’t understand why this band had a percussionist. I will say that as utility percussionists go, Mandolo stayed out of the way, and played only as a second soloist while Ahmad was resting. Still, I wish I could have heard Herlin’s beat without the distracting marcha rhythm interacting with him. I’ve never heard a conga player make a trap set drummer groove more (now a timbales player, that’s a different story).

The dark horse for the festival was Eddie Daniels with Roger Kellaway. If you get a chance to see this band, do, it’s a fantastic mix of real improvisatory duo playing and great old standards played by men who understand them. Roger Kellaway is an amazing pianist who I’ve wanted to see and talk to since hearing his playing on Alfie, and to hear where his playing has ended up is quite interesting and fulfilling. He obviously has a great love for classical music, but also for some of the greats of the old days, Jimmy Rowles and the like. Really fantastic playing. I was surprised by how interactive and free they were, given the material and the context.

The best thing about Detroit, for my money, is the talk tent, a tent that has 8 talks a day, with a historical and educational mission. I only got to see three talks, but hearing Peter Pullman discuss his research on Bud Powell and David Berger talk about Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige was great.

They also hosted the yearly blindfold test by Ted Panken, probably my favorite Jazz journalist. The participants were Geri Allen and Danilo Perez. I was excited to hear Geri speak about music, but she mostly spoke on NYC in the 80s. The test will be out soon, I’m sure, but I was struck by two things: Danilo Perez has an incredible ear for music, and is very aware of his contemporaries, and Ted Panken may love 70s and 80s Jazz more than anyone.

Another great thing to see at the festival was the involvement and presence of other musicians. At the jam session, I got to play with my childhood hero, James Carter, which was an absolute thrill (if you’ve never been molly-whopped in public before, I don’t suggest it, but still). At Ahmad Jamal, it was great to look to my left and see Gregory Porter, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, and George Fludas checking out the gig. Hearing Johnny O’Neal play solo piano into the night after the jam session had finished was amazing as well. This kind of living needs to be celebrated and copied in every Jazz scene, as I keep saying. Keep the community alive.

The last thing I’ll say is that Detroit has some frightening young talent on the rise. Under the watchful eye of Marcus Belgrave, you can bet that in a few years another wave of monsters from the motor city are going to invade the Jazz scene.

“Man, Coltrane never wore socks! He’d be in a tuxedo, no socks!” —Tootie Heath


Dropping By

•August 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The Jazz world seems to be divided into two camps as far as location goes: there are people who say that New York is the only place they could ever live, and people who feel like they could live anywhere.  I believe that great music can be made anywhere, and since moving here, I even see some advantages to living outside of the NYC bubble. However, what isn’t debatable is that in the NYC Jazz, unexpected and amazing things can happen without notice.

One of these things happened to me at the Jazz Masters performance at Birdland.  The Jazz Masters quartet is one of many ensembles produced by Milan(SP?), a wealthy Italian benefactor who gets interesting ensembles together and produces them through Jazz clubs like Birdland and the Jazz Standard. This particular ensemble has been gigging for five years, and included Steve Kuhn, Dave Liebman, Buster Williams, and Billy Hart.  I went mostly because I had never seen the powerful duo of Billy Hart and Buster Williams play together live, although I’ve seen them apart countless times and have heard them on record since I started listening to Jazz.

The music that night was interesting, Steve isn’t the kind of player you’d expect to hear with Buster and Billy these days, he has more of a trio-like presence, and hearing them function as a rhythm section was interesting.  Preliminary research shows that they haven’t played together before these engagements, so on top of a different style of playing, you have to add that Kuhn is effectively waltzing in on a 40 year relationship in the rhythm section, something which is tricky no matter who the pianist is. The overall feeling worked fairly well.

Seeing Liebman in front of it all was interesting as well. I can’t help but have Coltrane partially in my head when I hear Liebman play, and in this situation I was contemplating the various rhythm section members’ connection and feeling towards Coltrane. Kuhn played with Coltrane in 1961, and Billy and Buster were in the absolute thick of things during the years when Coltrane was far and away the prevailing influence in Jazz. It’s interesting to think about how the feelings toward that style of playing would differ. Regardless, Liebman sounded good as always, and he definitely raised the bar of the performance once he got onstage.

The most interesting part of the night was after the music however. Earlier that day, Tootie Heath, who was in town by chance after a stint at Dizzy’s, called me and asked me if I wanted to go see Al Foster at the Vanguard. When I told him that Al Foster was playing next week, he asked what else was going on, and I said that Buster and Billy were playing, and that he should go see them.

When he walked into Birdland, he was accompanied by Louis Hayes and Kenny Washington. They had just come from a BBQ place in Harlem where Kenny had taken them both for dinner. They were seated three feet from Billy’s drum set, and Billy didn’t notice them until Louis got up and moved the music stand closer to Billy so that he could better read the music.

I have witnesses, and I’ll maintain myself that the level shot through the roof once Billy saw that Louis and Tootie were behind him. He and Buster freed up, started daring Liebman to go to new heights. It was quite amazing, and I certainly got the rhythm section lesson that I signed up for. On top of that, the final solo of the evening was a three chorus drum solo by Billy, and I can easily say that I’ve never heard him sound that good, live or on record. It was transcendent, and everyone in the room knew it, most of all Kenny Washington, who just shook his head through the whole thing.

The after hang was of course, amazing. Sheila Jordan came and conversed with Kuhn, her good friend.  The talk was amazing among the drummers and Buster, talking about everything from old times to pranks that everyone played on Billy Higgins when he was in the hospital, to who actually played which tracks on Herbie’s “Fat Albert Rotunda” (Kenny posed the question, he knows that it was partially Bernard Purdie, partially Tootie, but he was pretty sure that certain tracks are Grady Tate.  Tootie couldn’t remember the session too clearly, but Buster remembered Grady being at the session.) There were stories of Tootie playing with Coltrane, Billy Higgins asking Kenny politely to sit in on Cedar Walton’s gig (which of course he gave him), and notes comparing what happened when Louis and Tootie played in Monk’s trio. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to get into specifics, I’m not sure what they would want known.

It was my first time hanging with Louis. He’s unsurprisingly a great soul, just like Tootie, Billy, and Buster. He’s never gotten his due, I’m hoping that he does soon. Kenny was telling me that there are some stickings that he’s figured out of Louis’ that were completely new when he recorded them while working with Horace. Another note that Tootie made: he and Louis(and Ben Riley, he says) played with exactly the same people in the late 50s early 60s, because they came to town at the same time.  He says the only person Louis played with that Tootie didn’t was Horace Silver, who he never got a chance to play with.

The most interesting thing was the different energy that each musician gave out. Sheila was only there to hang out with her friend Steve, although she got a kiss on the cheek from everyone. Liebman stayed mostly to himself, talking with a friend at the other side of the bar. Buster, Louis, and Tootie were talking about old times, making jokes at each other’s expense. Kenny and Billy were the most interesting to me, however. About two thirds through the night, they retreated a bit and just talked with wide eyes about how much they idolized these three musicians, telling stories of what they lifted, shows they saw, records they loved. It made me realize that they were at some level, just like me, in awe of these great musicians, only wanting to be as close as possible to soak up their essence.  I’ve always said that about Billy, that is one of the oldest men I’ve met that has a mind which operates in the modern arena of Jazz, one of respect and scholarship, and it was great to see that Kenny was the real deal too (I suspected, of course). Both men love the music as much as anybody else I’ve ever met.

The hang(of 75 year old men hanging at midnight, mind you) ended as quickly as it started, with Tootie making fun of Louis, taking too long to say goodbye, not wanting to leave. I left with him, so that I could walk him to his temporary pad on 2nd ave and 4th st, if only to walk by St. Marks and hear him tell whatever story of the Five Spot was in his head at the time.  I treasure those walks. Say what you will, nights like this can’t happen anywhere but here.

I should probably quit Jazz for not getting a picture of myself with all of the masters, but I did manage to grab one of the drummers together. These iPhone cameras ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.

TootieDamn those guys look fresh. They’re fly in Ethan’s picture too. Pity I have to wait until I’m 60 to pull of those shirts. I’m worried that I might have to be from the 70s too…

Kenny: Man, you know Buddy Rich had some chops
Tootie: Who? Oh you mean Belly Rich? Fat m***********!

“Talking about Coltrane. Fattus! He was so fat, man… I used to call him Fattus. He used to call me Slimmus.” —Tootie Heath


Interlude: Tip Wisely

•July 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Imagine a new restaurant. The food is better than any food in the neighborhood, everyone can find something they want there. The chef and all of his cooks are absolutely brilliant, they have a mix of centuries old traditional family recipes and new fusion that just won’t quit.  Everyone who works there is happy and finds their job fulfilling.

The portions are massive, no one ever goes home hungry.  However, due to the way the food is prepared (this is some gourmet stuff we’re talking about here), taking it home is impossible.  It’s delicate, and would fall apart if you put it in just any doggie bag.  People being what they are of course, sometimes bring their own boxes to try to save the food and get their money’s worth, but it doesn’t quite work. The food can’t be shared in its original, delicious state at home, you have to experience it on the spot.

The place gets extremely busy, so there’s a host.  To save room for tables, his podium is outside, and because of the saved room inside, there’s never a line. It’s a very organized business.

The food is great, sure, but the best part? It’s free! There’s never a line, and it’s free. The chef loves cooking so much that he’s giving his food away for free! There have been a few articles describing that it’s a free restaurant, and word of mouth about the place is exploding. People posting on facebook how great the place is, referring every one of their friends to this place. The waitresses don’t need to get tipped, it says so right on the door. You can eat as much as you want, you just can’t take it home. On the menu, there are a few community advertisements that pay for the rent, etc.  No one seems to mind them.

There are of course downsides to this great place. Because no one in the restaurant gets paid because of how much they love their job, making this great food for everyone, other restaurants in the area who demand money to pay their workers are having to close, but they actually don’t feel too bad.  They get to go to this great restaurant too, and learn the secrets of the food that is so delicious, and someday, they hope to work there too, to make people happy.

People will be people however, and the doorman, who incidentally is the one organizing the advertisements (taking a cut before it pays the rent. He’s got kids, everybody understands. There’s no joy to be had just watching a door, let me tell you; he doesn’t even get to feel the joy of bringing the food out like the waitresses do! It’s a pretty crappy job.), starts to think of a way to make some extra coin off of the situation (a little dirty game is really not great, we all know that, but with rising college prices? Man’s gotta provide, right? It’s not his fault). He finds a friend who can make take home boxes so that the food doesn’t spoil.  It’s an easy trick, you just have to place the tissue paper the right way. Tissue paper’s dirt cheap, anyone can make the box, so what’s the problem? He sells the box for 10 bucks plus cost at the door, and then flubs the story by saying that the box won’t work for more than a month. He pads that by saying that the money will go to the chef and his workers, so it’s alright. It’s all going to the good cause! Maybe the chef will use the money to do some research and get some new recipes, wouldn’t that be exciting?

But of course, the doorman’s taking all of the money. He gives a bit to the waitstaff, to the cooks, so that the patrons can clearly see that the employees who are bringing them this heavenly food are getting what they deserve.

Soon, someone sees the doorman pocket 9.50 of the 10.00 they paid him. He gets called out and written up in the local newspaper, which everyone reads.  People are talking about it, everyone knows.  Upset, the chef goes across the street to start the restaurant anew, penniless, but happy that he can still serve his food without the stench of corruption and take any donations that the people would like to give him without going through the corrupt middle man.  His apprentice however, who has mastered his dishes, chooses to stick with the first restaurant, keeping the business as much alive as ever. Only the most seasoned customers can tell the difference in quality.

The first restaurant continues to be populated, everyone greets the doorman on the way in, paying their monthly ten dollars if they are the type to take food home. The waitstaff and kitchen eventually either quit because they aren’t making any money, and are replaced by less experienced employees who can’t really cook the food or give the same service.  Some rush to the restaurant after their second job, where they’re ruthlessly berated by their superiors for being tired all the time, and the product and service at the restaurant suffers for it.  Their personal lives are in shambles, merely because they have to work two jobs to maintain their livelihood and, quite honestly, meager overhead. The original chef’s restaurant gets some business, and some people are happy to donate to it, but the money he’s making pales in comparison to the doorman’s.  The doorman is making a killing. People know it too, but they just go to the restaurant, and enjoy their expertly crafted food, despite the gaunt faces of the waitstaff, who are just holding on to the only part of their job that gives them any joy at all: the look on the patrons’ faces.


I read an article recently despairing tipping practices. A lot of my friends read it too, I can’t remember where it was, probably the New Yorker or the Times. They were talking about how tipping is illegal in some countries, and how one high end restaurant (probably in New York, I can’t remember) was not taking tips because of the poor tipping practices of some of its customers, which was forcing the waitresses into an unfair wage.

The article was filled with statements from waitresses and economists, explaining that not tipping is taking a third or more of their paycheck, and that waitresses worldwide are being forced to work overtime or get other jobs to make ends meet.  The journalist was very upset, and was rending their garments at the news, demanding change, etc.

In a world where we’re despairing over the practice of giving people money for free(ridiculous minimum wage laws aside, now), how is it that in a world where 80% of people I see walking, running, taking the subway, or working own a smart phone or an mp3 player are listening to music are choosing to give their money to the doorman, fully realizing that the chef is starving?

I wish I could educate the world on the economics of music, and how these young upstart bands in the pop realm that people love so much were starving at one point too, and that their favorite music would become even worse if you didn’t give these musicians a chance to rise to the top, and that one of the reasons “indy” music is so popular is because they are the bands in the last few years that are actually making money off of their music, etc.  But I can’t, I know that.

However, in the Jazz world, where we already have every problem that could possibly be thrown at us in the mix, that people would STILL give their money to the doorman, I just can’t believe it, and I’m at the end of my rope.

Free music is great. It feels great to get something for free, always.

However, people in the Jazz world ALREADY KNOW that creating even passable music takes years of unpaid practice and some of the deepest focus imaginable. People ALREADY KNOW that making a record takes months on the phone, promoting, organizing, and wooing, not to mention a ton of money up front. People ALREADY KNOW that the musicians aren’t making any money from streaming websites and that they need it badly.


No one I know who uses Spotify(I’m just going to say Spotify here, but you know what I mean) loves the music any less because they use it. Everyone still talks about their favorite musicians in the same way they did years ago when they were buying the CDs, or ripping it from friends, or getting it via fileshare sites.

I’ve tried to never use filesharing sites. I buy physical copies of CDs whenever I can. I’m even reluctant to purchase music on iTunes or any other place online (for other reasons actually. I like CDs because of liner notes, and because I can’t focus on what music I still have to listen to if I don’t have a physical copy).  Before I had means, at the height of Limewire, I got my first few tracks for free. Two CDs worth, if memory serves. I didn’t think it was a noble effort, it was just what I did.  I liked having CDs. It’s the same with movies and video games, I just always bought the copy.

When I became a musician who realized he would have to deal with these realities, it strengthened my resolve in a strange karmic twist.  I started meeting the musicians who were getting the royalties and printing the CDs.  I met their kids, saw their 1991 vans, watched them get in their Dodge Neons back to their one night run through the Midwest. Visited their apartments for lessons.

The business has always been rough, and every generation from every era says that it was easier ten years ago (no matter when the quote was taken).  Now what do I know, but it seems that not long ago when the labels were running everything, there was this carrot of fame and fortune. It was a tough business, but hey, maybe you get signed and make a million bucks like Wynton. But now, as the record labels die out even further, in the midst of this crowd sourcing mess of a world we’re living in, even that has been taken away. No Jazz musician has ever gotten any work, riches, or fame from Spotify. No friend of mine has ever said “Oh man, have you heard x? I just heard him on Spotify, it was great.

I gave up the idea that people would stop stealing music from musicians a while ago. The free exchange of information has been here for almost my entire life.  But now we have an entire generation that is getting free music from musicians and paying for it, but only giving half of a cent to the musician.

The music business has always been hard. If the financials of the trades or the food industry looked like those of the music industry, the world would stop and be appalled until it was fixed.  It would be unthinkable. However, a product that people use every single day to keep sane and lift spirits is not only being given out for free, but we’re paying the wrong person for it. We’re looking right at the doorman and watching him pocket our money before we go and compliment the chef on the best meal we’ve ever had. It’s criminal.

We can actually do something small about this. I can’t make the stealing of music stop, but please, let’s at least stop the selfish asshole in the suit who created a business to leach off of musicians from getting rich, can we? Let’s buy a CD once in a while and burn it for all of our friends, at least then the musicians who we’ve built our lives around, who make us happy and give our lives meaning everyday can get a $50 check instead of a $0.9753 check.  Can we at least stop this one massive injustice from happening right before our eyes because we’re too lazy and conditioned to think that it’s worth doing something about?

I could write about this forever, and I’d get madder and madder, but quite honestly, It’s 5:30, and I need to get up at 9 so that I can do my day job, which I, the musician, need so that I can afford the music I want to buy, and the small apartment I live in. Good thing I don’t have any student loans to pay off. Or a car. Or any real responsibility other than myself.

Man, I’m going to be tired tomorrow. I’m probably not going to be able to practice when I get home from work, I’ll just fall asleep.


When I Get There

•June 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

As I look into this sad, rainy Friday, I can’t think of anything but Mulgrew Miller, whose funeral was today.

There are a lot of people my age in New York who come out of a tradition that Mulgrew is very much a part of, both the rough and tumble pre-Wynton straight ahead Jazz, and the music that followed it, the young lions and beyond.

The history of my Jazz playing and Mulgrew Miller are inseparable.  From the beginning of when I was getting serious with the music right up until I moved to New York, he was a formative influence on me, my playing, and my outlook.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, you aren’t necessarily aware of the outside Jazz world.  The city as a whole shirks the idea of modern Jazz somewhat, and even the people who were aware of modern music weren’t exactly hanging out with 15 year-olds in the Cleveland Jazz scene.  My teachers, however, Jackie Warren, Steve Enos, and Ernie Krivda, were very supportive in having their students learn the history of the music. This was done more by their obvious passion for the music of the past, rather than dictum.  When Ernie or Jackie started talking about someone like Dexter Gordon or Fats Waller, they didn’t even need to tell you to check it out, you were just so inspired by how much they loved it that you had to check it out for yourself (keep in mind, this was before every computer had Napster or filesharing enabled as a normal practice.  The only computer I had in the house was my mom’s work computer, so there was no filesharing or burned CDs around).  At 15, by the way, buying a CD is a huge deal.  That’s 2 CDs a month if they’re coming from my allowance (later 5 CDs a gig.  Much better!).  Committing to those purchases was a big thing, and it made me more passionate.

So by the time I was 16 in 2006, I had what I thought was a fairly good grasp on the music of the past.  I could distinguish Teddy Wilson from Earl Hines, and McCoy from Herbie.  I knew one good record from each major artist and could sing the songs and solos off of each of them. I always say that if I had practiced instead of listened so much, I’d be a much better pianist! However, since I was so in the know about history, I hadn’t spent any time on the present.  When the 2006 Tri-C Jazz fest came around, I went to see something like 10 shows of people I’d never seen before, including Mulgrew. Naturally I had no idea what I was in for

The Tri-C Jazz Fest was like Christmas to me at that time.  I’d get the whole week off school, just to go and hang out at the festival, talking with real live musicians, attending clinics, and doing all sorts of things that never happened in Cleveland. The first clinic I attended was one of Mulgrew’s, just talking about the piano and being a Jazz musician.  Instantly, in that soft speaking voice and brilliant playing, I was hooked.  He played some solo, which I can’t remember too well, and gave some advice.  I asked what he was listening to (to lean on the knowledge I actually had at the time, of course!) and he said “Only Art Tatum and Glenn Gould.  They perfected the piano, and I don’t feel like there’s enough time in life to listen to much else!”

As I said, it was 8 years ago, and the memories are a bit foggy, but there are some overarching feelings and specific anecdotes I remember quite clearly.

The most important point about that year was that I never saw Mulgrew play with his trio.  I only say that I sat beside him as he played with the big band that I was a part of, and watched him sit in with some younger college bands.

The other point that completely changed me was his blindfold test, hosted by Willard Jenkins. I was excited, because at that time, I had only played listening games with my friends, and didn’t know that there was an international column that was devoted to it.  Very exciting stuff for me.  So I was excited just to play along, thinking in my 16 year old head that I would guess everything correctly and look like a badass in front of the Cleveland teenage Jazz mafia.  Of course I knew something like 3 out of the 11 tracks that were played and didn’t look like a badass at all.  However, Mulgrew got 10 out of 11, pegging the 11th as a Portuguese (I think) pianist whose name he couldn’t remember, all coming out after telling me that he only listened to Glenn Gould and Art Tatum!  Anyone who knows me will not find it surprising that seeing something like that at a young age completely altered my course as a musician.  Seeing a man with such control of the history, with such an amazing analytical ear, truly molded my current stance on listening and knowing the music.

After that week, of course I was hooked on Mulgrew.  A few months were devoted to getting the best Mulgrew I could find on record (again, before credit cards and the ability to order online were an option).  I found his latest four records, the MaxJazz library of him at the Kennedy Center and Yoshi’s, and memorized every one of them. Although I haven’t listened to them in years, I can still sing every solo. These records, especially the first Kennedy record, became the core of my playing, and along with the heaps of Oscar Peterson I was listening to at the time, represent to me my musical childhood.

Of course when he came back to town in 2007 I got to the restaurant hours early and saw both shows.  I distinctly remember the feeling of that first tune and having the realization that Mulgrew was even better in person, and that there’s a reason everyon says that live Jazz is superior.  Thinking back on the night, I believe the band was Mulgrew, Donald Waldon on tenor, Robert Hurst on bass, Steve Nelson on vibes, and I BELIEVE Jason Brown sitting in for Louis Hayes on drums, but it may have been someone else.

The music was on such a high level that night that it consistently comes up in late night Jazz conversations about the greatest concert I’ve ever seen.  I was sitting a foot and a half from Mulgrews hands, and I remember many things vividly.  One was his intense concentration.  It was Donald’s gig, so he didn’t know the music completely, and was taking cues from the band, but he was completely comfortable in the situation.  I was so deep into his playing at that point, but I still remember it surpassing my expectations, even though it wasn’t his music.  Then there was the one tune that Donald talked him through in 5 seconds(“You’ve got three chords, ok? They hit here, here and here.  Then just follow us and the tune’s done. 1. 2. 1234.), which he nailed.  Then he played Relaxin at Camarillo in Db.  Then he knew the obscure ballad that Donald called, “Never Let Me Go” or something like that. The professionalism was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, but so was the focus, that red-hot fire in the belly that Mulgrew consistently displayed throughout his entire career.

After high school ended, I started having summer jobs and more gigs, the cash  from which went directly towards my CD habit.  I began to slowly fill my Mulgrew collection, filling my shelf with all of his other modern albums and any gems from the past I could find. When I went to play at the IAJE with the Tri-C performance combo, I got to meet him again, and of course, only my bandmates Conrad Reeves and Johnny Cochran got a picture, something for which I’m kicking myself.

MulgrewHe had nothing but empowering things to say, glad that the young kids from Cleveland had come to check out New York.  He also mentioned to me to get in touch with David Dempsey so that I could apply to WPUNJ, where he was head of the program, and said that they’d love to have me at their annual Summer camp.

So of course I applied to WPUNJ and didn’t get in, and went to the Summer camp. It was the only camp I ever went to, and I can think of two massive positive experiences that I had there, one involving Jim McNeely and one involving Mulgrew.  Mulgrew walked in on my combo playing “You Can Depend On Me”, an Earl Hines tune from a favorite Dexter Gordon record of mine, and sat in for me at the piano.  As he got up from playing, he said “You’ve got to remember Martin, that it can’t always be short notes or long notes. Phrasing and articulation are some of the most important parts of the music.  Check it out on the records.”  Of course, that stuck with me too, and now I’m a much better player for it.  These days I’ll even say that they’re the most important parts of the music I listen to, what my ear is naturally drawn to.

I didn’t see Mulgrew for a long time after that, around a year, until I caught up with him again in New York.  It was right before I was headed to university in Toronto, and I remember he told me “You can succeed wherever you are, just remember: get to a bandstand as fast as possible.” It made me hit the shed and the session circuit in Toronto harder than I ever thought possible, let me tell you.

As I was in Toronto, I realized that most of my classmates weren’t that into checking out the history, so I conned them into listening to the music I listened to by showing them Mulgrew.  “Hear that? Listen to how he responds to that cymbal beat! Listen to his double time! THAT’S how music should feel!” I’d say, over and over again, to the point where one of my good pianist friends from Toronto became even more of a Mulgrew devotee than I was, as I had started to shift to other things, Monk, Cedar Walton, and the like.  I was Mulgrew’s greatest champion, and I realized eventually that he had quite the history in Toronto, and that he used to come up and play quite a bit.  My first university piano teacher, Gary Williamson, knew Mulgrew, and played one of his tunes, “Prometheus” in his repertoire quite often, and taught it to his students.

At this point I was about as deep into Mulgrew’s discography as I was going to go.  The Kennedy records had taught me many things, such as how I wanted my double time to feel, that it was possible to shift in and out of styles, that one didn’t have to play like Miles’ quintet to have interaction in the music.  It taught me that there was a way to play over Waltzes that didn’t sound like Chick or Bill, and that bass solos could be just as powerful as anything.  I was also venturing deeper, however, slowly learning about the landscape of Jazz in the 70s and 80s, the fire of Mulgrew’s playing with Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard, and of his own groups with Kenny Garret and Steve Nelson. There was a point in my life where I was only playing rhythm changes, and I was looking for a “badass rhythm changes solo” and was going through Sonny Rollins and Bird and all of these people, not being able to find the feeling I was looking for.  Then I found Mulgrew on “The Eternal Triangle” with Woody and Freddie and it hit the sweet spot. His fire on that track is hotter than many of even Woody and Freddie’s solos on that record, for my money. I also remembering finally finding “Wingspan” on CD after a year-long search, and the joy that came with listening to the record that I’d heard about for so long, and listening to its counterpart from the 2000s, “The Sequel.”  I’d listen to “Wingspan” and “The Eleventh Hour” over and over again, just trying to capture that raw energy that’s present on the tracks. I also remember hearing “Tokudo” with Buster Williams and Carl Allen after a string of sub-par record purchases and remembering that THIS was what it was about.  Deep music from deep men. No fluff, no concept, just raw, powerful music.

The next time I saw Mulgrew was at another Christmas-like event, the Detroit Jazz Festival, where he was artist in residence.  I got to see him 6 times over 3 days, and it was perfect.  At this point, I knew almost every one of his tunes by heart, and was so inside his modern way of playing that every twist and turn seemed like an old friend. A huge highlight musically was seeing him play duo with Kenny Barron, something that I had salivated over since they started doing the gigs a few years prior.  I am to this day so glad that I got to see them feeding off of each other, showing their ridiculous mastery of the keyboard in a way that was in no way showy or over technical.  It’s rare to see two musicians listening that hard to one another.

That weekend contained one of the biggest thrills of my life, a Blindfold test with him and Kenny Barron.  This is 5 years after the initial blindfold test in Cleveland, so I was well aware of the whole culture at this point, and was excited to see Mulgrew slay it again.  Dan Ouellete picked some tricky things, however, and there was no perfect score.  The last track was a grainy boogie-woogie track with some Basie element in it that stumped both pianists, and I’ve never felt prouder than when I raised my hand and said “Old, old, old, old, Oscar Peterson”. It’s documented(page 82).  I have witnesses. My heart still swells when I think about walking up to him that night at the hotel and telling him that the only reason I guessed it right was because he inspired me to reach the highest possible level back when I was 16.

When I got to New York I got to see him a bit more, but the one concert that sticks out is one that he did in New Jersey with Billy Drummond soon after his stroke.  He said he wasn’t quite at full strength, but he was sounding just as good as ever! No problems that I could see, and he played a solo piece that expanded and rhapsodized on a theme from the 2nd Rachmaninoff piano concerto (a classical musician in the audience informed me).  Really great, and the hook up with Billy was phenomenal.

The conversation I had with him that day was great as well.  We talked about Woody Shaw, and how great it was to work with him, how he got Mulgrew into Tai Chi, and all of these things.  He also was stuck on the fact that he couldn’t teach as much as he wanted to, that his touring schedule prevented him from taking on students. He was really down about that.

He always was a teacher on some level.  He toured, doing clinics along the way.  I’ve shown about 50 people the Live at Kennedy Center records, and not a single person has been able to guess that Derrick Hodge was playing bass.  I of course, know Derrick primarily from those records, so I’m on the other side of the coin from what now seems to be the entire planet!

He always had a young working trio, every time I saw him, whether it was Karriem Riggins, Derrick, Rodney Green, or Ivan Taylor, he always was teaching, no doubt influenced by his years with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey. There are so many things that Mulgrew stood for that are fading from the Jazz landscape, but I feel like this is the most precious one.

He was such a kind person. When I went up to him at the New Jersey gig and reminded him who I was, he said, “A ha! You made it, huh?”  We talked about how different the scene was when he got to NYC. He was always so warm, in every situation.  Slow to judge and quick to help out.

He was such an amazing pianist in so many ways, as well.  In the realm of really good straight-ahead pianists, I always heard him as being one iota above the competition in terms of technicality.  He wouldn’t play harder music necessarily, than people like Kirk Lightsey, Kenny Barron, John Hicks, or others, but I always felt that he played it all comfortably, and with a higher level of rhythmic precision than some of his counterparts.  He was always swinging furiously, which I attribute to his early love of Oscar Peterson.  Even though everything always felt comfortable, there was that feeling of the unknown, that he was reaching for something.  Maybe not on every tune, but certainly a few times on every gig, which is a pain in the ass, as anyone who plays as much as Mulgrew did will tell you.  There’s a high level of dedication involved with that. Dedication and focus.

He was a great utility pianist, in the tradition of Cedar Walton and Tommy Flanagan.  If you have Mulgrew on your team, you’re going to have a great soloist, and your solos are going to sound better.  He could blend with any rhythm section, and light a fire under any ass that needed it in his firm but gentle way.  He had unbelievable ears, but he swore that he never transcribed a day in his life.

One of his contributions to my ear was the ability to take from sources and not reference them, and also to go between styles seamlessly. He was a master transitionist, whether from a fourthy Coltrane plane into a burning bebop phrase (MUCH harder than it sounds.  Very difficult to not sound schlocky and to not commit to one or the other.)  or from an intro into a tune.  Mulgrews intros were always great, especially on ballads, but I feel the genius is in the transition to the head, not in the intro itself.

Another thing that’s amazing about Mulgrew is the opinion others have of him.  Among the avant garde or from the staunchest Neo-Conservative to the most anti-establishment math Jazz devotee, young and old, knowledgeable and useless, I have never heard a bad word uttered about Mulgrew Miller.  Everyone loves him, no matter their background.  There are a lot of petty squabbles in Jazz, and Mulgrew, throughout his years of weaving in and out of different circles of music has avoided every single one of them.

I’m so very lucky to have known him.  He made me what I am today, and gave me a role model that I built my life dream out of.  I still smile and remember all of my encounters with him(there are more than are written here) every time he pops up on a record, or a young player plays a lick of his.  I wouldn’t have listened to music as much.  I wouldn’t have paid attention to the finer things in the music.  I wouldn’t have practiced as much.  I wouldn’t have learned all of the tunes.  I wouldn’t have practiced in multiple keys.  I wouldn’t be able to comp. The list goes on and on. I keep finding out new things about him to this day, most recently from Oliver Lake, showcasing a side of his playing I’d never really heard before.  It never ends.  Gotta find this record!

I’ve been thinking about him every day since he died.  Instead of my usual ending quote, I’ll leave with the story that still brings a tear to my eye.

The night that I went to thank him for the inspiration he asked me when I was moving to New York.  I told him that all of the plans had been made and that I was looking for a place in Brooklyn as we spoke, but that I was super worried about all of the problems that were certain to come my way, and started going on about financials, about this and that.  He stopped me, looked me in the eye, and said “Hey. There’s always room for one more. This isn’t a club, we don’t have a limit. If you take care of the music, take care of yourself, and always believe in what you’re doing, you’ll be fine.  Trust me.”

I’m never going to forget that. I’m going to miss the hell out of you Mulgrew.  I’m not sure what being a Jazz musician is like without you around.