Weekend Picks

Here are some random music-related links for you to check out this weekend.

A lengthy and interesting master class by jazz pianist Kenny Werner on improvisation, from 2005. Early on, he says:

You have to learn to play what is within your control.

Check out the context and more here.

Geared mainly for orchestral string players, there are some good nuggets of advice for any musician who rehearses and performs in 39 Orchestral Etiquette Tips Every Musician Ought To Know.

Here’s a nice resource for music theory students about a variety of topics, including Backcycling, Chord Basics, Scales, and Transposing.

Lastly, if you’re like me and both a Weird Al Yankovich and a Frank Zappa fan you’ll enjoy Yankovic’s tribute to Zappa, Genius In France. Unlike a lot of Yankovic’s popular music, this isn’t a direct parody of a Zappa tune, but rather written in the style of Zappa.

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

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

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Upcoming Gigs and Weekend Picks

I’ve got a couple of upcoming public gigs coming up in the next three days. Tomorrow, (July 19, 2014) I’m playing traditional jazz with the Low-Down Sires at a lindy hop dance called The Process in Richmond, VA. I’m afraid I don’t know more of the details about the dance, but if you’re a swing dancer in the area or just a fan of trad jazz you can probably get in touch with someone through that Facebook link above. Next Monday, (July 21, 2014) I’ll be sitting in again with the Greenville Jazz Collective Big Band. We’re playing at Grille 33 in Greenville, SC. If you get to come out to either, please be sure to say hello to me.

If you’re too far away to come hear me play, here are some of my music related links for your weekend surfing.

Nikolaj Lund is a photographer who takes photos of classical musicians and puts them into a unique perspective. Take a look at some of them on his web site.

Hal Crook is a fantastic trombonist, composer, and the author of some of my favorite books on jazz improvisation. The Berkley College of Music, where Crook is on the faculty, has posted a downloadable library of play-a-long tracks Crook put together for improvisation practice.

An old manifesto from 1992, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz urges musical organizations that It’s Time to Bury the Dead. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite.

Is there anything new on the menu of the Vermont Mozart Festival or the Killington Music Festival? Does either the professional or amateur musical community of our state and beyond show any commitment at all to the music of their own age? Indeed, does the listening public have any clue what a wealth of music is consciously and maliciously being denied them? No, no, no and no. Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers –composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

To finish things off today, here’s Oleg Berg’s treatment of the classic Beatles recording Hey Jude, but tweaked to put it into a minor key. One of the things I love about great music is that it is often still strong when it gets twisted around like this.

Moving to Music: Science Offers Suggestions on How to Groove

Researchers Maria A. G. Witek, Eric F. Clarke, Mikkel Wallentin, Morten L. Kringelbach, and Peter Vuust have recently published an article investigating the relationship between rhythmic complexity and the human instinct to move our bodies to the music. The article is called Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music.

Moving to music is an essential human pleasure particularly related to musical groove. Structurally, music associated with groove is often characterised by rhythmic complexity in the form of syncopation, frequently observed in musical styles such as funk, hip-hop and electronic dance music. Structural complexity has been related to positive affect in music more broadly, but the function of syncopation in eliciting pleasure and body-movement in groove is unknown. Here we report results from a web-based survey which investigated the relationship between syncopation and ratings of wanting to move and experienced pleasure. Participants heard funk drum-breaks with varying degrees of syncopation and audio entropy, and rated the extent to which the drum-breaks made them want to move and how much pleasure they experienced. While entropy was found to be a poor predictor of wanting to move and pleasure, the results showed that medium degrees of syncopation elicited the most desire to move and the most pleasure, particularly for participants who enjoy dancing to music.

The results suggest that if your goal is to make music that will make people dance you need a certain amount of rhythmic complexity, but your music needs to have gaps of silence. As listeners we naturally want to fill those gaps in some way, such as clapping our hands, tapping our foot, or dancing.

Daniel J. Levitin was interviewed for an NPR report on this article. He comments on the why music with rhythmic complexity seems to be better for dancing, because there’s a lot more for us to latch on to and move with.

The more rhythmically complex the music is … the easier it is to engage different body parts,” Levitin says, “because they can be synchronizing with different aspects of the music.”

Of course, this is something that many other musicians have been experimenting with for a long time. One of my favorite authors on the topic of jazz improvisation, Hal Crook, wrote:

Surrounding ideas with rest gives them shape and definition, in much the same a frame or brier defines a picture inside. It allows time for the effects of the ideas to be heard, realized and appreciated by the audience, the band, and most of all, you – the player.

I think these ideas hold true for a lot of music, not just music with an emphasis on groove. I’ve often felt that one of my best tools as a composer was my eraser. It’s easy to get caught up in writing down all my ideas, rather than basing my compositions around just the really good ones. In the end, you can say more by playing or composing less.

So my musical challenge for everyone this week is to practice with your attention on the silences. If you’re practicing jazz improvisation, intentionally use a lot of space in your solo. Try experimenting with some composition ideas that utilize a lot of silence. For the classical musicians, pay very close attention to how often the rests make a piece more expressive and practice musicality with that in mind.

Report back if you discovered something interesting or just felt like it was a waste of your time. Leave your comment below.

Marc Sabatella on the Harmonic Language of Standards

Mick, a trumpet/cornet playing friend of mine, and I were recently talking about jazz harmony. A while back Mick found a great resource on common patterns in traditional jazz (I wrote about it here, but the original page seems to have been deleted). That blog and our conversation reminded me of something put together by pianist Marc Sabatella called The Harmonic Language of Standards.  Sabatella’s discussion on jazz harmony was required reading for my jazz improvisation students. I think it’s a great summary of the harmonic language of jazz standards.

While only a summary of his more in-depth book, you can get quite a bit out of reading what Sabatella has made available for free on his web site. He has put together a very complete list of common chord progression patterns in a section about functional harmony. In my opinion, one of the most useful parts of it are Sabatella’s breakdown of common idioms. He divides basic chord patterns into five categories – cadential progressions, pre-cadential progressions, static progressions and turnarounds, transitional progressions, and modulations.

Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each.

An understanding of these types of chord patterns really helps me memorize chord progressions because instead of thinking so much about individual chords I’m thinking of broader chord patterns. It also helps you come up with some new ways to think about chord progressions and reharmonizations.

Sabatella mentions an example he uses on how to apply these principles to composition.

I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.

This is a great exercise for composers. Take a tune you know and break down the chord progression by the common idioms. Make note of certain key centers and using those as a goal, write a new chord progression that continues to maintain the road map of common idioms. For example, if you take the A sections of rhythm changes you might start your A section on the tonic, write a static chord progression for three measures, transition to the IV chord in measure 4, then cadence back to I in measure 6. A static chord progression for 7 and 8.

Just to demonstrate, I came up with the following by intentionally being a little goofy with it and in the process I bent some of the parameters from the rhythm changes A sections. I often compose chord progression in this way, with target harmonic goals in mind and then try out different things randomly until I get something I really like. My solution:

|Bb7 Db7 |Cm7 Eb7 |Dm7 A7 |Abm7 Db7 |Eb7 E7 |Eb7 B7 |Bb7 Db7 |Eb7 Ab7|

[audio:https://www.wilktone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Rhythm-A-Reharm.mp3|titles=A Section Reharm]

Not the greatest there is, but there’s some potential in there. Maybe I’ll come up with a bridge and a melody for it too and see what it develops into.

Try it out yourself. Read through Marc Sabatella’s Harmonic Language of Standards and then try reharmonizing standard chord progressions using those common idioms as a road map.

Blues in F Clinic For Concert Band

I recently got the chance to teach an introduction to improvising over a blues in F to a couple of classes at North Buncombe Middle School.  I put together a handout for the students and wanted to share it here, along with some ideas on how you can use this to introduce improvisation to virtually any group of woodwinds and brass players. It’s basic concept is flexible enough that you can use it to teach age ranges from middle school to adults and adjust the speed and difficulty level accordingly.

First, download the Blues in F Concert Band Clinic handouts and take a look at the score.

Blues In F 1

The very first thing on each part is the F blues scale. Letter A is one chorus of blues in F with the chord symbols for each part and each chord arpeggio stacked up to the 7th of the chord. But before you even hand out the music to your band, I suggest you try teaching some of this to them by ear. Depending on your students, what they may already know or be able to pick up, and how much time you have to devote to this, you might do only a bit by ear and then refer to the handouts. If you have a lot of time you might be able to do the whole thing by ear. But no matter what level or age group, I think it’s important to approach teaching improvisation as “sound before sight.” The goal is to get the students playing what’s not on the page, so get them used to not using music as quickly as possible.

You may want to start teaching by ear by demonstrating one strategy to help beginners match your pitch. Have a student who plays an instrument quite different from the one you’re playing chose a random pitch and hold it out. Whatever pitch he or she played, play a pitch a ways away from it and play a slow chromatic scale, getting slower the closer you get to the pitch, until you end up on the same pitch. I would intentionally do this on an octave or two away, if feasible, to also demonstrate that you can use the same technique if the pitch they’re trying to match is out of their normal playing range.

Then with a goal in mind, teaching the blues scale for example, teach your band the pitches one note at a time. When the majority of your band has matched the pitch, cut them off and establish what concert pitch everyone was playing. I usually do this by asking students in different sections, although sometimes you have to introduce transposition if they haven’t learned how to do it yet, so you might skip that step or just ask about what pitch their transposed pitch was.

Teaching the basics of the blues form can also be done by ear. In the clinics I gave the other day I taught them the roots of the three chords by ear and then had them repeat riffs back to me. I played only a single pitch (F, Bb, and C) on each riff and just played simple rhythms, but in doing it I went around the blues form. With plenty of time or more advanced students you could teach the chord arpeggios or fragments of chords by ear as well.

Here are the riffs at letter B.

Blues In F 2


There are three riffs happening that when put together provide enough of an accompaniment to improvise over. Higher voices, such as high woodwinds and trumpets, have a rhythmic riff that is based on the 3rd and 7th of each chord. The tenor and alto voices have a 3 note riff with longer notes and the bass voices play the triads of each chord.

Because each riff is simple you can teach them to your band by ear and even make everybody learn all three riffs, depending on how much time you can devote. At the very least, it’s useful for everyone to learn to play the bass riff by using the stacked chords at letter A. The other day when I was giving this workshop the balance of the mixed groups I was working with was such that there wasn’t enough of the bass line. I simply had some of the other lower range instruments play the chord arpeggios over the form. If you need more of another riff, you can also easily change sections around as needed.

Whether you teach the riffs by ear or from the handout (or make up your own riffs), once the band has gotten it together enough have them play it at a quiet dynamic level while you demonstrate improvising over it. Whatever basic concepts I want to teach with them is how I will play hear. I suggest that you choose a single topic to work on at this point and focus their attention on that. For example, if you’re going to be teaching them to use the blues scale for note choice selections, make yourself demonstrate only using notes in the blues scale. Other topics you could use here include using silence to build interest, playing long notes versus short notes, chord tone soloing, modal improvisation, whatever (if possible, see if you can introduce this topic earlier in your workshop by ear). But play a chorus or two while they accompany you and then you can explain what you did.

Then get your band riffing and go down to different players and have them try it out. You can do this a number of different ways, depending on your circumstances and goals. I like to have every student play at least 4 bars and go around the entire band with everyone trading fours. If you have a small enough group and enough time everyone can take a chorus, or you can even just let the braver students jump in and try them out.

Regardless of how you organize the students into improvising themselves, I think it’s a good idea to pause a couple of times or so, not only to rest chops and ears, but to evaluate a little bit what was going on. I prefer to emphasize positive things I noticed as well as offer suggestions at this time that other students can try. Demonstrate again for them, if there’s time.

The nice thing about using this approach is that it’s flexible. The handouts are designed to help speed things along and give a clinic that goes about 30-45 minutes, but you can jump right in and get them going right away with the handouts. I’ve done similar warmups with student big bands. If you want, you can spend maybe 10 minutes warming up your band on a piece of the handout and the next rehearsal quickly review what you did previously and learn something else new.

If you’d like to read an earlier post of mine about this topic, as well as download some different riffs you can use with virtually any group of instruments, see Introducing Improvisation in the Concert Band Setting.

Please let us know if you are a band director and try this out. How well did it work for you? What did you do differently or what would you change next time around?

Link Between Music and Language

I’ve written before about Dr. Charles Limb’s research using an fMRI scanner to study the brains of jazz musicians while in the act of improvisation. He’s now published some new research that, according to the editor who wrote the headline, supports the language/music link in our brain. He conducted his research by designing keyboards without any metal and scanning the brains of jazz pianists playing scales and trading fours.

That conversation-like improvisation activated brain areas that normally process the syntax of language, the way that words are put together into phrases and sentences. Even between their turns playing, the brain wasn’t resting. The musicians were processing what they were hearing to come up with new sounds that were a good fit.

At the same time, certain other regions of the brain involved with language — those that process the meaning of words — were tuned down, Limb found.

If I recall correctly, similar research showed that when musicians listen to or perform music certain regions in the brain, such as the areas that process vision, are less active than normal. The speculation was that it helps the musician focus on the aural feedback better. These results seems similar in that the regions of the brain responsible for processing language become less active.

What confuses me at this point is how this shows a link between music and language, since different regions in the brain are responsible for a spoken conversation as opposed to a musical conversation. It’s possible that something was left out of the news article, but I know also that editors tend to write the title and frequently choose a misleading headline in order to get readers to click the link. Without going to Limb’s original article, which I’m sure is quite technical and written for neuroscientists, not musicians, it’s hard to say. Either way, it’s another fascinating intersection of music and science.

Playing Dixieland in the Front Line

Low-Down Sires 1When playing dixieland, New Orleans/Chicago styles of traditional jazz each of the horn players in the front line (usually trumpet or cornet, clarinet, and trombone) will collectively improvise polyphonic ensemble passages. In order to make this work without getting in each others’ way, each instrumentalist fits within a particular role. The cornet player will usually play or paraphrase the melody while the clarinetist improvises a rhythmically active line generally in a register above the cornet player. Meanwhile, the trombonist plays a supporting line under the cornet and clarinet, with an emphasis on outlining the chord progression with lots of glisses. Done well, this is one of the most exciting things to listen to and is great fun to play.

Who has the hardest job in the traditional jazz front line, the trumpet/cornet player, the clarinetist, or the trombonist? Ivan, over on his Playing Traditional Jazz blog, discusses this very question. I’ve found that most players will automatically assume that their own job is the most challenging, but one clarinetist thought differently.

Clarinet is easier than trumpet in that we generally don’t have to learn many melodies. If you’re flexible and have a good ear and instinct, you can listen to the trumpet for specific types of melody lines that tell you a) what the next chord might be, and b) if we do a double-ending or change pitch, etc.

. . .

To play the way I do, clarinet is easier, because I can play whatever I want and don’t need to know the song one bit.

One of the points Ivan makes is that cornet/trumpet players not only need to learn the chord progression for soloing and embellishing on the ensemble passages, but they also need to know the melody very well, since they usually cover the melody in performance.

This insight is supported by another correspondent (a trumpet player), who told me he often asks whether – for a change – one of the other players would like to play the melody line in the first chorus or two of a tune. He has been surprised to find that very fine players are often reluctant to do this, claiming that they are not sure of the melody – even though they can create wonderful decorations around it!

Ivan does make the point that clarinet players can really make or break a traditional jazz band and that the clarinet part requires a mastery of the instrument and of the tune.

What about the trombonist?

I consider his job extremely difficult too. He needs to know the harmonic progression of every tune the band plays (either as a result of hard graft in learning the chord sequences or by developing an amazing ear for the bassline of the successive chords). He has to push the band along through the chord changes. This frequently involves (starting on the fourth note of a bar and moving on to the first of the next) taking the harmony from the root of one chord to the root of the next by means of a glissando or direct punching out of the notes.

But he must also have a huge repertoire of tricks and phrases. He should be able to take on the melody for an occasional chorus – to give variety to the presentation. And he should be a skilful user of mutes: a good range of trombone effects is possible to embellish the music.

Ultimately, I think Ivan and I agree that playing any of the instruments in the front line requires a lot of work and practice to do well, however there is one point I would like to make that I don’t think is emphasized enough in Ivan’s post. Playing the clarinet or trombone part still means you need to know the melody extremely well, if anything so you know what not to play!

This is particularly important for the group I perform with, the Low-Down Sires. We currently have only a two horn front line, cornet and trombone. With a 3rd horn player it’s not such a big deal if two of us end up on the same melody or countermelody note because someone will be playing another chord tone. But with two horns if I don’t know what the cornet will be playing and I end up on the same pitch the whole character of the ensemble chorus suddenly gets thin sounding. This was a point that Ben Polcer made in the recent Lindy Focus music track I sat in on. He asked me to help demonstrate a collective improvisation with him on the tune Careless Love. There’s one spot in the tune where the natural tendency for me as the trombonist would be to keep a descending melodic line going, and as a line it fits great over the chord changes. Unfortunately, it also happens to coincide with one very important melody note, so I had to sacrifice a nice voice leading in that part to not double his part. Ben went out of his way to point out that I did this afterwards and noted how important is was for all the horn players to learn the melody, not just the trumpet or cornet player.

Not to mention that it’s a nice change once in a while to change the roles around and have one of the other horn players cover the melody. And you will never know when it might suddenly become necessary. Several years ago I went to a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their trumpet player, John Brunious, had passed away unexpectedly just before their tour. Since there wasn’t enough time to replace him, the other horn players covered the melody the whole concert.

Yes, I’m guilty of neglecting the melody on a lot of the tunes I regularly play with the Sires, but I’ve found that on those pieces where I not only have the chord progression memorized but also can cover the melody if asked my tailgating fits so much better with what the rest of the band is doing. Which reminds me that I have some transcribing to do in order to learn some new tunes. . .

Tip of the hat to Mick G., from the Low-Down Sires, for passing along Ivan’s Playing Traditional Jazz post.

Lindy Focus Music Track – Part 2

BenPLindyFocusA couple of days ago was the first full day of the Lindy Focus jazz dance camp. I picked up a guest pass for their music track classes and have been enjoying sitting in and watching Ben Polcer and his staff from Welbourne Jazz Camp (Jason Jurzak, Benji Bohannon, Aurora Nealand, Lucian Cobb, and Russel Welch) teach and play.

Most of what they are covering deal with playing traditional jazz or swing for dancers, and many of the students here came for the dancing and are taking “add on” classes in music too. Others are here specifically for the music track, but many of those musicians are also dancers.

Even though I knew to expect there to be musicians around at this dance camp, I was surprised to see how many of the dancers are also musicians and brought instruments to jam. Sessions seem to spring up pretty regularly and walked from one room to hear a crowd of musicians around a piano jamming on New Orleans jazz into another room where some folks were playing gypsy jazz and singing. There’s an overall sense in that making music, like swing dancing, is something that is supposed to be participatory, not separated into performers and audience.

The staff really knows the music very well and are great at getting their points across, even in some of the larger classes with musicians of mixed abilities. They’ve been emphasizing learning tunes and concepts by ear yet at the same time teach the music theory. They also play for and with the students a lot.

There are a couple of more days left in this year’s Lindy Focus, but my impressions at this point are that the first music track has been quite successful and has been definitely worth my effort to sit in on. Semi-professional and amateur musicians interested in traditional jazz would definitely get a lot out of this music track, if they decide to host the music track again for 2014.