Why is that boat on the sidewalk?

Note: Poetry is not my usual form of expresssion, but this came out tonight, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

Why is that boat on the sidewalk?
Why does reading the newspaper make me cry?
Why can’t Eddie and Ray and David and Mary quit fighting with each other?
Why are there men with machine guns in the parking lot at JC Penny’s?
Why are my friends suddenly spread across the world?
Why is it quiet on Frenchmen Street?
Why do I miss the Thai monkeys?
Why can’t I have lunch on the porch at Sid-Mar?
Why can’t I hear Kidd and Fred on Sunday?
Why can’t I make a phone call?
Why does it take 30 minutes to drive 3 miles?
Why are those men laughing?
Why does the music sound so good?
Why do I still feel fortunate and blessed?

My kind of free. Chicago Luzern Exchange

There are so many approaches to musical freedom. Some free music is very noisy and cacophonous. I have a marvelous drummer friend who was once told that he “wasn’t playing free enough.” From the context he took that mean that it wasn’t noisy enough. Many music lovers are scared of the noise in free music. Freedom doesn’t have to be noisy, but noise is usually at least one component of the gumbo that makes up good free music.

The free music that usually moves me is the music that keeps everything on the table all the time. Noise, swing, bebop lines, funk grooves, pretty chorales, and pointilistic squeeks and squonks are all available if not all employed. Musical freedom is not complete freedom if any sound is disallowed by stylistic convention or performer’s preconception. In the same way that political freedom is incomplete if the voter’s only choices are democrats or republicans. The green party, libertarians, communists, and the local nut that wants to be on the city council, along with any one else who wishes, must be on the ballot for the voters to have real freedom of choice.

I just picked up a CD called Several Lights by Chicago Luzern Exchange, which is a group made up of Chicago based cornetist Josh Berman, saxophonist Keefe Jackson, drummer Frank Rosaly and Luzern based tubist Marc Unternährer. There are 19 tracks on the CD, several under 3 minutes. It is noisy in spots, but more often it is subtly melodic. It is sonically dense in places, and quite sparse in others. It is the kind of free that I find rewarding as a listener. Check it out, it is a Delmark release.

How to use a Spoon

Tonight my family had dinner at a Chinese buffet. Next to us were two tables occupied by a pair of families. One table was populated by the adults, and the other by four teenage offspring. Not children anymore, but not adults yet either. There was one young man at that table that seemed to be going out of his way to be different. He was a bit dorky and seemed like the type of guy that ten years from now would either be the manager of his local Radio Shack, or selling his software company for $35 mil.

At one point I looked over and he was eating his ice cream with the handle end of his spoon. It seemed apparent that he was doing this in the hope that someone would tell him he couldn’t. No one did. The parents were at the other table. When nearly all of the ice cream was gone, he flipped the spoon around and used the standard end, because otherwise he would have had to leave those last few precious drops of melted chocolate ice cream at the bottom of the bowl.

My first reaction to all of this was, “He can’t do that!” Then I asked myself why he couldn’t do that. There is etiquette that tells us we must use the proper end of the spoon to eat our ice cream. I also had a college composition teacher tell me I couldn’t put the #11 in the bass line, especially on beat three. I changed it for my senior recital, but I changed it back 12 years later when the tune was dug up and recorded. I was told I couldn’t do that, but I did, and no one got hurt, and people have even told me they like it! If they only knew about the #11 in the bass line. What would they think then?

The rules of society are there to guide us to behave in a way that will elicit the desired response. Those rules change to some extent depending on one’s target audience, and one’s desired response. Painting your fingernails black is not the best way to get invited to the church choir potluck, but in the ’80’s I knew people that would hardly speak to anyone that didn’t have at least one black fingernail.

Most great art breaks the rules, or at least breaks the rules of the preceding generation. Charlie Parker was all about playing great melodies through lots of changes. Ornette Coleman is all about playing great melodies over no set changes. They both broke rules and upset people, but now kids are being taught rules for how to play like Bird. If we follow the bebop rules, we will get a certain response from a certain audience. Someone out there right now is breaking those rules, and being told that they are wrong. 30 years from now kids will be taught the rules for how to play like that someone, and the next someone will break those rules.

It’s funny that I am a greater stickler for societal rules than musical rules. I keep telling my stepson to put on socks and tie his shoes, but I keep telling my improvisation students to forget what I say and play what they hear, and it’s ok.

New Vandermark 5 recordings

Being a professional musician has many benefits and a few drawbacks as well. One drawback is that it is hard to listen to music simply as a music lover. I am often analyzing music as I listen, or making judgments about aspects of what I am hearing that I want to incorporate or avoid in my own music. It is rare that I hear something that really hits me in a visceral way, and makes me want to listen just for fun, but when I do hear that music, it reminds me why I play music.

The first time I remember hearing (actually reading) about Ken Vandermark was shortly after he was awarded the Macarthur Grant. Downbeat did a story about a Brotzmann Chicago Tentet tour. A year or more later, I downloaded a couple of Vandermark 5 albums from eMusic. Sometime after that I heard Jeb Bishop’s trio, with Kent Kessler and Tim Mulveena, at the Blue Nile in New Orleans. They were playing Jeb’s music, not Vandermark 5 material, but it was 3/5 of that band, and hearing people make music live usually connects better than recordings.

One of my initial reasons for wanting to explore the music of the V5 was the presence of trombone. After hearing Jeb in New Orleans, I began to search out recordings that featured him. (Full Disclosure: Jeb has since become a friend and he has been invited to contribute to Scratch My Brain. So if you are thinking that I am just writing nice stuff about my friends, you are right, but I was digging the music before we met.) This led me to a number of V5 albums, and the music hit me in that way that makes me want to just listen and enjoy.

Much of what moves me about the V5 is the variety. At times it swings really hard, and at other times it can be funky or noisy, or sound like a punk band in 7. I like having any style or vibe available at any time. As a listener, I love not knowing what will come next.

There are a couple of recent releases by the Vandermark 5 that I am really enjoying these days. Their new studio CD is called Color of Memory. There is another recent release called Alchemia that is a 12 disc limited edition box set of a week’s worth of live performances in Krakow. These two releases are great companions. There are several tunes on Color of Memory that were written during the week in Krakow, and on Alchemia we get a chance to hear these tunes develop.

Ken Vandermark has been very outspoken about that fact that the best way to experience the music of his bands is through regular live performances. Hearing the band a number of times in close proximity allows the listener to hear developments that would be missed in any single performance. That is hard to do unless one lives in Chicago, because even in major cities it is rare that the band would play more than one or two nights consecutively. Alchemia gives us all a chance to hear every note the band played over the course of 5 consecutive nights. The V5 staples, the new tunes, a jazz standard or two, and the free jams with local guests are all there. It is a musical listening experience that is unheard of via recorded music.

I think that tradition is an oft-misunderstood concept in jazz. Too often, sounding like the past is mistaken for respecting the tradition. I believe the spirit of the music is the most important part of the jazz tradition, and that spirit is exciting and honest and probing, and musically inclusive. These new Vandermark 5 recordings have that spirit.

Both Color of Memory and Alchemia are available from the Atavistic website.

What makes a scene?

What makes a scene? Is it the people, the places, the GPS coordinates?

This question has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Before Hurricane Katrina, there was a lively and growing free jazz/improvisational/out/whatever-you-want-to-call-it scene in New Orleans. I have been wondering if that scene will return, which has made me question the real essence of that scene.

There are, of course, some strong personalities on that scene. Musicians are a big part of it, but there are also some listeners that are ever present, and they seem to be as integral a part of the scene as the musicians. There are also a couple of business people (producers, club managers and the like) that really help the scene to exist and thrive. All of these people are essential for the scene’s well being.

Scenes are often defined, or at least described, by the places they inhabit. Often it is a particular club, or a neighborhood, or an area of the city. The pre-Katrina New Orleans progressive jazz scene centered around Frenchmen Street, although it was not the only scene to live in that neighborhood. A few clubs played host to the scene. Can the scene return if those clubs don’t? Can those clubs return if the scene doesn’t?

How much did New Orleans itself have to do with the music and art that happened there? (Don’t be put off by me speaking of New Orleans in the past tense, because I believe that music and art will happen there again, but they aren’t happening there right now.) There is a vibe in New Orleans that can permeate a scene, and usually does. There is an emotional space that can only be reached by a good afternoon run in with a meter maid, and likewise a great shrimp poboy.

The people of that scene are now scattered. I think many will return, just as some won’t. A few of the cats are in Lafayette, and they may have transplanted a mini-scene. Others have been spotted in California, Chicago, and even Wyoming. If (or when, as I prefer to think) we all get back in the same place, will our scene still be there? It is possible that our experiences will have made us all better artists and listeners, and it is also possible that the momentum of the scene will be gone, and we’ll have to start over like everything else in the city.

I know this is all questions and no answers, but we can’t find the answers until we have identified the questions. What do we have to do to make sure our city, and our scene, survive?

What makes a good music venue?

I’ve been thinking about the common characteristics of my favorite music venues. The venues that I like to play, and the ones that I like to go to for listening, all have a great vibe, but what is it specifically that makes the vibe great?

One might think that, for a listener, things like good sight lines and comfortable space to sit or stand would contribute to a good venue, and many of my favorite listening venues have these characteristics. But I have at least one favorite that has really terrible sight lines to the stage, and it isn’t particularly comfortable, especially in the New Orleans summer with the a/c out. Why do I like to listen to music there?

The main reason is that they program good music. (duh) I always know when I walk in the door that I will hear something interesting. It won’t always be from a bag that I necessarily dig, but it will always be spirited and honest. The place makes the musicians feel free to do what they need to do, and go where the moment moves them. You know the performers aren’t “behaving” because of the venue. Great performers can do their thing in any venue, but the artistic comfort a performer gets from a performance space can really contribute to magical performances.

As a performer, I love the places that are comfortable. Physically comfortable is good, but socially comfortable is what I really mean. There are some places where I feel welcome, even when I don’t know the people. Of course the clubs that I play frequently have bartenders and other staff that I know by name, and that know me. The places where the bartender/staff treat me with respect and make me feel welcome, even for my first gig at the club, are usually good venues because the vibe makes me want to play. You can tell if a place is really about the music by the way they treat the musicians.

What makes you enjoy a music venue? Please leave a comment and let us know. If we can identify the good venues, and the characteristics of good venues, we can enrich the music scenes where we listen and play.

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra

I love the chain of events that can lead to discovering new music.

A few weeks ago NPR did a story about a trombonist named Jay Keyser. I’m not exactly sure what the story was about. I didn’t hear it. The story was discussed on the trombone-l mailing list, but I didn’t really read the discussions. Dave Gibson did, and he ended up in contact with Jay Keyser. Jay sent Dave a couple of CDs by the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, which is one of the groups Jay plays with. Dave was telling me about these CDs, and the fact that they were nothing like what he expected. They were way farther out. That made my ears perk up. It also made me go to iTunes and buy an Aardvark Jazz Orchestra album. I chose a 1997 release called Psalms & Elegies.

One of the cools things about buying music on iTunes is that you have to deal with the music almost solely in terms of the music. There are no liner notes, no personnel list. No clue to the performers’ intentions other than the sounds they made. Listening on those terms is a great way to remove prejudice and preconception.

Throughout Psalms & Elegies the AJO makes great use of variations of space and color. It is a large ensemble, but they often pare down to small combinations and very effectively add and remove voices so the listener gets very organic transitions from spacious open sonic landscapes to densely intense ones. The large dense sections are also very powerful because of their comparative scarcity in relation to the more sonically spacious sections.

The various colors of the orchestra are also used successfully. Contrasts between brass and woodwind choirs, and the presence or absence of overt groove are common devices on this album. On the almost 30 minute “Psalms” the singer does very modern classical sounds and then later goes bluesy. There is wandering free stuff and fairly straight ahead swinging, and pointillistic squeak and squonk both with and without backbeat.

Even on the parts of the album that don’t have overt grooves being played, I find myself moving my body. There is a sense of pulse that moves throughout the music, even when it isn’t directly articulated. I think that is one of the things that draw me to this. I have a hunch that some of their other albums may be very different from this one. I’ll have to check a few out and confirm that hunch.

Welcome to Scratch My Brain

Welcome to Scratch My Brain.

There is a lot of very cool art in the world. Music. Literature. Visual Art. Theater. Unclassifiable weird stuff. A large portion of the most adventurous and moving art being made will never be written about in your local newspaper or most music magazines. News of this art spreads from person to person, and through local scenes of open minded people, and adventurous listeners, readers, and art fans.

I have invited several people with great taste and an enjoyment of art that pushes boundaries to post here and share the things that move them. Hopefully some of those things will move you too.

To get the ball rolling, I want to point you to an article written by Dave Taylor and published in the International Trombone Journal entitled “Risk.” I know a trombone journal article usually wouldn’t scratch many brains, but give this one a shot. Dave Taylor is a fascinating cat, and a wonderfully varied musician.

The first paragraph of “Risk”:
Gil Evans and I were walking in Venice one night. He told me that Duke Ellington told him: “If you keep yourself open, you never know who will come along, pull your coat, and take you left.” This article is a personal journal about how I have always believed in this principle.

A pdf of the entire article can be found here.

See you soon, and as Father Valente would say, “only listen to good music.”