January 13, 2017

2016 Year in Review

2016 has come to an end and I’ve decided to return to my tradition of writing a “year in review” post, covering some of the musical highlights of the year.

The year’s first significant musical event was a recording session for the Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra, which we did at the sadly now-closed Kung Fu Bakery, owned by Tim Ellis, who passed away this year. The recording session was complicated by the fact that there was a significant snow storm the night before the session and then an ice storm while we were inside tracking. At the end of the day, I couldn’t manage to find a way back to my house and ended up staying at my parents’ house, which I could walk to from the studio (although not a short walk…). By the end of my trek, my saxophone case was covered in ice. But, we got a nice record out of it, featuring the music of Horace Silver.

Just a week or two later, I ventured further into the snowy North for a gig with Diane Schuur in Wenatchee, Washington. It was a great gig, and it is always such a pleasure to have work with such an esteemed artist.

Back in Oregon, February brought the first gig of the year for me with the Oregon Symphony. This performance was titled “Return to the Cotton Club,” featuring the great trumpet player Byron Stripling. In my book, it doesn’t get much better than playing with the symphony, and this gig was no exception.

In March, I had the opportunity to play a fantastic venue and concert series in Bend, Oregon, called Jazz at the Oxford. This time, I was playing there with Darrell Grant’s On the Territory project. Darrell has put together some beautiful compositions and a great ensemble to play them, including Tyson Stubelek on drums, Thomas Barber on trumpet and flugelhorn, Hamilton Cheifetz on cello, Eric Gruber on bass, Marylin Keller on vocals, and Mike Horsfall on vibes. I love the story that Darrell has put together in this project and I look forward to every chance we get to perform the music.

The Spring was mostly filled with my regular weekly gigs. Although I had these gigs every single week and in some cases, have for years, I always look forward to them. On Tuesdays in 2016, I continued my long-running tenure with the Mel Brown Septet at Jimmy Mak’s. On Wednesdays, I played at the same club with the Christopher Brown Quartet. And, on Fridays, Chris’s band played at Solae’s. These gigs are high-level performances every single week and I feel very lucky to have so many performing opportunities with these groups to sharpen my own skills as a player and to build cohesiveness as a band with the different ensembles. More on those groups and Jimmy Mak’s later…

Briefly, a non-musical event: in the summer, I took a scuba certification course and became a diver. First, I mention this to have an opportunity to thank Heidi, who convinced me to take on such an adventure. Second, I mention it because it provides the foundation for a great vacation I’ll mention later in the timeline.

At the end of the summer, I returned as a faculty member for the annual Mel Brown Summer Jazz Workshop at Western Oregon University. I’ve been at the workshop in some capacity, whether it’s as a student, counselor, or faculty member, for 16 years. I love getting the opportunity to work with the students, especially in the morning saxophone masterclass, which I teach alongside Robert Crowell. And, I always enjoy getting to live a “just-music” life for a week, where we (both students and faculty) can buckle-down and focus on our craft.

In stark contrast, in October, I took a week off from music completely, and took a trip down to the Channel Islands in California, where I stayed on a live-aboard scuba boat for 5 days. Heidi and I did 16 dives on the trip, saw amazing things, and learned so much. It was an unbelievable adventure and a great chance to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of working life and just enjoy a vacation. It was capped off by the incredible surprise trip to Disneyland (which I had never been to) for three days at the end.

Back in the musical world, shortly after getting back from California, I played the first concert of a new jazz series in Bend, this time at the Riverhouse Hotel. Marshall Glickman put the series together, and like everything he does, it was spectacular. The Mel Brown Septet played two packed shows for very appreciative audiences in a great setting. This is certainly a series I hope to return to as often as possible.

In November, I worked at two different colleges (besides Portland State University, where I am on adjunct faculty), doing clinics and performances with the students. First was Washington State University, where Brian Ward was kind enough to bring me out as part of their jazz festival. Next was University of Oregon, thanks to their director Steve Owen. Doing clinics at colleges (especially with great programs and directors like these) is something I’d like to continue to do more of in the coming years.

The end of the year brought two more trips to California, although for musical purposes this time; not scuba. First was a set of Diane Schuur gigs in the Bay Area. Second was a couple of shows with Tony Glausi, a trumpet player from Oregon who hired the Christopher Brown Quartet as the foundation for his band. These were fantastic shows, thanks both to Tony’s great playing and Chris’s band’s built-in chemistry.

There is no denying that 2016 brought many great musical and personal opportunities and adventures into my life. However, it did end in a bittersweet way. Sometime in the Summer or Fall, it was announced that Jimmy Mak’s would be moving. Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Although plans were in place to move the club, Jimmy’s health, which he had been struggling with for years, took a turn for the worse, and the decision was made to close the venue instead of move it. The last show at Jimmy Mak’s was on December 31, 2016, and Jimmy passed away just the next day.
I grew up learning to play at Jimmy Mak’s. In the early 2000’s, the OLCC had very strict rules about minors in clubs, but I would still go down to the club and listen through the back door to the musicians play, even though I couldn’t get in. Later on, I started bringing my horn down to the club and would get to sit in with Mel Brown’s band. Often, this would end in mild humiliation, but I would go home, do my musical homework, and come back and try it again the next week. This club (and all the musicians who played there) provided me the opportunity to grow into the player I am today.

As a professional, for years I’ve had weekly gigs there, starting with the Mel Brown Septet on Tuesdays, and then later with the Christopher Brown Quartet on Wednesdays as well. Having a weekly gig is just about the best thing that can happen to a band. You can build repertoire, musical trust, and an audience, all at the same time. Those bands will continue now that the club is closed, but we owe a huge debt to Jimmy and his club for giving us a home for so many years. The musical landscape in Portland won’t be the same without it. In 2017, I wish the best of luck to JD and Lisa, who are working hard to keep the legacy alive and open a new venue.

Finally, on a happier note, I did have a long-term project in 2016 that I haven’t mentioned so far in this review of the year. It’s a musical project I’m very proud of, but I haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it yet… Hopefully 2017 will be the year I bring it to the public!

May 2, 2012

Note justification

I’ve recently been talking to my students about a concept that I call “note justification” — the idea that you can make any note sound good on any chord change, depending on how and when you play it, or how you “justify” playing that note.

A common example of this is the idea that if you play a dissonant note once, it may sound wrong to the listener.  But, if you repeat it, it sounds like you meant to play it.  Repetition can be a strong tool for note justification, but I’ve been spending time talking to my students about harmonic justification of notes.

Notes that don’t need justifying are the basic chord tones: 1, 3, 5, 7.  You can play those notes on a chord with little or no context and to most listeners they will sound consonant.  Also, most non-altered chord tones usually work as well.  For example, playing the 9th of a C Maj7 (D) is a relatively consonant sound — it has a little bit of a rub with the root and 3rd of the chord, but probably not enough to make it sound like a “wrong” note to a listener.

With the altered extensions, justification starts to become necessary.  For example, the #11 can sound like an extremely dissonant note or a hip extension of the chord depending on how you play it.   I usually demonstrate this idea using the blues.  First, the dissonant example:


The #11 with little or no context to the rest of the chord structure is a grating sound — enough to scare some improvisors away from it if they don’t understand how to make it work.  That’s when harmonic justification comes in.  The basic idea is that you want the notes around (preferably leading to) the #11 or whichever note you’re going for to provide enough context for the note to sound like a logical extension of the chord.  The sound may still be “dissonant” to some listeners, but the dissonance has more logic to it and is usually easier to digest.

As demonstrated in the example above, the harmonic justification technique works by including the lower (and more constant) chord tones leading to the #11, providing enough “context” for listeners, whether consciously or subconsciously, to hear it as an extension rather than just a note with an uncomfortable rub against the 5th.

Keep in mind that on any chord, any of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale can be described as a chord tone, assuming that you extend the chord up to the 23rd.  Most jazz harmony only deals with extensions to the 13th, but extending the chord to it’s maximum degree opens up all the notes as possibilities.

Of course, even if you use the harmonic justification theory to play those notes in your solo, it doesn’t mean the audience or the rest of the band will be able to follow you — that all depends on how accustomed to hearing extensions everyone is, the comping from the rhythm section, etc.  For example, when playing a gig where the music is primarily triadic for an audience of non jazz-aficionados, this type of harmonic justification may not be enough to make the more adventurous note choices work.  Hearing and playing extensions is an acquired taste.  Give a kid a sip of wine and they probably won’t like it at first.  And, give a regular wine-drinker a glass with a pancake breakfast and they might not find it palatable, not because they don’t have the taste for it, but because it’s not the right setting.  Playing dissonant extensions should be given the same sort of considerations.

Another (and perhaps more common) way to approach harmonic justification is rather than landing on the extensions as your “goal notes,” using them as passing tones to get to more consonant notes.  If you choose a particularly dissonant note, such as the minor 3rd on a major chord (which could also be described as the b17 if we extend the chord to the 23rd), by moving a half step away, you have two far more consonant notes, with the 3rd a half step up and the 9th a half step down.  Also the passing tone will sound significantly less dissonant if placed on an offbeat rather than on a downbeat.  This method of harmonic justification usually doesn’t lead to the same level of harmonic interest that the previous one does, but it can certainly be a useful tool to use.

One exercise that I would recommend to force yourself into practicing these situations is to give yourself an extension that you have to hit on each chord change during a song.  For example, force yourself to play the 11th of every chord in the blues.  Of course, you’ll be altering the 11th to fit the chord type — #11 on major and dominant chords and a natural 11 on the minor chords.  Try both methods of harmonic justification: providing context using lower chord tones and using the #11 as a passing tone to a more consonant note.  Try this with all the degrees of the chord.  You can also vary the exercise by forcing yourself to either start or end on the note rather than just including it somewhere in your line.


For some more reading on jazz harmony and the perception of dissonant notes, check out “Learn to Hear Jazz Harmony” at JazzAdvice.com — the article came out at the same time that I happened to be talking a lot with students about these concepts and I think they have some very useful insights.

April 17, 2012

Teaching melodic improvisation

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague about a practice session that I had earlier in the day with another saxophone player.  In the session, we talked about what we had been practicing.  Both of us had been practicing some theory and math-heavy improvisational concepts.  The colleague asked if those sorts of ideas were what the improvisation course at the Manhattan School of Music had covered when I was there.  I said that yes, to a certain extent, the improvisation courses dealt with fairly calculated ways of constructing solos — using certain rules or formulas to generate solos that sounded like the jazz idiom.  Perhaps not true “improvisation” in the purest sense, but a great way to show a player how to achieve a certain sound.

The colleague mentioned that he wondered why there isn’t more focus on melodic improvisation in music education.  By this, I think he meant focusing on how to make our solos naturally melodic and improvisatory rather than focusing on specific rhythmic or harmonic devices that end up “forcing” a player to play certain things.  Maybe a good analogy would be the difference between writing a freeform story with no constraints as opposed to being given an outline of the plot and specific vocabulary words to use while writing an essay.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since he brought this up.  The question I keep coming back to, is how does one teach melodic improvisation?  In classical education, melodic composition is often taught with “motivic development,” which encompasses a set of devices that can be used to alter a melody and develop it over time.  All the devices (augmentation, diminution, inversion, etc) are certainly applicable to soloing, but do they really teach the player to be any more melodic than the harmonic and rhythmic devices do?  After all, it’s still using a set of rules to achieve the result.

It seems like improvisation courses should be as comprehensive as possible, including information on harmonic and rhythmic formulas, melodic/motivic development, free playing, etc.  It’s the combination of all of these devices that creates a great solo in an experienced player.  Unfortunately, the reality is that it takes a huge amount of time to study and internalize all of these devices and be able to apply them in real-time during a solo.  A one year improvisation course can cover a lot of theoretical ground, but the time that it takes a player to be comfortable using the information will almost certainly be longer.


March 26, 2012

Portland jazz musicians share their thoughts about a changing industry

Last month, saxophonist (and skilled wordsmith) Tim Willcox interviewed me and a few other Portland jazz musicians about our thoughts about the current state and future of our industry.  The piece was originally published in the Jazz Society of Oregon newsletter, but Tim has also reprinted it on his label’s website.

It’s an interesting read with a few different perspectives on a subject I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Strategies for musicians and listeners (via Ninjazz Records).

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