Music is life is music

In Make the Road by Walking I mentioned allowing one’s life experiences, personal relationships, childhood memories, visual artistic expressions (ie. the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of daily life) to influence one’s music. Here, I would like to share with you a personal example of this concept put to action and a glimpse into my own compositional mind.

There are composers who can, on a dime, write endless melodies and complex chord structures without blinking an eye – music based on numbers, mathematical equations, cycles of the moon, quantum physics, on and on. Composers find inspiration from many different places, much like each musician has an improvisational voice informed by their experience. I do NOT have this particular musical gift, however, and when faced with writing for a particular project, band, recording, deadline or assignment, I would often hit a wall. I feel I cannot compose anything unless I have a “story” – a person, an experience, a feeling – basically some sort of narrative. Nearly every composition I write is tied to a memory of a person, place or thing. Duke Ellington makes a validating point for this concept in a 1944 article entitled “The Hot Bach – I”, for the New Yorker magazine.

“The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician,” he says. “Things like the old folks singing in the moonlight in the backyard on a hot night, or something someone said long ago. I remember I once wrote a sixty-four-bar piece about a memory of when I was a little boy in bed and heard a man whistling on the street outside, his footsteps echoing away. Things like these may be more important to a musician than technique.”

-Duke Ellington

The New Yorker, June 24, 1944 Issue / “The Hot Bach – I”
By Richard O. Boyer
newyorker.com/magazine/1944/06/24/the-hot-bach-i


To combat writer’s block and help “jumpstart” my creativity I started keeping a compositional journal at the urging of a teacher. I took the journaling one step further, however, to include musical AND non-musical items befitting Ellington’s above concept:

• photos from a family vacation, day trip, museum visit
• a particularly profound quote or idea from a video, poem, book, or interview
• a catchy chord progression or melody fragment I’ve overheard out in public or on TV
• an anecdote from a conversation, gig, lesson
• an inspiring visual art piece

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[As a side note, my “journal” is mostly my iPhone – voice memo, notes, camera, instagram/twitter, as well as a small “field notes” notebook. Above, a screenshot of my notebook/journal, including a quote from the 1969 documentary film, “Ornette, Made in America”,  describing Ornette’s uncanny ability to sound like Charlie Parker.]


I wrote the piece “Bender Park” based on a wild adventure I had with my three boys, in which we discovered a mysterious and hidden place. The film footage was taken by my then 9-year old son at “Bender Park” in Oak Creek, WI.

Purchase “The Good Land” on Shifting Paradigm Records
SPR: http://www.shiftingparadigmrecords.com/lesser-lakes-trio.html 
Bandcamp: http://bit.ly/TheGoodLand
iTunes: http://bit.ly/LLT_iTunes
Amazon: http://bit.ly/LLT_Amazon

 

Make the road by walking

Life experiences, personal relationships, childhood memories, visual artistic expressions – the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of daily life… the musicians who I am connected to most have this in their music. It can be explicit or implicit – but it can be felt. Can I hear your story in your music? Am I telling my story in my music?

As musicians/artists/humans, it is our ultimate goal to “find our own voice”. Finding one’s voice is a seemingly endless journey. It is a lifelong pursuit and a beautiful struggle of self discovery. We spend years listening, analyzing, emulating, studying, and we hope that the end result is that a unique identity develops. I often think of Clark Terry’s famous “Three Steps” to learning the art of improvisation, “Imitate, Assimilate, and Innovate”. This is a complete yet simple distillation of the process we spend our entire careers grappling with. In 2017, we have a universe of music to choose from; limitless paths of discovery – so which direction to choose?

I have swung back and forth wildly (mostly in my own mind), struggling with my identity as a musician – going through phases like an adolescent going through puberty. I have great admiration (jealousy?) for musicians who are secure in who they are. Am I playing enough bebop? Too much bebop? Too angular? Too weird? Not weird enough? Do most musicians struggle with this? I feel like I am beginning to get a grip on these questions, however. It is ok to like Barry Harris AND Cecil Taylor, Clifford Brown AND Don Cherry (who hung out btw), Charlie Parker AND Ornette Coleman, and the result of that might help me to “be me” or you to “be you”.

I once had a very important lesson in which a teacher told me not to leave out any influences from my music. “What do you like?”. The point being, if you enjoy certain types Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 7.49.11 PMof music (rock, pop, hip hop, polka, etc) you shouldn’t try and stifle those influences. “Let it all come through”, I was told. I took that bit of advice very seriously and it was incredibly reassuring, comforting and validating – especially considering the source was someone I respected so much. This was something I had already been thinking about and trying to exemplify in my music. It takes courage to “be you” and oftentimes we get in our own way.

To borrow a phrase from friend and author Todd Lazarski, we “Make the road by walking.” This phrase passes through my mind regularly.

It’s very important to have non-musical influences I think. You try to put your life experiences in your art no matter what. This is true of anything. Your social life, your romantic life, what you love in general, you know, the stuff you hate, all that stuff should somehow be in the music, or what you do as an artist for sure.
-Ethan Iverson

from  The Bad Plus: On Jazz, Humility, and Finding Your Voice by Todd Anderson

“Not leaving anything out” goes beyond musical influences. Life experiences, personal
relationships, childhood memories, visual artistic expressions – the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds of daily life… the musicians who I am connected to most have this in their music. It can be explicit or implicit – but it can be felt. Can I hear your story in your music? Am I telling my story in my music? I have a need to surround myself, in both study and in performance, with music and musicians that have this personal quality.

Ultimately, it is about the journey not the destination. Never be satisfied, always be searching, and keep pushing. Like LeVar Burton said, “…You don’t have to take my word for it.”


“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is ’cause I’m changing all the time.
-Charles Mingus

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
-John Coltrane

“The real innovators did their innovating by just being themselves.”
-Count Basie

“Music is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
-Charlie Parker

“When it comes to music, don’t lie to yourself; just tell yourself the truth.”
-Art Blakey

“Forget about upholding the tradition and just play who you really are.”
-Terence Blanchard

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
-Don Cherry

“A chimpanzee could learn what I do physically, but it goes way beyond that. When you play, you play life.”
-Jaco Pastorius

“I find my inspiration in myself.”
-Thelonious Monk

“Your humanity is your instrument.”
-Wayne Shorter

What have I learned from Ornette Coleman?

“The pattern for the tune will be forgotten, and the tune itself will be the pattern.”
-Ornette Coleman (from Ornette Coleman, A Harmolodic Life)

To me, there are certain musicians who deserve specific attention… who require deliberate study.  — The controversial, the innovative and the revolutionary — If we made a “Mount Rushmore” of jazz icons, these would be the faces carved in stone: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bird/Dizzy/Monk/Bud, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and certainly Ornette Coleman. Each one made their place by breaking away from previously established conventions and each one providing us with a lifetime of lessons. Despite furious criticism about his unorthodox music & appearance, Ornette pushed forward with deliberate force, making his own way.ornette_downbeat

What I have learned from Ornette Coleman?

  • Never forget the blues/swing.
  • Always be yourself & be relentless in pursuing your vision.
  • The most gentle souls are sometimes the most ferocious artists.
  • Exploring music is also exploring yourself.
  • Honor your influences without neglecting your voice.
  • Melody is king.
  • Different shouldn’t be threatening.
  • Tell a story.
  • We create our own boundaries and our own categories, which only hold us back.
  • Search. Find your path, and follow it.
  • Use music as a conduit to the discovery of one’s self.
  • Harmony can be self-created.
  • It’s ok to be playful, humor in music is a wonderful thing.
  • Simplicity is difficult, but the goal.

“We’ve all gained from Ornette’s life and explorations.”
-Sonny Rollins

Barry Harris on the importance of Thelonious Monk

Barry Harris, piano
7/27/16

“I tell some of the young kids in order to be a jazz musician you have to play a Monk song. You don’t play a Monk song, I feel there’s something funny about you being a jazz musician. I had to tell one piano player that, he was in Washington. We had to do this Monk thing…he plays one and he had little bits of Monk in there, you know. It was quite odd… because Monk wrote so many pretty songs. I tell you. What’s this one?…”

Light Blue, Thelonious Monk
Pannonica, Thelonious Monk

“On the last A, Jon Hendricks said…
Delicate things such as butterfly wings
poets can’t describe, though they try
Love played a tune, when she stepped from her cocoon… Pannonica, my lovely, Pannonica my butterfly.”

– Barry Harris

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The Milwaukee Jazz Scene is still not Dead or Dying

Having been deeply rooted in the MKE jazz scene for my entire performing career, I have a pretty clear picture of the state of the scene. I have seen it’s ebb and flow and have witnessed multiple waves of growth and promise. Is Milwaukee New York? No. Chicago? New Orleans? Seattle? No, but we DO have a proud tradition and lineage here, and many many talented players who have chosen to make Milwaukee their home. I originally posted this on the old “Milwaukee Jazz Blog”. When I/we were in the early stages of developing what would eventually become the Milwaukee Jazz Vision. There were a few specific items that were flash points of inspiration. One of them was an interview by a notable Milwaukee arts writer/critic, in which he implied that jazz in Milwaukee was dead or dying. I couldn’t help but feel like something had to be done to change this perception, as I knew that was far from the truth. Here is my revised top 10 list which discredits the aforementioned point. There are far more than 10 reasons, however this is just a start! Feel free to add more in the comment section…


1.  The Jazz Estate – We are lucky to have a club of this ilk in our fair city. Mike Honkamp, Brian Sanders,  Matt Turner and now John Dye, have kept the flame burning at this historic venue for well over 15 years – before that, the infamous “Wickman era”, Sal Monreal before that,Chuck and Ed Pociecha before that stretching back into the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When musicians from out of town play at The Estate, universally, they feel the vibe & the history within its small confines. It is unmistakable. In its storied history the likes of Joe Henderson, Cedar Walton, Red Rodney, Eric Alexander, Al Foster, Chris Potter, Conrad Herwig, Brian Lynch, Eddie Gomez, Rudder, Arturo O’ Farrill, Jim Rotondi, Rick Germanson, David Hazeltine, Danilo Perez, The Bad Plus, Dan Nimmer, etc… For fans and musicians alike, the Estate is quite possibly the most important piece of the jazz puzzle in Milwaukee. I am excited to see what lies ahead under new ownership (John Dye of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge). With a much needed facelift and a fresh perspective on the business side of things, the flagship of the Milwaukee Jazz scene returns this June and we are all waiting patiently! Every city needs a dedicated jazz club and this one has been it.
Continue reading “The Milwaukee Jazz Scene is still not Dead or Dying”

Inspiration and humanity in music

My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should go are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all that you want.

— Booker Little

I think we have all have had experiences of pure inspiration in music. These moments leave us with much to think about regarding our own directions and ideas about music and life. One such experience… I feel so blessed and humbled to have had the opportunity to play with pianist/composer Arturo O’ Farrill and alto saxophonist David Bixler. I must admit, I had been more aware of Mr. O’ Farrill’s work as an arranger and bandleader, not as much as a pianist. After hearing the first notes he pulled out of that well-worn piano at the Jazz Estate, however, I and everyone else in the room was well aware of the magnitude of this incredible musician. We played a mix of charts I brought in, and some of Mr. O’ Farrill’s originals. After getting a chance to talk with Arturo for a bit on the break(s) and after the gig, I came to a few realizations/re-affirmations:

1) I had never really heard anyone sound like this on the piano. What I was hearing was a unique voice, void of recycled cliches, licks, patterns, etc. Yet at the same time, I could hear the entire history of the piano from Art Tatum through Brad Mehldau. It is ok to be yourself, after understanding your place/role in the tradition. Vis a vis the great Coltrane quote: “I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” It is important to possess a vast library of vocabulary that can be delivered eloquently, intelligently, originally, and authentically. 

2) Humility is an essential element in maintaining growth as a musician. Here is a musician playing as much music on the piano as I have ever heard in person…. and he is as gracious, courteous, and open minded as can be. There is NO room for ego, pretentiousness, attitude in this music (and in life). The only way to improve as a musician (and as a person), is to acknowledge your shortcomings and to address your weaknesses. 

3) It’s about what you say AND how you say it. I am reminded of a particular performance with a good friend. As we were about to begin the set,  he leans over to me and says “Alright now, no licks!”. Much easier said than done for certain… Actually, this was really difficult and I certainly played plenty of them that night. However it caused me to think very deliberately, “I am going to really try and say something and say it with some force and some depth and some meaning and some direction.”

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