Musings and such

Composing Music Part 2 

In part one I gave an overview of my compositional journey and that there has never been a real organized process. There are times when nothing comes of interest and other times the floodgates seem to be open! I have been fortunate that this past several months has been one of those times. In this post I will talk about my personal evolution of the compositional process.

 

For much of my life, composition was just the result of some ideas that came to completion. It didn’t really matter if I was happy with it, if I wasn’t, I just wouldn’t perform them! If that was the case, off to the next batch. I have always been a big picture person who struggled with the details. I could hear what I wanted but putting it on paper for others to understand was /is difficult. A prime example is my big band writing. Conceptually it all makes sense in my head. Although not usually complicated, sometimes it takes a while for the band to “get it”, on the flip side others who write for my band will write much more complicated material and the band will usually read it and perform it correctly much quicker. I have come to terms with that and lately even more so embrace it. My low attention span has both been a challenge and a strength as my compositional style will change directions on a whim. I could write groove tunes for my organ trio and then all of a sudden some more esoteric music comes.

 

A teacher in high school once told me he liked the tune that I wrote but that the phrase of my introduction needed to be an even number of measures. The contrarian that I am, I argued but that is what I wanted. The tune kept the 3 bar intro and later in college wrote a 13 bar blues in spite trying to make it not seem “odd”. Much of my music was odd and I always tried to make it less so. Over the years I did get better at it but certain “Keithisms” would often be present. Why was I avoiding this!? In hindsight I should have embraced my differences but instead I would be on the edge of normal and weird in my writing styles. I think back as I write and maybe that really is my spot. I enjoy the edge and balancing on that edge.

 

My earliest compositional influence was the composer Phillip Glass. The steady continuous repetition drew me in and the gradual changes kept me in. Soon after it was the polytonality of Stravinsky’s the Rite of Spring that took over my world. Not just composing but it would shape my improvisational style tremendously as well. It may seem weird for me to say these two composers were so important to my music making as I have been known as a jazz musician as well as funk and blues. But there is the colorful side of my interest in making music that stems straight from them. I also could not forget my early love of rock and heavy metal! And then of course the 1000’s of hours spent listening to jazz and avant garde music.

 

Soon beyond trying to write jazz tunes, I was trying to write conceptual pieces that would be considered more on the avant garde side. Sometimes similar to classical compositions, sometimes for rock or jazz groups. Sometimes for anyone! One night in the early 90’s while in college, an idea came to me for a card game composition. I had a bunch of index cards and by the next day had about 200 cards that would shape the spontaneous composition. We played it that day and had a blast! It still gets used, although mostly as a teaching aid now.

Meditations on Consciousness Part 1 

The creative process is a fascinating thing. Inspiration can strike at any time and deciding to tap into it can lead you down a rewarding but daunting path sometimes. Recently I decided to embrace more music technology. I have always been interested but the learning curve is time consuming and can be overwhelming.

 

Having invested in some software that would allow me to do new things both as a performer and recording artist I immediately tried to delve into learning and hopefully making music. With a busy family and work life everything quickly came to a halt which can be the kiss of death for such endeavors. A few months later, lamenting about the situation I decided that if I had a specific project planned that incorporated the new tech, I would be more likely to see to learning and acquiring the skills needed to use the technology.

 

That innocent spark sent me quickly through the creative process, which to me is three things. curiosity, imagination and play. Simple problem solving or layers and layers of simple problem solving equals a big mess! I decided I would write a multi movement piece based on the exploration of meditation. Having explored various types of meditation over the years, I thought it would be interesting to try and bring that to music. I decided the name would be “Meditations on Consciousness” and that each movement would “describe” different states of the meditation process.

 

As I explored the possible states of consciousness another angle emerged. Social consciousness. What better way to explore these states than to actually meditate on real life issues! I am not a political person. I am an observer by nature. Over the years I can see so many people struggling and hurting for many different reasons. I thought what if I provided a spark for listeners to create their own meditation while the music is playing and they can explore their own consciousness. I thought maybe a visual component would add to the experience and started to brainstorm having visual art pieces being projected throughout that might help connect to the music. Maybe students, amateurs and professionals.

 

Quickly the concept and instrumentation grew. First a jazz quartet with electronics sounded innocent and interesting enough. But what if I added a string quartet? Tabla and or world percussion? Oh a rapper/spoken word performer! If I use a rapper I will need to add more electronics, maybe my son who produces hip hop music! If I wasn’t convinced of my insanity already, here was all the proof I needed!

 

My hope for music is that it helps to bring a sense of community, bringing people together of differing backgrounds for a common good. Having a background in using the arts for community building, conflict transformation as well as therapeutic experiences, I decided to add this as a component as well. To me maybe combining classical, jazz, hip-hop and free improvisation would build bridges of understanding so we can see other perspectives and develop empathy. Inspired , for sure. Daunting? We are just getting started!

 

Next step? How am I going to make all of this happen?!!!! In order to make a worthwhile project there needs to be a reason to make the music. Performances, recording, something to have it come to life. I thought if I am truly trying to make bridges, I need to find a way to have performances that bring the music to those who might never have such an experience. My first thought was young people. In order to do that I will need a grant in order to afford to pay the musicians and all of the overhead involved so that students will not have to pay. I also quickly realized that bringing the music to multiple locations (urban, rural, etc) would also fit into this plan of building bridges. All of this and I still don’t even have music!

 

Luckily I had a pretty good idea of the shape of what I wanted for each movement but I was nervous about writing for strings which I had only one a little of in the past. I began writing the third movement first. It would be a repetitive loop of string chords that would develop into having a melody then electronics would take over the basic string parts as the strings begin to expand into minimalist improvisation. As the electronics develop into a groove, the rapper would begin and eventually the music would develop back into strings playing new chords setting up resolution and fading out. Concept…check. Music…. Partial check. I did manage to write a big portion of the string parts and can now see the potential. Technology will have to wait to be added. I still have to learn how to use it!

 

Having a basic idea of the whole piece now and some of the material I am feeling good about the musical part. Originally that was the part that needed solving. Now one problem leads to the next challenge. Logistics! There is soooo much more to be done besides completing the piece. Raising money, booking venues, promoting, booking the musicians, oh yeah all of the music prep too… Stay tuned!

The Gate: A Portrait of the Mohawk 

In 2007 I was commissioned by the Empire Jazz Orchestra to write the "composition I always wanted to write" composing a piece for the group. I had six months to make it happen and decided to write my magnum opus! I quickly decided to do a semi programatic work about the Schenectady, NY area (home of the Empire Jazz Orchestra). I researched the area and learned that Schenectady was a derivative of a Mohawk word that meant "Beyond the pines" or "the gate". This peaked my curiosity as I have Mohawk ancestry and life kept bringing me back to Schenectady even though I grew up 2 1/2 hours away. I decided to have 3 sections, a more pre-human look at nature in the area, a section that embraced the native presence and all the history that comes with that (the good and the bad) and finally a modern era section to reflect the 20th century history of the city. All great ideas, but where do I begin?!!!

 

Well 3 months went by and I had a pile of ideas on scraps of paper that weren't "worthy", four months and I was getting stressed and had more scraps but no magnum opus. I went through all of the scraps and realized the composition was all there! The fragments all fit together and all I had to do was accept it! I had dismissed all of the fragments as they weren't "complex enough" or "would be better for something else". I realized in that moment that I could not write something that wasn't coming from who I was at the time. I wasn't going to re-invent the wheel (even though that's what I wanted to do).

 

As I started putting it together (still had to organize it and orchestrate it for the ensemble), I wanted to utilize the instruments of the ensemble creating interesting textures and colors. As I sat at my desk one night in August (a few weeks from the first rehearsal!) I was trying to come up with some percussion ideas when I heard this beetle sound outside. It created this short rhythm. Three notes and then space, three notes and space, etc. I realized it fit perfect!

 

In the end I got everything complete just in time and the band did a great job performing it! I had not mentioned anything about the concept of the piece to the audience and afterwards a woman came up to me and described almost exactly what my intention was, including each section! I guess we all get lucky one in a while. I hope you enjoy it! To listen, CLICK HERE

You Want to Play What???? 

As long as I can remember I have been mesmerized by music. Some of my earliest memories were of recording TV and movie themes onto my tape recorder. Each episode trying to get a better sounding recording than the last. I had no idea what was involved in recording music or making music, I just knew that I needed to hear it all the time. By the time I entered school, I wanted desperately to play an instrument. A few years later I took piano lessons for a while (I didn't get very far, but loved to play on the piano!), then came trying to teach myself to play the guitar (fail). Eventually the saxophone would take a hold of my life in 9th grade and I never looked back. There was no rhyme or reason as to why I picked the saxophone, I just knew I needed to make music. Almost simultaneously I began learning how much I loved bass lines and soon gained a basic understanding of how they were created so I began exploring them on the piano (by the way, I still really couldn't play the piano).

 

Most people have no idea what the Hammond organ even is, but most have heard it. The Hammond sound can be heard in almost every style of American music since the early Swing era. Sometimes in the background sometimes as a solo instrument but its there most of us just didn't know it. At the age of 18 I had a life changing experience when I saw saxophonist Maceo Parker perform with his group. What caught me first was not his playing as he was not on stage. The band began playing and I had never heard a groove like they were playing. It hit me very hard and I was stunned. Then I realized it was the bass that was really grabbing me. The next mystery however was there was no bass player! This was my introduction to the Hammond organ. Larry Goldings laying down funky basslines with the swirling sound of the Leslie speaker. I was hooked but had no idea I would ever decide to play the “Beast”.

 

I continued to evolve as a musician studying and practicing but on the saxophone, yet still there would be the occasion of playing with an organist in an R&B or rock band. Each time loving that sound. Then I started collecting recordings that featured the organ, Willis Jackson’s Bar Wars, Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson with Dr. Lonnie Smith. Boy I loved those saxophonists! And yes I really liked the sound of the organ swinging and groovin' along with them too but it was not as intentional. It was a slow burn..

 

(Interlude) soon after graduating college in the mid 90’s I went to look at an apartment with my roommate. It was a second story flat. As we walked up the stairs I felt a good vibe. We opened the door to a very large flat and at the other end of the main room was a Conn organ. Not a hammond but super awesome. I asked the landlord if the organ came with the place and he said yes. We took the apartment.

 

By the end of the 1990’s I had moved to New York City and had opportunities to play with some great jazz organ players. What a learning experience! I realized having an organ playing the bass lines completely changed how the music needed to be approached by the horn player, guitarist and even the drummer. The grooves were deep, soulful and had a different kind of space than when a bass player and pianist were in the band. Around this time I also witnessed one of the masters… Dr Lonnie Smith. That was it!

 

I was already a fan of the Doctor’s early work but he was onto a whole new thing and helping to revitalize the organ tradition that had been put to the side due to the synthesizer generation. His music was hypnotic, funky as could be and profoundly creative all at the same time. I rushed home with one of his tunes stuck in my head and figured it out on my keyboard. The next thing I knew I had an organ keyboard on the way from an ebay auction. It arrived and I began trying to find the sounds of Dr. Lonnie as well as Charles Earland and any other organist that I liked the sound of. I wasn’t learning to play the organ then as much as learning the sounds and how they worked. I would transcribe a song and write it out to have someone else play so I could play saxophone to them. The years went by and I moved out of the city to Upstate New York.

 

There were a handful of very good R&B organists but only a couple who played jazz. Not long after moving I found a real Hammond organ and Leslie for sale and gave it a good home. More experiments of sound, especially now that the real sound was floating through the air. The main purpose of getting the organ was to try and talk pianists into playing it but most were weary of its power and mystery. I began bringing a small keyboard to gigs to play some basic organ chords to join in with the pianist and it was fun and added something different. Then the keyboard got a little bigger…

 

October 1st 2016 I woke up in the morning with one thing on my mind. I would start learning to play the organ and eventually perform on it! I made a plan of the skills required and began acting on it. Ever so slowly I made progress and in a couple of months I could play a few basic tunes and sound convincing (ok more of a novelty act). In four months I did my first gig which was three sets. I felt like I was hit by a freight train. Saxophonists typically play a fraction of the time during a set of music, so I was exhausted both mentally and physically but was back at the organ again the next day. I was hooked! I read about the organ, watched videos, listened to recordings, and asked anyone who knew how to play, all to fill in the gaps. In the first year I only missed 10 days of practicing!

 

People started to take a chance and hire me to play for them, which was a big chance being I was playing the chords and basslines. More performances equaled more experience and I kept improving (also taking lessons with the legendary Tony Monaco helped). The more people have hired me, the more I improve. The instrument is like a full orchestra in one instrument. It can whisper, roar and everything in between. I started composing music in middle school before I even really knew how to read or play much music. I always wrote at a keyboard instrument (even though I was never very good at playing them). The organ has proved to be a muse, providing many knew compositions over the last few years.

 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I began preparations for my debut recording. I had more than enough material and my skills were convincing in a live situation. Recording is a different situation altogether. Its a microscope that detects all of your flaws and makes you never satisfied with your performance. Chasing that perfection means you may keep playing it over and over to get it right, only to suck the life out of it. So I put the recording on the back burner. I played some more gigs and then I decided in August of 2021 to book a studio session and go in with the material and do two takes of each song and walk out, accepting what ever came out. It has become my first release as a Hammond organist and the tunes on the album are right at the core of the first organ experiences I had. Funky soulful grooves. I had originally intended to use a larger band thinking it would help fill the gaps I had but once I began playing with Mike and Chad on these tunes I thought what better way to jump in then the classic OGD (organ guitar and drums). No frills, just right "Down the Middle".

 

to check out the recording click here

 
 



 

Making of an Album Part 4 

Well all of the fun part in the album process is now over. Now its all about getting the word out (the business side has never been my strong suit). In the old days, labels did the brunt of the promotion and distribution while the artist toured to help sell the records. With the advent of the internet, things began to change. More and more fell on the artist yet the label still maintained much if not all of the control. Remember all those stories of bands getting huge advances? Well those and studio time etc where all just a big loan in which many bands never were able to pay back as they didn't realize how the system worked. That quickly changed in the early 2000's when labels stopped signing bands (never completely of course). Artists first thought this was catastrophic, but creative as they are, many saw it as the dawn of.a new era when the artist was finally in control of their destiny. Streaming services allowed artists to sell their own music, crowdfunding companies like Kickstarter gave us the means to have fans invest in our albums, becoming part of the process. Now things have changed even further with so many social media platforms, new technology and resources at our fingertips. Its overwhelming but very helpful!

 

As I said the business side has always been a struggle for me. Its not the hard work, but believing in myself enough to actually think people will want to experience what I am offering. With all of the pros of DIY promotion etc, there are also a lot of cons. There are simply MILLIONS of people creating and sharing on the internet with seemingly no rhyme or reason as to what gets noticed. As soon as you figure out how to use a social media algorithm to your advantage, the change it so that you can't (ex. Facebook only allows a VERY small fraction of your friends see your posts and when they can see it.) this encourages you to pay for promotion through them adding yet another layer of expense to the process.

 

Nine years ago I released an album using Kickstarter to raise the capital needed. Besides the studio and production costs, much of that budget went to mailing CDs to hundreds of radio stations and reviewers, advertising etc. Now most of my budget was on new equipment to help me get the sounds I wanted from my home studio and internet fees and digital distribution. The market for CDs is almost completely gone now. In fact vinyl sales have surpassed CDs, but vinyl is very expensive to press. For this album I will only press a very small run of CDs for when venues open back up and spend my time and resources on the digital world.

 

I have already done much leg work trying to lay the ground work for the official release date, given copies to reviewers and DJs who if the like it, will help spread the word, updated websites, social media etc with links and art work to help direct traffic. I have studied up on social media, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music and other distribution sites to try and make a bigger footprint. And it never ends! The industry changes so fast that it is impossible to keep up. At the end of the day I think "word of mouth" is still a great resource, but in the digital world trying to get people aware of it so that they can spread the word is a major hurdle as the attention span for most people has been shortened so much and there are so many distractions that you have to maintain an active presence in the digital realm just to be noticed by a few.

 

It may sound daunting and insurmountable. Maybe it is, but as a creative person I just keep plugging away! I try to refine my online skills to keep getting better and try to stay as up to date as I can, but at the end of the day I create because that is what I do. On the money side of things, I just try to recoup some of my investment so that I can continue to make music for people to hear. Many of the current methods of getting my music out there require creativity as part of the process and some in ways that take me into new worlds. Youtube used to be just about posting music and now creating visual experiences are just as important. Here on Patreon I have a platform to connect in new ways with listeners and that is inspiring! And of course trying to beat those algorithms!!!!! All while starting the next album. Stay tuned as we start the next chapter together! To listen to the final product, click here

Making of an Album Part 3 

All the parts recorded by the musicians, mixed over and over again, adding electronics and taking them away (and adding them again), remixing, ah finally ready to master! Or so you think…

 

All the work mixing the project getting things to fit together just right and you send it off to be mastered. I thought about trying to do that myself and I am sure I could gotten it to work, but after hearing the music so much its great to have a fresh pair of ears listen to it. He actually thought the mixes sounded great and off he went to do his magic. Mastering is the art of finishing touches on the audio. Leveling and smoothing out frequencies so that when it is played on different systems and platforms it still holds up sonically. It also gets the sound to industry standards sonically. First gluing the sound together and evening it out then raising the over all perceived volume level to compete with other music in the industry (ever watch those loud commercials and think "wow those are sou loud!"). They are actually compressed to keep a consistent volume but never exceeding the loudest part of the TV program. So they get rid of the volume contrast found in the program and keep everything up to that peak volume so that when you go to the kitchen etc you can still hear the commercial! Luckily the music industry isn't quite that bad. Dynamic contrast can still exist if it's not pop music.

 

Now back to our project. The mastering engineer sends me back a version to listen too and wow it has more life! Perfect all done... well maybe not. As I listen closer I hear some great things, more width in the stereo field, snare drum has more life, all good stuff. And then it hits you, the piano is now the focal point, or one side sounds heavier than the other, or the cymbals became harsh, the list goes on. The mastering process is a very subtle one, using a few tools that should make small changes, but sometimes not small enough. Soooo, he tries a couple more things and although better, that piano still is too much, etc. Now I have to tweak the original mix that we thought sounded great. Luckily these are now minor changes, send it back, he masters it, sent it back and yes we have it! No, we don't. Again better but still not right, now something else is bothersome, like a game of wack-o-mole! Ten versions later and I can live with it!

 

For all of the time and energy the great thing is that every time I am involved in the recording process, I learn so much. This time as the person who mixed it, I learned a whole lot about how to get things to sound the way I want. In the mastering process I learned to hear recordings in a deeper way understanding more of the subtleties and nuances that exist in recorded music. And now the album is finished! Ok maybe not. Its close though, two more tunes to be mastered. With that here is the mastered version of South Sphere! Next time we will talk about releasing the album! Click Here to Listen

Making of an Album Part 2 

When we last left off, I mentioned that there has been several phases the music for Universal Blues has gone through. The need for electronics opened a new can of worms and sent me down a BIG rabbit hole! Music in general has so many ways it can be approached. Traditionally I have been very much in live acoustic playing and struggle in the studio when not everyone is present at the same time (overdubbing). This time has been different. It somehow still had an organic quality and could have easily been left like that. Covid has left us isolated and reliant on the electronic world so know even more than when I first wrote the music, I feel that electronics need to play a role to help connect the dots. With my limited skills in the electronic world I needed to consult some friends who are in the sound design world.

 

Manipulating sound into new sounds is nothing new. Its actually how most music gets created. Take jazz for instance. Instrumentalists heard people singing the blues and began trying to imitate them. They used plungers, mutes, growling sounds etc as a way to create new sounds on their instruments in order to imitate those vocalists. It became standard practice and over the years new techniques were created for the same purposes. Its all part of that evolution. Electronic music and instrument are a direct natural descendent of those basic musical concepts. Some people enjoy the electronic instruments and effects and some prefer more rational acoustic sounding music. In the end its all the same process, just different technology.

 

I have always been into exploring possibilities of sound so entering in to the electronic world was not uncomfortable, just exhausting! So many possibilities! There are synthesizers (so many), other electronic instruments, sampling (taking something that is recorded and making it into something new), the use of effects (reverb, distortion etc) and so much more!

 

I tried to find some sounds that would be a recurring thing (like a hidden treat for those die hard listeners), I found sounds in my house that I recorded and morphed into something else completely. Chinese medicine balls, trumpet valves clicking, air sounds, even myself imitating Mongolian throat singing! All of these and more became new 'instruments' through electronic manipulation. I stretched things, put effects on them, combined them, all to create a new palette with which to use. It was fun but time consuming and my obsessive nature wouldn't let me stop. I had so many things added that I couldn't keep track. After that process I had to then edit and refine. Some of the compositions didn't need a lot of electronic treatment and some that I thought would be without it ended up with quite a bit. In the end I tried to create a soundscape that would add depth, interest without getting in the way (some may think its distracting at times). I also wanted it to be a fun listening experience sonically (like listening to a great record from the 70's that gives you so much to listen for especially with headphones.

 

I think I am finally at peace with the process! This version of South Sphere is fairly tame with the electronics, but to give you the inside scoop, I manipulated some of the original drums into electronic sounds, used the Chinese medicine balls to create a sound like peeper frogs (listen at the very beginning) and used an effect from electronic dance music to create tension. There are some other things but I think that will give you something to listen for.

 

This is close to the finished product. All of the songs are complete, its just a few tweaks to the songs to make them sound a bit more polished and effective (mixing). After that comes the mastering process which doesn't take a long time, but really brings everything to life and glues everything together. In the meantime, its time to figure out how to promote and get the word out! Next post will give you the mastered track so you can hear the differences. Thanks! Click Here to Listen

 
 



 

What is Improvisation 

I hope that as this page grows, I will have both musicians and non-musicians as part of this community. These types of posts will be more philosophical than details as part of my mission here is to connect people to the process and how it may relate to daily life.

 

I don't really like to define what improvisation is as that takes the fun out of exploring it and could stifle someone's creativity. One of the worst things an educator can do is say "this is THE way to do it". Its simply one possible way! By exploring possibilities the person doing the exploring is able to learn at a deeper level through trial and error. In a conversation, Trombone great Ray Anderson said to me, " Jazz is about failure". I knew instantly what he meant as I have failed many times! And sometimes those failures created the best stuff! Inventors often try to invent something for a particular purpose only to find out their invention actually is more useful for something completely different!

 

Back to improvisation. I feel like it is best described by some basic principles:

 

1. There is an element of problem solving.

 

2. It happens spontaneously.

 

3. Is rooted in things you already know.

 

4. Matter is neither created or destroyed.

 

We will get back to the principals in a second, but first a real life example. Just as everyone on this earth is different form everyone else so is their approach to preparing food. Some stick strictly to the recipe and some change it slightly. Others seemingly create brand new never before seen, smelled or tasted dishes that seem to come out of thin air. All of them are valid, except in my opinion "out of thin air" (we dig into that shortly).

 

Lets make chicken noodle soup. What 3 ingredients are required to make Chicken noodle soup? Chicken, Noodles, Liquid. Other than that depending on your creative journey the sky is the limit. I would also argue that it may be possible to have chicken noodle soup without one or more of those ingredients (that is were the problem solving comes in!).

 

The creative process in my opinion has three elements. Curiosity, Imagination and Play. In the case of our soup, I am curious how I can create my own chicken noodle soup. What do I already know about making soup is the first step. Does my family already have a traidion of making a certain kind? Do I embrace that tradition for my own variation or simply use it as knowledge of what could be done and possibly of looking to break certain"must haves" in that tradition. I become curious about what I would like the soup to smell like, taste like and look like. I imagine what ingredients could go into it based on my tastes and desire to push the boundaries of this soup. Do I put hot peppers in? Basil? Ice cream?!!! In my imagination anything goes! After I imagine it, I need to create it in real life. This is not for a brand or selling at a farmers market or restaurant, this is for me. That means I can try putting ice cream in if I so desire. If it works out great, if not onto the next thing with no attachment to it other than the joy of the process. That is play. Just like being a young child exploring my imagination in the real world, using the tools at my disposal (toys etc.) as a way to express my creativity. So far this all seems like any creative act, composing, visual art, dance, etc. and it is. Creativity is creativity. The difference is improvisation happens spontaneously.

 

Jazz piano great Bill Evans once said improvisation is "one moment's music, in one moment's time". A brilliant composer like Beethoven would struggle over long periods of time to get his music just the way he wanted it. And of course amazing music was created in that way! But how then can we hold great improvisors in the same regard as they are seemingly just playing random notes? Well, I am not going to answer that! That is a question for you. What is your belief? What I will do is go through the process of how improvisation in music takes place.

 

Lets use the principles to describe my process.

 

Principle 1- Problem solving.

 

Starting from the beginning, I asked my high school band teacher to let me do what I saw the others doing (I didn't know it was this thing called improvising). Immediately I wanted to know how. He told me "just play what ever you want". I asked what notes, he said "we can talk about that some other time, just play". Because I didn't know any better I literally just played what ever came out! over the decades since, I have refined, explored as many areas as I could of this form of creating, and it always comes down to solving a problem or problems. At the basic level, what should I play on this tune at this moment. At a more advanced level what is the music that is being created in this moment by the band telling me to play. At a much higher level, what has my life, the life of every being who has ever lived informed to play in this moment and you get the idea from there.

 

Principle 2- It happens Spontaneously

 

As you may already have noticed in my description of principle 1, I keep using the phrase in this moment. In improvisation we are dealing with one moments time in "one moments music". It is happening in real time. And then it is gone. That is the beauty and the curse of improvisation . Once it has been played it will never be played that way again. Recordings can help preserve roughly that moment but it is not the same as being there in that moment. We all have a style that identifies us in how we improvise, but what actually come out is truly influenced by everything in that moment. The crowd, how you hear the band Maybe I can't hear the bass, maybe I hear everything great), Is there a TV on in the background, Is the drummer overly busy not paying attention to what you are doing or are you able to have a group conversation with everyone present? All of those things and more are happening in real time and you are reacting in some way. I have done gigs in terribly boomy rooms and found the sound of the room so interesting that it completely changed how I approached music in that moment and in the future! All of this is to say that we prepare to make music at a high level, but what actually happens is shaped by the moment. Very much like words we are hearing a lot these days (mindfulness, presence). At the highest levels it is a deep connection to the present moment and some like Coltrane used improvisation as a form of meditation.

 

Principle 3- Is rooted in things you already know.

 

You can't speak Japanese if you have no exposure to the Japanese language. Music is a language and there for improvisation is very much like speaking. You have a vocabulary, learn the tradition of putting the language together (some go deeper than others) and then you become creative with it. Maybe you change your inflections, maybe your phrasing changes but overall, you have a way to speak that is you. Improvised music is no different. Just like the sound and cadence of your voice helps to define you, the same goes for the musician. When I am improvising in the moment as described above, I am still using a vocabulary that I have developed. The way I put that vocabulary together and present it is unique to me. Which leads me to the final principle (there may be more principles, who knows!)

 

Principle 4- Matter is neither created or destroyed.

 

Just like this scientific laws, even though we want to think something new has been created (spoiler alert) it hasn't been. In improvisation we follow our family tree, our genetic code. I am influenced by those who have come before me. Sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes in what not to do! Our musical family tree connects us through a tradition but its also what makes us different. Line up 100 alto saxophonists. Ask them who there 3 main influences are. Most will say people like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly etc. However there are so many other players we all expose ourselves to. It is this duality of commonality and differentiation that helps us to create our own approach.

 

This is what I think about improvisation today, who know what tomorrow will bring! How might you apply this to everyday life? I know I do regularly. Maybe you already do and haven't thought about it, maybe you need more in your life. Explore it and find out!

 
 



 

Active Listening, the Lost Art 

In today's world, music is everywhere. Not only is it everywhere, almost any song, composition etc. is there for us to hear and only a click away. Now with the pandemic and being forced to slow down a bit, perhaps we can revisit an almost lost art form. Active listening.

 

Growing up I was obsessed with music in a household that didn't listen to much music. At an early age I discovered a bucket of 45's in our closet and we had a record player. My Grandmother had worked at a bowling alley in the 60's and used to be in charge of changing the jukebox and apparently brought home some of the records. I would sit and listen to them one after another consuming them like potato chips (the bucket by the way was a potato chip bucket). I eventually also got a Fisher Price cassette player and was now obsessed with recording (hmm, I guess that explains a lot about this last year). I recorded everything, but mainly I would put it up near our Zenith TV and record TV show themes. Week after week re-recording them as I always wanted a better sounding recording. In 4th grade I received my first real recordings for my birthday. A friend gave me two cassettes. Culture Club and Michael Jackson's Thriller. I know you are picturing me jamming out to Culture Club right? Well yes I did for a while. It was new sounds! I listened to them over and over eventually with Thriller taking over and then an older cousin gave me Led Zeppelin IV on vinyl and that was a game changer. Had recently acquired my first stereo from my grandparents after mowing their lawn for the whole summer (A Zenith stereo with circular speakers), The sound of a new album on vinyl was something else! Not to mention the artwork and the physicality of carefully placing the album on the spindle and the needle on the record in hindsight was like mindfulness practice. It prepared you for the journey you were about to embark on. It was simply exciting! My obsession for listening to music only intensified and another older sousing was very much into music the way I was and we would listen together. First heavy metal and rock, then classical and jazz. Over and over we would listen to the music. It was always an event. Prepare the stereo, prepare the recording and press play or drop the needle. Then with no computer or phone to distract us, we would turn up the volume and our journey would begin!

 

In High School being a musician had become my focus and my obsession for listening still continued to intensify. Collecting change from the couch cushions, returning bottles, whatever it took to get yet another album or cassette. I would play them over and over trying not to miss anything (funny thing was I had no idea what I was listening for, I just knew that every time I noticed something else). I began realizing that I was curious about what made each recording tick for me. Was it the guitar solo on Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train? Charlie Parker's famous break on A Night In Tunisia? The dense harmony and orchestration of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring? YES!!! All of the above! As I said earlier each listening experience was an adventure. There was no such thing as background music in my life. I was always trying to listen.

 

The first purposeful experience with active listening happened thanks once again to my cousin. He had returned home from music school and said he had something for me to check out. He said we needed to listen to it with our eyes closed (sounds like a set up to me, but it worked out!). He turned on the stereo, put the recording on, we turned off the lights and just listened. This beautiful hypnotic melody came across the speakers sounding distant over time more instruments entering, building, whirling then the release to an intense rhythm vibrating the room. As the piece went on I had visions of people dancing around a fire in a primal way. The piece consumed me and at the end I was so excited to learn what we had just listened to. It was the Rite of Spring. Once again I became obsessed with the piece and listened again and again (40 minutes a pass by the way). I needed to know every part, when it came in, where it went to and what went with it. Eventually I ended up in music school and immediately went to the library to get the score (sheet music of the whole piece) for the Rite. I would follow along listening to it, again over and over and eventually trying to learn how to play parts that intrigued me the most, which would shape my musical approach in the future.

 

To this day I can tell you where I obtained almost all of my albums, cassettes and CDs. I can often still smell the environment, see the room, hear in my imagination the imperfections of a worn cassette, a skip in a record. It was the entire experience that permeated my soul. Each experience was just that its own experience etched into my memory. My desire to find out what made each recording "tick" for me, became one of the most important tools for me as a musician, although I never did it for that reason. I just needed to know!

 

Today, I have joined the rest of the world, consuming most of my music on a device (which has its positives). The problem is listening is no longer an event for me. I am usually studying something to learn or again learning what makes it tick and then moving on because music is so readily available. In the car, on a walk, just listening to tunes on shuffle (not always but much of the time), rarely listening to new albums over and over again and rarely listening to the whole thing in one sitting. But early on in the Covid world I had my son and wife sit with me in the dark listening to the Rite of Spring and it was a great experience once again and has brought me back at least a little to the more simple yet deep soul fulfilling times of active listening, being in the moment just listening with no other agenda, no distractions, nothing more important than the vibrations coming from the speakers at that time. I hope we can all re-discover some of this lost art. Active Listening.

 

 
 
 
 



 

Making of an Album Part 1 

Wow what a process! Its amazing reflecting on the inner workings of making a record. Each time its such a process and this time has been 10 fold! I have been involved in recording music in professional situations since I was 18. I have been an avid student of the craft always asking questions, watching, listening and learning. In this day and age, the art of album making is almost a lost art. We consume music in such a different way (play lists, shuffle, etc) that organizing music into an album is almost not needed. I am a die har though and even though I know the current state of the industry, I still enjoy the craft of having a concept and unified sound for each recording. Throughout my career, I have primarily enjoyed the live method of recording. That's where musicians get together in person, and engineer sets up microphones and the record button gets pressed and then the musicians perform the music. After that its just tweaking the sound of the recording until it sounds right and you are done! Ok that may be a bit simplified but it is basically what happens. The other method involves overdubbing. That's where musicians may never even meet each other. One person (usually the drums) lays down the skeleton of the song and then the rest is built in layers one at a time. This can be tedious but the sonic quality is often better (although sometimes less organic sounding) and the possibilities are almost endless in what you can do with it.

 

When the pandemic struck, I made it a goal to begin the recording process and quickly I had the raw makings of half a dozen albums! Today's technology allowed me to create my own skeleton of the tune using a mock up with synthesized instruments (artificial drums, bass, piano etc). Once that was done I could electronically deliver that framework to the drummer who played their part then I sent to the bass player, piano and finally I was ready for my saxophone part. In a matter of less than a month the album was complete! Ok no it wasn't. I could have quick just said it was finished and released it, but the critic in me steps in and says but wait it doesn't sound organic enough. The mixing process begins. Taking each song stripping it down and working on the sound of each instrument until it sounds its best and then putting it all back together. Ah that's it done! Nope, again the critic steps in and several more mixes go by (don't forget the music has been completed for a while this is just the finishing touches, or so I thought). I struggled (not being a recording engineer) with getting the best sound I could with my equipment. I did research on how to best to deal with each shortfall in the sound, used my memory/experience bank of being in the studios and was stuck. So I called a studio friend who works with the best and asked for a lesson! I went to his studio, asked questions took notes and headed back to my humble little studio. Now we are talking! Huge progress in the quality and then it hits me.

 

I wrote this group of songs (except one) about 6 years ago. I was searching music from around the globe and was inspired to write music influenced by those different cultures under the premise that "the Blues" which is considered an American art form is actually a universal concept. Each culture seems to have their own version of it in their folk music and I was enjoying finding it. Mongolian music, Japanese music, middle eastern, Native American its there! As I wrote the tunes, I also heard the sounds of electronic music mixed with the acoustic instruments. Mostly textures and sonic landscapes to add a different dimension to the music. This would require me to learn more about that world and so off I went and what a deep rabbit hole that was! I decided to put it on hold and began getting serious about the Hammond organ (believe it or not its directly related but we will save that for another time). Well, time passed and it was hard playing the music without rehearsing as it was so conceptual (not all written out in detail). Along came the pandemic and everything I said above and like I said it hit me.... I didn't use any electronics.

 

No we are in November of 2020, 8 months after recording the music, all the mixing hours and research and now I needed to have electronics! I will save that part of the store until next time, but attached is the first version of the recording (just a quartet playing music) and considering it was layered as I explained, it still sounds pretty organic and live! I would have been happy to release this version until I remembered the electronics. You may be the only people besides the music to ever here this version and some people would prefer this version, but the journey has other plans for me so off I go. Hope you enjoy!