Sunday, April 28, 2013

Yakov “Don’t play jazz!”

As a sort of concession to Mrs. S and because I had some other chores that required my presence at home, I decided to take the day off last Friday and see if I couldn't get some stuff done, and then end the day at a chamber music concert featuring the pianist Yakov Kasman. We saw Kasman with the Huntsville Symphony some years back and got a CD signed by him, and since Mrs. S spent the whole year going to chamber music concerts by herself, except when it was Joshua Bell, I agreed to accompany her. I had been fence sitting, but then we learned that Kasman was going to have an “educational event”, and after the valuable master class we had with Gary Burton, I decided that was worth making Kasman’s lecture and concert part of my free day.

At the educational event, Yakov talked about how he developed his affinity for Alabama and ended up artist in residence at UAB. He didn't talk much about pianos or technique or anything like that, instead dragging his daughter on stage to play some of the four-handed pieces that were going to be featured at that night’s concert. It was a bit of a letdown.

Yakov's signature on our Moussorgsky CD. Or did Mrs. S drop the Sharpie on it? I'm not sure.
Finally, after the music history lesson, he agreed to take questions. It was a lot of the usual: how much do you practice (“a lot”), how many pianos do you have (“three”), and (from Mrs. S) what kind of pianos do you have (“a Steinway, a Yamaha, and a Kawai”), blah, blah, blah. Since his daughter had mentioned that he starts playing as soon as he wakes up and doesn't stop practicing until he goes to bed, I thought I had a question that was intelligent and the most probing of the bunch: Do you play just classical music or do you play other things? Turned out to be not so probing: “Just classic.” He seemed to suggest that was a stupid thing to ask. His tone and facial expression were all “OF COURSE a classical pianist only plays classical music, nincompoop!” Since I had the floor and his attention, I pushed ahead, but I made the fatal mistake of leading the interrogation by suggesting what he could play. I asked: “You don’t play jazz or something to break it up?” He smiled a plastic smile like a politician talking about a master’s degree from the Cayman Islands or the mysterious disappearance of his last two female interns, and then Professor Kasman crisply pronounced, “No, I don’t play...jazz!”

The word "jazz" rang out in hissing, sardonic tones. You could substitute just about any word for jazz and it couldn't have sounded more incredulous: jazz, hip-hop, badminton, trash can lids, marimbas, Parcheesi,  Texas hold'em, no, NO, I don't play those!!!!

I could comment here about not being able to grow musically or a missing dimension to one’s playing by stifling oneself in one genre of music, but what do I know? Kasman won the silver medal at a Van Cliburn competition, and I’m struggling with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in a broken intervallic mode. He performed in front of a thousand people on Friday night, as did his17-year old daughter and his 12 (10? 8?) -year old daughter. I'm lucky if Mrs. S pauses for twenty seconds as she wanders through the dining room while I'm pounding on my forlorn Yamaha digital.

No. Yakov don’t play jazz.

I do. And that's good enough for me. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My Miles Davis “bucket list” gets Shorter, literally

I've kind of developed this fascination with Miles Davis and a while back, I set my mind to trying to see as many of the living and performing musicians who played with Miles Davis as humanly possible. So many of the greats died so young and so long ago ( I won’t even try to list them). That makes the ones that are still around that much more “valuable” to the current jazz lexicon.

The set up
Certainly, meeting and greeting Herbie Hancock was one of the highlights, and seeing Sonny Rollins fairly limp around on stage while honking his sax brings home the point of how little time is left to see these stars while they are still performing. McCoy Tyner was another one who could barely get on stage, but once he did, performed wonderfully. Chick Corea, on the other hand, still has plenty of energy and musicality left in him, which leads to diverse shows ranging from vibraphone and string accompaniment, to a duet with a banjo. Some other “Miles’ musicians” jazzing around that I have yet to see: Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and John Scofield, among others.
Wayne Shorter's axes in front of the CF6. Check out the harp's reflection in the lid. Wow, I'll take it!
The most recent I’m now able to check off the list is Wayne Shorter, who performed some new pieces (I think) from his latest album with a killer quartet consisting of Danilo Perez on piano, Joe Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. The quartet was really together but the star of the show, for both Mrs. S and I was Perez, who was playing an awesome Yamaha CF6. I've never heard a brighter, more dynamic piano than that one, and at intermission, I asked the stage manager (or whoever he was, the guy moving Wayne Shorter’s stuff around) what it was, and he kept turning his head so I couldn't hear him, but I did hear him when he said they couldn't get a CFX. That's why I assume the piano was a CF6, the next model down. Whatever. If I ever get a spare $100K, I’ll probably pick one up.

This is the guy who almost told me what kind of piano Danilo was playing
After intermission, the orchestra came on and joined the quartet to play some Shorter arrangements of tunes he wrote for quartet and orchestra, and Esperanza Spalding also came out to sing Gaia and played bass and sang on Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair. I enjoyed the concert fairly well, despite the fact that I would have preferred to hear some of Shorter’s bop and post-bop songs in a more intimate style. I was fairly impressed by Esperanza, too, whose voice has clarity and a soft vibrato that I favor over the more lavish voices of other jazz singers of late. (Carmen McRae comes to mind.)

Ready for the show...
Really the only disappointing thing was the rude Nashville audience. I’ve really been noticing of late that people just don’t appreciate the performing arts the way they should. After about the second song of the second half, there became a steady stream of people leaving the hall. When Esperanza came on, despite her presence making everything a lot more interesting, more and more people got up and walked out. The ones who I wished would walk out, like the couple in front of us (husband drunk and sleepy, wife just sleepy, and the two of them fighting over a bottle of water – don’t ask), kept nodding off and snipping at each other for doing so. They'd've done everyone a favor if they had left.

Still, Wayne Shorter is probably the most prolific living jazz composer, and with the exception of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (maybe), possibly the foremost jazz composer of all time. The chance to see him live and in concert was truly worth the effort and expense. If I ever get a chance to see him in quartet format again, I will definitely do that.

Didn't even know there was a French single malt, until I drank this one. Sweet! 
Dinner by the way was at Etch, right by the symphony hall. Despite a brief allergic reaction to the Japanese short ribs (something in the oil, maybe?), Mrs. S and I still enjoyed a lovely meal, topped by a glass of single malt whiskey from France. Did that beat all? Yes it did. Nashville, we love you. Now please move 50 miles closer so we don’t have to.

And no night would be complete without some eerie coincidence: The same couple that sat one table over from us at the restaurant sat one table over from us at the concert, too. Hundreds of restaurants in the city, dozens of tables at the restaurant, dozens of tables and hundreds of seats at the concert hall, and they we are. Right next to each other at the same time at two completely separate events. I tell you, the Universe aligns for me, sometimes for a reason, sometimes for none, but at times, it's really weird being me.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why you shouldn't suck in your musical performance: the audience matters

Recently, one of my Facebook friends, who also happens to be a childhood schoolmate and accomplished musician, commented on Facebook lamenting how hard it was for him to find a band to join. This came hard on the heels of him having to give up forming his own band, due to what I’ll call “lack of interest in being dedicated” from the musicians he recruited. The gist of Nooj’s comment was, making music or anything with artistic value requires a certain level of commitment, and it’s hard to find people who want to make that commitment. Then a mutual Facebook friend, Pat, who is an accomplished musician himself and also a childhood schoolmate of Nooj and I, chimed in against musicians who dismiss bad performances in favor of “just having fun”. Pat and Nooj’s argument is, on the face of it, quite simple: There’s nothing fun about sucking and the value of music (the TRUE value) lies in the commitment that leads to a good performance. (And I’ll go so far as to say, the definition of a good performance is, a performance the audience appreciates.)

A rendering of the St. Mel's church, where Nooj, Pat, and I spent many hours while growing up.
I couldn't agree more, and I wanted to add my two cents, but Facebook isn’t my favorite forum in the whole world for making cohesive arguments. So I dragged the topic here, to my blog. Here’s what I've found in my (extremely limited) jazz performance experience. (Keep in mind, this is all from playing in big bands and ensembles at a local university, where 90% of every band I was in was about half my age. It’s an important aspect of the argument I’m about to make.)

I hate making mistakes in a performance. Hate them. That’s why musicians practice: to avoid mistakes. The jazz idiom, however, is all about creating something on the spot. It’s not going to be right 100% of the time. It’s not supposed to be. Miles Davis said, “There are no wrong notes.” In fact, there are plenty of wrong notes. It’s easy enough to send your audience home by playing wrong notes. But in jazz, you shouldn't be surprised if after sending one audience home, another audience stumbles in to hear you play. That’s one thing.

The other is, as an older musician with more worldly experience but often less musical experience and talent than my younger peers in the band, I bring a unique perspective to my performance. I don’t get embarrassed if I make a mistake. I’m not happy about it, but I just keep playing. Most of the audience doesn't notice anyway. Younger musicians sometimes tend to try too hard. Mistakes fluster them, and I've actually seen bad performances stop good musicians entirely, “forcing” them to quit and blaming their study workload as they put down their instrument. I tried to impart to these musicians that we are up there, in front of people, doing something that the majority can’t do, and we ought to enjoy the experience, regardless of the type of performance we put out on any given day. Ultimately, the audience is what makes the musical experience what it is. There is nothing like performing in front of living, breathing people. And in an age when you can download videos and music at a moment’s notice on a whim, the live experience becomes ever more valuable and important. My friend Pat asked, “What’s fun about sucking?” Well, of course the answer is, “Nothing much.” My problem is, I’m just not very good. Nobody’s ever going to pay significant money to hear me play anything, anywhere. Just the same, I’m committed to making music. I know I suck, but, I try to always have fun, even when I’m by myself. (Maybe that’s why I don’t get any better.) Do I enjoy good performances better than bad ones? You bet I do. But I recognize that not every performance is going to be my best, but I can still (sorry Pat) have fun. I have to, because like I said, I pretty much suck all the time.

So basically, what I’m trying to say is, commitment is necessary, talent and ability, maybe not so much. What’s probably the most frustrating is somebody with talent and ability who doesn't make the most of it, especially for middle of the road musicians like me who are counting on them to cover for me a little, and especially when the talented musician is 19 years old and doesn't understand or appreciate what he’s missing if he or she gives up music for the wrong reason. If you are committed to making the musical experience of you, your band, and the audience the best it can be, bad notes are forgivable and you can mistakes all day long. I’m still going to ask you why you didn't practice a little longer the week before the gig, but we’ll all be better off for the experience than if we’d passed on it altogether.

And if Pat and Nooj ever want to play some jazz (Pat is punk/grunge, Nooj is rock) with me, I’ll hold up my end if they just don’t ask too much. I know we’d have fun, no matter what.

Yep. No way that was going to be a Facebook comment.