Sunday, November 30, 2014

November’s over. Here comes my month!

Although I am not particularly looking forward to turning 51 in a couple of weeks (something about being exactly a half century old that I like), I have a lot to look forward to this month. Thanks to a quirk in the calendar, not only do I have five piano lessons this month, I get paid three times, too. As the year is winding down, I’m taking off more time to use up vacation, and of course, working in automotive means year end shutdown from December 23 through January 4. (January 5 will suck, but that's next month.) That’s not all though.

What I’ll be doing with some of those days off is spending a lot of time in Nashville, starting Friday December 5 to see Manhattan Transfer. The founder of the group may have passed away, but the show must go on. I’m looking forward to seeing this renowned group for the first time. Less than a week after that will be Tony Bennett, and we are going to catch both his shows. For the second show on December 12, we’ll be up in a loge box (right above the stage) for the first time. That will be a good experience because by comparing the two shows, I’ll get to learn a little about performance nuances from one of the greatest performers of our time.

That's front row center, front row center, stage side loge front row. It pays to be a patron of the arts!
October was a nasty month, but November was better. Now comes the best month of the year. I’m so damn happy I might even put up some Christmas lights, just for the heck of it. We can certainly decorate the inside of the house because then, I can listen to my big band Christmas CD’s while doing it.

Haul out the holly, it’s going to be a jazzy December (as always).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

As the Crow flies through jazz: a review of a great book about a jazz life

It's hard to find good books about jazz. This isn't because people who write about jazz are not decent writers, it's because there just aren't a lot of books about jazz is all. One that I came across thanks to Mrs. S recommending it on the strength of her favorite author, Haruki Murakami, writing about it, was From Birdland to Broadway by Bill Crow. It's an unexpected joy. Here's what I wrote about it in my review of the book on Amazon:

A glimpse at the time when jazz came of age 
 Bill Crow is one of those rare musicians who spent the better part of forty years skating through the background of the jazz music industry. A workman like musician who played everything from a Jew’s harp to a valve trombone to a double bass to a Fender bass to a tuba, he also played with luminaries ranging from Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk to Marian McPartland, Zoot Sims, Benny Goodman, Terry Gibbs and a small army of other famous jazz musicians. He approached his music the way he approached life: with his eyes open for opportunity, excitement, and the thrill of something new at any chance he could get. And the best part of it is, he took notes so that he could write up some of the stories and produce a wonderful book like this. 
 I’d never heard of Bill Crow until my wife told me about him after she read a Haruki Murakami book that mentioned Bill Crow’s book. I love reading about jazz and although I’d never heard of Bill Crow, Murakami’s mention is a helluva recommendation. So, I bought this book. Crow’s writing is straightforward and conversational. He doesn't have to set up the scenes other than to explain what he observed, what happened and what he thought, because the characters and situations he writes about are all actual people and highly entertaining situations. (They were, after all, working in the entertainment industry.) Crow’s sense of humor is also impeccable and if you know anything about jazz musicians from the 1940’s to 1980’s, you know that there were more than a few unique characters with more than a few unique outlooks on music in particular and life in general. And to his credit, Crow does not flinch away from some of the seedier and less mass-appealing aspects of the jazz business (like manipulative club owners and rampant drug abuse), but he keeps everything in context so that the reader can really see and feel what making jazz was like once upon a time. 
 I learned a lot reading this book, including that my CD collection includes quite a few works that Mr. Crow played on. (Maybe it’s time I read all my CD liner notes and lineups again.) More to the point, I really enjoyed this book and often would lose track of time as I moved from one story to another. This book was light but informative reading, entertaining, and illuminating. It didn't romanticize those years that are gone and will never come again, but Crow puts enough in this book to allow the reader to romanticize if they want. It’s a great book that is well worth five stars.
Mr. Crow has one or two other books out, so I'll probably pick them up one of these days and read those, too. One thing's for sure, this book makes me want to read more books about jazz, and so, I'm going to do that.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Because you can’t play jazz all the time

Not long ago, I happened across the works of Frederic Burgmuller. I was looking for some piano pieces that would provide me with some direction as far as improving my chops, but I didn’t want anything that would be too much work because I didn't want to spend a lot of time playing something that wasn't jazz. I’m not sure how I “discovered” Burgmuller, but it was exactly what I looking for. Here’s what I said for the benefit of people shopping on Amazon:

Deceptively easy and enjoyable way to improve piano skills

I don’t remember what it was that first led me to discover these pieces. All I remember is, I had downloaded the sheet music to “L’Arabesque” and after about thirty minutes, I was playing it start to finish, not at tempo, but with very few mistakes and a reasonable amount of musicality. (So you know where I’m coming from, I've been playing organ and electronic keyboards since I was twelve (I’m 50 now), but have only been studying piano seriously for seven years, playing mostly jazz.) I took the sheet music to my regular lesson and played it, and my instructor said, that’s excellent, here’s all the stuff you’re doing wrong, and he proceeded to set me straight on playing these classical period etudes. We decided these could be beneficial to my playing, so I bought this book and then began in earnest to learn the pieces. Since then, I've learned about one piece a week. I’m finding them incredibly valuable in filling in a number of gaps in my piano technique that were created in my rush to abandon the organ, flee from church music and dive headlong into piano and jazz.
Sure you can download the lot for free, somewhere, in a goofy font, without correct fingerings, and you'll have to bind it, somehow, after you research the correct order, then pencil in the correct fingerings, then start learning the pieces. Or, you can buy this for five bucks then start learning the pieces. (It was an easy choice for me.)
What makes these pieces so useful is that they are approachable and relatively easy, but they still require diligence and proper attention to execute well. Most of them are played at tempos which I consider to be borderline preposterous, but even at slower tempos, they are musical enough that they can be enjoyed at a slower pace as well. They are all also different from each other in mood and tonality, so the skill sets required to perform any given song is slightly different from piece to piece. Although they are pretty easy, I think most serious students will want to  work on these under the guidance of a piano instructor, because the tendency will always be that because they sound pretty and pretty “complete”, you will think you have it down, but I've found that my instructor can always find one or two things that can be done better or more easily or efficiently, and often enough, he will also find something I’m playing out-and-out incorrectly. Once I've looked at a piece, had my instructor listen and instruct, then spent another week on it, I pretty much have the piece down. I must say that, especially for me (the king of piano books), actually working through a book page by page and being able to play the pieces has been tremendously satisfying. They also provide a good break from playing jazz all the time, and correspondingly, my usual jazz tunes and exercises are better attenuated to my ears after I've played these classical style pieces for a while.

If you are an advanced pianist, I would venture to guess that you've already been through your share of Burgmuller pieces at some point in your learning. If you are, however, a beginner or intermediate player who hasn't yet set about practicing and playing these pieces, I recommend you give them a try and it’s worth five bucks to pick up this book rather than scrounge for them on the Internet. (Internet downloads often do not include the proper fingering, whereas Schirmer’s nearly always does.) The pieces are fun, highly musical, very instructive, and eminently learn-able, and playing these pieces has been one of my best musical experiences in seven years of learning piano. That’s why I give it five stars.

The best thing about these pieces is that they are all self-contained, but if you work through them, they develop different skills that every pianist needs. The other thing is what I mentioned in my review: they function well as nifty little songs and they dispel boredom, unlike drills and some other etudes. My playing has noticeably improved since I started working with Burgmuller, and I enjoy the twenty or thirty minutes I spend every day playing these song. For five bucks, this book is a bargain at twice the price.

Next: A look at another book on jazz in general, From Birdland to Broadway.