Paul Klee’sRose Garden
I’ve been a fan of Rick Margitza’s saxophone playing for quite some time – particularly his musical presentation and harmonic ingenuity. I’m fairly certain that during my dissertation proposal defense (the honorable!) Whit Sidener mentioned Rick as a possible musical “visualizer.”
Rick is one of many amazing jazz musicians who spent formative years at the University of Miami, and there are a number of great anecdotes about Rick’s playing and descriptions of synesthesia from some of the Nashville UM grads (there are a number of us working in town).
Rick currently lives in France and we’ve been corresponding via e-mail for awhile about his visual experience while improvising – which involves colors. What follows is Rick’s responses to a general questionnaire I sent him awhile back. I’ll take this opportunity to thank Nashville Studio Pro and all-around great guy Doug Moffett for introducing me to Rick.
If you could, please provide a general description of your visual experience while improvising, specifically how it relates to colors.
“It’s more of a feeling of being enveloped in a color…like being in a room where everything is the same shade. I have very strong colors for most major keys and not that many for minor ones. people with true perfect pitch have very specific colors for every key.”
Do you have absolute pitch? If not, do you visualize in general or visualize colors in concert pitch or transposed for your instrument?
“I have relative pitch and hear/feel everything on the saxophone (in Bb) the colors are related to the keys I’m playing on the sax.”
Most cases of Synesthesia describe key centers as having specific colors, is this your experience? Since jazz often has a number of key modulations or harmonic chromaticism, do you experience specific chord qualities as having unique colors as well?
“Just keys and not chord types.”
Do the pitches you choose to play have specific colors as well? Can those pitches change color based on function (when compared to the chord or key).
“Not really, but say if I’m superimposing one key over the other….say F# major over Bb major, I do see/feel purple over blue.”
Is your visual experience linked to what is being played in time? If so, can you alter it based on what you play or in reaction to what someone else (rhythm section) is playing? For example, can you change the color experience by improvising “outside” or using other musical material?
“Nothing rhythmic…sometimes when superimposing as I said above.”
Do you have any other visual experiences related to notation (seeing what you’re playing notated on staff paper), or rhythm? Can rhythmic aspects have colors too, or is it just melody and harmony?
“None related to notation or rhythm.”
Has there always been a visual component/experience during improvisation or is it something you consciously or unconsciously developed over time. Do you recall the first instance of experience visualization through performing or listening?
“It’s nothing I consciously developed, and I don’t really remember the first time. I have the sense that it’s just always kind of been there.”
Are there any other influencing factors, such as art, or education, that may have influenced your experience?
“I’m sure looking at and loving paintings has some influence, but it’s not like I look at a painting and hear a key. I love the work of Paul Klee and I know that he was very into music. Each color has a certain frequency at which it vibrates and note are also just vibrating frequencies.”
How do you think visualization helps in the improvisational process or getting your musical intent across?
“Not sure it does, except maybe it does on a level where if I’m feeling something very strongly because of the vibration of the key and then what I’m feeling comes through my playing without any thought getting in the way. Then the audience would then be able feel that as well if their mind doesn’t get in the way as well.”
Is the visual experience always present when you improvise, or does it need to be activated by either you or an outside source?
“Always there but definitely, but more on a subconscious level.”
Do you have any specific ideas of how it may relate to traditional music terminology and analysis, specifically melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and formal considerations?
“Not really. Perhaps in terms of form where sections that were contrasting in terms of feeling and mood would also correspond to contrasting colors. Once again I think this is something that would be realized afterwards instead of something deliberately planned…at least in my case.”
Does visualization have an effect on your practice or composition strategies? Is it something you implement or discuss in teaching? Do you think it can be taught at all?
“Not in my practice or composition as stated above and it’s nothing that I use in my teaching. I’m not sure it could be taught.”
I asked Rick in a follow-up question whether he feels and visually experiences a song in its “home key,” even if it has typical harmonic movement (to the 4, 6 minor, etc.), or if each one of those key centers is experienced as a new color.
“I basically feel everything in the home key. If the bridge or any part of the tune modulates, I do feel a color shift.”
Rick Margitza performing All The Things You Are.
I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent in the care and upkeep of The Super Villain Jazz Blog. The end of 2011 was happily busy from a playing standpoint. I did a number of interesting gigs and sessions and even appeared on the Country Music Christmas Special on ABC. The holiday season was filled with travel and a self-imposed break from writing.
January is typically very slow for musicians, and it held true for me this year. I took the time to write (music) for a few new projects, including the first ever Nashville Trumpet Summit, which I hosted at the end of February at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. I also took the opportunity to have some long-needed repairs done to my main horn (a very old New York Bach Bb trumpet). The added practice time was welcome, particularly on a well-functioning instrument.
March is off to a good start and riding that positive energy, I’ve compiled a number of topics to write about in the coming weeks. On February 10th, the Nashville Jazz Orchestra held our first official concert of the 2012 season at Vanderbilt with saxophonist Bob Mintzer, which was a wonderful experience. Bob’s music presented unique challenges, and I was thoroughly impressed by the focus, musicality, and nuance that the band played with. Of course, Bob played beautifully and was a joy to work with and I hope our paths cross again in the future.
I have a few new interviews in the works, including a new take on synesthesia from saxophonist Rick Margitza, and my own personal research into the drumming and visual experience of Elvin Jones.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned…
On the Duffy Jackson Post, I mentioned the concept of a zone around the beat or pulse of a performance. The general idea is that the beat isn’t a fixed specific moment in time, but instead a zone that someone can play within and still be “in the pocket” or “playing the time.” Leaving that “Zone” could be considered dragging, rushing, or purposely playing out-of-time, depending on the context and intent.
At Duffy’s gig (which, by the way, was a blast), some of the audience members who read this blog mentioned an interest in the concept, and particularly how it relates to a horn player who may not be playing “time” for the entire song/performance.
In the context of improvising and certainly in ensemble playing, I think time and feel within the “Zone” is just as important as sound, consistency, intonation, dynamics, nuance, etc. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the “awareness” of the musical situation – be it style of the music or the types of players – should inform where you play within that zone.
In Cuban or Latin music, for example, I find myself really trying to play on the front part of the beat to give the music forward momentum and energy. In Afro-Cuban music, there is often a strong triplet-feel against the feel of the pulse and I notice many horn players tend to relax just a little too much. Additionally, if I’m playing the music of Earth Wind and Fire, or lead with Duffy Jackson’s Band, each of those situations may require a different relationship within the zone. In a micro analysis, it may shift tune-to-tune or from the other players with whom you’re performing.
I remember someone (perhaps Gizzy or Alex Norris) making the analogy of “thinking like a drummer” when you play eighth-note lines while improvising. A great jazz drummer playing time will often accent different parts of the beat on the snare within the steady pulse of the ride-pattern. Great players will do the same thing in accenting their lines, creating a contour and rhythmic dialogue within all the melodic and harmonic information. Just as the rhythm section can create tension and release rhythmically with their relationships in the “Zone,” a wind player can do the same thing in how he/she plays the divisions of the pulse and accents their phrases.
Anyone who has gone through the typical music educational system (as a student or teacher) will likely tell you that a majority of their studies focused on elements related to melody and harmony – at least for non-percussionists. The truth is, time-feel is a much more enigmatic and difficult concept to teach within the conservatory based system, even though it is so integral to a successful performance career.
As I mentioned previously, time is everyone’s responsibility, and just like most things in music, awareness of how you operate within the zone of the pulse can change the character of a performance.
I notice that time awareness is generally great among the professional musicians in Nashville, and I imagine that may stem from a variety of performance situations which require different feels, and also the experience of playing with a “click” in studio situations. This can be a topic of heated debate (practicing with the metronome and whether is is integral to “good time” - I remember Dave Douglas and Jeff Berlin debating the topic on the web months ago), but I imagine that the reinforcement of steady time can only improve your awareness of rhythmic tendencies.
I’ll probably continue this topic more in the future in the context of performance (and perhaps some illustrations of famous groups and their rhythmic relationships), but spatial element of the pulse does remind me of a teaching experience while I was working at Belmont University.
In addition to my responsibilities in the Jazz/Commercial and Theory departments, I also taught a course entitled “Advanced Computer Productions.” The course was effectively technology private lessons for students who had a technology emphasis within their commercial music degrees. Students were responsible for bringing in DAW (digital audio workstation) projects every week. This could include mixing of recordings, film cues, video game music, and programming. We used Logic as the lab was Mac-based.
Due to the number of aspiring indie and country singers in Nashville, “song treatments” are very popular. Students may record a singer performing an original song with guitar or piano and expand and arrange the song for an entire ensemble, most of which will be heavily programmed. As an aside, let me say that from a musically ethical standpoint this was always tricky ground for me to cover. On one hand, this type of programming is a growing development in the commercial music world, and as a teacher I want my students to have the skills necessary to succeed. Adversely, the part of me that now relies on playing to make a living would push very hard to hire live musicians to record or prepare the treatment as a template that live musicians would later record and greatly improve the product.
Quantization is a very handy tool when programming. If effectively takes your rhythmic inconsistencies and moves them to pre-determined nearest rhythmic value. The interesting thing is that when all the programmed instruments were quantized to a fixed point, even with great sample sounds, the music often felt fake and sterile. A big reason is that real musicians understand that the feel and natural energy of the music is dependent on their relationship and tension within the “Zone” and in many cases, actually creates better separation and clarity among instruments. It feels and consequently sounds better.
(“Flex-Time” - who needs a good time feel?)
Logic now has a zone feature within quantizing (I assume other programs do as well) which allows you to set a percentage value around certain rhythmic divisions of the pulse. For example if you program within 20% of the sixteenth-note division, it will keep it there rather than move it to a fixed point. Technology has certainly changed the music industry in a number of ways, but I think that is a heavy topic for another day.
I know that some well-known producers in town purposely use synthetic sounding samples in their treatments and then say, “It will sound much better once we get the real players to record it.” Kudos to them. Ultimately moving within the “Pulse Zone” and flexing around it when playing with others is a very human act tied to the moment and awareness/feel of the individuals performing.
The term “Tension and Release” is used extensively in music analysis and the description of the creative process. Writing the “Wording and Wrong Notes” post, I began to think of presentation and further awareness of how, why, and where tension is created.
Awhile back I covered Tim Hagans’ solo on I Hear A Rhapsody and we discussed the notion of when to use tension and why as an improviser.
When playing over traditional formal and harmonic material (i.e. Standards) there are certain chords and progressions that lend themselves well to creating musical tension and natural spots of resolution within the form of the song. Tim discusses this in the context of a specific solo, covering chord types, phrasing, and presentation.
“One of the things I found interesting is how you resolve these long, outside phrases in a very inside way. If I’m looking at the second page of the transcription – the first A section of the second chorus (sings line) right at the end there, you land on the root again of that F major chord. Are you thinking consciously of creating all this tension, but very deliberately bring it back in these specific spots related to your phrasing and the form of the tune?”
“Exactly, and that’s how I think. Everything is going towards a resolution at some point. There are two things I can say: If you’re always playing out, it becomes boring because the listener and even me as a player, I crave resolution. If you’re always playing inside over the diatonic harmony, and you’re playing what’s expected, that becomes boring too.
It’s a combination of the proper amount of tension and release and on a tune like this, it’s built in where the preparation is on the subdominant chords and the dominant chords, where something needs to happen. You can see how many more notes are available – on a dominant chord, like I said – every note except the major seventh, and why not throw that in too? On a major I chord, the number of acceptable notes to our ears is somewhat limited – so it’s natural to resolve it back to that.
A little anecdote – and this is interesting because you’re also speaking to Brian Lynch – Brian and I, along with Clay Jenkins, we did an audition in 1982 for Horace Silver. I flew out to L.A. to do the audition. I actually stayed with Clay and we went out to do the audition together. I think Barry Ries had just left the band.
As soon as we started, I knew Brian (Lynch) was going to get the gig. I had actually heard him play before at a college jazz festival in the seventies. I knew he was going to get the gig because he’s the perfect trumpet player for that. So the next day, Horace called me and said “Hey I’m going to choose Brian.” And he said, “You know, you have a lot of basic work to do still. It seems like you don’t know what to play over basic ii V ‘s, you’re rambling, and you don’t resolve… You really need to go back and look at basic theory.”
Of course, I was depressed and upset. He was telling me that I didn’t know how to play over changes. I had already recorded records and had all this playing experience as a professional for almost ten years. I thought; well if Horace thinks I don’t know how to play over changes with his ears, I need to re-examine a few things. So I figured out that it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to play, it’s that I wasn’t presenting what I was trying to say in a clear manner – so it just sounded wrong.
I had the ability; based on what I was playing on the V chord, to make the 3rd on a major chord when I landed on it, sound wrong because of what I played before it. What I had to do was figure out the presentation. I was having chop problems at the time – I was going through an embouchure change – so I would play ideas and the ideas would end basically because the wheels fell off. So I decided that I would have to bail on figures if I was in the middle of something and I felt like my chops weren’t going to be able to carry through what I was hearing. I would stop and just get out of it, then start the next phrase. So I made a habit of making sure that I was in control of the ending of my ideas – I was developing a melodic language.
So I ran into Horace later. I did a gig with Bob Mintzer and he actually had an arrangement of “I Hear A Rhapsody”. Horace was in the audience and I went up afterwards to say hello. He had all sorts of compliments, and of course, he didn’t remember me at all. This was ten years later. So I reminded him of his comments after the audition, and he said, “I don’t know what I was thinking”. He couldn’t believe after hearing me play that he had said those things about me, but I told him no, and explained to him what I just told you.
So, it was a great lesson for me - probably a better lesson than actually getting the gig. Well, that’s hard to say, but it made me realize that someone with ears like his, and who’s played with everybody and heard everybody, if he had that comment about me – it made me realize how I sounded to him and that I had to control the endings.
So I play this weird stuff on the top of the third page (of the transcription), and I end it by just playing a triad. That’s a direct result of what he said. You make a speech and you just ramble, so you walk away and wonder did I get my point across or not? Sometimes you make a speech and you nail it and you were able to communicate exactly what you wanted to say. So I decided, even if people didn’t like what I said, I wanted to throw it out there so that they were or weren’t liking exactly what I wanted to say. This solo is a result of that way of thinking.”
The Count Basie Orchestra with Duffy Jackson on Drums.
I’ll be playing this Wednesday night at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, trying to keep up with the energetic rhythmic cyclone that is Duffy Jackson (and his Big Band).
If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have a fond interest in music analysis and topics related to harmony and theory.
However, what makes jazz and music in general so satisfying to be a part of is often the feel of it, the energy and joy in the groove and rhythmic pulse.
Duffy is a special human being and musician, and from the second he counts off the tune and hits the hi-hat, I can’t help but smile at how good it feels. The video above is a great example as Duffy is supplying so much energy and forward momentum in the way he plays.
Playing a wind instrument in a big band can be a real drag with an apathetic or inexperienced drummer. A great drummer like Duffy has a natural sense of leadership AND support, understanding what is needed to energize and contour the band effectively.
Setting up the band is a huge element in big band drumming, and often involves NOT playing the hits, but instead leading the band to them. When done well, it’s as if the music couldn’t possibly be played any differently. You are transcending reading the music and entering a reactive state.
As I’m sure any rhythm section player will tell you, the “beat” of a tune isn’t a point in time, but instead a zone in which one can have different associations with the beat. Great rhythm sections are often defined by the natural tension in which each member plays within that zone. Ron Carter and Tony Williams for example, have a much different relationship within the zone of the pulse than Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, or Ed Blackwell and Ray Brown. Each derives a certain energy and feeling or momentum or rest. Horn players are similar. For example, compare the rhythmic feel differences between Dexter Gordon and Coltrane.
Big Bands can have a tendency to be huge lumbering monsters. “Laying Back” to swing often results in dragging and it takes assertive personalities in a rhythm section to keep everyone honest. I use the term “energy vampire” to describe a big band in which everyone constantly defers the rhythmic responsibility to each other, usually resulting in much slower end tempos than where they started.
I would argue that one of the many rhythmic aspects of the Count Basie Orchestra that is so unique (and often poorly imitated) is the flex and pull of the horn section against the constant energetic pulse of the rhythm section. Good time is everyone’s responsibility, but the tension and awareness of both parties is what makes it so swinging.
Dennis Mackrel, who is a great big band drummer and also a Count Basie alum, did a clinic and concert when I was at the U with the Concert Jazz Band. Dennis compared drumming with a big band to being an airline pilot. For the most part, the plane (at least a good one) flies itself, but occasionally the pilot has to step in and save your life - often without you even knowing it.
If your in Nashville Wednesday night, come out to the cave and catch an amazing drummer, entertainer, and pilot.
There is a really great post on George Colligan’s blog entitled “In Search of the Wrong Notes” that I highly suggest reading. George talks about exploring the “wrong notes” in improvisation over specific chords, getting a feel for how those dissonances sound and how they can be resolved.
Reading this, I was reminded of my conversation with Tim Hagans on his “Emotional Harmonic System” and whether that had any place or use in his educational approach.
“Well, this is what I talk about all the time when I do master classes, workshops, and even private lessons. First of all, I talk about associating what notes feel like on your horn, without any kind of harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic framework. Take a D minor chord and play every note slowly, every note in the Dorian scale. How do you feel emotionally about every one of those notes?
I never really talk about colors, but maybe I should start bringing that up. Tell them that if you start seeing colors, that’s good and let that happen. Because there are so many jazz education materials out there, and a lot of it is scale-based, people are playing those scales up and down and they think that every note in the scale is approved and they can hold it out as a long tone. However, they don’t get specific enough to say when you play an E over a D minor chord how you feel about that note and when would you want to use it? How do you feel about every note in that particular chord scale? Also, you should consider the combinations. When you play the E, what do you hear next in this particular situation? On a D minor that’s part of a ii V into C, what do you hear? How do you use the E when it’s just over D minor (vamp)?
I try to bring out questions that they should ask themselves that perhaps you can’t really answer verbally, but they are good things to observe about your own playing. I think that need to be brought out a lot more. That’s the way I always thought, but I don’t really hear anyone talk about it. I’m sure if you went back and asked these questions to Charlie Parker or Coltrane, they would have different answers, but it would be along the same lines. They are playing from emotion. They are not trying to play “approved” things that are right or wrong, or that will get them through a jury at school. They’re just trying to express themselves. How do you express yourself?”
Years before I started working on my doctorate, I attended a masterclass conducted by Tim and I remember him talking about differentiating between consonance and validity when improvising. His general idea was that playing the 4th on a major chord is a very dissonant sound, but just because it’s dissonant doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. There may be an emotional or constructional reason for playing it. As a young player, hearing him say this was a big deal. I was already an admirer of his playing, but I certainly couldn’t wrap my head around what exactly he was doing from a harmonic standpoint, yet alone an emotional one.
Tying into my previous general thoughts on education, I think it’s important how I both present concepts and choose words as a teacher. For instance, in teaching traditional theory courses, it’s important to avoid using the word “rules.” I know I’ll have some disagreement here, a beginning student needs to know that a rule can be broken once they understand the conceptual (and sound) basis of the rule. Music History is full of great music that broke the previous “rules.” So instead of telling my students to observe the “rules” of parallel fifths and spacing between voices, I may opt to say:
“We will write in the style of four-part Lutheran Chorales for this exercise.”
”Rules… What Rules?”
In teaching improvisation, I find a similar approach is useful – telling my students that certain note-groupings or scales are the most consonant, traditional choices, but also allowing them to try the “wrong notes.” How will they know the wrong-ness of something until they experience it firsthand by implementing it purposefully? As George Colligan eludes to in his post, to purposefully play “wrong” notes, you have to know that they are “wrong” in the first place. I’m sure any of us who improvise have probably heard the saying “You have to know how to play inside before you can play outside.”
The goal should be “awareness,” and ultimately, I believe that awareness defines the difference between a seasoned improviser playing “outside” and an un-experienced player making noise. As players and teachers, we often have a difficult time putting into words the difference, but we know it when we hear it.
A majority of approaches to learning jazz improvisation rely heavily on chord-scale relationships, although that’s only a fraction of the story. Where you place the notes rhythmically is just as important, as are elements of time-feel, phrasing, development, and nuance. Admittedly, many of these are hard to teach, especially in a traditional academic setting. I would argue that the challenge for any improviser is to find points and strategies to start hearing “outside,” much like practicing scales and arpeggiations to play inside.
In addition to practicing the “wrong notes” and the feeling of playing them in specific situations, I’ve been practicing (slowly) a concept Jason Palmer mentioned in his interviews, via John McNeil. I also worked on this while studying with Greg Gisbert. I think Greg may have gotten the idea via Bob Brookmeyer as a compositional exercise.
It’s a fairly simple premise – take two intervals that don’t equal an octave and maintain those intervals to create melodies/lines. The pitches are constant, but the octaves can be altered based on playability or to create a particular melodic shape (note groupings, direction, etc).
Here’s a simple example, with the pattern minor 6th up, minor 3rd down:
Here’s the same formula and pitches with a different register:
There are a few harmonic situations for this particular line, perhaps A7. You’ll notice that the line gets progressively more “outside” before finding an arrival point.
In this exercise you are effectively creating your own patterns. Patterns are very prevalent in jazz improvisation and education, although I don’t often hear people addressing why they work musically.
Our brains are set up to hear Consonance as pleasing. If you’re into some light reading, check out the numerous music psychology/perception studies on newborns reactions to tonal and atonal music. In many cases the musical “layman” can hear dissonance or “wrong notes” effectively. However, the ear is also well-tuned to structure in music. Although there are some harmonic dissonances in this pattern, I argue that the ear/brain observes the maintained structure and hears it as a form of consonance. In other words, the logic and order of the pattern.
In working on the visualization study, the element of “outside” playing came up often and had a corresponding visual experience for each subject. However, each musician had a specific musical context for practicing or hearing the “wrong notes” and subsequently developed a visual experience to match it. Considering this, I believe encouraging the development of a visual connection and strategies for exploring all harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic choices are important. Choose your words and notes wisely!
For anyone out there in the ether that expects a weekly update on the Super Villain Jazz Blog – I apologize for missing an entire week without an update. In my (revitalized) career as a freelance musician and educator, the demands of the trumpet took center stage last week. It was an extremely rewarding time and I’m feeling as fluid and comfortable as ever on the horn, but writing anything other than e-mail responses turned out to be a sorely-missed luxury.
There are a few challenges in writing for this project, the most obvious being content. I’ve made a concerted effort to make this blog strictly about music. My friend (and fellow trumpeter) Dave Chisholm described this blog as “total music nerd gold,” and it takes a bit of thought and planning to write the “articles” you find here. I typically spend a few days on them, and that often doesn’t include any pre-work, such as transcription or listening.
Firstly, I take Dave’s comment as a great compliment. The truth is, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about music. While a thorough understanding of music is no way a requirement of enjoyment, I’ve always had an interest in understanding how things work and taken enjoyment in figuring them out. This includes everything from pieces of music to mechanical objects.
Understanding how you learn is the key to learning.
I imagine my early experience in music was similar to others. My Dad was a former trumpet player and we had a number of old Maynard Ferguson and Al Hirt records around the house. I would play along with them, trying to emulate what I heard. I didn’t really develop music-reading and theory skills until much later, which is interesting, as I feel that those are two elements I really have a handle on now.
Learning jazz in an academic setting was very difficult for me at first. I was like a number of students; knowing a few licks, playing by ear, using the blues scale… I took the requisite jazz improvisation courses and improved – learning language through transcription and plugging in material at the appropriate places. However, I felt I still had a long way to go in sounding authentic – playing in a manner that combined theoretical knowledge with emotion and educated musical choices.
I remember vividly my first lesson with Kevin Bales at the University of North Florida. Kevin and I talked about music, my goals, and Clifford Brown – who I was really listening to heavily at the time and attempting to emulate. He paused for awhile, took out a piece of manuscript paper and started describing the basic structural concepts of how bebop and voice-leading works. It may seem like such a minor occurrence – I already knew about enclosures and delayed resolutions – but it was a light bulb moment for me. Understanding how the music works was a component of my learning style – it wasn’t enough for me to simply memorize and listen intently.
I had similar experiences working with Keith Javors and Bunky Green, and later a number of teachers at the U. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’m convinced now that these moments sparked my desire to teach music. There is so much dogma and protocol in teaching music that people often become bogged down and presume that they’re not cut out for the job. I’m not saying that everyone has what it takes to be a professional musician, but should that always be our primary focus in educating?
I teach at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education of jazz in Nashville, and the support of the local musical community. My Monday night Standards Class is made up of lawyers, business people, and techies, most of whom are older than me and well established in their professional careers. These “students” come to class every week with a desire to play better, listen better, and understand better for the sake of musical enjoyment – it enriches their lives.
In creative music, we lament our shrinking audiences and support. In educating, we should be building our audience and consumers of music. I would argue that as an overall community, we are already good at training musicians. We’ve followed the European Conservatory Model of instrumental Proficiency and Musicianship for a long time now – we’ve got it down. In high school and college band programs, we prepare our students for contests and performances. They learn valuable skills in discipline and team building that will help them be successful in any career. However, what about that overwhelming percentage of high school (and college) music/band students that will not become professional musicians? What about the eighth chair clarinet player that will one day lead their own medical practice? Wouldn’t it be great if they had the opportunity to learn how music works, understanding the logic and beauty of it, one day becoming a valuable supporter and consumer of art?
It may be a selfish premise (teach people to be your audience), but I can’t help but think the future of music is dependent on our ability to reach out and challenge people to learn and understand more thoroughly. We have plenty of great musicians out there (and some bad ones too). What we need are more music consumers. I don’t remember ever discussing the beauty of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in High School band class and maybe that’s a problem.
(“Wait, young musicians spend their time marching in abstract formations with instruments on a grass field?”)
In a round-about way, it returns me to the premise of this blog – my desire to understand musical concepts and share the process of learning with others. When I picked “Visualization and Jazz Improvisation” as my dissertation subject, I knew I was setting myself up for a challenge. It’s a personalized and abstract subject in a style of music that has the same characteristics, and to my knowledge, no one had tried to discuss it in an academic, procedural/perceptional manner. Learning about the subject and thinking about music has positively influenced me as a player, teacher, and writer.
The Hadron Collider
The University of Miami Frost Jazz Sextet - 2008
Matt White - trumpet
Pat Seymour - Alto Saxophone
David Palma - Tenor Saxophone
Angelo Versace - Piano
Gary Thomas - Bass
Daniel Susnjar - Drums
I don’t remember whether we recorded this in Foster or the Weeks Studio, although I do know that I mixed this particular session. I think it’s a very strong performance, although like anything a few years old, I’m hearing things quite differently now.
At the suggestion and example of some friends, I’ve decided to further drag myself into the 21st century by recording my gigs and getting them out into the electronic ether. Stay tuned for some recent performances of old and new material.
I wrote The Hadron Collider in 2008 for the University of Miami Frost Jazz Sextet, which was my final year of pursuing the DMA at the U and my second go-around in this particular ensemble, under the direction of Doug Bickel. Any description of my compositions and any group I lead requires a brief explanation of the Super Villain concept.
One of my closest friends, Will, and I had an ongoing joke about a jazz group made up entirely of Super Villains. Part of the experience of attending any live jazz performance is the announcement of the musicians prior to taking the stage. In our version, an evening at the Blue Note of our twisted imaginations may go something like this:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight you are in for a treat right here at the Blue Note. On Upright Bass, hailing from a Galaxy Far Far Away – Darth Vader. On Drums, Doctor Octopus!”
And so on… This could go on for long periods of time, often culminating in my all-time favorite, Hal 2000 on Scat Vocals.
Thinking back to 2008, there was a fair amount of press concerning the first full experiments by the Large Hadron Collider at the Cern Institute near Geneva. The Collider uses an underground coil of magnets spanning over 25 miles to shoot particles at each other near the speed of light. Some of the theorized by-products of the collisions included dark matter and “extreme black holes.”
I have a general reading interest in physics, so I followed the news closely. There seemed to be delegation of the press that was bordering on hysteria over the supposed negative side-effects from these experiments – most of which I believe were highly improbable if not impossible. In my own twisted musical way, I envisioned the Hadron Collider gaining intelligence (much like Hal) and becoming a menacing, self-aware machine intent on the destruction of our world. In other words, a Super Villain.
From an overall conceptual standpoint, I tried to convey a narrative progression of the Collider warming up, the particles moving towards each other, the aftermath of the collision, and the menacing awakening of the machine – very heady for a jazz small group composition! Musically, I wanted to implement a number of approaches, including some of the non-specific structures I mentioned in the “Infinite Influences” Post, through-composed formal structure, and linear writing for the three-horn front-line.
The first component of The Hadron Collider is the ground rhythm on Pedal C in the bass. The ground rhythm is from Africa and the “three” component of the Clave. It’s fairly common in pedal-type tunes as it creates a lot of forward momentum and I like the “pushing” rhythmic sensation of accenting beat four.
For the Horn Statements against the rhythmic vamp, I wanted to experiment with super-imposed shapes that create a shift of brightness-darkness over the C pedal (a very Ron Miller-esque approach). Although I’ve written some Chord Symbols in the examples, not every structure necessarily illustrates a specific sound in terms of tertiary harmony. I was more concerned with writing three individual lines that suggested specific modal sounds at certain locations. A great example is the opening line with the Abmaj7(#11)/C moving to the E/C. You’ll notice that I actually double the Eb in the second measure, mostly because I wanted the individual voice-leading of the Eb moving down to the D in the bottom voice (tenor sax). I also tried to create some contrary movement in the two lower voices, ending on a very clear triad to outline the Augmented sound of the E/C.
The Next Phrase is similar, outlining Eb/C and Fmin/C before landing on a C triad. Again, I was more interested in the movement of the individual lines and subsequent intervallic structures.
To create a break from the C pedal, the next horn interjection shifts up to a Dbmaj7(#11) with the rhythmic tension of half-note triplets (which will come up later) briefly before resolving back to C. The alto sax improves over pads in the next section, all of which are the implied chords heard previously over the C pedal – Abmaj7(#11)/C – Eb/C – Db/C – Gb/C – and C.
In the “A” section, the trumpet and alto perform a fairly intervallic eighth note melody derived from F minor pentatonic. There are no chord changes for the rhythm section. Instead I used the open 5th of the C-G (implied in the introduction) as the “chordal” structure. In other words, a C5 power chord. The Bass and Left-Hand Piano are also playing open fifths, but in an ascending chromatic movement of C, Db, D, Eb, F, Ab, and G.
Since the C5 over G5 is so open and implying a sus type of chord, it ultimately resolves to G7(b9) to end the phrase. Each of the structures is implying a harmonic function, but the intent is really the sonority of the sound.
The “bridge” is the resting point, and I opted for more traditional approach here, using traditional chord symbols in conjunction with less density and volume. The saxes have more of a “pad” role in the first half before moving to the complementary linear role. The chord progression is Eb – D7alt. – Bb7sus – C/Ab – Amin7 – Db69 – C7sus – C7.
My score direction on the Interlude section says “Angry and Loose.” I re-used the first four measures of the A section as a very evil and menacing ascending vamp, but this time with every structure lasting only 1 measure instead of 2. The melody is absolutely linear and chromatic. I recall just composing three individual lines that wouldn’t cross, with no attention to a chord progression or tonality. I think it’s effective in conveying the self-aware and menacing nature of the Robotic Super Villain.
That now leads me to the solos, and the end of a very lengthy and challenging post. I’ll pick up the rest of the tune based on feedback and interest in this type of discussion.
During the course of my interviews for the visualization research, each of the “subjects” mentioned the challenge of describing their music and analyzing it. It’s very difficult to do so, and accurately convey your thought process and musical intent, as I found out in working on this post. Although we may develop plans and approaches as composers and improvisers, we can’t truly account for all the contributing factors, or always describe what creates inspiration. What we can do is utilize all the technical, historical, and situational information to create and convey something personal. Ultimately, it reminds me of the language comparisons that are so prevalent in the discussion of music, and specifically the words of Tim Hagans:
“If we go back to language – language is very limited. The point of language is to describe, in art anyway and literature, human emotion. It’s to tell a story, but the story sometimes is just there because you need to tell some kind of story, it’s really about decisions, emotions, and how people interact.
With language they say that French and Russian are the most descriptive languages to use as an author, but they’re still very limited. If you think of the whole spectrum of human emotion, and you try to describe that in language, forget it. That’s the point of being an author or playwright, using language to TRY to describe the human existence.”
Update: As I’ve been editing and tweaking this post, I read a report today that experiments at Cern with the Hadron Collider may have yielded discovery of neutrinos that travel faster than the speed of light. Teleporting Neutrinos sounds like a great tune title.