Thursday, August 28, 2014

LA session wrap-up

That's me, Geoff Keezer, Kirk Ross, and Larry Steen.
Last week's LA recording session was interesting, fun, and unusual. The artist was my old friend, band mate, room mate, and compatriot, the songwriter Kirk Ross. The other musicians were Geoffrey Keezer, a very famous, world-class pianist who attended Berklee with Kirk, and Larry Steen, a working LA bassist. The engineer was Dave Bianco, who has done a ton of big stuff, including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, AC/DC.

We had one long rehearsal with just Kirk, bass, and drums, on a Monday— imitating studio conditions, with drums isolated, with click, and everyone monitoring through headphones— and then recorded on Tuesday. In a fairly whirlwind session, we recorded the eight tunes for his new album in about six hours, including lunch. Kirk is also a drummer, and had my drum parts completely written out, fills and everything, and I mostly ended up just playing the ink. He was specific about not wanting more than was on the page— though a couple of times I got the feeling he did want more; with another day of rehearsing or recording, I could've sussed that out that fine line a little better. As expected, we used a click track so he could mix and match takes later, if necessary.

All in all, it was a very artificial way for me to record. With such great players in the room, I would've preferred to just play the tracks live, like good session musicians, just listening to each other and creating our own parts. But pop music is not really made out of natural ensemble performances any more, I guess. I think ideally, for this session, Kirk should've had his scratch vocals and guitar pre-recorded, which would have freed him up to just produce the session, and we could've done some partial takes punching in things that could've worked better, or played a few sections in more open ways, to give him some extra options in post-production. As it was, we were able to at least semi-blindly track the written parts, and get two usable takes of each song. We did get to do a little blowing at the end of a couple of the tunes— there's little chance of those parts making it onto the finished album, but it was fun to get to play a little bit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


In some ways I feel I'm watching (and contributing to) the death of the familiar jazz ride cymbal pattern as a musical thing, for a lot of reasons, but partly as the result of a whole lot of practice room abuse by uncommitted players. Lots of drummers are working on it, but very few of them are even listening to much actual jazz music, let alone making music with it. It's becoming just an obligatory drummer-thing, and we're starting to see people feeling free to invent their own stylized way of playing it, and making their own totally wrong pronouncements about it, seemingly without fear of being corrected by actual jazz musicians.

So I have mixed feelings about going further with the theory of it in an open setting like this. I don't really want to teach non-jazz musician teachers how to fake out their students better. But for all the people of noble purpose out there, this is one I've been working on for awhile:

The way I learned all my basic jazz coordination was through brute force; my teacher pointed me at some pages of Reed or Chapin, said “learn that”, and cut me loose to go figure it out how to play them. I didn't have any kind of system for doing that, so I just kept hacking away at them until I got it. There may be benefits to doing it that way, but it left me susceptible to weak spots in my playing— certain little coordinational things I learned well enough to get through the page, but not really well enough to be able to use in real playing.

To remedy that, in my own teaching, I want to have absolute clarity on all the little internals of the idea, and came up with my “kernel” theory of practice, in which you isolate clusters of notes, and coordinate around them. With jazz, that means using a single time through the basic unit of the pattern, “2, &-3” (or “4, &-1”, if you prefer):

Now, I don't like the idea of giving everything in music a name— I think it's orthodoxy-creating— but I've also wasted a lot of time and confused a lot of students calling the above thing “the 2, &-3”, or “the ding-da-ding”, and I wanted an easier way to refer to it as a discrete entity. Kind of like the tresillo in Salsa music. Tresillo means triplet, and refers to the three notes on the “3” side of clave. The middle note of the jazz pattern is sometimes called the skip note, so it only took a minute for my little rat-brain to come up with the word skiplet.


Stupid? Yes, it's stupid, but I can't be bothered with that. Jazz theory is full of made-up shit. Just be aware that it's something I made up, and if go into your next lesson with Billy Hart and say “skiplet”, he'll probably either laugh in your face or throw you out, maybe both. Soon we'll break this down a little further, looking at how you handle Chapin from a skiplet-oriented perspective...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

VOQOTD: Harrison Ford

A couple of more travel days before I can get back to regular posting, but here's something shared by Alex Emanuel, a New York actor currently performing in Stew Stewart's play Family Album, along with my partner Casey Scott:

There is no way into acting; it's impossible. I knew that from the beginning. It's statistically impossible to make a living as an actor. You have to love it, and even your love for it is not going to make it happen. What is going to make it happen is luck and tenacity. I never made a living until I was 35 years old. I came out here when I was 24. But one thing I knew and recognized was that people all around me were giving up and going home. I just, quietly, never gave up.

- Harrison Ford

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Continued light posting

Looking at a fairly busy week here, so you'll likely see very little of me: heading to LA this morning, to make a record with songwriter Kirk Ross, my old friend, along with pianist Geoffrey Keezer, and bassist Larry Steen. Then back in Portland for 48 hours for a rehearsal and gig with my own group (if you're in PDX: Friday, Aug. 22 @ Camellia Lounge, 8pm), playing music from my new CD, Travelogue. Then up at dawn the next day to fly to Ashland, Oregon, to see my girlfriend, Casey Scott, who has been acting and playing bass in Stew Stewart's new play, Family Album, which will be finishing up its first run at the end of the month. I will have a day to run around LA taking photos with my newly-refurbished Yashica D medium format camera, so hopefully I'll have some cool pictures to share at the end, as well as some notes about the session.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Transcription: Jeff Watts — Upper Manhattan Medical Group

Here is Jeff Watts's 32-bar solo on Upper Manhattan Medical Group, from Branford Marsalis's album Trio Jeepy. It's a sign of the times that Watts, a virtuoso himself, comes off as kind of un-technical compared to a lot of things you hear today. And his sound has a lot of weight, compared to the often trebly, hyperactive-sounding, newer breed of players. There's some real bass in there.

The 8th notes swing, but there are a couple spots where he straightens them out a bit; we're at a tempo where the difference is fairly subtle. He uses three different crash cymbals, and at least three tom toms, but I've notated the toms as either high or low, except in one spot where he's obviously playing three toms in the course of one lick; otherwise the difference between them is not significant for the purposes of the transcription.

The audio isn't available on YouTube, and I don't have time to make a video right now, so if you don't already own the record, you'll have to either buy the track, or buy the album. Buy the album.

Get the pdf

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Daily best music in the world: tracks that used to get me in trouble

Here are a couple of things I was listening to when I was at USC, which used to get me in trouble with some of the other students, for playing too... aggressively, let's say. One bass clarinet player really hated my playing— I did two rehearsals in a row with him one time, and between sessions he started complaining loudly about the drummer he just played with— me— spacing out on the fact that I was still in the room and was standing right there. I'm curious whatever happened to that guy. He was probably not wrong; my playing (and personality) were in kind of an obnoxious state, and I think there was a consensus that my playing was very undeveloped, but that I had a lot of intensity that the other players wished they had. I don't think a lot of them had a real urgent need to express anything in particular.  

Anyway, I was listening to nothing but the kind of thing that really get you excited to kick some weak-tea musician ass. Like this: Roy Haynes playing with McCoy Tyner on a late-80s John Coltrane tribute album. Bob Thiele, who produced the album, was apparently really getting off on the bass drum that day, because it's way up there in the mix:

Then Afro Blue, from Coltrane's own Live At Birdland. I used to listen to this before every combo and big band rehearsal, and as a result probably overplayed my cymbal a bit.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Page o' coordination: 5/4 with tie across the barline

Here's a Page o'... for getting comfortable handling an accented note tied across the barline in 5/4:

For the sake of clarity, I've written the page without the advertised ties; but you should be thinking of the accented note on the & of beat 5 this way, as a long note:

These are jazz exercises, so swing the 8th notes— you could also play them straight, for a modern/ECM type of feel. When doing that, you can play the triplets as written, or make an equivalent 16th note rhythm out of them. A new thing I've done with this POC is make some small changes in the ostinato; on a few of the exercises I've put in extra bass drum notes, in obvious places— they should be easy to make.

If you have any problem making the ostinato, you can start by playing it without the tie/rest, as follows:

Remember, once you've learned the whole page with your left hand on the snare drum, moving your LH around is a big value-multiplier for these exercises.

Get the pdf

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Groove o' the day: two by Jabo Starks

Here are two grooves by Jabo Starks, played on James Brown's original soundtrack for the movie Black Caesar. As you already know very well, Starks, along with Clyde Stubblefield, is the drummer most responsible for creating the now-classic James Brown groove— crisp-sounding; generally bright tempos; with texture, in the form of ghost notes on the snare drum; often with one of the backbeats displaced. Drummers have really latched on to the ghost notes thing in recent years, but for a long time, until people started sampling James Brown grooves, they were out of fashion; the thing was to play a strong 2 and 4, and nothing else.

First, “The Boss”, which you might also recognize from the movie Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels:

...and I forgot to include a time signature, but I think you can figure out we're in 4/4. As with much of Brown's stuff, there's a very light swing to the 16th notes. He's playing with a light touch here, while being absolutely solid and grooving— I would try to cop that element.

And here's “Make It Good For Yourself”— if you've listened to much 80s and 90s hip hop, this groove should feel very familiar:

It's easy to make too much out of the ghosted notes, especially on beat 4. Jabo's backbeats are absolutely rocking, but not too loud— again, that kind of touch is worth developing.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Sonor Phonics are something else

As I mentioned, I just picked up a Sonor Phonic bop set, which I had been coveting for a couple of years. My overwhelming impression is that this is really the Tiger tank of bop drum sets, not least because they're really, ridiculously heavy, and look it— the floor tom weighs about as much as the 12 and 14 together from the Slingerland Artist Custom set the Sonors replaced. And the Slingerlands are not light drums.

Tuned low, the drums “play” two inches bigger than they are— the bass drum, 4 inches. They feel and sound huge, like driving a very large car. Like Bonham. It's insane. God knows what playing a larger set would be like, but rock-sized Phonics in standard depths can still be gotten pretty cheaply, if anyone is curious— I've seen some pretty ridiculous bargains on those.

In a jazz tuning, they have a lot of presence and clarity, with a very round sound. Very tonal and Dejohnette-like. Like real Gretsch drums (~20+ year old ones, before they started screwing with their formula), the Phonics have a unique sound. I can't put my finger on it, but it's rather 70's, and a definite change from the more contemporary-sounding Slingerlands (still available on eBay for a few more hours!) which have been my main drums for the last five years.

The Eames snare drum sounds great, too. Very refined, different from any other snare drum I've owned. Highly recommend trying their shells if you're building a drum— used prices on complete drums sets are extremely reasonable, too.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Daily best music in the world: brushes

Researching videos for another post, I came across this, by drummer Sebastian Whittaker, who is as good a brush player as anyone, ever:

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Transcription: Funkadelic — Trash A Go Go

More funk. This is Trash A-Go-Go, from Funkadelic's Cosmic Slop album. It's not clear who the drummer is; our man Tiki Fulwood is only credited on one track, and I don't think it's our other favorite P-Funk drummer, Jerome Brailey. Some of the other rhythm section players are listed as playing drums sometimes, and it does sound like it's probably one of them— it's sort of non-drummery.

Almost everything is played at a pretty even, strong, volume level, except for the few big accents. This is another case where the hihat and ride is not accented— just play 16th notes at an even volume. Despite the scary 32nd notes, there's nothing too technical here, and the parts should lay on the drums pretty easily.

Get the pdf

Friday, August 01, 2014

Getting tired of these

Mortality is a real bitch— just in the past couple of days we've lost Idris Muhammad, and Frankie Dunlop. I can't ignore their passing, but I'm no good at just showering superlatives on people, which is usually what's called for here. Dunlop was one of those drummers who will make you work a little bit to figure out why they are so great— he was great in a smaller way than someone like Tony Williams or Jack Dejohnette. If your views and priorities as a musician are out of whack, you could mistake him for a mediocre drummer; so, your response to him can tell you something about your own musical maturity.

I have less history with Muhammad, but he was an exemplar of a different way of playing funk than the alternately hyperactive, formulaic, and harshly forceful style currently in fashion. Seeing him play with Ahmad Jamal in the late 90s, I liked the big, spacious way he handled the tom toms; there was a touch of the funk drummer in it. That's a thing that's missing from a lot of young jazz drummers; they never worked soul gigs, and there's some element of bottom missing from their playing. Idris's recordings are still around, but having the man go away makes him literally less of a living influence, and more of a historical one, which is too bad.