Tag Archives: jazz

Improvisation Workshop!

The illustrious young saxophonist Kevin Sun (he of the great blog “A Horizontal Search”) and I are giving an improvisation workshop at Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ this Thursday afternoon at 5:30 PM. It’s geared toward members of the high school’s jazz program, but any interested musicians are welcome to come! We’ll be attempting to take the fright and mystery out of improvisation, a subject that usually takes a back seat in school big band rehearsals to issues of rhythmic interpretation, blend, balance, all that stuff. Whether you’re an experienced improviser or a someone who’s new to jazz, you’ll be sure to get some great stuff out of it.

Check out the Facebook event listing at here! And to get you thinking about the process of improvisation in the mean time, check out these 10 illuminating thoughts about improvising from drumming/composing/improvising master Bobby Previte.

ImageYay improv!




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Kids Tapping at My Glass: The wonderful, dark children’s music on “My Life is Bold”

What makes a particular book a work of children’s literature? Is it the subject matter? The writing style? The ages of the protagonists? For every “Poky Little Puppy” or “Cat in the Hat” that unquestionably seems to fit the characterization of children’s literature, there’s an “Alice in Wonderland” where the main character wanders alone through a mysterious land, meeting hookah-smoking caterpillars on the way. While most American adults believe that works of children’s literature never deal with dark and difficult issues like illness, injustice, and mortality,¹ many of the best-known works of children’s fiction do not shy away from them. Sara Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess must overcome the death of her beloved father and a descent into poverty to retain her inner goodness. Death and struggle against inner demons constantly hang over every moment of the Harry Potter series, and then there is the Hunger Games (nuff said about that one).

So what then about children’s music? While the biggest hits like Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” and that tinkling theme to “Elmo’s World” are radiant orbs of pure positive energy, there are more than a few children’s classics that probe deeper emotional territory. There’s “Day is Done,” that intimate moment of parental consoling by Peter, Paul & Mary; “Bein’ Green,” Joe Raposo’s infinitely elegant take on prejudice and identity; “Bye Bye Dodo” and “Muhheakunnuk,” Tom Chapin’s moving ballads of environmental decay. These artful songs effectively translate hard emotional truths into a direct language for children to understand, without whitewashing those issues’ inherent complexities.

However, these childrens’ songs don’t reach the depth, darkness, and beauty of the songs on “My Life is Bold,” a benefit compilation for North Carolina’s Arts for Life organization. Arts for Life works in various North Carolina hospitals, teaching art, music, and writing to seriously ill children. All of the lyrics on the album were written by children in the Arts for Life program (all between the ages of 6 and 19), many of the lyrics dealing head-on with the struggles of illness (this is probably the first kid’s album where the word chemo is used not once but twice). These lyrics were then set to music by the jazz/folk/whateveryounameit singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, her father William, her brother Bill, and many of their musical friends in New York and North Carolina. While one might expect such a combination of richly-crafted, pro-quality music and honest, student-honed words to be woefully uneven, the songs are surprisingly cohesive and expressively potent.

Importantly, all of the singers and songwriters on the album treat the lyrical material extremely seriously. While at first it may sound peculiar to hear singer Rebecca Martin croon about Lego Bionicles in her rusted alto on “Michael’s Mind,” she delivers the lines with total conviction, making more poignant lines like “It’s gonna end up in chaos and headaches. That’s what I feel like sometimes,” drop with the weight of an anvil. The sincerity and directness of the lyrics also helps some of the jazz composers on this album temper their penchant for virtuosic complexity in exchange for a new kind of expressivity. Pianist Aaron Parks leaves his prodigious chops at home on “Who am I…?”, instead letting the young author’s similes float unencumbered for the listener to observe from all sides.

While the young writers’ reflections on their own difficulties make for an emotionally searing experience throughout, there are a few spine-tingling moments when the lyrical directness is paired with an uncommon poetic grace. In Becca Stevens’ adaptation of “Trapped Orca in an Aquarium,” the young lyricist named Michael describes his experience of being in the hospital as a wild orca living in captivity, “with kids tapping at my glass.” With the skill of a much more experienced writer, Michael is able to transport the listener to his hospital room, giving the listener an indelible feeling of the uncertainty and pain he faces each day. Armed with just her guitar and a few vocal overdubs, Stevens captures the intensity of the lyrics in her whirlwind performance.

While “My Life is Bold” has the most serious of subject matters, it is by no means a downer of an album. All of the songs are suffused with the hope of recovery, and the power that great music has in soothing even the most scarred souls. “My Life is Bold” is an ideal work of children’s art in that it does not shield children from the pain of life, but allows them to confront it in their own way and learn how to overcome it.

You can buy “Arts for Life: My Life is Bold” at reputable music retailers and directly from Arts for Life at the link below. All proceeds go to the organization. http://keepsake.aflnc.org/product/my-life-is-bold-cd


1. This came from some reputable survey presented by Professor William Gleason on the first day of his class on children’s literature at Princeton University this past February, but due to the illegibility of my notes from that day, I can’t be a good academic writer and tell you exactly what it is. But believe me, I promise it’s legit.

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In Defense of “Crossover”

After posting that last blog post about 5 really cool jazz-classical hybrid albums, there was a little twitter dustup about the use of the term “crossover.” Upon seeing the post, composer and co-founder of New Amersterdam Records Judd Greenstein asked whether jazz people were ok with the term “crossover,” adding that he only uses the term in basketball. Guitarist Joel Harrison (he of the Paul Motian compositions with strings album) seemed to chafe at that characterization as well, adding his own quip about crossing the street without getting hit by a “speeding style.” The dustup seemed to die pretty quickly though, and I didn’t feel the need to open up a bigger conversation about the term.

However, after sitting in on a talk with composer and other co-founder of New Amsterdam Records Sarah Kirkland Snider, the debate about the term resurfaced in my mind. In her insightful presentation, Snider talked about her development as a composer and how one learns to bring all of one’s disparate musical influences to bare. It was fascinating to see how her own music gradually expanded its stylistic reach, culminating in her stunning song cycle “Penelope,” (an album that sits at the top of my iTunes most played list. Also, Ted Poor is a monster). She characterized the New Amsterdam label as a community where composers are free to present music with a full range of influences, but without a sense of “crossover.”

And the bells started going off in my head.

It seems that for Snider, Greenstein, and a lot of the composers and performers in their circles, “crossover” has become a loaded term, similar to how “jazz” has become a loaded term to “BAM” proponents like trumpeter Nicholas Payton. String player/vocalist/composer Caleb Burhans lends some insight into why many contemporary classical artists are uncomfortable with the term “crossover,” saying that, “About ten years ago, we’d probably be called ‘crossover,’ but that means that we’re actually crossing over from something, and I feel that most composers that I’m working with aren’t actually crossing anywhere–they’re just staying true to what they do.” From this, we can gather that reason number 1 that “crossover” is a disliked term because it suggests a musical process that is self-conscious and therefore in some way dishonest, rather than the intense sincerity that Snider, Greenstein, and others prize.

I feel another reason why the term can seem so loaded to many musicians is what kind of music is famously characterized as crossover. You hear “crossover” thrown around with relatively silly acts like the violinist Nigel Kennedy or the Spice-Girls-cum-String-Quartet “Bond,” or even less silly projects like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Since the music of New Amsterdam’s community of composers and performers sounds nothing like these groups and because many groups of this stereotypical “crossover” ilk don’t have a reputation for seriousness, it is logical that they would try to dissociate themselves from the word.

Despite these perfectly acceptable arguments for keeping the term at arms-length, I find that “crossover” can still be a useful descriptor when used in context (making it clear that it’s not just a shorthand for Nigel Kennedy’s music) and that the quest to discourage its usage is problematic.

First, let’s begin with how crossover can be a useful term. Every musician belongs to many different communities. Let’s use guitarist Bryce Dessner for the purposes of this thought experiment. Dessner is part of the Brooklyn Indie Rock community through his band The National and collaborations with singers like Antony Hegarty. He’s also part of the Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam communities, stemming from the communities he was a part of while a student at the Yale School of Music. While all of his musical ideas come from a singular mind, these ideas find their expression in different ways. Some of these expressions work well on a big stage in front of a large, loud crowd. Some work well in a small concert hall with a quiet audience. Some expressions work well in both contexts – they cross over the spacial and social divides associated with different kinds of music. The way that many pieces by Greenstein, Snider, and their peers work in different contexts can be described as crossover.

This inability to be confined by a single performance context is the kind of crossover I was talking about in my previous piece. What made the five groups good examples of jazz/classical crossover projects is how they can work equally well in a more casual club setting (I’ve seen the Kneebody and Joel Harrison projects in this way) or in a more formal concert setting. They’re all examples of music that can stand on its own as a solitary listening experience, or interact with its environment in real time. To be clear, it’s the music that’s crossing over contextual divides, rather than the musicians crossing over arbitrary genre boundaries. I think this is an important distinction that helps divorce “crossover” from its negative associations.

But even if crossover is still an imperfect descriptor, attempting to squash it out can backfire. At its best, the quest to rid contemporary classical music writing of “crossover” is a way for musicians to take control of how their music is described, better mediating the interaction with new listeners. At its worst, it comes off as terribly smug, suggesting that the user of the word doesn’t really know what he or she is listening to. For a group of musicians that has pushed back against the modernist view of musician/listener relations, the New Amsterdam-ites ironically sound like latter day Babbitts – because you call it “crossover” you must not be able to understand the music. I feel that pieces like Greenstein’s “Change” and Snider’s “Penelope” are modern classics, and inspirations for my own writing. Calling it “crossover” or “alt/indie-classical” isn’t going to sap the pieces of their intrinsic strength and beauty.

Describing music is a terribly imperfect science and in a sense, all genre names are bad because they focus on homogenous rather than unique aspects of a piece of music. The only really effective means of classifying one’s own music is to come up with a smart, terse, descriptive phrase – Darcy James Argue’s “steampunk big band” is a prime example. These names, whether artist-sanctioned or not, are just convenient, shorthand ways of telling someone about a piece of music you liked. If someone uses “crossover” or “jazzy” or any other potentially loaded word in the name of sharing good music, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

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Horizontal Travels

Kevin Sun is a beast of a saxophonist and an old friend. He also keeps a blog, one with a much cooler logo than mine. If you head on over there, you can check out some jazz/classical crossover favorites of mine.


Happy reading, and more importantly, happy listening.

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Isn’t it Rich – 5 things jazz folk would love about Sondheim

For the past 3 weeks, I’ve had “Stephen Sondheim on the brain, in the ears, and in the hands.”¹ No, it’s not because I’ve grown sick of all that jazz² in my music library. I’m currently music directing a summer stock production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” in Princeton, New Jersey. For these 3 weeks, just about every waking hour has been filled with triple-time tunes about missed connections, gender stereotypes, and a whole lot of sexual repression. As I am someone who has never been able to sit through an episode of “Glee,” you might expect that music directing a piece of musical theater would drive me mad. But that has fortunately not been the case.

In fact, as a real Sondheim n00b³, the experience has been eye-opening from a musical standpoint. Though Sondheim is best known for his endlessly witty and psychologically probing lyrics, I was struck at how gorgeous and well-crafted the music in “A Little Night Music” is. It’s a pastiche musical – a romp through popular styles of late Victorian Europe – but hardly feels like a cheap imitation of the great European Romantics (no pints of Brahms-Lite here). In fact, the more I played the music in rehearsal, the jazzier it sounded. I mean there’s no swing or anything, but the way that Sondheim constructs each tune in terms of harmony, melody, and form bears striking similarities to some of the best jazz tunesmiths of the modern era. Although Sondheim’s work has gone largely unexplored by jazz musicians (except for “Send in the Clowns” of course), there’s quite a bit for jazz people to eat up, if they listen carefully.

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