Friday, November 20, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 4

Here it is! --- the fourth and final installment of a mini-series looking into the formative years of professional rhythm section players. The questions were posed by Jules Estrin, a jazz Masters degree candidate at the University of Toronto. Previously, responses by bassist Mike Downes, drummer Ted Warren and me were posted. Now we move onto guitar.

Canadian guitarist, Mike Rud won a JUNO award with his last disc, "Notes On Montreal."  He has a brand new disc entitled "Miniatures," on which he sings in addition to playing guitar. Here's a promo video:

(I attended McGill University at the same time as Mike, and remember him as the slightly disheveled guy who often stayed up all night transcribing Jim Hall or other master guitarists. He was definitely one of the more advanced players in the McGill jazz program during that era, so it was interesting for me to read about his development, prior to his undergraduate studies.)

How did you get started on your primary instrument?

I was playing guitar from age 11. It wasn't through school. It was seeing the Beatles on TV. Also my older brother had one around the house and he played. As Stevie Ray Vaughan said about his older brother Jimmy Vaughan "he would leave it [the guitar] out where I could reach it and tell me not to touch it...he knew what he was doing."

What made you choose your instrument?

I wanted to be popular! Guitar was what the Beatles were playing (at least the ones who sang)

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

Massive. Easily as much as any organized class or lessons, though I also took those (starting guitar lessons at 11, clarinet and jazz big band guitar around grade 8-9). Jamming was part of guitar culture. I did it a lot with my older brother, friends, etc. In that context I could dream.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

Probably George Benson.

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

Grant Green for time. Ed Bickert for chords and comping. Jim Hall for texture, taste, in-the-moment inspiration and compositionality. Wes Montgomery for warmth, blues ingenuity, and swing. Django for cheer.

Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

I had a number of strong teachers early on. They all really inspired me. I went to the library a lot and took out records in many styles.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

Primarily it's feel. Particularly in comping. So many sub-genres of comping need to be mastered. Secondarily it's probably soloing. The better a student gets as a small-group player, the more he or she will understand their role in a big band.

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

CHORDS learn a lot of them. Listen an awful lot.

Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

Listen to the snare drum of great drummers, and the rhythms of pianists. Their comping uses essentially the same rhythms you want to.

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

The rhythm section is different especially for the drums. The guitarist usually needs to play less often and look for a few well-placed chances to provide a nice texture, often behind the soloist. Stay out of the piano's way, but also look for transparent textures that allow you to co-comp effectively with the pianist. You can play a lot less in a big band, and probably should.

Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

Maybe my first jazz guitar teacher Brian Hughes.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Be really patient with guitarists. They have an uphill battle getting the jazz style right. Encourage them by giving them as many solos as possible. Start combos, not just a big band. Herb Ellis' album "Rhythm Willie" is a great place to hear both a great jazz soloist, and Freddie Green, crystal clear. Basie's birthday on Jazz Casual by Ralph Gleason is good video of Freddie. The Art Of Jazz Band Rhythm Guitar by Bruce Foreman is a really useful comping book. Berklee A Modern Method for Guitar Vol 1-3 (Leavitt) are great for learning to read.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

Be a musician first and a guitarist second. Learn to read. Do it every day. Sing everything you play. Everything. Memorize as much as you can about your favorite jazz recordings.


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About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer month

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 3

Here's the third installment of Jules Estrin's questionnaire, which shares insights into the formative years of professional rhythm section players. Today's subject is drummer Ted Warren. Ted is a member of groups led by Mike Murley, Mike Downes, Kieran Overs, and Ted Quinlan. He was the drummer for Rob McConnell's Boss Brass, and can be heard on six of their CDs. I was pleased to have him play on my debut CD, "Schroeder's Tantrum," recorded back in 1996. Ted has a marvelous blog of his own, "Trap'd," where he shares ruminations on teaching, playing, writing, and listening (and also pizza).

How did you get started on your primary instrument?

I took lessons on drums after a year of piano.

What made you choose your instrument?

I saw a young person on TV playing the drums and thought it looked easy. How wrong I was!

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

I spent many hours jamming with other musicians through high school. Sometimes learning songs, sometimes playing “open form” or “free”. This had a huge influence on me and was a big help in developing my playing.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

I can’t remember the first exactly, but I distinctly remember hearing Tony Williams on “Seven Steps To Heaven” and wanting to play something as cool and inventive as that. I’m still working on that!

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

Jimmy Cobb-Time and elegant simplicity

John Bonham- Time and sound

Elvin Jones-Groove and inventiveness

Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

I did study with a teacher for 5 years between the ages of 10 and 15. I didn’t really get so much technically from him as much as an attitude and openness about playing.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

I see my instrument’s primary as keeping time and groove, but also signifying major events in any particular piece. Another role that’s just as important and harder to quantify is how the drums contribute to the overall spirit of a band more than any other instrument.

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

Rudiments, reading, playing to recordings, and learning to play brushes

Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

Drums encapsulate all the roles of the of the rhythm section. The ride cymbal is similar to the bass line, comping on the snare and bass drum relates to what the piano is doing, and the hi-hat does what guitar initially did.

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

The rhythm section in a big band MUST function as a unit, even when it seems at odds with what the horns may be doing. In a small band, there is a lot more room to switch roles around.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Try to include lots of audio examples to give young players things to strive towards.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

Learn your rudiments.



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About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer month

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 2

Understanding the idiosyncrasies of the rhythm section can be a challenge for many jazz educators, especially if their main instrument isn't within the rhythm section.  Toronto-based trombonist, Jules Estrin composed a questionnaire which he issued to a group of professional rhythm section players to shed some light onto their formative years.

Bassist Mike Downes' responses are posted below. Mike is the author of "The Jazz Bass Line Book," published by Advance Music. He has been the Bass Department Head at Humber College in Toronto since 2000.  His CD, "Ripple Effect" won a JUNO award in 2014.  Here's a sample of his playing with Molly Johnson:



How did you get started on your primary instrument?

I began with banjo and piano lessons and took bass lessons from my father, who played and owned a bass.

What made you choose your instrument?

I quickly realized that I loved the bass. I gravitated to listening to bass players on recordings, and learning bass lines from those recordings.

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

I played trombone through school and studied piano but I also played electric bass. I spent a lot of time playing in rock bands as a young musician (I started playing in these bands at age 10). Playing with other people is the primary way I learned about music and learned how to listen and make music collectively. Also, I saw the way my friends and band members were learning their instruments and that influenced me a lot.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

The first player that really made an impression on me was Geddy Lee from Rush. Before I got into jazz, I was influenced by progressive rock bands like Yes, Rush, etc., so Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and other rock bassists were a big influence. They played bass lines that were quite complex and musical. That led me to other great electric players like Jeff Berlin and Jaco Pastorius. Even before that, my father was playing jazz recordings with bassists like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. I listened to all of them. This is a bit more than you asked for, but all of them made a big impression on me.

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

In the jazz world, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden are a few of the bassists that one should listen to and try to emulate.

Ray Brown - played with an incredibly powerful, even and dynamic sound and has one of the greatest time feels ever. He is on thousands of recordings, but Night Train and We Get Requests with the Oscar Peterson Trio are two incredible ones.

Paul Chambers - Paul had a great sound and feel and played beautifully supportive walking lines. He soloed pizzicato and arco and his solos are a model of bop bass playing. Any of his recordings with Miles Davis (Milestones and Round about Midnight are both great) are worth checking out.

Scott LaFaro - is known primarily for his work with Bill Evans, although he is on many other great recordings. Listen to how he created an interactive dialogue with Bill and Paul Motian. He revolutionized the role of the bass, playing bass lines that were melodic and interesting on their own while still supportive. He was also a great soloist. Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Explorations and Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans Trio) are all fantastic recordings.

Charlie Haden - Charlie's depth of tone, time and note choices in his walking lines are inspiring. His playing on Don Cherry's Art Deco and Pat Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky are great examples.

Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

Resources then and resources now are very different. YouTube and iTunes didn't exist when I was young, so I had to buy (and wait for) recordings through record stores. I also studied with various teachers in Winnipeg, where I grew up. I also listened to the radio quite a bit.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

The primary role of a bassist is to provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. The bass "voice" is also a secondary melody below the other melody or melodies sounding at a given time. Outlining the form is a by-product of the harmonic foundation.

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

Learn to produce a great sound with the least effort possible, learn to listen to bass lines as a part of the musical whole, learn how to outline harmony with walking bass lines and just generally learn how to play the instrument with a consistent and even tone.

Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

There are many, but the bass/ride cymbal relationship is very important. Listen to recordings and focus in on how the bass and ride cymbal interact. Where are they playing in relation to the pulse? Next, since the bass provides the harmonic foundation, the relationship with guitar or piano (comping instruments) is also very important. What notes does the bassist play to outline the harmony at any given moment? What happens when the bassist does or doesn't play the root of the harmony?

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

That depends on the style of music one is playing. Typically, the small band would provide a more "open" environment where everyone can be "looser" with their roles, but that is not always the case. Some big bands provide more freedom to rhythm section players than certain types of small bands. So.... if the music is highly arranged with specific parts in either sized band, then your role is defined by the arrangement. If the part is more improvised, you have the freedom to choose whatever approach you feel best serves the music.

Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

My middle school and high school teachers were both influential. My middle school teacher was Elaine Marks, who was very encouraging, and gave me a lot of feature trombone parts and solos. Jim McKay was my high school teacher, and he gave me the opportunity to play both bass and trombone, to study arranging and write big band charts for the school band.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Bass, and in particular acoustic bass, is a physical instrument that demands specialized attention. Unless this is a music teacher's main instrument, I would recommend that they help students find a private instructor. I would also recommend that teachers seek out books on the subject. There are many excellent books on bass line construction, etc. that will give them at least a working knowledge of how bass players think. Teachers can't be expected to be specialists in everything, so there is nothing wrong with asking for professional help.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

Get a private instructor as soon as possible. Bad habits are difficult to break, so it is a good idea to establish good habits right away. Don't rely on YouTube and other online sources exclusively. They may or may not be giving good advice. Find someone you respect and ask lots of questions.

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About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator

Monday, November 9, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 1

As part of his Masters degree thesis (focusing on jazz pedagogy and conducting), my good friend Jules Estrin asked me to complete the following questionnaire reflecting on my start as a jazz rhythm section player.  He posed the same questions to bassist Mike Downes, drummer Ted Warren and guitarist Mike Rud. I asked permission to post all of their responses here, to serve as a resource for jazz educators and students, and they all agreed.  Today I'll start with my responses, and continue the series throughout this week.

How did you get started on your primary instrument?

In high school I switched to the piano after taking about 10 years of lessons on the electronic organ. There seemed to be far more opportunities to play pianos than the organ. I started classical piano lessons at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts and joined the school jazz band in the same year. As a teenager, I really admired the piano playing skills of Gary Varty, a blind pianist who played at my church. My intrigue with how he embellished hymns was definitely a factor in my wanting to play piano.

What made you choose your instrument?

I wanted to be a guitar player, but Santa never brought me the 6-string electric guitar I requested. My hero at the time was Elvis Presley. My dad liked building Heathkit electronics projects and he built an organ. My parents enrolled me in group organ lessons in a church basement at age 5 or 6. In middle school I chose the French horn so I could sit beside a pretty girl. I wish I had stuck with it; if I had, maybe I’d now be listed in DownBeat critics/readers’ polls in the miscellaneous instrument category.

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

In high school I started playing keyboards in rock bands. During one of our rehearsals, the drummer’s dad (Mr. Mirochnick) came downstairs with some Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson LPs and played them for us. He encouraged us to try playing in that style, and oddly enough, we did. The group that started out as a rock band named “The Camels,” ended up playing in the jazz combo division of Winnipeg’s Optimist Music Festival that year (1985). We played Pat Metheny’s “Phase Dance” and Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” (although we called it “the Dinosaur Blues” because we didn’t know any better). Both pieces were learned by ear. Gordon Foote was our adjudicator and he HATED us. He told us to go on the road as a blues band and forget about jazz. Maybe I should have listened to him.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

Lyle Mays with the Pat Metheny Group. I transcribed the tune “Phase Dance” and learned to play along with Lyle Mays’ solo, note-for-note.

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

Unless really pressed for names, I like for students to transcribe whatever they enjoy listening to. If someone were to start with Snarky Puppy synth solos, I would be fine with that. For jazz to continue evolving in a healthy, natural manner, perhaps students should transcribe current stuff. Many of my younger students seem to have a decent handle on what’s currently hip. If they’re clueless, of course I will step in and make recommendations. But, they will probably progress at a faster rate, if they’re truly passionate about the stuff they are copying.

When I was a McGill music student, my piano teacher, Fred Henke told me to transcribe Bud Powell, even though at the time I was listening to groups like Pat Metheny and Oregon. I wonder what I would sound like today if my teacher were flexible enough to embrace my youthful interests, rather than pushing bebop. I’m not resentful --- just curious.

Personally, I transcribed most of the major names in jazz piano. I focused on one person at a time for 3 to 6 months, learning numerous solos for each of them. Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Barry Harris, Count Basie, Gene Harris, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, etc. Again, I’m not sure if I would advise this. I think I sound like the generic college-educated jazz pianist. If the goal in jazz is to ultimately sound individualistic, maybe we shouldn’t all be copying the same people. If the goal is to play a big band chart in the style of Duke Ellington, by all means, transcribe Duke Ellington.

I also studied the 'comping' of quite a few pianists --- Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock especially. At first I’d just write out the rhythms they played and would clap along with the recording. Later I got more adept at identifying the chords they played.


Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?


I found a few jazz books in my high school band room, and also picked up a few at St. John’s Music store in Winnipeg. I remember devouring Frank Mantooth’s book “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.  I even got Frank to sign it when he adjudicated my high school band, and he got a kick out of how excited I was to meet him when I asked him for his autograph.

During the summers I took a few lessons with George Laks, who is now Lenny Kravitz’s keyboard player. George grew up in my neighborhood and was a few years older than me. At that time he was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and would come home to visit his mom. He taught me about chord voicings mostly.

Before preparing audition tapes for university music schools, I had a lesson with Ron Paley. He showed me what scales worked with the chords in the required audition tunes. This was a major revelation to me.

My biggest resource was a used record store on Corydon Ave. Many Saturday afternoons were spent going through the record bins and I’d come home with 5 or so LPs at a time.

Today there’s YouTube, which is such an amazing resource. All the major recordings and videos seem to be uploaded in one place. If a young pianist were to stumble upon Hank Jones, for instance, he could look him up, hear a cross-sampling of his playing, and observe his physical approach to playing the instrument.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

Primary role: outlining harmony
Secondary role: rhythmic punctuations
(Soloing would be much lower on the list.)

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

At the risk of appearing self-promoting, I will draw attention to the eight, free, online lessons I have posted on my website: www.earlmacdonald.com. The topics include spelling and labeling chords, left hand shells, and various voicing types. This material should be enough to get any classically-trained high school pianist up and running should he/she want to delve into the world of jazz.

Discuss any special relationships that the instruments in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

Recently I started practicing the drums. ‘Comping’ (accompanimental) rhythms on the snare drum are basically the same as what a pianist plays behind soloists. Playing the drums is making me a better pianist.

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

In a big band, the pianist plays much less than he/she might play within a small ensemble. The harmony is outlined in the horns, so he/she isn’t responsible for laying down the chords. In big bands, I look for “holes” where I can tastefully interject myself. Playing like Count Basie is a very different skill set than playing like Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner or Chick Corea.

The key is listening carefully to recordings in a wide variety of styles and genres, and to focus solely on the piano (or your instrument) to see how they are contributing. I have done the same with bass and drums, to fully grasp the roles of my section mates.

Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

The best thing my high school band director did was give us the freedom to use the band room to jam and listen to records together, unsupervised. Instruments were there, set up and ready to play. There were instructional books for us to borrow. Guest clinicians were sometimes brought in to work with us (including Paul Reed, Kevin Dean, Gordon Foote and numerous local musicians.) Ron Paley’s professional big band was also invited to rehearse in our band room on Thursday afternoons after school. I would sometimes stay late to hear them. If I were to single out someone as an early influence, it would be Ron.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Have a bookshelf with books to loan to interested students. For starters I’d suggest Mark Levine’s “Jazz Piano Book” and “Jazz Theory Book” as well as Frank Mantooth’s “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.

Introduce your students to a wide variety of piano players by playing recordings or YouTube videos. The discographies in the back of Levine’s books are a great place to start if you are looking for lists.

It's important to remember that there are some fundamental differences between what a rhythm section player does when reading a piece of music, compared with their wind-playing counterparts. In a big band, the horns simply try to play what’s on the page as accurately as possible. Rhythm section players, on the other hand, “interpret” the arranger’s cues, drawing upon their recall from recordings. If you don’t believe me, just look at a drum part. If the drummer played exactly what was on the page, the band would be sunk.

As strange as it may sound, I have encountered times when the only appropriate thing to play is that which is not in my part. Some piano parts include cues for what the ensemble will play, as well as bass lines. Neither would be appropriate for the pianist to play (but it helps to know what the other musicians are doing). In instances like these, I think about similar musical situations I have heard on records and try to recall what the pianist did.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

For pianists, I think a strong classical background is beneficial. Get a good teacher.

Devote time daily to scales and technique.

Learn to sight-read.

The more you practice in your youth, the better you will be. As busy as you may feel, know that you will have less time to practice as you grow older. Use your time wisely and log as many hours as you can, working on things you cannot do.

If jazz is your interest, start playing along with recordings, copying what you hear. You might even choose to write it down. This is the secret to getting better fast!

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About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator and artistic director at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival. He is also a devoted husband and the father of three active boys.
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