Friday, December 11, 2009

Charlie Banacos - farewell to an extraordinary teacher

Charlie Banacos’ passing this week is an immense loss to the jazz community.   He was a valued teacher of many fine players.  Here is a link to his obituary which appeared in the Boston Globe.

Two years ago, I took correspondence lessons with Charlie, for a full year, via cassette tape. Our relationship was unique in that I never met Charlie face to face.  Perhaps because of this, we could be very honest and frank with one another in our taped dialogues.  His candidness was valued and refreshing in both his assessments of my improvisations and in his responses to my stated opinions, questions and challenges.  His initial summary of my playing changed my thinking forever.  He said “You already sound great, BUT when I hear you play it sounds like something that happened 40 years ago.”  Wow! …talk about a wake up call!  He nailed it.  As someone who had spent the past two decades checking out the recorded traditions of bebop and hard bop piano playing, I needed someone to tell me the truth: that it was time to move on, and open my mind and improvisational approach to new possibilities.

Another memorable moment was our exchange regarding Eric Dophy.  I expressed some hesitation when Charlie suggested that I thoroughly examine Eric Dolphy’s linear approach.  His response was again frank: “I realize that you have trouble right now hearing the stuff that Eric Dolphy is doing.  That’s obvious based on the lines that you already play.”  His persistence led me down a very interesting path of discovery.

I grew tremendously through these lessons and had intended to resume study with him this summer.  Unfortunately, that won’t happen.  I hope that at some point his lessons are compiled and published.  He was one of the few teachers under who I have studied that had exhaustive, tested methods.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What my students are doing RIGHT:

Several weeks ago, a YouTube video clip of Branford Marsalis was circulating entitled, "Branford's Take On Students Today".  You can see this clip by clicking here.  Branford is clearly an instigator who likes to stir the pot by taking a strong controversial stance, thereby forcing people to think and respond.  Although there are certainly nuggets of truth in his rant, I don't share the entirely negative viewpoint he has chosen to project.

Lately, my students have genuinely impressed me with their self-initiative.  Here is a short list things I have noticed them doing RIGHT:
  • Every night, a group of 4 or 5 are getting together to learn and review standard jazz repertoire.  When they don't have a complete rhythm section, they use Jamie Aebersold play-a-long CDs.
  • They are listening.  I see them with stacks of CDs they have signed out from the library.  Many are even using the interlibrary loan system to obtain more obscure material that isn't in our university's collection.
  • I hear them talking with one another about recordings; expressing thoughtful, intriguing opinions.
  • They are learning recorded solos.  Some are notating their chosen solos, others are intentionally skipping the step of writing it down.  Either way, they are immersing themselves in the sounds, styles and nuances of the masters.
  • They are making the trek to Hartford (and beyond) to attend concerts and participate in organized jam sessions.

This current crop of students is a truly committed bunch.  Their enthusiasm and love for the music is contagious and our relationship is becoming more and more reciprocal, as I find myself learning from them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Alma - the next Mary Lou Williams or Tina Fey?

I learned last night that my piano student, Alma Macbride won the Mary Lou Williams Contest, sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The contest was for girls aged 15 or younger living in the United States.  She had to submit a DVD performance of herself playing Williams’ “Close to Five” composition.   Her prize is getting to play at Rose Theater with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on Nov. 6 and 7, and receiving a pre-concert coaching from the orchestra’s pianist, Dan Nimmer.

Alma’s father is composer, David Macbride, a professor of composition and theory at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT.  I played the premier of David’s Piano Concerto for solo piano and orchestra last year.  Her mother is the award-winning artist, Lisa Macbride.

Prior to teaching Alma, I taught her brother Jimmy, who now studies drum set with Carl Allen in the Julliard jazz program.  Alma was about 8-years-old when she started with me.  At first I was very reluctant to take her on as a student; primarily because of her age.  Out of respect to her parents I agreed to meet with her once to interview her and hear her play.  I’ll never forget her response when I asked why she wanted to take jazz piano lessons.  With an almost defiant, indignant attitude she responded, “So I don’t sound like an idiot on gigs, after taking a flute solo and then sitting down at the piano to comp.”  The deal was pretty much sealed at that point.

Alma is an interesting character.  I am convinced that she could do pretty much anything she wants in life, with the exception of playing professional basketball.  (I think she's still well under 5 feet tall.)  If Alma wanted to be the next Renee Rosnes, it wouldn’t be a problem for her.  She has the talent, and she knows how to get things done.  For that matter, if she set her mind to becoming the first woman President of the United States, I could see it coming to fruition.  I think she currently aspires to be a comedic actress on Saturday Night Live.  For me, its refreshing to work with a student who has talent, but is also a normal kid, with many different interests.  As I write this, her Facebook status reads: "YANKEES!", rather than "I was selected to play with Wynton Marsalis next month!" (I like that.)

Several months ago, when I saw the Mary Lou Williams competition posted, I knew Alma could be a contender.  I asked myself, “how many kids her age can do what she can do”.  She sight-reads well.  She is a very capable at ‘comping’ (accompanying) through any set of jazz chord changes.  Her improvisation skills are coming along and she is starting to get a decent grasp on the bebop language. She has no trouble transcribing, learning and memorizing a recorded Kenny Barron solo in a two-week period.

The funny thing was, she didn’t want to enter the competition.  It took several conversations and e-mails to her parents before she finally committed to entering.  I worked with her only once on the piece --- the day before it had to be recorded.  We figured out a way for her to mimic the stride piano sound without having to reach 10ths, which she do can’t because of the size of her hands.  When I looked at the music she was asked to prepare, I couldn’t believe the absurdity of them (Jazz at Lincoln Center) asking girls under age 15 to prepare a piece filled with left hand 10ths.  Many of my 21-year-old male students at the university don’t have the hand span to reach tenths.  Whoever chose this piece really should have given some consideration to the hand size of young women!

Coincidentally (or not!), Alma is a freshman at the same high school which produced Brad Mehldau, Joel Frahm, Kris Allen, Pete McGuinness, Richie Barshay, Erica vonKeist and others.

Several people have asked if I plan to attend the concert. I can't imagine not attending Alma's New York debut, and I really look forward to it. A couple of years ago I told her that playing would become a lot more fun after she had finished sweating through the learning of voicings and licks in 12 keys. That day has come: November 6 & 7 --- " Jazz for Young People: Who is Mary Lou Williams?" with host Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, starring Alma Macbride.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Alexandra Eckhardt Concert - Oct. 5th at 8 p.m., von der Mehden Recital Hall

The staff at the von der Mehden Recital Hall put together this podcast to advertise my upcoming concert featuring student bassist, Alex Eckhardt. The show is scheduled for Monday, October 5th at 8 p.m. on the UConn Storrs Campus.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A New Academic Year

Despite the rigors of the first three weeks of the academic year, I find myself feeling surprisingly up beat. In many ways, the hardest part (auditions, assembling student ensembles, establishing rehearsal times, outlining expectations, first rehearsals, etc.) is now behind me. Although the majority of this work was accomplished in the first week, it literally took the entire three-week period for me to find my bearings, and establish the schedule that will be my routine for the next three and a half months.

This coming Monday will be a new beginning of sorts. Now that everything is more or less in place, I can return to practicing the piano and composing / arranging at regular, scheduled times. I have big plans in both areas.

Here are some of the things about which I am most excited for this new academic year:

• The UConn Jazz Ensemble is already beginning to sound like a cohesive unit! I have a terrific roster of students, including the very welcome addition of a strong freshman drummer. I love the charts we are playing, all of which are written by John Mills from the University of Texas at Austin. We have our first concert at the end of the month, and our first off-campus gig on Oct. 8th, playing at a function for 1,000 municipal and business officials.
• We have five solid jazz combos in place this semester: The UConn Jazz Sextet, the Hard Bop Quintet, the Gerry Mulligan “Pianoless” Quartet, a Latin Combo, and by special request of the students, a Dixieland Group!
• the first annual “Earl MacDonald presents” concert, featuring student bassist, Alex Eckhardt is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 5th in von der Mehden recital hall at 8 p.m.
• My jazz arranging class is the largest it has ever been in my 10 years at the university, with seven of my top jazz students enrolled. It is thrilling to see that they are all keenly interested, fully engaged, and posing intelligent questions which have lead to lively class discussions. Every one of them is overtly passionate about jazz, so I anticipate that their work will be first rate. This will be a fun class!
• I have a new administrative role as Associate Department Head and have been enjoying the added responsibilities and challenges.
• My faculty colleagues voted me onto the search committee to select our new Department Head. I am happy to play a role in shaping the future of our music department.
• The upcoming CD release of my jazz orchestra recording project.

I am optimistically regarding this year as a being pivotal. Change, progress and breakthrough seem imminent on numerous fronts.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Drumming Debut!

People (in the know) have been asking about my drumming debut.

Overall I think it went quite well, although I certainly have a long way to go. YouTube videos have been a great resource, especially lessons posted by Tim Metz and Conor Guilfoyle.

For those of you who don't know, I'm now playing drum set during the regular 10AM jazz service at St. Pauls Collegiate Church in Storrs. My friend (and professional saxophonist) Kris Allen has similarly undertaken learning the string bass. Needless to say we are having a blast. Kris' wife, pianist Jen Allen, has been very gracious and patient in tolerating our mid-life tomfoolery. Thanks Jen!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Roy Haynes' 08/20/09 performance at Dizzy's Coca-Cola Club

I caught Roy Haynes' 7:30PM show on August 20th at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, following my CD mastering session. I am extra grateful to have seen Roy Haynes (at age 84!), because I regrettably missed opportunities to see many of the other great drummers before their passing (Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, etc.). Roy Haynes acts, looks and plays like someone less than half his age. It is remarkable to think that he has played with literally all of the great, historic jazz icons: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, etc. I am proud to say that Roy Haynes recorded one of my compositions, "Wanton Spirit" with my piano mentor, Kenny Barron.

This incredible performance started with each of the three sidemen taking short, unaccompanied solos. Roy's brief drum solo segued into a Wayne Shorter composition. "My Romance" followed, with an especially impressive solo by pianist, Martin Bejerano. Midway through Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle" bassist David Wong broke a string. Roy asked Martin to play a solo number and he chose "Easy to Remember". Both his sound and technique impressed. Upon Wong's return, he played an unaccompanied version of "Darn That Dream". Although I have heard the final selection before, I couldn't recall the title or composer. It was a straight eighths folksy number, which was reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's 1970s compositions or perhaps something by Pat Metheny.

I spoke with pianist Martin Bejerano, following the gig. After complimenting him lavishly, I asked how he landed the gig with Roy. He replied that he went to school with Roy's last saxophonist Marcus Strickland, in Florida, and he recommended him. [So much for the theory that one must move to NYC to "make it".]

As a "wannabe" drummer, I had the perfect seat: next to Roy! I learned a few tricks - like playing time on a closed hi-hat with the right hand, while using the left hand to add interesting rhythmic embellishments around the timekeeping. He had 3 cymbals, but played time only on the one ride cymbal (while using sticks); reserving the others for punctuations and color. He played one song in its entirety with brushes; one hand on the cymbals and the other comping on the snare. Not once did he play time on the snare with brushes.

I learned some things, but most importantly, I enjoyed myself immensely.  It was a treat to see an older jazz musician who is still playing at the top of his game.  On many occasions seeing someone who sounded great on records during the 1950s is a terrible disapoinment now.  This certainly wasn't the case with Roy Haynes.

An added ironic bonus was sitting next to a tourist, Ken, from my home town of Winnipeg. We had some fun conversations before and after the show, ranging from hockey to architecture. It was a memorable evening.

Friday, August 21, 2009

CD Mastering

I had my big band CD recording mastered at Masterdisk in New York City yesterday. The engineer was Randy Merrill, whose bio and credits you can read by clicking on his name.

Mastering includes the following steps:
- attaining consistency from track to track through the use of compression & gain
- correcting minor deficiencies in the mix
- increasing the overall volume level of the CD
- putting the mixed songs in order, with the correct amount of space between each song

Although I provided input when I felt it was needed, the mastering process was probably the least collaborative stage in the recording process. Randy clearly knew what to listen for, and after watching him work through a couple of tunes, he earned my complete trust. It was valuable to have the evaluative perspective of "a fresh, unbiased set of ears". The record sounds vibrant and alive, and I am thrilled.

Now that all the technical aspects of the recording project are completed, I can switch my focus entirely to the business aspects of releasing and promoting the CD. Disc Makers has published a helpful resource, "Planning Your Album from Beginning to End" which I am studying and would highly recommend to anyone trying to navigate their way through the rapidly changing music industry.

Stay tuned.