Tradition. But not just tradition.
How do you pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you? This is the question that Jason Marsalis addresses every waking moment of each day. However, this should not be surprising for one of the junior elder statesmen of jazz. And before you decry such a notion in your mind that anyone at age 35 could be an “elder statesman” as laughable at best, consider some of the more glaring fine points of his career. Jason Marsalis is the youngest member of what is considered to be New Orleans’ “First Family of Jazz”. To that end, he had the benefit of exposure to all forms of music and the wisdom and knowledge that had been distilled through his father, a performer and a university professor, and three musical brothers of the five in his family.
Jason Marsalis started taking drum lessons at age six with legendary New Orleans composer and drummer James Black. At age seven, he started playing publicly, sitting in with his father, as well as playing the 1984 World’s Fair with his brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. By 1986, he was playing Delfeayo’s recital at the Berklee College of Music; around which time he also first appeared on television, as well as taking the first of three lessons with Alan Dawson. By 1990, he was playing full shows, and was on TV again, this time doing a guest spot with Delfeayo, and their brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. His first recording was in 1991, for Delfeayo’s album Pontius Pilate’s Decision. It was also in 1991, that he covered for drumming force of nature, Jeff “Tain” Watts, on several of Branford’s gigs. This was followed by an appearance with Delfeayo in 1992, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; a show on which Branford’s quartet with Robert Hurst on bass, Kenny Kirkland on piano, and Watts on drums, were the “house band.” It wasn’t until 1994, that he played a full gig with his brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s septet; filling in for another native New Orleanian, the soulful, Herlin Riley. But that was not the highlight of that year, for 1994 was the first year that he joined pianist Marcus Roberts as a full time member of Roberts’ trio; the same trio that would, in 1996, begin working with Maestro Seiji Ozawa, addressing the George Gershwin compositions, Rhapsody in Blue, and Concerto in F. – A performance major at Loyola University in New Orleans, he dropped out of college in 1998 because he was too busy performing! It was also that same year he released his first album, Year of the Drummer, and co-formed the group Los Hombres Calientes, with trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers. As well that year, he produced his father’s Columbia Records release, Twelve’s It. In addition, he started playing traditional styles of jazz that year with clarinetist, Dr. Michael White. In 2000 he took to seriously studying vibraphone; an instrument he first obtained in 1993. Around the same time, he released his second album, Music in Motion. A last minute call from Wynton in 2001 to cover for Herlin Riley, resulted in the album with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, All Rise. A televised 2003 concert in Berlin w/Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker of Concerto in F, was turned into a DVD; then followed by a recording of the same piece with Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra, that was released only in Japan. In 2008, less than ten years after he started taking vibraphone seriously, and just over fifteen years after meeting and playing with Lionel Hampton for the first time, he was asked to fill Hamp’s roll on vibes, in A Celebration of Lionel Hampton, which has included such luminaries as, Dianne Schuur, Candido, Red Holloway, and Curtis Fuller. He recorded Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, in 2009 with Delfeayo’s big band, following that with his first release as a leader on vibraphone, Music Update. In 2011, Ellis, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, were collectively presented the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award; the first and so far only family of musicians to be presented with such an honor. By the close of 2012, he had recorded yet again with the Marcus Roberts trio, on collaboration with banjoist extraordinaire Béla Fleck, entitled, “Across the Imaginary Divide.”
It has been said, that, “birds of a feather flock together.” It has also been said, that “people judge you by the company you keep.” Judging from the company Jason Marsalis has been keeping, and adding up just these select few highlights of a career that is just shy of thirty years, the sum total shows that he is, without a doubt, a “junior elder statesmen of jazz.” – If you should disagree, then just go back and do the math again; it will come to you. So back to the question: How does one “pay serious and reverent homage to what has come before, and yet further all forms of music, while teetering atop the shoulders of the giants who came before you?” – For Jason Marsalis to even begin to answer such a difficult and loaded question, all begins with one word: discipline.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, (in part), defines discipline as, “a field of study; training that corrects, molds and perfects mental faculties or moral character; self-control.” Jason Marsalis defines it as, “The ability to focus on one element that holds everything together.” Laying the foundational elements at each end of the recording, is the character of “Discipline,” who was introduced to us on Mr. Marsalis’s first recording and has appeared several times on each recording thereafter. Until now, the “Discipline” tracks have been a series of drum and percussion pieces, comprised of singular drum parts, recorded one on top of the other, (a process known as “over dubbing”), to form a one manned percussion ensemble. Each piece of music in the series, explores a different theme within the rich and varied world of rhythm and percussion.
In the first track, a “through composed” piece entitled Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets, Mr. Marsalis takes the character into territory, personally uncharted heretofore, and is a very adept story teller. While the opening strains sound like the cacophony heard in a music room filled with first year percussion majors, this is actually the calculated intent. While the students practice, each lost in his own “world of mallets”, the tubular bells twice sound the notes of a clock’s chimes that signal the top of the hour, and therefore, the start of class. The students continue to play, until the bells sound the notes of a traditional New Orleans trumpet call; a signal to all musicians in the first line to pay attention to the leader, as the song is about to begin. – As the actual melody begins, we begin to get a glimpse of the wit, humor and irony that continually peppers Mr. Marsalis’s writing. Ever the merry prankster, both in his compositions as well as his soloing, this piece blends various musical ideas and sources that might not normally co-exist. Yet in the mind and hands of Mr. Marsalis, they tend to do so in a most harmonious fashion; both literally and figuratively. A non-traditional take on a traditional I – IV – V progression blues in the key of C, some of the more interesting interwoven elements happen within the second statement of the melody. The xylophone playing a key part of the overture from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” (a ubiquitous percussion audition piece), the vibraphone playing a Lionel Hampton-esque boogie woogie, and hidden in plain sight, the glockenspiel playing the chorus of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.” In January 2010, a video was uploaded to YouTube, in which Mr. Marsalis discusses what he terms the Jazz Nerds International, otherwise referred to as the “JNI.” As you might imagine would happen just by the mere virtue of having the last name “Marsalis”, the video caused a bit of a stir. In a post on Facebook, Mr. Marsalis defended his position and sought to further explain his terms. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is nothing short of a repudiation of the idea that such things as blues, and swing are passé, and cannot be relevant within the current trends of jazz. Mr. Marsalis considers this to be nothing short of what he commonly refers to as “innovation propaganda.” – The tune, written in 4/4, explores abstraction in part, through tempo changes. Mr. Marsalis achieves this by alternating sections and phrases that are not “in time,” thereby capitalizing on the freedom from time just long enough to reset the tempo to something that is faster or slower. The first solo has Mr. Marsalis playing with a wild, yet calculated abandon, at a tempo that is around 300 beats per minute, or “bpm.” As the tempo changes to a medium swing feel for the second solo, pianist Austin Johnson, comes out of the gate sounding as if Thelonious Monk had been hired for the session. As the piano solo ends, at 3:30 Mr. Marsalis, (in what would be a seeming musical incursion to most), quotes the melody from the chorus of New Orleans’ rapper Mystikal’s Shake Ya Ass. Blues Can Be Abstract Too, is however, not the whole of the statement to the JNI, but merely a calling card; and one of many musical points to be made within this recording.
Ballet Class is the first of three compositions that have been re-recorded. The song’s classical influence is unmistakable, and is based upon the C-Major scale. While having a “classical” perspective, the tune is also improvised within a jazz context. Mr. Marsalis wanted to emphasize that, “classical music is rhythmic music.” (In point of fact, the song is loosely based on the feel of a “bolero”.) As well he wanted to note that classical music, as such, was not only a rhythmic music, but as well and at one point in time, “dance” music. In speaking with Mr. Marsalis, he told me that he felt the rhythmic aspects and complexities within classical music to be vastly misunderstood, under emphasized and undervalued; especially within educational circles, as it relates to the teaching of rhythm with regard to various “classical” styles. Mr. Marsalis wanted to take the classical elements of harmony, melody, and (in particular) rhythm, and approach them from a jazz perspective, thereby allowing the ensemble to move the music in various directions. Mr. Marsalis has found while performing this particular piece in various situations, and with various musicians, that anyone, of any musical background, can play within the framework of the song. In this particular musical setting, there is an effortless flow between the straight rhythmic feel of classical music, and the swing of jazz. Once again showing his ability to reference other pieces of music, thereby showing musical relation, as well as a wry sense of humor, look for quotations from: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the main melody of the 2nd movement of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, and The Celebrated Chop Waltz by Euphemia Allen, more commonly known by the title, “Chopsticks.”
It has been said, that “inspiration is where you find it.” I am reasonably certain that many of us have some form of childhood association with the aforementioned tune, “Chopsticks.” And for many American children born after 1940, the Tom and Jerry cartoon series produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, are equally as much a part of the childhood experience, if not more. In 1963, noted animator Chuck Jones, (late of Warner Brothers), took over the “Tom and Jerry” franchise. The release of the animated short feature, Puss n’ Boats, on April 4th, 1966, was the first of the Jones’ series of Tom and Jerry cartoons to feature the music of composer Carl Brandt. It was this “incidental” music that inspired Mr. Marsalis to compose the next piece, Characters. (The title is short for the term “cartoon characters.”) – As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Marsalis was watching the aforementioned cartoon, when he heard a motif that he found to be very interesting. However, as is the nature of such scoring, the motif in question did not last very long; much to his personal chagrin. So, Mr. Marsalis appropriated the motif, and built upon it. [The passage of music used as the basis for this piece can be heard between, 0:53-1:07 of the cartoon.] The result is this beautifully crafted ballad.
Blues for the 29%ers is the last of the three tunes previously recorded on Mr. Marsalis’s album, Music Update. The song’s title is in reference an article on the website crooksandliars.com, dated June 14th, 2007. The basic premise of the article was that America’s 43rd President’s job approval rating was down to an all-time low of 29%. At the same time, of the same over all group polled, only 19% believed America was “headed in the right direction.” In theory, this means that 10%, of the 29% who felt that Mr. Bush was “doing a good job,” seemed to feel that he was doing equally as good a job taking the country down the wrong path. As the “blues” is considered music of the people; and in particular, oppressed people everywhere, and therefore has inherent universality, it seemed only fitting to construct the tune within a blues framework. Hence the title of the tune, Blues for the 29%ers (Down to 19).
“Innovation propaganda,” (in Mr. Marsalis’s terms, and as it relates to jazz music), is the idea that the music must change, and that innovation (somehow) comes about, by almost completely foregoing all that has come before; in particular, blues and swing. If Blues Can Be Abstract Too was the opening musical salvo in eschewing such ideas regarding proposed “innovation” as non-sense, then the updated version of Blues for the 29%ers is only a further exposition of Mr. Marsalis’s point. Given the overall rhythmic complexity of this 4/4 blues in D-Flat, there is little doubt that card carrying members of the JNI, if actually trying to play or transcribe the tune, would find it harder than they had ever imagined a “blues” could be. – For starters, the form is 16 bars, and not the standard 12 bars. While the melody is being played on the vibraphone from the very start of the tune, (beat 1), the rhythm section does not come in until the 4th beat of that first measure. To further rhythmically challenge both player and listener, the entrance of the rhythm section is directly followed on vibraphone by one ¼ note triplet, which ends on beat 2. To the listener, beat 2 actually feels like beat 1, and therefore feels like the actual “top of the form” of the tune; though in reality it is not. This is one of the changes incorporated into this composition, which differentiates it from the previous recording. – Despite the rhythmic oddities, the song’s form resolves itself, back to beat 1, every second time through. As well, Mr. Marsalis realised that during the solos, he could use any of the melodies from the last 8 bars, as a cue to the rhythm section that there was about to be a break. During that small break for the rhythm section, Mr. Marsalis could chose to play one of the three melodies at a different tempo, thereby changing the feel and mood of the song. – Mr. Marsalis explains it this way, “During the last 8 bars, there is a riff that is repeated three times, in different keys. And what I realised was that I could play any three of those riffs to let the rhythm section know that when we get to bar 15 of the tune we will break for 2 bars, and within those two bars I’m going to play the melody to the tune, (the opening statement), but I could play it at whatever tempo I wanted to play it at.” In fact, as he changes the tempo, Mr. Marsalis (whether consciously or unconsciously) engages in metric modulation. This is in short, taking the current tempo, and subdividing the note’s value, (for example: cutting the note into one half or one third of its pulse value to make things slower, or possibly doubling the note’s value to make it faster), and thereby establishing an altogether different tempo, while still maintaining a linear and traceable basis from which the original tempo came. Mind you this is not a new device to be employed within a jazz context. Examples of metric modulation can be found on such recordings as Charles Mingus recording of Prayer for Passive Resistance from Mingus at Antibes, Bill Evans’ My Bells from The Interplay Sessions, as well as the tune Father Time off Mr. Marsalis’s brother Wynton’s title album. This changing of tempos is the other change made to this song. – Still, it is the change back, from the 1/8 notes in the original version that allowed the melody to always resolve back to beat 1, to the ¼ triplet figure that now lands on beat 2, (thus causing it to feel as though it were beat 1), that is the conundrum to the ear. An aural “sleight of hand,” if you will. So much so, that due to the rhythmic displacement, someone trying to transcribe this tune, would not perceive it to be in a 4/4 time signature. In fact, what they would hear would be: two bars of 7/4, followed by 3 bars of ¾, two more bars of 7/4, a singular bar of ¾, followed by 3 bars of 4/4, one bar of ¾, one bar of 5/4, and lastly one bar of 4/4. – And if this makes the music more palatable for members of the JNI to absorb, incorporate, and thereby invigorate their music, by adding these elements of blues and swing, then so be it. However, if they should wish to break the music down to mere number crunching in the hope of it being edgy and “innovative,” they have missed the point. To that end, the music will continue to suffer, and will cease to have even the faintest shreds of being a musical form that people from any country and all walks of life can relate to.
My Joy, is a composition by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from his 1967 Blue Note release Oblique. While not an official piece in the ongoing “Discipline” series, (the use of the word “Discipline” in the title implies an original composition by Mr. Marsalis), it is likewise comprised of percussion “overdubs.” This was the first piece of music by Mr. Hutcherson, to catch Mr. Marsalis’s attention, and he wished to record this selection, and place it in the context of a percussion ensemble. It is interesting to note, that this number, as well as the two “Discipline” cuts, were all recorded without the use of a metronome; otherwise known as a “click-track.”
In the first of three tunes, each written by the other individuals within the group, Ill Bill is the contribution of 29 year old drummer Dave Potter. Mr. Potter has studied under the tutelage of Professor Leon Anderson, the director of the Jazz Studies program at Florida State University. This song was originally written as an assignment during his Masters Course work. The task at hand was to write a piece of music in the style of Thelonious Monk. While I would love to tell you the backstory of the song’s title, I have been sworn to secrecy by Mr. Potter. Still, it may be said that the song is dedicated to all the “William’s” in Mr. Potter’s life. – The backing rhythm section, comprised of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Potter, and bassist Will Goble, has been performing as a trio since 2006. Mr. Marsalis first heard this tune when Messrs.’ Johnson, Potter and Goble sat in on one of Ellis Marsalis’ gigs at Snug Harbor, in New Orleans. As he listened, Mr. Marsalis thought to himself that the melody and groove would work well on vibes, and set about to learning it; then decided to record it.
Like the hot sauce that is its namesake, Louisiana Gold is a spicy number from 28 year old pianist Austin Johnson. The idea for the song came about while Mr. Johnson was heavily immersed in listening to Harry Connick, Jr.’s album Lofty’s Roach Soufflé. Mr. Marsalis first heard this song in its formative stages, and was interested to play the number once Mr. Johnson had finished composing it. When all was said and done, despite his musical prowess, even Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be most challenging. (Then again what’s not to find challenging about a song whose chords change every two beats?) Still, it didn’t stop him from sneaking in a quotation from the Harry Warren and Al Dubin tune, “Lulu’s Back in Town.”
As the story was relayed to me, Mr. Johnson once had a truck that was affectionately known as, “Big Girl.” Sadly, Big Girl’s life was cut short in a tragic accident. In memoriam, bassist Will Goble composed a ballad, “Big Girl’s Last Ride.” In the course of performing the piece one night, they announced the name of the tune. An audience member came up to him after the show and gushed about how much they had enjoyed the song, Big Earl’s Last Ride. Recognizing the potential tawdry implications of the original title, (especially in light of such a beautiful and poignant melody), Mr. Goble chose to defer to the misheard title, and rename the piece. Mr. Goble’s solo effectively conveys a bittersweet melancholy, and shows a great range of sensitivity. Indeed the composition itself is very contemplative; just as any effective ballad should be. This tune was also featured on Mr. Goble’s 2012 recording, Some Stories Tell No Lies. – For his part, Mr. Marsalis sought the opportunity to play slowly, thereby exploiting the natural sustain of his instrument. He furthermore desired to have a solo where the mood clearly reflected that of the song’s melody.
In the late 1990’s, there was a contingent of musicians from Baton Rouge, Louisiana working and/or living in New Orleans. Keyboardist Brian Coogan was one of them. Mr. Marsalis began hiring Mr. Coogan to play piano on gigs where Mr. Marsalis was playing drums. Around 2003, Mr. Marsalis began calling Mr. Coogan regularly for gigs with the vibes quartet. On one such gig, Mr. Coogan brought in an original composition entitled The Nice Mailman’s Happy Song to Ann. Mr. Marsalis felt the tune to be upbeat, and enjoyable to play. Equally as important, he felt the tune to be a perfect vehicle for vibraphone. The concept for the solo came to him the very first time he played the song. The first part of the idea was to play his solo out of time and against the time of what is being played by the rhythm section. The second facet was to play any melodies he could think of over what the rest of the band is playing behind him. The final piece in the equation was to play said melodies, starting very slowly, gradually increasing the tempo to a very fast pace, then ending his solo in a climactic flurry of the abstract and avant-garde. All the while never once playing “in time” with the rest of the group. – Amongst the various melodies that are randomly quoted are, Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy, Poinciana, Tiger Rag (for the LSU Tigers), and Something’s Coming from West Side Story.
The 1971 Miles Davis offering Live Evil, included a guest appearance by Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal. Mr. Pascoal, is not only a talented musician, proficient on a variety of instruments, but he is also a celebrated composer. One of his songs from that album, Nem Um Talvez, (Not Even a Maybe), is contained herein. However, it was not the recording on Davis’s album through which Mr. Marsalis first became exposed to this piece of music. It was instead though father Ellis, who used to perform it unaccompanied. It is no wonder in the least that the younger Marsalis should wish to do the same; but with a slight twist. The twist in this instance, results in the second song performed by Mr. Marsalis under the guise of a percussion ensemble, but not composed by him. Despite its brevity at only 1:37, we are again challenged if we dare to stop and think about it. Not only by the music itself, but the skill that it takes to play a variety of percussion based melodic instruments, all without the aid of a metronome to ground the music in time. Indeed the piece is not “in time” in the least, despite the forward motion of the melody.
“Incidental music” is a term most often applied to music composed for film. This form of background music is often used to establish a mood in relation to a set of visual images. Almost from the very moment that audio and visual mediums were married, musical themes have become a part of our collective culture. For example: If I ask you to think about the music played as Miss Gulch rides her bicycle over to Dorothy’s house to take her dog Toto away in the movie The Wizard of Oz, you are apt to think of it as the wicked witch of the west’s theme. Some themes during the opening credits of a film have become nothing short of iconic. From the eeriness of the cellos in the first strains of the theme from Jaws, to the majestic splendor in the brass during the opening crawl of Star Wars. And what tune leaps to your mind when you hear the phrase, “Bond. James Bond?” Still it only stands to reason why the better and sometimes more grand motifs in this realm register with us; if only for one reason. These sound designs usually occur during the opening credit sequence. How often do you pay attention to the closing credits? My guess would be that not unlike most of the movie going public, once the movie itself is over, you get up and leave. (You are probably not that interested in the foley artists, and are unlikely to hire the people in craft services to cater your next event.) So then, who does stick around for the closing credits? In this instance, the answer to that question would be Jason Marsalis. – Closing Credits was inspired by the rhythm of the music of Klaus Badelt, as featured at the end of the 2003 movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Written in 6/8, Closing Credits springs with vibrancy from the very first note. The interplay between the piano and vibraphone at the very beginning, (where in the piano is playing the melody underneath a repeating line from the vibes), is vaguely reminiscent of the late Dave Brubeck. The melody then switches from the piano to the vibraphone, and is then played another time through. As we then start at the top of the batting order of soloists, we find Mr. Goble leading off with a “one bass hit.” His tone, not unlike that of his mentors Jimmy Blanton and Milt Hinton, is huge. His ideas are both refreshing and very swinging. After the melody is again restated by Mr. Marsalis, it is Mr. Johnson’s turn at bat. His solo is forceful, clearly driving down the line of people like McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland and Marcus Roberts. At this point Mr. Marsalis (like any good manager) seems to take the briefest of melodic moments to confer with his players, before sending drumming powerhouse Dave Potter to the plate. While Mr. Potter’s turn at the mound musically evokes all the tension of a full 3-2 count, he promptly proceeds to load the bases. It is now left to Mr. Marsalis to be the “clean up” man. To that end, he comes fully prepared and loaded for bear; wielding four mallets on this tune as opposed to the two mallets used on other pieces. With his solo acting as a cadenza, and the tune reduced for the briefest of moments to solo vibraphone, we feel all the slow motion sensibilities of watching a ball tumbling through the air; all the while holding our breath in eager anticipation of the impending home run. This is followed by a musical celebration, as if the rhythm section were greeting their newest hero as he steps onto home plate. The mood on the field has indeed changed. Unlike the beginning of the song where the melody is played over hits and chord changes, this time the melody is played once again, but over the groove of the rhythm section. – Of all the pieces on the recording, this is one that truly stands out; a hint, if not almost promise of greater things to come from this group of musicians.
Not everyone is musically inclined. Not everyone can play a musical instrument. Indeed, most have never seriously tried. But somewhere, at some point in time, most everyone has tried to whistle. I am certain that I don’t have to tell you the difficulty involved in carrying a simple tune. Never mind improvising like an instrumentalist over jazz changes! – Whistle for Willie is a children’s book written by Ezra Jack Keats, and first published in 1964. As a boy, Mr. Marsalis owned this book; and it was this book that spurred him to learn how to whistle. In homage to this particular work by Mr. Keats, Mr. Marsalis gives us his Whistle for Willie. The genesis of the song was a bit of a happy accident, one might say. One of the tunes in a normal night’s set was the “Great American Songbook” classic That’s All; which was normally performed on vibraphone. (In fact, Whistle for Willie is based upon the chord changes to That’s All.) During the 2011 Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barquisimeto in Venezuela, on the spur of the moment, Mr. Marsalis decided to whistle the melody to the song. As a result of the positive response he received, he decided to incorporate a whistling feature into the set. – Mr. Marsalis is both incredibly adept, and displays amazing technical prowess. It is even more stunning to note than the entire tune is improvised! The breadth of his musical knowledge, as well as his ability to weave quotations from one song into another, is again at work as he manages to quote from The Magic Song (also known as Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo), as well as saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Witch Hunt.
Most insurers will tell you that there is no such thing as a “happy accident.” Most musicians are apt to tell you otherwise. Such is the case with the last musical offering, Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets. I mentioned before that the Discipline pieces are form of percussion ensemble, with Mr. Marsalis overdubbing all the parts. This piece however, also includes the other band members; albeit in a slightly roundabout way. – The night before Mr. Marsalis was to go into the studio to record all of the Discipline pieces for this album, (tracks 1, 6 and 11), he was in the process of editing the songs featuring the full band. Near the end of Blues Can Be Abstract Too there was a small section of music, (from 3:57 – 4:07), that caught his attention. – [This occurs in a section, known in musical terms as a fermata; and indicates a period of longer duration beyond the notes written value on a sheet of musical notation. Just how long “longer” is, is at the discretion of the conductor or performer.] – Upon hearing this section, the musical wheels of his mind ever turning, he decided in the moment to capture that snippet and make a loop out of it, and then to spontaneously create a piece of music over the top of it. While Discipline Discovers a World of Mallets is “through composed,” meaning that the composition is performed as written, (e.g. without “improvisation”), Discipline Gets Lost in a World of Mallets is a thoroughly improvised and spontaneous musical composition. In contrast to Discipline Discover’s various repetitive 1/16th note patterns, interwoven beneath the tubular bells Oriental tinged melody, Discipline Gets Lost sounds like a Second Line infused Gamelan, this time with the tubular bells leading the parade. (Think about it: When was the last time you heard a “tubular bells” solo?) Mr. Marsalis, in an fit of inspiration, has saved some of his most obscure musical quotations on this album for the final cut. If you listen closely, you will hear passages from the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn composition Half the Fun (from the album Such Sweet Thunder), Ornette Coleman’s Broadway Blues, Mop Mop (also known as Boff Boff), and as voiced on both glockenspiel and xylophone, Roy Ayers Everybody Loves the Sunshine.
Music is the reflection of the human experience. Blues is the musical expression of joy and sorrow within both the singular and collective conditions, within that experience. Swing, bothslow and fast, is the pulse within the condition. (Indeed, a lack of pulse leads to a lack of vitality.) When one ceases to have a vital pulse, one dies. As long as jazz music is still in the hands of people like Jason Marsalis and the fine musicians that surround him on all sides, I have no doubt that the music will always have blues and swing, and therefore, vitality! And to that end, such vitality must be deeply and steadfastly rooted, in the only thing that will produce healthy growth for generations to come: Tradition.
Insights about organizing effective and efficient practice sessions
by James Ketch
IAJE Jazz Education Journal
During the weekend of March 29-30, 2006 Rob Gibson, Executive Director of the Savannah Music Festival hosted a weekend workshop for high school jazz bands from Georgia and South Carolina. The line up of clinicians included the Marcus Roberts Trio (Marcus Roberts, piano; Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums), trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Don Braden, and trumpeter Jim Ketch. The schedule for the two days was busy and productive. During the “down time” between band sessions I asked each artist to respond to the following question:
What is the one thing you have learned about practicing most effectively and efficiently?
Fortunately for all of us, the musicians were generous with their time and answers. Here are paraphrased reports of the responses rendered by the artists listed above.
The comments offered by Marcus reveal a keen intellect at work. The relaxed freedom Marcus exhibits on stage and on recordings emerges after the practicing is done.
* You must always create a very clear vision of why you are practicing what you are practicing. Ask yourself: What are the technical skills I am trying to improve in this practice session? What musical problems am I trying to solve in this practice session? What principles in the composition am I trying to unlock and understand in this practice session?
* Know that we practice something so that the concepts involved in the assigned task become things that we completely understand and know in our mind.
Every artist seeks to create pathways for visualizing success in performance. Here’s a glimpse of the attitudes Marcus carries into both practice sessions and performances.
* I seek to teach myself to see the music in my head.
* I imagine the music is circling round me and through me.
* As a performer, I view myself as just being there, manipulating the moments in the music as the form of the composition goes by.
* I have a vision of what came before, knowledge of what is happening in the chord progression at the present, and a sense of where I might like to take the music in the future.
In his final comments, Marcus begins to outline concrete elements that must be developed through training.
* I practice very tangible things; I must understand what is going on rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically in the music. So I create exercises to specifically understand these elements. I must develop the muscular control over the piano in each of the categories mentioned above. To enable this mastery, I practice with a very clear tempo while using jazz syntax at all times. I make sure that I use clear tempo and jazz syntax to unravel all practice challenges.
The final step for Marcus is to commit everything he has practiced and studied to memory.
* Finally, I try to memorize everything so that at some point I no longer have to consider notes and rhythms. I want it in my head so that I don’t have to think about it in terms of notes and rhythms.
Wycliffe is a commanding presence in a clinic. He is an amazing trombonist and a very accomplished pianist. His comments connect strongly to his roots in gospel music and to connecting the singing voice to the physical instrument. His unmistakable voice on trombone lends immediate authority to his comments.
* The most important element is to develop a consistent practice schedule. This schedule should include work for at least six days per week.
* If you can sing something, you can play it. Regardless of level, the more you develop your singing, the more devices you will develop when you are playing. Through the singing of melody you will begin to develop a better way of hearing how to phrase something you wish to play. For wind players, singing helps us focus more on our breathing. I find that singing phrases helps me connect phrase to phrase on my instrument more efficiently. If you work to articulate something through singing (high to low, low to high; soft to loud, loud to soft; single tongue legato/staccato; double/triple tongue, etc.) you will increasingly discover that these skills will transfer to your instrument.
* In summary: Create a consistent daily practice schedule and stick to it. Sing to play.
Two months after our Savannah Music Festival Workshop, I was fortunate to have Wycliffe visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for several days. He offered several clinic sessions and I took notes at both. Here are some additional thoughts he shared about the music.
* Work on specific items intently for periods of say, five minutes. As an example, work on being able to accurately sing the melody to a tune. Concentrate on time and intonation. Learn to sing very accurately.
* In ensemble work, bands must learn to breathe together. Bands that breathe together, articulate together, and release notes together, always sound better.
* The best tools we have for practice sessions are the metronome, tape recorder, and piano. Use them each and every day. Wind players should practice in front of a mirror a bit each day. We need to observe what we are doing.
* On piano, start with voicing the chords to a tune in root position.
* For singing, sustain the roots of each chord as you sing the melody of a tune.
* Our singing goals should include: The melody of the tune, the roots of the chords, and the quality (arpeggios) of each chord.
* Words we need to eliminate from our music and practice vocabulary: Can’t and hard.
* Work on your weaknesses. Don’t be complacent and practice only to your strengths.
I have known Don through our work on the faculty of the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop. Don has a magnificent sound on tenor saxophone. He is a most articulate speaker. It is easy to view the parallels between Don’s command of the English language and the jazz language.
* I view practicing as involving three Ps: Prioritize, Plan, and Prepare.
* To prioritize, one must determine the most important elements to practice, and which element (or elements) will serve as the focus for any individual practice session. For example, elements for a saxophonist may be: sound (the practicing of long tones); rhythmic practice (metronome use); articulation practice (gaining command of various tonguing and slurring patterns); or chord/scale language.
* Planning involves the organization of those priority items into the time frames available. The dedicated musician should think in terms of daily, weekly, and monthly time segments. Planning should also include the establishing of goals and perhaps even the rewards for the attainment of those goals.
* Preparation links the above two elements to the professional world. Preparation may include the woodshedding of charts that will be called on an upcoming gig. This will involve working on solo parts as well as on demanding ensemble sections. By doing this, a player also prepares for public performances of unrehearsed music.
As Don finished his comments, and as we were preparing to work with the next band at the Savannah Music Festival, he added, in conclusion, a fourth “P”: Passionate playing.
* Every practice session needs to involve moments of real passionate playing. We must practice creating the emotional plateaus to which we wish to climb in our performances.
Roland is a wonderfully talented bassist working with the Marcus Roberts Trio. He was forthcoming in his comments and supportive of the notion of sharing important information with students and educators. These are the natural attributes of a great bassist: Supporting the ensemble and the music at all times with great time, a strong groove, and wonderful lines.
Roland strongly embraces the notion of multi-tasking. He increases the value of any single practice unit by identifying all the elements of musicianship that he can seek to further refine in that practice session.
* I begin by selecting a composition that I want to study and practice. Within that composition, I will: a) learn the melody, b) play the melody with the bow to improve my Arco technique, c) focus on intonation as I learn the melody with the bow, d) play the melody pizzicato, 5) play the melody in all three registers (low, medium, high/thumb position) of the bass, 6) play this melody at a variety of tempi to work hard on my time, 7) play the melody at different volume levels, and 8) play the melody with a variety of rhythmic feels including: straight, swing feel, strong 2 and 4 backbeat feel etc.
* Tone and intonation is the focus of all the above.
Roland then begins to explore the harmonic elements of the composition.
* I sit down at the piano and play through the chord root motions.
* I then play the roots in the left hand, while I play the melody in the right hand.
* On the bass, I begin to learn the chord progression and chord qualities by building triads on each chord. Initially, I move through the tune using root position triads (arpeggios on 1-3-5). Then I use 1st inversion triads (3-5-1), followed by 2nd inversion triads (5-1-3). Once again, I take the time to do these three sets of triadic exercises in each of the three registers on the bass (multitasking principles again emerge).
After practicing triads, Roland intimated that he is really eager to start walking bass lines. This methodical work through all the triadic structures in all registers, and at a variety of tempi, has served to feed his ears imaginative bass line possibilities.
* I use a number of digital ideas for creating and connecting bass lines. Ideas flow from the root or the 3rd of the chord. I can connect these chords with whole step or half-step motion (either ascending or descending).
* I practice bass lines in all three registers so that I open my ears to hearing these sounds as options at any given moment in time.
Roland also spoke on soloing.
* I enjoy practicing phrase motions in which I identify a) where I wish to start (the 3rd of the chord, for example), b) where I wish to have the line go (up to the 11th, for example), and c) where I might wish that phrase idea to land (resolving to the 9th of the next chord, for example).
Although Roland did not state this, I felt that he was describing how he could work with solo materials in the manner of a composer, creating shapes that had some logical architectural structure and design.
In concluding, Roland stated that practicing should have a beginning and an end.
* I want to outline my practice session, get to the work, and then move on to the next event in my life, whether it be mowing the lawn, or cooking, or taking care of my two sons. I set my goals and complete the work.
Sharing time in conversation with Jason is an absolute delight. He is one of the most intellectually curious musicians I have ever known. He listened very intently to each musician in clinic sessions and often commented after the session about some specific element of a clinic teaching moment. I was impressed with how eager he was to develop a very comprehensive pedagogy of teaching and learning devices. It is an attribute to be admired.
* Practicing is about identifying and solving problems. The goal of a practice session is to create and execute effective solutions to identified problems.
Jason next spoke of what I have labeled “practice groups and multi-tasking.”
* I like to create time blocks where I focus intently on detailed practice elements. Some examples: a) I could focus for a 10-minute period just on my snare drum, practicing my rudiments, b) I could isolate on foot skill for 10 minutes by working on bass drum and hi-hat cymbal techniques, and c) I could create a third time block and work on the clarity of my swing on my ride cymbal. In a concise 30-minute practice block I have fashioned three 10-minute units on very specific drumming elements/skills. If I have more time available, I have the option of increasing the amount of time in some or all of the groups.
This first response led Jason to speak about organizing the practice session.
* The performer must develop the skill to assess, based on the available time for an individual practice session, just how much material can be examined in that practice period. You must start the session knowing what can be adequately covered in the allotted time.
* By using time effectively and by identifying and creating needed practice groups of materials, a performer can efficiently maximize the outcomes of daily practice sessions.
It is clear from reading the ideas on efficient and effective practicing placed forth by Marcus, Wycliffe, Don, Roland, and Jason, that each artist embraces practicing as an essential, regular, and ongoing responsibility. The animation with which each artist spoke left me with the notion that to these musicians, practicing is an opportunity, not a chore. Practice sessions for artists of this level serve to solve problems, expand musical horizons, and unlock creative potential. It is a way of life!
The collective wisdom of our artists might be summarized as follows:
* Develop the ability to organize a practice session where specific problem areas or musical elements are addressed. Take time to think about your skill levels and use that time to ascertain areas that need addressing. Craft specific studies and exercises that deal with the identified issue areas.
* Practice in the manner you wish to perform. Muscular habits form quickly. Use a metronome to reinforce good time and use jazz syntax to develop an authentic voice on your instrument.
* The singing voice and piano are amazing tools to accelerate your progress. Use them daily in your practicing. Allow your singing voice to elevate the conception of what you seek to create on your instrument.
* Concentrate during practice sessions. Your preparation before a session and your execution during a practice session will ultimately reveal how well prepared you are to perform publicly.
* Multitask whenever possible in your practice sessions. Identify the elements of great musicianship you admire in artists (sound, intonation, subdivision of time, swing, flexibility, etc.) and incorporate these into exercises and studies you practice.
* Divide your practice time into useful and logical practice groups. The intensity of these sessions will increase resulting from the specific focus you have created as a learning outcome for that session.
In closing, I would like to acknowledge jazz piano master Harry Pickens for coaching me to ask very specific questions of artists during interviews. I would also like to thank my colleagues Marcus Roberts, Roland Guerin, Jason Marsalis, Don Braden, and Wycliffe Gordon for their time, expertise, and above all, their great music.
James Ketch is Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a faculty member for the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop, a faculty member and consultant for the Savannah Music Festival, a clinician for Bach trumpets and Conn-Selmer, and Music Director of the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra.