Jazz Saturdays: Last Train Home

My time “growing up” in jazz was in the late 90s and early 2000s in Kansas City. Those were the days of the “young lions” of the postbop scene, with Branford Marsalis leading the Tonight Show band, Christian McBride and Joshua Redman breaking barriers, and a general revival of jazz after the stagnation of the late 70s and early 80s. So much great music was being played.

Being from Kansas City, the musicians like Bobby Watson and Pat Metheny had a special place in my heart. These were guys who came from KC then left and set the world on fire. I was lucky to see the Pat Metheny Group live in concert in KC while I was in college. The sound textures! The arrangements! That was the best live show I’ve ever seen. (Also, the endurance! They played for almost four hours. The audience looked more exhuasted than Pat did at the end.)

Last Train Home has always been one of my favorite Metheny tunes. Here’s a live version from the Pat Metheny Group:

In April one of my favorite jazz guitarists, John Pizzarelli, released a solo album of his takes on Pat Metheny tunes. This shouldn’t work. Pat’s tunes are composed for a huge band with lots of instruments. Yet it does. Maybe it’s because John’s guitar has seven strings instead of six, or maybe it’s because he’s a great musician and that’s what it takes to interpret another great musician’s compositions.

Besides the music, I also love the promo videos for the album. John has a quarantine beard and is wearing a cardigan. They are obviously not professionally shot. It’s just a guy on his porch with a guitar, playing a great tune for you because you stopped by. That’s about as 2021 as you can get.

Here’s John’s version of Last Train Home:

Jazz Saturdays: Peel Me a Grape

Like any kind of music, jazz has songs that are pretty quirky. One of my favorite jazz composers is Dave Frishberg. His songs are hilarious with layered narratives and lyrics that make you feel like you’re on the inside of an inside joke.

Many of you already know one of his songs. He’s best known as the composer of I’m Just a Bill from Schoolhouse Rock.

Recently my daughter was deciding which songs she should sing for a showcase in her vocal jazz class. I immediately suggested Peel Me a Grape. (Than after a moment’s consideration, both because I’m her dad and because she’s only 12, we went with a different Frishberg gem, [My Attorney Bernie]. I’d like to wait a few years before she adds “sultry” to the ways she knows how to sing.)

Here’s my favorite version of Peel Me a Grape by Diana Krall:

Hope you enjoy your Saturday night. Whoever it is that you peel grapes for, get to peeling!

Focus on the end goal, not the shiny extras

During college I played music professionally. It was a wonderful experience and I loved getting to know and work with some pretty crazy people.

Jazz musicians in particular can be neurotic at times. (That’s why I fit in so well, haha!) Take sax players. Some sax players never take their horn off. Wherever they go they have their horn in their hand and they are always noodling on a riff or a solo idea. Other sax players are obsessed with their gear. Mouthpieces, reeds, pads, ligatures. If you can switch it out and experiment they’ll try it.

Of these two types of sax player, which do you think were the better musicians? The gear heads were tons of fun to be around, but the obsessive players were much better folks to have on the bandstand with you. They were so good because they focused on playing, which of course is the end goal of being a musician.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Whatever it is you do in your work or your art, make sure you focus on the most important parts. Being a gear head is easy: focus on the minutiae, the shiny objects. You’ll spend money in pursuit of better gear, which can be mistaken for making progress in your work or your art.

It’s better instead to focus on the end goal of your work. Ship your art. Make that your mission. Don’t lose sight of that goal.

Jazz Saturdays - Equinox

On Saturdays I get to do one of my favorite things in the world: play and teach jazz at the Kansas City Jazz Academy. Saturday posts will be about jazz and music.

Music is much more than just notes. We spend a lot of time focusing on notes, especially the “right notes,” but notes are really just a small part of the whole picture of making music.

Equinox by John Coltrane is a beautiful song. It’s filled with sadness and longing. In many ways it’s a jazz lament.

It’s also in the key of C sharp. This isn’t a key that anyone plays in frequently. At the academy we spent many rehearsals talking about what scales can be played for solos over the chord changes of Equinox. We spent a lot of time practicing those scales. Then we spent a lot of time playing those scales and notes from those scales to make solos. It’s hard. The kids in the band really had to work at it.

But if we only focus on the notes we lose the bigger picture of the piece. Emotion doesn’t come from notes. Notes alone can’t tell a story or convey an experience. They are one piece of the puzzle, but it’s easy to focus so much on that piece that we forget all the other parts of music that we need in order to really make music.

When you’re in the weeds of your work or your art, never forget about the bigger picture. The song isn’t the notes.

The Things We Actually Have Control Of

As I write this I’m listening to three student jazz groups playing. (I have one child in each group so I sit in between the three rehearsal rooms so I can catch snatches of each group as they play.)

Last week these groups held auditions. One of the students who auditioned got his placement today and wasn’t willing to accept it. He is the oldest bass player that tried out but was placed in the lowest of the three groups. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s embarrassing and discouraging when something like this happens. He spent the two hours of rehearsal time sitting in the hallway refusing to participate.

We all go through these kinds of situations. I think the key to getting through is to spend our time and energy focused not on the larger situation but on the things we can control.

So what exactly is in our control?

  • Our emotions
  • Our judgements
  • Our creativity
  • Our attitude
  • Our perspective
  • Our desires
  • Our decisions
  • Our determination

Pretty much everything else is outside of our control. But look at all we do have control over! This list encompasses so much. If we all learned to control even a sliver of this we would be unshakable.

I hope the young man decides that he is going to go forward and grasp this opportunity. This could be an important turning point for him. We rarely have control of the auditions in life but we do have control of our actions after. Taking control of those things we can control makes all the difference.

The Joy of Artistry

Today I watched an amazing jazz pianist play in a way that filled me with joy. Yes, he was teaching a class full of young vocalists who don’t always hit the right notes or come in at the right time. This wasn’t a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. But his playing was both superb and infectious. It made me want to get out an instrument and practice!

Seeing mastery in action is amazing and awe inspiring. We don’t see the years of hard practice, the disappointments and trials that shaped the artistry we hear today. But knowing those things were part of his journey in one way or another make celebrating his achievements even more fun.

Here is someone who strives! In that moment I heard beauty, joy, and soul come out of his playing. I’m so grateful for the artists who make experiences like this possible.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go and practice making some art.

For those that are curious, the amazing pianist is Mr. Charles Williams. He teaches at the Kansas City Jazz Academy and two of my children have the privilege of studying with him there.

In Memory of Roy Hargrove

As a gawky high school freshman I was invited to do something really cool and join the high school jazz band. Our school district put freshmen at the junior high, so it was pretty neat to go to the high school a couple of times a week and play music with the upperclassmen. I was the only bass player in the high school system so it didn’t matter that I wasn’t any good; if they wanted a bass player they were stuck with me.

By my sophomore year I was practicing a lot and started to really enjoy jazz. By my senior year jazz band was my main activity and the thing that identified with more than anything else in my life. I was pretty good and played throughout college and even spent a few years playing professionally. Jazz is still a huge part of my life, and I happily claim to be the world’s nicest jazz snob. (I can’t help it if jazz is the greatest. Some things are just true!)

During those years in high school when jazz became so important to me, there was a group of musicians on the scene in New York who became known as the “Young Lions.” They played amazing music that revitalized and rejuvenated jazz, bringing many of the great musicians from the late 60s and early 70s (like Dexter Gordon) back onto the scene to play with them. They inspired a generation of jazz fans like me. Musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Mulgrew Miller, Russel Malone, and Bobby Watson. Roy Hargrove was a giant among the lions.

I’ll never forget the evening at the Gem Theater when I watched Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, John Patitucci (one of my bass idols), Brian Blade, and Roy Hargrove perform as part of Herbie’s Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall album tour. I went expecting to spend the evening in awe of Patitucci. I’ve always been a huge fan of Herbie Hancock. Brian Blade is my favorite living jazz drummer. Michael Brecker was an incredible jazz savant. But the thing that impressed me the most throughout the night was Roy Hargrove. On stage with jazz legends at the top of their instrumental fields, he outshone them all. His solos were amazing journeys of poetry and emotion, full of fire. I went in expecting to see one of my favorite bassists blow me away. I left deeply touched by Roy Hargove’s music.

Years later during a difficult time in my life I discovered the album Earfood. I spent many hours listening to it. More than any album since Joshua Redman it became an anchor that could bring me up when I felt down.

It’s shocking when someone dies so young. There was so much music left for him to play.