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The movement of the singers, stage hands and scenery was like watching the frames of a film. It reminded me of a Tai Chi class I once took. Moving as though space itself had body, weight, density, matter. We move through it frame by frame.

Nothing is harder than the repetition of one note. or a phrase. matching the tone, weight, balance, timbre. and then slightly changing the phrase one strand of hair at a time.

Music is architectural. It builds on itself. now 4-4; 4-5; 5-5; 5-6; 6-6. but what are numbers? 123123123123…they’re all 3’s and 2’s. the building blocks of time.

It’s not about the individual, though there were some who stood out – the vocal soloists, violin, tenor saxophone. It was about the whole, and taken from the perspective of the mezzanine balcony with lots of space around me was a transformative experience. It just wasn’t the same when I moved down to the orchestra for an hour. The distractions were too exhausting: people walking in and out, focussing on the individuals on the stage. It’s a different kind of theatre; one that could take in everything at once, building phrase by phrase, movement by movement, note by note.

atom by atom.

Einstein on the Beach.

 

 

 

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here is the link to part 1 and part 2

“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career…but her music retains—and maintains—a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.” Duke Ellington

Over the past several weeks I have been listening to a great deal of Mary Lou Williams’ music in preparation for a concert at the Barrie Jazz & Blues Festival (Yamaha Piano Series “Giants of Jazz” ) this Saturday, June 11. The more I listen, the more astounded I am by Mary’s playing, writing and arranging. You can read about the project here.

In my previous postings about Mary Lou I focussed on her boogie woogie bass lines. In this post I am going to illustrate some of her other wonderful bass grooves. I have found Mary’s compositions to be a huge amount of fun to play. Her grooves are strong, interesting and incredibly satisfying. They also provide a very open space from which to solo. She can be funky, angular and soulful, but most of all she has left a wealth of beautiful music behind her just waiting to be discovered.

Let’s start with her incredible Zodiac Suite written in 1945. Here is an excerpt from “Scorpio”

The piece opens with this gorgeous bass line, over which Mary plays an angular melody making use of the whole tone scale as well as chromatic intervals. It’s provides a wonderful basis for improvisation.

The piece continues with a transition into a bluesy bass groove.

(click to enlarge. note: my transcription is from her 1975 recording. Please contact me if you’d like the complete transcription)

Here is Mary Lou playing it on her Zodiac Suite recording from 1945.

“Black Christ of the Andes” was recorded in 1964, and contains a very funky arrangement of “My Blue Heaven”. Here is the bass line:

Who knew that playing “My Blue Heaven” could be so much fun?

Here’s Mary’s original recording from 1964

…and here’s Mary and her trio from a live recording in 1978

“Offertory Mediation” is a beautiful minor blues waltz which can be found on the Norman Granz Jazz in Montreux series from 1978.

Check out this fabulous up tempo bass groove.

“Offertory Meditation” begins at 4:19 after “Over the Rainbow” (which is amazing in itself!)

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In a recent blog entry by Peter Hum, Peter asks the question “Why make CDs if they’re such a tough sell?” What place do CDs have in this increasingly diminishing marketplace? Peter poses the question to some Canadian jazz musicians who responded in various ways. You can read the full article here.

I responded to the article by writing the following:

I agree that nothing forces you to grow as an artist more than recording a CD. The process of creating the repertoire, deciding how to play it and who to play it with, the countless hours of practicing, gigging, rehearsing, arranging, writing and thinking about it all come together in the sacred space of the recording studio. It challenges you to face your own musical truth and gives you a place to move from. It’s crucial for me to have the goal of recording in order to dream up a project and see it through…

I now have further thoughts:

Jazz is an art form that exists in the moment. In the space of a musician’s studio there are often no witnesses to that moment unless it’s the family pet. Or it could be that a phrase of music briefly enters someone’s ears at a noisy club. At it’s best, music is a living dialog between the players and the audience. The ears of the listener may be the intangible ingredient needed to bring the music to a higher level. Most performances exist for a moment in time and vanish into the ether. However, truly inspired performances can stay with you for a long time. Years even. They can be transformative.

Making a studio recording is an attempt to capture a body of work. It gives a musician a goal to work toward and in the end it gives them something tangible. But the result is a particular performance on a particular day. If they had gone into the studio a day before or a week later you’d likely hear something very different.

But when I think about the iconic jazz records that I own and have listened to hundreds of times, I can’t help but think that the moment they were recorded defines the music. When I later recall those records I’m hearing the voicings, comping, solos, instrument timbres, phrasings and melodies played only as they were that day in the studio. I can’t think of Kind of Blue, for example, without hearing every tune in order complete with solos. And when I play those tunes, those sounds sometimes inform what I’m playing. It may just be a phrase or a voicing, but the impact of those recordings is very powerful.

I even find that once I’ve recorded a certain tune, I’ll often recall phrases that I’ve played! I then need to choose to go with that preexisting idea or to deliberately try to find something else.

So there is an interesting problem here. Jazz is improvised and needs to exist in the moment. It’s a living art form. Recordings give a certain definitive finality to a body of work.

Is this a dichotomy? I’m curious to know what other musicians think. Do you prefer one over the other?

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this is the 3rd part to my essays on creativity. part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

Several years ago I had an epiphany:

I had been granted an extra year of life.

It was around the time of my birthday and I was assessing what I had accomplished as a musician. Although I never doubted my musicality, I was wondering if it made sense to keep pursuing music. My career just didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Perhaps it was time to switch gears and put my creative skills to use elsewhere. These thoughts continued for several days as I explored more and more possibilities and became more and more depressed. Then suddenly, the day before my birthday, I realized that I was a year younger than I had thought!

I felt that the universe had been given me an extra year. This would be the year to say yes to any musical project that came my way. This would be the year to get over being fearful of playing music the way I heard it and with the people I most wanted to play with. This would be my year of grace; my own sabbatical. Most of all, this would be the year to be open to any crazy ideas I had, to learn anything I felt I needed to know, to experiment, try new things and allow myself to fail.

It may very well be that allowing the possibility of failure may be the most crucial of these realizations. Without the possibility of failure growth is almost impossible. Safety and creativity do not go hand in hand.

Once I had committed to the idea that I had an extra year of life amazing things started to happen. Doors began to open that I hadn’t even noticed before. All kinds of performing opportunities came my way, many of which I might not have pursued or followed-through in the past. Some required endless games of telephone tag with club owners, some required taking on whole new areas of studying, listening and endless hours of practicing, and some required facing the scary “truth” of the recording studio.

Let’s face it. None of us know how much time we have. The notion of an extra year is a little bizarre. But I’ve found it to be profoundly powerful. Each day is a gift. You never know what is lurking around the corner. But if you can tell yourself that this minute, this hour, this day or this year is extra time that you’ve been granted to pursue a dream, it changes everything.

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