Posts Tagged ‘improvisation’

I first met Ryan Purchase at klezkanada. Ryan and I have since played together in a funky klezmer band – The Lithuanian Empire – and we have participated in free improvisation/klezmer workshops with Alan Bern both at klezkanda and at Yiddish Summer Weimar, in Weimar Germany. Ryan is a wonderful trombonist and composer. He toured Canada over the last couple of summers with Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers, and I got to hear this fabulous band both at the Toronto Jazz Festival as well as at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Ryan is currently working on a project entitled Morphology of a Lover. Is that a great title? Ryan has set up an idiegogo page to raise funds to mix, master and release this fascinating sounding project. I recently emailed Ryan a few questions about his music, his insights and this project. I was thrilled with his response.

  1. give us a little background info about you as a composer and a trombonist

I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, and as a kid I was luckier than I knew to be a part of three amazing musical organizations: the Regina Lions’ Band, the Campbell Collegiate music program, and the South Saskatchewan Youth Orchestra. Between the three, an average week usually consisted of rehearsals for marching band, three concert bands, two jazz bands, a jazz combo, a dixieland band, and a full orchestra. Usually there was some music theory and history in there, too. And I had a private lesson every week from the age of 10 to 24. I had some incredible teachers, and I went through a lot of these programs during their “golden age.” After high school, I wanted to be an orchestral trombonist, and a spot opened up in the Regina Symphony Orchestra. I worked my ass off and won the audition, so during my undergrad, I “worked nights” as the assistant principal trombonist, under the watchful eye of principal trombonist Dick Raum, who’d been my private teacher since I was 13. It was a real apprenticeship, the kind you only read about in books about medieval blacksmiths. I went full-out band nerd and got really interested in music theory, which informed my playing and also led to an interest in writing my own music. I studied enough composition at the University of Regina that I could have finished with a composition degree, if I’d taken an advanced counterpoint course instead of a course on Mahler, but I have no regrets.

I went to grad school for performance at the University of Toronto, and then followed a girl to Edmonton, where I lived for 7 years. During that time I did a lot of freelancing and casual writing, and I realized that I had a lot of issues with the world of the orchestral gig, so I abandoned that career path. Eventually I settled on klezmer and improvisation as my preferred niches, and kept on writing chamber music. People seemed increasingly to dig what I was writing, which felt great. I had a devoted group of players who would perform my music again and again, which was amazing; I’ve met a lot of great modern composers who are lucky to get a piece played twice.

The thing is, I’ve always been a performer, so when I’m writing, I ask “is this fun to play?” and if it’s not, I really have to think hard about why I think it belong there – and 9 times out of 10, it gets cut.

2. what is your approach to free improvisation?

It’s very simple, in theory: I just listen to the music that’s happening and stay open enough to hear what it needs next. That can be anything, including silence. Maybe especially silence. Sometimes my ego goes, “hey, you haven’t played in a while, it’s your turn,” and I think “that’s true, but how would I feel if I was in the audience and the trombonist started playing? No… I don’t think trombone belongs here.” Coming from an orchestral background, I know very well that sometimes the trombones won’t be heard for 20 minutes at a time. And some players get pissed off about that sort of thing, as if the composer wasn’t being diplomatic enough. Well it’s not a composer’s job to be diplomatic at all! Do they think a painter, painting a sunset, thinks “I haven’t used any neon green paint in a while, and I don’t want the tube of neon green to feel bad, so I’d better put some over here”? Hell no! When you’re a player, or a good composer, you’re at the service of the music, it dictates what you get to do next. It’s a dictator. Sure, you can overthrow it whenever you want and you won’t get thrown in prison, but if you’re not first and foremost in the service of the music, then you have no business being on the stage or in the studio. That goes for improvised music just as much as for composed music, and everything in between.

     3. what is the role of improvisation in your compositions? 

That really varies. Some times I have entire sections that are meant to be improvised, sometimes I’m quite strict. But even within that strictness, I always leave a lot of room for the performer to bring their voice, their interpretation. I don’t know how to write any other way, and I don’t care to. It’s interesting, I’ve had some very talented musicians play my stuff, and if they don’t really pour themselves into the piece, it doesn’t work. Just falls completely flat. Which is really disappointing, I mean REALLY. Having someone shit all over something you’ve created is like watching your kid get beat up after school. But then someone else, maybe even a player with less training and less control over their instrument, really communicates something about themselves through the music, and it’s like watching your kid fall in love. Maybe those are strange comparisons, and they’re certainly hyperbolic, but there’s truth there. After a string of poor performances a few years ago, I made the decision to exercise more control over who gets to play my music. I used to be very happy to put my music out there and let everyone interpret it differently, I saw a lot of beauty in that idea. But there are some players who mistake fragility for weakness, and they just steamroll over the thing, and the only thing they communicate is “I can’t believe I agreed to play this, what’s next?” It’s a real drag. As a performer I really make an effort NEVER to do that. I elevate everything someone’s written for me, to the best of my ability. Even if I secretly don’t like the piece.

In the last few years, I’ve been writing a lot less, and when I have written, it’s been almost completely improvised pieces. And if you get the right performers, they’re great. Performers who listen and trust and support. I’m not interested in listening to or playing with anyone else.

     4. you have spent a lot of time in Weimar, Germany studying with Alan Bern. Can you tell us some of the things you learnt from him? 

Discipline and vulnerability. Those, I think, are the cornerstones. From discipline comes the ability to listen, to improve my musical vocabulary, to know when to state what I need and when to let go of what I think I need. From vulnerability comes trust, compassion, and not always needing to be right. Once I experienced the musical rewards of all these things, I started to wonder whether they could be more generally applied to my life, and I’ve been having a really great time ever since. Those sessions in Weimar have changed my life.

     5. when you’re playing free, do you prefer to have a “plan” which you discuss beforehand or just go for it and see what happens? do you talk about if afterward? 

I’m a pretty analytical guy, so yeah, I always like to discuss it afterward. If I can get my hands on a recording of what just happened, I’ll listen to it obsessively. Over and over. It’s not narcissism, or if it is, I don’t care. It’s less about pumping myself up and more about having the chance to relive a great moment. Who wouldn’t do that?

In terms of having a plan, I think in general, yes, I like to have one. I like parameters, limitations, rules. Even if they get broken, that’s a statement. I don’t think we’d be as impressed with Michaelangelo if they’d just thrown open the doors of the Sistine Chapel and said “do whatever.” Some of the least interesting art I’ve witnessed, or made, happens when the leader gives everyone carte blanche.

In order to feel like I can be part of something meaningful without any agreed-upon parameters, I need to know the other people’s playing pretty well. In fact, that’s something I like to have in place either way, but especially when we’re just “going for it.”

       6. tell us about your latest project and your indiegogo fundraising campaign

It took me a long time to figure out how to talk about it. It’s hard to describe without explaining the whole process. But from the point of view of the listener, it might be best to call it “improvised chamber music.” It’s a recording of me and 5 of my favorite improvising musicians, working together to play 9 distinctive movements of a 40-minute piece called “Morphology of a Lover.” It’s a musical portrait, but not of anyone in particular – each of us had to conjure up our own idea(s) of a lover, real or imaginary, and we never once talked about what those ideas were for each of us. Each movement is one part of that portrait; the movements have titles like Her Fingers, Her Breasts, Her Hair, Her Wings, Her Tentacles… things like that.

But what really makes the project unique is that none of the musicians were in the studio at the same time. I recorded them one by one. And there’s a bit of a story behind why I made that choice: originally, this recording was to take place in Germany, with completely different people (except for Christian Dawid, who was part of the original concept and appears on the final product, and I’m so lucky he’s such a globetrotter and has a Canadian girlfriend). I went over there with recording gear, and I couldn’t find a good recording space, and nobody’s schedule lined up, and I discovered my computer wasn’t really up to the task, and I got sick, and so on and so on. And eventually I had to make a decision: do I summon up every bit of inner strength, and pool all my resources into forcing this thing to take place, or do I accept that the universe (internal, external, who knows) is telling me “not now”? And I’m so glad I chose the latter. It wasn’t laziness or a lack of drive; it was acceptance. I really want to do something with those original players someday: Alan Bern, Sasha Lurje, Vanessa Vromans, Alina Bauer, Szilvia Csaranko, Francesca Ter-Berg, and others – but everything was telling me this wasn’t the time. I called the whole thing off and then got a little depressed about it. Then I realized, “this is my reality. All my favorite people to work with are spread out all over the globe, in Latvia, Argentina, Montreal, Berlin, and me in Ottawa… it’s crazy to think I could ever get them all in one place at one time. What if I scaled it down to just Montrealers and Ottawans, and built a compositional structure that was well-suited to recording one person at a time? I was instantly pretty excited by the idea.

I recorded myself improvising, using the movement titles as inspiration. I went to Montreal and recorded bassist Joel Kerr improvising, sometimes with my pre-recorded tracks in his headphones. Then I deleted that original track of myself. Next, I recorded clarinetist Christian Dawid in Montreal, sometimes with Joel in his headphones, and then trumpetress Amy Horvey, sometimes with Joel or Christian in hers. I came back to Ottawa and recorded drummer Mike Essoudry, sometimes with Joel, Christian, or Amy in his headphones, and then I recorded accordionist/singer Megan Jerome the same way. Finally, I recorded myself, either solo or playing along with one or more of the other 5. I ended up with about 7 hours of material. I broke the 7 hours down into hundreds of little chunks, from 12 seconds to 5 minutes. Then I began the really fun part of reassembling those chunks into a cohesive piece, one movement at a time. I wasn’t sure if I’d end up with music that fit my original ideas and titles, so I was prepared to let go of it and let the music dictate the title. But it really worked, better than I could have imagined.

The next step is to have it professionally mixed and mastered by Matt Ouimet, get the CD design, and physically produce the CDs themselves. The musicians also need to be appropriately compensated.

The campaign can be found at here. With indiegogo, as with many of these crowdsourcing sites, contributors get certain “perks” or incentives for donating at a specific dollar level. I’m offering album art suitable for framing, signed CDs, poetry on postcards, bonus tracks, and for 5 donors at the very top level, I’ll create a piece of music just for each of them, using the same techniques as in “Morphology of a Lover.”

I really hope everyone digs it. I think it represents some of the best work I’ve done.

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I decided to wear pants – for the mosquitos. sandals for the drive, but low boots just in case the bugs were out in full force. A choice of two sweaters to protect my arms from bites, only because I didn’t relish the idea of industrial strength deep woods off for sportsmen for ever on my favorite one. My wool felt Busterish looking pork pie hat, just in case I felt like being Buster at the outset.

I didn’t think about the wind.

I didn’t think about the cold.

I ended up wearing the boots, both sweaters, the hat plus a borrowed coat ten sizes too big.

The brave Barrie folk brought chairs, hot drinks, coats, hats and blankets. They knew it was going to be a blustery night for Buster.

You start with a large patch of green by the water. Heritage Park. Is that a great name for a park by the water? (are you listening, Toronto?) Stakes were driven solidly into the ground to tether the screen in place. It took six people to get the screen up. A giant balloon in the shape of a movie screen – kind of like those plastic jumping castles turned on its side, being filled with air to keep its shape.



The wind won the first round. But with one hour before screening, the stakes were unstaked and restaked in a more sheltered area, sound system in place, lap top, dvd (for back-up), blue ray and projector set up on the table and keyboard ready to go! Bravo to Robin Munroe of the Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival and to Claudine Benoit and John Arruda of the Barrie Film Festival!!

During that hour I sat in my car memorizing as much of my score as I could. No stand clips were going to hold any music in place. (not that I had remembered to bring them, d’oh!) I was loving the idea of improvising.

We even had popcorn!

It was a beautiful blustery bitingly chilly night, I was dressed ridiculously, my fingers were chilled to the bone, and I loved every minute of it!

Thank you, Barrie Jazz and Blues Festival and Barrie Film Festival!


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part one:

what’s the difference between playing tunes and free improv?




but surely…


part two:

they’re the same thing. same rules. tunes are free and free are tunes.

the only difference is that when you’re playing a tune the form is inherent.

when playing free the form is extrinsic. it’s still there. you just need to find it or allow it to find you.


part three:

look. it’s all about composition. even playing tunes is about composition.

not some rote play the head solo for a few choruses play the head. we’re done.

unless that’s intentional.

or you have 16 bars or 32 bars or whatever and a huge canvas to play with around inside, outside, through, over and beyond the tune.


part four:

free playing is composition, too.

it’s just a composition that reveals itself over time

and if the players are truly listening they’re on the lookout for it.

and by the way.

melody, rhythm, harmony, motifs, themes and variations, counterpoint

tonality (now there’s an idea) atonality

it all applies.


the gig.

okay. I admit it. I had a few ideas. But they were ideas of intent. Not actual melodic or harmonic ideas. The ideas occurred to me a few minutes before I was about to play. The ideas were kind of like guidelines that I wanted to share with my fellow musicians Mark Segger (drums) and Heather Segger (trombone). I said, let’s make things short. I mean get to an idea, play with it and end it. Then move on. Nothing meandering or aimless. Let’s listen for endings. Even if one part is simply one of us taking a solo, let’s be aware that that’s okay. I even had an idea that it could be like a suite. We could interrupt applause if we wanted to so that it didn’t get too broken up. The weird thing is, the audience got it. They only clapped once, but the next time we gave them breaks in the action, they didn’t clap. they knew. they were part of it.

It was part of Leftover Day Light at Somewhere There, the performance space of AIM (Association of Improvising Musicians) Toronto. It’s a series that goes on every Friday night featuring three groups (or solos) who play one set each. I asked Heather and Mark to join me. I had been playing some of my regular “jazz” gigs with Mark lately, so I thought it could really strengthen how we play “inside” if we did a completely “outside” gig together. I was curious about Heather, having heard wonderful comments about her playing. I also loved the idea of having a few trombone/vocal dialogues. I was attracted to the range, timbre and warmth of the trombone with vocals.

I came prepared. I brought my own mike and amp to sing through, even though I knew I primarily wanted to play the piano. I removed the entire bottom panel of the piano in order to get more volume. I had the advantage of having heard the piano in the first set and was determined to make it louder. I even brought my digital tape recorder to tape the performance, but, well, kind of forgot to hit the record button a second time, so it remained in standby mode. ugh. technology… or maybe it was just Friday the 13th.

While setting up I was talking to the audience about the recent concert I saw at the Vanguard. I thought about the ostinato bass line Geri Allen and Esperanza Spalding played on “Au Leu Cha” and it occurred to me that it would be a good place to begin our set. It was such a fun place to start, that I decided to end the set with it as well.

Here are some things I want to remember:

I love the concept of a suite

I love ostinatos. I’m going to use this one again.

trombone/voice. very cool

a good ending



one thing leads to another.

A few months ago I had a lesson and breakfast with Sylvie Courvoisier. Over breakfast we talked about free improvisation and form. She spoke about her concept of form as though you start with a fork, move to the spoon and the knife, perhaps the plate. There is some relationship, development and exploration as you move from place to place and branch out slowly,  giving time for an idea to develop and simmer rather than all of a sudden being across the road in unrelated territory. (or worse – my comment – meandering in a sea of nothingness where everyone is afraid to make a move).

In my lesson with Sylvie, we talked a lot about tone, weight and dropping into the keys. Sylvie introduced me to the Taubman Technique and encouraged me to seek out Edna Golandsky. But that’s another blog entry…

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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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Ethan Iverson interviews Keith Jarrett/1. voice leading

I really enjoy reading blogs and Ethan Iverson’s is particularly fascinating. The following piece contains an excerpt from his lengthy interview with Keith Jarrett. You can find the whole piece here. I highly recommend it!

(reprinted with permission. Thanks, Ethan)

Keith Jarrett: “Voice-leading is melody-writing in center of the harmony. If you can do it, you’re lucky enough to get to a moment where you can actually find more than one thing happening and trace those things at the same time to a logical next place…or illogical place–really it doesn’t matter sometimes!
It’s so different [than] what people think when they look at a lead sheet and build those blocks [the] way you learn harmony. They can’t get away from this structure of vertical playing with your left hand and then if you’re lucky, maybe a good idea in your right.

I try to spend time every day training myself to hear more than one thing at once. As a piano player it’s very easy to lapse into rote-style playing; chords in the left hand and melodies in the right hand. When you have to think and play quickly it works well. It’s a great way to learn tunes, it sounds good and helps you focus on melody while staying grounded in the harmony. Why not?

Several years ago Fred Hersch showed me a great exercise. I call it Fred’s 20 minute workout. It’s become part of my daily calisthenics. I choose a tune, take out a timer, set it for 20 minutes, choose a tempo and play. I often start simple, just playing the melody. Over and over. While playing the melody I’m focussing on sound, touch, dynamics, nuance of the phrase and mentally taking notes of motifs that could be developed later. I switch hands, and play it as well as I can with the left. I believe that if I’m truly focussed I could probably spend 20 minutes just on melody alone. There’s that much to think about!

Each chorus provides a new challenge. I just make them up as I go and try to stick to whatever it is for an entire chorus: melodic displacement, repeated notes, motivic developement, alternating RH and LH, etc.

I spend a lot of time playing 2 part counterpoint. To me, this is how you begin to learn about voice leading and to develop the ability to truly hear more than one thing at a time.

Ideally, I’ll do the 20 minutes X4 version of the exercise: 20 minutes playing 2 part counterpoint only, the next 20 minutes in 3 parts, the next 20 changing key and the last 20 doing whatever I want in the original key.

Committing to playing a 20 minute solo is not easy. You run out of licks really quickly. It’s an amazing way to develop your sound.

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Scat singing is about syllables. It’s also about words.

and being a word-o-phile, I like them.

Norma Winstone knows how to scat words

or just vowel sounds.

you don’t need a lot of boobops and shabaps.
The question is, how much of those words are worked out?

how much is totally improvised?

I suspect that there is a bit of both.
Or maybe a pool of ideas taken from the pool of words of each song and developed over time.

The thing is, you develop your own vocabulary.

of words, sounds, things that feel good and sound good.
So here’s what I did:

I recorded myself singing I Thought About You
and sang a bunch of choruses.

some just scatting to hear the sounds I like-
and some improvising words.

I’d already come up with a few from previous performances.

like clickety-clack clickety-clack

something about the train going down the track

and something about the whistle.


Much of what I improvised was clumsy, but in the clumsiness were particles of good ideas. You need to record yourself to hear them.

that way you’re not judging and dismissing as you do it.

rather listen with an ear to distill, extract and go mining.

I then took out my notebook and wrote down phrases, words, sounds.

how many ways can I put the words together?

One of my favorite scenes in the Scorcese film about Dylan is of Bob reading a sign. It’s a bunch of rules and conditions and stuff.

he takes each word and puts it with other words  from a different part of the sign, creating coherent absurd phrases.

It’s a beautiful insight into his creative process

It’s how you put it all together that counts.

words are just, well, words.

and in the context of a song you have the actual words and melody, and

having stated that, you can then have the story you create about the song.

there’s no whistle, no clickety-clack

in Johnny Mercer’s lyrics

but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be one

in mine.

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