Archive for October, 2010


“The Days of Wine and Roses laugh and run away, like a child at play, through the meadow lands and through the passing door, a door marked never more that was not there before.  The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze, filled with memories of the golden smile that introduced me to the days of wine and rose and you.” – Johnny Mercer (lyrics to “Days of Wine and Roses” from the 1962 film of the same name).

A while ago, I heard several arguments on the complexity of music, particularly of jazz.  As a jazz student, I have spent many, many hours studying this style of music, studying improvisational techniques, and ways to play a song “well.”  One song that I know I can play well is a Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer tune called, “Days of Wine and Roses.”  Here is a copy of the lead sheet (sadly, it is very difficult to convert something from a Finale notepad file to a file that I can use on this blog, but this should do).  So, we will now examine how to approach playing the “head” as a saxophone player (or any horn player), how to improvise a solo, how to “comp” chords on piano, how to play a bass line through this (on bass or piano), and finally what the drummer would have to do.  Keep in mind that all of this is done in the minds of musicians.  We see nothing more than the lead sheet that is below.  Nothing else.  All the rest of the decisions are made in our heads, and are not made until we begin to play.  This is what allows jazz to be so free and conversational.  Now, here is the lead sheet.  One short note, The first and second endings are not noted on this sheet.  The first ending starts at the Fmaj7 chord before the D-, and goes to the repeat.  The second ending is right after the repeat.

Now, as a saxophone player, the first thing that I must do is play the melody.  However, this would be very boring if I simply played what is written.  The first thing that I will do is make sure that I walk down on the whole note.  So, I may play A-G-F-E natural.  The E natural against the Eb7+4 chord creates a nice tension, which is then resolved by going to the Eb.  The E natural is the flat nine of that chord, so that note will often work over that chord, seeing as the Eb chord is altered already (dominant 7, sharp 4).  Next, I might add a grupetto or turn on the D on the  A- chord.  Simple things like this, or anticipating phrasing makes the melody more enjoyable.  I would never play8-17 like written.  There is plenty of space for more turns, anticipation or delaying of rhythms, and countless other possibilities.  Next comes the solo.  We are in F major for the first chord, so I would likely start my solo running straight up the scale.  Start on an upbeat to give your lines momentum.  I would then be sure to highlight the +4 and b7 of the next chord, so I would play some combination of Db and A natural.  Highlight the +9 and b9 of the next chord, and then we go into G-.  Here, I would highlight the Bb and Eb that are outside of the key signature, and this is also a great place for a G blues scale, as it creates a nice contrast to the rather simple, happy melody.  Basically, from the D7+9 chord through the G- chords, one can use an Eb minor scale, G minor scale, or Bb major.  I prefer the Eb minor.  But don’t use too much of this yet, rather wait until the second chorus of solo to really hammer out the blues.  Next, we see our beloved Eb7+4 chord again.  Once again, emphasize the Db and the notes outside of the key.  Now, we likely have only really used simple melodies to this point.  We get to a point where we are in G major (and E minor, which are very similar) for a couple measures.  Use a lot of 16th notes here, and go into a double time sort of feel, come back to the A minor, and then arpeggiate the turnaround to emphasize the chord tones that are outside of the key.  Start each arpeggio in root position, but because we have two chords per measure, the second chord will not be arpegiatted in root position.  The arpeggios will be straight 8th notes, and will be as follows E-G-Bb-D-C#-A-G-E, then in the next measure, D-F-Ab-C-B-G-F-D.  We’re back to G-, so the rest of the turnaround is easy.  Second chorus is the same until we get to the second ending.  Really aim for the Bm7(b5) chord, and hit the F natural there.  E7+9 chord is a good place to show off the #9 (G natural).  Make up a nice closeing rhythm and you are done.

Now, for the piano player.  This is only a medium swing song, so if you are a good piano player, you want to play a couple of different voicings on this.  You don’t have to play the melody, so you can use both hands for chords.  The bass player plays the root, so you really want a rootless voicing.  For the +4 chords, you could choose a sort of sus voicing, where you play the sharp 4 for two beats, and then substitute the 3 for the +4 on the last two beats, or you could simply play a voicing like 7-9-3-+11 or something of the sort (the 11 is the +4).  The most important thing is that the 7 and 3 of each chord get voiced.  Why?  The 7 and 3 tell what kind of chord we have (major, dominant 7, minor, diminished, etc.)  As far as rhythm goes, any standard swing rhythm would work.  Vary rythms accordingly.  For guitar player, a Freddie Green style of strumming would work just fine.

For the bass player, you want to make sure that you hit the root on every chord.  The piano/guitar player is not playing the root, so they are using what is called a rootless voicing.  The bass can walk through most of this, but emphasizing the alterations on the chords is imperative.  For the drummer, I would recommend using brushes on this tune, but light sticks would be alright as well.  Make sure to carry the form through the song, and give a little crash to note the different sections of the song (repeat signs, 1st, 2nd ending, after each chorus).

The amazing thing about jazz is that all of the musicians have to know this and make their decisions within a few seconds.  So, that is a little demonstration of how to attack any jazz tune, and there are many far more complex than this one.  Hopefully this gives you a better appreciation for how layered the music is, and how much knowledge it takes to play these tunes.  If a jazz musician is lucky enough to have music, they have nothing more than the lead sheet, like above.  This small amount of written music allows for a greater freedom of expression and conversation between musicians, the essential elements of jazz.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Is there anything more important to our society than the First Amendment?  I doubt it.  In order to create a society of excellence in the sciences and arts, a society must be able to express itself freely.  Imagine a society where one can not say what one wants to say, or protest.  Imagine that John Lennon’s song, “Give Peace a Chance” was never allowed to be sung.  The Vietnam War protests were perhaps the pinnacle of our first amendment rights.  Those protests tested our country, and, regardless of what your opinion of that war was, that was a movement that was the identity of a decade of our country.  Without the freedom of speech, our nation would lose its identity.  What about artists?  Musical and visual artists would certainly not journey into this nation if they were not allowed to say what they want to say.  Would we want a nation (like the USSR) that banned the Beatles?  Is that what we want to be known for?

Freedom of the Press.  Without that, I could not write this blog.  In fact, in some countries, what I am writing right now could be considered illegal.  Is that the society that we, as Americans, want?  I should hope not.  We often hear how the press is “biased” or “unfair” and that may be true.  But, that is their right, it is up to us the people to make up our own minds.  The press can say what they want to say, and they can endorse the candidates they want to endorse.  I, for one, am proud that we have people in the media that care enough about our nation to make their opinions known.

As far as freedom of religion, I am a Roman Catholic, and in many places Catholics were presecuted.  Christians have been fed to lions, people have been martyred for their faith.  I am glad that we have a nation where Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics, Atheists, or anyone else can have the peace of mind that our government will not persecute them based on their beliefs.  Imagine not having the right to go to Church.  Imagine having to have church in the basement of a friend’s house because the country does not allow you to worship freely.  It ain’t a pretty sight.  To be sure, religious differences cause tension from time to time.  But would we not rather have a little tension than no freedom?

The right of people to assemble peacefully is integral to our society.  Martin Luther King Jr. was permitted to speak publically, and he called attention to the problem of racism in our country, and, thankfully, we now have a society that includes people of many races, and does not exclude people due to ethnic background.  We have the right to disagree with our elected officials.  We have the right to send them home, and place the people we want in charge of our country.  We are this nation.  We are America.  We are free peoples living together.  At times there may be struggles, at times, such as now, we may have two very different political parties and ideologies, but the important thing is that we are allowed to have this debate, to have these ideas.  Sure, at times tempers may flare, and we may have some rough days, but would we really have it any other way?

RIP DT

“He was a free-spirited artist.  His playing was so tasteful, and he was such a warm and good person to be around.  What a loss.”  Singer/Songwriter Todd Snider on the loss of saxophonist Dennis Taylor

Dennis Taylor plays the saxophone on May 1, 2010, with the band Dick50 at B.B. King's Blues Club in New York City. Mr. Taylor died on Sunday at the age of 56 just prior to releasing his first solo album

On Monday, I recieved some terrible news.  At the age of 56, my saxophone teacher, Dennis Taylor, died of a heart attack while on tour with the Delbert McClinton band in Texas.  He was a very special person, and everybody loved him.  He cared very deeply for his students, and he went out of his way for them.  For me, a couple of examples come to mind.

First of all, he got me my first paying gig.  He gave me the name and number of a big band that was looking for a saxophonist, and a little over one year later, I still perform with the Merchants of Cool Big Band based out of Columbia, TN.  Along those same lines, we had a show in downtown Nashville, in Centennial Park.  Mr. Taylor asked me for the time, and he, along with his wife Karen, came out to listen to us.  I did not know this at the time, and he did not tell me this, but I found out later that he had given up a gig to come to that show.

I had my last lesson with him three days before the tragic heart attack.  He was working with me to find a studio and musicians to make my pre-screening tapes for my college auditions.  He cared so much about his students.  He was at the school concerts, honor band concerts, virtually anywhere I played.  But, more importantly, he did the little things.  He greeted everybody with a smile, he was quick with a joke, he laughed, and he was just a really kind-hearted person.  He never had an unkind word.  He was positive and encouraging, always.

He was a great musician as well.  He had been with Delbert McClinton for the last 2.5 years.  He had played on 4 Grammy nominated albums, and had recorded and toured with Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, Buckwheat Zydeco, Delbert McClinton, Mike Ferris and many others.  He had just finished recording his first solo album.  Delbert McClinton’s newest album, Aquired Taste features a blistering saxophone solo by Mr. Taylor on the track, “People Just Love to Talk.”  That album was #1 on the Blues charts for several weeks.   Just five months ago, Mr. Taylor appeared on national radio and television as Delbert McClinton and Dick50 performed on the Imus in the Morning program on April 30, 2010.  After the final song, Mr. Taylor’s playing garnered the attention and praise of host Don Imus.  Mr. Taylor was an outstanding musician, a great teacher, a fine friend and simply a very special person.  Indeed, the world lost a great man, and we will miss him dearly.  Please keep him and his family in your prayers.

If you would like to hear some of Mr. Taylor’s playing, here is a link to a 1998 performance.

There is also a beautiful video tribute to Mr. Taylor.  It is 7 minutes long, and the sax does not come in until the 4th minute, but it is well worth it.

Nashville saxophonist Dennis Taylor poses for a picture. Mr. Taylor was known as a kind-hearted person and an outstanding musician. As bandmate Kevin McKendree said, "Dennis had an old-school kind of tone that I don't hear in anyone else's playing anymore. He knew how to make it sing."

Bill Evans

In this portrait, Bill Evans stis at the piano. Evans was one of the most influential pianists in jazz, and was Miles Davis's pianist in the record "Kind of Blue."

“It must have been made in heaven.” – Drummer Jimmy Cobb referring to the record “Kind of Blue.”

As I prepare for my college auditions as a jazz major, I have had to learn quite a few new (and fairly difficult tunes).  Among them are the Miles Davis classic “All Blues,” Charlie Parker’s famous blues, “Billie’s Bounce,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Black Orpheus,” “Valse Hot,” and “Tune-Up.”  In order to prepare these tunes, I must do quite a bit of listening as well.  It was then that I discovered this story.

While listening to Middle Tennessee’s only jazz radio station, WMOT Jazz 89 (89.5 F.M.), I heard a re-run from the program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz from 1973.  It featured renowned jazz pianist Bill Evans, and he played a number of great tunes, including “Days of Wine and Roses.”  Then, Evans began to discuss the recording of the Miles Davis record, Kind of Blue, one of the most well renowned jazz recordings in history.  It featured Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Cannonball Adderly on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.  It is an amazing recording, in fact, Cobb once said, “It must have been made in heaven.”  Anyway, the second track on the album is called “Blue in Green.”  It is an outstanding track, and the credits say that Miles Davis wrote it.

Bill Evans begs to differ.  Evans claims that he was really the one that wrote the song, saying, “Yeah, I wrote it, but it doesn’t really matter.  Miles is getting the royalties, but from getting to play with Miles I got an awful lot of things as well.”  Amazing.  In a world caught up in litigations, here was Bill Evans speaking about the music itself.  Greed did not possess Evans.  He was not worried about who collected the check, he was concerned with making the world of music better.  It was an inspiring story, and I was glad to hear that, especially considering the rest of the Bill Evans story.

Evans died in 1980 at the age of 51.  His death has been called, “the longest suicide ever.”  He was addicted to heroine for much of his life, and when he finally became clean, he fell into the temptation of cocaine.  He died a violent death – a combination of cirosis, a bleeding ulcer and pneumonia.  Evans was often poor or penniless due to his drug addictions.  We can always look at the bad side of Bill Evans, but why should we?  Why not remember Bill Evans for what he was?  He was a musician that changed the world forever, changed the world of jazz, and a man that did it without a whole lot of pride.  A man that let Miles Davis take his recording credit because he felt that he gained more than money from having the opportunity to record an album with such great musicians.  For that, Bill Evans, you deserve a lot of praise.

Also, if you would like to check out Kind of Blue, the first real example of modal jazz, it is a great record.  My favorite track, “Flamenco Sketches,” can be found here.

John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis and Bill Evans record together for the record "Kind of Blue." The record is still considered today one of the most influential jazz recordings of all time.

Typefaces

Do typefaces matter?  Absolutely!  However, I think that this article makes them out to be a little bit too important.  I mean to make so much of a font that one would say, “If you think of ice cream, it (Helvetica) is a cheap, nasty, supermarket brand made of water, substitutes and vegetable fats. The texture is wrong and it leaves a little bit of a funny aftertaste.”  Too me, that seems a little obsessive.  Readability is important, so I generally like Georgia or Calibri, but other than that, I am not too picky, and I do not think it is so important that there needs to be a lot of obsession over it.