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Sam Most: New Jazz Standards

Last week, I taught at the Great Basin Jazz Camp and our trumpet guru Carl Saunders brought in this newly released album featuring the recently deceased jazz flutist Sam Most that he helped to produce. Carl’s a great writer, and the album is nothing but his tunes. We faculty sat around one night after data-dumping jazz into kids all day and listened to it front to back, and not just I, but Carl (who had already listened to it many, many, many times), Scott Whitfield, and the rest of the faculty (minus two who had gigs in Boise) were entranced. Sam has bebop chops, and had a unique ability to play clear, recognizable, and unique melodies through virtually any kind of harmonic progression.

Carl observed that part of his standard recording technique in solos is to stop once he hits a clam and backtrack to his last breath, and re-record, and play the lick again. He has a fantastic musical memory which is evident in his playing. He said that when he was recording Sam, Sam was playing fantastic lick after fantastic lick, and would occasionally hit a clam, and the first time Carl stopped recording to go back and fix it, Sam replied something like “I’m not used to doing it that way.” But, back he went, and unlike Carl, never played the same thing twice yet maintained a constant stream of well-crafted original lines. Scott, no stranger to playing well-constructed lines, summed up the end result thus: “Jesus!”

I gotta agree. Sam performed one of the best jazz quartet albums I’ve heard in years, and it being his last makes it more special. Carl and Sam were good friends for years.

Oh, and the scat solo is [awesome overflow error].

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Articles on New World Brass website

I have written some articles for New World Brass, based on some of what I’ve included on my blog here. New World Brass is a young but ambitious website resource for brass musicians. Check it out here:

New World Brass

and my first article published there:

Introduction to Intonation

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Music Review: Mystic Canyon

Bill Alves is what you might call an experimental composer. Some of what he experiments with falls into my area of interest: just intonation. But, as an experimenter, he writes some very beautiful, approachable stuff. This album, Mystic Canyon, consists of two of his compositions, written for solo violin and gamelan orchestra.

What is a gamelan orchestra, you might ask?

In simplest terms, it is an Indonesian pitched percussion ensemble. Unlike with American ensembles which tend to be built around sets of standardized instruments, gamelan ensembles consist of sets of instruments designed specifically to be played together. Every gamelan orchestra is unique. Thus, this music is written for a specific gamelan orchestra: the HMC American Gamelan. That means that unless you happen to live in southern California, probably the only way you’ll get to hear them is indirectly, through recordings like this one.

So, the music:

Susan Jensen and her violin complement the orchestra very well. The best word I have to describe the sonic experience is “warm.” It’s all very beautiful stuff, and well-recorded so that the richness of Susan’s tone and the various resonating percussion instruments generate some very intense and varied tone colors throughout the spectrum of human hearing. It’s rhythmically intense, too. Some sections of the movement drive forward relentlessly with strong beats; other sections are almost like puzzles with very well-executed polyrhythms. Some of the approach reminds me of American minimalism, while maintaining a fairly rapid phrasing pace, avoiding the stretching of time perception that the well-known extreme minimalism strives for.

I prefer to listen to this album intensely, with very minimum background noise, although it also works very well for passive listening, too. Like all music, it’s not for everyone, but for what it is, on it’s own terms, it’s extremely good quality.

You can listen to sound samples here, thanks to Bill and his website:

Mystic Canyon

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More Sagittal-specific tools

I’ve gone through and copied my musical essays and the like to a separate page list on this blog – go look under “musical tools” to see. Mainly, this is to make it a bit easier to navigate to the different things I’ve written, rather than scrolling down this main page.

I’ve also added a list of chords, all notated in Sagittal notation. I figured that it would save me a lot of time writing music if I had a reference like this written out, and I make an appeal to crowd-sourcing to help check for errors. First, I’ve added just the list of pure-Sagittal chords, and it’s not really a complete list (as if any list really can be) but it’s pretty good for now. I’ll be adding a Mixed Sagittal version of the same chart soon.

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Planning For The Future

I often have heard that it’s wise to choose goals to reach for in the future – usually something on the order of a 1-year goal and a 10-year goal (with some minor variation on the time scales) to organize my plans into near-future goals and far-future goals. I have recently realized that I have been a bit foolish about how I do this. I would choose what are essentially career-type goals: attain mastery of orchestra writing, hike in the Rocky Mountains for two weeks, find a great wife and start a family, and other things like this. While this kind of thinking can be useful, it can ignore a basic fact of human psychology, that we are really short-term reward creatures. These goals really should be thought of as short-term rewards that I want to be receiving in 1 year or 10 years, an that boils down to not career goals, but what do I want a typical day to be like? Would it be similar to my typical days right now, or different? How?

I don’t really know. It seems important.

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Music Review: Casting For Gravity

The 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival was packed with great lineups on every stage this year. I did not go every day, being somewhat busy, but I was able to go see some of two days. The first day, the notable performance that I saw was the David Binney Quartet playing at the Pyramid stage.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, it is a city park that is adjacent to the Detroit River, just south of the highly visible GM Renaissance Center building complex. The plaza has a large amphitheater stage, and a smaller stage, the Pyramid stage, so-called because of a block pyramid structure that extends the seating above ground level by about 5 feet. There was also a small mobile stage set up in a small clump of trees called the Waterfront Stage, and another, large mobile stage set up next to Campus Martius Park a couple of blocks up Woodward Avenue from Hart Plaza, called the Main Stage. David Binney presented a great show on the Pyramid stage, and had Chris Potter sit in on a tune as well. The group communication was superb, they played with technical brilliance, and they presented some great jazz tunes with engaging, interesting dramatic forms.

Now, I am a bit picky when it comes to sound engineers. And, for some reason, the Detroit Jazz Fest, every time I’ve been down there, seems to feature sound engineers who are in charge of each stage who specifically abuse one of my primary pet peeves: having sound levels be too loud. This year was unfortunately no exception. The stage next to Campus Martius Park was absolutely the worst in this regard – way too loud, and unbalanced to boot. It was extremely hard to tell what music was going on. After seeing part of a show there, I quickly decided to go elsewhere. The small Waterfront Stage was just as bad, and absolutely unneeded, because a clump of trees presents the simplest possible acoustic environment for a sound engineer to work with. The Amphitheater Stage was less bad, and I give that one room for error, because it presents an extremely complex acoustic environment because of it’s multitude of shapes. The Pyramid Stage probably is the second-simplest acoustic environment, and by far was the best sounding stage at the entire festival. It wasn’t too loud, things were relatively balanced, the performers could hear each other. All together, it looked like a competent sound engineer worked there.

So, come the next day, I went there first. Both, because I knew that it would sound good, and because I wanted to first see the Scott Gwinnell Dectet perform there. They sounded great (of course) and the next group was one that I had never heard of: the Donny McCaslin Group. Which brings me to the focus of this little essay.

Casting For Gravity is track 8 and the album title of the Donny McCaslin Group’s most recent musical album release. It is overall a highly excellent listening experience, filled with intensity and depth, so that multiple listenings return continually heightened interest. Donny plays great, and for some reason has a keen interest on this album with seventh and ninth intervals. Jason Lindner is not a keyboardist so much as is a virtual orchestra of interesting and distorted sound samples. Tim Lefebvre is a groove master who contributes his own take on adding distortions and other pedal effects. And Mark Guiliana is a freak of nature on drumset, somehow mixing extreme aggressiveness with extreme nuance, while effortlessly negotiating some quite rhythmically complex lines that the group navigates. Producing the album is no one else than David Binney, the alto saxophonist who had delivered such a great show the day before. Obviously, this little musical mecca is dealing with some really good ideas over in New York, where they are from.

My favorite song (at least right now; every one has great things to listen for) is the third: Losing Track Of Daytime. It’s melodic, it’s rhythmically intense, it has an interesting dramatic form as the song progresses, and there are a couple of crazily intense climaxes that the group hits with unabandoned gusto. It’s also a wealth of transcribing for some enterprising musician wanting to extend their own jazz language.

When I saw them at the jazz festival, I knew nothing of this. But, I decided to check out a couple of their tunes. At first, their style threw me off a bit, because they defied expectations: playing a form of jazz fusion that was completely unlike the sound of Scott Gwinnell’s Dectet before them. After a couple of minutes of listening, I determined that I did indeed like what they were doing, and left to check out the Amphitheater stage, which was nearby, on which Kenny Garrett was doing a performance. Honestly, I think that my brain was working things out behind the scenes pretty quickly, because I listened to Kenny for about 5 minutes and then decided to go back to the Pyramid Stage and see the rest of Donny’s set. What I described above about the album, was even better in live performance. It was, to my ears, the best set of the entire festival, and I think that the other audience members would agree with me. They had us on the edge of out seats, clapping hands, and cheering after particularly potent climaxes. All in all, a show that I think will stick with me for a long, long time.

Later in the day, I meandered over next to the sound booth of the Pyramid Stage, and was uncomfortably surprised that right there, the sound levels were loud as hell. Where the rest of the audience area sounded good, right next to the sound booth sounded awful. Maybe the good sound at that stage was a mistake?

Maybe, maybe not. But I’m glad how it turned out anyway.

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Music Review: Infernal Machines by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

As a musician, I listen to music. When I mean listen, I mean that I listen attentively. No distractions. If I hear music in the background environment somewhere, I automatically clue into it, and often have to make the deliberate decision to ignore it. If it’s worth ignoring.

This album is definitely worth undivided attention.

Why, might you ask?

I’ll tell you.

This album has the unique attributes of complexity and catchiness. The melodies are singable, it’s very rhythmically groovable, every song has good dramatic form, and the orchestration is daring and colorful.

It also has defied my expectations of what a jazz big band can sound like. The Secret Society is set up similarly to the Kenton Orchestra, with a full rhythm section and ten brass. They also incorporate some modern electronic effects. As I consider myself a constant student of musical composition, I am always on the lookout for good ideas, and this defiance of what a big band should sound like is in the direction of a lot of great ideas. In this music, I hear a solid base of jazz history, and I also hear cutting-edge modern ideas. I hear, in the rhythmic and orchestration approach, bits of steampunk (it is supposed to be a steampunka album, after all, although I consider this stylistic influence minor) the so-called post-minimalism of Steve Reich and John Adams, and the unique modern approach of Bob Brookmeyer. Which makes sense, given that Darcy studied with Bob for many years. Now, everyone will listen to music in their own way. The aspect that to me is the most striking about this is the polyrhythms. They are probably the most danceable of complex ployrhythms that I’ve ever seen outside of good afro-cuban music. To get an example of what I mean, just listen to the beginning of the second song, Zeno. It’s intense stuff. Bonus points if you can work out the rhythmic ratios.

Infernal Machines was released in 2009, and has become something of a standard of excellence amongst many of my jazz-musician friends since then. It also managed to get a nomination for the 2011 Best Jazz Large Ensemble Album Grammy, but lost out to Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard. Why 2011, when it was released on 2009? I have no idea.

So, if you enjoy listening with undivided attention like I do, this album reaps great dividends. If you are so inclined, you may visit the Secret Society website, and if you live near New York, go listen to them live at The Jazz Gallery. Darcy also uploaded some videos of a 2011 performance to Youtube.

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