Friday, August 5, 2011

Playing By Ear vs Reading Music: The Struggle

Re-blogged from, for which it was originally written

Impossible Piece By Rick

I’ve always felt more at home playing music by ear. Even when I was browbeaten as a child into reading music during my countless years of piano lessons (16 years to be exact), I would struggle with my Clementi, while waiting patiently for my teacher to get annoyed and play it through for me, after which I would be able to play it down ten times better than before. I suppose this is just how I was built, and I’ve always struggled with it. As my piano playing progressed, I was forced into reading more and more difficult pieces, out of necessity rather than want, because if you want to learn music in suburbia, you have to read it. This is surely why I gravitated toward jazz. Once, when I was about twelve, I think, I was learning a standard and I would fake my way through the melody, so I could hurry up and solo; running up and down the changes with the modes and chord scale relationships I had just learned (or figured out). My father, a bass player, laughed at me saying, “you can solo over the changes before you know the tune!” Yes, I was ignorant at the time to the intricacies of songwriting, and saw tunes as blocks of chords to be conquered rather than cultivated. 

Eventually there came a point where I could read through any lead sheet and work my way around the chords, with no regard for the black circles with the little stems growing out of them. I was very much at odds with reading. In the Middle School big band, the music given to me sometimes had many notes written in grand staff, with no chord symbols to provide a buffer (I suppose they do this because they don’t trust middle school pianists to play changes? Though, in the professional big band world, your lucky if the arranger writes the extensions he uses let alone the written out chords!). In these cases I struggled to combine my poor reading skills with my ear, and was usually able to develop a happy medium that the band director was unable to detect, though there was certainly inner anguish and disappointment. 

I operated like this for a few years. every time beating myself up for my lackluster reading skills, yet finding some solace in my ability to hear something and regurgitate it onto the piano. It wasn’t really until college that I found a true passion for classical music, past playing it out of necessity that is, that I seriously boned up on my grand staff sight-reading capabilities (and its something I still struggle with today, of course).   

This divide has been going on forever. Even in Mesopotamia, there was written music, and I’m sure there were the traditionalists who disagreed with the need to write down their music. Some of the really old school jazz cats can’t read a note of music, but can play on tunes for days using their ears. Conversely, many classical musicians can read for days and days, but ask them to improvise and the room becomes silent. I don’t think that it’s a comment on their musicianship, but just shows the apparent divide between the two schools. Now, the argument can be made that both skills are required to be a total musician. One famous method for developing both is the Suzuki method, which teaches children the importance of both playing by ear and reading. Perhaps the greatest expert on this particular issue would be Keith Jarrett, who has played all types of music, and likes to completely take one hat off while putting on the other. Keith is famous (or infamous) for his completely improvised solo piano concerts (two of which were recently released), and he is also famous for his interpretations of classical pieces, like the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. In fact, Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus recently sat down with Keith and they talked about some of these issues at length. The interview is lengthy, but worth the read. At one point he talks about improvising cadenzas inside a classical piece stating (even as a jazz artist), “…I can’t mix both sides, the improvising with the classical performance…there are so many good cadenzas out available already. I don’t want to get in to the part of me that isn’t interpreter.” 

To conclude, well, I guess there is no, and will never be, a conclusion to this discussion. Myself, I will continue to play by ear and read, preferring the former to the latter, but do both. What are your thoughts? 

Jazz and Hip-Hop: Music of the Same Language

Re-blogged from, for which it was originally written

When Jazz started in New Orleans, it brought together, in one place, all of the influence that routinely came in and out of the port city. The marching band drums were consolidated into a single kit, the ragtime piano rhythms and harmonic ideas were brought together with a tuba and a banjo, and the marching band horns became a section in front of the rhythm section. Mash these elements into a club, and New Orleans was transformed into the birthplace for a music that has spanned generations. While, in recent years, Americans have hoisted jazz onto the “art music” pedestal, the simple truth remains that jazz, at one point, was considered a vulgar vernacular music of the day. In fact, the word “jazz” derives from a closely related vulgar word, which I will not repeat (hint: it has to do with sex). The most legendary jazz instrumentalists were strung out on all sorts of drugs: Louis Armstrong was a lifelong Marijuana devotee (where did you think that voice came from?); Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Scott LaFaro, and many others were Heroin junkies for part, or all, of their career (Miles kicked Heroin for Cocaine, or so the legend goes). And yet, with this unsavory origin, they were able to create some of the most lasting and beautiful music of all time. Is the development of Hip-Hop all that different? Hip-Hop was also first developed as an underground culture. The first Hip-Hop parties were held in the Bronx during the late 1970’s, riding the wave created by soul and funk artists. DJ’s soon began taking these popular songs and chopping them apart to play the drums separately; audiences were in love. Soon a whole culture developed, with the New York City youth leading the charge. And, just like jazz, it spread from one innovative city to the rest of the country. 

With jazz, this journey began up the Mississippi River, moving north through St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, then it took the turn east to New York, where, to this day, it remains the jazz mecca of the world. Development of regional styles within jazz began: the Kansas City school (with Bennie Moten, and later, Count Basie’s orchestra), Chicago’s “hot” jazz, be-bop in New York (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), and “cool” jazz on the west coast (Lee Konitz and Chet Baker). You can see the same regional development in the spread of hip-hop though the country. As the hip-hop music and culture spread, some regional styles became clear: New York was laid back, focusing on lyricism and cultural statements (the ultimate example is Nas’ Illmatic); on the west coast, it was about banging and so, you saw the emergence of groups like NWA and gansta rap culture; and in the south, stemming from Atlanta and Miami, there was the dirty south movement, focusing on club culture and flash (for example, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik).   

You can even see parallels between the figures of the two musics. Miles Davis was a figure who had a long career, working with many bands across many different styles of jazz and singlehandedly moving forward the progression of jazz. I would argue that Dr. Dre fits the bill for this type of artist in hip-hop. His career started in the beginning of the west coast school, and through his career, he has worked with many different artists. The ones with the highest profiles are, of course, Eminem (midwest), 50 Cent (New York), and Snoop Dogg (West Coast). I would equate the coast vs coast rivalry between Biggie and Tupac to the rivalry (though a friendly one) between west coast saxophonist Lee Konitz and east coast saxophonist Charlie Parker. Lee Konitz and his “cool” school were the direct rebellion to be-bop, the east coast style at the time. Today’s hip-hop and jazz cultures still have parallels. For example, Soulja Boy has emerged to please the masses, with simple, easily understood songs, much like Kenny G has done on the saxophone in helping to popularize the “smooth” jazz idiom. However, on the other side of the coin, there is Lil’ Wayne whose lyricism is complex and intelligent, and has helped to draw hip-hop out of an early 2000s dark age, back to a music which requires talent and dedication; much like artists like Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and Wynton Marsalis did for jazz in the late 80’s and early 90’s. 

With these similarities, it is no surprise that jazz musicians and hip-hop artists have been drawn to one another. Miles Davis’ last album Doo Bop, from 1991, was full of hip-hop beats; A Tribe Called Quest routinely sampled jazz songs, like Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”, and their feature of bassist Ron Carter on “Verses From the Abstract”, both from their album Low End Theory; pianist Robert Glasper has been actively touring with Mos Def; guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel was featured on Q-Tip’s last album, and sat in with his old classmate ?uestlove and the Roots on the Jimmy Fallon Show, and was recently interviewed on NPR where they put his iPod on shuffle and when Biggie came on he knew all the words; and trumpet player Roy Hargrove, with his RH Factor, has toured and recorded with Erykah Badu and Common.    

Some jazz fans go out of their way to actively demonize hip-hop without knowing the history of, not only hip-hop, but of “America’s” music is general. Jazz and Hip-Hop are both great, and both are born from the efforts of the rebellious, who set out to fill themselves, and wound up starting new world cultures. So, let’s tip our hats to the innovators of both, the ones who weren’t afraid to do what they felt and by doing so, created America’s lasting, unique music.  

The Importance of Diversity: A Jazz Pianist's Non-Pianistic Influences

Re-blogged from, for which it was originally written.

It is easy for a jazz pianist to become bottled up in a piano-centric world, completely oblivious to the other instruments that exist. This is normal. Pianists tend to see their instrument as the end all be all of instruments; the top of the mound, the king of the hill, the ace in the deck. Throughout history, keyboard instruments have been the ones used to develop theory, develop voice leading, and write symphonies! Solo piano is one of the oldest “complete” genres of jazz, dating back to the inception in New Orleans. In fact, some, like myself, would argue that the language of jazz developed in great part due to the efforts of pianists James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Nat Cole (surely, the list goes on). As a budding young pianist, I had a piano-centric view of the universe; ignorant and unable to acknowledge anyone who wasn’t a descendant of Oscar Peterson, my personal hero. I would listen to solo piano, piano duos, and, of course, piano trios. Any combo larger than three people was too large for me. Yes, the piano is great, and, yes, the piano has played a very significant role in sculpting the form of modern music, but let us remember hubris is the deadly Greek flaw.

Each instrument has a unique sound and mechanism. The combination of these two things, not surprisingly, guide the player in a certain natural direction. For example, jazz professors (and seasoned jazz veterans in general) make a huge ruckus about needing to leave space in a solo. A piano player, who does not need to breathe to play his instrument, can begin to play gratuitous lines, while a horn player will have to leave natural space to breathe (barring circular breathing!). Thus, looking outside the scope of your own instrument is important. Take J. J. Johnson for example. As an up and coming trombonist in the world of bebop, he was faced with a unique dilemma. Bebop was a developing language all about flash and trying to out play the other player, and the trombone was an awkward instrument to play fast and complicated bebop lines on. Still, wanting to sound like Charlie Parker, who was playing an instrument made for fast playing, he took that inspiration and transformed the instrument completely.

I soon realized this importance, and after escaping from the piano bubble I built for myself, came to find inspiration in many different instrumentalists and a few singers. One instrument I am very influenced by is the guitar. While the guitar is a chordal instrument like the piano, it is much less limited, in an expressive sense. You can bend, slide, ghost notes, and use vibrato in ways impossible on the piano. I’m always disappointed when I try to use vibrato on the piano and it doesn’t come out, but I hope that the way I approach it does something to my overall sound. One guitarist I listen to for this expressive way of playing is Kurt Rosenwinkel, who comes up with the most interesting clusters and lines. He uses the guitar more as an extension of his voice, and on some recordings you can hear him singing along quite loudly (on his recording of “If I Should Lose You”, he even sings the words at one point in the background). Another favorite is Allan Holdsworth, whose technique is simply impeccable, but he does not sacrifice musicality for gratuity (as I write this I’m listening to “Non Brewed Condiment”, which is a difficult but gorgeous melody). I also listen to lots of trumpet players. Of course, I include Miles on the list. He’s one of the few cats who can take one note played in quarter notes and use it to define the tone of his solo, the groove, and the time (for a classic example, listen to the first three notes of his solo on “Freddie Freeloader”). I’m always trying to emulate the way he plays the blues with that simplicity and dark tone. Then there’s Clifford Brown, the trumpet player’s Art Tatum. Out of all the great qualities possessed by Clifford, the one I find most inspiration in is his clarity. Clifford’s first big gig, like so many of the great trumpet players, was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and playing with such a rhythmic powerhouse, along with innate talent, surely had something to do with his rhythmic prowess. I’ll close out this list with someone who is often taken for granted by the general public, Frank Sinatra. In my opinion, if you want to learn how to swing and lay back, listen to Sinatra religiously. He has recorded some of the most in the pocket melodies in the history of the language.

To be sure, there are many, many more to name, but, I would love to hear back from any of you guys out there in Indaba land with musical influences you take from outside your instrument or comfort zone- please feel free to comment below.

Electronic Music vs. Acoustic Music

Re-blogged from, where it was originally posted

In my opinion, ever since the first electronic musical device was plugged in, there’s been a love/hate relationship between the acoustic and electronic crowds. This debate has permeated into every facet of the music world, and whole billion-dollar industries have been built on these electronic inventions. From electric guitars to auto-tune, the argument of pro vs. con has been a fierce back and forth. On one hand, electricity has shaped the face of music more than anything else in the past, let’s say, 100 years. It’s given us recording, amplification, the theremin, DAWs, synthesizers, and VSTs. On the other, as purists would argue, it has tainted the purity of true acoustic sound.  

I’m always trying to look back and read about classic performances and pieces written, and I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been before electricity to seek out and listen to new music. You really had to actively, everyday if you were serious, go out to concert halls and small venues to see live music. Budding composers and musicians couldn’t pick up an album from a store of iTunes and sample a large selection of music, they were stuck with what was local, or where they could travel. The closest they had to buying records was purchasing the newest sheet music which they would have to play on the piano, or get together into small chamber groups and local orchestras to try it out. Or else, they would have to venture outside to take part in parties and social events to learn the newest songs en vogue; music was not a bedroom affair. When is the last time you went out to hear a 100% un-amplified, pure set of acoustic music? No sound guy, no mixing board, no speakers, no microphones, but totally acoustic. Music where singers have to figure out how to cut through the instrumentation, and where musicians have to rise to the pinnacle of their musicianship to balance out the sound. In such performances, of course, the sonic quality is pristine; the sound waves travel direct from instrument to ear. To put it one way, the first time Freddie Green tried to plug in an amp, the rest of Count Basie’s band became extremely agitated. 

Yet, in today’s world, this is never the norm. Amplification becomes essential especially when you want to play small ensembles in a large hall. However, the “hating” on acoustic music comes more from the purists who were turned off when synthesis and the theremin showed up. Maybe they felt like someone was treading on their holy territory. I think it comes down to purity. Personally, I wouldn’t trade a real piano for anything. The feel, the way the keys move, the sounds it creates based on the natural vibrating of a string. However, I love synthesis and developing different sounds. Having said this, I can relate to purists when I’m forced to play a piano patch on a keyboard, or a piano sample in the studio- it’s trying. There is no vibration, no overtones created by the lower strings, no action to have a push and pull against. In these cases, I always try to pull out my Rhodes patch and sit on that, which is usually bearable. 

Things have become increasingly electronic. This is a good thing. Production in Hip-Hop (and especially R&B) seems, at least to me, to be moving from MPC, ASR-10 sample chopping to AU, VST synthesis and sample manipulation. This pushes the envelope. Even producers who would otherwise have just used an MPC, like Jim Jonsin, now use their MPC as a controller for Logic, and sometimes, like T-Pain, just nix the MPC all together in favor of a MIDI Keyboard/Laptop setup. Even live keyboardists, guitarists, drummers, and sometimes, horn players, are plugging in their instruments to their laptop to have greater flexibility over their sound. If any lasting good has come out of the fusion jazz era (which my friends and I refer to, jokingly, as the jazz dark ages. Though, not to say fusion itself was bad, acoustic jazz just went dark), it was the experimentation with new types of equipment in revolutionary ways, MIDI having been a very new invention in 1983. 

Hopefully, experimentation will continue; however, I also hope the beauty of “acousticism” won’t be lost on the upcoming generation (or this one!).  

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

New songs.

Two Works. by Rick Louie

A preview of 2 tracks from some upcoming something.