Here’s my son, Zak, playing trumpet, leading his quartet, “Blueshift”, at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 1st May 2010. Their performance was part of the final round of the Yamaha Jazz Experience Competition. There were three age groups: 15 and under, 17 and under and 19 and under. Blueshift, won the 15-and-under section.
Zak is 12 years old.
On May 20th there’s a concert at St. James’ Church, Piccadilly, London.
It’s a live performance, or interpretation, of the album, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. I think it’s going to be a sextet, but what I DO know is that I’m going to be the one playing the trumpet and thus, to some extent, trying to “be” Miles Davis.
This is, of course, an impossible task but aside from the difficulty of doing it well the principal thing that needs sorting out is how the band should approach a performance of this legendary recording.
The choices are, either to try to reproduce the original as near perfectly as possible OR to perform the concert as an “interpretation”, in a similar manner to an orchestra+conductor performing, say, yet another Brahms third symphony. Brahms wrote his symphonies on paper whereas Miles Davis and the rest of that amazing sextet “wrote” theirs directly onto magnetic tape. There seems to be no point in attempting to play a perfect replica of “Kind Of Blue” as it is, itself, already a reproduction – and it would take years of rehearsals and ultimately would serve no purpose. Rather than that it would be better simply to fix up a big hifi system in the hall and play the CD to the audience! So, the only sensible option is for us to perform some kind of interpretation …for want of a less lofty word.
Actually, we’ve done this show once before, a few years ago, and in the same venue in Piccadilly. I kept very quiet about it, only inviting one close friend of mine who I knew wouldn’t be critical of it, and of me, however badly I played! The hall was less than half full and we were pretty badly under-rehearsed. In fact, the performance itself was the first time we’d ever met the drummer! Also, nobody used a mic – and I really needed one because it’s very hard to get a decent Miles Davis harmon-mute sound without a mic poked right into the mute!
This time around I feel a bit different about it and, as you can see, I’m going public. Most of us will have microphones, we’ll be better rehearsed, I’ll be more confident and I hope we can fill the hall this time.
So, these days I’m trying to learn Miles’ solo from Love For Sale. I’m trying to learn it exactly, with every nuance of articulation, decoration, rhythmic idiosyncrasy, pitch bend – everything. I’m spending hours at it every day. It’s not even guaranteed that we’ll play this track when it comes to the show (it’s not on the original version of the album – only later, extended ones. It was originally on the album, “Circle In The Round”) but I absolutely love it and it’s packed full of useful little Miles “signatures” which I hope will infect my playing and come out in my improvisations. That’s the plan, anyway. I feel the need for some sort of a plan, however flimsy…
I must admit to having got out of the habit of practising trumpet every day during the last few months. This is because I’ve had so much tricky and important horn stuff to play recently, which has taken up all my practise time. But this won’t do. I’m going to have to find a way of doing at least a little jazz every day. I’m sure the key to learning jazz improvisation is to do it often – even if it’s little and often.
So, note to self: from today, I’m going to try to do at least some trumpet every day.
How wonderful to know that those evil warmongering Republicans have been shown the door!
Despite far too little sleep (I was watching the election results coming in during the night) I’m feeling euphoric. I feel like I did when Tony Blair got rid of the tories (this was before he became one himself).
America has elected a jazz president! I don’t mean because he’s black. I mean his voice. Listen to him addressing a large crowd – his performing voice. It’s wonderful! It’s pure jazz. He’s got rhythm. I’m going to find a recording of one of them and transcribe it for trumpet and see if I can get some of it into my playing.
I’m allowing myself to suspend my cynicism today and to believe that the world might become a better place.
(That’s what I felt when Tony Blair became the Prime Minister …before he screwed up.)
(Tony Blair didn’t swing, though….)
I’ve been practising pretty regularly and, I feel, steadily improving but increasingly feeling myself to be in a musical vacuum. What I need now is fresh air, not my own stale stuff to breathe; so with that in mind I’ve arranged to have a lesson with Martin Shaw, who has been enthusiastically recommended by both John Barclay and Derek Watkins.
I’m taking a trumpet and a flugelhorn but no books or printed stuff of any kind – jazz is supposed to improvised – plus I don’t want to be telling Martin the way I want the lesson to go.
What do I want? Not sure, but I’d like him to get me to loosen up my playing and then guide me towards better ways of doing it. The fact is I don’t know if I’m any good at any aspect of it. John Barclay has been vey encouraging, even flattering, as have Valentin and Dan Newall, but I don’t really know if I’m heading in the right direction, hence the need for a lesson …or several.
Well, that was amazing. Martin Shaw is a terrific teacher, and very generous with his time. He gave me two hours! It felt like half an hour. It seems that I’m basically on the right track and he was very encouraging about my attempts – after hearing me struggling through All The Things You Are, although several things came up which I’m writing down now to remind myself about.
1. General articulation: I’m doing it too softly! My tonguing needs to be more positive, or harder, less “classical” – this surprised me but he demonstrated the difference and convinced me. It’s part of coming from my highly classical horn technique and rounding the starts of the notes. “It’s a beautiful sound but not right for jazz trumpet”, I think he said… So I must try to remember that.
2. Learning the modal flavours: Up and down scales thinking in terms of raised and lowered 2nds, 3rds, 6ths etc.. Make cards or use Psion… Go to the ninth and back down each time. Then learn them from the ninth down then up. Then in broken thirds, fourths etc…
3. Playing Aebersolds using only the chord notes. Up, then up and down the scale notes.
4. Playing Aebersolds up and down the straight simple scales notes – so, for example, when encountering the altered scale Calt, just stick to C7 (for now).
5. Same as above but improvising using only the scale notes first in minims, then in triplet minims, then crotchets, then triplet crotchets then quavers, then, triplet quevers etc…
6. Don’t use double tonguing in the fast stuff – it’s almost never done in jazz. The fast licks seem to all be slurred pairs or threes, across the main beats.
7. Learn the closed-tongue Clifford Brown thingy sound. Like muting the sound by putting the toungue against the teeth so the air has to squeeze around the teeth to get through. This is a new departure – something unheard of in classical technique and I don’t think it’s been analyzed much by jazz trumpet players. They just seem do it. I don’t know what it’s called, even.
8. The timbre can be less bright – Martin’s was considerably smokier, or more lush than mine. No idea how to do this.
9. Chromatic scales: very useful and need to be clean and accurate and fast. Good for warming up. Use a more postive finger action – slam the valves down a bit more !
I spent a while ripping some carefully chosen Aebersold tracks into MP3 files in my PC. I’ve done this so that I can open the tracks up in special software which enables me to slow all or part of the tracks down, loop them or transpose them, or do all those things.
I’ve found it’s a very efficient way of disecting jazz solos for learning them by ear.
The Amazing Slowdowner.
But where has this urge to learn jazz come from? I think it’s been there, just below the surface, for a very long time. It’s come to the surface now partly because it’s now or never – I’m 43. I have a slight sense of urgency and a feeling that at last I’m doing something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.
It’s also a fascinating learning process and to a large extent it’s uncharted territory for someone like me, already possessing a certain amount of technique from a parallel discipline but not the language itself.
Another aspect of this is that I’m finding the study extremely satisfying, musically. The way I’m practicing the cornet is completely different from any way I’ve ever practiced the horn. Yesterday, for example, I spent part of the evening going through all the modes in all keys, first saying the name (i.e. Db Mixolydian) then trying to play them by ear but also picturing the geography, as if written down, so that I’m aware of which notes I’m playing, this being the hardest part because I’m not used to holding the visual map in my mind while playing.
I’ve noticed a fingering difficulty emerging: during the modes practice it happened quite a lot that when going from 2+3 to 1 the 2nd finger would come up slightly later that the 3rd making quite a messy transition. I need to isolate this problem and work out some specific finger exercises to clear problem. I wonder why I find this compelling – exciting even.
This jazz thing has been going on for some time already but I’m still at the beginning so I thought I’d better get writing before it became really too late to do it.
So, the background. Back in 1977 I borrowed an alto sax and started learning some scales. I wanted to play jazz but I didn’t think it would sound right on the horn. The sax only lasted a week or two because the embouchure didn’t come right away. I suppose I should have had a lesson. That was that. Over the years I did other bits of improvising, including a few albums involving four horns (all me), then two (with another player) horns, then three horns (with two others). None of this was jazz.
Then, 1988, or thereabouts, I had a jazz piano lesson with some bloke in Hampstead. He went on about learning all the 2-5-1 chord changes. I did it for a while but didn’t get the point. I suppose it was my failure, but I don’t think this person had any teaching skills – nothing he said seemed very stimulating.
Then, last year, Jim Rattigan, horn (French) player and friend got a CD out called “Unfamiliar Guise”. Very nice, it was, and I interviewed him for the horn magazine, and gave him a really good review to help him shift CDs. It’s a good recording but not what I would want to play. In fact, I don’t know what I’m looking for, really. I just want to be able to play jazz. Simple.
Jim’s album got me thinking about jazz, and the horn, and I talked with him quite a lot about how you learn it. He gave me some photocopied sheets of “all” the jazz scales and I spent hours during the summer of 2000 learning some of them. I also ordered an instrument from Yamaha – the “Marching French Horn” in Bb, on a hunch that this would make the perfect forward facing jazz horn for horn players. I have named it the “Frunting Horn” even though 18 months have passed and there’s still no sign of it. The scales dried up and stopped flowing.
The next wave came during May of 2001 when I was on a short tour with Peter Erskine and the Creative Jazz Orchestra. I was one of three horns (French) playing written out parts of Peter’s music. I heard Kenny Wheeler live for the first time and spoke to him a bit (he only lives a couple of minutes walk from our house). What he said was encouraging – for example, he uses the Aebersold books, still! He’s 72 and still practicing and developing his playing. Incredible.
At last, I stopped waiting for the Frunting Horn to arrive and got out, instead, the beautiful little Besson cornet that Mum and Dad gave me for my 40th birthday and ordered a pile of Aebersold playalong books.