Musicians at work near the Festival Hall at the Southbank, London.
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…
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 just spent a week in Antwerp, Belgium, playing Schubert’s 9th Symphony with the Flanders Filharmonic orchestra (KFOV) and stayed with an old friend and fine photographer, Miel Pieters, a fiddle player in the orchestra. Here’s are some pictures he took of me practising my Benge pocket trumpet. It’s perfect for travelling as it fits in my horncase – and there’s still room for the horn.
Right now I’m well stuck into some “turnaround” exercises.
The one I’m currently chopping away at is one of the simplest from Aebersold’s book of turnarounds (Volume 16, Ex. 3). Basically, this is a four chord repeating sequence, for example F#M, A7, D7, G7, which needs transposing into all keys. It’s making me do what Ken Bartells told me to do a year ago, which is to try to be conscious of which notes and what chord I’m playing. I still find this really difficult but I’m confident that I’m going to crack it eventually.
Another landmark I’ve passed recently, I now realise, is what might be called the acquisition of “trumpet finger pitch”. Ever since I can remember I’ve had “horn finger pitch” meaning that I only have to imagine I’m holding a horn and make a certain valve combination for the note I’m wanting to hear to pop conveniently into my mind. This is an extremely useful thing, particularly for playing atonal music – in fact I don’t know how anyone could play the stuff without that having this facility.
Although the trumpet is in Bb, just like the French horn, the hornplayer reads and thinks in F. Thus, while the trumpet fingerings are quite similar between horn and trumpet (although one octave apart) the notes have completely different names. On one level, then, trumpet fingering is completely different to horn fingering – which is, I think, why hornplayers and trumpet players are now an entirely different species and generally do not interbreed. I must be quite a rare “sport”, hybrid or mulatto.
Now that I can “activate” my right hand and imagine certain trumpet valve combinations to get any pitches I want in my head I think I can say I have got “trumpet finger pitch”. It’s taken longer than a year to acquire this, and I wasn’t sure it would come – in fact I was actually slightly worried that if it did come it would mess up my horn pitch. Luckily, trumpet fingers and horn fingers, being on different hands, don’t seem to conflict at all. Phew!
Practising, in Udine, Italy, the day after a London Brass concert.
Gareth Small very kindly lent me his Bb trumpet for the morning – and I had remembered to take my trumpet mouthpiece with me. I did at least 90 minutes of really useful practice. Lodes of Modes and that Clifford Brown wholetone exercise. No distractions – I really enjoyed it.
I’m becoming a bit frustrated by not getting enough study time. We are on holiday and the kids need occupying, taking out, playing with etc. for many hours each day. On top of that I have get my horn chops working because I’ve a couple of hard gigs at the end of the week, in Germany and Italy with London Brass.
As usual with that crowd it’s a whole new pad of pieces (to me) and I have precisely three and a hours of rehearsal time in which to learn how to play Richard Bissill’s stupendously difficult horn parts.
The scraps of trumpet practice I have managed in the last few days have been on arpeggios and scales. I really need to start learning some standards and trumpet solos from recordings.
I’ve been running quite a lot (something else which shortens my available practice time) and I always listen to music on minidisc as I run. Due to a mix up last week I found I had inadvertently kept a disc which John Barclay lent me. After an hour or so of listening I found he had recorded it in LP mode, which means you can cram more music on the disc. He had used not just LP mode, but LP4 mode, which give an available 300 minutes (5 hours!) of music on just one disc. The quality is not so good but it’s really not bad – and certainly good enough for the vintage jazz recordings which John had copied. I didn’t even notice the poor sound as I was running.
The amazing thing is that John has recorded himself playing along with some of the tracks, so every now and again another trumpet player pops up – in a different sound, in a different acoustic. John, a closet jazzer, is very good! He’s got a wonderful sound, a great feel for jazz harmony and bags of style. What’s funny about it is that even though, I guess, he recorded the stuff on his own at his home without any idea that someone else might one day listen to it, he still sounds apologetic, as if he’s poking his head around a door and saying, “hello? does anyone mind if I just squeeze in here and play along with you guys – just a few quiet twiddles – don’t mind me, I’m only messing about…”
Such a superb musician – he’s obviously going to be a great jazzer – but curiously such a humble soul. John also happens to be one of the funniest people I have ever met.
John and I have a plan to spend some time together thrashing out some jazz. I’m expecting to learn a lot from him …though I can’t imagine he’ll learn anything from me.
I’ve just played a couple of concerts in Mallorca. I was in a new group – a brass sextet called “Tuba Mirum”. the instrumentation was like a regular brass quintet line-up but with an extra trumpet part. The players as follows:
Trumpet: John Wallace
Trumpet: Andreas Koenig
Trumpet: Valentin Garvie
Trombone: Leon Ni
Tuba: Oren Marshall.
What a fantastic four days! We had the luxury of two whole days for rehearsals before the concert days and the group really worked well together, right from the start.
It was quite a varied and dangerous program. The audiences were very responsive and the atmosphere was great as a result. John, Oren and I played solo pieces, which were possibly the most challenging for our audiences. Mine was called “Lost In Space” – a 7 movement improvisation involving the use of a flugelhorn on the opposite side of the stage, linked to where I sat with my horn by a long length of hosepipe.
Valentin did brilliant arrangements of a couple Tangos for the group and nobody seemed to mind me trying to do some jazz improvisation in the extended take-it-in-turns middle section. I swaggered out to the front, aimed high and blasted out my stuff as loud as I possibly could. It must have been a complete load of rubbish! Still, it was fun – and at least it felt like jazz. The trumpet felt really comfortable and natural in my hands.
I’m trying to get a bit of practice in every day.
More books and playalongs have arrived, so there’s no shortage of stuff to work on. The trumpet and the flugel are hanging up next to the piano, and the cornet (and mute) are upstairs next to the bed. Most of the playalongs and tons of other jazz recordings are on minidisc so I’ve always got stuff to listen to or play-along with. Also, my Revo has an ever increasing selection of “Grigson” grids to study.
It’s going quite well, although I detect a certain reluctance to get stuck into any standards. I’m not sure quite why this is but I’m hoping that Kenny might help me work this out when I go to see him this afternoon. He’s reluctantly agreed to see me for some kind of “lesson” although it’s clear he really doesn’t want to be a “teacher”.
I think what I should do is ask him to help me work on Stella – I think I have a bit of a foothold in that one.
What I really need is a tame pianist to help me work on some tunes. I’m going to phone Julian Jacobson (a very good pianist, who dabbles in jazz) in a few weeks, when he’s back from some cruise or other, and I’m hoping we can work up some tunes together.
The “LoadsOfModes” is working well. I think I’ll know them all in a couple of weeks and then I’ll just have to start speeding them up.
I’ve noticed something important. There is a tonguing difference between the horn and the trumpet. It’s a larger mass of air inside the horn so starting it and stopping it takes a bit more clout and steadier air pressure. This is the dreaded “support” but I hate the term it means totally different things to different people. I don’t think the trumpet needs any less of it than the horn but the tongue has to be used in quite a different way. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to switch tonguing styles as I switch instruments – rather like people who play both violin and viola have to learn to switch gears as move from one to the other.
Valentin Garvie came to visit today for a jam. He’s recently landed a great job – principal trumpet with Ensemble Modern, based in Frankfurt. He’s a wonderful trumpet player – from Argentina – and a really simpatico bloke.
The first thing I did was to get him to listen to me playing on a Vincent Bach “ordinary” mouthpiece and then switch to the transparent polycarbonate one for comparison. Amazingly he knew straight away that one of them was a plastic one – and knew which one it was!
However, he did concede that it is indeed a very good mouthpiece.
I went around to Sir Kenny Wheeler’s house and bought one of his spare trumpets from him. It’s a SmithWatkins – a very wonderful instrument. It has a large bell in quite thin yellow lacquered brass and a choice of six leadpipes for me to experiment with. They seem to make quite a difference to the sound and to the intonation of the very high notes but it will probably be years before I know which one is the best all-rounder for me.
Thanks, Kenny, for parting with this lovely trumpet!
This instrument has some weird bits stuck on. Please ignore them. I’m not ready to go public with these just yet!
Unless I was dreaming, today I played at the Vortex (a jazz club in London) with Kenny! He was making a guest appearance with the Evan Parker Trio and asked me to come along. At first I thought he meant for me just to listen but it turned out he wanted me to actually play! I was stunned and amazed, and I only agreed to join him because he said we would be playing “free” jazz rather than jazz jazz – so it would be relatively easy.
The first thing we played was a duet – just Kenny and me, in two sections – Kenny on the trumpet, me on flugel, followed by Kenny on flugel, me on horn. It’s hard to say if it was any good or not but it was certainly interesting and great fun. We made a lot of noise. Needless to say, Kenny was great – firing off powerful torrents of scaleic and arpeggiated notes, all fascinating. I made various squawks and rips and noodled around trying not to get in the way too much and mess things up.
Nearly all of the free jazz I’ve done before has been with non jazzers so this was very different to the kind of stuff I used to play with Derek Bailey back in the eighties, for example.
After that we played for 40 minutes or so with Even Parker’s trio. My abiding memory is of the sensation of playing the flugel, standing up, the sound firing outwards in the direction I was facing – something of a novelty for a rear-facing (French)horn player.
After that I drove Kenny home.
Here’s another useful exercise I just arrived at after some work on Aebersold, Volume 42 – “Blues in all keys”.
Having learned what the the chord notes and scale notes are (track 11, Blues in Ab -for trumpet) because Aebersold writes them all in for you, I found it hard to ignore them and that I couldn’t avoid playing simply chords and scales. So I wrote just the chord symbols on a post-it and stuck it in the page – effectively taking away one of the crutches. Then I found that because I still kept drifting away from knowing what notes I was playing I needed a way of making me focus this in relation to the given chords, so I went through the sequence playing just the thirds of every chord.
This is a great exercise for me. I must go through the entire book(s) doing this. It will be a great help.
New year’s resolution: to get this diary/journal going again after quite a long period of neglect (look at the date of the previous entry).
A large part of what stopped me writing was that every time I thought of doing so I felt the time would be better spent practising the trumpet. Also I lost the sense of importance of keeping a progress record. One of the things I like to do is to teach, and it’s not inconceivable that one day I might teach jazz, perhaps specifically to people who are already “classically” trained. If I do, then a well-kept journal, of my own trials and tribulations, could be a very useful teaching resource for me. Not only that – I do think that what I’m attempting is unique; I’ve never heard of an established horn player switching not only instrument but an entire musical discipline before. I feel something of an explorer, and I suppose a good explorer makes maps as they go along.
Apart from a period of some four months last summer during which I worked quite intensively for the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne Opera, I have been working pretty hard at my jazz. I’m still a long way from any kind of public performance but I’ve not lost any of my enthusiasm or energy for the task of learning. .
During the period since my last writinng here my collection of playalong recordings has enlarged quite a lot and nearly all of them are Jamey Aebersold’s excellent books. Also I’ve found another absolutely great tool to help me learn. It’s a software program called The Amazing Slowdowner (available to download from www.ronimusic.com). This extremely clever software will get hold of the CD player in your PC or Mac and make it do the most amazing things. It can play a track – all of it or just a section of it – looped if you like if you like if you like if you like – at any speed without altering the pitch. This is incredibly useful in itself but there’s more – it can transpose the pitch of the track up or down by any amount you want – semitones or fractions of semitones or combinations thereof – up or down. The great thing is that pitch and tempo can be chosen independantly of eachother. It’s an incredibly easy to use, no frills, sensibly written program. Congratulations to the author – a jazz musician himself, for turning my PC into the most useful learning tool I could imagine for my jazz.
I keep finding new ways to use it but here’s one way, just to help demonstrate how useful it is: say I want to learn a solo by Clifford Brown – from one of his recordings. I’ll put the CD in (or I can rip the desired track to an MP3 file and store it in my computer for ease of access – The Amazing Slowdowner works just as well with MP3 files, or other types of audio files on hard-disk, as with a CD spinning in your drive) and find the start of the actual solo and set it to loop the first bar or two – a chunk small enough for me to learn without breaking it down still further. I’ll slow it right down so I can hear every little detail and then commence trying to play it. When I’ve got it, I’ll start to speed it up a little and move onto the next chunk.
It’s the ability to play around with the speed of the playback and the length of the loop which is so wonderfully useful. It’s hard to imagine a more efficient way of learning something by ear. And I’m now certain that “by ear” is the way to do it. I’ve a book of Clifford Brown’s solos transcribed and printed. They certainly look nice but if you play them “from the dots” they come out sounding stilted and mechanical. I reckon the only way you’ll get it to float, fly and dance like Clifford Brown is by copying him directly. And that’s why we learn solos, isn’t it? Jazz is supposed to be an aural tradition. I want to learn Clifford Brown’s rhythms, grammar, syntnax, accent and dialect – and I can’t do that from a book. My best chance is with the great man’s recordings and the Amazinng Slowdowner. This is the way it’s always been done, incidentnally. It used to be constant repositioning of the needle on a 78 record – and I’ve heard it said that many jazz musicians used completely wear out their records learning like this!
The Amazing Slowdowner is much more efficient – and you can learn it in a differnet key from the original, if you want. A lot of the Aebersold playalongs are still too fast for me to get my head around the chord changes. With the Slowdowner I can highlight any tricky bits and run them as slowly as I like until I’ve got the hang of it, then speed it up bit by bit.
Incidentally, I’ve been very surprised and humbled by putting Clifford Brown’s solos under the microscope in this way. One would think that the more you slow it down to disect and investigate it the more minor imperfections of rythm and intonation would show up until, at high magnifications, it would start sounding rather ragged. Wrong! What has been a most amazing ear-opener for me has been the discovery that the more I dissect and magngfy the more detail and accuracy is revealed. Hats off to the incredible Clifford Brown.