Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Adding to the Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Why can't jazz musicians just leave a melody alone?
-Peter Capaldi

The previous two posts have dealt with improvising, what could be considered the mainstay of jazz. From small combos to big bands the music is wide open for the possibility of composing on the fly. How that improvised solo fits into the whole form of the particular song varies with styles, size of the ensemble, abilities of different members of the group. In some groups, for example, the first trumpet may not have as many improvisation skills so they tend to play the written parts while the second trumpet takes the improvised solos. In songs from the Great American Songbook of standards, the well-known melody of the song is shared around the different sections with one or two sections devoted to the improvised solo.

In most instances, though, this is built on the originally composed song. The song may be just the main theme (the head) and a closing coda of the theme. In-between the soloists go off on their own understandings of the song’s feel. The rhythm section often “comps” under the solo. (Think Dave Brubeck’s amazingly steady piano in “Take Five” under Paul Desmond’s wondrous solo.) In the beginning, then, all of the music is someone’s composition. The original song or theme or melody. Add to that the chord changes, tempo, mood, rhythmic structure, and written accompaniment and you have the song which will most likely change every time the group plays it.

That is jazz. But it requires that original song. It requires composing something on which to build. It is why jazz musicians do not leave the melody alone. They hear more than just the melody- they hear a whole composition starting with the original melody. This is not something new. Bach was known as a superb improvisor. For some of Mozart’s piano compositions, the solos are at times just a bare bones skeleton of the piece. Know one knows what Mozart played when he performed those pieces. The full score never existed.

How does all this happen? How does any one of us move into composition- either written scores or improvised solos? I have been experimenting on and off with that in the past year. I have a bluegrass medley that I would like to have our brass quintet play. I have been working on an improvisation on the folk song made famous by the Beach Boys and Kingston Trio- Sloop John B. I have some other melodies that I have heard in my imagination and would someday like to turn into a written composition, whether for jazz or brass quintet. I figured this was a good place in this jazz series to talk about that and see how it has fit together with so much else of what music is all about. So here are the essentials as I have been discovering them:

• Listening
“What jazz are you listening to? How often are you listening?” These are two important questions to ask yourself on a regular basis. In order to begin to grasp what jazz music can be you have to listen. On recordings; on the Internet; in person. Finding live, improvised jazz can be difficult in some places, but it is worth the effort. Get in there, watch the musicians, their interactions, their reactions. Listen to the phrases and get into the groove. Don’t use it as background music. It’s alive.

• Learning the language
The reason to listen is simple. Jazz music, like all music has its own unique language. I’ve talked about this before- and I will again. The learning for many of us is that initial listening. You may not understand what it’s saying at first, but as you surround yourself with the music the phrases and low of the music will begin to make sense.

• Listening
So you listen some more.

• Singing your music
For me singing along was a great start to working on composition. Sing the melody, sing a counter melody, sing a walking bass line, sing the chord changes of a 12-bar blues, sing nonsense syllables (scat singing), let the rhythm sing from within you.

• Experimenting
Then pick up your horn and play over some songs you like. Get an app like iReal Pro. Find web sites that have accompaniment tracks available. Work with the Jamie Aebersold books and CDs. Some of these will work better for you than others. For some reason I am still struggling with the Aebersold resources but iReal Pro helps me. One of my goals in the next few months is to double down on the Aebersold and see if I can move past that barrier. Your experimenting will help you get the feel of the language and you will be surprised (I have) when something happens that you never thought you would be able to do. Riff off the melody; play chord progressions; make the mistakes in your practice room and figure out how not to make the same mistakes more than once.

• Listening
Did I make it clear about the listening? By this time it may even be an idea on some of these to record and listen to yourself and your solos. But don’t stop listening to others. The language skills grow from the hearing, the imitating, the experimenting.

• Learn solos by ear- transcribe them
This is the most difficult for me. This is just like ear-training in any language learning. It is just as essential in learning jazz. Even if we never plan on doing much improvisation, to learn the solos, to improve our ear for the language, will help make us better musicians overall and will help the written scores become more identifiable and musical.

• Repeat
Go back to the top and start over.

As we do these things we are composing. We are making our own music. I know that none of this is all that earth-shattering- or new. I used to think and hope that if I bought the right book, read the right information, watched the right YouTube video that this would all fall into place. It won’t. Aebersold books could line my shelves, but if I don’t take the steps into the new and different, I won’t improve.

What this does is get me in touch with me- my music, my songs, my soul. As I express that music I am composing a whole new story to add to the greater story around me. That is important. This is what we do every day in our daily lives- we compose something new out of what has been around us. That something new can only come from us. I can’t leave life alone in the same old rut. Jazz teaches me how to take the risks to tell my story in a new language.

Last year musician John Raymond had this to say after he had spent some time focusing on composing. It is what it’s all about:

At the end of the day, so much of composing (to me at least)
is about trusting who you are,
what you love,
and about trusting the music that YOU hear.

Just like improvising, it's an incredibly personal process and your goal is
ultimately to be as honest as you can be.
(John Raymond, email, September 2016)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Question: "If you had a magic pill that would cure your alcoholism or addiction, what would it do?"

Answer: Give me my life back.

No one said it would allow them to use without consequences. This is a disease and it would never allow that to happen.

Obvious next statement: There may not be a pill, but being in recovery will do the same thing.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

No Excuse Zone

I have no excuse for not posting much in the past few weeks other than the Tuning Slide series. But I do have some reasons. Not that I need to explain to you, my faithful reader(s?) but since I am feeling guilty and am avoiding doing what I should be doing, here goes.

  • Top reason is simply that I have been editing and formatting the two years of Tuning Slide posts into a new book. I did one last year of year one. Well, I decided to put year one and year two together in one book to give to this year's Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop students. That has been taking my time.
  •  Next reason is I have also been busy with some ethics committee stuff for a presentation two weeks ago. 
  • Third reason is that I have gotten fed up (pun intended) with my overweight and out of shape-ness. That means I have spent some more time in the gym working out. I am trying to keep from falling into making things worse. An extra hour or two a day does take away from my writing. 
  • Number four is that I have also upped my trumpet practice time. There goes another hour per day. 
  • Finally, I have absolutely no idea what to say about what is happening in Washington. At least without using words that are not safe for a family-friendly blog. My mind is completely out of sorts with the shenanigans, the insanity, the complete idiocy of the actions of the President. When I'm not angry, I'm sad. When I'm not sad I am afraid. Most of the time I am just flabbergasted that the GOP congress hasn't stood up to his bullying, gaslighting, abusive personality.  
Perhaps one of these days soon, after the Tuning Slide book is off to Amazon, I will get back into the swing of things. Until then, my apologies for being so out of it. I am working on it!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tuning Slide: More About Composing

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Life is a lot like jazz.
It’s best when you improvise.
-George Gershwin

I’m going to start today with some thoughts from the book, Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy by Katie Goodman. (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2008.) It is NOT about jazz, but rather a book on living a spontaneous life based on improv comedy. But, hey, improvisation is improvisation. So here are her suggestions for skills needed in living a spontaneous life.
1. Be Present and Aware
2. Be Open and Flexible
3. Take Risks
4. Trust
5. Surrender and Non-Attachment
6. Gag Your Inner Critic
7. Get Creative
8. Effortlessness
9. Desire and Discovering What You Want
10. Authenticity
11. Allowing Imperfection and Practice, Practice, Practice

As I look at these I see a number of the themes that I have covered in the past here on the Tuning Slide.
  • The “be present and aware” touches easily on the mindfulness we have talked about.
  •  “Gag your inner critic” is certainly a variation of the discussions of Self 1 and Self 2 in the Inner Game of Music posts.
  • “Desire and discovering what you want” and “authenticity” tie in with finding your story and song.
But as I pointed out last week with my improvisation stories, it is all easier said- or thought- and done. It takes work and determination to do it. It takes hours of practice. (That’s another whole series to think about for the next year!) One cannot want instant gratification - or instant expertise in improvisation or in life as a whole. So as I look at those 11 suggestions I want to simplify it. I want to make it sound easier than it is, live in my fantasy world that it is easy, or just throw my hands up in surrender. Which is NOT what surrender and non-attachment above mean. So maybe there is more to be learned in that skill than I am giving it credit for.

Surrender and non-attachment, as Goodman defines it on page 92 is about
…learning to let go of your attachments to expectations, goals, and perfectionism. … to cultivate a sense of humor, and to lighten up. [We] surrender the controls and allow life to unfold in a more joyful, free-flowing, and perhaps, unexpected way.
This does not mean giving up and going home. I have heard several times in the past few weeks that the #1 rule for improv comedy is the “Yes, and…” rule. That means you affirm what has come before you, the line or theme that has preceded the hand-off to you. Never negate it- that brings everything to a stop. Instead, accept it as an important bit of information or an unfinished sentence. What do you have to add to it? How can you give added value to the “musical conversation”? In order to do that use those skills of mindfulness, creativity, and giving Self Two the direction to go ahead and play.

Now, in order to do that you have to believe you have something to say. At first, all it may be in your improvisation is to hit the note of the chord with a certain rhythm. Remember, jazz is about rhythm. Then you might want to think about the structure of the song, blues, classic standard, funk. Keep those same chord notes and rhythm but give them a little something extra here and there. Don’t be shy. That doesn’t mean play fortissimo when the song is a nice quiet ballad. Remember, you are adding to the conversation, not stopping it or hijacking it. There are then legato and staccato passages, slurs and marcato. How do they fit together?

Now, don’t expect to go onstage in a public performance and know how to do this. Improv comedy troupes practice. Then they practice some more. Improv does not mean off-the-cuff with no thought or training. It means learning the words and sounds of jazz and making conversation with other musicians. I wish I was able to do this as easily as I write about it. But I am a slow-learner. I still have an inner critic that freezes when he hears that “sour” note. I still have the perfectionist that says he has to do it right or don’t do it at all. I still have the ADD dude who gets distracted by a a lot more than squirrels and then loses mindfulness, flow, rhythm and creativity.

So I go back to the practice room. I pull out the scales or find a song on iReal Pro and try to get the feel for it. I listen to Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” and feel the movement of an easy-flowing improvisation. I take a walk and refocus my mindfulness skills. I do some breathing meditation that gets me back in touch with me. Then I work on it some more. It is a much slower process than I want it to be. I can tend to get too busy. I have too many things to write or too many concerts or gigs to prepare for. So the hard stuff, like learning to talk jazz with my trumpet is set aside.

In other words I am writing these posts as much for me as for you. I am working on my Inner Game. I am reminding myself that I have a story and a song. It is mine and I have been writing it for many years. Back at that very first jazz camp I went to in the 90s one thing did become clear to me. I improvise all the time in my daily life. Things happen that I have to react to. As a preacher for years I would regularly “ad lib” in the middle of a sermon. All that was was just improvising. I pulled in all my knowledge and experiences, all the sermons I had written and preached, all the people I had talked to, all the books I had read. Then came the inspiration and I shared it when it happened. I can still do that. It is almost as easy as falling off a bike for me. I couldn’t do that when I started, of course. I wrote down every word of every sermon. I still work from a manuscript (the score of the music?) and take off when and where appropriate.

That’s all I need to learn to do with my trumpet. It is getting better. I am learning. I don’t believe I will ever be done.

Kind of like life!

You have to practice improvisation,
Let no one kid you about it.
-Art Tatum

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Creating Something New

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

There's a way of playing safe and
then there's where you create something
you haven't created before.
-Dave Brubeck

Many have called it “mysterious.” Some will say there’s magic in it. Others might criticize it for being “too far out” or “odd.” No matter what is said about it, it is undeniably the center point around which jazz congregates.


I had been listening to jazz for a number of years before I realized that so much of what I was listening to only existed once in the studio or venue where it was performed. In that moment jazz went from being a great form of music that I loved to something far more profound. It was alive in a way that no other music could claim in my awareness. Sure there have been many great improvised solos in other genres; even the classical greats like Bach were known to be excellent improvisers. But no other music called forth improvising; no other music seemed to breathe the life of the music in the moment.

I was in awe.

About 20 years ago, I had my first jazz camp experience. I knew very little music theory and couldn’t have played in many of the keys if my life depended on it. But the time came to improvise. As I sat down that evening I wrote in my journal:
My first solo. Just the basics of course, but an improv solo on the simple concert B-flat scale.

"Play a melody. Write a song with it, Barry."

And I did.

It fit, too. It made some sense. You have to try to listen to what is going on around you. Hear the rhythm, devise the melody, watch the harmony. It wasn't polished. It was kind of stiff and boring, but no one started out as a virtuoso.
The instructors this morning emphasized that. The scales are to the instrumentalist what the gym is to Michael Jordan.
The same could have been said about my solo at my first Shell Lake Adult Big Band Camp. It wasn’t polished; it was kind of stiff and boring. One of my problems is that I get stuck on “bad” notes. A “bad note” is one that could be a great “blue note,” a note moving from one place to another. But it turns into dissonance and discord because I stop for too long. No movement, more like a crash into a brick wall. My mind blanks, I forget what I’m thinking and nothing of interest comes from the instrument. It made some sense for a little bit, a few measures, but that’s about it.

What a challenge then in this past year when, following the Big Band Camp and then Trumpet Camp in 2015, I decided I was going to do an improv solo this year. And not get stuck! It was one of several goals I set for myself, and the one that looked most challenging. Wikipedia’s entry on improvisation in jazz points out some of the problems.
Basically, improvisation is composing on the spot, in which a singer or instrumentalist invents solo melodies and lines over top of a chord progression played by rhythm section instruments (piano, electric guitar double bass, etc.) and also accompanied by drum kit. While blues, rock and other genres also use improvisation, the improvisation in these non-jazz genres typically is done over relatively simple chord progressions which often stay in one key (or closely related keys.) …Jazz improvisation is distinguished from other genres use of this approach by the high level of chordal complexity…
Problem #1: Composing on the fly.
Saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy once said,
In composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15 seconds, in improvisation you have 15 seconds.
It takes time to learn how to do that. A lot more than a year. It takes a certain amount of courage to do it in public. It takes a certain amount of insanity to even want to do it in the first place.

Problem #2: Chordal complexity
Most of us want to sound professional when we do our improvising. That means the complexity of chords and chord changes. We don’t want to sound like some newbie just playing the blues scale over the changes. It may fit, but that’s baby stuff. To think that one can get to that point in one year would be the height of grandiosity- or blindness.

Problem #3: Learning the language
This is all about a language and developing an understanding of its meanings. It is no different than having a conversation with a friend- except we have all learned how to use words in conversations one little bit at a time. We didn’t do that in any great way until we developed a vocabulary, the experience of talking with others, and the experiences of our lives to have something to talk about. If you have 15 seconds to say something, you better have the language ready to be accessed at the right time and place.

A daunting task, to be sure. But I did have a few things in my favor.
  • I have a rudimentary understanding of the language. I have a decent ear for jazz, jazz forms, and jazz licks. I have been an intense jazz listener for 50+ years. It’s kind of like being somewhat able to understand, say Spanish, when it is spoken, even though my brain trips over itself when I try to speak it.
  • I am also a decent musician. I understand a lot more about music from simply playing it than I realized before this year. That means I have a basic understanding of chord progressions and the blues scale.
  • And, I now have the time, in my semi-retirement, to spend time learning.
While I didn’t have a set plan for learning jazz, I first spent a lot of time really getting to know my musical skills- the basics, just the basics. Day in and day out there were those long notes and chromatics. Then there was Arban (always good old Arban!) and Concone and others. Finally I decided I would learn the 12 major keys. Yes, after 50+ years I was doing one of those basic things.

The result was I got to Big Band Camp and I was ready. No getting stuck this year. Let it happen!

It did! No it wasn’t a great solo, but it didn’t get stuck, it didn’t suck, and it wasn’t stiff. I even think there might have been some swing it it. At least I was swinging. Since then I have done some more improvising with the one big band I play in. Nothing fancy. But I now have the courage to at least try. I have done it and I know I can do it again. Since then I have done a couple improvisation solos with the one big band I play in. One was good, the other so-so. But I am learning that it is okay to make mistakes. That's how we learn.

What then does all this mean?
#1. It takes time and effort. Just a year of work doesn’t do it. But it’s a start.

#2. Appreciate jazz when other people do it. Listen. Then listen some more. Finally, listen again.

#3. Have courage. Take the opportunity to improvise. In the privacy of your practice room and in public.

#4. Be good to yourself and appreciate what you have done and what you can do.

#5. Push yourself. Don’t stop where you’ve been. Look at where you still want to go.
Now that I have more of the basics down, it is time to move into the advanced beginning stage. (Trying to keep that trumpet ego in check!) That means more of the 5 things above. It means enjoying the practice and challenge. And it means seeing how improvisation has already made and can make a difference in my life.

That will be next week.

The genius of our country is improvisation,
and jazz reflects that.
It's our great contribution to the arts.
-Ken Burns

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Swing

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

It Don’t Mean a Thing
(If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
-Duke Ellington

You may remember the old joke about the comedian who asks, “What’s the secret of a good joke?” and then answers the question without a moment’s break. “Timing.”

Until Einstein, “time” was seen as a constant. It was always the same. Then relativity came along and suddenly time was a “changeable” dimension. (Don’t ask me to explain THAT!) Time became, to put it way too simply, relative. As we get older we can agree with that idea. Time sure moves faster when you have more time behind you. (Where did this year go? It’s the end of April already!)

Another way of describing this is to say that “time” is how we perceive it. If we are bored, it hardly moves; if we are having a great time, it ends too soon. Music depends on time- and timing. Music is guided by a “time signature.” In jazz, the idea of “time” can take on another dimension. Time becomes the movement of the notes in a unique and special way. From there that movement is what musicians often call “the groove” or the interaction of musicians, time and melody into something everyone can feel.

When you are in that groove with the movement leading you, holding you and the music together-
That’s Swing!

Wikipedia starts the definition of swing this way:
In jazz and related musical styles, the term swing is used to describe the sense of propulsive rhythmic "feel" or "groove" created by the musical interaction between the performers, especially when the music creates a "visceral response" such as feet-tapping or head-nodding.
Got it? It sounds simple.
1. There’s the movement (propulsive rhythm).
2. That movement is created by the interaction the performers themselves are feeling.
3. There is a “visceral response,” perhaps because of that interaction, responses like tapping your foot or nodding your head.

If that’s all it takes, I have seen many performers “swinging” in some of the dullest ways possible. In some ways it sounds like a small group of people doing their thing in a way that moves them.

Wikipedia continues:
While some jazz musicians have called the concept of "swing" a subjective and elusive notion, they acknowledge that the concept is well-understood by experienced jazz musicians at a practical, intuitive level. Jazz players refer to "swing" as the sense that a jam session or live performance is really "cooking" or "in the pocket." If a jazz musician states that an ensemble performance is "really swinging," this suggests that the performers are playing with a special degree of rhythmic coherence and "feel."
In other words, if you don’t understand it, that’s because you aren’t an experienced jazz musician. It takes a “practical” and “intuitive” understanding to know when it’s “cooking.” That just adds a bit of snobbery to the first part of the discussion. You have to be with the “in crowd” to really know what swing is or even how to make it happen. How about that attempt at paradox- practical AND intuitive.

Do you get the idea they can’t describe it any better than anyone else? All they are saying is that they know it when it happens. When it’s not happening, well, it “just ain’t swingin’ man.”

The crazy thing is that this is as good as it gets trying to nail it down without some time listening to the music. We have all had an experience of the essence of “swing” whether it is in jazz, or any other kind of music. It may have been the Sunday the organist at church nailed a Bach prelude or the praise band’s hallelujah touched the depth of your soul. It might have been at the rock concert when your favorite band never sounded better and every note was right where they (and you) wanted it to be. Those are the same as “swing,” just in a different musical genre. They are peak experiences when music and time come together and meld into Einstein’s four-dimensional universe.

Okay, enough of this. We can wax and wane poetic, prosaic, or scientific night and day and never quite get to that kernel of truth about swing. We know swing because it moves us. We know swing because something in us responds to it. As musicians, we know we are “in the groove” when we come to the end and realize you were simply carried along.

In jazz, we call it swing. Swing always is an interaction in time and musical movement. On a very simple technical level swing is that dotted-eighth/sixteenth combination of notes. But Latin jazz doesn’t do that, yet it can swing as hard as any other jazz.

That’s where the idea of time really comes into play. Wynton Marsalis describes it this way in his book, Moving to Higher Ground:
Jazz is the art of timing. It teaches you when. When to start, when to wait, when to step it up, and when to take your time- indispensable tools for making someone else happy….

Actual time is a constant. Your time is a perception. Swing time is a collective action. Everyone in jazz is trying to create a more flexible alternative to actual time
We are back to our perception of time, and again that perception is grounded in a collective sense of time in the interaction of the musicians, the rhythm, and the music.

Wynton Marsalis applies all this to our daily lives. Swing helps us in:
1. Adjusting to changes without losing your equilibrium;
2. Mastering moments of crisis with clear thinking;
3. Living in the moment and accepting reality instead of trying to force everyone to do things your way;
4. Concentrating on a collective goal even when your conception of the collective doesn’t dominate.
Change happens. It is a constant. Sometimes it is expected and not jarring. It is in time. Sometimes it knocks us off our balance. That is when the understanding of swing, staying in the groove, going with the flow comes in handy. The moments of crisis, times of change, when we can lose our ability to make healthy decisions is when we move back to the basics. The forms of life that keep us moving.

Remember that jazz is made up of forms and when you have an understanding of the forms you can adapt. If you know the forms of your life, you can begin to trust your Self 2 instinct as discussed in the Inner Game of Music. It’s the muscle and mental default mode that keeps us standing when it would be easier to fall.
From there we accept what is- staying in the moment- accepting the things we cannot change, changing what we can, and knowing which is which.

Another way to describe swing is that it’s how you accent the music, what you emphasize, what you want people to hear. Any jazz musician knows the forms for accents, for what to emphasize and what not to. That can change from performance to performance, within the basic forms of course. Tonight the musician may want to emphasize the upbeat feel of a chorus; tomorrow, after a difficult day, the emphasis may take more of a bluesy style.

What you accent in life can become your song or story. How you do that can change the rhythm of your life. That’s your perspective. We all know the analogies of looking at the doughnut or the hole; the cage of horse manure with the optimist seeing the possibility of a horse amid all that. Even the old "is the glass half-empty or half-full" can add a new dimension- the glass is refillable.

Accentuate the positive. Assume positive intent.
Or not.
It’s your choice.

But you are not alone. With few exceptions jazz is a truly collective music. We have to listen to each other, not fight each other in a jazz performance. It is a cooperative action of attempting to make more than any one of us can make on their own. If I accent the upbeat and you slur through them it might sound unique, but will it sound appropriate? Will it sound like one of us is trying to one-up the other? The music will often suffer as a result. It can easily descend into chaos. Some might call that “free-form” but it takes amazing concentration of collective action to produce good “free-form” jazz.

In the end, Wynton Marsalis says, swing demands three things:
1. Extreme coordination- it is a dance with others inventing steps as they go;
2. Intelligent decision making- what’s good for group
3. Good intentions- trust you and others want great music.
Swing is worth the effort. We grow in relationships- and we learn how to develop relationships. We learn how to listen to others and, in the end, ourselves. That will lead us into the next two weeks’ posts on what may be the heart and soul of jazz- improvisation, the ultimate in going with the flow.

Until then, keep swinging.

I don't care if a dude is purple with
green breath as long as he can swing.
-Miles Davis

Note: All Wynton Marsalis quotes are from the book:
Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward. 2008, Random House.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Yom HaShoah- In Remembrance

Never again.
With any people.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Struggling- But On the Road

I realized last week that I am still in the recovery mode from last year's election. I am not as stuck as I was in November and December, but I recognized in a discussion last week that I have not gotten back to the energy and excitement that I had before that. To watch the ongoing circus of tearing apart the nation we have built over the past 25-40 years is downright scary. It is like the current administration (and GOP leaders) see it as their mission to undo absolutely everything progressive and hopeful for anyone not in the 1%.

In the midst of all this I have continued to play trumpet and have worked hard at my improvisation and overall skills. As I look back at it, that was all that kept me going some days. This weekend I have been at the UW-Eau Claire annual Jazz Fest. I have listened to some great music, reconnected with a number of musical friends and mentors, and found my groove beginning to fall into place.

I am a work in progress. I don't want to ignore the world around me that looks like it is being undone on a regular basis. Nor do I want that undoing to pull me down.


Thanks be to God for such a wonderful gift!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Tuning Slide: What Makes Jazz, Jazz?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Jazz does not belong to one race or culture,
but is a gift that America has given the world.
-Ahmad Alaadeen

I remember a discussion I had with a teenager in my church youth group some 30+ years ago. We had been listening to some live rock song that had a great guitar solo. We started talking about different styles of music and came up with a question.

What makes jazz jazz? Why isn’t it rock or vice versa?

Neither of us had an answer, although we did, in general, agree that we knew it when we heard it. Here, then, decades later, I am going to attempt to answer that question from my experiences. As I said in the previous post, I have been enthralled by jazz in all its forms for over 50 years. I’m not out to give an in-depth analysis of jazz and what makes it what it is. There are countless books that do that. Some are history like Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, a remarkable story of how jazz got to be what it is. Some are on video like Ken Burns’ mini-series documentary, Jazz, from PBS. Barry Kernfeld’s What to Listen For in Jazz has informed this particular post. All three of these are 16 - 20 years old, but capture the story that has become jazz.

Since one of my goals is to relate the music and the experience of jazz to my life and experience, musicology is not my goal. Living jazz is. So, I found in Kernfeld’s book seven things that are essential ingredients to understand about jazz. These, I think, give a little more to work with than just saying “I know it when I hear it.” While all of them can be found in most other musical genres, how they apply to this genre begins to answer the greater question of what makes this music what it is.

First comes rhythm. This should come as no surprise. Jazz started as music for movement. It was street music, dance music, walking and marching music. The power of the “beat” is unmistakable. It is almost impossible to call it “jazz” if it doesn’t have rhythm. It must constantly be supported and carried by the rhythm section- drums or bass, piano or guitar. I know that sometimes that rhythm is pretty hard to find, especially in more free-form jazz, but if you ask the musicians they will say there is something there. It will go nowhere without a living, breathing pulse.

All music breathes. The rise and fall of dynamics, crescendo and decrescendo, are the active elements that make it something more than a one-level sound. In jazz, that breath becomes a rhythm. Some of this is what is called articulation. When you emphasize what note, how you flow from one section to another. But it is always alive, always moving.

When jazz musicians say the music is “in the groove” this is part of what they mean. It is alive and moving. The two most common rhythms can be described as

• Swing and
• Duple.

Swing is a movement of triplets enhanced or bounded by accentuations. Duple is doubles, also enhanced and defined by accentuations. While recognizing that there are numerous variations and exceptions, we can take Dixieland and “big band” traditional jazz as the best examples of “swing.” Duple is more straightforward and can be seen in Latin jazz. I will talk more about rhythm, especially swing, in the next post.

The connection of rhythm and breathing with living is obvious. Drumming has been one of those human endeavors most likely since the first time an ancient relative hit a hollow log with a stick. In so doing they were mimicking the action at the center of our lives- the heartbeat. Rhythm is more than primitive in its origins. It is primal. It is basic, essential. A heart arrhythmia can be fatal- it is out of rhythm.

Second is form. With tens of thousands of possible songs to play, a jazz group and its musicians would be hard pressed to memorize everything out there. That would clearly limit their repertoire and challenge the skill of even the greatest among them. What has developed to make this job relatively easy is the form of jazz music. The most common of these was adapted from the basic “song” form- the music of the Great American Songbook. Very simply this form is the beginning theme, the “head”, the first description of which is usually done twice, the chorus in the middle and then closing with the theme. This often referred to as the AABA form.

There can be many variations on how long these individual sections can be. The song form would, in general, be 32 bars, 8 in each section. Other variations can have a repeating pattern of measures and chord changes such as the 12-bar blues which can be adapted to 8- or 16-bars. Chord changes are often sort of standardized with the 12-bar blues being the grandaddy of them and the progression of the chords of I’ve Got Rhythm (referred to as “rhythm changes”) being another.

One other form is the march and ragtime form. These are usually 16-bar phrases with two, three, or four themes as the song progresses.

Now, in general, a jazz musician can pick up a book of songs and all it might have are the head, chord changes, and the closing. When you understand the basic form of these songs, you have the greater possibility of playing more music and not being completely lost.

Third is arrangement. This is the first of three elements of jazz that are about “writing” the music. Arrangement is taking something that already exists and adapting it. Arrangers can do it note-for-note adding embellishments with their group playing as close to the original as possible. They can also take the original and add embellishments to it to change the patterns around the original. The third is to orchestrate the song differently. Having a saxophone-based combo play a song will give a very different experience from a piano-based one. For example taking a Lennon-McCartney song and arranging it for a big band would take all these into account. What instruments do you want to play when? How close to the original will it be? Will you divide it into sections that build on or riff on the theme?

Fourth is composition. Simply put this is basically writing new music. You are composing a new song. It can be based on the chord progressions from another song, such as the many on the changes of I’ve Got Rhythm or the 12-bar blues. It will be a new melody, a new song.

Fifth is improvisation. Improvisation is so essential to what call jazz in all its forms, I will take at least two posts to deal with that. Suffice it to say here, that being able to improvise is what can help all of us succeed in the ups and downs of life. It is not simply flying by the seat of ones pants. It is the ability to call on our knowledge, experiences, hard work, and creativity to solve problems and enhance our lives. Kernfeld called improvisation the “most fascinating and mysterious” element of jazz. It will be featured prominently in all that we do in jazz.

Sixth is sound. This is where orchestration comes in. Different instruments sound different. Different combinations sound different. How you put them together can make a huge difference in what you hear- or don’t hear. It is also the tuning of the notes and how they fit together. Miles Davis famously said that “there are no wrong notes in jazz: only notes in the wrong places.” Thelonius Monk added to that sentiment. "There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

The ultimate in the jazz sound is what has been called the “blue note.” Simply put the “blue note” is a note that is played or sung a half-step off from what would be expected. Blue notes add a sense of tension, surprise, or worry to the sound. It comes from its use in the blues progression. The “sound” of jazz is what has led many to say they may not know what jazz is, but they know when they hear it.

Finally, the seventh element of jazz is style. Jazz is not one style of music- it is a genre made up of these elements and then flowing into numerous styles. Kernfeld, in What to Listen for in Jazz, leaves the idea of style to an epilogue. That way he could look at the elements that can be found in one way or another in different styles. Here are some of the styles that have developed in jazz, and are still breathing life into the genre:
  • New Orleans Jazz
  • Big Band
  • Bebop
  • Hard Bop
  • Fusion
  • Free Jazz
  • Latin Jazz
  • Acid Jazz
  • Jazz Rock
  • Kansas City Jazz
  • Modal Jazz
  • West Coast Jazz
And Wikipedia goes on to list another 30 sub-genres.

Talk about diversity. Talk about having an abundance of opportunities. Talk about a perfect music to have developed in a little more than only 100 years in the United States.

That’s jazz. That’s all there is to it. In 2000 words or less.
The details, are in the hands of the musicians- and of you and me as listeners. That’s where we will go in the next six posts, seeing how these are good metaphors for life and how, when we learn jazz, we are also learning how to live.

Jazz is the type of music
that can absorb so many things
and still be jazz.
-Sonny Rollins

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter- To Live.. For Others

The Lord is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed!

The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Let those who have ears, hear!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A 70-Year Memory: When Baseball Changed!

April 15, 1947

# 42 made his Major League debut.

Baseball helped lead the way 
into a new United States.

Thanks, Jackie Robinson!

Lenten Journey- Great Sabbath- The Way Back

The day in-between.

Ponder Bonhoeffer’s words as a guide to be ready for the second half of the weekend.

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds;

we have been drenched by many storms;

we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense;
experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open;

intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.

Are we still of any use?

What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men.

Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lenten Journey- Good Friday- Loving the Real

God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross

On the cross, no matter how we explain it, God in Jesus knew the reality of being human. It was not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good moment. I have no idea how or why it happened. There are many different theological explanations. I have a hunch all of them are wrong- and all of them may have a kernel of truth. If I could understand it, it wouldn’t be the work of God.

What I do know is that in the eternal wisdom and will of the Creator of the universe, Good Friday was the first half of the revolution and restoration of humanity. Jesus knew very well how we humans act. God knew very well how we humans can be evil and do injustice to our fellow humans.

Yet there was that cross.

At that I am speechless.

Were the whole realm of nature mine, 
that were a present far too small. 
Love so amazing, so divine, 
demands my soul, my life, my all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lenten Journey- Maundy Thursday- Obedience

One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.
 -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Do this!
Wash each others’ feet.

Do this!
Break the bread and share it.

Do this!
Drink from the same cup as Jesus.

Do this!
Remember Jesus.

Just do it!
It makes quite a witness.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or
take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and
grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Tuning Slide: What About Jazz?

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Eight weeks on jazz. Ah, where to begin?

I could start with a dictionary definition, but that would be almost antithetical to the whole idea of jazz. I could find a quote from some famous jazz musician and place it at the top of this page as an introduction. I could find a video of someone explaining the basics of jazz. But jazz is much more than any of those and far beyond any ability to explain it easily, quickly, or purposefully.

So instead I will do what jazz might encourage. I will riff on the theme. I will answer my own question: What do I want to say about jazz? Here goes:

1. It moves me- just like many forms of music. It moves me internally- I feel good when it hits me. It moves me externally- I physically cannot sit still when listening to jazz. My family will tell you that I direct music when listening to it. Jazz inhabits me and makes me move like no other music.

2. It is a dialogue in sound that occurs through the interaction of different instruments- just like many forms of music. I’m not even talking about improvising at this point. Just the sonic mix of instruments does it. Again, all music requires some sense of interaction in sound, but jazz has taken it and made it into a musical art and craft.

3. It is alive. Even when it is a studio recording there is a sense of a living form that most other types of music may only get through a live concert performance. This is where improvised solos play an important part, but because the music of jazz has grown out of live experiences, it seems to capture that in ways other genres do not.

4. It is almost infinitely adaptable. That is another aspect of jazz being “alive.” Jazz - combo or big band - can play an arrangement of Jim Croce or Lennon-McCartney as easily as it can play the music of the Great American Songbook or the classic music of jazz and Dixieland. On top of that, composers can write music that is new and exciting and it will be jazz.

5. It can stand up with other genres and styles as well as anything. There is Preservation Hall Jazz Band recording with Bluegrass icon, Del McCoury. You can hear Wynton Marsalis in concert with Eric Clapton or Willie Nelson.

6. It is our American music. It is part of the very roots of our American heritage. It describes so much of who we are and the potential of who we can be.

I have been enthralled by jazz for well over 50 years. Jazz has been involved in all of my adult life, moving me, challenging me, inspiring me. It started with Al Hirt’s Java. Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground kicked me up the side of the head. Les McCann and Eddie Harris with Compared to What gave me more insights. Doc Severinsen, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and, above all, Louis Armstrong all contributed even before I graduated from college! I want to share what this has done and why.

You see, above all else, I think jazz is the best musical paradigm for how to live day in and day out. Life is an improvisational exercise. Life is finding the rhythms, harmonies, dialogues, hopes, fears, and emotions to make it through another day. All of that is what jazz does in ways that no other single genre of music can- at least for me.

Sadly it was reported last year that, as far as music sales go, jazz has become the least popular musical style. That is a long way down from the heights of the big band era when some would argue that Glenn Miller’s In the Mood helped us win World War II. It is a sad departure from the incredible all-time best-selling Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. There are no doubt many cultural factors involved in that, but it still is depressing to think that this rich musical heritage is an endangered species.

So what I will do in the installments of this Tuning Slide series is talk about jazz as I see it. I will explore how it has enlivened me, what it can teach us, and how it can give us all a sense of movement and unity.

Let me close this with a You Tube video of what many consider the greatest jazz solo Louis Armstrong ever made. Way back in the mists of jazz history, Satchmo and His Hot Five recorded West End Blues. It set the standard on which just about everything else is built.

Lenten Journey- Holy Week Wednesday- Struggle

When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Nothing that Bonhoeffer did was easy. It was a time of fear and evil. He struggled often with what he as an individual could do. The spirit may be willing, as we often quote, but the flesh is weak. Or rather the flesh wants to take an easier, softer way. There has to be such a way, doesn’t there? I don’t have to REALLY follow Jesus THAT much, do I.

Holy Week reminds me that this struggle was real for Jesus- he even prayed that it be taken away from him if that was God’s will. But in the end, he admitted that he was there to do God’s will. The struggle is often in making that admission and in so doing, moving the struggle to the back burner and allowing the power of God to strengthen me to do God’s will. In mid-Holy Week then, I simply name the struggles- and become willing to listen for the answers.
  • The struggle of getting off the train of injustice or away from the path of evil.
  • The struggle of being honest with myself abut my shortcomings.
  • The struggle to be willing to do the work and will of my Higher Power.
  • The struggle to keep fresh and focused when it never seems to end.
  • The struggle to be a bringer of light into darkness.
Why, my soul, are you downcast? 
Why so disturbed within me? 
Put your hope in God, 
for I will yet praise him, 
my Savior and my God.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lenten Journey- Holy Week Tuesday- Running

If you board the wrong train, 
it is no use running along the corridor 
in the other direction.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer's response when it was suggested he join the "German Christians" in order to work against them from within.

When I get carried away by an idea or action that I thought was good and appropriate only to later find that I made a mistake, what is it that I should do?

Once on the train, Bonhoeffer reminds us, we can’t get out of a difficult situation simply by trying to stay on the train. Somewhere, somehow, I have to get off the train. I have to make a change in what I’m doing.

All the Lenten preparations are finished now. This is the week I have to come face to face with the reality of my life and my actions. Thursday we Christians will remember Jesus' words at Communion “for forgiveness of sin.” As long as I hide from my involvement in sin and injustice I can’t make a difference. Until I turn around and get off the train, I will be as much a victim as those I want to help.

  • What “train” of denial am I still riding on?
  • How do I fool myself into thinking I am doing the right thing even when I know I’m not doing as well as I think I am?
  • When I come face to face with Jesus’ call to live his life, what will I have to come face to face with in my life that I may not want to admit?
  • What can I do to make the changes that are needed to live “after Easter”?
  • How can I stop running in place and start working the program Jesus is leading me into?
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lenten Journey- Holy Week Monday- Illumination

Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Love is illumination. Light.

To be loved by God is to allow light to grow within me.

To see, I need light. Blindness keeps the light from getting through.

But blindness can be self-inflicted by judging others and ignoring my own shortcomings.

As I get ready for the life- and world-shattering events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I am reminded today to be honest and open - with myself; to refrain from judgement and instead see an honest picture of who I am.

I must allow the light of the Spirit to shine on me and in me so I can see and grow.

Again I ask the question:
  • How do I participate in the evil and injustice I see around me?
And then I must ask:
  • How does that evil and injustice keep me from being the spiritual follower God wants me to be?

Lord, I believe.
Help my unbelief.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Lenten Journey- Palm Sunday- Stopping the Wheel

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in an essay to theologians and theological students

The question that always hovers around any discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is his participation in the surprisingly widespread plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. While he himself was not anywhere near being the assassin, his work with the Abwehr (German Army) as a double agent was connected with the overall plotting and planning. (It also kept him from being drafted and sent to the front.) He was involved in the plans almost from the beginning and gave it his complete support, knowing full well what the consequences would be. Many, myself included, have struggled with that position. Many debates have been held - and will continue to be held - among people who wonder if that was an appropriate thing for a Christian pastor and theologian to do.

His most famous justification for his actions is the example he used of needing to stop a runaway bus from killing many people. If it took shooting the driver, he said, it was appropriate in order to save more lives. Even if it is a sin, he said, he must risk that to stop evil. In an essay for theological students he used the quote above as a description of what he was doing. He was committed to bringing the wheels of injustice and evil to a halt once and for all.

I did not live in that time. I do not live in a place that is anywhere near as awful as Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. We too often throw words like Nazi and the name of Hitler around as if we know what we are talking about. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time and place that was filled with and governed by evil. There was no apparent human caring in Hitler, Himmler, or Goering. The SS and Gestapo were as inhuman as any army has ever been. The whole direction of the Nazi vision was anti-religion, anti-God, anti-any life but their own. Words like compassion, kindness, or grace have absolutely no meaning in their world. We have seen far too many of such people and situations in the past century. They are still happening in parts of the world. But what we have in our histories of World War II gives us an unprecedented example of how easily and quickly an otherwise civilized society can devolve into hatred, anger, fear, and unrestrained death. That must not be downplayed or overlooked!

In reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer I have come to a deeper appreciation of what this deeply faithful and faith-filled man was facing. Metaxas makes it clear that it was not an easy decision for Bonhoeffer. He did not take it lightly. He took his faith very seriously and its role in his life was paramount. At the very end of his life he continued to exhibit a calm and a “presence” that astonished his fellow prisoners and the guards who watched them. He saw death, at the end, as a road to freedom. He was able to combine his deep faith with the needs of those around him and face the situations without any outward fear. He was convinced he was doing what was right and went ahead and did it. All the things I have talked about in the previous weeks of Lent were all combined at the end to propel him forward with certainty in the resurrection of Jesus Christ! His faith was as real as it can be!

There has been much talk in the US in the past three months about resistance and even revolution. Some have pointed to Nazi Germany in the 1930s as someplace to learn from, hence the look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his faith. We are, at this point, far from that level of extremism. But that only makes it more imperative that those of us who feel strongly need to know what is happening and learn what potential actions we can engage in. It has been and will continue to be a time of contention, disagreement, fear, anger, and a multitude of emotions. In our country we have seen many things challenged that we thought were being taken care of- civil rights, women’s rights, the environment to name a few. We have seen a series of potential scandals and ongoing investigations, the extent of which we have never seen in our lifetimes. We watch as saber-rattling becomes the norm. We argue over walls and immigration, refugees and the Biblical idea of sanctuary cities.

Which brings us to Holy Week- the central activity of Jesus that makes clear why we Christians are to follow him. In Jesus, Bonhoeffer would say, we see God’s view of being human.
  • We see in the life of Jesus the life that every Christian should strive for. 
  • We see in Holy Week the suffering that Jesus was willing to undergo for humanity. 
  • We see on Maundy Thursday the call to servant obedience he gave to his followers. 
  • We see on Good Friday the ultimate personal sacrifice of self for others. And, to use Bonhoeffer’s quote, we see how far God in and through Jesus was willing to go to drive a spoke into the wheel of evil and injustice.
Today, Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers and acclaim. The people are all on his side. They will be so- until it becomes inconvenient. Leaving aside all the theological niceties and sermon themes I have preached and we have all heard, what is there about Palm Sunday and Holy Week to challenge us in the year 2017? What is there to remind us of the direction of God’s will, the power of God’s love, the vision of how we as humans are called to live? As I go through this week I will have shorter posts each day to help me focus on how this week can guide us. In some ways, even though many churches focus on the whole Passion narrative, it is still only Palm Sunday. It is the day of hope and joy, even as we know what is about to happen. That gives us the opportunities to prepare.

In my preparations this week, even as I cheer Jesus, I know that all around are things to pay attention to- the things that Jesus paid attention to, as, for example, he drove the money changers from the Temple before retiring to Bethany.
  • Where am I seeing the signs of injustice?
  • How do I participate in these acts of injustice and evil, even if it is “only” by my silence?
  • What are the ways I can care for the victims of injustice and evil? That is important. But if I do nothing to stand up to the evil we will all continue to be overwhelmed with more victims than we can handle.
  • What are the ways I can name these signs of evil?
  • How can refuse to go along with the evil
  • In the end, how can I help in the actions to stop the evil?
Not easy questions, and the answers are even more difficult. But it is what Jesus did in Holy Week. Can I do anything less?


In Memory:

April 9, 1945
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
was executed by the Nazis at
Flossenburg Concentration Camp.
He was 39 years old.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Tuning Slide: Listening to Some Jazz

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

I have talked about the essential activity of listening to music as part of the process of becoming a better musician. All kinds of music, all genres, even if you don’t like them, can bring new insights. Depending on your likes, dislikes, and age, some may take more work than others, but if we are willing to persist in the activity something interesting can happen. Since I am about to re-run the series I did on jazz last spring and summer, I wanted to take a week to talk about one of my most interesting and productive listening experiences in jazz music. Jazz is a language that is constantly evolving. From the most free-form of today’s music there is a connection to New Orleans and Dixieland over 100 years ago. Jazz builds on itself, grows new branches, adds new understandings to the old, and never fails its connections, even when the musicians may think it does.

Last summer at Shell Lake Trumpet Workshop I had the pleasure of meeting one of the new, young, and exciting trumpet players, John Raymond. As he taught us and performed his magic with us I realized that here was one who was writing a new chapter to the jazz history. He’s just starting at it, but it will be very interesting to see what happens. At the end of the workshop I bought his trio album, Real Feels, Vol. 1. I put it in the CD player leaving Shell Lake and listened to it three times on the way home. I decided that I want to be like John when I grow up!

Then in the fall he came out with a live version of the album, Real Feels, Vol. 1, Live. They both are in constant rotation on my playlist. I have spent many wonderful hours listening to them. I never get tired of them. Remarkable is too tame a word for them. Even with some of the same songs on both- the albums are so very different. The trio has an incredible chemistry that falls into place so smoothly and with grace, the only word that truly describes it.

I believe John made a comment at Shell Lake last summer about wanting to take jazz into new directions. On these albums he is showing that new directions can come from taking several traditional songs, Amazing Grace, I’ll Fly Away, and This Land is Your Land and turning them into remarkable performances. Or they take the iconic Beatles’ song, Yesterday, and give it wordless insight into the human condition. They then add new dimensions to two contemporary pieces, Atoms for Peace by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and Minor Silverstein by Minnesotan and New Yorker Chris Morrissey.

I highly recommend them as a direction for your listening enjoyment and growth as a musician. Volume 1 Live is a recording that lives and breathes the power of improvisation. Even on the same tunes from the studio recording, (listen and compare!) it is like listening to a whole new composition- a finely developed new composition. The same songs on both albums are not the same songs. The live versions are often twice as long as the studio versions and are incredibly alive. Creative artists, like John and his bandmates Gilad Hekselmans & Colin Stranahan. know how to make music together. It is clear they know what they want to say and then put it into the context. John and guitarist Hekselmans have some wonderful conversations in ways we don’t normally expect. They don’t trade 4s, they talk with each other, echoing and adding to the music, giving meaning and purpose. John’s flugelhorn will kind of slip in a few phrases, adding color to a song, then wait his turn to solo again. Behind them is Stranahan’s incredible rhythm.

One part of jazz history has been to take non-jazz compositions like the Great American Songbook and others, and translating them into jazz. Real Feels is a new experiment in this process. Sure, these have all been done in jazz groups, dixieland arrangements, big band charts. Real Feels takes them into a trio context with a more bare-bones style. The emotion and groove of each piece has to be shared and developed across only three instruments. The changes in “color” you find vocally or with more instruments has to be accomplished more subtly. This album succeeds at all those levels. It is amazing! The “feelings” of the music have to be “real” since it’s hard to hide them or embellish them with more instrumentation. And they do it live on the bandstand!

Here is my take on the songs:

I’ll Fly Away
Funky Dixie or Dixie funk? It opens this CD and lets you know that this is something unlike most of what you have heard. The drummer, Colin Stranahan, propels the song from beginning to end. John and Gilad jump on for the ride. In so doing they all provide the spirit that this song calls for.

Even without knowing the theme, it is clear that this is a song of loss on longing. It has the amazing mournfulness of the words without words. Many of us do know the words- they have been a deep part of the American popular music scene for over 50 years. As the traditional melody appears and disappears we feel the words within us before the solo takes us into new space. The flugelhorn’s musical color makes the song speak in new ways.

Amazing Grace
This piece blows me away! It is in the same slow style as Yesterday, but it is never mournful. It is the Blues without being blue. There is joy in this piece. John’s mastery of the sound of the flugelhorn never allows it to sound mournful, which could happen, but is not appropriate for this song. There is quiet grace at the beginning. It then moves into powerful, life-filling grace and ends with an Amen progression- to a coda of the theme. John starts this piece with a beautiful introduction that sets the stage for the grace that is about to be laid on us. (I fell in love with the intro and have made it a work in progress to learn the solo by ear. The first I have ever tried.)

This Land is Your Land
I always have fun trying to figure out what the music is doing that fits the theme or words of the song. This iconic Woody Guthrie song is a reminder of the land.
“…From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”
I hear that in the music. The joy, the fun of rambling the country is in the words, but listen.. These guys bring it to the music as well. I swear I heard the Woody Woodpecker call in the midst of it. They end with the feel of that wonderful verse:
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.
Listen carefully, too, and you will hear Guthrie’s anti-establishment hard-edged politics in the recording as well, the undercurrent of this powerful anthem. I have listened to Vol. 1 Live dozens of times in the past nine months and am never bored- or disappointed. I hear a new lick, a different interpretation. There is so much wonder in the songs on this album, so much creativity and direction, it could be a textbook of what one can do with even deeply familiar- and non-jazz songs.

Atoms for Peace
Which brings me to Atoms for Peace. It starts with 2 1/2 minutes of drums laying down the foundation of the flying saucer eyes and wormholes of the original lyrics. After a bass intro John’s flugelhorn gives the softness of “wiggling warmth”, but it never overcomes the sensuousness underlying Yorke’s original. The drums keep moving, the guitar feels like a series of quantum leaps (i.e. the internal process of atoms) until the flugel ties it all together at the end.

Minor Silverstein
A bonus cut on the CD is Morrissey’s Minor Silverstein. I have to admit upfront that this piece has a lot of jazz language that I have trouble understanding. I can’t even begin to unwrap it for you. Part of that is my age and style of music I have listened to and played. I appreciate the incredible musicianship of the trio and understand some of what it is saying. But, so far, it’s not part of my vocabulary. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it or that I am giving up on it. On the contrary, it is a piece that can no doubt help me grow in my own skills. That is what listening is all about and why I have talked about these here. I’m looking forward to spending some time with John later this month and hopefully again later in the year. I want to know how to speak the language even better!

So go, enjoy music. Find some videos of John and Real Feels. And most certainly, BUY their albums. Support the music.

Then play it yourself!

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Lenten Journey- Sunday 5- For the Children

The ultimate test of a moral society is
the kind of world that it leaves to its children.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Unknown source

It is always helpful for me to remember that Bonhoeffer grew up in what was considered one of the more civilized countries. Culture, science, theology had all flourished in Germany for decades and decades. They excelled in music- the home of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach. They gave us Goethe, Schiller, and Remarque; Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Count Zinzendorf, and Martin Luther. He himself was from an aristocratic family. His family pedigree was as good as it gets. His father was a well-respected and honored doctor of psychiatry in Berlin. His brother would become lead attorney for Lufthansa Airlines.

In the early 1930s they all watched with increasing horror as this great heritage was run over by brown-shirted thugs bent on undoing everything German and making it into their empire. For Bonhoeffer seeing Luther become an adjunct to Aryan theology while the church went along was the ultimate degradation. The source of moral direction, the church, was helpless at best and complicit in horrific evil at worst.

Bonhoeffer was not alone in this view of course. Many, even within the German Army (Abwehr) were horrified at what Hitler had done to their proud military heritage through the SA, the SS, and the Gestapo. The plots to undermine and then assassinate Hitler formed from the Abwehr where Bonhoeffer was working as a double agent with them against Hitler. He was convinced, with solid reason and evidence, that Hitler and his supporters were not just bad, but truly evil. Against such evil, victory will be very difficult and costly. It might even be he would have to wish for - and support - the defeat of his own country in war.

In the midst of all these conflicting concerns and feelings, Bonhoeffer worked on what he hoped would be his greatest work. It was started in the early 1940s and was his constant task during his time in prison. He never finished it but it has been cited by David P. Gushee, director of Mercer University's Center for Theology and Public Life as one of the five best books on patriotism. It was simply titled Ethik, Ethics in English.

For Bonhoeffer Christlikeness is at the center of ethics. No greater moral standard would there be but becoming as much like Christ as possible. An online overview describes Bonhoeffer’s thinking in this way:
All separation, fragmentation, and binary thinking must now be overcome. The practice of ethics, therefore, is not the division of the world into good and evil; instead, the goal of ethics is the full reintegration of all humanity into the divine reality revealed in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer thus sees the merging of secular reality and divine reality as imperative; separate, they, too, form a binary conceptualization to be overcome. ("Ethics - Overview" Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction Ed. John K. Roth., Inc. 2007 30 Mar, 2017 )
Simply put, Bonhoeffer’s ethics was therefore not a list of right and wrong, a code of behavior, or even judgement. It was the living out of one’s Christlikeness thanks to the work of God. It was always based on God’s acceptance of humans and God's love for humanity. Jesus does not love a moral code, but people. Each of us must “create his or her own moral behavior within the frame of his or her own Jesus-Christ consciousness.” (Same citation as above).

It is an over-simplification to say that this is a summary of the basic of his ethics, but without going into great theological and academic depths, it does seem to be a decent summary. It can therefore be our jumping of point for this Fifth Sunday of Lent and the week ahead. Keeping it simple and concise is important or we will end up playing all the old theological games like the number of angels on the head of a pin.

What about the world we leave to our children?

With that in mind here are the themes I am going to work on in my Lenten journey this week.

  • Christ-consciousness
  • Christ-likeness. 
Then, bringing them together into
  • How can my actions, not just my thoughts, help bring about a world where the moral example of God’s love is lived and 
  • How can my actions today help make this a more moral, I.e. God-directed world?
  • How can my actions help make this a better world, one we are proud to leave to the next generations?
We humans tend to be very short-sighted. If it's good for me right now, the long term consequences are not even added into the equation. Hence issues like climate change can be challenged and disbelieved since it isn't imperative TODAY. Why should I care about 50 years from now?  Someone, sometime will find a solution to these long-term problems, is the "optimistic" take on this. The reality is not so rosy.

A number of years ago I asked a confirmation class the then popular question:
What would Jesus do?
The answer was quick and concise.
We know what Jesus would do. We just don't do it.
But most of the time we don't even ask the question to try to figure out how we should act if we are to be Christ-like. We don't spend much more than a nano-second to check in our the Christ-consciousness within us. 

God has been interrupting me these Lenten weeks, getting into my face at times. I must now be prepared to do something with that. This week, then, is a good time to bring all these weeks together and use the Christ-consciousness we have been cultivating during Lent to be more Christ-like in our actions. It is a good time as we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week next week, to put a few more pieces of awareness and spirit into my life.

[Note: This week's quote is one of the most often repeated of all the quotes I found from Bonhoeffer. What is interesting is that I cannot find a source. I did a bunch of searches in many places and the quote has not yet popped up. I have found almost all the other quotes in the Metaxas biography which I have been reading this Lenten season. But not this one. It may very well be in a book of sermons or letters that I have not yet found- or one that is not digitized for easy online searching. Whatever the situation, it is certainly well known- and one that should not be ignored.]

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Trickle Down?

For over 30 years the theory of trickle-down economics has held sway in some areas of US politics. It ends up with such statements as "We have to give the tax-breaks to the job creators so they create jobs." I keep thinking that there is more than a little BS in this idea.  A few of my reasons:

  • One of the Great American Capitalists, Henry Ford would disagree. 
    • Or at least his idea that he should pay his workers better so they could buy more products would say so.
  • The gap between top and bottom income in the country might disagree.
    • The gap has never been wider with a smaller "middle class" than has existed since the "middle class" became a reality. That means the ones at the top- the job creators- are not using their money to create jobs.
  • The profit statements of many corporations could disagree.
    • As profits keep going up for many big corporations, these profits are not being turned into new jobs. They are going other places, some of which are admittedly important. But the jobs are not being created.
The right-wing economists would come up with all kinds of reasoning why it hasn't happened yet.
  • Regulations
  • Uncertainty
  • Democrats
  • Obama
I would argue that if it hasn't happened yet, after 30 plus years, I see no reason why we should continue to believe that it will happen at some unforeseeable place in the uncertain future. 

And no, I am not joking. I fear that trickle-down economics is the joke.