Mental notes to myself

I thought that I would write about some of the dialog that I have with myself on the bandstand. You'll see that I'm actually pretty harsh on myself most of the time, I would probably enjoy playing a lot more if I wasn't.

I'll try my best to be completely honest. Here it goes.....

Don't be afraid to leave more space.

Go ahead and just let those notes fly, you can do it.

It's not as fast as you think, relax.

Why do you always have to overblow so fucking much? It's not a crime to play quiet.

Dude, your palm keys are still seriously sharp.

Relax, relax, RELAX!

Back off the vibrato already, it's not 1940.

Playing bluesy on this blues is not mandatory. Just play interesting and don't try to over emote.

Why, oh God why won't my low C play in tune. It must be my horn's setup horn. What else could it be!? Just don't play low then. Maybe every Mark VI alto is like this?

Let's hear some snakey lines!

The audience can handle it if you stretch. Oh, who the F#*K cares anyways!

Hear it. Listen for something new.

That tired-ass lick again?!

Hey, instead of warming up on the gig by the last set, how about warming up at home for a once.

Why didn't you find a reed BEFORE you got to the gig again?

Lay back whitey!

Quit dragging your lazy eigth notes!

Stop tounging so much, do you want to sound like Ernie Watts or something?!

Do we sound bad or does the food just really suck here? Why does no one ever show up at this club?

I wouldn't have to hire a bass player this bad if I still lived in NYC.

I need some new material, I hate all the tunes in my book.

This is a great tune, I sure wish I could play it.....

Relax!!!!! What is your problem spazz?

Inside is OK!

Outside is OK! What is this the Lawrence Welk band?!

Did I sound better twenty years ago? I really wonder at times like this. I had more energy then didn't I?

Why do I hire these young guys again? Shit, what the hell was I thinking? When will I ever F*$king learn? This is my own fault.

Don't lose intensity and focus half-way through your solo! Why can't you ever end you solos as well as you start them? How hard is it really?

That solo wasn't half bad. I knew you should have put new batteries in the flash recorder. What if that one was the best solo you've ever played in your entire life? What do you think, batteries last forever?!

Please, enough with the triad pairs already. Give it a rest.

Did that other reed sound better? It did didn't it? Now which one was that?


Reed Pro- Space Age Reed Technology

I just bought what is probably the strangest looking piece of reed gear I've ever seen. It's called the Reed Pro. It's a large clear plastic tube with removable rubber caps on each end that have a hole to allow drying. Inside this tube is a hollow square tube (though I guess if it is square then it's not a tube) with emery board on one side and sandpaper on one side for reed resurfacing. Inside this is foam, which holds your reeds tight against the inner sides while letting the reeds dry. There are two rubber bands that allow you to store more reeds on the outside of this square tube. This whole thing looks rather silly, but the design is ingenious and quite practical. The Reed Pro is currently on closeout sale at Woodwind Brasswind for only $9.99. You're not going to fit one of these puppies in your back pocket when you step up to the mic, but you may want to get one of these space age devices to start conversations, if nothing else. It's very handy to be able to sand the back of your reed down a little if it's too hard. Very cool.

Now if I only had some good reeds to keep in this thing.........

Reed Pro at WWBW

The deepest pit of reed hell

I've found myself in a deep dark part of reed hell recently. It's a place that makes you want to just burn your twenty dollar bills, rather than to play any more terrible reeds. I would rather jab these bad reeds into my eye sockets than to actually play one of them on an entire gig. These bamboo things may look like saxophone reeds, but they're really Satan's fingernail clippings. Each time I put one of these hellish shards onto my mouthpiece and blow I hear the mournful wailing of condemned souls and the howls of the hounds of hell. I must have been a mass murderer or Spanish inquisitor in a past life to deserve such reeds in this life.

For the last couple of years I've been playing Riggotti Gold reeds on both alto and tenor. For a while there I felt like my reed demons had been banished from my life. All was well, I was happy, life was good to me. Suddenly the bottom dropped out and all of my tenor reeds stopped working. Each box of reeds seemed to get worse and worse, until it started seeming like I might be better off just using old tongue depressors or even dried cat turds instead of reeds. The sound would be the same and I would have a lot more spending money on hand.

The last eight to ten boxes of Riggotti tenor reeds that I bought have all sucked ass. Not just run of the mill ass, but dirty stinky crusty ass. After each order of these reeds that I go through without finding anything that plays, I usually go to the local music store and buy a box or two of name brand reeds, hoping against all odds that one of them will work. Once in a while I find one that kind of sounds passable, the rest always suck.

The reeds I've recently tried have been Rico Jazz Select, Vandoren Java,V16s, and ZZs, Rico Royal, Hemke, La Voz and regular Ricos. After wasting about $150 on my last order of Riggottis I decided to start searching out reeds that I have not yet tried. I got $177 worth of reeds in the mail yesterday and played through all of them in about one hour, not a single good reed. I tried Ponzel (squwAAck), Brancher (brAAck), Rico Concert (fweep), and Australian reeds (these were so bad they they would have been really funny had they not cost so much). It would be a hell of a lot cheaper if I were to just start smoking crack and just settled for shitty reeds!!!

I can't even write about this anymore because it makes me too sad.

Just take me now Satan, oh terrible lord of darkness.


Sonny Stitt transcriptions

Au Privave

Coltrane's Substitution Tunes

Jason Lyons has some nice articles on improvisation on his web site. Here is his article about Coltrane's substitutions over standards.

Coltrane's Substitution Tunes
Jason Lyon's site


The Monster Meets George Garzone!

Garzone goes up against a saxophone playing monster.This Blair Witch style
documentary is a must watch!

Where is part two, where the monster takes a lesson with Garzone?!

The Monster Meets George Garzone (movie trailer)
The Monster Meets George Garzone: The Movie (part one)

The Lawrence Williams Project Live!

The Lawrence Williams Project
from Saturday, March 15th
@Jax Grill

David Valdez- saxophone
Pere Soto- guitar
Dan Gaynor- piano
Dan Schulte- bass
Charlie Doggett- drums

Number 6
Desert Flower
Blues on Piano
Dance of Life


Matt Otto audio lessons/videos

In this month's Otto interview Matt talks about his concept regarding long tones. On his web site Otto has an audio clip of the best long tone lesson I've ever run across. So good that I'm going to require all of my students to listen to it and follow Otto's instructions. The lesson itself sounds almost like a meditation tape, due to Matt's amazingly calm voice. He stresses that playing long tones is not just to develop your sound, which it does of course, but to also learn to relax your hands, oral tract and your mind. Matt talks about long tone practice as a way to learn to get comfortable with playing fewer notes. We often tend to try to exert our ego by playing a lot of notes, which is a hard habit to break. Otto includes audio files of drones to practice long tones along to. These help you to hear when your pitch is not perfectly stable.

All of Otto's lessons are really, really good. Here they are:

Matt Otto's lesson page
  • If you have any questions about any of these lessons you can post your questions of Matt's lesson blog
If you find these useful to you you should consider donating to MattOtto.net:

Matt Otto's MySpace page (check out Penniless Lennie)
All About Jazz review of Otto's CD Red
Buy Red from Origin Records
Matt Otto Sextet playing Goner's Blues on YouTube
Otto Plays Lennie-Bird on YouTube
A very dark YouTube vid of Otto
Otto plays Notes is People Too

Matt Otto's Homepage


John Nastos Interview

I thought that it would be an interesting to do an interview with a younger player for a change. The younger generation are the future of Jazz after all.

One of the most talented and promising young players to come out of (and back to) the Northwest recently is saxophonist and band leader John Nastos. I always enjoy playing music with fiery younger players like Nastos because it gives me a run for my money, and it also gives me fresh perspective on my own playing.

John doesn't sound like a your typical cookie-cutter clone that many of the Jazz conservatories seem to be churning out by the thousands every year. His influences seem to be different than some of the other young prodigies that I've heard recently. Maybe his composing has made him a more thoughtful improviser also. He also seems to have a tendency to search for a personal and unique voice on the saxophone.

I'm looking forward to hearing what John comes up with musically once he has time to settle in back here in the Northwest. It should prove to be quite interesting.

DCV: So you recently moved back to Portland after graduating from Manhattan School of Music. How was your experience studying in NYC?

JN: My experience in NYC was generally good. I was fortunate to be able to attend my top-choice school with a generous scholarship. During my time there, I got the chance to study with a ton of great players, including Bob Mintzer, Dick Oatts , John Riley, and more. The three guys that I mentioned specifically each had a big influence on my playing, especially in opening up my ears and mind to new concepts and ideas that I hadn't been introduced to before I left for New York.

What turned out to be
more valuable than the classroom instruction, though, was playing every day with my classmates. There were students from all over the world, each bringing different influences to the table. All of us were trying to simultaneously learn the material from the school's curriculum and incorporate what we were hearing from the cutting-edge players in the NYC club scene. Because everyone was trying out these new ideas and styles all the time, I was forced to start to expand my palette pretty quickly.

As great as that learning experience was, it didn't take me very long to fig
ure out that there are a lot of things I dislike about New York as a city. I decided that I'd much rather live someplace that has trees, quiet, affordable living, etc. Coming back to Portland seemed like a perfect choice, since I knew that I could have lots of opportunities to play music with players I love, while still having a good (and balanced) quality of life outside of the music scene.

DCV: How did the experience change your musical concept?

JN: As I touched on before, all of the students at the school were trying to absorb as much as they could and expand in new ways. For me, this meant playing catch-u
p at first on some things that I hadn't been exposed to much before I left Portland. In particular, playing in odd meters is nothing unusual in New York, so getting my legs in 5 and 7 became an important first task. Also, there's a different harmonic approach to a lot of modern jazz that I hadn't explored, having played mostly bebop before I left.

But, those things are really just mechanics. In broader terms, I think my concept of music became more melody-driven. Instead of playing licks, I tried to focus on improvising melodies. That was one of the first concepts that I worked on with Oatts. By the time I started studying with Mintzer a year and a half later, that was the first thing that he mentioned that I should work on. So, it's obviously been a slow process. I've made progress, but it's still one of the most important things to work on in my practice.

DCV: Bob Mover tol
d me that he thought that Jazz schools weren’t requiring students to spend as much time studying the older masters as they did in previous years because the younger players were much more interested in modern players. Do you agree with this assessment?

JN: Well, I can't really speak to what jazz schools used to be like, since I'm pretty young and have only had experience at MSM. What I can say is that there's thirty more ye
ars of jazz to study than there was in the late seventies and a degree still takes the same time to acquire. I don't think anyone is saying the masters have become less important, but the amount of material you have to cover to get a complete education keeps growing, so it's inevitable that things are going to get compressed. That is, unless you decide to ignore a certain time period, which is a bad idea whether it's the modern stuff or the classics.

DCV: How are your peers that stayed in NYC doing career wise? Do you think that many of them are supporting themselves playing Jazz?

JN: It varies a lot – some guys seemed to start getting lots of work right away. Others will probably be doing non-music jobs for a long time to pay off student loans. I wish everyone I went to school with the best of luck, but I know that not all of us will manage to have our ideal careers.

DCV: What about yourself, in the last few years I’ve seen club after club close down here in Portland, are you working enough to keep afloat?

JN: I am working a fair amount at the moment and I've been very fortunate that the work I've been doing has been with some fantastic players. You're right, there have been some closures lately, but there are new places coming up as well as burgeoning neighborhoods like Alberta St. and Mississippi that I think hold promise. The next step for me is working on getting more private students, which is something I've had on the back burner while preparing for some of the concerts I've done lately.

DCV: Tell me about what you’re working on lately and what is a typical practice session for you like?

JN: For the last few yea
rs, I've been pretty bad about getting a regular routine together. When I was in school, my practicing was often dominated by what the curriculum was focused on at any given time. And, there was so much material that every time I had a break, I was going back trying to internalize the new concepts I had just begun to master during the classes or lessons. In fact, I still have a ton of stuff on my to-do list that I learned superficially in school but never had enough time to really shed.

Now that I'm out of school, I find that I'm usually practicing for an upcoming event of some sort. Sometimes that means shedding a bunch of some one else's music and sometimes that means getting to work on my own stuff.

Recently, when I've had time to pick and choose, I've been working on taking tunes through all 12 keys. This is always an i
mportant exercise for the obvious reasons, but it's also a good way for me to spend lots of time with my tenor, which I've been trying to focus on lately.

I've also been spending a lot of time writing. There are quite a few tunes in the books for my various groups that I've been playing for a few years and even though I'm not tired of the old music yet, I'm ready to add a new batch of tunes to the repertoire.

DCV: Can you talk about your creative process for composing?

JN: I do 99% of my writing on the piano. It's usually the last step for me to try it on the horn to see if it fits correctly and is comfortable, or if it needs to be transposed or something. When I'm at the piano, I have a couple of different approaches. If I'm really lucky, I'll have the piece in my head already, and I just need to figure out how to voice it properly, make edits, and things like that. Other times, though, I use more of a mechanical approach. For example, I may have a new harmonic idea or chord progression that I want to try out, so I try to make a piece that incorporates these ideas. The problem with that strategy is that the majority of the pieces end up sounding too artificial – like they're an exercise or something – so I never end up performing most of them. The benefit to writing them, though, is that the concept I'm working on gets into my ear so that next time I have a more natural inspiration, I have another tool to use to express what I'm hearing.

DCV: Who are you listening to lately?

JN: In the past couple of days, I've been checking out Alan Jones's new CD with Darrell Grant, Phil Dwyer, and Tom Wakeling. I'm guessing that CD will spend a lot of time in my CD player in the next few months. Before that, I had been listening to a lot of Jan Garbarek. He's produced an incredible body of work over a number of decades and has a completely original sound. Also, he plays more melodically than just about anyone. In the long term, I've spent the last few years checking out a whole bunch of Oregon (the band, not the state) records. Ralph Towner's writing has been one of the biggest influences on my own work. His writing has lots of harmonic depth but still is focused on beautiful melodies.

DCV: Ralph’s incredible, but that stuff seems pretty far outside the realm of Bebop where you started out. Have you always been interested in Jazz-fusion and Thi
rd-stream music?

JN: Yes, I have been. I
was always listening to more of that stuff, even if the only playing I was doing was bebop. Back when I was starting out and hadn't tried my hand at playing newer and more modern music, I think I didn't even have an appreciation for how different the skill sets are for playing different types of jazz. I figured that the skills I was learning to play over bop changes would translate to playing other sub-genres, but when I started to actually play it, I realized that not only should I be working on the bebop vocabulary, but techniques for lots of other styles as well.

DCV: You mentioned that you’re into Jan Garbarek, because he’s pretty much the exact opposite of the Bop approach of playing.

JN: I think you hit an interesting point – 13/8 seems like a stretch to a lot of people right now, but so did bebop at one point. Odd-meters like 13/8 are being played in different types of music all over the world and that sort of thing is just starting to work its way into the jazz genre. So, obviously when people are trying to play concepts like that, it's not unreasonable or unattainable, it's just a stretch from what we're used to.

If musicians want audiences listening to their craft, I think it's the artist's responsibility to find a way to integrate the new concepts in a way that is somewhat approachable for the listener. Sometimes that fails and
sometimes it works to great effect, like Binney and Chris Potter have experienced.

Jan Garbarek, in a sense, has also gone through that process, albeit in a differ
ent way. If you check out his really early recordings, he plays in very Coltrane-esque sort of way – sheets of sound, dense harmony, etc. Now, he plays very melodic, almost simple music. But, he's approached it in a way that (at least some) jazz fans identify with. I should mention that I love both periods of his playing.

DV: My Swedish house-
mate in Boston used to refer to Jan's style as 'suicide music', because of it's lonely, wailing quality. I also happen love Jan's playing. There was one album in particular that he did with John Laughlin and some Hindustani musicians, I listened to that CD so many times and never got sick of it. Tell about your setup, are you happy with it?

JN: On alto and soprano, I use Meyer mouthpieces (an 8 and a 7 respectively), with Rico Royal 3 reeds. I love those mouthpieces and reeds and have rarely had issues or complaints. This is good, because I'm not really an equipment guy – that's the last thing I want to have to think about. On tenor, I've had more of an uphill battle, which explains why I've spent less time playing it. I just wasn't interested unless the mouthpiece/reed thing was figured out. Luckily, a local guy (Patrick Springer) just made a mouthpiece for me that I've really been enjoying. Instead of dreading the tenor, I've been spending most of my time with it.

DV: Ideally, where do you do see your music career in ten years?

JN: To put it simply, I'd like to be playing with players that I respect and enjoy playing with, and teaching students who have a desire to learn. I don't care too much about what form either of those come in – whether I'm playing clubs or concert halls, teaching highschoolers or college students, I'm not picky.

DCV: What about your playing itself, what sort of player would you like to be a decade from now?

JN: I'd like to try to break down more of my technique and ear-related inhibitions. I think if I can get my ear-training in better shape, I'll be a better true improviser. And then I'll need better technique to execute what I'm hearing in my mind's ear.

DCV: What direction do you think your peers will take and how will that affect Jazz in the next few decades?

JN: I think that younger players will continue to add more and more 'cerebral' techniques to the music, meaning more complicated meters and rhythms, more dense harmony, etc. The challenge will be to keep the music listenable.

DCV: That seems to be a problem that many younger players suffer from, music that is too complex and too cerebral. How can anyone just relax and let loose in 13/8? It seems ironic that everyone first thought that Be-Bop was incredibly complicated. Imagine if Chris Potter, DaveBinney, or Vijay Ayer were on to the 52nd street scene in the early 50’s. There would have been an angry mob with torches and pitchforks every time they played.

JN: Also, I think there's an inevitable change that's going to happen r
egarding 'standards.' If we're talking about a few decades, the people who grew up with the American Songbook as the popular songs of their generation will all have passed away. I don't know what the effect will be, but I imagine that this has to have some impact on the common repertoire of jazz.

DCV: Yeah, pretty soon they’ll be playing “Can’t Touch This” at senior dances. Tell me about the musical projects that you’re involved with right now. Do have a CD in the works?

JN: For the past few years I've led two different bands.

E4 is my electric quartet, with Clay Giberson, Damian Erskine, and Drew Shoals. One of my inspirations for that group was Joshua Redman's Elastic Band – a more modern fusion sound, incorporating lots of funk and pop sounds. That band also gives me the chance to experiment with effects on the saxophone and the EWI (electric wind instrument).

I've also had an acoustic band which has gone through quite a few changes over the years. The most recent version of that band played at the '08 Portland Jazz Festival
at the Old Church. I was lucky enough to have Dave Captein on bass, Alan Jones and Drew Shoals trading off the drum chair, and my friend Sam Harris from New York on piano. I also persuaded Shelly Rudolph (with whom I've enjoyed playing recently) to sing a couple of my arrangements.

I've been thinking about a CD for a long time, but I haven't decided on what band I want to use, which tunes to record, and any number of other questions associated with the process. I think it's especially hard, since whatever it turns out to be will be my first CD as a leader and I want it to be the best first effort that I can manage. In the meantime, I've been trying to get in the habit of posting live recordings on my blog: blog.johnnastos.com

DCV: You’ve been hosting a nice website about the Portland Jazz scene for several months, what inspired you to start doing that?

JN: I've been running JazzPDX.org since June – it started because at the time there weren't any (functioning) websites that were dedicated to jazz in Portland. The Jazz Society of Oregon had been neglecting their site for a few months, so I decided to start my own project. So many times I've told people about a show I've seen and heard that they would have loved to be there too if only they had known about it. I figure if my site prevents that from happening as much, then it's worth it. Recently, I've also decided that I want it to be more interactive, so I'm starting a series of “community discussion” questions. The most recent one had people talking about their thoughts on the 2008 Portland Jazz Festival.

DCV: Everyone I talk to seems to think that the Jazz scene here will come back around. They always say that the scene moves in cycles and that more Jazz clubs will open again. I may be a pessimist but I only see a steady decline in the number of Jazz clubs in the last decade, for that matter the last two decades. Are you optimistic that the downward cycle will turn around again?

JN: I am optimistic. Right now, you can still find jazz in quite a few places in Portland every day of the week – Jimmy Mak's, Wilf's, the Benson and Heathman Hotels, etc. There are also some great places that have monthly or weekly events, like the Hollywood Music Center, Zaytoon on Alberta, and Design Counsel (where Diatic Records does their concert series). Even better news - I know of at least one new jazz club opening in May. I think the fact that there is so much jazz education right now means that there will continue to be audiences. The kids that are involved in high-school jazz programs won't all grow up to be pros, but it's pretty likely that they'll continue to be jazz fans and patrons.

DCV: It's a good thing that you're so optimistic. As for me, I'm starting to make my contingency plans to move back to NYC in case the scene gets any worse here. Thanks a lot John.

John Nastos' Web Page

John Natsos' Sounds

Roger's Rant

My buddy and great saxophonist Roger Wood just sent me this rant about the state of the arts in America. Don't get me started Rodger....

" Hey David, I wish that I could check this out but I have a gig (thank goodness!). I forwarded your email to a few people I know who are into the music. Hopefully they will come out check out what you're doing. What in the world has happen to live music support, not only in Portland, but across the entire country? I talk to musicians from all over the country all the time on this topic. Our society's profound lack of interest in all of the arts is both appalling and unacceptable! This was not the case in the sixties and seventies when I was growing up Baltimore and tagging along with my parents and teachers (and of course I didn't want to)
to hear the likes of Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Chet Baker, Andre Watts, Maurice Andre, etc. The arts, music in particular, was an integral part of one's educational development and therefore encouraged and supported by our respected elders in the community, parents, teachers, barbers, ministers, etc. Of course this lack of support for live music has had and is having an adverse effect on live music venues (to stay open) and many great musicians' ability to sustain a living playing great music for the people! Now we've (our society in general) descended into this vortex of mindless activity. It seems to me that so many in this society today are much more interested in "America's Next Idol," etc. than anything of substance, such
as going to a live concert, an art museum, etc. Sorry for the mini tirade. Reading about the stoppage of live music at Jax triggered this rant! I just think musicians of your high caliber should be appreciated more and am deeply concerned and saddened by the current state of the arts in this country.

Anyhow, have a good gig on Saturday. I know it's going to be smoking'!

Musically yours (always), Roger"


This is your brain on Jazz.....

RESEARCHERS USE MRI TO STUDY SPONTANEITY, CREATIVITY--Johns Hopkins researcher also trained as a jazz musician

A pair of Johns Hopkins and government scientists have discovered that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow. The joint research, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and musician volunteers from the Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute, sheds light on the creative improvisation that artists and non-artists use in everyday life, the investigators say.

It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

In a report published Feb. 27 in Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, the scientists from the University’s School of Medicine and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders describe their curiosity about the possible neurological underpinnings of the almost trance-like state jazz artists enter during spontaneous improvisation.

“When jazz musicians improvise, they often play with eyes closed in a distinctive, personal style that transcends traditional rules of melody and rhythm,” says Charles J. Limb, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a trained jazz saxophonist himself. “It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” he adds, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous.”

Though many recent studies have focused on understanding what parts of a person’s brain are active when listening to music, Limb says few have delved into brain activity while music is being spontaneously composed.

Curious about his own “brain on jazz,” he and a colleague, Allen R. Braun, M.D., of NIDCD, devised a plan to view in real time the brain functions of musicians improvising.

For the study, they recruited six trained jazz pianists, three from the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory where Limb holds a joint faculty appointment. Other volunteers learned about the study by word of mouth through the local jazz community.

The researchers designed a special keyboard to allow the pianists to play inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a brain-scanner that illuminates areas of the brain responding to various stimuli, identifying which areas are active while a person is involved in some mental task, for example.

Because fMRI uses powerful magnets, the researchers designed the unconventional keyboard with no iron-containing metal parts that the magnet could attract. They also used fMRI-compatible headphones that would allow musicians to hear the music they generate while they’re playing it.

Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.

In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.

Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.

Limb and Braun then analyzed the brain scans. Since the brain areas activated during memorized playing are parts that tend to be active during any kind of piano playing, the researchers subtracted those images from ones taken during improvisation. Left only with brain activity unique to improvisation, the scientists saw strikingly similar patterns, regardless of whether the musicians were doing simple improvisation on the C-major scale or playing more complex tunes with the jazz quartet.

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests.

The researchers also saw increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which sits in the center of the brain’s frontal lobe. This area has been linked with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

“Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Limb notes that this type of brain activity may also be present during other types of improvisational behavior that are integral parts of life for artists and non-artists alike. For example, he notes, people are continually improvising words in conversations and improvising solutions to problems on the spot. “Without this type of creativity, humans wouldn’t have advanced as a species. It’s an integral part of who we are,” Limb says.

He and Braun plan to use similar techniques to see whether the improvisational brain activity they identified matches that in other types of artists, such as poets or visual artists, as well as non-artists asked to improvise.

This research was funded by the Division of Intramural Research, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health.

Article from the Johns Hopkins website

Thanks to Bill (Monk's Dream) for the link to this article

Conversations on the Improviser's Art

Here are some quotes from the book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art, these are sure to stir up some comments. The book consists of nothing but interviews with Lee Kontiz and a few of his contemporaries. In the book Konitz talks with the interviewer (and musician) Andy Hamilton in great depth about Lee's musical philosophy. To be fair these quotes are taken out of context and are therefore not Lee's complete opinion on the subjects he's talking about. In the book, Lee expresses respect for Bird's playing and goes into greater detail about how Bird used his 'composed' phrases to great great mosaics of sound in artful and original ways.

On Warne Marsh-

Lee: When I think of Marne Marsh, I think of the definitive creating player, no theatricality, no showboating, just a true musical improviser. It's a true exaggerated voice, that's what was so sophisticated about it- without the 'bleating' and over blowing that many saxophone players seem obliged to do.......it's not blustery, it's not self conscious, he was improvising. There's a different feeling between an improviser, and one who has the ability to improvise but feels it's wiser to make a plan before he goes out in public. Warne wasn't naive, he had a plan in some way- his plan was to improvise in the best possible way.

On Bird and improvisation-

Interviewer: You said that you thought Charlie Parker was really a "composer". You mean he had a vocabulary of phrases that he's adapt?

Lee: What is a "composer"? One who puts good phrases together. When I came to New York with Cluade Thornhill in '48, I went right to 52nd street and listened to Charlie Parker. He sounded great, but very familiar to me, and I wondered why that was. Then I realized he was playing vocabulary that I'd already heard on the records- but it was fantastically played and realized. As a "composer", he conceived of these great phrases, and fit them together in the most logical way, and he played them until they came alive- and then decided to depend on what really communicated with the audience.

Interviewer: That approach doesn't appeal to you?

Lee: Of course we have to function with a vocabulary in order to speak musically. But because I've had so much experience playing, and had my confidence reinforced and encouraged through doing it, I realize that it's possible to really improvise. And that means going into it with a so-called clean slate. That appeals to me very much. Not to deny the importance of a speaking vocabulary, but having one that's flexible enough so it can be used to reinvent constantly. Keith Jarrett stated it pretty eloquently on his new record, Always Let Me Go. He explained how he had to really withdraw from following through with something that he already knew would work. That's a very important point. Both Bird and Trane had a very specific vocabulary. It becomes licks and cliche's when there's no feeling behind the phrase any more. But you have to have things to play. I have what I think of as a more flexible vocabulary. When I practice and come up with a good combination of notes, I work it through the keys; different tonalities, rhythmic changes, ect. Then, when I play that idea inevitably pops up in a most unexpected place. Bird's phares were very specific, and it was hard to alter them, for him or [followers such as] Jackie McLean or Sonny Stitt. Mine, and Warne Marsh's, phrases are more like filler material- rhythmic phrases that could be played in many different contexts, connecting one to the other.

Interviewer: How far ahead do you think when you play?

Bob Brookmeyer: Just, ideally on the note that I'm playing. I know, on some level, where I'm headed in the tune, but it's important for me to play each note as clearly as I can. I've heard a number of people describe how they think ahead, and kind of aim for a certain note, or a certain place. Hal Galper wrote in how book about looking forward to how you develop the phrase, and how it's going to end. I don't know how that's possible, if you're improvising. But it's different for each player, I'm sure.

Interviewer: What kind of state of mind are you in when you're improvising?

Bob Brookmeyer: Just trying to be "there" basically, and be interested in what's going on around me, besides my own obligation to play. I want to hear the other players as clearly as possible. It's almost a selfish need- besides the satisfaction of hearing them play, even if it isn't first rate. If I hear what they're doing, I never run out of things to play, because they'll always feed me something. It's not really possible to run out of things to play if you tune into the bass drum, sock cymbal, or the bass notes, or the piano chord. But if 100% of my attention is on thinking," What's the next note?" it's hard to listen to anything.

Interviewer: How do you get beyond playing things that are in the "muscular memory"- phrases that have been learned and are then unconsciously repeated?

Bob Brookmeyer: By believing that it's possible to do it, first of all, all wanting to do it. I have complete faith in the spontaneous process. I think most people think that can be very naive, and that you do your improvising at home, and when you go out, you play prepared material, so that the paying customers don't get short-changed. It's the picture I've seen all my life. And very talented people can do it effectively- the rest sound like hacks, to me. Obviously playing mechanically suggests a lack of real connection to what you are doing at the moment. We learn to play through things that feel good at the moment of discovery. They go into the "muscular memory" and are recalled as a matter of habit. If I know a pattern on a progression that feels good at the time of discovery, every time I come to that place I could play that pattern, knowing it works, rather than making a fresh try. Up to a point this is the choice you make with a working vocabulary- how much you want to flex those ideas.

Interviewer: Is it quite a small number of people that play the way you do?

Bob Brookmeyer: I think that most people who play professionally want to do a good job, and prepare as much as possible to do that. I do in my way, but that's my way of preparation- not to be prepared. And that takes a lot of preparation!

Paul Bley: Fuck the listeners! The listeners are privileged audience participants, with no relationship to anything except for the fact that they're there for moral support.

Paul Bley: The thing about a good improviser is that when he's playing a written piece and it now becomes time for the solo, he will continue the piece as if the solo was written as well as the piece, so it's seamless.


Bird Fake Book

Here's a Bird fake book with 87 tunes in concert key. Most of the tunes are also in the Omnibook, but it's better to give people charts to play without the transcribed solos on them. There are several tunes that are not in the Omnibook. Thank you to Charles G for the link.

Charlie Parker Fake Book

Steve Grossman's solo on 'Softly'

My buddy Kenny Brooks, who is currently touring with Ratdog, has a very nice Softly as in a Morning Sunrise Steve Grossman solo transcription on his website.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise Solo


Jazz Promo Contacts

Jazz Promo Contacts

The Greatest Music Video Ever

Regular Casa Valdez reader and Prauge saxophonist Kuba Dolezal sent me a link to an amazing YouTube video.

Kuba writes:
"This e-mail has nothing in common with jazz, improvisation, your blog etc. It's just an email with a link to something funny... I just wanted to present you an YouTube video which has gained a large popularity among musicians in Prague. It's very interesting to see just how LITTLE different "official" TV entertainment was here and in Western Europe in seventies (the video is from Danish TV).

Thanks a lot for a great interview with Matt Otto!!!

The video was discovered by my friend, a great piano player and composer. According to the video's title, it's pretty much obvious, what he was formerly searching for..."
Fucking Awesome


Casa Valdez Amazon recomendations

Again I'll remind you about my hand picked selections at the Casa Valdez Amazon aStore. These are all books and CDs that I personally recommend for your reading and listening pleasure. It's like browsing in a Jazz media paradise, because everything in it is so very good!

Casa Valdez Amazon Store

Mole', Mariachis & Mexican Standards

I just got back into the country from a ten day vacation in and around Guadalajara, Mexico. This was my first trip south of the boarder and it was much nicer than I expected. I realized just why so many Americans are retiring down there; great weather, nice people, incredible food, natural beauty, amazing prices and tons of Jazz clubs everywhere. Alright I made up that last one, that was the only thing missing. There were a lot of musicians playing on the street, in the restaurants, hotels and even on the buses, but not a single Jazz club. I've heard from my buddy Pere Soto that there is a decent Jazz club in Mexico city, and there must be places in the popular resort cities like Cancun that have a night of Jazz once in a while. That got me thinking about my retirement. Would I ever feel like I not playing music anymore? Would I always feel the need to live in a city with plenty of other Jazz musicians? How long am I going to feel like playing gigs in clubs? Will I always be tied to a city with a Jazz scene for the rest of my life? When will it not bug me if I'm not playing good music for more than a few weeks?

There's a tenor play here in Portland named Sam Schlicting who's in his eighties and still gets out to the Jam sessions and sounds great. Charles MacPherson is in his mid-seventies and he sounds better than ever. There are lots of other examples of players sounding great longer than most people live. Cats like Benny Carter, Hank Jones, Count Basie, Elvin Jones, and Art Blakey. Did they keep playing only because they couldn't afford to retire? Probably part of the reason, but these guys never stopped being totally dedicated to the music. Most people in other careers can't wait to escape the grind of the job and putter around the house in slippers or the golf course in silly plaid pants. If I weren't a musician I probably would be wanting to move to the land of mañana as soon as I could. If you're trying to make it on a fixed income why not live like a king for half the price? I also happen to love great Mexican food, which is almost enough reason alone to head south.

Most of the music I heard wasn't the greatest. You gave these a few pesos just to stop their infernal bedlam. Do they just not have guitar tuners in Mexico? I was expecting to hear at least one good Mariachi band while I munched mole', but no fuzzy dice señor. I know that there are some smoking Latin bands in Mexico, but I just didn't seem to run into any. Even though the musicianship was poor it was still always entertaining for me to come across live Latin music. One thing kind of surprised me, most of the tunes I heard were the same crusty Latin standards that you hear up here. There were bad renditions of tunes like the Girl from Ipanema, Beseme Mucho, Para Mi, and the like. I guess I was expecting hip Mexican folk songs or something. There were a few musical high points though, on one of my last days in Mexico I came across a pair of unlikely street musicians. They were two blind and bearded Mexican grandmothers who tore it up with nothing more than a homemade kazoo and their vocal chords. I used my camera (not a video camera) to capture short clips of some of the bands I saw on the street.