Thursday, March 26, 2009

World's shortest jazz piano lessons

Yesterday I got a wacky idea to start posting 12-second piano "microlessons" on Twitter. The aim is to provide students (or anyone else interested) with daily snippets of musical information, whatever happens to float across my brain's fuzzy radar screen, with the hopes of sharing something that might help your playing or give you an idea to build on - free of charge. There's so many people peddling online lessons these days, and I've considered it, but hey, I didn't invent jazz piano. I remember vividly being 18 years old in NYC, seeing Herbie Hancock at the Blue Note. As he descended from the stage after his amazing concert, I boldly walked up and asked him what the correct turnaround was on "Footprints" (it's F#-B-E-A) and to show me that nutball chord on "Eye of the Hurricane". He'd only been offstage for five minutes, the audience was still in their seats paying their tabs, and Herbie went right back up to the piano and answered my questions. In front of everybody. And I was a nobody then. That experience, and Herbie's selfless generosity, has stayed with me ever since.

Why only 12 seconds? Well, because it's a convenient Tweetdeck app, and because the people over at think anything longer is boring. And it's about all I have time for these days, with a toddler running amok in my house!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

..."practice!" goes the old punch line. Jim Hall actually used that one on me a few years ago, when we performing at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC. I was lost downstairs somewhere and was literally asking how to get to the venue - he nailed me with it.

Anyway, I've been teaching music all week in California to a great bunch of kids, many of whom's futures could hold a successful jazz career (whatever that means...). Success in jazz isn't measured in money, it's in how clearly you're able to express what's inside you, and how well you connect with your (small but appreciative) audiences. Everyone deserves a chance to earn a living doing what they love, but I wonder how it's going to be for these kids - we're training more and more players for a business that has fewer opportunities than when I was in college.

There's a dude who keeps writing me on Facebook, asking me how to "get into the music business". I finally responded, saying "Basically, you practice your ass off, get out and meet people, and play as much as you can." Let me repeat... be excellent at what you do, and GET OUT AND MEET PEOPLE. That's it, kid. No short cuts that I'm aware of. And he wrote back a few minutes later and said "Thanks for the advice! So how did you get into the music business?" Argghhh... My next answer will be "How you get into the business is you stop bugging people on Facebook and start practicing!"

Playing music is hard work. I love my job, and can't imagine doing anything else. When musicians go on the road, it's not a vacation. Europe? Great! I've seen the airports, train stations, backstages and 3 AM roadside truck stops in 30 countries. Someday I may travel there on vacation, but you can be sure I ain't gonna show up at a jam session!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rubik's Cubes and Maria Schneider charts...

There's nothing like a good arse-whupping once in a while to keep me humble and on my toes. Last weekend I was visiting my inlaws and my wife was cleaning out her childhood play house. She brought down a box of assorted goodies including those Strawberry Shortcake dolls, snap-together plastic blocks that my baby son Cameron would like, and a Rubik's Cube. I was planning to take a nap that afternoon ("Sleep when your baby sleeps" screeches the annoying, unrealistic mantra of parenting books... whoever wrote that must have a live-in nanny, cook, housecleaner and a trust fund), but instead I decided I could solve the Rubik's cube in, oh say, an hour tops. This was a real vintage Cube, you can tell because some of the stickers had been removed and replaced, the end game of a frustrated 80's teenager giving up and outsmarting the toy designers by simply moving the damn stickers. A week later, I'm still determined to beat this thing, this hideous piece of bubble economy engineering and spatial-orientation challenge, some nearly thirty years after it first reared its ugly square head. And I'm not going to cheat by moving the stickers... I'm much smarter, clever and patient than I was in junior high school. My wife might beg to differ.

Which brings me to part two: I'm practicing for a concert this Thursday in Sacramento, with vocalists Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, and the three of us are doing a program of Maria Schneider's music in preparation for Julia and Kerry's upcoming album. They've worked out vocal arrangements of some of Maria's most challenging music, singing all of the horn parts, and somehow I'm supposed to play the rest of it on piano. So I get the solo on "The Pretty Road", which starts out simple enough as a nice little pop tune in D Flat. But by the time it gets into the solo changes, Maria has me jumping through harmonic hoops faster than a trained tiger in a Siegfried and Roy show. I'm getting my butt kicked, and it's leaving a mark. But it's good for my brain, they say... and the effect of actually getting to the end of that solo without major psychological damage is cathartic, kind of a chord scale sweat lodge with a movable "do" system.

I feel confident that as I get older, as long as there are Rubik's Cubes and Maria Schneider charts around to kick my butt, I won't go senile.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The McBride Band rides into the sunset...

After nine good years of bouncing around the globe, the Christian McBride Band ("The CMB") played our farewell gig last night to a small, but appreciative, audience in Gainesville, Florida. I have a lump in my throat when I say "farewell gig", because for me, playing in Christian's band has been consistently one of the best musical experiences of my life. We've become like family - a good, functional, loving family - and making music with these guys feels as easy as breathing and eating, just a great flow of creative music and positive life energy. Christian has decided to move forward with other projects for now, including his new acoustic band Inside Straight, as well as his duets project and other sideman comittments. So for now, keep an eye out for individual appearances and recordings of CMB members: sax/flute master Ron Blake, extraordinary drummer/percussionsist Terreon Gully, and of course yours truly :)

Thank you to all of our loyal CMB fans!!!! We'll be back!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hip Hop... a doorway to Jazz?

Saratoga, NY
The Christian McBride Band has been in residence here for 2 days, teaching and performing. I had a piano student this morning who was relatively new to jazz, as many young musicians in college are. Usually I learn something from my students every time I teach, and this morning was no exception. He told me that he started out listening to hip hop, and that he was fascinated with some of the samples they used, so he would look up what the sample was on the CD credits, then go find the original album. Somebody sampled Ahmad Jamal apparently, so thanks to that hip hop record, he got into the REAL Ahmad Jamal and has been a jazz fan ever since.

It took me by surprise... I had never thought of hip hop as a possible doorway to appreciating jazz. I've played on a couple of hip hop records, the most well known being the keyboard hook on Slum Village's hit "Tainted" in 2002. That hook actually came from the chords in Billy Strayhorn's intro to "Star-Crossed Lovers" from the Such Sweet Thunder album. But overall I'm not really a fan of hip hop, because I don't like the violence, misogyny and general stupidity of the lyrics of MOST rappers... some obviously are above all that and do carry a positive message. But not many, in my opinion. Anyway... I can't say I'd say no to Jay-Z if he wanted to use a sample of mine, even if the lyrics were a drag!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bring back the Groove! (in "jazz", that is...)

I recently was assigned the arduous task of picking finalists for a jazz piano contest of sorts, the winner of which gets the honor of joining an elite, high-profile band of students at a prestigious university next semester on full scholarship. I listed to close to thirty audition CDs, and it was indeed difficult to pick winners as all the pianists truly sounded very good. The only thing that bugged me...which brings me to the title of this that with the exception of a couple pianists, they all sounded EXACTLY the same. What was the same-ness? The lack of groove. Good original compositions all around, chops galore, interesting harmonic and melodic devices... but no "pocket", not even a nod and wink to anything resembling blues, funk, or soul. Not even four quarter notes in a row played in a steady rhythm. It's the "new thing" apparently, the so-called "European" jazz style, which uses as it's jumping off point 1970's records made by a label called ECM. ECM recorded some famous artists such as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea & Gary Burton and many others of that era, and that style - a kind of free-floating, improvised Classical music - caught on, especially with European jazz fans that found it easier to relate to music that had all vestiges of "African-ness" removed from it. Don't get me wrong - I grew up listening to a lot of those records and still love them.

What's being missed - and this is a major point - is that most of those original ECM artists, like Jarrett or Corea, had a solid foundation of more traditional jazz playing before branching off into the more floaty realms. I've heard from reliable sources that Keith Jarrett sounded just like the Wynton Kelly trio when he was a student at Berklee. Chick started out playing with Blue Mitchell in the 60's. Even today, great pianists who make the conscious choice to work in the "Euro" style, such as Brad Meldhau or Fred Hersch, have a solid background in blues, swing, and bebop. And they can pull that stuff out at any time and swing your ass into the ground, if they want to. Most students today can't, or aren't willing to. They seem to think that it's old-fashioned, or at worst irrelevant. It's sad, and annoying. I like all styles of music and have an open mind (for crying out loud, my last 2 records had almost nothing to do with jazz!), but if you're going to call yourself a jazz pianist and make a career out of it, do yourself a favor: drop the attitude that anything you're playing is "new" (it isn't), go back and listen to Count Basie and James Brown for about 6 months straight, figure out how to lock in your quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, be able to really NAIL the changes on Confirmation or Countdown or Moment's Notice or Inner Urge (not just meander chromatically), and for God's sake play some blues once in a while. Then you can go do whatever ECM floaty "broken time" stuff you want.

Listen to Herbie Hancock's album "Maiden Voyage" with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. There's that "broken time" all over that record, yet on a dime those guys can break into the deepest groove you ever heard. It's all there, all the history, and the music is innovative and forward-thinking at the same time. Yes, that record is more than 40 years old. There's nothing new under the sun.