Monday, December 23, 2013

Year End...

This is the last post of 2013. I'm on vacation! Thank you for your support and see you in 2014.

In the meantime, check out Charles Mingus' very own recipe for Egg Nog and spread some xmas cheer:

"Charles Mingus Secret Egg Nog Recipe"

- Separate one egg for one person. Each person gets an egg. 

- Two sugars for each egg, each person.

- One shot of rum, one shot of brandy per person.

- Put all the yolks into one big pan, with some milk.

- That's where the 151 proof rum goes. Put it in gradually or it'll burn the eggs,

- OK. The whites are separate and the cream is separate.

- In another pot- depending on how many people- put in one shot of each, rum and brandy. (This is after you whip your whites and your cream.)

- Pour it over the top of the milk and yolks.

- One teaspoon of sugar. Brandy and rum.

- Actually you mix it all together.

- Yes, a lot of nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg. And stir it up.

- You don't need ice cream unless you've got people coming and you need to keep it cold. Vanilla ice cream. You can use eggnog. I use vanilla ice cream.

- Right, taste for flavor. Bourbon? I use Jamaica Rum in there. Jamaican Rums. Or I'll put rye in it. Scotch. It depends.

- See, it depends on how drunk I get while I'm tasting it.

Charles Mingus

Friday, December 20, 2013

Earl MacDonald "Mirror of the Mind"

Pianist and composer Earl MacDonald recently released a very special album of original music entitled "Mirror of the Mind". I've been taking on-line composition lessons with Earl lately and his insight into music and the compositional/improvisational process is pretty deep. MacDonald is a professor at University of Connecticut and at one time served as musical director with Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau. He's also a Canadian (originally from Winnipeg) and is a graduate of McGill University (as am I) so I feel somewhat of a kinship with him even though we are relatively separated by space and time!

You can find out more about Earl's music at his website www.earlmacdonald.com and through his great blog www.everupandonward.blogspot.ca

Here's a great sample of Earl's unique music:

Earl was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his career and music:

1) What can you tell us about your musical background? 

As a kid, my parents enrolled me in group organ lessons, through the local Yamaha Electone dealership.  They eventually discovered that I wasn’t reading the music, but was playing by ear.  Maybe that was a sign of things to come.  I played organ all the way through to high school when I landed my dream job (at the time) of playing for the Winnipeg Jets hockey games.  In high school, in addition to starting classical piano and music theory lessons, I joined my school’s jazz band, playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano. “The jazz bug” bit me hard and didn’t let go. I went on to study jazz at McGill University in Montreal and later earned a Master’s degree in Jazz Studies at Rutgers in New Jersey.

How did you learn to play jazz piano?

I was never afraid to improvise, like I see in some kids.  I’m not sure why. In high school I found some books by Dan Haerle and Frank Mantooth, and worked through them on my own.  Before recording a university audition tape, I had one lesson with Winnipeg pianist, Ron Paley, where he wrote out some chord voicings and discussed scale options for improvisation.  He wouldn’t allow me to pay him.  At McGill I quickly learned I was at the bottom of the heap compared to the other jazz piano students. So, I “rolled up my sleeves” and got to work.  I took lessons with Fred Henke, Luc Beaugrand and AndrĂ© White.  It was Luc who taught me how to practice in a disciplined manner.  He set me on the path of transcribing and practicing for up to eight hours a day, which I did for many years.

2) Who are your musical influences and why? Who are your favorite pianists?

My influences and listening preferences change regularly.  If I was asked this question twenty years ago, I would have listed all the bop and hard bop pianists --- Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, etc. That was my world.  Today I rarely listen to those albums.  I almost avoid them.

I can’t imagine ever growing tired of Fred Hersch and Herbie Hancock.  If pressed, I’d say they are my two favorites.  I admire Geoff Keezer’s depth and facility.  Luis Perdomo and Frank Kimbrough impress me.

These days, I am listening to contemporary classical composers for wind ensemble and orchestra.  Joseph Schwantner and Michael Torke have captured my interest.  I like their musical ideas and how their pieces unfold.

I still have some holes in my knowledge of 20th century classical music.  I frequent UCONN’s music library and often leave with stacks of CDs. Alex Ross’ book, “The Rest Is Noise” has been helpful in identifying important contemporary classical pieces to hear.

3) Name your top 10 favorite albums and how they have influenced you:

1. Fred Hersch – Leaves of Grass.

This is probably my favorite of Fred’s records, but I could have listed any of them.  There is no finer pianist.  This album is the perfect cross between classical chamber music and jazz. I love the idea of adding a musical dimension to Walt Whitman’s poetry.  The instrumentation is imaginative and the music touches me at my core. 

2. Vince Mendoza & the London Symphony Orchestra – Epiphany.

Orchestral jazz doesn’t get any better than this. I aspire to write music on this level.

3. Michael Cain/Ralph Alessi/Peter Epstein – Circa.  

This album demonstrates Michael Cain’s pure genius.  Unfortunately his other albums haven’t impressed me on the same level.

4. Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass – Two Originals.

This CD is actually 2 albums released together: Brass My Soul & Tribute. Playing this disc takes me to my happy place; refraining from dancing or snapping my fingers becomes impossible. I can’t think of an arrangement that swings harder than “Blue Daniel”.  Pure joy --- and from that grumpy old bastard.  I love the trombone solis on this track, and then finally going to a waltz at the end is so incredibly effective.  I have such great memories of my times with Rob and wish he were still around.

5. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra – Up From the Skies, the music of Jim McNeely.

Despite having an intellectual appeal, the music swings and feels great. When I hear the soloists in this band, it’s like visiting with old friends.  Played by this roster, Jim’s stellar arrangements are like a piece of heaven to me. Music with personality.

6. Jim McNeely/Swiss Jazz Orchestra – Paul Klee.

This is Jim’s writing at its best.  What an imagination and command of orchestration! Again, I am drawn to projects that effectively fuse seemingly disparate artistic mediums.

7. Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra – Evanescence.

When I heard this band at Visiones (jazz club) in the 1990s, it changed my life. At that time I equated big band with Sammy Nestico, and had lost all interest in the idiom.  I couldn’t believe the sounds I heard and the emotional depth expressed! All of her music is great, but this will always be a special album for me.

8. Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra – Bob Brookmeyer Composer and Arranger.

In many ways, I see Brookmeyer as responsible for the current direction of modern big band writing. “Make Me Smile and Other New Works by Bob Brookmeyer” is the other essential, seminal album that got the ball rolling for compositional experimentation.

9. Jerry Bergonzi – Standard Gonz

When I hear Jerry Bergonzi, I always feel inspired to practice the piano.  For years it was a dream of mine to play with him, and I am glad this has happened numerous times.  This album opened my imagination to the world of reharmonization.  Also, Adam Nussbaum has such a great time feel, which reminds me of Elvin Jones.

10. Miles Davis – The Complete Concert 1964.  My Funny Valentine and Four & More.

This band and this music are pure magic.  Miles, Herbie, Tony, Ron and George. What else can I say?  

4) What sort of things are you practicing on the piano and developing as a composer/arranger these days?

I wear a lot of hats, which requires considerable juggling.  I have accepted that I can’t do it all at the same time.  This summer I practiced the piano A LOT.  I learned and reviewed tunes, did technical exercises and practiced Charlie Banacos’ Super Bop concept from the correspondence lessons I took with him prior to his passing.

This fall and winter I am writing music, which means I’m not practicing the piano.  When an important gig comes up, I’ll do some technique for a few days prior, to dust off the cobwebs, but that’s all until my season of writing has passed.

I currently have three big band pieces on the go, in various stages of completion.  In each I am trying to challenge myself to try new things and not to write in a tried-and-true formulaic manner.  Lately I start with a question ---- How could I construct a free/avant-garde piece with 17 players and not have it sound like a middle school band room? How can I stretch the salsa idiom? Can I base an extended piece solely on the development of one simple motif?  What would happen if…  etc.  I brainstorm on paper and usually have a general idea of the territory I will explore, how the piece might develop, or at least a sequential approach, before writing down actual pitches.

Occasionally I sit down with my journal while listening to music, and take notes of things that interest me.  I’m trying to make this a more regular occurrence. Sometimes I’ll even transcribe and analyze an idea.  Out of their original context, these little nuggets often spark future pieces.

Playing drum set is my hobby, when time permits. When I get burned out with composing or bored with the piano, practicing the drums for a couple of weeks usually recharges my batteries and gets me thinking about music in different ways.

5) What interesting projects do you have on the go at the moment? (gigs, recordings, etc.)

I head into New York City on most Tuesdays, to participate in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop.  I like being able to discuss the week’s compositional problems and musical dilemmas with likeminded people.  It has been fun to intentionally explore some new musical territory and stretch myself. Hearing my drafts read by a professional band every second month is another perk.  This deadline keeps me focused and on task. 

In January, my 10tet charts will be played at the Jazz Educators Network conference in Dallas, Texas by an all-star group of jazz professors from across North America (some of the best in the business!).

I’m scheduled to play with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra in March.  The concert is billed as 3 generations of jazz piano, and will also feature my first jazz teacher, Ron Paley and my former student, Will Bonness.

I have agreed to write about 40 minutes of music for the University of Connecticut’s Symphony Orchestra.  The concert is in May and the music is due in March. Wish me luck.

I try to blog occasionally about my compositional explorations, among other things at http://everupandonward.blogspot.com .  Sometimes it helps to put my thoughts in writing; other times it has proven to be counter-productive, so I’m not currently forcing myself to blog with consistency.

6) In addition to being a great pianist, you are also a world-class jazz composer.  How has your experience as a composer/arranger influenced your piano playing? How has your piano playing influenced your writing?

For a while, there was a huge disconnect between my playing and writing.  I was a bebop pianist who was comfortable playing bop tunes and standards.  At the same time I was delving into slash-chords and other contemporary harmonic devices in my tune writing.  As I prepared to record my first CD, “Schroeder’s Tantrum” (1996), I really had to wrestle with how to solo on tunes like “Fading Flowers” and “Wanton Spirit”.  (It helped that Kenny Barron had already recorded the latter, and I even transcribed his solo.)  So, my composing forced me to address my playing and bring it into the present, as opposed to merely mimicking jazz in the 1950s.

A few years ago Jim McNeely was commissioned to write a piano concerto for me to play.  It utilized augmented scale harmony, which was a first for me.  After spending considerable time practicing this concept, composing my own piece with this material seemed like a logical next step. “Measuring Up” resulted.  I suppose this is an example of how my piano playing experiences have shaped my composing.

Sometimes I will write a tune to force myself to deal with a personal musical inadequacy.  I’ve written tunes in 5/4 and 7/4 so that I’ll have to practice them, both at home and on gigs.

7) Years ago you had the opportunity to tour with the Maynard Ferguson band. What did you learn from this experience?

I learned the importance of showmanship and pacing. Sets were carefully planned, always beginning with three exciting “attention grabbers” before getting introspective.  There was minimal wasted time between tunes.  

I also learned about creating drama within an arrangement.  Maynard pulled me aside after hearing my first attempts at writing for the band, and told me my writing lacked “Maynard moments”.  They didn’t naturally build to a place where he could easily soar above the band, thereby making the crowd go wild.  It’s important to remember for whom you are writing, and also to tell a story that unfolds properly, and climaxes at just the right spot.  

8) What musical and career advice would you give to a young person who is considering a career as a Jazz artist in this day and age?

I hate to be a pessimist, but I think a life entirely devoted to jazz is no longer realistic.  The type and number of gigs I did twenty years ago don’t exist now.  I no longer see jazz as a viable career path, unless you are one of the exceptional few. There is a glut of talented young players, and the opportunities are minimal.  

Film scoring and writing music for television, digital media and video games have potential to be lucrative.  If I were starting now, I might pursue this path.

Don’t get me wrong.  I see art music and self-expression as being vitally important, but one needs to be strategic these days, to survive and support a family.  In saying this, perhaps I have officially become an old man.  When I was younger, I refused to have a contingency plan and it worked out for me, more or less.  In some ways I now think Charles Ives had the right idea; have a non-musical career so that your music won’t be compromised.

9) Your most recent recording project "Mirror of the Mind" brings together some different influences and sounds in a very unique instrumental combination. Please tell us all about this exciting project, the music and your compositions.

The band I assembled consists of cello, saxophone, piano and percussion.  I named the group “COW”, which is an acronym for the Creative Opportunity Workshop.  The music draws upon elements from a wide variety of influences, including classical, pop, jazz and various ethnic styles.  At first, this band was nothing more than a vehicle for (crazy) musical experiments and games. But eventually, as my love for the expressive qualities of the cello grew, and I found the right combination of players, I wrote more accessible pieces, so as not to marginalize our listening audiences.  I’m really happy with the outcome.  

The album includes two cover songs, the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Henry Mancini’s “I Never Told You”.  The other 10 tracks are my compositions, which are all highly contrasting --- ranging from emotionally charged ballads to epic, through-composed pieces infused with funky rhythms.  I shared insights into each piece on my web site, www.earlmacdonald.com , so I’ll avoid being redundant here by going into great detail.

Experimenting, in an attempt to advance my art form, has become increasingly important for me.  I don’t think the world needs another hard bop jazz album with a trumpet and tenor sax frontline.  That music is great, but it is dated and reflects a different era and culture than my own.  I want my music to be an honest reflection of my current musical and non-musical interests and worldview. Despite my artistic goals, I’m pleased this recording doesn’t sound like music with an agenda --- but maybe that’s for others to judge.

You can purchase a copy of Earl MacDonald's "Mirror of the Mind" at: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/earlmacdonald3

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I've really been enjoying bassist Christian McBride's recent trio project with Christian Sands on piano and Ulysses Owen's Jr. on drums on their latest recording "Out Here". Here's a little taste of this outfit:

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Monday Morning Paradiddle

Hello everyone! Well, this will be the last "Monday Morning Paradiddle" of 2013. And what a year its been...Thank you all for your continued support. It's really humbling to read all the positive feedback I get from drummers all over the world. So as long as people keep reading this stuff, I'll keep writing it!

The Four on the Floor office is currently in full-on festive mode complete with mistletoe, garlands, secret santa games and spiked egg nog but our correspondents have still found time to compile a wealth of interesting things to check out on the wide world web. The inter web is full of Jazz drumming resources for us to learn from these days.

- It's xmas time and what better to do than enjoy some Jazzy xmas music courtesy of Matt Wilson and his Christmas Tree-O project:


- Let's take a moment to thank NPR for all their great Jazz programming!

Brian Blade's Fellowship recently made an appearance at the Village Vanguard and has been streamed for us to enjoy:


And NPR's A Blog Supreme also did a nice feature on Brian and his drumming brother Brady (also a fine drummer in his own right...):


- A great article on Paul Motian over at allaboutjazz.com:


- Nasheet Waits shares some thoughts on the great Billy Higgins:


- Thanks to Jason Marsalis via the Facebook who shared this article on the ride cymbal with Peter Erskine & Jimmy Cobb:


- Jason also hipped me to this series of radio interviews with Dr. John & Herlin Riley in which they discuss the influence of the late Bob French, an important fixture in New Orleans drumming:


- Are you in Vancouver? Make sure to check out my friend Jesse Cahill. You can even take lessons with him at the VSO School of Music's new Jazz program (highly recommended).

Here he is demonstrating some nice new Canopus drums:

- Here's a couple short ones of Billy Drummond to check out:

Dig those TW yellow Gretsch drums!

- This one is very brief but I've watched it probably about 1000 times already....Clyde Stubblefield with James Brown:

- Lewis Nash with Benny Green and Christian McBride? Man...

I heard these guys with the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour all-stars a year ago and this was probably ranked as one of the best shows I heard in 2014. Let's hear a trio album from this rhythm section!

- What am I listening to these days?

George Colligan "The Endless Mysteries" - Jack DeJohnette (drums)

Willie Jones III "Plays the Max Roach Songbook " - Willie Jones III (drums)

Ted Nash "Chakra" - Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums)

Alan Jones & Francois Theberge "Another View" - Alan Jones (drums)

Charles Mingus "Mingus Ah Um" - Dannie Richmond (drums)

Billy Drummond "Dubai" - Billy Drummond (drums)

Barry Harris "At the Jazz Workshop " - Louis Hayes (drums)

Mike Rud "Notes on Montreal" - Dave Laing (drums)

Earl MacDonald "Mirror of the Mind" - Rogerio Boccato (percussion)

- And for our last post of today's column, here's an interview with Art Blakey:

It's really too bad that Buhaina is no longer with us. Judging from his fondness for wearing cowboy & western wear I would have loved to showed him around the Calgary Stampede. He would have fit right in! (Elvin Jones circa. "Zachariah" would also be a good fit...)

All right, that's all we've got for you today but lite posting will continue until the end of the year. Drive safe and see you all in 2014!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mike Rud "Notes on Montreal"

I first met guitarist Mike Rud around the mid 1990s during my time at McGill University. Mike had already studied at McGill, spent some time in New York and had returned to Montreal to complete his Master's degree. His impact and presence in the Jazz area at the school was significant and his influence as a musician and as a person has long been a huge influence on me. I have always found a great deal of inspiration from his high level of musicianship and deep sense of swing. A memorable highlight for me was playing a steady, five night a week trio gig for several months with Mike and bassist Carlo Petrovitch at the Hotel Saskatchewan during the summer of 1997. I really learned a lot that summer (including how to really play the brushes!)

Mike recently released an album of original music inspired by classic Canadian literature that reflects the city of Montreal. Mike's admiration for the city of Montreal is profound and it's very impressive how he's been able to translate that love affair into lyrics and song. I was very excited to see this project come to life and it's been on steady rotation in my house since it arrived in my mailbox.

Mike was kind enough to take some time to answer some of my questions and share some very thoughtful answers about his own journey and his latest release.

1) What can you tell us about your musical background? How did you learn to play Jazz guitar?

I did a lot of school. Grant MacEwan (no University but back then Community College) gave me an exacting, demanding curriculum for guitar and musicianship (late 80s).  Then McGill University was a great way to focus on jazz and also the classical roots of harmony and structure.  I studied privately as well at Banff in 94 with Jim Hall, and took more lessons with him in NewYork as well as with Jack Wilkins.  Back to McGill for a Masters after that.  But most of all I learned from hearing performances and recordings. And of course from friends.

2) Who are your musical influences and why? Who are your favorite guitarists?

As a jazz guitar player I'm influenced by George Benson, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and a small army of others.  With Benson, Wes and Grant, it's because of something gritty and bluesy in their sound.  Earthy but still sophisticated.  I love Eric Gale for that reason too.  It's gutsy but not anti-intellectual.  

On a pianoless trio gig, I feel especially inspired by Ed Bickert and Jim Hall. With Jim Hall and EdBickert (and they are quite different fro m one-another), it's something about how they bring the arranging concerns of a piano onto the guitar without invoking straigh-up piano envy.  They work with what really IS there in the guitar and preserve it, while introducing an intimate, economical miniature of what pianists typically articulate more grandly.   

As a songwriter, I idolize the storytelling guys who invoke characters and situations, like Randy Newman, Jim Croce, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello...but one common thread with this and the jazz side of things is that there's still a strong emphasis on tonal harmony, close to how it appears in the Tin Pan Alley music.  I was born in the late 60s and spent my first few years playing only Beatles tunes, so a pop and 70's television-theme sensibility informs what I do as a writer, but it's definitely not rock and roll writing.  

3) Name your top 10 favorite albums and how they have influenced you.

In no order, here are ten that come immediately to mind.  Mixed bag...

1)  Charlie Christian.  It's almost only one record.  Seriously there are like, 7 lps of him in existence.  Maybe the most burning thing is "Swing To Bop" from the Minton's sessions.  The version of (I think) "Breakfast Feud" from the Goodman sides is an absolute MARVEL of time, feel, ideas and my God, SOUND.  Silky yet authoritative.  Died at around 23?  What a loss.  Might be the best guitar player ever.

While I continue writing I'm just going to put it on my headset here. 

Ahhhh.  That's better.  

2)  Willie Nelson: Stardust.  All understated, harmonically very simple versions of standards.  Not being done overly cleverly or hiply.  Great respect for the music.  Great place to learn the lyrics too. 

3)  Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You.  Similar resource for learning tunes.  Memorable.  Sweet.

4)  Queen:  A Night at the Opera.  Can you imagine creating something like that?  Unbelievably musical.  Staggering.

5)  George Benson "It's Uptown" and "The George Benson Cookbook".  For sheer burn.  I lifted a lot from these 25 years ago.  They form an archetype of bebop (more really bluesy-post-bop) guitar playing.

6)  Jim Hall "Live" ...particularly the new stuff released from the same nights.  This has Don Thompson and Terry Clarke.  There is too much to say about this record.  It has an emotional resonance and an artistic resourcefulness and uniqueness that put it for me on a par with just about any other piece of art. I could have named a few other recordings of his that do this to me.  But this one everyone does agree unequivocally.  All the extra takes recently made available are every bit as inspired and meaningful as the tracks that were on the original LP.  The magic in his tone.  The interplay.  The rhythmic presence and depth from his left hand legato.  It touches me to my core.   

7)  The best of Jim Croce. Such economic and powerful interplay between musical devices, characterization and delivery.  I don't think songwriters come a lot more solid

8)  Randy Newman Creates Something New Under The Sun.  The arranging, the lyrics, the originality.

9)  Milestones.  

10)  Anything by the Beatles.  Seriously.  Imagine creating "Help"  Imagine recording that live off the floor.  I certainly can't.

4) What sort of things are you practicing on the guitar and developing as a composer these days?

Now that you mention it, I realize I've been practising a lot lately.  Trying to play in seven without getting lost or tight-feeling.  Mostly Cherokee and Moment's Notice.  Slow.  Looking a lot at restructuring the whole approach to improv, to make groove, ease, and swing the first priority.  This leads me to looking at the left hand.  A lot seems to come from there, and from body position.  These seem to have counterintuitively high impacts downstream on time-feel and idea flow.  Jim H and Wes M are really interesting contrasting examples to me.  They hold the instruments totally differently, execute very differently, and the whole fabric of their sound, texture and feeling is very different.  Yet they both get where they want to, in ways that present compelling, transfixing, music.

But also I'm working on a brand new solo guitar and voice act, which means overhauling my playing to some extent.  Since this means a LOT of practicing, I recently acquired a Telecaster with low action so I can play way more every day.  I won't say too much about the new music, other than that I want it to be VERY rehearsed and quite entertaining.  Tired of jazz being thought of as an arrogant musical taste, only for initiates and elites.  I'm also tired of populism meaning brainlessness.  So I'm working on the singing, the writing, and some kind of original take on solo guitar.  It's not Charlie Hunter, Joe Pass, or Tuck Andress, dearly though I might love to be able to play that way.  I'll be rolling this out over the next couple of years as an economical and creative counterweight to this large ensemble work, Notes on Montreal, that's taken the last several years. 

5) In addition to being a great guitarist, you are also very well read and have a curious mind that extends to various subjects. How has this influenced your guitar playing? How have these influences inspired your compositions?

Thank you Jon!  It's hard to pin down the relationship between these things. They're all things that bring me joy.  Jazz music brought me into observing my mental processes while improvising, and that got me curious about mind/brain.  So I spent 3 years trying to become a cognitive scientist.  And many years before that reading a lot of philosophy, looking for ways to think about these topics. 

 How do we think of melodies and rhythms? What's the best way to manage your mental and emotional resources while you improvise?  I'm aware of course, that many jazz musicians are drawn to the grand Eastern contemplative traditions of mindfulness to come up with practical solutions to these problems.  But I can't help but be drawn to the scientific question of how three pounds of meat in your skull is capable of this astonishing feat.  It's really almost more that improvising jazz was the front door to these questions;  jazz influenced me to get into science and philosophy more than the other way around, I would say.

But yes, studying the biological bases of music has lead me to approach practicing and playing and teaching differently.  Overall it's made me more sensitive to the fact that music is a part of our genetic heritage as humans, and is a kind of birthright, possibly a precondition for mental health.  The writer and player in me can be quite doctrinaire and moralistic about what is good and bad in music.  But the default perspective of neuroscience is not that way.  It's descriptive, not prescriptive --that is, there can be no wrong music.  So it's made me more tolerant, I think, of variability in how students come to the music.  If someone picks completely differently from me, but they can get the music out, and it's not hurting them, I'm less likely to try changing them.

6) Years ago you had the opportunity to spend some concentrated time in New York City, studying with Jim Hall. What did you learn from this whole experience?

Two things loom large: one is to communicate a melody simply and directly.  This is not easy.  It might be the hardest thing.  The next was the impression of genuine respect he has for individual students.  He is willing to work with what is there; not make you into a clone of him.  

Musically I can think of a few really big things.  One is that his over all dynamic level is qieter than most--closer to a conversation level.  This has a few important effects.  One is that it makes a wider variety of sound colours come out of his and others' instruments.  Another is that when he goes up to a F or FF, it suddenly feels like more of an event.  

Another thing I can think of is that, where many musicians seem to make the up-tempo tune the highlight of the set, he seems to use it to set up the ballad.  And lookout for that ballad!  I think of him as a ballad player who is up there with any ballad player on any instrument in the history of that music, that I've heard.  Like a Coleman Hawkins or something.  So distinctive, so much substance.

I will always feel very grateful for those lessons.

7) What musical and career advice would you give to a young person who is considering a career as a Jazz artist in this day and age?

New York isn't everything.  You live in a local scene.  It has real value.

8) Your most recent recording project "Notes on Montreal" brings together some different influences and sounds.
Please tell us all about this exciting project, the music and your compositions.

Notes is 13 tunes with lyrics that I wrote to be sung by the Toronto vocalist Sienna Dahlen, and an 8-piece Montreal ensemble, which includes a string quartet.  The drummer is the great Montreal drummer Dave Laing (AKA 'Scooter').  

It took me years to create, and occurred in phases.  In 2009 I started reading a lot of literature set in Montreal (Richler, Cohen, Roy, Trembay and quite a few others).  Towards the end of a year looking at that literature, and specifically how it paints out the city, I started writing what I wanted to be a series of sturdy, singer-songwriter style tunes, focused on different aspects of the city and the books.  This next phase took place roughly across 2010-11.  Then roughly in 2012 I wrote the string arrangements and mounted an indiegogo campaign to fund it.

We recorded and produced it in 2013.  I've never been this happy with any work.  Sienna Dahlen sings like an absolute angel all over this thing.  The sense of groove and space from the rhythm section has a delightful quality of breath in it.  The way everyone played is filled with light and life, cradling and presenting the tunes; getting out of the songs' way, and then giving a lift, a kick, at just the right times.  The strings provide exactly the stamp that I hoped they would.  These aspects also have much to do with Paul Johnston, who produced and engineered the whole shebang.  That fellow is an inspiration.

People can watch videos the CBC made of three of the songs here in their Montreal studio:


Aand they can check out a very full version of the story at the website! 


(cover photo by Mark Lang)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Evelyn Glennie: "How to Truly Listen"

More inspiring words of wisdom on the art of Listening, this time brought to us by the talented and creative mind of Evelyn Glennie:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Jazz Drummer's Resource

You've probably noticed a new banner/link on my blog that will send you to a very fine website entitled "Jazz Drummer's Resource" http://lessons.justinvarnes.com. Maintained by Justin Varnes, this website contains a wealth of online video lessons that deal with a variety of subjects related to the art of Jazz drumming. I was first introduced to Justin's teachings via his weekly youtube lessons "52 Licks" in which he introduces and dissects a drum pattern from a different drummer each week (ambitious!) His explanations are very concise, clear and I've learned a lot from watching these.

In addition to Justin's weekly lessons he also maintains a website which contains a wealth of practical information and knowledge that can be immediately applied to your own drumming. After perusing his site I've quickly discovered that I'm going to require quite some time to check out all the great information he has amassed.

Justin was kind enough to take some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions and tell us all about his unique Jazz drumming educational website:

1) Tell us all about the Jazz Drummer's Resource. What is it all about?

Jazz Drummer's Resource is a website I put together designed to help jazz drummers who are at a point where they don't have a private teacher, but still want to be getting better. I post video lessons weekly on everything from jazz-specific techniques, to soloing ideas and phrases, to professional advice such as getting better at reading charts, and how to do a quick warmup before a gig when there isn't much time. I'm working on some beginner-level stuff as well, but currently the site is set up more for someone who may feel "stuck" without access to intermediate and advanced jazz concepts on a regular basis. It's like a jazz drummer's workout series! 

2) Why did you decide to pursue this project? 

Between my own touring schedule and trying to to teach students that don't live close to me, I started shooting video lessons for private students. I got so much positive feedback from it, that a few of them who had moved away or had gone off to college in a different city asked me to keep doing them and one suggested there are probably more people who might benefit from putting up these lessons online. They're fun to make and I got into the idea of someone desperately wanting to learn more about jazz, but not having the benefit of a jazz teacher or even a jazz scene in their area, and me being able to help them.

3) What were the logistics involved in putting together such a project?

It started with one camera, a few mics, and my office at Georgia State University. Then I had to learn how to host a website! That's been the biggest logistics issue. I've been studying jazz for years...not studying web design! ugh. Lots of research on how to host videos, lots of re-shoots after realizing I talk too fast, or I babble on and on...well, that part hasn't gotten much better!

3) What can you tell us about your background as a musician, Jazz drummer and educator?

I grew up in a house where jazz was played all the time. I however, listened to bad 80's music and played in a progressive rock band! But jazz music never left my ears and I eventually became entranced by it. I studied at the University of North Florida, then moved to NYC where I studied at the New School. I had a chance to study with some of my heroes: Jojo Mayer, Greg Hutchinson, Vernel Fournier...I even took lessons from legendary bassist Reggie Workman. I've played with lots of random artists of all genres, haha.  Mose Allison, David Sanchez, Wycliffe Gordon, Sachal Vasandani, Marcus Printup, even some pop artists like Five for Fighting and Gavin Degraw.  Educator-wise I hold down the drum chair at Georgia State University in Atlanta. 

4) How did your musical background and experience shape and inform your ideas about developing The Jazz Drummer's Resource?

The biggest factor was my access to great teachers and great players. I obsess about this music and the drums. I ask questions and want to take lessons from everyone. I ask bass players on gigs what they prefer behind their solos. I ask vocalists how they like to be accompanied on ballads. I'm in love with the idea of jazz drumming, and the minute I learn something, or discover something on the bandstand, the "teacher" in me wants to pass that info along. I'm the drumming equivalent of the guy who flashes his lights to tell you a cop's up ahead. "Hey guys! Bass players like it when you stay on the ride for their solos instead of the hi hat!"

5) What have been some of the highlights and challenges while working on this project?

The biggest highlight has definitely been all the positive feedback. It's fulfilling to hear that it's actually helping people. The biggest challenge is how time consuming it is. Between being a father, a full time musician, a private teacher, and a college music professor, it's been challenging to do the site and the "52 Licks" series on YouTube.  But I'm getting faster at it, and the more the site grows, the less private teaching I'll do so that I can devote more time to the site. 

6) What does the future have in store for your website?

Lots!  I'm doing a "Personal Trainer" series starting in 2014, where we work out our hands, work on playing faster tempos, and work through some famous jazz drum exercises such as the "Rudimental Ritual."  Also, I'll be bringing on some special guests to lend their expertise to things like Brazilian drumming, and Afro-Cuban drumming. In addition to those things, I'm going to be producing a "Rhythm Section" series where we bring in a pianist and bassist and work through some common rhythm section issues.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Drum Lesson with Mingus

Dannie Richmond shares some serious wisdom passed on to him from his long-time rhythm partner, bassist Charles Mingus:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PASIC 2013 (what I missed...)

It's been a few years since I've been able to attend the Percussive Arts Society annual convention PASIC. But it looks like this year I really missed out on a quite a few great sessions. However, thanks to the inter web we can still get a taste of all the great things that go one that week.

- Here's Ralph Peterson Jr. playing on his big Mapex kit with a large arsenal of cymbals:

- Peter Erskine discusses at length the importance of playing along to recordings and play-a-long tracks and using them as an effective practice/teaching tool:

- Some nice brush playing from UNT's Ed Soph:

- Glenn Kotche demonstrates his unique multiple-percussion approach to the drum set:

- Steve Fidyk shares some tips about sight-reading:

- I thought this one was particularly interesting. Here's Zildjian's head cymbal maker Paul Francis demonstrating a new line of cymbals, apparently some very thin ones too:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Better Get Hit in Your Soul

Well here it is! The last two and a half weeks have been busy, busy, busy rehearsing with Calgary's Decidedly Jazz Danceworks company, putting together the pieces for Kimberly Cooper's latest creation: "Better Get Hit in Your Soul: Dances Inspired by The Music, Life and Times of Charles Mingus".

The show features a cast of seven very talented dancers with a three piece band (with yours truly on drums) and the production uses music that spans over the course of Mingus' career including pieces such as "Haitian Fight Song", "Tonight at Noon", "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and selections from his epic through-composed compositions "Epitaph" and "The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady" among others.

Cooper has done a masterful job of choreographing some very challenging movement to Mingus' music while at the same time capturing the spirit and depths of his giant personality. The dancers are rising to the challenge every night and raising the bar for all of us. It's very exciting to be a part of such a creative project like this, done at such a high level. I like to think that Mingus would have been impressed and enjoyed what Kim has done with his music.

It's also been a great opportunity for me to get deeper inside the music of Mingus and, in particular, the drumming of Dannie Richmond (who's contributions are very underrated in my opinion...). To say I've been getting a workout on my uptempos and fast 3/4 grooves would be an understatement!

We even got a stellar review in the Calgary Herald:


Here's a taste of the show!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton "Drums West"

Having just heard that the great Chico Hamilton passed away today, I thought it would be suitable to post this very cool early Jim Henson animation (of The Muppets and Sesame Street fame!) done to a  Chico Hamilton brush solo:

Monday, November 25, 2013


Inspired by a recent e.mail from Mosaic Records (I am a frequent buyer of their amazing box sets and therefore on their mailing list!) here are some thought-provoking words from Aaron Copeland on the importance of LISTENING to music:

"The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort as an active listener.

It is revealing to compare the actions of theater audiences to those of symphonic audiences. In the theater the audience listens with full attention to every line of the play, knowing that if important lines are missed understanding can be diminished-this instinctive attention is too often lacking in the concert hall. One has but to observe listeners at a concert to witness the distractions of talking or reading or simply staring into space.

Only a small percentage are vitally concerned with the essential role of active listening. 

This lack is serious because the listener is essential to the process of music; music after all consists of the composer, the performer and the listener. Each of these three elements should be present in the most ideal way. We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think it should also be brilliantly heard?

The destiny of a piece of music, while basically in the hands of the composer and performer, also depends on the attitude and ability of the listener. It is the listener in the larger sense who dictates the ultimate acceptance or rejection of the composition and performer...Unfortunately for music, many listeners are content to sit in an emotional bath and limit their reaction to music to the sensual element of being surrounded by sounds. But the sounds are organized; the sounds have intellectual as well as emotional appeal.

The adventure of learning how to listen to music is one of the great joys of exposure to this art...Your efforts to understand more of what is taking place will be rewarded a thousand-fold in the intense pleasure and increased interest you will find."

- From: "What To Listen For In Music" by Aaron Copeland

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mr. Hi-Hat

Just a brief one today....I'm on the run these days rehearsing like mad with Calgary's Decidedly Jazz Danceworks upcoming production featuring the music of Charles Mingus.

Check out this short but awesome clip of Max Roach armed with his hi-hats:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Old School

My first introduction to rudimental snare drumming was via my drumline training days while growing up, playing music in the Regina Lions Band (1986-1995). In fact, the very reason I learned to play traditional grip initially came from the fact that if I wanted to crack the top snare line, traditional grip was an absolute must!

While my journey as a musician has taken me far from the fields of competitive marching bands and drumline warmups in empty parking lots, I still really value the foundation that learning my rudiments has created for me.

In all honesty, I kind of "forgot" about the rudiments for awhile during my early 20s while I focused on other drum set things. But after studying with the likes of Dave Laing, Kenny Washington and learning about Alan Dawson's "Rudimental Ritual" and Charlie Wilcoxin's "Rudimental Swing Solos" (and not to mention Philly Joe Jone's awesome application of the rudiments) things have really come full circle for me with regards to dealing with rudimental snare drumming and using these patterns in a practical and musical way.

Here's a couple of older and very interesting clips that I recently found featuring the Santa Clara Vanguard drumline from back in the 70s and, in particular, drum corps legends Rob Carson, Ralph Hardimon and Fred Sanford:

Notice how they are still using straps to carry their drums (no metal harnesses!) and the use of plastic heads (no bullet-proof kevlar!)

The name Frank Arsenault is also mentioned in this series. Arsenault was an incredible, championship snare drummer and an important pioneer in terms of teaching rudimental drumming.

I recently picked up a copy of this LP last summer that features Arsenault demonstrating the 26 Standard American Rudiments and several classic snare drum solos:

So don't forget to learn your rudiments. They are like the "wheaties" of jazz drumming. They are good for you!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The (Wednesday) Morning Paradiddle

I was going to post this on Monday but since it was Remembrance Day I decided to wait until today. I hope you all had a nice long weekend and for those of you who had a day off that you all took some time to remember the sacrifices so many have made for the greater good.

So now that you are here, get ready! Here's a ton of interesting things to check out from the wide reaches of the interweb:

- Canadian Jazz drummer Ted Warren has long been a huge influence on me. His creativity, dedication and mastery of the drums is astounding. There are very few people that I know of that have put in the time that Ted has on his instrument.

Here are couple great ones to check out. First, armed with only a single snare drum, Ted demonstrates the possibilities of improvising with only a single percussion instrument. Check out all the different sounds and textures he gets from one drum:

And while Ted shared this on his blog awhile ago, here it is again: an improvised solo drum set performance:

This is something that I've personally been toying around with for some time now myself and definitely lists as a future project on my own agenda. Not an easy task! (to do it well...anyways)

And Ted just posted this rare one today on his own fine blog Trap'd of himself with bassist Mike Downes and Brad Turner on piano:

- Speaking of Canadian Jazz drummers: Here's a fine example of Toronto drummer Morgan Childs with Richard Whiteman's quartet in action from a recent hit at the Rex on Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at the Camarillo":

I moved to Calgary shortly before Morgan moved to Toronto in 2009 but I've always been a fan of his drumming and swinging beat.

- There are lots of great things happening in the Canadian Jazz drumming world these days. My old friend, alto saxophonist Remi Bolduc recently brought both Dan Weiss and Ari Hoenig to Montreal to perform with his group "Random Masters":

Now THAT'S some serious rhythm to deal with!

- Thanks to the National Jazz Archive here's another interview with the great Mel Lewis to read:


- Marvin Bugalu Smith is a great drummer from Poughkseepsie, New York whose playing can be best described as a force of nature. Eventually I would like to take some lessons with this cat some day and hopefully hear him play live as well. Here's a nice feature on this incredible musician:


- Rochester drummer Aaron Staebell is also up to great things these days. Aaron is regularly updating his website with many great solo drum set pieces. I really dig these and heard Aaron play a few times in Toronto awhile ago with Dave Restivo and Nick Ali. Check it out here:


- A great piece of Jazz oral history with tuba/baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson recalling Tony Williams:

- Interested in learning a cool little phrase from Jeff Tain Watts? Dig this:


- Jeff Hamilton has some great lessons and a series of interviews over here:


- What am I listening to these days?

Peter Bernstein "Heart's Content" - Bill Stewart (drums)

Peter Bernstein with the Tilden Webb Trio "Live at the Cellar" - Jesse Cahill (drums)

Miles Davis "Bitches Brew" - Jack DeJohnette & Lenny White (drums)

Dexter Gordon "A Swingin' Affair" - Billy Higgins (drums)

Christian McBride "People Music" - Carl Allen & Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums)

Grant Stewart "Urban Tones" - Billy Drummond (drums)

Earl MacDonald "Mirror of the Mind" - Rogerio Boccato (percussion)

Mike Rud "Notes on Montreal" - Dave Laing (drums)

- Ethan Iverson over at Do The Math has a great piece here remembering one of the all-time great B3 organ trio drummers. Donald Bailey:


- The last words of wisdom today come from the great Milford Graves (via Tyshawn Sorey):

"I always tell people that being a musician is extremely important and if you are going to be a musician, you have to be responsible because people come to listen to you. You go to a restaurant to get some food and you depend on that chef or that cook to prepare some food that is not only going to taste good, but also be healthy to you. People come to see musicians with their ears. They are using their ears and asking you to put something in their ears. You have to KNOW what you are putting in their ears. In traditional times, a musician was required not only to know the instrument, but they were also doctors, healers. You never separated those two because you are dealing with people. You are dealing with the mind. You are dealing with bodies. You are dealing with the soul. When you try and separate those things, it is no good. Other than the physical thing, you have to have some internal content. You have to have some mind stuff. The only way you are going to get mind stuff is to know about PEOPLE. You have to know how people live. You have to know about culture, not only your own culture, but the whole multicultural concept because you are dealing with a multiplicity of people." - Milford Graves

All right. That's all I've got today. Have a great week and see you soon!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dance Drummer

"In Africa they say there is no rhythm without its accompanying dance, that the rhythm of the dancing body complements the rhythm of the music, and to separate the two is to understand nothing." 
- Mickey Hart 

A drummer/percussionist e-mailed quite awhile ago with some questions about how to approach playing drums and percussion for contemporary dance classes. Over the years I've done this quite a bit and thought I would share a few ideas on this subject. Now I had always been fascinated with the overall relationship between dancing and drumming and considered it to be pretty significant but it wasn't until I started playing with dancers on a regular basis that this all took on a deeper meaning for me.

These days I only do this sort of thing occasionally (like once or twice a semester) but a few years ago I did this as a full-time job for a full year at the University of Calgary and it was an incredible experience for me. Lately I've been working with Calgary's Decidedly Jazz Danceworks company but the context is slightly different than playing for contemporary dance classes at the university.

I found playing drums and percussion for contemporary dance classes to be a lot of fun and incredibly fulfilling. It definitely improved my overall drumming, my sensibility to rhythm and made me a better musician.

Here's a few thoughts about my experience being a Dance Drummer:

-I had never played hand drums before I took the dance accompanist gig at the UofC in 2006 so I had to develop some concepts and hand drumming techniques pretty quickly (my background, of course, was a drum set one not as a hand drummer). I took a few quick conga and djembe lessons to get me started and develop some fundamental chops.

-My basic instrument set-up included a djembe and two or three congas arranged in sort of an ad-hoc hand drum “set” configuration (just so I would feel "at home" haha!)

-I later added a small 16” inch bass drum so my right foot could do something.

-Sometimes I would step on on small tambourine as sort of a hi-hat with my left foot as well. I saw Jeff Ballard do this with Brad Mehldau's trio once and thought that was pretty slick...It's very effective.

-I would always carry a small bag of various shakers, bells, etc. as well to add occasional sound effects. Most of the time I use my hands to play the djembes and congas but mallets, brushes, blaststicks or the "Tala Winds" that Vic Firth makes are pretty useful too and can be used (and they much more sympathetic than harder, wooden sticks too...)

- I’ve since worked with some teachers and played some classes using my full drum set (including cymbals, etc.) Admittedly this is of course more in my comfort zone (being a drum set player first!) but this isn’t always the most practical in terms of logistics (ie. They supply the hand drums at the school whereas I would have to haul my own drum set to class!)

-My own personal musical background is mainly a jazz one but I also enjoy and play all styles of music/drumming. I’ve studied quite a bit of Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and West African Ghanian drumming over the years. Playing for these classes allowed me to draw from a wide range of rhythmic styles and traditions, blending them all together in a functional way.

-Checking out the drumming and wide-open drumming concepts of Billy Martin, Trilok Gurtu, Matt Wilson, Jeff Ballard, Bob Moses, Dafnis Prieto and Glenn Kotche were also big inspirations for me and ideas for creativity.

Here's a few key musical points that have helped me in terms of playing with dancers and working with dance teachers:

-I think of the dance routines that teachers come up with as being “compositions” and try to accompany them accordingly.

-Always focus on maintaining the pulse and the beat.  Always! (that’s really why you are there...a human metronome!)

-Subdivisions: It’s either going to be either in a duple or triplet subdivision and this will determine the feel. Usually you can tell by the way they move and/or count in the movement.

-Time Signature: Is it in 4/4 or 3/4 or is it something else?

-Form: The movement routine will also always follow a number of bars and not necessarily in 4 or 8 bar phrases either! If you can “set-up” the beginning of each new section, the dancers will love you. Think of the dance routine as a “tune” and you are set.

-Taking all of those principles into account, when I’m playing patterns I always try to create a sort of melodic line between the high and low drums to give it a sense of direction and musicality. You might want to try this just with a single djembe or conga at first by exploring the dynamic between the low and high tones. Check out some of the great Cuban congueros and you’ll know what I mean by this.

Having said this though, I personally never seem to play any kind of “authentic” patterns when doing these kind of gigs....I just find some interesting rhythms that work and go with it! Perhaps try to repeat whatever pattern you come up with as well to give it some continuity then add the occasional variation or embellishment.

Always go for the groove and you can never go wrong.

Here's a couple of clips of a GREAT dance drummer who definitely has some cool things going on!