December 8, 2014

Christmas Béla Fleck Style

Most major artists eventually record a holiday album. Sometimes it’s by choice, and on other occasions they’re encouraged to do so by their record label. Christmas and holiday music must sell; year after year we see new releases on the market. When an artist decides to do such an album, they gather a circle of arrangers and, combined with their own ideas, try to find a niche. Their musical choices are many, especially in the case of an instrumental record. Eliminating the vocal opens up multiple possibilities for recasting familiar tunes. They can experiment with a significant list of musical elements, including: tempo, tone, dynamics, time signature/groove, instrumentation, and an overall general style.
One of my favorite holiday CDs is Béla Fleck and the Flecktones “Jingle All the Way” released in 2008. Artists like to put their own spin on old songs, and Béla and the Flecktones put the “12 Days of Christmas” into a centrifuge and spun it on high speed. It’s as if the goal was to combine every possible instrument tone, time signature, tempo, dynamic and musical style into one 5:18 cut.
The normal line-up of Béla, bassist Victor Wooten, reedman Jeff Coffin, and percussionist Future Man, is augmented with string bass, mandolin, clarinet and the Tuvan Throat Singers. The possibilities are endless.
When I spoke to Béla, in 2004, he described his creative process:
Béla Fleck
BF:    I just write a lot. And I’m always screwing around with the banjo and stuff pops out and then I try to figure out what’s going to be good for the group. And a lot of times I just take what I think is the best song and what makes it the best song to me is hard to put my finger on but I’ll just have something and I’ll think well this is — there a bunch, I might have 20 things that I come up with, this one I think is special. It’s usually something about the melody or the chords that’s different enough to either be — it has to either be so simple and strong and striking in its simplicity that it’s better than the other simple tunes that I’ve written or that the other guys have or whatever, or it’s got to have a complexity that’s interesting but not necessarily offputting. Just I’m looking for a certain intangible something. But when I find it I know it.
The TwelveDays of Christmas” arrangement was a collaborative effort between all four Flecktones. The fun begins before the song actually starts. The audible countoff can best be written: 1, 2, hey, ack!
Following four measures of bass drone, the banjo offers the first day of Christmas in a swinging fashion, at a civilized tempo of 116 beats per minute.
On the second day the soprano sax states the melody with a loping cowboy feel. The song perks up, modulating a half step higher and sprinting at double the original speed. But don’t get used to it, after a few frantic bars they shift gears back to the original key and tempo. These fellows are toying with us.
A graceful waltz and an ascending whole step modulation is employed for the third day. Béla indulges in a terrific wrong note at 0:32, worthy of musician/comedian Victor Borge.
Enter the guest mandolinist, with a bluesy fourth day of Christmas, and so it goes, one after another, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of time signatures, melodic embellishments, and tongue-in-cheek musical commentary.
Here are some other highlights:
At 2:44 a bubbly Lawrence Welk-sounding orchestra, meets a Klezmer band, complete with clarinet lead.
At 3:55 the soprano sax floats serenely over what can only be described as an intense rhythmic battle between the rest of the band.
And the most striking moment, at 4:36 a choir of unearthly voices intone variations on “five golden rings.” The only possible thing that can follow that is a reflective moment of silence.
This carousel of sounds finally concludes with a collective band scream. We have seen the Flecktones on three occasions, and there was never a music stand on stage. As I listened to this complex arrangement I felt sure they would never play it live. How could all this meticulous chaos be memorized and accurately performed without the music? I underestimated these awesome musicians. Watch this entertaining live version here.
The entire CD is a marvelous match of magical arrangements and impeccable musicianship. If you want to challenge yourself, try singing along with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ semi-psychotic version of this Christmas classic.

November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax
A few weeks ago I was chatting about music in a small circle of classical musicians. I happened to mention that the saxophone is one of the few instruments that was actually invented by one person, as opposed to an evolution over the years. One person commented, “yes, and we’ve been cursing Adolphe Sax’s name since its invention.”
This comment was only partly in jest. The saxophone has its lovers and its detractors, but it is indeed one of the few instruments we can cite as an invention. Most instruments evolve over decades and even centuries. The flute used to be made of wood. The piano came from a long line of keyboard evolutions including the harpsichord and the clavichord. And the trumpets lived without valves for a long time.
Today, November 6, we note the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax. Mr. Sax was born in 1814 in the town of Dinart which was part of France, later annexed by the Netherlands. It was common at the time to follow in your father’s footsteps as far as a trade. Adolphe’s father was a cabinetmaker and inventive enough to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band when ordered to do so. Adolphe took to the business of instrument making, eventually producing a new and improved bass clarinet and exhibiting nine music related inventions at the 1840 Belgian Industrial Fair Exhibition.
Paris was the capital of musical life in France and Adolphe moved there to seek his fortune. His idea to combine the fluency of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument was met with encouragement by the composer Berlios, also a music critic. This stamp of approval encouraged Adolphe to pursue production of seven different sizes of saxophones and the instrument gained popularity in opera orchestras as well as military bands. The rest of Adolphe’s life was not happy in a storybook fashion. He spent most of his energies defending himself from lawsuits from other instrument inventors who claimed they conceived of the saxophone first.
One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, followed him into the business and maintained his instrument making workshop, which was eventually bought by the Selmer company. To this day Selmer still has the highest reputation for their saxophone manufacturing.
Adolphe Sax received his patent for the saxophone in 1846, making it the youngest of the wind instruments and far too late to have been written for by the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers. Adolphe never knew that the saxophone would become the most popular of jazz instruments on another continent and be the first choice of many young musicians in the fourth and fifth grades.
The seven sizes of the saxophone have been whittled down to mostly the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But if you would like to hear the whole gamut of the instrument, including the bass and the massive contrabass, I suggest looking for the album by Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist who played every size of saxophone when he recorded “Thinking Big” on Arbors Records in 1997. Mr. Robinson’s obsession with saxophones, especially the contrabass, is well known in music circles. When I interviewed him in 1997 he related how the story of his frantic search to acquire a contrabass ended with success:
Scott Robinson
MR:    You have an album coming out with a contrabass?
SR:    Yeah. That instrument I never even dreamed of getting, because there’s so few in the world, there’s like a dozen in the world. But I did happen to meet somebody in Rome, I told them I was looking for old instruments, and he says, “oh there’s this giant saxophone in an antique shop.” And I really didn’t believe him, because people say, “oh yeah, it’s like higher than that door.” And then you go look at it and it’s a baritone. That kind of thing happens all the time. But this guy was for real. His name was Enrico. And he was for real with this. And he sent me pictures of it. And I was out of my mind, you know I couldn’t sleep. But there again, the guy didn’t want to sell it. But he had it just standing up in his antique furniture shop, and he had canes and umbrellas and stuff down inside it. And that took two and a half years. Finally the guy parted with it and my friend brought it over in a big box the size of a phone booth. I picked him up at the airport and we brought the thing home, and it’s just unbelievable. And the amazing thing is how small the bass sax looks next to this. The bass saxophone just — I busted out laughing. We dragged them both out in the yard and we stood them up and the contrabass and then the bass sax is just down here.
MR:    So this is an octave below a baritone sax?
SR:    Yeah. But it seems proportionately larger somehow than what you would think. I mean it’s at least twice the size of the bass sax. Amazing. Taller than me and I’m six-four nearly.
You might want to view Mr. Robinson playing the contrabass in this story on CNN.
When rock & roll entered the scene in the 50s, many wind instruments were replaced by the electric guitar. Perhaps because of its ability to convey intense emotion, the saxophone survived and is often featured in many rock & roll instrumentals. Our previous blog detailing more about the instrument, “The Saxophone Survives,” can be read here.
In addition to its popularity, the saxophone also must be the most misspelled instrument. Please note the O in the middle, not an A, as I have seen countless times.
Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax.

October 30, 2014

The Bass Solo

Most of us have heard the jokes about bass solos: A couple complains to a marriage counselor that they’ve lost any ability to communicate. The counselor leads them down the hall and into a room where a jazz trio is playing. Just as they take their seats the bass solo starts, and immediately the couple starts talking to one another.
Or, the short version: Q: What happens when the bassist starts to solo? A: No one knows, everyone starts talking.
There’s some truth to this. Why is it that audience attention tends to wander when it’s time for the bassist to have his/her moment in the spotlight? I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and recently two incidents increased my focus.
I was listening to a wonderful Benny Carter CD, a 5-piece saxophone section with piano, bass and drums. In one particular tune, after multiple choruses of soloing by Benny Carter and Frank Wess, the bassist had his solo spot. Immediately I reached for the volume control.
Last week during my college radio show I was playing one of my own CDs which features Keter Betts on bass. During one song it was Keter’s turn in the spotlight. Once again I went for the volume control.
The string bass has always been a difficult instrument to amplify and record, and when it comes time for their solo they are often close to inaudible. In addition, have you ever noticed what the other musicians in a small jazz group do when it’s time for the bass to have its say? Typically they all stop. Is it any wonder that the audience attention can wander? When the sax, trumpet and piano solo, they are backed up by the bass and drums, providing both the groove and the song form. Then the bassist gets handed the ball and the rest of the team walks off the court. Admittedly there is an acoustic issue about playing during a bass solo. Any extra sound from horns, piano and drums tends to drown out the bass and cause them to play at a volume that is inconsistent with the feel of the music. If it’s not hard enough already, the bassist is usually the last in line for soloing. Just when the hands are going numb they become the focus.
Bassist Chubby Jackson, a veteran of the Woody Herman band, commented on this phenomenon:
Chubby Jackson
MR:    I’m always impressed by the physicality that must have been required to be an acoustic bass player at those times. I think of you back there, with, like you said, very little amplification, driving that whole band. Did you ever experience any physical harm?
CJ:    Oh yeah. A lot of times your arms get numb, your fingers too. You’re playing and all of a sudden they start to shake because your whole body is carried away with what’s expected of you. But physically at that moment, you’re not up to it. You know what I mean? Because everybody else in the band has a moment to sit with the horn in their lap, until the end of time. I said “the end of time.” You like it?
MR:    I picture some of those jam sessions where the horn players are lined up and playing “I Got Rhythm” and they come up for four or five choruses, next guy. And you guys are back there.
CJ:    Yeah. And then someone looks at you and said “take one.” Jeez. Take one. That’s the laugh of the century, when somebody points to the bass player, after 28 choruses have been in front, and your hands are in one of these. You know you walk around — I had hands on me that were so ugly, I used to keep my hands in my pockets all the time.
Chubby relied on his ebullient personality and stage presence to help him get through these trying physical moments.
I’ll admit that my jazz attitudes fall more in line with the previous era. I don’t think a jazz combo needs to have a bass solo on every song, just like I don’t believe having a drum solo on every song is necessary. But I also believe that the standard (melody—everyone solos—melody) format can induce audience apathy.
Recently, Jay Leonhart, one of the finest bass players working today, visited Hamilton College. On the drive to the school from his hotel we were talking about making a living in the music world, and Jay casually stated, “no one hires me for my solos.” I had the opportunity to interview Jay the next day and asked him, then why do other musicians hire him?
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I was always making enough money to pay my bills, to do what I needed to do. And I always worked. And that was because, I mean I don’t mean to sound arrogant at all, but it’s because I’m at the top of the class in terms of what I can do on the bass, in terms of the various things I can do. You know, Broadway, jazz, even symphony if need be. Oh I’m not a great symphony player but I’ve done it. I can read anything. And I’m very skilled. And I’m one of the guys who makes a living at it. And there’s so many who don’t. There’s so many musicians who can’t because the competition is ferocious. And you’ve got to have everything. You know, what do bass players need? Good pitch. Good time. Good sense of music. Good musicianship. It goes on and on — that list of things that bass players need to know how to do. And if you don’t do it just great, there’s somebody right around the corner who does, and people are going to find out.
MR:    Plus don’t you have to add to that, to sort of be likeable — a personality that people are going to want to call you back because of the way you are?
JL:    Oh God yes. That’s very important. I mean in any business, in every business, people say, like Woody Allen says, most of work is just showing up. That’s what he says. Then people say well if you’re not easy to work with, people don’t want to work with you, and they won’t. And that will get around and all of a sudden you’ll be out of business.
I think bass players have to have a certain mindset. They need to be musically fulfilled and take pleasure by playing the most significant role in the rhythm section. For me, it all starts with the bass. There’s no other instrument that can provide both the time and the harmonic guidelines of a song like a string bass can. I’ve noticed a phenomenon in the last number of years: bassists who play their instrument like a saxophone. In other words, bass players who just aren’t satisfied with their role in the band and play as if they are responsible for both the melody and the soloing at the same time. Invariably the feel of the group suffers.
Here’s my own ideas about what might keep the audience conversation from peaking during the bass solo:
 Break up the routine — find a different order for solos; instead of sax, trumpet piano, try having the bass be the first soloist.
Let the bass play the melody — there’s an interesting concept — either a solo bass melody or in unison with one of the horn players. This will get the audience’s attention and let the bass player have a memorable moment.
More bowed bass solos — it’s been my observation that when the bass player picks up his bow people perk up.
The horns, piano and drums play hits (chords on the downbeats) during the bass solo, marking the time and keeping the audience with them while letting the bass fill the spaces in between. This works especially well with the 12-bar blues. Or, have the horns do what clarinetist Kenny Davern called “footballs” (barely audible whole notes on the chord tones).
Consider limiting the bass solos, but limit everyone else’s solo as well. Vary the soloists on subsequent song selections. There’s no written rule in jazz etiquette books that horn players and piano players must solo on every song. Distribute them across your set and go for some variety.
My advice to young bass players echoes Jay Leonhart’s. For every hour you work on your technique and your bass soloing abilities, spend two hours learning to play time and memorizing the songs that you’ll be called upon to play.
Milt Hinton, the “Dean of Jazz Bassists” summed it up: the players in the rhythm section are providing a rhythmic service, don’t ever forget it.