October 25, 2010

The Right Notes

In the last blog entry the subject of “wrong notes” was addressed by quotes from players from what is best described as the hard bop school. This post-bop style places them squarely in the modern jazz era and helps us understand their comments and opinions more clearly.

An annual duty of mine at Hamilton College deals with an earlier style of jazz. Once a year at Fallcoming we host a group of hand-picked musicians who perform an evening concert of traditional and mainstream jazz. This year our group proved wildly successful. It was comprised of a sextet covering several generations, but one that was able to perform as if they were a seasoned road band. The sextet was: Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), Nicki Parrott (bass), Evan Christopher (clarinet), Randy Sandke (trumpet), Jackie Williams (drums) and leader Dick Hyman (piano).

Thanks to John Herr for providing the excellent photographs of the Fallcoming event.
Above, Dick Hyman and this writer after the concert.

I know for a fact that the last time these six artists performed as a band was one year ago during Fallcoming 2009. They were so well received that we invited them back as a unit. This group of musicians can function as a working ensemble because they know the repertoire that Dick Hyman is likely to call, a mix of standards from the golden era of songwriting (the 30’s and 40’s), and jazz classics that predate those decades, what we can call New Orleans/Dixieland music.

These musicians would address the question of wrong notes from a different viewpoint. There is much less of the “anything works” approach. The musicians create improvisation in a well-defined playing field where wrong notes sound less like hip choices and more like mistakes. Nonetheless, their playing is highly inventive, and arguably harder. Their note choices may be more constrained by the theory behind the music, but if you had heard this concert you’d have been astounded by the inventiveness of the improvised melodies and rhythms.

A big part of the success of this event has to be attributed to Mr. Hyman, who has had an amazing career as a pianist, composer, arranger, film scorer, and concert organizer. Aside from my admiration for his playing, I am jealous of his experiences throughout his career, including the years of steady work in New York City’s studios. His day-to-day schedule included everything from jazz to semi-classical music. He also was called upon to provide incidental music for soap operas and game shows, and he played keyboards on many pop hits during the emergence of Rock & Roll.

I asked Dick Hyman about this time in his life during his first interview, in March of 1995:

MR: What kind of people did you play behind?

DH: Ivory Joe Hunter, Ruth Brown, whom I’m working with now, Laverne Baker, The Coasters, The Drifters. I remember that terrible record “White Christmas” that was so popular.

MR: Did you play on that?

DH: I did. But we did all that stuff. And if you asked me what we thought of it, we always —we said to each other can you imagine we said to each other, in twenty years, this was in 1955 or so, in twenty years people will be saying to each other, “listen darling, they’re playing our song.” And you know that’s exactly what happened. All of that funny music that we laughed at became classic in Rock. And go figure it out.

MR: Well people, even musicians who’ve never done studio work, may not realize that you don’t have to like everything you play on in a studio. It’s not possible.

DH: No, no. What you have to like is being able to play it well.

That last statement ought to be written inside the instrument cases of young musicians. Dick was also called upon to do things which he might never have anticipated. He played mallet percussion, he whistled on a number of hit records, and was one of the first musicians to employ the Moog synthesizer.

Mr. Hyman is a pianist who seemingly can play anything that he can think of, in any style. He once recorded an LP with twelve different versions of the song “A Child is Born” as if played by twelve different and contrasting piano players. It’s interesting to watch him spin out his melodic and improvised phrases. His facial expression may not change at all, but the thought process behind his creations is magical.

I asked him about that thought process in our second interview, from March of 2001.

MR: I had a question also about trying to define hard things — and that is the concept of what you choose to play when you’re improvising.

DH: Oh. You mean what piece or what ideas?

MR: No. Where does improvising come from?

DH: It comes from your background and from the ideas of whomever you may be playing with, and also your technical capability. The ideas of — I’ve used this analogy before — the ideas are rather like a kaleidoscope which you shake up so that it produces different images each time but they’re made up of the same colored jewels and bits of paper. They are liable to be the same ideas in a different form every time you shake it up unless you keep adding to the kaleidoscope and put in different jewels, different colored pieces of paper, and then when you shake it up the next time it’s going to be a bit different. But there is very little, I think, of improvisation that hasn’t been thought of before or that you haven’t somehow used. The point is to keep replenishing the supply and keep on mixing it up differently. And a way that you can — certainly the tool that you use is just technique. If I’m in good shape technically I will try things that I wouldn’t otherwise. If I’m not in shape technically I won’t try to do certain things, I’ll stay where it’s safe and I know that I’ve been before. But if I feel very loose and in good shape and I’ve played a lot then I really can stretch out and try things that maybe I’ve heard other people do and see if I can get my version of, try things, just let the fingers go where they may, and pose certain problems for myself and see how I can get out of them, and just sometimes there are, too, moments where you don’t quite know where an idea comes from. Those are precious and they’re rare. If you’re lucky you’re recording them or you can write them down and they become compositions. But you watch for those. Sometimes you can chase them. If you have to compose something on a deadline of course, you really go out and you try to grab the muse and bring her back. Sometimes you can be successful. Some people use drugs and liquor to get to that stage. I’m not sure that works. I do think that, in my case, in the first part of the day might be the most creative part, and that possibly is because I’ve been thinking about the things through the night that I want to get to the next day.

It was a thrill to watch Dick Hyman in action as well as hear him. At times on this jazz concert he would employ the Basie technique, a simple raise of the eyebrow or the point of a finger indicating where the music should be sent. On a number of occasions he got up from the piano and walked over to the horn players while the drummer or bassist was soloing, had a slight word with them about something he wanted them to do, then walked back to the piano to hear the results.

I was invited to sit in on a tune at this latest Fallcoming event, and I wished I had the adjectives to describe the feeling. Let's just say being surrounded by that assemblage of talent makes it much easier to find the right notes.

Dick Hyman has recently put all of his skills into a huge project entitled Dick Hyman: A Century of Jazz Piano released on the Arbors jazz label in 2009. This is a serious collection of piano music performed by Dick Hyman, spanning the era from pre-Ragtime all the way to free improvisation. It includes five CD’s and a DVD, and Dick is currently working on an accompanying method book. It is well worth checking out.

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