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.

October 3, 2010

A Wrong Note?

Let’s return to the initial reason for this blog: the resource of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. Our interview sessions now number 300 + and I was recently reflecting on how my questions have changed since we started the project in 1995. While we didn’t go into the sessions with a set agenda, there were questions I often asked of interviewees. A sampling of these questions are: (1) at what point did this particular musician think they could make a living in jazz; (2) what was the learning process before formal collegiate jazz education programs; and (3) what was your worst gig ever (a question that rarely worked).

In the last couple of years my interviewees have been from a significantly younger set of musicians, typically in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The experiences of these musicians are far different from the veterans who started their careers in the 1930’s. A question I have been asking of late is: in jazz improvisation, what constitutes a wrong note? My most recent interviewee, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, said what others of his generation have been saying. In short, there is no wrong note. I thought of all the mistakes I have made while soloing over the years. Perhaps I was wrong about them being wrong.

Of course these musicians went on to explain and qualify their answers. But first we need to take a look at what constitutes a wrong note in music. A wrong note in classical music is much more apparent than in jazz, especially in jazz improvisation. In classical music, if a performer plays a note not written by the composer, it’s a wrong note. Even people who take a certain perverse pride in saying they’re tone deaf, can sense an incorrect pitch in a familiar classical piece. Victor Borge, the highly accomplished pianist/comedian, made a career out of well placed mistakes, incorrect notes that people could identify in the midst of classical performances.

I can remember listening to both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, two trumpeters with vastly different sounds and approaches, but both of them often played notes that struck me as being incorrect, unintended, and from my definition at that time, a “mistake.” However, if Miles Davis played a note, with that fragile tone of his, it took on a certain extra poignancy, whether or not he intended it. When Dizzy Gillespie played a wrong note, he could, being that he was Dizzy Gillespie.

In jazz improvisation the playing field is different. Jazz artists are spontaneously creating melodies, phrases and licks that usually correspond to a scale or a choice of notes that “match” the underlying chords. But jazz vocabulary has changed a great deal from when Sweets Edison was ready to quit the Basie band in the late thirties because he felt he was playing too many “wrong” notes. Nowadays there is a certain attitude of anything goes, because anything can be justified or codified by the jazz theory and pedagogy currently being taught at the university level.

When Javon Jackson said there is no such thing as a wrong note, he went on to say that even playing a C sharp over a C chord can be made to work. It depends on where you place it in the phrase, if you leave it hanging out there at the end of a phrase it more likely will sound incorrect than if you resolve it with a certain intent. We must admit though, that Javon Jackson’s C sharp will sound less questionable than a timid junior high player playing a C sharp over a C chord. The tone, the intent, and the confidence all make a difference in how we perceive what people play.

Joe Magnarelli, hard bop trumpeter of some renown, had this to say about the question of right and wrong notes:

JM: I think a wrong note is when you give up on that note. When you give up on it then it’s wrong but, because there’s no wrong notes, really, there’s no wrong notes. You can make any note valid on any chord. I mean think about it. If you have a G major chord and you play an A flat, depending on how you resolve that A flat, it could be a beautiful thing. Now if you go back to study classical music you’ll find things like that all over the place. And I think being sure of yourself and having faith in yourself to play something that doesn’t sound good and then play your way out of it. I mean I have done that. I played something I like and I’ll think to myself in that split second, wow, what was that, you know? And then I just play it again and develop that thing and bring it back into the solo, that’s the key. But if you play something and you make a face or you musically give up on it, then it’s wrong.

Tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama (of the same generation as Joe Magnarelli and Javon Jackson) is very big on tension and release in his solos, and constantly improvises with that concept in mind. He was very succinct and thoughtful in his response to my question.

MR: In jazz improvisation, to you, what constitutes a wrong note?

RL: Well okay that’s a good question. It’s like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, okay? I think there are wrong notes. A lot of people don’t. I do. I really do. Because you have a background, you have a chord, and then you could use all twelve notes but it’s how you organize them. You know what I mean? It’s the organization. Sometimes you might put a wrong note in a wrong part of the beat or something, and it sounds wrong. And I just get this tension up my spine. You know what I mean? But, then technically you can play a wrong note, technically meaning theoretically it could be a wrong note but it sounds right. You know, because of the placement. You know Thad Jones was the master of it. Coltrane too. Sonny Rollins, all those masters, Joe Henderson. As far as theoretically, in other words we have a chord, we have a scale and we have the chord tone. So if you play outside of that, it could be considered wrong. But if you know how to phrase it exactly right and resolve it right that’s another thing. It’s in the resolution. You can resolve a wrong note and make it right see. And then sometimes I know when I hit a wrong note, you know like I say I feel it up my spine.

What constitutes a wrong note certainly can be addressed and thought of in many ways. The style of music has a great deal to do with it. If you’re playing modal jazz and improvising on one chord at length, the tendency to play non-scale tones is certainly there and almost required, because your palette is limited. In this case I can embrace the “no wrong notes” philosophy. If an accomplished jazz musician is consistently playing notes chosen for a purpose, placing them in a phrase, in time, and with confidence. This goes double when they stray away and play outside the chord changes (see the last blog posting for a definition of chord change).

I think that all the musicians who addressed this question would say that if you play something by accident, take responsibility for it, account for it, and try to make it work. That’s part of what makes modern jazz sound different than classic jazz.

This weekend I traveled to SUNY Fredonia to participate in the annual alumni jazz reunion concert. I had some challenging improvised solo opportunities and I tried to keep this right/wrong note topic in mind. On the way home I had a few regrets over notes I stumbled upon. Whether or not I was able to recover and turn them into “right” notes remains in the ears of the beholder.