Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Answers to the Two Questions

This post features responses to my two questions from yet another fine jazz artist, vocalist Giacomo Gates. Rather than elaborate further, I'll just let him do the talking:

The first question: Why did you decide on a career in music?

I didn't wake up one day and decide to become "a jazz singer."
I had been involved with music as a kid, singing a song at the age of six, in front of a class of tap dancers.... 'cause I didn't want to dance.... I chose to sing!

I took guitar lessons from the age of eight to fourteen or fifteen, and played into my twenties. I played and sang "for fun".... self enjoyment...did gigs here and there, but never "chased it."

I got into the construction business and traveled around the U.S. going wherever the big jobs were....Alaska, Washington State, Arizona, Louisiana. I was reintroduced to the music, while attending a two week workshop at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival 1987. Headliners were Steve Allen and Sarah Vaughn.

I was encouraged by several of the instructors and also felt it was time for a change. Having been a fan of the music since 10-12 years of age, it just felt like it was time. I always enjoyed playing, singing, learning, and performing this music...Great American Songbook and the music that was then called Modern Jazz.

I moved back to the East Coast and began to sing locally, regionally, clubs, festivals, wherever I could. I actually just took another route for a while, and got an education that money can't buy, nor would I trade it for anything."

The second question: What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music?

There's another kind of music? Norman Mapp wrote it, Betty Carter and Joe Lee Wilson sang it.... "Jazz Ain't Nuthin But Soul"

To get a virtual experience of Giacomo doing his thing (although this only hints at what a fine performer he is live), click here.

To learn more about the world of Giacomo Gates, go to www.giacomogates.com.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Two Questions (and Some Answers)

I recently sent an e-mail to various jazz artists who are good acquaintances and asked them two questions: 1) Why did you decide on a career in music? (2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music (although I do realize that many of you also play other styles, like World and Classical. btw--I am including Brazilian under the heading Jazz. Or do those of you who play sambas, bossa nova and choros feel it should be a separate category?)

Periodically, I'll be posting the answers I've received from those who have responded. My first subject is a fine bassist who is currently my Astoria neighbor, Thomson Kneeland. His answers follow below:

1) I've played music and loved it since I was a kid, so it was quite natural for me to always be involved in the art form on some instrument or other. Since my music teachers painted a bleak picture of being a performing musician and "making it", I originally went to school for engineering and physics for a year and a half. I was always dedicated to creative music in whatever form, and I didn't want to become a music teacher, so music school didn't seem to be the answer. On top of that, my first acoustic bass was a high school graduation present from my father, so I didn't even start playing my "career" instrument until after high school. Well a year later, I was making a meager living performing jazz; since I already had some prerequisite knowledge, I just needed to learn my instrument and grow. I saw it could be done, dropped out of school at 18 and took it from there.

2) All in all, I consider myself a musician who specializes in "improvisation", with a focus on jazz. I do mainly find myself on jazz gigs these days, but also have done a lot of crossover with Balkan stuff, Indian music, as well as classical chamber music. I had my hands in many more styles in New England, but have been specializing more in the "jazz" realm for the past few years, simply out of the contexts I've found myself in. But I find that simply saying "I'm a jazz musician" pigeonholes me, because people are so categorical in terms of thought. So when the average person asks, I stick to something like "improvised based music with an emphasis on jazz".

For me, jazz and improvisation provide a freedom of choice that no other music does (and it therefore also requires an enormous responsibility to use that freedom wisely). I liken it to Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game", for anyone in the literary realm. A high artistic expression fusing visceral groove, emotion, mathematics, athletics/body movement/coordination, and freedom of choice...all taking place in real time. More than anything else, it's the fusion of these things...playing your ass off (and listening to a group that does) is an uplifting experience. And that can be combined with any level of intellectual sophistication one wants. For me, it's the highest artistic expression that I can think of. And for me, it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced in terms of a discipline. Becoming a great musician requires complete mastery on so many levels: mental, physical, emotional, and psychological.

Other art forms utilize various elements I've mentioned, but music encompasses more than many, and in real time. Perhaps the closest comparison would be improvisational dance. Or improvisational theater, utilizing language instead of sound....but I think the latter is pretty rare. I'm very curious about the Asian Noh Theater and other traditional forms that have combinations of all these things in real time with musical accompaniment, but I havent had the time or opportunity to learn. Which is not to denigrate any art form or set music/jazz above it, but I can't think of any other discipline that requires so many facets to be mastered intellectually, physically, and more. If anyone has any other thoughts on this, I'd love a perspective!
And finally, regarding jazz...I just love the music, as is, and from an historical perspective! That's the main thing when it comes down it...the spirit of the music, whether swing from the 50's and 60's, fusion, or modern chamber jazz without any hint of "swing" context. No rhyme or reason about it, it just kicks ass!

There are quite a few excellent examples of Thomson's playing on You Tube. Click here to see him perform "Solar."

For more information about him, go to www.thomsonkneeland.com.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A special post about Kenton

Stan Kenton--there is no middle ground for this bandleader. Jazz aficionados either love his music and consider it constantly innovative or else find it bombastic and excessive. Have to admit, I'm definitely in the former camp, although I admit there are cringe-worthy performances such as the draggy version of "September Song," which includes a vocal by the band which frankly, sounds like they were lobotomized and forced with cattle prods to sing it. On the other hand, fine sidemen like Shelly Manne, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Lee Konitz and Zoot Sims were among Kenton's personnel at certain points in their careers. Furthermore, Pete Rugolo, Shorty Rogers, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Chico O'Farrill and Lennie Niehaus contributed exciting, hip arrangements that kept the sound of the orchestra fresh and forward-reaching. Lastly, don't forget that Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor were among Stan Kenton's vocalists. Guess the rule of thumb for listening to Kenton is this: with a few exceptions, try to avoid tracks which feature Kenton's piano-playing and charts and focus on most of those involving the musicians and/or arrangers noted above. Also, my own favorite period of the Kenton band's long history was the 1950s, when the influence of that decade's jazz innovations could often be heard in the contributions of the younger guys who had come onboard.

I realize I'm breaking my own rule by including a link to a Soundie of "Tampico" from the 1940s, but there don't seem to be any good examples of Kenton's 1950s orchestra at You Tube. Anyway, I've always loved this particular song, and it's great to see June Christy singing during her prime. Click here to check it out for yourself.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Monk Lives

This is one of those weeks when I've been having trouble deciding on a topic for my latest post. As I'm typing this, Thelonious Monk is playing "Think of One" on Music Choice. Monk--one of those artists who can take a listener feeling dragged to the ground and lift them up with just a few notes of his audacious but endearing playing which sounds like nobody else's. He could do an entire album of Duke Ellington songs and play them in a way that made them seem more Monkish than Dukish. Then there are his original songs infused so deeply with his unique personality that no matter who plays them, Monk is always there in spirit.

Monk's music has remained such a vital part of the jazz landscape that even Sun Ra, former citizen of ancient Egypt who migrated to Saturn before visiting earth, had his own turn at "Round Midnight" with a female vocalist singing the lyrics. Bill Evans performed "Blue Monk" and "Round Midnight," utilizing overdubs, on his album, "Conversations with Myself." More recently, I've heard new spins on Thelonious' songs by such younger pianists as Misha Piatigorsky and George Colligan. Definitely not slavish imitations of the Monk sound, but reflecting the musical visions of each of these artists while still maintaining respect for the original compositions. I think Monk himself would certainly approve.

It's always an incredible experience to watch Thelonious Monk performing. Click here to see a video of him doing just that, with Charlie Rouse on sax, Frankie Dunlop on drums and Butch Warren on bass. The song is Evidence, in a film recorded in Japan during 1963.