Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Purpose of Music

An Die Musik with Dave Ballou-trumpet & Michael Formanek-bass

"What is the job of a musician?”

This is one of many rhetorical questions I’ve been asking my students in both private and group settings. 

It is meant to arrest the student’s attention - to get them thinking in a new way. I always offer these questions in tandem with an impassioned one-minute improvisation on my saxophone, attempting to "answer" the questions non-verbally, using music (rather than logic) to make my own assertion, thus creating a posture of openness. I offer students an opportunity to consider practicing their instrument from a perspective of possibility, considering what effect their focused attention might have on the world around them. Practicing our instruments with the intention of bettering our lives, and the lives of folks around us gives a rich context and meaning to the hours spent absorbing information, practicing overtone exercises, learning repertoire, practicing permutations and arpeggios…this is the stuff musicians are made of. I believe this is our job. To invigorate the study and practice of our craft with a sense of adventure, urgency, and meaning. To deliver that sense of urgency with compassion and conviction, and the determination to heal and to uplift other people...

With so many music teachers and students returning to their academic posts this week, I feel grateful and fortunate to explore these sorts of questions with my own students at my home studio. To have the time to spend in a casual learning environment, sinking my teeth into these questions right along with my students, and removing the illusory boundary between “expert” and “student”. This level of openness illuminates the extremely personal nature of the music-making experience, and puts students in a position of personal power. Creativity is available to all of us, and the educators who make the biggest difference are the ones who are empowering others to make the most of what they have — demystifying the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge without glorifying that process as the end-all-be-all of artistic growth! Naturally, these kinds of lessons are of great benefit to more experienced students, but they can be quite effective for young, motivated students who are early on in their journeys, as well.

Other rhetorical questions along these lines:

What ROLE does music play in our lives? 

What function do these acoustic vibrations, melodies, layers, and rhythms serve for humanity? 

Why are we DRAWN to music in the first place? 

Is it possible for a musician to be always growing, improving, mastering new ideas, while also pursuing a deeper understanding of themselves — cultivating empathy, compassion, and love for what IS? 

How do we remain connected with the initial spark of inspiration that made us reach for an instrument that very first time, and how do we empower others to do find the same inspiration? 

Is it possible to be ambitious while also enjoying where we are in the process, here and now? 

What can we do THIS moment to make the absolute MOST musical statement with whatever ability and knowledge we already possess?


Visit baltimoresaxophone.com for more information

or email me at derricksax@gmail.com

Monday, July 8, 2019

A New Lease on Learning & Teaching

Continuing Education

*Learning is never over*


I was fortunate in June to be among 16 musicians selected at the guinea pigs for a 4-day summer Improvisation Workshop led by drummer/composer Bobby Previte in Hudson, NY. Bobby is a brilliant musician, teacher, and radiant creative human being, and his enthusiasm captivated all of us from start to finish. I highly recommend you all check out his work if you haven't. Much to unpack there.

This workshop was a wonderful opportunity for me to set aside what I thought I knew about music and improvising (never easy to do) and simply enjoy the learning process with these other musicians, who came from 16 completely different musical backgrounds and had never played together. We quickly established a rapport, and I truly enjoyed everyone's creative contributions and individual personalities.

This was a hell of a process. 6-hours per day of intensive work together, exploring aspects of music so often forgotten or taken for granted, and far too often left unspoken in the academic sphere. 
By day two of this process, I already heard changes in everyone's playing (including my own).

 On day 4 we performed for about 100 people in Hudson Hall. It was an immersive concert experience, during which the audience and musicians were all in rapt attention while the music unfolded on its own. (I was excited to meet master improviser/violist Mat Maneri, who was in the audience that evening). It was a wonderful experience to share with so many folks, and I hope to create more experiences like this for people in the near future. 

One of my favorite experiences from the workshop was playing solo saxophone across the concert hall, delivering 30 seconds of my best musical effort for the other 15 musicians (plus Bobby), and then comparing that experience with the feeling of playing RIGHT ON TOP of that same group of folks, who were all standing right in my personal space! Wow...

The change in spacial relationship created a huge shift in the energy of the room! A powerful reminder that performing FOR PEOPLE is very different than being in your little bubble. We got to hear a few other musicians in the group try this same experience for themselves, I imagine it was as intense for them as it was for me. 

(Reminder: Get OUT of your bubble!!)

**Clicker was composed for 3 flutes, baritone saxophone, drumset, voices & synthesizer. It is a concept piece meant to simulate the feeling of turning radio dials through AM stations, and stumbling upon disparate stations along one's search for the right station.**


This whole experience in Hudson intensified my feelings about what it means to make music, and what it really means to TEACH music. Throughout the entire workshop, there were no discussions about what notes, harmonies, rhythms, or language we were expected to play! Rather, the whole series of exercises were designed to get us out of the "should" orientation, and into a frame of mind based in POSSIBILITY. What does the music need here and now. Nothing else matters.

Already, I can tell that my playing has changed since this experience, my listening has certainly changed, and my teaching concept is much much clearer to me. I've long wished to avoid "shoulds" in my teaching, insisting instead on empowering my students with the courage to CREATE from day 1.

Thanks to Bobby Previte, Hudson Hall, and all the musicians involved, for this wonderful experience!

Benjamin Zander

Along this journey toward awakening possibility in each student, learning to teach the WHY and HOW of music, not merely the WHAT, I have discovered the work of musician & teacher Benjamin Zander. 

Benjamin is a fantastic musician, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic & Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestras, and a world famous speaker, teacher, & author. Benjamin & his wife Rosamund Stone Zander co-authored a wonderful book entitled The Art Of Possibility back in 2000, and they made and even MORE wonderful audiobook version that I just finished listening to this weekend. Their passion for people and our ability to create lives worth LOVING is infectious and actionable. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Also worth checking out are Benjamin's "Interpretation of Music" series on Youtube. Absolutely marvelous teaching and playing. Very thought-provoking, and an incredible reminder of WHY we play music!


Recommended Videos

In 2 recent blog posts, I posited (rather strongly) that jazz education is largely missing the mark. I think it is important to use this platform to bring people's attention toward the gems as well as the pitfalls in this artistic pursuit of ours. Let's also remember that this is all about love, and expressing the human experience through song. Doesn't get much more direct than that!

Here are a couple of quirky yet extremely informative videos that bring attention to aspects worthy of more attention when we are teaching and learning jazz music. The processes highlighted here are intended to arm the student with the means of discovering themselves in their practice of standard songs, without prescribing the note choices or language required. The ear is here to guide us through the choice of pitches. Bill & Joe are offering us all a framework for discovery. 

(I'll add that Bill Frisell & Joe Lovano are two deep influences for me, and represent top-notch musicians of world renown who encapsulate both a love of musical tradition and a sense of adventure and possibility in their music.)


**Pay particular attention to the way both of these great musicians are practicing RUBATO, free from strict pulse - allowing space to HEAR what they are playing, and deliver each phrase in its own unique way. Notice ALSO, the strength with which each plays when a pulse IS enforced. Clearly there is power in our phrasing and sense of rhythm when we do not simply take metronomic pulse for granted, but instead, practice "time" as its own discipline, inclusive of the challenges of playing rubato**

Bill Frisell on "Days of Wine and Roses" & Practicing Tunes (Excerpt From The Guitar Artistry of Bill Frisell)

"Any song that I play, the MELODY is what gives an ARCHITECURE to what we improvise. If you combine all the theoretical knowledge: chords, scales, patterns, but keep the MELODY going - that's what will give you your own individual sound, really." - Bill Frisell

Joe Lovano on "Developing a Personal Approach to Improvisation"

"You're not practicing 'PRACTICING' - you're practicing PLAYING!" - Joe Lovano


Tootin' My Own Horn


A reminder that I am doing the life long work of integrating all of this into the work I am doing as a teacher for saxophonists & musicians who wish to get deeply in touch with their own creative impulses. 

I teach in the Baltimore & New York City areas.

visit my teaching page to learn more!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Teaching & Learning Improvisation | Phrasing & Delivery



What is really happening when we improvise? What is happening when we interpret written music? What might be the same between those two processes?

Much of my background is in the study of jazz, and what I've found in my study & devotion to this music is a chasm between its practice and its instruction. 

While the history of jazz (in the broadest sense of the term) is overflowing with musicians who have expressed their basic creative impulses in a most dazzling array of personal achievements, jazz education is conspicuously bereft of the discussion of how and why one must cultivate their own creative impulse, and follow where that leads. 

Why is this??
Form & Function

Jazz educators have long found the quantifiable intellectual properties of the music (form, melody, harmony, rhythm) to be the easiest to teach, drawing on the history of formal music analysis which predates the existence of what we call "jazz" by many many years.

This is important work! 

Thanks to educational innovators like Jerry Coker, Jamey Aebersold, Barry Harris, David Liebman, George Russell, and countless others, there is now plenty of information available to help musicians decipher the written language of jazz, train our ears to identify the gravitational tendencies within, and identify the properties of the idiom. As a result of decades of that work being codified, there is now an intimidating amount of information across the internet, decoding the mathematical relationships that would appear to reduce "jazz theory" to a series of explainable phenomena.

With that stated, it is an incomplete picture of what is going on when we improvise, and we all know this. 

What's more, we almost completely gloss over the delivery and interpretation of the melodies to these tunes...

Most of the information in the current jazz education paradigm is offered from a solely theoretical perspective, dealing with the nuts and bolts of what notes to play & where in your solos - according to "THE TRADITION". 

These are prescriptions of "correct" harmonic language wherein bits of preordained vocabulary are ascribed to phrases within the forms of standard tunes, and pieced together to make solos that make sense on paper, but often are devoid of personal meaning or character. 

That is damn near 95% of the discussion among jazz musicians. Whose solo was the hippest or the most "killing" at the jam session? How "crushing" the harmonic substitutions or modern, angular lines are from X player...So rare is the discussion of how MOVING someone's playing is. 

The tradition in jazz education is to deal with chords & chord progressions as if they are stationary snapshots (out of context) giving the jazz student the impression that harmony is rather static - moving in blocks - and encouraging the soloist to play "on" the chords, one at a time. Once the musician becomes aware of the notion that we move THROUGH chord sequences, their efforts are often concentrated on memorizing phrases that someone else played over that same set of chord changes. Once they have an array of preordained vocabulary locked and loaded, they hope they'll be well on their way to expressing real music in the moment! Yet this is much more a recreative process than a creative one. Is this the only way?

Many teachers fail to deliver with appropriate urgency the importance HOW & WHY TO PLAY, ACCORDING TO YOUR PERSONAL MUSICAL IMPULSES IN THE MOMENT! 

Listening to what your ears are telling you. Asking the MUSIC what it needs.

I am drawing a line in the sand right now - I am here to suggest that knowing the "language" of jazz is not NEARLY enough to make great music happen...

MUSIC is something else, not just the right notes on the right chords. Music is something that "happens", not merely a series of explainable intellectual phenomena. It is a happening. An occurrence. It is ALIVE. Music is you, me, the audience, the resonant acoustic space. Music is alchemy. 


So there is the "problem" - how about a solution?

I wish to emphasize, first & foremost, that I believe the study of PHRASING (as it relates to the unfolding of a melodic idea) yields the greatest reward for the improviser. 

This orientation has immediate benefits in the short-term, while yielding tremendous long-term effects. 

1. RHYTHM may be understood as Mirriam-Webster defines it:

"An ordered recurrent alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence (in speech.)"

When we separate our notions about rhythm from the necessity of the metric component (even division of measures with a consistent pulse) even temporarily, it liberates us to explore the duration and stress of each note in a melody, observing how stressing some notes over others instigates a unique feeling of melodic motion. This puts us in a position of creative power, by comparing the flow and unfolding of melodic motion with that of our speech patterns. 

** Rhythm & melody are inexorably connected. **

RHYTHM IS ALSO OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE WHEN PLAYING RUBATO! (Rubato: the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.)

If we are able to connect our sense of phrasing and rhythm with the flow of speech patterns, our music immediately takes on a more personal quality!

2. Rhythm, Melody & Harmony are all expressions of musical motion!

These three components function together to create what we perceive as cohesive musical ideas

The discipline of confidently delivering each idea we play is what makes the difference in how our music comes across to the listener. 

There are simple yet profound ways we can harness this ability, using melodies, intervals, scales, exercises, or pieces of music as our impetus…

A great goal for all musicians to have would be BRINGING EACH PHRASE TO LIFE!

In this way, it simply doesn’t matter WHAT you are practicing or playing, it is important HOW you play it. 

With primary emphasis places on phrasing (long/short duration, loud/soft dynamics, long/short arcs, articulations, etc.) we can play any melodic idea with many interpretations.


PLAY ANY MAJOR SCALE 12345671 using LONG notes as STRESSED notes or ARRIVALS and using SHORT notes as PASSING tones.

EXAMPLE: [ONE 2 3 FOUR, FIVE 6 7 ONE] Arabic numerals represent passing tones, with Stressed notes spelled out in capital letters.


THIS is phrasing. The shaping of a line. 

**What harmonic motion might we imply with the phrasing of our major scale above?**

Allow the duration to affect whether the note stands out as important or is only supporting other notes, by accenting the stressed 
notes in the line using dynamics

(much like the effect of emboldening or capitalizing words in a sentence.)

Now, try that same idea with the melody to “I Fall in Love Too Easily”.

Stressed notes will be represented by caps locked words in the lyrics:


(Check out how different the phrasing of this melody is when Chet Baker sings it from when Frank Sinatra sings it. We aren't looking to pick a favorite, we are listening for the subtle differences!)

The motion from these “stressed” notes THROUGH the passing tones and into the next STRESSED notes are what give shape to our melodic lines. THIS IS ALSO INEXORABLY LINKED TO THE FLOW OF HARMONIC RHYTHM! Of the stressed notes in the ballad above, how many of those words land on a chord tone on beat 1 or 3?? 

Our goal is to start connecting dots as soon as possible.

With only 12 chromatic pitches, a handful of harmonic colors (chords) & their corresponding scales – it is clearly our phrasing which defines the music we are attempting to deliver. Technique merely serves the phrasing. Yet, this is the single most overlooked aspect of music education to date.

I am making it my mission to bring this expressive power to all musicians, at all levels of performance & study.

Application In Real Life...

There is a gap for all of the folks who are going into, coming out of, opting out of, or transitioning between music schools... there is a gap between knowledge and application, practice and performance, conception and execution. We all reach a point where the necessary move is to leave behind our hard earned “expertise” and begin anew. To get back to the beginning. To find OUR MUSIC.

Performance and instruction of music of any variety is enriched by the musician’s full embrace ... reconsidering the simplest elements of musicality, phrasing, delivery, and composition from one note to the next. One phrase to the next. 

As improvisers, we need to consider the compositional process. Again, and again!

As interpreters of written music, the same elements must be considered in order to perform fully realized interpretations!

 This means that all musicians must be able to improvise clear, direct melodic ideas that establish the rules of tonal gravity, as well as the power of intention - grouping even “random” notes together in a melodious fashion that creates a sense of pleasing motion, departure and arrival! 

This is not necessarily “jazz” in its stylistic conception, but rather a spontaneous process of musical expression that assimilates all of the building blocks available to the musician in real time.

Every improvising musician bears the responsibility for the energy on stage, and therefore the energy in the audience. This is paramount - the control we are working toward is about directly connecting with the music, and bringing its magic to life. 

This is a huge responsibility!

Improvisation Instruction...

Improvisation is widely regarded as something that cannot be taught (by classical musicians and old school jazz musicians alike) - on the other hand, the working model for jazz education is largely predicated on the notion that “improvisation” is not a spontaneous creative process at all! It is instead represented as a clever reordering or recitation of preconceived “language” or “vocabulary”, acquired by copying recorded solos from the history of the music, and plugging these licks into the chord changes of a song...this cleverness is valued more than creativity, or should I say musicality, or taste. 

Classical musicians are experiencing a renaissance in exploring the world of improvisation in “new music” circles, and exciting explorations are happening, indeed. Extended techniques are largely emphasized, and improvisations are meant to give sections of the music an uncertain element of “chance”. This robs the performing classical musician of the gift of true study of improvisation in a melodic/ harmonic/ rhythmic (or should I say compositional or narrative) context. 

So what is missing in the study and teaching of improvisation is a method by which one discovers at their own pace, with their own ears, instrument, and value system - one note or phrase at a time - how to navigate and create strong melodic statements, without relying on cliches or preconceived lines, considering extended techniques to be fair game, while putting primary emphasis on the creation of clear and satisfying rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic motion.

 In real time. 

Teaching | The Primordial Impulse to Create (Part 1)

My student Abraham Wojewodzki (Right)
joins my band at Bertha's in Baltimore
for a set of free improvisation (December 2018)

Alongside my career as a performer & recording artist

I've been a private instructor for saxophonists & improvisers in the Baltimore area for 15 years and counting. I maintained studios at several area music stores and even some private schools, from age 17-30. It was honest work, and was instrumental in establishing myself as a young professional musician.

Private teaching is a major piece of the puzzle for many of us. It offers the potential for some financial stability and an opportunity to articulate the experience of making music - for ourselves and for our students. This ends up being a big part of our path - learning to articulate the more abstract concepts of music, along with the fundamentals of music making. This necessitates a level of proficiency on our instrument, and holds us accountable for the work we hope to accomplish as performers. Any paid work which holds us artistically accountable is a great opportunity. We stand to gain a lot by doing this well. We stand to gain more by getting better as we go.

With that stated, there are many pitfalls in the traditional situations that many of us find ourselves teaching in...and if we aren't prepared to swim upstream, we may find ourselves joylessly punching the clock rather than carrying the torch we set out with on day one, thereby abdicating the primary responsibility we have to our students: Sustaining and enhancing the joy and wonder of music making. I nearly fell into that trap a few years ago, and had to reassess my intentions as a private educator. Several aspects of the environments I was teaching in made it difficult to relay the most essential joys of music. I felt stymied by the music store cubicles and the shared teaching spaces of private schools. 

Many of these students came to me hoping to ace an audition, or compete against other students, neither of which align with the idea that music is a healing force in our universe, which is really why I believe we are drawn to music in the first place!

In order to focus with greater intensity on the experiential nature of music, I eventually left these institutions, endeavoring to coach musicians on an independent basis. This allowed me to get straight to the point of WHY we are making music, connecting students with the essence of our practice:
  1. The physiology of bringing an idea to life in real time. 
  2. The practicalities of actualizing and organizing the sounds in our mind.
  3. The magic of making cohesive music with other human beings. 

Suddenly I found a much deeper reason to teach, leading me to pursue facets of music and the saxophone that I may never have learned about if I were exclusively a performer. This changed EVERYTHING for the better.

Ever since that big shift, I’ve worked closely with many students, ranging from “day one” beginners to professionals reaching to expand their vocabulary, deepen their tone, open up their ears, or get in touch with their own personal mode of musical expression. Lessons are mostly offered in my own home these days, and am working to offer more clinics and masterclasses to the public, having truly enjoyed the opportunities I have had in this context in my recent past.

My FAVORITE aspect of teaching in this new way is the dismantling of the authoritarian approach to learning. I do not pretend to know everything, and I do not expect you to believe every word I say. My objective is to EMPOWER every musician with the confidence to go all the way every single time the instrument is being sounded.

Another EXCELLENT aspect of teaching from my home studio is that we have no distractions, time restrictions, or preordained curriculum we need to follow. This is just you and me, developing the music together. 
This means no excuses or expectations. Simply student & teacher, here & now, freeing the music from within. 

My students are able to go as far that they want to in these lessons. This experience rivals or perhaps supplements the experience of studying at a college, since we can dig in as long as you want and as far as you want into any particular area of study. The lack of prescribed curriculum means you are practicing that which is most enriching for you 100% of the time. Fundamentals of music are constantly reinforced, and illuminated as the basis for revealing the creative process. 

All are welcome in my studio. This work that gets more rewarding the more I do it, and I am grateful for the opportunity.


The Primordial Creative Impulse

In my 15 years as an independent music educator I've nurtured the impulse that pushes us to make a sound...to lean in and create something.

This impulse is the same energy that pushes us to survive, grow, and evolve...or to examine the world around us, and the world that thrives within us. Creative work is our way of striving to connect those inner & outer worlds, and this visceral impulse is the primordial ooze from which all of our creative ideas are born. 

My mission as a performer, educator, and communicator is to introduce people to that impulse, and encourage folks to indulge in it. The NEED to create. The nuts and bolts of the artist's chosen idiom or medium are merely the tools with which this impulse is expressed...as a gift to the community...

 All too often, the idiom is celebrated as a bigger triumph than the vitality of the impulse which brought the art into being.

My ultimate objective is connecting all humans with the source of this impulse, liberating a sense of wonder and adventure in everyday life.

We do this by revitalizing our experience of simple, actionable, experiential goals - in the present moment. When our life is aligned with this need, this source of vibration, each and every action and observation in our lives is experienced with greater intensity. Only when music and art of any kind is an expression of this, do we FEEL moved by these subjective creations. 

I am determined to realign the discussion of improvisation in music by placing primary emphasis on our creative impulse - thereby reintroducing the intellectual processes of form, melody, harmony, rhythm as extensions of this NEED to create. Form and idiom function as expressions of this primordial impulse.

To understand this impulse, simply ask yourself: "Why?" The feeling that accompanies that question IS where this impulse comes from.


Sunday, June 2, 2019


Cylburn Arboretum Spring 2019 

Spring Has Sprung...

Accordingly, I've been enjoying nature's splendor with such delight for the last three months that I've almost forgotten my own duties to this blog... fuck, it's almost summer!

The proliferation of flowers, leaves, insects, and human activity that blooms forth in spring packs such an inspirational punch that my mind, ears, and pen have been going non-stop! Writing has been an almost daily ritual, putting an actual PEN to real paper. 

Nature's expression of life has got me thinking about why we are here...

A thought occurs: in jazz circles, we are far too often using destructive adjectives to exclaim our appreciation for the performance of other musicians: 

"Killing", "Slaying", "Crushing", "Destroying"

My experience of music I love is LIFE AFFIRMING. It is NURTURING & NOURISHING. It is a GIVER of LIFE, not a DESTROYER of life. 

I am curious what that kind of adjustment in vernacular could do for the way this music is received by the public, or how it might even subtly impact the choices a musician makes, the goals one has in performing for others...

Perhaps thoughts such as "I hope I am totally killing on this gig tonight" could be replaced with "I want to play nourishing, life-affirming music for people tonight"!

Maybe the compliments we give one another could reflect this nurturing approach, too. This would require a level of vulnerability that might be uncomfortable for awhile, but ultimately would have a profoundly positive effect for the culture that surrounds this music. 

Some folks argue that words are just symbols, and carry no meaning...

I call bullshit.

If we care to communicate with others, we care about these symbols and what they say to others.

We curate our words and thoughts, just like we curate our choice of instruments, notes, tone, venues, and everything else that comes together make our artistic statements.

I believe music is, was, and will always be a LIFE AFFIRMING experience. 

Rituals...morning coffee and a sunny stroll through the neighborhood. Watching my cats run around in the morning, and enjoying the stillness in their afternoon naps... all while thinking, percolating, taking care of emails & phone calls, booking gigs, making flyers, practicing, teaching, preparing, reflecting. It's all happening.

Practicing...dealing with issues related to sound, articulation, and motion around the saxophone...I love this!

But I also care about you: the ReaderThe ListenerThe Audience. 

You are like me, and I am like you. We have our own experiences this world, but we are intrinsically connected with one another. As such, part of my struggle in keeping up with the blog is that I have been holding myself accountable for being more present in the real world! 

Making real connections with real humans, just for the sake of connecting with humans...no strings attached. Talking, laughing, working through it all together. If we aren't careful we'll lose those connections...oftentimes, we do lose them. So... 

Letting go of the need to "BE someone" and just simply connecting with the world around you is magical. Do it as often as you can, unapologetically!

With that in mind, we are three months further into the year, and I have some reflections on life, music, the scene in Baltimore, and the concert series that is almost halfway over at this point in time!

The Windup Space
L-R: John Dierker, Jim Hannah, myself, Paul Hannah, Jeff Reed
@ The Windup Space
The Windup Space in Baltimore was a wonderful performance venue, bar, art space that hosted innumerable social circles, concerts, game nights, and gatherings since 2008. The venue's visionary owner, Russel De Ocampo, just announced they will be closing their doors on June 1st of 2019.

  This is a huge loss for our city's thriving arts communities, and yet it reminds us all that we are living in a time of transition, and it is up to all of us to take responsibility for the way things evolve from here.

It is up to us to create and sustain connections with other people and artists that are able to weather these kinds of changes. This is something I have been taking very seriously in 2019, and there will be more essays here exploring what that looks like, and how to take action in the face of fear and self-doubt.

The Windup Space played an incredible role in the development of a scene of improvising musicians in Baltimore, and made an indelible impact on my own development as a both a musician & human being (not that I could ever be one without the other...)  This was not the only role Windup played for Baltimore's art community, but it is the one that had the most profound effect on my own life. I played my first improvised performance in there, curated my first concert there, debuted my first composition, played countless gigs with countless bandleaders, organized and performed my 30th birthday concert in there, and more. The list goes on. I got to know folks like Ellery Eskelin, Susan Alcorn, Michael Formanek, Tony Malaby and more in that room...So many friends & connections made. Most of them grew out of a series called "Out of Your Head".

I'll go into OOYH in more detail in a future post.

Concert Series

We are halfway through my concert series in 2019 already, and it has been a wild ride!
I have learned so much about my own playing, and the role that a venue plays in the unfolding of our music. Not only the acoustics of the room (though that is very important) but also the context of the room - is this a listening space, a bar, a community center, or what? What does the audience expect in this space? How can I use all of that to my advantage? What can I offer to this space that might not happen without me? What's the give and take? This kind of attention in curating makes the music better, and makes the consumption of the musical experience better for the audience. Both are important!

I have found in booking this concert series - mostly acoustic improvised music in a designated listening space, selling tickets to people for an opportunity to listen uninterrupted - that my attention to detail is deepening. I am listening to the other musicians with more compassion. I am able to communicate with more vulnerability than in the past. It is a very enriching and life-affirming experience.

Interestingly, when I perform in other contexts now, I feel I am able to "say more" on these other types of gigs, because my heart is so full as a result of fulfilling my dreams in this curated setting. Being a LEADER has many advantages that ripple out into other facets of our lives and careers!

 This lightens me up, and frees up a lot of energy to have more fun on the kinds of gigs that I used to play exclusively, in rooms that might have more ambient noise, chatter, and bustle from other people.

Improvements all around!

**I will have videos up on the internet from each of these concerts soon, but there has been much to keep up with. Thank you for your patience. I will update this particular blog entry with those videos when I have them**

Blood Moon Quintet 
Ellery Eskelin-tenor saxophone
Theljon Allen-trumpet
Susan Alcorn-pedal steel guitar
Eric Kennedy-drums

This might have been the most successful concert I've ever presented, and sparked new connections with the good folks as WEAA, Morgan State Radio. Shout out to Doc Manning & Robert Shahid, thank you for your time and attention, and for all you do! This was also the first concert I've played with friend and mentor Ellery Eskelin, who is one of my favorite tenor players of all time, and a Baltimore native, himself. The Energy brought together by these five unique voices, all patiently cultivating an atmosphere and an arc in the music over two hour-long sets was something to behold.

Sarah Hughes-winds
Zack Branch-cello
Derek Wiegmann-bass

Deep connections were forged in this spontaneously composed performance in chamber-style instrumentation. We breathed in the pain of the world, and we exhaled healing energy through the music.

Dave Ballou-trumpet
Michael Formanek-bass
Mike Kuhl-drums

Still to come - these three musicians have been huge influences on my music, and on the scene that surrounds them on both local and international levels!


This will be a 2-day run with this quartet, and I will be making my Rhizome DC debut, on a double-bill with Susan Alcorn on Pedal Steel Guitar on the 20th of June!!

Stay tuned, and thank you for your attention!

Responsibility | Ellery Eskelin


This word has been coming up more and more in my life, and has all sorts of implications regarding the concept of FREEDOM.

FREEDOM when I was a bit younger, might have been perceived as the relative absence of responsibilities. This seems to be written into the code of the Bohemian mindset of the creative artist or musician... It's keeping a low overhead, keeping our financial obligations & time restrictions to a minimum in order to prioritize a certain brand of creativity in our daily lives. Taking on too many monthly bills can put a serious cramp in our free time, and that can be tough to manage when we are trying to develop our craft and our work, let alone book gigs, perform, make records, etc.

At a certain point after I turned 30, I noticed that the "freedom FROM X, Y, or Z" was becoming its own burden. I wanted to be free to do whatever felt right for me, without being concerned with what implications that may or may not have concerning my career, let alone my IDENTITY. Eventually we realize that responsibilities bring meaning to our lives.  

This means that I've recently discovered that INTENTIONALLY TAKING ON RESPONSIBILITIES feels like a better exercise in freedom to me at this point in my life.

Within reason, of course. I am still cautious - I still need to keep a low overhead, and I still have to wait awhile before making any big purchases, and I almost never go on vacation. These are no longer points of pride about the sacrifices made for my art, but rather, shortcomings that require evaluation and adjustment if I am to live a sustainable and enriching life!

This life in music comes with a boat load of responsibilities! 

Practicing our instruments
 Training our ears
 Learning and composing music
 Teaching (and learning how to be a better teacher)
 Selling recordings
 Booking gigs
 Advertising those gigs
 Playing the damn gigs
Paying the band
Presenting or curating in any capacity
 and the list goes on...

All of this on TOP of the normal everyday responsibilities we have as citizens of Earth...

WHAT DO WE WANT? The clearer we can be as our artistry develops, the clearer our vision for our lives can be, the more responsibility we need to take on in order to bring that vision to life.


The more responsibilities we are willing to take onto our shoulders, the more freedom we might be able to earn with respect to:

The music we might get to play
The musicians we might get to play with
The venues we might get to play in
The audiences we might get to play for
The influence we might have in our communities...

If we know what we WANT, we know what the music NEEDS from us, then it becomes CLEAR what we have to do to create a SPACE for that to exist. This is the essence of what I mean by responsibility.

(This is all without taking SOCIAL JUSTICE into account, which in 2019 is a HUGE responsibility for artists of all types. There is much to advocate for AND against, there are many underrepresented people who deserve allies, friends, community, & belonging. Isn't that sort of what this is all about, on some level?)


AS IMPROVISERS we really need to take a hard look at the word RESPONSIBILITY as it applies to our music-making. Not just the managing of the aforementioned necessities, but in the UNFOLDING of our CREATIVE PROCESS.

An improviser capable of performing entirely unscripted concerts must take responsibility for learning as much as they can about the nexus of sound/timbre/tone, melody, harmony, rhythm, form, texture, space, energy, resonance, inflection, expression, intonation, articulation, traditions & idioms, development of ideas, interaction with other musicians, and so much more...literature, poetry, history, psychology, religion, cinema, theater, dance, visual art...we can draw inspiration from anything and everything. This unfolds over the course of our entire lives.

We are filtering all of this information simultaneously through the lens of all the music we have ever heard (our history) AND through the filter of who we are, what we hear, and how we are feeling NOW IN THIS MOMENT. Of course, we are also accounting for the energy and choices of any other musicians who are playing in that moment, along with anyone who may be listening in the audience.


It is entirely possible (and recommended, in fact) that we take our study of any music we learn this seriously. This brings depth, nuance, subtlety, coherence, and power to our improvised performances. It also brings a sense of freedom and adventure to the performance of "traditional" music of any variety, be it jazz, blues, classical, folk or anything else.


What do we sound like?
Who do we want to play with?
Where do we want to play?
Who do we want to play for?
What's it for?

It goes without saying (or does it?) that writing a blog, curating a concert series, offering lessons for musicians for the love of teaching, going to concerts & supporting other artists, taking care of our minds and bodies, and showing love and support for other people are all responsibilities that are of utmost importance on this path!


These responsibilities are a privilege, and are to be regarded as such. No one asks us to take these responsibilities on. In our culture in America, responsibility is most often translated into money, status, or value in a very different way than what we are talking about here. VALUE is in the eye of the beholder.

You can take Responsibility in Your Music Right Now by simply picking up your instrument, and playing something simple, direct, honest, and fun - bringing your full attention into communicating your love for music through your sound and inflection. Take something you think you KNOW, and play it like you've never played it before. Do this until you feel like you REALLY GOT IT.

Now put your instrument down. Close your eyes, and imagine ONLY ever playing from that space. Only LISTENING to music performed from that space. Imaging CULTIVATING A LIFE from that space. How does that feel? This spirit of inquiry - this sense of adventure?



L-R: DM, Ellery Eskelin, Mike Kuhl, Jeff Reed in Bertha's

Back in 2010, I went to the Windup Space to catch a concert with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, & bassist Michael Formanek. I had no idea what I was in for, and no clue that this concert would change my trajectory forever.

For years, I had been trying to figure out how to improvise freely with other musicians while implying, suggesting, or employing the kinds of devices that are found within music from all over the world - form, melody, harmony, rhythm, and more. I wanted freedom from restriction, but I understood intuitively that there was freedom WITHIN restrictions, as well. Oftentimes, I felt rather cold after jam sessions where folks were either rehashing standard jazz tunes or noodling around on open vamps, often with little to no dynamic contrast - I KNEW there was something more, and I knew that it wasn't simply a difference of getting BETTER by learning MORE tunes, MORE licks, or MORE novelties on my instrument (though to some extent I did go through a period of amassing as much "betterment" in these areas as I could).

I hadn't yet fallen in love with much "free jazz" at that time, but I was drawing on my love for bands like the Paul Motian trio (with Joe Lovano & Bill Frisell) and the Keith Jarrett American & European Quartets, who were able to play with absolute freedom within structures, or play into the stratosphere without losing their footing. I was learning...slowly....what I was that I wanted to DO with other musicians. I suspected this unity of freedom & structure could be reflected in the way people played without any written structures, and I was actively seeking folks who were able to bring a level of focus, clarity, attention, and direction to their free improvisations without being bound by style. People who were alive, and doing it here and now, where I could witness it first hand.

This concert with Eskelin, Alcorn, & Formanek was a revelation for me. This happened relatively late in my life, I might add...I was 25 years old. I thought I knew what I was after with respect to my sound and conception, until this trio broke it all down and put the pieces back together in a way that changed my music forever. They composed music in the moment that had form and shape and melodic contour, yet everything felt like anything might happen at any time. It was simultaneously soothing and enlivening. They opened up a whole world of expressive possibility for me, and changed what I wanted to sound like. They took RESPONSIBILITY for every detail of the music, going above and beyond, while digging deep within themselves and the music.

Ellery plays the tenor with a flexibility of tone, texture, phrasing, melody, and architecture that I had never heard before. He has been able to integrate the whole history of the tenor saxophone seamlessly - from Coleman Hawkins to Evan Parker. Everything is in there, yet he is unmistakably himself. One of a kind.

A few years later, after getting my feet under me, accumulating some experience performing in various contexts with various bands, I reached out to Ellery for some saxophone lessons.  I felt very ready to seek the advice of this powerfully expressive tenor player...

I took a handful of lessons with Ellery over a period of 5 years, which both affirmed and clarified some suspicions I had about the processes involved in practicing vs. performing. We got into the nuts and bolts of sound production on the horn. We got abstract, and broke free from (my) assumptions. We got philosophical, we got mystical. Most importantly, he helped me learn to trust myself, accept the sound that is coming out as a reflection of what is happening here and now, and take appropriate action to work WITH the horn rather than fighting it. He taught me how to ask the right questions, again and again, and how to take nothing for granted. He caught me up and hipped me to the magic of the early pre-bebop tenor players with their lush and beautiful sounds, and reassured me that what feels like a very fractured musical upbringing can bear a very personal fruit if nurtured properly.

Whatever I felt I might have missed out on by dropping out of music school and taking a different path, I gained tenfold by studying with Ellery. I learned how much can be gained in such a relationship when things are wide open, non-dogmatic. I learned about myself. He's also a wonderful person and a true friend who goes above and beyond in making other people feel seen and accepted.

Blood Moon Quintet @ An Die Musik

I was very excited to perform with Ellery twice in the last year, once at Bertha's in Baltimore playing a few standards in 2018, and once with Blood Moon Quintet as a part of my monthly concert series at An Die Musik. Blood Moon Quintet was a joint effort, assembled together with Ellery over the phone, and was a celebration of Baltimore jazz history, as expressed through two powerful sets of completely improvised music. The group also featured Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, Theljon Allen on trumpet, and Eric Kennedy on drums. There will be videos from that performance on here very soon! I hope to make more music with Ellery in the near future up in NYC where he resides and teaches.

I'll leave you with this gem from Ellery regarding freedom & responsibility for improvisers:

"I think musicians today are in a position to embrace freedom in perhaps a different way than it was conceived of in previous generations. At one time it may have been regarded as 'freedom from' certain practices that were perceived as constraints. But enough time has passed that we have the opportunity to consider freedom in terms of 'freedom to'. Freedom as in inclusion, not exclusion. There are a million ways to play the simplest phrase..."

This quote has percolated with me, along with many other brilliant lessons I've learned from Ellery over the last few years. It was clear to me that we were on a similar wavelength before I ever met him, having read his blog and listened to his music.

You can find two brilliant interviews with him HERE & HERE, and his BLOG can be found HERE. It's a great one, and was both the inspiration for my pursuing lessons with Ellery, as well as my decision to pick back up with a blog after 10 years of silence....

Here is one of my favorite recordings from Ellery - an example of a timeless yet modern approach to creativity in the music. This is a free improviser's take on an old standard "My Ideal" and one of my personal favorite recordings.

Thanks for the inspiration, Ellery!
Stay tuned for more essays on sound, phrasing, content, jazz education, classical tradition, curating our own career, and more very soon. Let's see if we can break some of these responsibilities down into some actionable concepts.

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