Sunday, June 2, 2019

Spring


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...
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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. 
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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!
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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.
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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!
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**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**

APRIL
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.
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MAY
Tonglen
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.
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JUNE
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!

BONUS!

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



Responsibility

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)
 Rehearsing
 Recording
 Selling recordings
 Booking gigs
 Advertising those gigs
 Playing the damn gigs
Paying the band
Traveling
Writing/blogging
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.
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FINDING AND SUSTAINING INSPIRATION FOR OURSELVES AND OTHERS IS A PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY OF THE ARTIST!

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?)

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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.

RESPONSIBILITY, INDEED!

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.

WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERY ASPECT OF THE DELIVERY OF OUR MUSIC!

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?
WHY?

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!
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ON A LIGHTER NOTE ABOUT RESPONSIBILITY

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?

NOW YOU'RE IN IT.
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ELLERY ESKELIN

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!
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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.




What's New in 2019

Each year, as the stark chill of winter chokes out the final radiant leaves of autumn, I relish the stillness as an invitation to reflect, research, and set my intentions for the year to come. 


Regarding music, I have settled on ONE New Year’s resolution this year:

SERVE THE COMMUNITY BY MAKING BETTER MUSIC.


I am concentrating my efforts in 2019 - striking at the root of inspiration which provoked my initial pursuit of my musical path. The goal is to communicate with wholeheartedness & urgency in each musical utterance - both in performance and instruction. 

Questions arise: Who am I? Who are WE? What are we doing here? Can we cooperatively accomplish our goals? There are many more…they all eventually lead to the same place, and are best answered through the nonverbal process of performing with other folks - often, and in rapt attention. 


NEW MONTHLY CONCERT SERIES (AN DIE MUSIK IN BALTIMORE)


The wholehearted expression of music has the potential to uplift the spirit and heal our hearts. These 12 concerts are representative of a creative continuum which is designed to challenge convention & elude classification. I’ve stationed my tenor saxophone at the axis of a distinctive array of ensembles, putting full trust in improvisation as a potent unifying force across musical boundaries. The mission is to deliver music of substance - embracing the community, while affirming the exceptionally personal nature of creative process for the improvising musician.

I will unveil three concerts at a time, beginning with the winter season. 


January featured  “Hot Air & Horse Hair” - an improvised chamber music ensemble, comprised of improvisers from Baltimore, MD and Brooklyn, NY. While this ensemble had never yet performed in this configuration, there were deep musical bonds across the group which served as fertile creative soil. While each performer is a compelling instrumentalist in their own right, the strength in each of these musicians is in their varied, supple, and compelling interjections - both as soloists and accompanists.




February features “ADULT CONTENT (for hopeless romantics)” - a personalized repertoire of songs from the Great American Songbook, this is an unapologetic celebration of romance and tenderness in the Millennial Age, and a Valentine’s Day tribute to the expressive beauty of the tenor saxophone throughout its history in jazz. To evolve this tradition into the 21st century, the rhythm section must play an equal role in the expression of the music. Reaching beyond the storied “soloist with rhythm section” paradigm allows the classic saxophone/piano quartet formation to bloom into an improvised chamber ensemble of impressive dynamic capacity.


March Features “Trio Xolo” - a telepathic improvising unit, based in Baltimore & Brooklyn. This performance will follow our first recording session at Big Orange Sheep Studio, for projected release later in 2019. Zach Swanson is my longest musical collaborator, boasting a huge tone & personal language that spans the diverse landscape of improvised music. Dalius Naujo is a dynamic, creative, and virtuosic drummer, in a league of his own.

(I design all my own fliers, using “enlight” and “Canva”)




THE 21ST CENTURY  

(Documenting Our Music in the “Post Recording Industry” Era)

My whole adult life, I've been an analog man in a digital world. Now in my 30’s, however, I feel an urgency to get my music out to folks by any means necessary... The internet is over saturated with millions of videos & recordings, this is old news. Musicians are all hoping to gain attention for their work, many hoping for a “break”. At this point in my own career, I have learned to be patient and deliberate. Attention comes in its own time, and the music does not require attention from anyone other than those who are HERE, NOW (where & when the music is happening). With that stated, I enjoy watching videos of my favorite musicians, and I truly love listening to studio recordings, which would seem to affirm that both of those mediums are still relevant to the art form. So, I’ve decided to dip a toe in the pool…

I made a "Millennial" purchase, that I put into use for the first time in January for Episode 1 of Derrick Michaels Presents: “Hot Air & Horse Hair”, at An Die Musik. This camera is called the Zoom Q2n4k - it’s Zoom's newest model, and offers the video quality of a Gopro with the audio quality that Zoom is famous for. Despite having overlooked the appropriate audio gain settings (clipping a few times due to the projection of the saxophone at the mics), I am pleased with my maiden voyage with this new little tool. 

I will be pleased to share more in the way of performance videos, sessions at home, and PERHAPS some videos in an educational vein. Till then - here’s set 1 of “Hot Air & Horse Hair”:




BACKLOG

As promised, I am catching up on some backlogged recordings from last year.

 I have decided to start a Bandcamp page to share recordings of music that would otherwise not be released, but was well worth "rolling the tape" for. This month I am happy to share two of these recordings. 


Recorded by Anthony Staiti in February of 2018 in the beautiful Griswold Hall at Peabody Conservatory. This was the first day I had my new Theo Wanne Ambika 2 tenor mouthpiece, and I was very excited to resonate in this huge space, and to blend with the sounds of these “orchestral” instruments. The band is myself on tenor, John Dierker-bass clarinet, Zack Branch-cello, Derek Wiegmann-bass. The performance is entirely improvised.

Here’s a track: 


Recorded in November of 2018 at the gallery in Function Coworking Community in Baltimore as a part of a show I put together in a mini tour with bassist Zach Swanson. The tour involved a megabus trip to New York, a quartet show at the Bushwick Improvised Music Series in Brooklyn, a 7am drive down to Baltimore for a two-day-long recording session at the Peabody Recording Studio, helping the advanced recording arts students, and then this wonderful double bill (Zach and myself along with Chris Pumphrey’s “Music for Quiet Spaces”) sandwiched between.

This performance was captured by John Cook - a devoted listener of the music, who comes up to Baltimore from DC quite often to catch the creative shows in town, for this I am very grateful. John has captured several of my concerts in the last year or two, so I’ll be reviewing these, and considering sharing some more of them, in due time. Thanks again, John!

Here’s a track from that recording:


CONCLUSION

I’ll keep you all apprised as new performance and recording ventures unfold. 

One more reminder, interested students, please visit my website's TEACHING PAGE to see what lessons are about. join my mailing list, and I’ll send you a free PDF of some of the work we will do together.


STAY WARM, FRIENDS. 

Go make some noise… 

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 rhe...