Category Archives: Thoughts

Interview Excerpt: On “Definitive Versions” of Tunes and Playing Fast

Here’s another excerpt from my interview in Thomas Erdmann’s book How Jazz Trumpeters Play Music Today. (Part 1 is here. )

On “Definitive Versions” of Tunes

TE: When I interviewed Chris Botti he said that after Wynton Marsalis recorded “Cherokee” no one else should ever record that tune. I beg to differ, and your recording of “Cherokee” [from Duocracy with pianist Ben Stolorow) proves my point. You found a unique and original way to approach the difficult changes by playing a series of wonderfully connected short motives before you work yourself into serving as an accompanying voice to Ben’s solo… When approaching such defining moment standards, such as “Cherokee,” how do you recommend young trumpeters approach the music in order to make a personal statement?

IC: That’s a good question. It’s interesting Botti said that about Wynton, because if you follow that logic, then Wynton shouldn’t have played it because of what Clifford (Brown) did! But thankfully he did because his recording is pretty amazing. By the way, Wynton probably shouldn’t record it anymore either, because he already set his own high watermark!

This sounds a little cliché, but I think for “Cherokee” or “Giant Steps,” —any of those watershed tunes that are really hard and you have to practice the hell out of—that the answer is that you have to learn them so well you can forget them. I would not have tried to record “Cherokee” 15 years ago, or I might have, but it would have sounded pretty self-conscious.

I talk about this with friends of mine sometimes, where you hear a someone playing along, swinging, then you hear something that sounds like a new lick they just learned. They put the lick in the middle of the solo and it sounds totally prepared and out of context; it doesn’t fit. The solution to that is you need to get tunes like that to a point where it is in the subconscious and subsumed into your musical language. When I listen to our version of “Cherokee,” the thing I’m most happy about is how little it sounds like we’re trying to impress anybody.

For tunes like that, the flag-wavers, as one of my old teachers, the great drummer Michael Carvin, said, there are different ways to approach solos. You can start simple and build; or you can take one motive and develop it; or as he said, “You can come in doin’ it, and keep on doin’ it.” I think that’s great, if players are really at that level. For me, I didn’t want it to ever feel like it was a fast tune. Some of the reviews of that recording said we were playing that tune at a “leisurely tempo,” or something like that—but it’s not at a leisurely tempo! We did it at something close to 300 beats per minute. That was gratifying, to me, that it didn’t sound like it was fast. I think the reason for this was because we both internalized it to the point where we forgot about the tune. When you’re able to forget a tune, you can be surprised, and stumble on things, more so than if you are really conscious of the tune as you’re playing it.

On Playing Fast

TE: Talking about playing fast, on “Cherokee” you also play some beautifully constructed improvised contrapuntal lines with Ben after his solo, not to mention the ripping fast notes that are absolutely locked in the rhythmic pocket. You also play fast flawlessly on “Tom/Tom” from Contextualizin’, and rip it up on your Interview Music CD as well. How do you practice in order to be able to play as fast you do, yet still play so cleanly and rhythmically perfect?

IC: Thank you. This goes back a little to what I said about swing earlier, in that I realized, when I was learning lines back in my 20s, that you really want to practice that stuff evenly. I remember Claudio Roditi came to The New School when I was there. His chops were so fluid, clean and smooth. He was giving people a hard time when we were playing Brazilian tunes about how they were swinging too much. He said, “No, no, play straight, play even.” These were kids who had heard all of the (Stan) Getz records; to me Getz doesn’t sound very Brazilian on them. I remember after that going back to my line practicing—like everyone else I was learning ii-Vs and transcribing Wes Montgomery solos and so on—and taking Roditi’s lessons to heart; trying to practice playing lines perfectly evenly from super slow to fast. If you’re trying to learn something and you start at a slow tempo and are swinging it and not playing evenly, then by the time you get it up to a fast tempo it’ll be a jumbled mess. … I also feel like I don’t sit on fast lines for a long time. I like to use them as a color, throw that color and texture out there, let it sit there and allow people to think about it, and not just have a solo be a constant string of fast notes. If you are judicious about playing fast notes they become more effective than if you’re just burning eighth-notes all the time.

“How Jazz Trumpeters Play Music Today” Excerpt: On Practicing

A couple of years ago I was asked by author and trumpeter Thomas Erdmann to participate in an interview for his book How Jazz Trumpeters Play Music Today, along with 11 other players of varying renown including Christian Scott, Wadada Leo Smith and the late (great) Ted Curson.

We had a very interesting conversation covering a lot of ground, but since the book has been out for a while, and isn’t in a price range where most people can afford to pick up a copy (currently around $200, which I guess is the norm for academic publishing these days), I asked Dr. Erdmann for permission to post a few excerpts, which I’ll be posting in bits and pieces. Here’s the first:

On Practicing…

One can’t help but know, in listening to you, that it’s obvious you practice the trumpet; people don’t just pick up the trumpet and sound like you do without putting in the time. What does a practice session of yours look like these days?

Thank you—it has not been a straight-line journey as I’m sure any musician in their middle age will tell you. I went through years of really difficult embouchure challenges that I think were formative for me. I was late in getting serious about practicing. I played the French horn up until high school, and didn’t get serious about practicing the trumpet until I was 16 or so. But at that first burst of trumpet interest things came really easy. I had high chops even though I wasn’t doing it in a healthy way; using lots of pressure and making all of the usual mistakes. In college I was unsatisfied with the pace of my progress and felt I had to move things along faster, so I was going to fix my embouchure for good. At the time I played out of the side of my mouth and so I decided I was going to move my embouchure by playing right in the middle of my chops. That would be the secret to finding a shortcut. Instead of being a shortcut it ended up being 10 years of wandering in the wilderness where I could not count on anything from day to day. It was tough, and there were many times I was on the verge of quitting.

There were some really positive things that came out of this like discovering late Chet Baker after his chops got smashed. I learned how much music there is to be made even if your body is not at its best that day. As messed up as he got he never lost that amazing gift for melody and swing. There is a version of But Not For Me he did on The Touch Of Your Lips where he plays a trumpet solo and then scats a solo and there’s almost no difference in feel between the two of them. The trumpet and the chops have nothing to do with what he was doing musically at that time; he was “letting a song go out of his heart” if you will. To me, that was a valuable lesson. … As things started to slowly get better with the help of teachers as well as dumb luck, and as I worked my chops back to regularity—it’s easy to kick myself over that detour—but as I came back to chops normality after having learned all of these lessons about music, the trumpet and my chops, I think it took all of that mess to be at the level of self-knowledge that I am now in terms of how my chops work and how to play.

I forget who said it, but the saying goes, “There are two things you should work on, stuff you’re good at and stuff you’re not good at.” The reason is that on the stuff you’re not good at you need to develop it, but with the stuff you’re good at you also want to work on it because it will become your sound, your thing. You don’t want to stop working on things you do well, you want to build on those things.

Vibing, Part II: Vibable Offenses

michelle_stink_eyeWhile I’m in my “not here to make friends” mode (see my previous post, The Case for Vibing), I thought it would be helpful to elaborate by sharing a few examples of behaviors I (and many of my fellow musicians) consider to be deserving of a serious vibe-down. Context (open jam session vs. regular gig with guests vs. sideman gig, etc.) is important, and not all are equally vibe-worthy, but if you engage in any of these actions there’s a really good chance you’ll find yourself on the midnight train to Vibeville. Let’s begin!

  • Losing the form on a blues (bad as a soloist, worse as an accompanist)
  • Losing the form of a tune while reading the chord changes off your phone
  • Texting/sexting on the bandstand
  • Acting like a bandleader while sitting in (e.g. trying to dictate solo order, trading, or other similar micromanagement–this is worse when sitting in on someone else’s gig than on a more chaotic jam session)
  • Not knowing what key you sing a song in
  • Fumbling through the melody of a tune before the tune has started (Either you know it or you don’t. Don’t give it away. Especially don’t do this before the band has agreed on the tune)
  • Noodling behind someone else’s solo (I’m not talking about purposeful accompaniment, although you probably shouldn’t do that either unless you know the person soloing well and know they don’t mind that). Everyone can hear you, especially the soloist, and they will drop a vibe bomb on you when they’re done like you wouldn’t believe
  • Calling any of the following tunes: My Funny Valentine, Summertime, The Girl from Ipanema, My Way, Chameleon, Take Five, Freddie Freeloader (unless it’s your gig, in which case knock yourself out but be sure to get some tips)
  • Calling a tune which the band finished playing less than 30 minutes ago
  • Asking someone in the band “What tune is this?” while they’re playing and you are not (goes double for when you are playing)
  • Calling a tune with a very notey bebop head but then not playing the melody yourself  (piano players, looking at you)
  • Calling an obscure tune (not a problem in itself) but having no backup choice if the band doesn’t know it
  • Cutting off someone’s solo on someone else’s gig
  • Requesting something be played as a funk tune (unless it’s a band which regularly plays funk)
  • Calling the same one or two tunes every time you sit in on every gig (and making the same mistakes every time)
  • Playing many choruses on a tune you obviously don’t know either the changes or the form to, hoping you’ll eventually get it (which usually results in ending your final chorus in the wrong place).  As your high school band director said, practice at home!

But just for fun and in the interest of running the Vibe-o-rail in both directions, here are some poorly-executed vibing behaviors which may result in a serious counter-vibe:

  • Vibing the house band on a gig you’re being invited to sit in on (for pretty much any reason!)
  • Vibing the bandleader on a gig he/she hired you for (sometimes this is indeed necessary, but you better be prepared to never get called again)
  • Vibing someone in the band for not knowing that difficult tune (26-2, Slings and Arrows, Countdown, something by Kurt Rosenwinkel) that you really want to show off on–come on, you can show off on something everybody knows (unless your licks are all for that particular tune! Vibe alert!)
  • Vibing someone for not wanting to play in 7/4 or a weird key at a jam session (unless those are a normal expectation of said session)
  • Vibing someone who’s got a good attitude and is looking for pointers (save your vibes for the truly deserving!)
  • Vibing someone for playing the Miles version of “Well You Needn’t” instead of the Monk version, or vice-versa
  • Vibing your fellow-sufferers on an already awful gig
  • Vibing the band by introducing yourself and saying, “I usually play more modern stuff than you guys” (true story!)
  • Vibing the entire band for not being on your level (maybe that is not the right band for you to be playing with?)
  • Vibing someone for vibing you over your excessive vibing

Got more? Throw ’em in the comments!

The Case for Vibing

Today the jazz musician and blogger Camden Hughes has a post (“Why Vibing is Bad for Jazz“) arguing that “vibing”–the longstanding practice favored by jazz musicians of giving another musician the stinkeye or worse if he or she isn’t making it in one way or another–is never good.

I disagree.

First: I do agree that generally, yes, it’s not good to be an nasty person, and there is definitely a kind of defensive vibing that is unrelated to anyone’s performance and springs from a musician’s own insecurities. This kind of vibing is bad. Being respectful and having a sense of humility about your place in the musical continuum is always a good goal regardless of the situation.

Eye-2But the fact is that some judiciously applied instructional vibing can fulfill the very important purpose of teaching people that this music is challenging and demanding and deserves a level of competence. To elaborate:

Often young players, hobbyists, or even professional musicians from other genres will come into a jazz sit-in or gig situation thinking they are fairly hot stuff due to previous adoring crowds in schools or karaoke bars or their success in non-jazz settings. It is in the best interest of both these musicians and the music in general to disabuse them of this notion (if in fact they are making rookie mistakes) as soon as possible. Why? So they can either a) realize they really need to improve, and do the work necessary to get there, or b) realize they don’t have the  interest or time to improve and would be better off spending their energy elsewhere.

Because you know what’s more bad for jazz than vibing? Bad jazz. I’ve said this before, but the music is ill-served by putting out a poor example to represent the product–when people hear a bad rock band they think, “this band is lousy,” whereas when they hear a bad jazz band they think, “I don’t like jazz.”

So by reinforcing the seriousness required of this music to these players, the overall quality of the product improves and fewer fans are turned off by lousy performances. It can be unpleasant, I get it! I was definitely one of those youngsters with a too-high opinion of myself and have been on the receiving end of vibing many times, much of it well-deserved. But it also served two purposes that made me a better musician: it inspired me to get my ass in gear and get to work; and it helped me get used to the idea that this is just a thing that happens in life and not to lose sleep over it. (This is especially true of the defensive vibing I mentioned earlier–you’re going to run into that. Better to learn to get over it and on with your own work.) It’s also been my experience that a musician coming from the humble/respectful place I mentioned before who screws up will get a kinder variety of vibe than one coming from a place of arrogance.

Now, to preemptively address some objections: “What about when they smashed Ornette Coleman’s horn? Was that good for the music?” Of course not, violence is bad and no, they shouldn’t have smashed his horn. But imagine how Ornette must’ve sounded to those early bands he sat in with–what he was doing was in another world stylistically, so of course it wouldn’t have fit, so it makes sense in the context of the music of that time that he would be treated like someone who couldn’t play. So how did he respond? He found a group of players who could appreciate his vision and started a revolution.

And obviously vibing is not appropriate in all circumstances. In an educational setting, for example, the teacher could accomplish the same goal by just telling the student what he/she needs to work on. But in an age when jazz clubs fill up half their calendar with middle and high school bands, it is worth emphasizing that we as representatives of the hundred-plus year tradition of this music have (in my opinion anyway) a duty to put forth serious, well-executed music (in whatever style we happen to be playing at the moment). Half-assing it should be inexusable for the pro as well as the student.

One more thought: to the idea of “we’re all in this together,” I would say, yes we are, but that doesn’t mean we get to phone it in. It’s nice to say “Anyone can play jazz” but it needs the caveat “if you work your ass off at it.”

In other words: it’s nothing personal, man! You just need to practice! And then come back and try it again.

Don’t miss Vibing, Part II: Vibable Offenses!

Hey, This Is Nice!

DB1408-62_risingstar_tptI am under no illusions that the Down Beat Critics Poll is an absolutely objective affair where artistic merit is the only factor (how would you even do that?)—so I absolutely am not getting the idea that I am in the “top” (whatever that means) 20 non-famous (“jazz famous,” that is) trumpeters out there (since I can think of several even within a few square miles of here who regularly kick my butt all over the bandstand), but still—this is nice!

What I take it to mean is that at least a few people (somewhere between 5 and 27) who know this music very well remembered who I am, and that they enjoyed my playing, when filling out their polls—which in this day of hundreds of jazz records released every month is not something I take for granted.

However, I have to say that I’m pretty sure two very big factors contributing to my cracking this list for the first time were:

  • I released two albums in two years; and
  • I hired a very good publicist to promote them.

I know there are many outstanding trumpeters out there who either didn’t release as frequently, or weren’t able to hire someone to bug reviewers to seek them out in the deluge, and they’re at a disadvantage. The whole publicity discussion is one for another time, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that even though a good publicist can encourage a reviewer to dig through his or her overflowing inbox and give a particular album a spin, it doesn’t guarantee the reviewer will like it.  (As a few reviews I could’ve done without can demonstrate.)

That said, I’m absolutely glad the critics remembered me (even though my last record came out way back in February—practically the stone age!), and I’m especially glad to see so many deserving friends, teachers & colleagues—Evan Francis! Dayna Stephens! Maria Schneider! Reggie Workman! Satoko Fujii! Donny McCaslin! Ben Goldberg! Howard Wiley! Kirk Knuffke! Jacob Garchik! Mike McGinnis!—showing up elsewhere in the poll.  I hope we all get more gigs!

(P.S. For an interesting and very detailed breakdown on how one voter approached the ballot, read this.)

January Update: Duocracy Coming, Gigs, New to Me

Happy New Year! (You can thank me later for not saying “jazzy.”) Lots going on, so here goes:

Here Comes Duocracy!
Duocracy, my soon-to-be-released duo album with my good friend pianist Ben Stolorow, is being pressed as we speak! (You can read a lot more about the album here: Ian Carey, Ben Stolorow, and Duocracy.) Ben and I are currently gearing up for our two CD release shows:

If you’re not going to be able to make either of those, we’re also playing a private preview show in Richmond on the afternoon of January 20 (MLK Day)–email me (ian [AT] iancareyjazz.com) if you’re interested in attending.

Winter Circus
Later this month, I’m happy to be involved in a rare off-season performance with the great Circus Bellafeaturing outstanding original music by accordionist/keyboardist/guitarist/composer/”Nice Guy” Rob Reich, with the Circus Bella All-Star Band (with Rob, Greg Stephens on trombone, Ralph Carney on a potpurri of woodwinds & sundries, Michael Pinkham on drums, & me on trumpet). We’ll be doing two shows on Saturday, January 26 at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. Last chance to see us before summertime!

New to Me: Arranger Edition
You may remember I have a periodic series of posts about standout albums which, while not necessarily new to the world, are new to me. As I’m about to get to work on a new, extended composition for my Quintet+1 (funded by a generous grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music’s Musical Grant Program—you should apply too!), which will be premiered this fall, I’ve been spending a lot of time seeking out new-to-me recordings by great arrangers and composers in order to help get my creative wheels turning. Here are a few:

Continue reading January Update: Duocracy Coming, Gigs, New to Me

Blues, Authenticity, and the Hopefully Not-So-Abstract Truth, Part 1

jazzinbluesRecently someone asked a question in Jack Walrath’s excellent Facebook group along the lines of “What tune makes you sweat bullets every time someone calls it on a gig or at a session?” Many responders picked tunes like “Giant Steps,” “Countdown,” “Cherokee,” etc., in other words thorny tunes with lots of intricate changes. I didn’t have to think about my answer at all–firstly because tunes like those have gotten easier since I’ve put the work in (although the challenge then becomes how to play the tune instead of letting the tune play you–more about this here); but mainly because for at least ten years my unquestioned nemesis in improvised music has been The Slow Blues.

Yes, that’s right, a regular old slow blues–the very first tune I ever improvised on, as a matter of fact. Why is it still hounding me? First, let’s establish some context by going back in time for a little background vignette:

SCENE: Stereotypical “Jazz Education” rehearsal room, mid 1990s. Whiteboard with diminished scale pattern on it, acoustical foam on walls, etc. 3-4 young white American and European college JAZZ STUDENTS are “jamming” on a Bb blues because the teacher is late again. Their solos are a mix of unswinging bebop lines, self-conscious “out” pentatonic or chromatic patterns, and corny stereotypical blues licks. One AFRICAN-AMERICAN TENOR PLAYER sits in the corner, looking vaguely stoned (which he probably was), not playing. TEACHER, a grizzled older jazz musician, arrives, looking like he just woke up under a rock, listens for a minute or so, and stops the tune.

TEACHER: What are you guys playing?

STUDENT: Just a blues.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN TENOR PLAYER shakes his head.

TEACHER (to AfAm TENOR PLAYER): What?

AfAm TENOR PLAYER: They ain’t playin’ The Blues.

TEACHER (eyes closed meaningfully): This guy gets it.

Rest of STUDENTS go into a visible slump.

Yes, this was an actual scene from my past. (And no, I was not the hip African-American tenor player, if you hadn’t already guessed.) This guy has been successfully living in my head since that day, lying low and waiting until I start soloing on a slow blues to jump back into my consciousness at the most inopportune time: “You ain’t playin’ The Blues.”

I should mention that this guy was no great shakes as an improviser, either–he was all style and not much substance, at least as best I can remember 15 years later–but he turned into a symbol of my own inner critic. So let’s unpack what exactly is going on that turned these 12 simple bars into a source of overthinking for me.

Continue reading Blues, Authenticity, and the Hopefully Not-So-Abstract Truth, Part 1

Links: Another Thing I Do Instead of Practicing

Some of you may know that in addition to playing the trumpet, writing music, doing unnecessarily complicated illustrations for my CD, battling raccoons in my garden, and catching up on Japanese soap operas, I also sometimes waste time writing short internet humor pieces which may or may not provide minor amusement (and definitely do not provide even minor financial rewards).

Today I’ve got a new one up at McSweeney’s (everyone’s favorite way to spend 11 minutes procrastinating on the internet) called “I WILL Kick You Out of Bed for Eating Crackers“:

Listen, Kate Upton, we’ve been together for a while now, and while you are undeniably extremely attractive, and I would love to spend countless nights gazing longingly at your barely clothed figure here in our softly lit boudoir, the fact is I am going to have to go against my every instinct and kick you out of this warm, inviting bed.

Yes, because of the crackers.

You can read the rest here.

And in case you’re looking for more ways to make it to the weekend while doing as little work as possible, here are some other bits of mine they’ve previously kindly published:

New to Me: Fly, Contemporary Quartet, Ryan Kisor, Ravel Duo Sonata

It’s been a while since the last installment, so looks like it’s ime for another edition of the series where I recommend albums which have recently jumped up on my radar–some of which may be new, some of which may be not-so-new, some of which I may be the last person on Earth to hear about (are you guys hip to this “Maybe Call Me” thing?). So here are four great records which are New to Me!

Fly — Year of the Snake (2012): This actually is a new one! I was lucky enough to see these guys (Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, and Jeff Ballard, that is) a few years ago when they released their previous album, the great Sky & Country, and they’re just getting better. The tunes especially are going new places–everybody’s got multiple composing credits and a wide variety of tune types are represented, from the Mingus-y straightahead “Salt & Pepper” to the sound-painting of some of the miniatures that make up the five-part “Western Lands” set. I had a regular trumpet/bass/drums trio for a while in my 20s, and really enjoyed writing music for that format, since–assuming you don’t want to just play tunes (which can be fine, too)–it forces you to do more with less, and makes a case for the whole “restriction as inspiration” idea. (See the Ravel below.) Counterpoint becomes especially important, and Fly makes great use of it on this record–see Grenadier’s “Kingston.” These guys make me want to start writing for that kind of small chord-instrument-free band again.

Continue reading New to Me: Fly, Contemporary Quartet, Ryan Kisor, Ravel Duo Sonata

What They Taught Me: Bill Kirchner

Reading Ethan Iverson’s long, detailed interview (does he do any other kind?) with saxophonist-composer-arranger-author Bill Kirchner got me thinking about the valuable things I got out of the arranging class I took with Kirchner, which in turn got me thinking about all the myriad lessons I’ve learned from many teachers/players/friends over the years, and BOOM! A new blog feature idea was born.

So I hereby inaugurate a new semi-regular gig in which I’ll talk about some lessons I’ve learned from a variety of people–some of whom I studied with directly, some I shared the bandstand with, some I hassled for a few minutes in a club, and probably even some who died before I was born. Partly I want to do this to pay tribute to these people and give credit where it’s due, but also I think it’ll be a good way of thinking about my own development, how I got here (wherever “here” is), and maybe reminding myself of advice I may have forgotten, and which might be worth a second look.

So I’ll go with Bill first since he indirectly gave me the idea.

Lesson #1: There Is Some Very Happening Music Out There You Don’t Know About
It is shocking to me to realize, but there was a time I didn’t know who Jimmy Giuffre was. He was just one of the musicians and writers whose records later became touchstones in my development which I was introduced to in Bill’s class. I heard Denny Zeitlin, Johnny Mandel (Bill played us a version of “The Song is You” which felt like the musical equivalent of falling in love with a beautiful woman who then punches you in the brain), Bill Holman, Bill Russo, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, and many others for the first time, and I remember he really got us beyond “Wow, man” and into thinking about how they did what they did. Continue reading What They Taught Me: Bill Kirchner