Tag Archives: trumpet

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.