• The End Of The Beginning...

    This will be my final post here at PlayJazz. Fortunately, it's not because I'm giving up jazz to move to The Falkland Islands to become a sheep farmer, instead it's because I have a brand new website which will host all my bloggy-type scribblings from now on. Check it out over at

    This blog will remain here for archive purposes, not least because I don't know how to transport all the content across without days of copying and pasting, but all new posts will feature on the new site. If you're a subscriber here and you'd like to continue to receive new posts, please sign up via the box in the sidebar of the new blog.

    As well as the blog, also contains all the details about my teaching and coaching work as well as details and sounds from my new band called White Canvas which has been in rehearsal and will be starting to play live throughout the UK in 2013. We've already got a great gig supporting Robert Mitchell and Kit Downes at the Liverpool International Jazz Festival and I'm sure it's going to be a good year.

    With a new band and a new website to deal with, you can see why things have been a little quiet here at the blog recently, but now things are up and running with the new site, you'll see a return to the steady stream of musings, encouragements, rants, comments, whimsy and postulation that all started here at PlayJazz.

    I hope you'll join me there...

  • Five key records I listened to in 2012

    As we approach the end of the year, it's traditional for bloggers to start writing articles entitled 'The Best Albums of 2012'. Personally, I've never been keen to write one of those myself for two reasons: Firstly because you tend to subconsciously give weight to albums released in the second half of the year that you've heard more recently, but perhaps more importantly, because I really don't see the calendar year as being a particularly useful way to group and evaluate albums.

    However, I came across a great idea suggested by Will Rodway, author of the 'Sure Nuff' blog who has similar reservations about these kind of articles. Will's idea was to write a post about the albums that he'd either discovered in 2012 or that had the greatest impact on him this year. I thought it was a great idea - reflections on a personal year of listening to music struck me as a much more interesting way to sign off these last 12 months. Chatting on twitter, we decided to do a joint post where we would each choose five albums that have been significant to us and post them. It doesn't matter when the albums where released, only that they had some personal significance to us in 2012.

    Narrowing it down to five wasn't easy, but here are the choices I whittled it down to after much thoughtful beard-stroking:

    Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band - Season of Changes

    This 2008 release from drummer Brian Blade's ensemble had somehow slipped under my radar, but after hearing a track on the radio, I tracked it down. My only regret is that I didn't find it sooner. This is a beautiful album, at times introspective and sweetly melancholic yet also full of joy and energy.

    One of the things I complain most about in some modern jazz is what I see as a disproportionate emphasis on the individual solo at the expense of the group sound. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band give a masterclass here in ensemble playing; nobody overplays and the band works beautifully as a unit.

    This is the album I've found myself returning to more than any other this year.

    Jerry Bergonzi - Napoli Connection

    In my own practice this year, I've been exploring new applications of pentatonic scales. I came across Jerry Bergonzi's excellent book on the subject and whilst I was aware of his name, I hadn't heard too much of his playing. Sometimes, when I'm investigating somebody new, I'll just buy a random album and see what I get. In this case I got a lot of saxophone playing for my money!

    Despite everything I said in the paragraph above, if you're going to build a reputation as a hard-blowing soloist then you'd better be good! This 1992 album is all about Bergonzi's saxophone playing and his solo and cadenza on the opening 'Love For Sale' serve to represent the high-octane virtuosity that marks this recording. Aside from the opening standard and Bruno Martino's 'Estate', the rest of the tracks are all Bergonzi originals, although each of them really serves as a vehicle for blowing.

    What attracts me to the leader's playing is his commitment to the melodic line and the way he explores the full range of the saxophone. Shreaks, squeaks, harmonics and other cliched sax 'effects' are kept to a minimum as Bergonzi weaves phrase after phrase of immaculately constructed melody. He possesses a seemingly rare ability amongst sax players to create excitement and build climaxes without simply going to the top end of his register and screaming.

    The rhythm section of Valerio Silvestro (piano), Tony Ronga (bass) and Salvatore Tranchini (drums)pulls its weight whilst showing admirable restraint and this record now serves as one of my favourite examples of the modern mainstream sound.

    Snarky Puppy - Ground Up

    Ok this isn't strictly a jazz album, but Snarky Puppy are my favourite musical discovery of 2012. This New York-based instrumental collective fuses a range of infectious grooves with a heavy dose of improvised jazz, blues and gospel sounds.

    Recorded simultaneously as a CD and DVD in the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, this album continually explores different dynamics, soundscapes, rhythms and textures and it's this variety that keeps the interest alive and never allows it to descend into the 'noodling over a groove' monotony I hear in much of what gets described as 'fusion'.

    I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with this band and see them live at a medium-sized venue in Liverpool this year. I doubt they'll be so accessible this time next year; this band is going to be huge.

    Bill Evans - Portrait in Jazz

    The jazz world lost some giants this year, and this album gets included because it was the first time I heard drummer Paul Motian's playing. When I bought this Bill Evans album, I was still relatively new to jazz and chose it largely because most of the tunes were standards I was trying to learn. As a newcomer, although I liked what I was hearing, I couldn't yet appreciate just how unique the interplay between the trio of Evans, Scott le Faro on bass and Paul Motian really was.

    In later years, and with the discovery of 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard', this album found its way into the CD player less frequently but i dug it out this year for a trip down memory lane when I heard of Motian's passing. The trio naturally gets a lot of praise for its interplay and a sound where bass and drums were promoted to a more prominent and equal role, but I think that much of that praise is given to Evans and Le Faro. Motian's contribution is perhaps less obvious and therefore more easily overlooked. Nevertheless, his playing on this album reminds me of everything I loved about his drumming - his effortless swing, enormous ears and selfless musicality. For my money he was also one of the finest brush players of any era.

    Revisiting this album in 2012, I became painfully aware that this is too fine a recording to play second fiddle to anything - even those Village Vanguard sessions. With captivatingly original arrangements and and an utterly original trio sound, Portrait in Jazz will not be so easily overlooked in my collection this time around.

    RIP Paul Motian.

    Dave Brubeck - Take Five, The Jazz Masters Series

    By making it to the ripe old age of 91, you could argue that Dave Brubeck had lived for nearly three jazz lifetimes! Nevertheless, 91 years still didn't seem enough for somebody who was as universally admired and respected as a man as much as a musician.

    This rather obscure 1982 live Montreux recording was the first Dave Brubeck album I owned and I bought it from the bargain bin of a local record shop. At the time, all I thought I knew about Dave Brubeck was that he had written Take Five (and of course that turned out to be wrong!). However, I was immediately attracted to the energy and good humour of these live recordings although to be honest, I hadn't listened to this album for years before Dave died and I decided to go back to my first experience of his music.

    This concert is an enjoyable snapshot of Brubeck as composer, entertainer and pianist and perhaps the thing that shines through the most for me is the energy, humour and enormous power in his piano playing that he was able to deliver consistently throughout an incredible career. I never got the sense that Brubeck was capable of playing half-heartedly or dialling a performance in and I think it was that willingness to pour himself into every gig and session that made him such a popular artist. So long Dave, and thanks.


    So those were the most significant records for me personally in 2012, below is Will Rodway's selection. However, if you haven't done so already, make time to read his moving and eloquent post about my final artist choice above, Dave Brubeck.

    Will Rodway's Best Albums DISCOVERED in 2012

    Benny Carter – New York Nights

    This live recording from 1995 captures alto saxophonist Benny Carter, at the grand age of 87, in killer form alongside Chris Neville on piano, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Sherman Ferguson. This is the first late-period Carter album I’ve owned and he is now on the top of my to-purchase list. Carter was one the last great swing-period horn-men. He stands alongside Webster, Hodges, and Hawkins in his ability to “maintain primitive vitality in the face of sophistication.” His execution of vibrant lines and fresh ideas over well-trodden standards is awe-inspiring. Here is Stanley Crouch on the late-period Carter…

    “In his work, one heard a plush vibrato purring around and pouncing on his notes, which were always chosen with the infinitesimal deliberation of a past master who had heard the saxophone develop from a circus tool of barnyard eccentricity to an instrument capable of expressing aristocratic inclinations as it was all the low-down dirty blue memories that arrive from the innumerable alleys and boudoirs of the world.”

    The above quotes are from Crouch’s Considering Genius, and Crouch’s love for the man and his music can also be found in his highly personal album liner notes. A perfect example of Carter drawing on these two social worlds on this live date can be found on his statement of the theme and solo on Easy Money. After an exquisite and lavish opening from Neville, Carter’s alto enters brimming with note bending and caricature effects usually banished to the pre-bop era. Yet Carter delivers these horn add-ons with such panache, such exact precision, that the man’s perfect pitch is wholly evident. Chris Neville’s solo is beautiful as well, alternating between 8th note runs, to rhapsodic chordal statements, and ending with a broken chord, shimmering coda. Carter is quoted as calling Chris Neville an “exceptional pianist,” some praise from a man of Carter’s historical stature.

    Joe Henderson – In Japan

    Another live record, this time recorded in 1971. This will be the third time I’ve mentioned this album on Sure ‘Nuff this year, so it’s a worthy addition to the list. This is important Henderson as it captures the man whilst on an international tour during a difficult economic period for great jazzmen (the 70’s) playing with noticeably harder-grit.

    His introductory cadenza to ‘Round Midnight is peppered with his stereotypical harsh diversions – as is his statement of the theme when the rest of the local outfit enter – yet these tenor-glottal utterances, far from masking his sincere melancholic yearning, magnify Henderson’s intended expression. Henderson’s trademark tune Blue Bossa is another great track on the album, due in part to Hideo Ichikawa’s solo on Fender Rhodes. Jazz historian Bill Kirchner is quoted on the back of the album as having said “In Japan is one of the handful of records from the late Sixties and early Seventies to be studied like a textbook by the most advanced young jazz musicians. It’s that kind of record.” Well, I’m currently transcribing Ichikawa’s Blue Bossa solo, so who am I to disagree?

    Dexter Gordon – Jumpin’ Blues

    Another horn led ensemble from the early 70’s? Afraid so. 2012 will go down as the year I truly fell in love with Dexter Gordon’s playing, and it’s thanks to a plethora of often-maligned prestige dates. It was a close call between Jumpin’ Blues and The Panther! – recorded a month earlier – but the riotous bluesy vibe of Wynton Kelly helped push this record through. Take Kelly’s vamping under Dex on Rhythm-A-Ning for example. Whilst Dex is blowing hard, swirling beautiful bop motifs into formidable improvised statements, Kelly drives the rhythm along in angular motion to the steady walking bass of Sam Brooks and the riding high beat of drummer Roy Brooks. What I love about Kelly’s playing on this tune is his ability to simultaneously emulate the accompanying posturing of Monk yet not relinquish the duty of his own ears and natural musical responses – his dynamic chord responses to Dex’s solo throughout is evident of this. Kelly then gives a master-class in restraint and eloquent blues phrasing in his solo – once he’s said all he has to say, that’s it, done, leaving the bass walking. It’s also of interest to note this was one of Kelly’s last recordings before he passed away the following spring.

    In the Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, Jumpin’ Blues is described as a reminder “to the jazz audience (in the U.S.A.) that the old lion was still out there rather than (a) meaningful statement.” However the track listing goes against this non-“meaningful” point, as there is a nostalgic and sentimental theme throughout – many of the tunes were composed by past contemporaries such as Charlie Parker’s Jumpin’ Blues, Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning, Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now and the pop hit of it’s day For Sentimental Reasons. This self-reflective set-list equates to a slight change in style to Dex’s playing compared to his Blue Note period, “a willingness to play more quietly, using fewer notes, a greater dynamic range and willingness to dwell on effective phrases.” This is a great, transitional record in the career of Dexter Gordon.

    Lee Konitz – Spirits

    I’d never truly listened to the piano playing of Sal Mosca prior to obtaining this record. Like Konitz, Mosca was a Lennie Tristano disciple, and one can assume the dense, sometimes aggressive approach to accompanying Mosca portrayals stems from his tutorage under Tristano. This is by no means a negative statement, there is great interest and individuality in Mosca’s playing , and his style is a welcome antithesis to the overly indulged rhapsodic approach often displayed by too many of Bill Evan’s disciples. Yet, as a result of the relentless driving nature in Mosca’s playing one feels Konitz in response plays deliberately anti-lyrical, as though to frequently surprise himself and the listener.

    Dedicated to their former master, Mosca and Konitz duet on 5 of the 9 pieces, whilst for the other 4 they are augmented with the wonderful Ron Carter on bass and the fantastically named Mousey Alexander on drums. As well as featuring a selection of Tristano’s convoluted heads (Baby, Dreams, Hugo’s Head etc) the ensemble also perform Warne Marsh’s Background Music and a couple of Konitz originals for good measure. My favorite track on the record is Lennie-Bird featuring all 4 players. Alexander is an incredibly energetic player, and alongside Carter they are able to create some real swing, enticing Konitz to be a tad more lyrical compared to the duet pieces. It’s an interesting, cobbled-together record that keeps pulling me back for more.

    Tommy Flanagan – Thelonica

    Recorded just 8 months after Thelonious Monks death, Flanagan manages to heighten the quintessential essence of his personal style whilst capturing the introspective spirit of Monk – much like Wynton Kelly’s solo on Rhythm-A-Ning from Dexter Gordon’s Jumpin’ Blues.

    Accompanied by the solid bass work of George Mraz with Art Taylor on drums, Flanagan’s solo on Off Minor exemplifies why I love Flanagan’s playing; killer swing, gorgeous motific bop phrases with a clean execution of ideas. Whatever he plays Flanagan does it with such care, delicacy and steadiness that I just want to sit down and transcribe it, then unashamedly claim it as my own.

    In truth there are some rough edges to Flanagan’s improvisations, particularly once his solos have reached their zenith and his ideas start to lag. Yet these moments are typically balanced by his lingering intelligent phrasing. This is one of THE great Monk Tribute albums, with a focus on Monks lesser know tunes. Flanagan’s interpretation of Reflections is bewitching due to his touch and finely balanced (between the lush and the dissonant) chord voicings. Mraz’s counterpoint playing is also a delight on this track whilst Taylor’s delicate snare work keeps things moving nicely. A firm favorite in the Flanagan catalogue.


    So there you go folks, this post has been my way of signing off 2012 at PlayJazz. I have to admit, I haven't been here as much as I would like this year, but it's because I've been working on some other exciting things which I look forward to sharing with you in the New Year.

    Best wishes to you all for 2013


  • Do you think of your Music as a product?

    Do you think of your music as a product? If you want to be paid for your music then you probably should.

    Here's something that musicians don't always get. In financial terms music, like any product, is worthless unless somebody wants to buy it. Although many of us would like to think of music as something outside the realm of dirty capitalism, the reality is that selling music or a musical performance is subject the same rules of supply and demand that govern all other financial transactions.

    I'm no economist so I'm not going to attempt to into a detailed economic discussion here, but the basic principles for musicians to remember about supply and demand are:

    • If demand for a product is high and it is in short supply, the price will be high.
    • If there is demand but supply is plentiful, the price will be lower.
    • If there is no demand at all then supply and price is irrelevant, because nobody wants that product.

    In a nutshell, the higher the demand and shorter the supply, the higher the price can be. This is why ticket touts can resell tickets for popular gigs and sporting events for far more than the original price. When the stadium was empty, demand may have been high but the supply was plentiful. As the seats started to sell out, the supply became dramatically reduced. When an event is sold out, if there is still high demand for the tickets the tout can command a much higher price.

    This explains why local musicians playing standards in scratch bands earn less per gig than established artists like Herbie Hancock or Pat Metheny. It also explains why those guys earn less per gig than Bruce Springsteen or U2.

    Your average jazz scratch band sounds more or less like any other average jazz scratch band and you can hear that kind of music played all over the place regularly. As a result, supply is plentiful and demand is pretty low - therefore the pay for these gigs sucks. Nobody is going to pay £50 for a ticket to come and listen to people they've never heard of jamming on Autumn Leaves.

    By contrast Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny are two of the most popular artists in the jazz world. They both have unique styles and sounds and unique voices on their instruments. They have built reputations as special players and people want to listen to them.

    As a result, the demand for their performances is much higher than for a scratch band of local players. Also, supply is limited because they can only be in one place at one time - and it could be years before they return to your country or city to do another gig. These factors mean that ticket prices can be pretty high.

    Despite the fact that messrs Metheny and Hancock are at the top of the jazz tree, jazz is still a niche market in the music industry. The demand for rock artists like U2 and Bruce Springsteen is much greater, but the supply is just as limited. This means that those guys can charge even more per gig than the top jazz players.

    However, the artists above haven't always been able to charge top dollar for their performances. At one point they were unknowns and there was no demand for their music at all. At one point, they were as anonymous as most of us! The incomes of these musicians will have increased exponentially with their popularity. As demand for their music increased, so did their incomes.

    As a musician, it's imperative to realise that you can't charge for something that there's no demand for. As a result it's pointless expecting to command top dollar when nobody knows who you are and there's nothing unique about what you do. Essentially, you need to create demand first, then you can charge for it.

    So how much do you charge? Well, the more unique your music/performance (product) is and the fewer places people can get something similiar, the more you can charge. Here are the rules:

    • Generic product and no demand - no work at all
    • Unique product and no demand - no work at all
    • Generic prodcut and in demand - low paid work
    • Unique product and in demand - Kerching!

    So, the easiest path to making money from music is to play something there's already a demand for. This is good because you don't have to be unique, just competent. The more competent you are (or the better your presentation and advertising), the more you can charge because it positions you as slightly unique. This is the world of covers bands.

    In my area, if you wanted to listen to a 4-piece rock band playing 60s and 70s music in jeans and T-shirts, then you can find loads of them in pubs on a Friday or Saturday night. They are earning money because there's some demand, but it's not much money because there are loads of other bands doing what they do.

    On the other hand, if you were organising a high-class wedding and you wanted to book a super-tight, professionally turned out covers band with backing vocals and a live horn section, you don't have as many bands to choose from. There is still quite a lot of choice, but the reduced supply means that these bands can charge more for their services than the 4-piece pub band.

    The most lucrative path of all is to have a unique product and create a demand for it. This is the pot of gold at the end of the musical rainbow. People will pay far more to see you because they can't get what you do anywhere else or from anybody else. Of course, this is easier said than done - but that's why the rewards are bigger if you pull it off.

    The final thing to remember is that you don't get to charge premium prices until you have both developed the unique product AND created the demand. It doesn't matter how good your music is if nobody wants to hear it. This is why some musicians are now giving their music away, or playing for free. They are trying to create a demand for their product and hoping that this will result in them being able to make money in the future.

    In some cities it has actually got to the point where there are so many musicians and so few venues that it becomes impossible to get paid for playing. In some cases, the venues will even start charging musicians to play!

    This is because the willingness of musicians to play for nothing to try and create some demand has now made the stage at that venue a saleable product. There is high demand for the product and the supply is low (i.e. loads of bands, not many venues).

    Some people think that musicians deserve to be paid for music because of the time and effort required to learn to play and the fact that music in general is of benefit to the human race. Maybe this is true from a philosophical or altruistic point of view, but in most places, unless there is a demand for your specific kind of music making, then you're not going to be financially rewarded.

    There are many factors that musicians must consider in producing and attempting to sell music, but we ignore the basic rules of supply and demand at our peril. The sooner we can lose the belief that learning to play automatically means we should now be entitled to be paid well, the sooner we can start work on producing something we can charge for.

    It may sad, but it's true: When it comes to making money from music, it doesn't matter how good we are, only how high the demand for our product is.

  • Five tips for jam sessions

    Ah, the jam session. The testing ground of every aspiring jazz musician and the first step in getting out of the practice room and onto the bandstand.

    Whilst jam sessions can be great fun and a brilliant way to make your mark on the local scene, they can also be a cauldron of intimidation - and performing badly at a jam can knock your confidence for six. Here are the PlayJazz top five tips for getting the most out your first jazz jam.

    1. Know what you want to play

    If you're not an experienced player, not deciding what you want to play beforehand is a recipe for disaster. Just because you see great players getting up there and performing the 'I don't know, what do you want to play' routine like the vultures in The Jungle Book, it doesn't mean you have to do the same.

    If you know a million tunes and can blow like Sonny Rollins then fine, but if you're starting out and you only know a handful of tunes you should pick a few to play before you leave the house. If you don't, chances are you'll spend the whole time before you're called to the stage panicking and trying to rehearse tunes in your head. You won't listen to any of the other players, you won't feel comfortable getting up there when it's your turn and, most importantly, you won't be enjoying yourself.

    It's wise to have at least a couple of tunes to choose from or you'll be devastated when you arrive determined to play Autumn Leaves and it gets called before your turn comes. If you don't know many tunes, make sure you can play blues in the keys of F and Bb - a standard will only get played once but there can be several blues played over the course of an evening

    2. Be honest about your experience

    If it's your first time at a session and you're nervous, be honest and tell the person running the session and they're more likely to help you out. Everyone wants to appear cool and hip and look like they've done this a million times before, but this isn't usually a good idea for jam session virgins.

    By and large, jazz musicians are a decent bunch everybody has been where you are now. If you explain you're starting out then the person in charge of the session is much more likely to let you call tunes and put you on the stand in an situation you can handle. Jam sessions thrive on people sitting in. If the leader acts like a jerk and treats players like dirt they won't come back to his session and he'll lose the gig. Even if he doesn't have an altruistic bone in his body, it's in his interest to make sure you have a good time and want to come again.

    However, if you carry on like you're an old hand then you're liable to find yourself in situations you can't handle and making a mess of tunes you don't know. Which reminds me...

    3. Don't get sucked into busking things you don't know

    This can happen so easily if you're not careful. Just because somebody asks you to play on a tune, it doesn't mean you have to get up there. If the leader won't let you play a tune you know and offers to let you play on something you don't know, it's OK to say 'thanks, but no thanks'. Trust me, you're better off going home without playing at all than making a mess of a tune you can't handle and being shown up by people who know it backwards. You'll go away frustrated and depressed and you'll be reluctant to get back up there next time.

    If you don't know a tune, then just say so and sit down. Nobody will mind and you live to fight another day. It can be a good idea to make a note of tunes that get played regularly and work on them at home so you can be more flexible in future. Most towns and cities have a 'pool' of standards that get played regularly and these will differ from place to place. Asking more experienced musicians about tunes that crop up often at local sessions can also be a great way to start a conversation and make some contacts.

    Another maxim is to quit while you're ahead. It's easier to pass on a tune before you get on stage, but it's harder when you're up there. If you get to play the tune you wanted and it goes well, you may be asked to stay up and play on another tune. In this situation, it's not hard to get carried away or feel obliged, but if you then stink the place up on a tune you've never played before, you'll undo all of your good work and will come off stage feeling like the worst player in the world.

    If somebody asks you to stay up and calls a tune you don't know, it's fine to say 'I don't know that one, what about [INSERT NAME OF TUNE YOU KNOW] instead? Often they'll be happy to play that tune. If they insist on sticking with something you don't know, just say 'no problem, I'll sit this one out'. If you're asked to stay up and the others musicians start the 'what shall we play next' dance, make sure you get in early with a suggestion and you may not have to say 'I don't know that one' at all!

    4. Have sheet music if you want to play something unusual

    If you're not going to play a familiar standard or are a singer who wants to do a tune in an unusual key, then it's polite to provide music for the rhythm section. Sure, there are jazz musicians who can play thousands of tunes in any key you like at the drop of a hat, but not all of them can and they won't thank you for putting them on the spot. Making somebody in the house band feel foolish is not a good idea.

    For singers particularly, please note that the musicians would like a nice legible lead sheet. This consists of a notated melody line with chord symbols above the stave. Presenting the bass player and pianist or guitarist with an eight page fully notated, self-contained piano arrangement of a 32 bar tune will not win you any friends. This is also true of 'easy play' arrangements with most of the chords missing or photocopies with text so small you'd need a magnifying glass to read it.

    If you're not sure if your music is suitable then approach one of the rhythm section during a break and ask them. You'll get one of three replies:

    1. Yes that's fine.
    2. It's OK, we know that tune.
    3. No sorry, we can't play off that.

    If it's 1. or 2. then great, if it's 3. get it sorted and come back next week.

    Finally if you're a singer wanting to sing a familiar tune that you are sure the band will know, make sure you at least know what key you do it in. Getting on stage, singing the first line at the band and expecting them to figure it out is pretty bad form. Again, even if they're good enough to handle it, it doesn't make you look good.

    If it seems like I'm picking on singers here, it's because they generally give the house band at a jam session the most headaches and are complained about more than anybody else. The plus side of this is that if you can avoid the common mistakes, you've already set yourself apart from the majority before you sing a note.

    5. Don't take 100 solo choruses

    As a newcomer to a jazz jam, less is more. If you've called the tune or are sitting in with a house rhythm section then you're likely to be expected to take the first solo. I don't care if you think you're the reincarnation of Coltrane, taking more than two choruses is bad form. If they like what you do, you'll be asked to stay up or come back up later in the night so there's no need to show off everything you can do.

    The exceptions to the two chorus rule are blues numbers or short tunes like St. Thomas. Here a few more choruses are permissible, but just remember, less is more! Even if the crowd and/or the other musicians seem to be loving what you do, it's important to remember that you don't know what time constraints the session leader is working under or how many guests he has to get through during the set. If you intend to go back to a jam session in the future then the golden rule is 'Don't annoy the person in charge of the session'.


    Hopefully the tips above will give you a better idea of how to approach your first few sessions, but even if you forget all of that, if you can remember to be respectful and friendly then you won't go far wrong.

    Until next time...

  • Four reasons why you don't enjoy making music as much as you used to

    An infant hits a drum or bangs the keys on a piano. His eyes open wide in astonishment at the sound. He does the same thing again. The sound is repeated. He can barely believe his ears. All of a sudden, he realises that he is the one responsible for making it happen and he feels a rush of excitement, an excitement born of the knowledge that he is capable of affecting his environment by creating sound.

    For musicians, that heady thrill of 'I'm responsible for making this noise' never really goes away. We never get bored of hitting the drum, plucking the string, striking the keys or blowing the horn. We can all remember a time when the playing of music brought us joy, the same pure and unadulterated joy the infant experiences realising he can produce sound at will.

    And yet as the years go by and we strive to improve our craft, so many of us find the fundamental pleasure of making music gets pushed to one side as other factors creep into our relationship with sound. It would surprise non-musicians to know that many musicians don't particularly enjoy their performances. Once it was all about the emerging musician and his music; now a host of other considerations have muscled their way into the picture and stand between the sound and the person producing it.

    Here are a few reasons why music making may no long be the source of pure joy and excitement that it once was:

    You're playing to impress people

    The audience, your band mates, other musicians in the room, the jazz critics, hardcore jazz fans, the dead legends you compare yourself to every time you hear a record, the list goes on. Once upon a time you played only for yourself and the love of playing. Now when you play you chase applause in your solos, you want everyone to be impressed and admire your playing and you crave either the respect or adoration of everyone at the gig. Playing for your own pleasure is farthest thing on your mind.

    You don't have the courage of your convictions

    Everybody agrees that finding your own voice is crucial. You know this; you talk about it all the time. However, the reality is that you’re a stylistic dilettante. You abandon your preferred way of playing if you are simply exposed to something else. For a month you're working on developing a more authentic bebop sound until you hear a Ruben Gonzales record. Now you feel obliged to try and get a more 'authentic' latin sound going. Two weeks later you listen to Coleman Hawkins and realise actually you need to get back to the basics of swinging a line.

    You can't truly focus on the one thing that would give you 'your sound' because you don't really believe in your ability to make it work.

    On the gig, this feeling of being pulled in all directions translates into you being unable to play your authentic musical self and trying to play like everybody else. Your next solo will be dictated by the last solo played by another musician. You feel obliged to match fire with fire if they play fast or dissonant or 'modern'. You can't seem to settle into your own style and you don't even realise what you're doing until it's too late. You leave the gig feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with your own ability.

    You're not playing with the other musicians

    You would be horrified if you knew that when you're making music, despite your best intentions, it always ends up being all about you. You live and play in your own head, obsessing over your sound, your solo, your performance. You are listening to and aware of the other musicians only on a superficial level; you pay them the minimum attention that will keep you in time and in tune. The result is that you only have the vaguest concept of the overall band sound and you are playing 'along with' the band rather than playing with them. Your bandmates are no more and no less than a live playalong recording.

    The deepest joy in making music can be found in collaboration. The potential for dialogue, for shared experience and expression, for working together to achieve a common musical goal can be the best feeling in the world. Yet go to most jazz gigs and watch the musicians. Much of the time, they're playing in their own little bubble; there is no eye contact, there is no empathy, they express no joy in the musical symbiosis and mutuality.

    When it's all about you, you will always be able to find fault and focus on the negatives. It's a never ending and unachievable quest for perfection and a sure path to frustration and feelings of inadequacy.

    You define yourself through your music

    Now it may be all about you, but it's not all about the music is it? The problem musicians face is that the making of music is first an intensely personal and emotionally naked experience. When you allow other people to hear you play, you are at risk of being judged and criticised. You feel vulnerable and insecure, and it is these feelings that are responsible for all the issues we've covered so far.

    It's so easy to do, but allowing your self-worth to become wrapped up in your music-making is a guaranteed recipe for misery. You are not your music. Your value as a person is not dependent on how well you play. Those who love you do not think less of you if you do not play well. Your worth as a human being is not, and never will be dependant on your musical prowess. Your identity is not your music. Your personality is not your music. Your life is not your music. You are not your music.

    Music is just something you do, not something you are.

    Until next time...

  • Introducing the JazzFromScratch Project

    Admittedly it's been pretty quiet here on Playjazz recently, but I'm pleased to tell you that it's not because I've given up on jazz and joined a Britney Spears tribute band, but because I've been working up an idea for a new project which I'm excited to let you know about today.

    The JazzFromScratch Project is going to be a unqiue online document showcasing the evolution of a jazz band and its music from the very beginning.

    As many of you know, I have long been an advocate of jazz musicians branching out from the safe but uninspiring haven of the pick-up-band and starting write and playing music that really inspires them. In fact, a while back, I wrote what is still one of my favourite posts on why I think it's so important, and the JazzFromScratch Project is my attempt to do just that.

    I spent most of last year building up my private teaching practice and I'm currently fortunate enough to have a full teaching schedule. Now it's time to turn my attention back to playing.

    I also did a little bit of composing for my own amusement last year, which I haven't done for ages, and it inspired me to want to put a band together and start working on some original material.

    Putting a band together can be a tricky process and a lot of work has to be put in before the band is ready to play in public. Most of the time this work is done behind closed doors and nobody gets to see or hear anything until the band is ready to gig.

    I mentioned my intention to form a band to some of my students and the questions they asked me made me realise that people might be interested in the whole process of how a band develops - as well as the finished product.

    This is where JazzFromScratch comes in. At the moment, all I have is a domain name, some free wordpress software that I don't really know how to use, a couple of tunes and the desire to play them with other musicians. Everything that happens from this point will be recorded on the JazzFromScratch website so you can follow the evolution of the band and its music.

    I'll be posting lead sheets, recordings of tunes, videos of rehearsals, articles on how I'm trying to promote the music and get gigs, fragments of developing compositions and pretty much everything that happens as I try and get the project off the ground.

    What's more, I'd really like you to become part of the process too. I don't want you merely to watch what happens, but I'd love for you to get involved and help shape the band and its sound too!

    Give us your feedback on the music, pick your favourite arrangement of a tune, come up with a name for the band, suggest some covers that would complement the original material, give us suggestions on where to play or the best sites to put our recordings on, help us pick the artwork for a recording, a design for the website or the tunes to play at the next gig. Whether you're a musician or not, you can get involved and help dictate the direction of the band and its music.

    I'm really excited about this project and I don't think I've come across anything quite like it. If you're interested in the idea, then head over to and join in the journey from the very start.

    I hope I'll see you there...

  • Why jazz musicians make terrible shopkeepers

    A man walks into a jazz furniture shop and says to the owner

    "Hello, I'm interested in buying a table. I'm having a party in few weeks and I want to lay out a big buffet but I don't have a suitable table. Do you sell tables?".

    "Yes Sir we do." says the owner, "We sell all kinds of tables. Exactly what kind of table did you have in mind?"

    "Hmm. I'm not exactly sure." says the man. "What do you have in stock?".

    "Ah, well I don't actually have any in at the moment. We usually just make them however the customer wants them you see. I mean we make all different kinds of tables and it just depends what you want really."

    "Oh I see." Says the man, not seeing at all. "Well, do you have any pictures of the kinds of tables you normally sell?".

    ", not at the moment. I might have a picture of one somewhere that we did a few years ago, although obviously we wouldn't make exactly the same thing again."

    "Right." The man is a bit confused now. "So, what do I do now then?"

    "Well, the best thing" says the owner obligingly. "Is for you to have a think and decide what size and shape of table you want, what kind of wood you'd like, what colour and finish you're looking for and if there's any decorative details you'd like. Then just give us a call and we'll make you something along those lines."

    "Ok..." says the man, "So how much would one of your tables cost me then?"

    "Oh that all depends what you want really. I mean if you just want a little coffee table, that's going to be cheaper than a dining table as that will probably take several men to do it. It also depends on how long you want us to spend working on it. The longer you want us to work on it the more it'll cost."

    "Well... thanks for that. I have to admit I was expecting to be able to look at some tables and just choose one from what you already have."

    "Ah" says the owner "you want the rock'n'pop furniture store down the road for that. There's a big showroom with hundreds of tables and you can just walk in and pick one off the showroom floor. Mind you, their tables aren't as good as ours. In fact, some of the staff can hardly use a hammer. And don't get me started on the quality of the materials..."

    "Erm ok, so I'll have a think about this table then and give you a ring. Do you have a card?"

    "Ah...I did have some somewhere...I think I just gave the last one out before. Tell you what I'll write the shop number down. Now, if only I had some paper...oh hang on there's a bus ticket in my pocket.




    ...You haven't got a pen have you?"


    Twenty minutes later a local business owner enters the jazz furniture shop:

    "Hello, I'd like you to make a sixteen seater, solid mahogany, gold plated table table with sixteen matching chairs for my luxury hotel and restaurant down the road. I'd like you to spend six weeks on it and I'll pay you £7.50. Is that ok?"

    "Great" says the owner "What day do you want it delivered?"

  • PlayJazz - A Life of its Own.

    So after taking a hiatus from the blogosphere for a while, I am amazed to discover that the blog has been trundling along under it's own steam without my hand anywhere near the tiller.

    For some reason, December was a new record month for visitors and page views and I have a whole host of new subscribers - despite not writing a single post all month!

    Yes, it seems that I am not as important to my own blog as I think I am. In fact, PlayJazz seems to be carrying on just fine without me! Unfortunately I don't think I'm ready to accept the fact that things won't actually fall to bits if I'm not here so, as regular readers will notice, I've given the old place a bit of a dust and a lick of paint and decided it's time to pick up the proverbial pen and get back in the equally proverbial saddle.

    But before I start the usual musical postulating and prevaricating, ranting and relating, it would be remiss of me to not to wish all my readers a very happy, successful and swingin' 2012.

    Whether you're an old friend or one of the new visitors and subscribers who have popped in during my absence, thanks for supporting the blog and I look forward to our conversations in the year ahead.

    Right, I'm off to write a post. See you in a bit...

  • Can you handle the truth?

    music1The economy is on it's knees, the media is telling us nobody's got any money and gigs have been much harder to come by in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, there are still gigs happening, people are still playing and other people are coming to listen to them.

    Music will always survive even the toughest times because there is something fundamental in music that is intrinsically bound up with our human existence. Music seems to have played a significant role in every human society going back thousands of years. As long as there are people on this planet, there will be music.

    And yet the role that music plays has altered over the years. Recently it occurred to me that the main function of music for the majority of human history was to bring people together. Music provided a shared cultural experience to emphasise what people in a society had in common; it helped to give people a sense of belonging and helped them understand who and what they were.

    From tribal drumming around the fire, to holy mass in the baroque era, music was a common experience for those who heard and made it. During the service the archbishop hears the same music as the altar boy; the chief of the tribe hears the same music as the fledgling warrior.

    IrrascibleHipsterAnd yet increasingly in the modern world we are using music to divide us, as a tool to express our individuality and emphasise what makes us different from everyone else. The jazz fan with a sneering contempt for the banality of pop music; the metal-head with the scary tatoos and piercings scowling at the world from the back of the bus; the raver relishing in partying all night when the rest of the city is in bed; the hipster who will only listen to bands nobody has ever heard of; the trend in the last century or so has increasingly been to use music to profess our individuality.

    And yet interestingly, the same desire for belonging and sharing runs through all of these associations. That's why so many musical genres have a kind of unofficial dress code which devotees will strictly adhere to. With people who (literally) wear their musical hearts on their sleeves in this manner, it's easy to tell the kind of music they are into. On one hand they are trying to say to the majority 'I am not like you', whilst simultaneously saying to other fans of the music 'you and I are the same'.

    So what does all this tell us about today's society and the role of music in it? Maybe an attachment to a niche music is the perfect expression of a paradox, the desire to be different from the mainstream coupled with an intense desire to belong, to be part of a group, to identify with, and be identified by others.

    It's possible that the only reason that music has splintered into so many niches and sub-cultures is the unprecedented access to music brought about in the twentieth century. It was always common for artists from all disciplines to form 'schools' of thought and practice in the arts such as the Parisian writer culture of Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein and Hemingway or the surrealist art of Ernst, Magritte and Dali etc. However, these movements were traditionally specific to one city or location and their exposure to the rest of the world was slow and gradual.

    The inter-connectedness of the modern world means that a new artistic movement can spring up and fly round the world in the blink of an eye, and this is spawning an ever increasing diversity in forms and styles in art. And yet despite all of the genres and sub-cultures and lifestyles to pick from, there are huge numbers of people who feel increasingly disconnected from the society in which they live.

    festivalIt is interesting in these troubled times that whilst grassroots performers may be struggling, the festival and stadium concert scene is booming. These huge events are essentially about large groups of people coming together to share an experience.

    Now that we have the potential to connect with more people than ever before, it still turns out that, although we may not want to admit it, the people we who we most want to connect with are the people immediately around us. Pen pals were never a substitute for real-life friends and belonging to a sub-culture on the internet will never take the place of belonging in the real world.

    This is why we need great music and musicians more than ever; because truly great art transcends the ephemeral, superficial, fickle nature of fashion and sociological considerations and speaks to the very heart of what it means to be a human being. Whilst music may continue to be used, like clothing, as an accessory to define sub-cultures and groups and illustrate the differences between us, the greatest music serves to show us that we are all the same.

    punksIn it's purest sense, music isn't about genre or style, it's a considered reflection or commentary on the human experience. Similarly Jazz isn't about swing or syncopation or style; when you improvise it's about what it means to be you, alive at this very moment, the product of your environment and all your experiences; it's telling the story of today, and all your days so far and it's a story that's only true for today. Tomorrow the tale will have changed a little, you'll be another day older and have experienced another 24 hours of your life. In ten years, you may be telling a completely different story that will be as true for that day as today's story is true of now.

    When musicians are brave enough to stand up and tell this kind of truth, other people recognise and respond to that honesty, because in it they see themselves and their own existence reflected and shared. Though all our stories are different, they contain enough similarities to allow us to recognise the truth in somebody else's story. When enough artists come together and agree on the common elements of their individual stories, stylistic conventions and genres are born.

    These conventions are perpetuated beyond their initial truths by artisans who aren't brave enough to tell their own stories and content themselves with telling somebody else's. There's nothing wrong with this, there are plenty of cultural uses for music that don't require the deep emotional connection forged between the truth-teller and those who recognise that truth.

    SPGothsHowever, there are also musicians out there who are brave enough to want to tell their stories but who get dragged down by fear or insecurity. A secret artists don't often tell you is that they are as desperate to connect with the person standing next to them as anyone else, and the more they risk telling their own truth, the more devastating the possibility of a rejection of that truth would be.

    This is why it's so easy to get caught up in style, technique and other idiomatic considerations when playing jazz - because when we play somebody else's style, we're telling somebody else's story. If that story is rejected, it's not us that is being rejected, but the person we were imitating.

    And yet people can tell when you're not being honest, they can tell when you're not telling the truth in your music, and even if they enjoy the story you're telling, they can only ever connect with the story, not the storyteller. The very act of playing music is born of the desire to express something at the heart of ourselves and in doing so, to connect with and find our place in the world around us.

    When we allow that desire to be a secondary consideration to the mechanics of the craft then chances are we'll find ourselves eternally frustrated and disconnected - desperately wanting to tell our story but terrified of using our own voice and our own words. We scramble down the rabbit hole of idiom in search of more technique, more options, more stories from other people and going deeper and deeper into the darkness. And yet if we truly have the desire for the kind of artistic expression and connection with our audience, we are looking in the wrong place.

    Like all great truths, this one is profoundly simple: If you want to be heard, say something you know in your own voice.

  • Why musicians' expectations are unreasonable

    "God, it's pathetic. I really should be able to do this by now!"

    A student of mine said this the other day as he grappled to sight-read a chord sequence from a lead-sheet and kept mixing up his major-seventh and dominant-seventh chords. I get this kind of comment from my adult students a lot. Whereas kids are open to all things new and are capable of simpy enjoying the ride, most adults seem to study in a state of embarassed frustration.

    The majority of my students are adults and without exception, they all struggle with their own feelings of inadequacy and the perception that they should be better than they are.

    I have the utmost respect for my adult students, because learning anything new as an adult involves us taking a huge leap outside of our comfort zones. Our lives seem increasingly to consist of a narrowing of focus and a dash towards specialisation.

    Think about it. As kids we do everything: we sing, dance, paint, act, read, write, play sport and study arts, sciences, humanities etc. - in short, a bit of everything. Then, as we become older we narrow those interests, discarding things that we think we're not so good at and focusing on the rest.

    In the education system in this country, schoolchildren select 'options' around the age of 14, discarding the subjects they think they don't like or are worst at. Then at 16 they pick 3-6 subjects to study at a higher level before choosing just one or two to study at university.

    Outside of the classroom too, most people rely increasingly on a smaller number of skills - especially once they get into the world of work. They get experience in certain roles or certain fields and as time goes on, they find themselves in fewer and fewer situations where we have ablsolutely no expertise or even relevant skills to help us.

    In short, the older we get, the less likely it is that we're going to be faced with situations where we're completely and utterly out of our comfort zone. Starting music lessons as an adult is exactly this kind of situation and although it can be extremely rewarding, it's nearly always both intimidating and humbling at first.

    Because of this, adults seem to place unreasonable demands on themselves and come up with ungrounded assessments of what they 'should' be able to do. Whenever one of my students says 'I should be able to do this by now', I always counter with 'according to whom?' or 'based on what?'.

    It's impossible for somebody learning a totally new skillset from scratch to be able to set any kind of objective timetable for how they should be progressing. One of the first questions people always ask me when considering lessons, (although it's phrased in various different forms) is along the lines of 'how long does it take to sound good'. Although it's obvious why they ask, anybody with any musical experience knows that's an impossible question to answer.

    Whenever a student is giving themselves a hard time because they think they 'should' be able to do something, I always try to remind them that there is no logical or empirical reason why they think that. They don't know how fast people typically learn the material they are studying, they don't know how long it has taken other students to learn it and they don't know how long it took the professionals to learn it. In other words, they have absolutely no basis in reality for thinking that they should be able to do whatever it is they're attempting.

    However, because they are often highly-competent in other areas of their lives, it's incredibly frustrating for them to be back working at a basic level. Unfortunately for them, the key to improving as a musician is to develop the fortitude to push yourself continually outside your comfort zone and tackle the things that you can't do; the things that frustrate you and make you feel untalented and incompetent.

    Even as professionals, the learning never stops and I always try to show students that although the material might change, the process remains exactly the same and that more advanced players have to put in the hard yards in exactly the same way in order to get better.

    Sometimes, I'll let them sit and watch me practise something I'm working on for a couple of minutes and they're always surprised that I can't do things as quickly as they might have thought - often they're surprised that I have to practise things in the same way as they do. This is because they might hear me demonstrate something I'm teaching them, or hear me playing material I have already mastered and assume that because I can do those things easily, that anything new I tackle will be grasped pretty much instantaneously.

    The irony of learning music is that increased knowledge and facility may mean that you can learn new things faster (as they are related to things that that you can already do) but the level of complexity of the new material increases as you improve - so the practice process has to remain pretty much the same throughout your whole development.

    For adult beginners, the challenge is to suck up their feelings of inadequacy, stop plucking unrealistic expectations out of thin air and keep working. The undersirable alternative is sounding bad forever.

    However, what I rarely tell these students is that these kinds of feelings and foolish expectations can stay with you, and no matter how good you get, the challenge becomes even harder. For more advanced musicians, the challenge is to suck up our feelings of inadequacy, stop plucking unreasonable expectations out of thin air and keep working.

    The undesirable alternative is sounding OK forever.

    Until next time...


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