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HT: William Michel

Album of the Week this time around is a classic. It Might As Well Be Swing is a collaboration between Frank Sinatra (arguably the all-time greatest American male vocalist), Count Basie (one of the founding fathers of the Big Band sound) and producer Quincy Jones (79-time Grammy winning American music icon). Many of the records featured in the AOTW series have been personal favorites of mine, and this one is no exception. This is the album I listen to when I’m just starting my day – a day when I’m in a good mood and want to stay that way. Picture yourself strolling through a park on a sunny afternoon and imagine the ideal soundtrack.

It Might As Well Be Swing, recorded and released in 1964, is the 2nd team effort from Sinatra and Basie, after 1963’s Sinatra-Basie. The album contains no Bossas, up-tempo tunes, or ballads to speak of. The music is, as it’s name suggests, just deep, swingin’ groove from top to bottom. (Note: I literally HATE cliche jazz terminology like the word “swingin”, but I use the rhetoric intentionally here because this record so embodies the vibe that cliche jazz terms seek to communicate.) The song list contains many famous Sinatra hits (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Best Is Yet to Come”) in addition to a nice smattering of typical jazz standards. It’s a perfect introduction to the stereotype of old school “Jazz,” and it’ll be a very enjoyable listen for almost anyone.

A cool element for drummers in this recording is the mix. Sonny Payne can be heard clearly in all the tracks, which isn’t always the case for old-school Big Band records. Payne just puts on a clinic on how to drive a 18-piece jazz orchestra, all while supporting Sinatra in the lead role. Grooves, hits, set-ups… everything he plays is assertive, driving, and of course his every note is deeply swung.

You should probably buy this album, and in the meantime you can preview some excerpts here.

(PS. I am writing this from Billings, MT. I’m on a short tour with Elizabeth Hunnicutt this week and part of next. We played in ND yesterday, and we’re in MT today, then Washington and Idaho and then home. I’ll post some updates of the shows as they happen.)

The latest trio recording from Brad Mehldau, a double-disc album called Live at the Vanguard, is the pick this week for AOTW. Man, Mehldau is just flat out awesome. He has, in my opinion, the most innovative and unique approach to the piano of anyone born after 1970, and I never get tired of it.

I am feeling a little lazy right now, so you can go here for a thorough review of the record. But I will say this: Live at the Vanguard is the 2nd recording that Mehldau has done with his new drummer, Jeff Ballard, who replaced Jorge Rossy in 2005. I like Ballard, but I don’t think he fills Rossy’s shoes very well. To be fair, he probably wasn’t trying to – a true jazz musician is always going for their own thing – but I guess I just don’t like Ballard’s approach as much as Rossy’s.

Regardless, the record is DOMINATING. For instance, the opening track is a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” where Mehldau plays the melody in 4 over a polyrhythm that cycles every 12.5 beats (played by Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier)… and it only gets better. There’s also a 23-minute version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” Just go listen to it and see for yourself.

And finally, here’s a burning solo from Mehldau recorded live back in the early 90’s when he was in Joshua Redman’s band (with Brian Blade on drums).

I’m heading to the Dominican Republic today (fri. morning) for a week’s worth of gigs with my friend Jason Harms. I probably won’t be posting much while I’m gone, but you can check here for updates while we’re down there.

Man… Brian Blade is definitely one of my favorite drummers right now. He has so much control, his ideas are so musical, and his groove is so comfortable. Love it.

Brian Blade is on my mind today because I’ve been listening to Danial Lanois’ “Shine” quite a bit. Blade just destroys that record. His feel, his comfort and vocabulary… unbelievable. The album is a singer-songwriter style, and so Blade is of course playing appropriately within that realm. BUT, he is also a widely respected jazz player. THAT is the main point of this post.

I’ve had more than a few musicians whom I respect tell me that my best bet is to pigeon-hole my efforts on the drums into one genre/sound, and just try to make that as killing as I can. I understand the logic: don’t waste time trying to improve your weaknesses, just focus on making your strengths even stronger and soon you will be the only fish in the pond that anyone wants to work with, when it comes to those strengths. This idea is big in the business world, and it makes sense to a degree… but I’m not sure it applies to Art.

I studied jazz music extensively in college, and I’ve also spent a lot of time in pop/rock settings. In fact, I’ve done quite a bit of gospel lately, and some alt-country, and even some electronica/drum-n-bass. Therefore, I’m obviously in danger of spreading myself too thin according to the “ignore-your-weakness-promote-your-strength” mantra, but I don’t see it that way. I feel like I have learned concepts in studying jazz that I can apply to rock… things that make my rock playing different from another rock drummer who has never studied jazz. Conversely, I can bring rock elements into my jazz that sound hopefully make my jazz playing unique. Of course, I have to have a solid understanding of the difference between rock and jazz, but having a presence in both worlds is a challenge that I enjoy taking on.

Actually, I believe learning about and participating in many different styles/genres is an essential element to feeding creativity in your playing. I guess I just disagree with the advice I’ve been given. Maybe I’ll recant in a few years when I am wiser, but for now, I encourage every musician who reads this blog to surround yourself with as many different-sounding records as you can find, and soak them all in.

I’ve already posted a couple times this week about this record I’m doing right now. It’s a jazz record (if you didn’t figure that out already from the pictures in the previous post). I don’t play nearly as much jazz these days as I used to – and I am feeling that. In college I played jazz almost exclusively, but that was six years ago. I still love listening to it (which I do frequently), but playing it… well, let’s just say my chops aren’t quite what they were.

The biggest problem I’m noticing is the influence of all the rock playing I’ve done since college. Over the past few years I’ve taken all the effort that I was pouring into studying jazz and shifted it to rock/pop, and it’s made a big difference in that part of my playing for sure. BUT, the recent rock emphasis makes it hard for me to shift gears back into jazz mode, especially for an intensive, week-long studio session. The point here is that this “gear shift” I just mentioned, however difficult, is CRITICAL to playing jazz well.

The rock approach to the drumset stands in total opposition to the jazz approach. In fact, they are mortal enemies. This means that you cannot allow ANY rock instincts to influence your playing when you sit down to a jazz gig. I can’t stand listening to a rock drummer trying to play jazz when it’s obvious that he’s trying to do so while still operating in the rock mindset. Jazz drummers trying to play rock is equally annoying. So… I’ve tried to develop a multiple personality “disorder” of sorts, in an effort to successfully exist as both a rock musician AND a jazz musician. This mainly revolves around my mentality while I’m playing rock or jazz, but there are a few concrete/tangible things that I’ve done to aid the dual existence:

1) I use different sticks for jazz than I do when playing rock. They are different in all respects: size, shape, weight… everything. This makes it a little easier to get into the right frame of mind, because even when I simply pick up the sticks the feel of them puts my muscle memory into the correct mode.

2) Kick pedal – same issue as the sticks. I’ve got an old soft-beater pedal with a leather strap drive for jazz, and a newer DW pedal with a firm beater and a chain drive for rock.

3) Tuning is obviously a big part of your sound no matter what style you’re playing, but I always try to take a REALLY different approach for jazz tuning and rock tuning in order to inspire myself in the right direction sonically. This would of course also apply to cymbals.

These are just a few small things that I’ve found helpful for me. Again, the main point here is not for you to go out and buy a totally new rig if you want to learn to play jazz, but rather for you to keep in mind that in order to play jazz correctly, you MUST leave your rock mindset out of the picture entirely, and vice-versa.

Mike Portnoy… maybe compensating for something? #yeahIsaidit

When I was young I had a cymbal set-up with hats, 2 rides, 4 crashes, 2 splashes, a bell dome, and 2 chinas. I thought I was the bomb… and I had a ton of fun experimenting with all those different sounds. Now, however, I run hats with a ride and 1 crash… sometimes 2 if the situation requires it. I think the main difference is that over the last ten years I’ve been able to refine my understanding of the role of a cymbal.

The biggest issue is knowing when to NOT play. For instance, listen to “One Headlight” from the Wallflower’s first record Bringing Down The Horse. Notice anything? Matt Chamberlain doesn’t hit ANY crashes… or ride for that matter. It’s hats and hats only for the entire track… and the cool thing is that most people (even drummers) don’t notice the lack of crashes until someone else points it out. Just listening to that tune is a great lesson on knowing the role of a crash.

I started exploring this idea in high school when I would intentionally take parts of my kit away and try to play with the limited set-up that remained. Maybe just kick/snare/hats… or just kick/toms/ride… or whatever. I enjoyed the creativity that came from forcing myself to play a stripped-down kit… and I began to discover how many different sounds could be pulled from only one cymbal or drum.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not trying to say that having a lot of cymbals is automatically bad. The only real problem with it is temptation. Honestly, how often does a bell dome REALLY fit in a song? Answer: not very often… maybe once in your band’s entire show. But for most drummers, simply having the bell dome set up on the kit makes you want to hit it. You’re trucking along on the tune and you notice the bell dome sitting there and you think “oh… I haven’t hit that in a while…” and then you force the issue and play it in a spot where it doesn’t belong.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with a bell dome. You just have to know when to show some restraint and NOT hit it. An example of this would be Jack DeJohnette in the Keith Jarrett Trio. His set-up is almost unforgivably excessive for a jazz context, but you would never know it from just listening. He’s not hitting anything that doesn’t need to be hit, and the discipline and musicality he shows in having all those cymbals and not hitting them is incredible. He just uses what he needs and it rules.

SUMMARY: Put as many cymbals in your set-up as you want… but prioritize knowing when to NOT play them.

This week I went on a much-needed Jazz binge. For the end of high school and the first few years of college I listened to Jazz almost exclusively, but much of my listening over the past 4 years or so has been focused on rock/pop. I got a bunch of new Jazz records lately, so it was time for the calculated commercial music to have it’s turn on the shelf. Here’s what I’ve had in the cue this last week…

1) John Coltrane – Ballads …A more reserved side of the famous Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones on drums. His feel is so elastic and interpretive. He puts so much of HIS stamp on everything he plays. You can transcribe and learn Elvin’s patterns, but nobody can play them quite like he did.

2) Keith Jarrett – Live at the Blue Note …This is a box-set of the Keith trio, with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. All the tunes are standards, but with the signature Keith Jarrett Trio expansions. This group improvises so well together – often the tune itself finishes at around the 6-minute mark but the outro-vamp builds and morphs into it’s own thing for another 6 minutes.

3) Lee Konitz – Alone Together …One of my absolute favorite records. Interestingly enough, there’s no drummer. It’s Konitz on saxophones, Brad Mehldau on piano, and Charlie Haden on bass. They play so musically together, such that you really don’t even miss the drummer.

4) Jackie McLean – It’s Time! …A great post-bop album with Roy Haynes on drums. I love Roy Haynes’ energy on this recording.

Last night I found some RAD videos of Tony Williams playing with the best band ever… the Miles Davis 60’s quintet (Miles, Tony, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter). Check this stuff out – you will love it. Seriously… thank goodness for Youtube. Live footage of this band is rare, and now because of Youtube we can just click and watch.

Tony was seventeen when he joined Miles’ band in 1962. Yep… seventeen. Miles was an international Jazz superstar at that point, and the drum chair in his band was the most coveted gig in the entire Jazz world (which was the center of the popular music world at the time). 17-year-old Tony took the gig and proceeded to play some of the most ground-breaking and inspiring music in the history of the drumset.

Watch these videos. Watch his ride cymbal. Watch his calm but powerful energy. Watch his control. And… seventeen years old.

Dang it.

Listen, I know this is my 3rd post in one hour, but I just started this blog today so I feel like I need to fill it up a little. Actually, I think I’ve figured out how to add pictures to the posts so I’m going to try it.

This is a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an 80’s Neo-Expressionist from Manhattan. It’s titled “Max Roach,” after the Jazz founding-father and drumming legend of the same name. Roach had a massive influence on the evolution of jazz drumming, and Basquait just nails the essence of Roach’s sound in depicting him as cloud hovering behind the drumset.

Basquiat was heavily influenced by Jazz and Jazz musicians throughout his career. If a painter (visual) can draw inspiration from a musician (audio), then that transaction can definitely take place the other direction as well. In college I studied with the internationally-acclaimed, avante-garde drummer David King. Dave was CONSTANTLY referencing paintings and films in the lessons (which is where I first learned about Basquiat), which didn’t make much sense to me at first, but over time I began to see the connection that he was drawing on – the connection that exists between all forms of art. Creativity is art’s essence, and the creative process is so much bigger than any one genre of art (or music, for that matter).

More on this to come…

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