Friday, November 21, 2008

the flute and I

It was the summer of 1961, I had been married for a year and was on full-scholarship playing bass trombone at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA when I fell in love with the sound of the flute. My reputation as a young trombonist was good enough so that Davis Shuman-- the classical trombone virtuoso and inventor of the slide at an angle, so that the right arm movement was more natural (one of those brilliant ideas that have everything going for it except success)-- asked me to audition for the resident summer orchestra. When he heard me play he offered my a free-ride for the summer on the condition I learn to play bass trombone. I accepted and my wife Joyce and I were off by bus for all parts West. Taking a bus cross-country is quite an experience, sweaty, dirty, very smelly and we had a fight every day for the four days it took at precisely 3PM, as the boredom and fatigue stressed our, even then, rocky marriage.

Santa Barbara was lovely, we rented a one-room studio off campus (since there were no 'couples accommodations' at the music academy. And I began a summer of practicing, playing and lusting after every good looking female musician in the orchestra. One of major objects of my lust was a bassoon player, who as the saying went, 'would never drown.' I had a thing for bassoon players. My sister June, who I adored, was one. And I sat right behind a gorgeous bassoon player in the All City High School Orchestra. Bassoon players keep their bassoons upright by sitting on a long strap that goes from a clip on the bottom of the bassoon. I spent my time in the All City High School Orchestra envying the strap.

Anyway the bassoon player was married to a flute player, Stanley Weinstein, who was a hairier version of me, big and beefy. The first time I heard Stanley play up close I fell in love. Stanley had a classic Julius Baker flute sound, the sound that came to dominate orchestral flute playing, as Julius Baker, principle flutist with the New York Philharmonic for decades, and his students defined the hard-centered, glistening flute sound that is still the standard for orchestral flutists world-wide. When I heard Stanley I understood why people played flute. Oh, to be able to make such a beautiful sound, not to mention double the violins on the greatest melodies ever written by the world's greatest composers.

The trouble was that when I began to play the flute about 12 years later I had made a promise. I promised myself that instead of being critical I would search for the beauty in my flute playing. At that point I interpreted that as being accepting of whatever sound came out of the flute. Recall, I was self-taught, didn't even know the right fingerings, and was only interested in improvising. My ritual was to take the flute out. Make a sound, and no matter what came out, follow a musical thread, playing completely freely and spinning streams of sound, melodies that grow organically under my hands. No long tones, no scales, no exercises, just musical freedom. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. Plus the only embouchure that I knew was a trombone embouchure, so I played with loose lips and a slight frown. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. But I wasn't worried about tone, I was worried about spinning out melodies, about exploiting my natural fluency and the flute's endless technical potential. Ask any flute teacher, a recipe for tone disaster.

I was teaching at Mannes College of Music (western civilization) at 8AM. A student of mine told me that if I turned the head all of the way out, I could play faster. I could always play fast. After pushing a trombone slide around, fast was where I was going. I saw the great jazz reed player, Eddie Daniels, walking down the subway stairs. Eddie and I had come up together in Brooklyn and we hadn't seen each other in years. After 'hello's' etc. told him that I was playing flute and asked him to give me a lesson. I had an old Armstrong student model, all black from playing it outdoors. As soon as I put the flute together, Eddie reached out and took it from me and centered the head joint. He said, 'that's were most people put it.' He played a chord on the piano and I played as fast as I could. He stopped. I said, 'don't I have a lot of technique?' He said, 'that's not technique, that's nervousness. He suggested I study with Harvey Estrin, a taskmaster, and a master of all of the woodwinds. The 'go to' guy for sax players who wanted to develop flute chops. Harvey gave me the basics, a warm-up, long tone octaves and three octave scales. I studied with him for about a year until the fateful day when he questioned the 'aesthetics' of my first recorded efforts (the story is in 'back to the beginning').

I didn't study again for years, just tried to play Harvey's routine every day and, by that time, playing hours of Jamey Aebersold records every day, playing free in the park and working trio gigs with young jazz musicians. I was playing an open-hole b-foot Armstrong by this time and another old friend Bobby Porcelli told me about a Miyazawa flute for about $1,500. I ended up taking lessons with the guy who sold it to me and I used to tell folks that 'he sold me a lousy flute and ruined my chops.' And so of course he remains nameless. He was used to flute players with tight smiles and told his students to relax their embouchures. Since I was his student he told me the same. It was a disaster. I couldn't play low notes for years. I was just blowing with no control from my upper-lip and a flabby platform from my lower lip. But the high register worked and I still could play fast. My tone was going nowhere. David Valentin, the great salsa flutist heard my first record and said 'I can help you out.' He showed me that I had muscles in my mouth and how to use them. The sound got better, but without even a glimmer of the characteristic classical sound that David, like Hubert Laws, had made 'the gold standard' of jazz flute playing.

When I received tenure my wife and I moved out to Glen Ridge, 4 miles from the University. Peggy Schecter was the flute teacher. I asked her for lessons. I played a single note for months. She called it 'brain exercises.' I was learning to feel how a sound is produced and concentrate and making it better. She showed me how to use my upper lip to control the air. I never did get the sound she was looking for. She claimed I was the only student she ever had who couldn't get the Julius Baker shine in their sound. You know, the sound that I talked about at the beginning of blog, the sound that made me want to play flute! She had me get rid of my Miyazawa and buy the first decent flute I over owned a Sankyo Silversonic for about $3,000. I was no Stanley Weinstein, but my sound was centered and fat, and it had expressive qualities, or so reviewers began to notice.

Around the time Peggy and I gave up on each other, I was at the New York Flute Club annual flute fair and I was looking at a pile of flute books. I saw De La Sonoritie (the picture at the top of the blog). I looked inside at the price; it was a fortune. And there was nothing in it. I had seen books like that, generally printed in three languages, with repetitious exercises, laboriously reprinted in 12 keys, something that a jazz musician would explain to another musician in 25 words or less. But I knew these were magic books, books that although seemingly sparse in quantity, were miraculous in quality. I bought it. I spend hours every day playing about 8 pages of that book. Long tones, low crescendos and increasing intervals. Every flute player plays the Moyse, it is the secret to getting a flute sound; that's what the title means, 'About Sound.' A routine like that, once discovered, is a priceless gift, sort of like the lotus-position. It is a doing that supports all other doings.

I had gone to Robert Dick, the master of extended flute techniques, in hopes that he could help me understand my idiosyncratic sound. He gave me some tips, but the person who helped my sound the most was Laura George. She told me to play the Moyse with a tuner in front of me. Laura lives in Montclair and she had been calling me to volunteer at the New York Flute Club fair. I was stationed outside the door of the exhibit room. I always liked the alto flute and had gone through an old Armstrong with problems and was playing another, an Altus, that was a better flute, but still hard to play in tune. And there I was with my credit cards in a room full of flutes. The first year I bought a Sankyo alto flute, which I love and the third year I bought a great Yamaha bass flute. But it was the second year that I bought my sweetheart, a Powell, Arumite (a tube of gold, wrapped around a tube of silver) one hell of a jazz flute. $25,000 worth flutes in 3 years. My poor second wife Lesley would be having kittens. And I was on my way to being able to play the flute at last

A charanga flute player hipped me to harmonics, and a young girl once gave me a tonguing exercise in the first octave. That was always the hardest thing for me to do and every beginning flute player starts by learning how to do it. But since I was never a beginning flute player, I have to practice tonguing in the first octave every day, since I didn't grow my muscles. Flute players often start at 8 years old, so the muscles grow in response to practicing. Not when you start at 34 they don't. And, of course, as a jazz musician I always play scales, one and two octaves with various articulations, as well as arpeggios, in all keys. For a finale, Harvey Estrin's three octave scales in all keys (you can play any scale beginning on one of two notes, so I play from top to bottom). That's my life, three hours a day, every day. I guess I'll never get married again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am taking my life into my hands and submitting CD's to the National Flute Association competitions for this year. They do the jazz just like classical compositions. They ask for a specific repertoire, in the case of jazz, rhythm changes a ballad and a bossa nova. I'm going to confront the flute establishment.

If you only know me through recordings, you might be surprised by how rarely I get to perform. As saxophonist, Dave Leibman (also an old friend) just said to me in a recent email when I complained about how hard it is to perform, 'it is harder than ever.' And without performances there are no performance videos, and without performance videos there is no presence on youtube, increasingly a must for musicians. The only performance videos I had were a poorly recorded 3 minute of a local gig in New Jersey and a video of a concert I played with guitarist Paul Meyers in 1999. I put them up on youtube but they don't represent my playing. Making the competition CD gave me a unique opportunity. I didn't want to spend a fortune on the CD for the competition, or submit a poorly recorded one. So I split the difference and recorded just a duo in my engineer Phil's recording studio. Paul has been working gigs with me (Trio Jazz Brasil is the name we use) and he is a very responsive accompanist. I found a student through the universities media department and had him video the recording session. So far he has finished video editing two of them (he used 2 cameras). They are now up on youtube. Click on the names of the tunes and check out the videos. Body and Soul and No More Blues (Chega de Saudade) . Let's see if the flute players will accept me and then the real test. If I succeed in the CD round of the competition, I get to perform live in front of classical flutists at the annual convention of the National Flute Association in New York in 2009. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 17, 2008

free stuff

There is a website, Tribe of Noise that lets musicians upload material they control as free downloads. The requirements are that the musician own both the rights to the songs and the rights to the recording, and they will only take songs less then 10mb. I have uploaded four songs, two from my first album Seasoning (1997) and my third album Three Deuces (2001). I discuss both albums in earlier blogs, 'now or never' and 'losing control.' Included in the down loads are two different original blues compositions, 'Last Minute Blues' with guitarist Ed Cherry and 'Walk On Out'  with Vic Juris on guitar, Chris White on bass and Cecil Brooks III playing drums and two original tunes, 'Fall Guy,' with Bryan Carrot on marimba, Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil on drums and 'Dawn's Early Light' my anti-war song (don't ask me why I think it is an anti-war song, it just is) with Ed Cherry on guitar. 'Fall Guy' is a 48 bar extended version of the 32 bar tune 'Autumn Leaves.' I take the harmonic principle of each of the sections of the tune and develop them one harmonic extension further. I recorded 'Fall Guy' again as a duet with Vic Juris on Three Dueces and rerecorded 'Dawns Early Light' on the album I recorded for Jazzheads Spring of 2008 with Kenny Barron. That album will probably not be released for another year, since Jazzheads will probably first put out the Cuban album that I recorded during the same period and discuss in the last blog.

 I think my old stuff holds up pretty well, and I am pleased with my playing the blues. I wish I could upload another of my blues compositions 'LKC Blues' on Jazz World Trio, but is it 13 minutes long and is 16mb so they won't let me upload it. The first 81/2 minutes were used on a soundtrack for a memorial to my friend Arnie Lawrence, the alto player on the original Cuban Roots. You can get the 4 tune download from tribe of noise can get to the video from youtube here. I also recorded an original minor blues on Straight No Chaser, called 'Blues for Janice,' but I don't own the right to the Jazzheads CD's so I can't give it away as a free download.

Playing the blues is more than a basic requirement for a jazz musician, it is the ultimate test. As I listen to my various recordings of blues across ten years I am struck with the consistency of my approach to the material. I play very freely on blues and yet play with an unashamed classicism, playing deep blues phrases and searching for the primordial. Or as my kids used to say, 'whatever.' Anyway feel free to download the free stuff, and if you would like to hear 'Blues for Janice,' it and all of the other tunes from my albums for Jazzheads are all over the web for about 99 cents. All of my early albums, including Jazz World Trios (with the exception of the original Cuban Roots and Cuban Roots Revisited, which I do not own)  are on (search for 'mark weinstein') with short samples and downloads and albums to buy. I have uploads you can listen to from my Jazzheads albums on (search 'mark weinstein') and of course on myspace.

Listen to the music, download it for free if you can and pass it around if you want to. Also, don't be afraid to make comments about the music or about anything in the blog that strikes your fancy 


Saturday, November 8, 2008

breaking the pattern

With the exception of the second blog, which jumped ahead to 2004 with the date in Berlin, which by the way is coming out this winter, I have been going chronologically and am up to my 'hit' album Con Alma, 26 weeks on the charts and thanks to an NPR interview with Scott Simon number one on the Jazzweek world chart and number two on the jazz chart for a few weeks after the interview aired on NPR stations nationwide. But I've been listening to one of two and a half albums I recorded last Spring and it is so phenomenal that I have to break the pattern and talk about it.

The picture is of Pedrito Martinez, winner of the Thelonious Monk prize on hand drums, the singer and leader of the drums on Algo Más and the congero on Con Alma, for which he won best Latin Jazz Percussionist on 2007 on the Latin Jazz Corner poll (I won best Latin Jazz Flutist in the same poll). Pedrito is on the ascendent, he plays with everybody and the depth of his knowledge of the tradition is as profound as any drummers, he is lightening fast and has the must advanced rhythmic conception of any drummer I have ever heard. Pedrito surrounds himself with the very best musicians playing on the edge of Latin jazz and his choice of his compadre Mauricio Hererra as the drummer for Con Alma gave me a demonstration of what the young Cuban cats were up to. But that is the Con Alma story, which has another hook that I will get to in another blog.

Marty Cohen is the founder of Latin Percussion (LP), and the greatest friend to the community of hand drummers in NY. He respects them, is respected by them and has given them countless opportunities to perform and document their music. Of course, he made a nice living doing it, and an LP conga drum is in the musical instrument exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, along with the most beautiful and rare instruments in all of human history. No small accomplishment for a Jewish engineer in New Jersey who made a cow bell on a small lathe in his garage for Johnny Pacheco in 1961. Cowbells were as scarce as hen's teeth in NY in the 50's and Pacheco, who had gone to Automotive Trades High School in the Bronx (with Barry Rogers), the magic combination that along with Eddie and Charlie Palmieri invented the musical scene that turned into the Salsa revolution, asked Marty Cohen it he could make a cowbell for him. That became the famed Pacheco bell of the early 60's, the gold standard for timbale players from then on. Fiber glass congos followed and LP is to Latin drums what Coca Cola is to soft drinks.

Anyway, Marty Cohen had a birthday party at his house. I knew Marty since 1961 (two Jewish guys in the middle of the South Bronx as Puerto Ricans took ownership of their musical heritage and transformed it into into one of the major musics of the world (Salsa). When I started to play again, we got back in touch and so he invited me to his party. Marty has a gorgeous house in Northern New Jersey and he laid on more great Cuban food than I have ever seen in one place. The house was so jammed with musicians and friends that you could barely find a place to sit and as Barry Rogers used to say 'grease,' that is eat with total abandon. I managed, stuffing myself like crazy. Their was a big room set up for musicians to play, three sets of congas, piano, drums, amps, timbales. I knew the sax player, Ivan Rentas, and I had my flute with me. But there was nothing happening, everybody was eating, talking and looking at the great recording and photography equipment that Marty had in his studio. Pedrito saw me and came over, and thanked me for using him on Con Alma, which he seemed to think was a big deal. I was soon in the middle of a bunch of musicians I didn't know, lots of people giving me lots of good energy about the recording. I was stuffed beyond belief and really needed to sit down. As I walked away from the musicians, Pedrito said, 'when are we going to do another record?'. I smiled and headed for a empty seat on couch. The musicians started to play in the next room. There were at least 5 drummers playing, with a loud electric piano and electric bass. Ivan had the microphone stuck all the way into the bell of his tenor sax and I could barely hear him. There was no was I could play the flute with the band that loud. I had seriously over-eaten, it was late, the noise level was murderous. I saw Marty, thanked him and left.

The next week I got an email from Juan Wust, the engineer who had recorded Algo Más. His 17 year old son had died in a tragic accident a few years ago, and he was producing a concert to raise money for a scholarship fund for students in his son's high school. Pacquito Rivera was head-lining the band and I knew Juan's son. Of course I would buy a ticket. When I got to St Peters College in Jersey City for the event, the auditorium, was surprisingly empty, instruments on the band stand, but the guys hanging around with friends in the audience. I said hello to Pacquito who was sitting talking to some people a few rows in front of me and I laid my two latest albums on him (one can always hope). Pedrito came over and sat down next to me. He said it again, 'when are we going to do another album?' I said, 'If you can find me a piano player and a bass player who play as good as you do, get two more drummers and we can record.' Pacquito got up to go on the bandstand as did Pedrito. I didn't think anything of his remark, and so was very surprised when a few days later, in mid-March, I got a phone call from Pedrito saying he could get the guys for March 30 and 31st. I was in a bind. I had committed myself to record a Brazilian record with Nilson Matta and Kenny Barron, a very expensive project. And I had given a $1,000 deposit to Argentinian bass player Pablo Aslan so he could bring up an Argentinian piano player from Buenos Aires to record a tango album the first week in April. But to turn Pedrito down was to risk being seen as 'jive.' After all, I had set him a challenge. So I said to myself, 'what the hell.' my house in Glen Ridge was an ATM (the housing market hadn't totally tanked yet) and if I did another album I would just be pulling money out of my home equity line as I had planed to do for the other albums. I said, hire the guys, I'll make sure we can get the studio that I like to record in (I have been working with the same engineer, Phil Ludwig, since Tudo de Bom, and he was an equal partner in editing down the hours of music I recorded in Berlin. With Phil and his partner Larry Gates in my corner, I could relax about the technical aspects of recording). The next day Pedrito called me, the piano player could only record one day since he was leaving for a European tour. 'Can we do the record in one day?' I asked. Pedrito said 'sure.' We were set for March 30th.

I told Pedrito that if the guys brought in originals they would get co-publishing and I pulled out a few of the most standard tunes I could think off just in case. Milestones, Footprints, Caravan and as a sort of joke, Watermelon Man, plus my 60's tune recorded on Cuban Roots and Cuban Roots revisited, Just Another Guajira, for luck.

When I arrived at the studio, the guys where already there (check out the photos on myspace). I was setting up my flutes when the piano player came into my booth. Axel Tosca Laugart, 23 years old, a wildman in appearance and bursting with energy. I told him to be careful not to knock over my flutes, he responded, 'I'm young, but I'm a professional.' Little did I know. Axel went into his booth to try out the piano. I almost fell over, he was playing serious Chopin to warm up. I knew I was in for something special. We started with a piano feature, a Chucho Valdez composition called Ernesto. I was totally knocked out. The piano playing was richer than anything I had ever played with and I have played with great pianists (Chick Corea, Omar Sosa and Mark Levine). He had the rhythmic control of Sosa, moving from gaujeo to gaujeo (the piano vamp that Latin piano players play) in an endless stream of creative improvisation. He had the harmonic complexity and structural stability of Chick Corea, and the easy swing and warmth of Mark Levine, and he had all of the incredible technique that is the hallmark of the great Cuban pianists. Axel has it all! Playing solos with him was literally holding the tiger by the tail, he responded to every move I made, extended the rhythmic concept at every opportunity and he forced me to listen and respond in a manner that stretched me like no other recording I have ever done. And then, no matter how good I played, his solos stole the show. No matter how far I moved, he 'saw me and raised.' It wasn't what we used to call a 'cutting contest,' he wasn't trying to show me up. It was just his natural exuberance and phenomenal musical ability. What ever I did, he integrated it into his playing and transformed it. And the rhythm section was in heaven. At the end of the date Pedrito said to me, 'Thank you for letting me play my music.' I had little choice since his music was what I have been dreaming of ever since I started playing jazz to Cuban music.

And that rhythm section. Almost every tune has drum solos. With Ogduarte Diaz playing bongos and bell, Pedrito and Mauricio Hererra had a totally reliable time keeper. Mauricio played dramatically, using the kit to add colors and suspense and Pedrito pushed the envelope of time like no other conga drummer I have ever played with. The drum solos that Mauricio and Pedrito contributed to Con Alma were exceptional. Their playing on this recording is transcendent. Complex unison drum figures characterizes the tunes that Pedrito contributed, amazingly complex, and so tight you have to listen hard to hear that it is more than one drummer. And everything with great swing. And then we did the standards. We played Milestones way up-tempo, Footprints in 7/4 rather than the usual 6/8, Watermelon Man as a down home blues (and one of the all time greatest conga drum solos in homage to Mongo Santamaria), Just Another Guajira in yet another rendition, Axel after Omar Sosa, after Chick Corea, another piano setting and one that lives up to the versions of the other two piano masters.

And then there is the bass player. Panagiotis Andreou. I have never recorded with an electric bass player before and Panagiotis is no ordinary electric bass player, a classical guitarist originally, he plays with the tips of his fingers. No matter how fast he plays you can barely see his right hand moving, it is all delicacy, all control, with total freedom in the time and a melodic gift. Barry Rogers was the only 'gringo' that was totally respected by the Latin musicians. When Barry said something it mattered. The same goes for Panagiotis, these masters of Cuban drumming accepted his opinions without question. Axel and him were like musical twins, they moved together in some of the most subtle playing behind the drum solos, playing flexible, but superbly tight figures that held the time against the drummers pushing the boundaries. And then came kicker. When I called Caravan as the next tune I thought we would start with a bass solo for contrast. Panagiotis asked for a vocal mike. He played one of the greatest bass solos I have ever heard as an introduction and sang along with every note. I was floored. At the end of the date he asked if we could record a Turkish folk song with bata drums. By this time I was up for anything. He wrote it out for us and I played bass flute in unison with that haunting melody.

That finished the recording. We had been in the studio for 16 hours and we had one hell of a record. If this one doesn't put me over the top, nothing will.

So, you might ask, why do I wrote about this album now? Two reasons, musicians don't go for spit, no matter how good a record is, to get a phone call with a compliment from the 'first call' players that I record with is virtually impossible. I have heard on the grapevine the Romero and Cyro really love our latest album, Lua e Sol, but neither of them would ever call me up to say so. I guess it is not cool to let the leader know how much you enjoyed the record you made for him. Or maybe the top pros that I record with don't give that much energy to their recordings after they come out. After I finished the mix of the date, I sent a copy to Pedrito. Two days later I got an excited phone call, 'the flute sounds great,' Pedrito started off, 'I'm playing the record for the guys now and everyone loves it,' he continued (and then made a few suggestions for refining the drum mix). I was over the moon! If one of the heavy players that record with me, took the time to tell me how great the record sounds, it must be special. Then I sent it to Randy Klein, the owner of Jazzheads, the record label I record for. He sent me an email, 'this is a major album, it should get you a Grammy nomination, let's talk about how we can push it.' And so I'm putting myself out there for those of you who are interested in my music. This album is a ground-breaking contribution to Latin jazz, it breaks the pattern while staying within the genre, simply by being more innovative and more challenging than anything out there, with virtuoso playing by all and tremendous swing. That's right, to all of the Latin jazz fans out there, I'm putting it on the line. This album is killing! Randy hopes to put it out for Summer of 2009. Meanwhile check out myspace for the tracks from my latest Brazilian record, Lua e Sol.