Friday, December 19, 2008


I was reading over my last post during the first snow of the season in my beautiful house in Glen Ridge, sitting in the warmth of the colors of the rugs and furniture that my ex-wife left me with, surrounded by the paintings of my first wife that have lived with me for almost 50 years, in the room where I spend my life, practicing with the computer on in front of me. Combining the various facets of my soul through the efficiency of the computer and the allure of many forbidden things. It was a few hours before Shabbis (the Jewish Sabbath), when I shut down for 25 hours of no practicing or computer (although I do take gigs) and I saw what I had written, that my career sucked. That is blasphemy and an affront to the gifts that I have received and the opportunity to live my dream. I am truly blessed. One of the reasons I am writing this blog is to exhibit the blessing that has been given me. The ability to play the best music I can, with the best musicians I could ever hope for, with the financial and emotional freedom to piss away every penny I have available to me so that my music will exist in this realm for a while and Baruch Hashem, that it should enter into the realm beyond, where all things of human value exist eternally.

Well the Sabbath is over and I'm ready to settle down and confront over 50 research proposals from my methods of research course and 10 papers from my doctoral students. I want to get my grading done before I leave to visit my daughter Rebecca in Portland ME. Rebecca loves Christmas and spending it with her is one of my all time treats. After a rocky childhood and adolescence, Rebecca has turned out to be my best friend. My son Jack and her turn out to be the best thing I ever did. Proud parenthood aside, my music is the core of my essence. For better or for worse it is what I have to offer the world that speaks directly from my innerness. I'm a decent teacher, a reasonably successful academic, and despite lack of longevity due to always picking beautiful women much younger than myself, I've had a decent romantic life. But it is music that I pin my hopes on. If I make good music my life is a success. Trying to make good music has given my life meaning. But the frustration of it all!

Con Alma's success gave me a few more gigs. There are a number of local jazz clubs that I play in with some regularity, Trumpet's in Montclair and Cecil's in West Orange. The picture at the top is from a photo shoot at Cecil's that I did for the album I recorded after Con Alma, Straight No Chaser. Cecil's has a regular jam session run by alto saxophonist Bruce Williams who, although close to 40 years younger than I am, has been a real influence on my playing. Bruce is one of the young saxophone giants who has mastered bebop and yet plays with complete freedom and abandon. He bridges between carefully constructed harmonic elaborations and totally free constructions, moves effortlessly from blues to complex harmonic extensions and has total mastery of the instrument. I heard him play years ago and he struck me immediately as model of where I wanted to take the flute. But it has not been easy. The jam session at Cecil's is an organ jam and the volume is horrific and the sound system is marginal (at least during the jam session). Plus because Bruce is so well respected every young sax player in the area goes there to show what they have learned. And with William Patterson, Rutgers as well as the NY jazz programs training countless young musicians they have learned plenty. I get respect from the young sax players since many of them are struggling to double on flute and so can appreciate what I have accomplished, but the raw acoustical challenge of playing without really hearing myself makes jam sessions a 'pressure,' rather than a 'pleasure.' Still, playing at Cecil's (and the more supportive environment at the Trumpet's monthly jam session) is something I force myself to do, since my ideal of a jazz musician is not limited to playing Latin jazz flute. The standard against which I measure myself is the jazz saxophone and the music that I aspire to play is based on straight-ahead jazz, rather than charanga or choro or other Latin forms.

Con Alma was a success, but the question was where to go from there. I walked into Cecil's late one night and atypically, the stage was being dominated by a guitar player rather than one of the many young saxophonists sitting at the bar. And the guitar player was playing his ass off. I asked a young drummer I knew who the guitarist was and he said, 'Dave Stryker.' I had run into Dave a few times at Trumpets years before but we had not really connected. I had been playing with Vic Juris and Ed Cherry and recording with Romero Lubambo and Jean Paul Bourelly, so another guitarist was not on my radar screen, but Dave was something really special. He had a lovely sound, great swing and a relaxed mastery that shown through everything he did. After the set was over I did my thing. I went up to him, gave him a copy of Con Alma and exchanged contact information. He vaguely remembered me, but was non-committal. A few days later he contacted me by email. He loved the record and was definitely interested in doing a project. I made him my now standard offer of c0-producing and asked him to pick musicians and work with me on repertoire. I was going to make a statement about my playing. After a Latin jazz hit record and winning Best Latin Jazz Flautist of 2007 on the Latin Jazz Corner I was going to make a straight-ahead album.

Dave picked the perfect rhythm section for the date, Victor Lewis on drums and Ed Howard on bass. Both of these guys are modern main-stream players with great swing and taste. Since it was a straight jazz album I decided it would feature original compositions, a long standing tradition among jazz soloists. I wrote three new tunes for the date. A blistering up-tempo 'Loverin'' based on the changes for the 'Lover' but with an altered bridge using 'Giant Steps' substitutions, a medium tempo tune 'Sleeping Beauty' with a waltz section in the style of 'My Favorite Things' and a minor blues I called 'Blues for Janice,' dedicated to a wonderful singer whose album I had produced the year before. I was inviting comparison with jazz saxophonists, 'Blues for Janice' was as close to a Coltrane blues in the style of his 'Blues for Bessie' as I could make it, although I did manage to find a fundamental blues phrase that Coltrane had overlooked. In case anybody missed what I was doing I added Sonny Rollins' signature tune 'Airegin' and Wayne Shorter's classic ballad 'Miyako.' I wanted to be judged by saxophone standards and I was signaling to anyone who could see the semiotics of the tunes that I wanted to be compared with the very best. Dave contributed two wonderful original compositions that he played on acoustic guitar, bringing me back to the modal playing of my days playing with guitar players in Central Park. We added two standards 'Invitation,' and 'Violets for Your Furs,' both associated with Coltrane and rounded everything out with Monk's classic blues line 'Straight, No Chaser,' which I played on bass flute. That was the album. Bass flute is not my favorite instrument and I only played 4 solo choruses, Dave took 6, ending with two choruses of pure funk. Not to be undone on my own album, I over-dubbed his last 2 choruses with a New Orleans ensemble of bass and alto flutes. It was a blast!

I had my straight-ahead album. Jazzheads was so pleased with the result that they released it next. I had also recorded Lua e Sol during the same period, which is the subject of a later blog, but Jazzheads realized that I had a statement to make that another Latin jazz album could not express. I was a jazz flutist and after achieving considerable support as a Latin jazz flutist I had to set the record straight. I love Cuban and Brazilian music, and the music is a natural vehicle for the flute. But I am a jazzer first and foremost and Straight No Chaser makes that perfectly clear.

Naturally there was a penalty to pay. Much of the momentum that I had achieved with Con Alma was lost, at least temporarily. Straight No Chaser was not suited for the world music radio stations that had made Con Alma a hit. And although Con Alma had crossed over to the jazz charts, without the foundation in Latin jazz radio Straight No Chaser moved me back to where I was with O Nosso Amor, a few weeks on the charts, but no real impact. Except for the reviews. Many of the jazz writers got the message and the reviews for Straight No Chaser started to present me as a jazz musician that needs to be taken seriously. Now if I can only get some festival gigs! 

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