Thursday, October 8, 2009

confronting demons

Sometime ago I mentioned that I had entered two competitions for jazz flute sponsored by the National Flute Association (NFA) to perform at the annual convention in New York City, August 2009. The NFA has an enormous membership, in the thousands. Every serious flute player and a host of amateurs are among its members. And overwhelmingly they are all classical flutists. I had a lot of confidence that I would prevail in a competition limited to jazz flutists, but I had enormous anxieties about playing in front of classical flutists. I have a unique sound, in a world where flute sound is of paramount importance in evaluating flutists and an  idiosyncratic technique. I never really studied the flute, in the sense of preparing classical music under the tutelage of a teacher and so never mastered many of the flute tropes that come from the literature. Rather, I play like a cross between a sax and a trumpet.

Happily I can report that I won in both competitions. The video below is part of the recording session I submitted for the competition. I am quite pleased with it. It is Body and Soul played in Gb, which is what the original key of Db turns into when you play alto flute. Paul Meyers is the guitarist.

The conventions had ups and downs. I performed with a Jazz Flute Big Band, with 30 other flutists. I played alto flute, was selected to play a solo and had a wonderful time interacting with some of the best jazz flute players in the country. Ali Ryerson led the band and it was a true pleasure to spend 4 afternoons rehearsing and a gala concert that ended the convention on many, many high notes, especially from a 12 year old monster flutist who played piccolo.  The other competition category was to perform at a master class with Lew Tabakin (that is me, him and the other two winners in the photo). Lew and I go way back. He introduced me as the 'world's loudest trombonist.' Lew had sat in front of me in a number of big bands in the 60's and has often remarked, including at the master class, that sitting in front of Mark Weinstein playing trombone is an 'experience no one forgets.' He is a great saxophonist and a formidable jazz flutist. When I found out that Lew was doing the master class, rather that Holly Hoffman who ran the competition, I was made rather anxious. Lew was always aggressive in his attitudes towards musicians and had the high standards that comes from playing saxophone in the 1960's when the prevailing high standard was set. He met the standard then and now and has had a brilliant career. I only hoped that 40+ years of success had mellowed him out somewhat. Not a chance!

The deal was for the winners to play a song of our choice with a pianist. Holly asked me to play first. Because of chronic sciatica I set up a stool by the piano and sat on the stage before Lew came up. When he did, he went into a long spiel about how much he wanted to play with the pianist and played a long a complex version of standard. I just sat there getting more and more nervous.  He played everything imaginable, starting out rubato, going into time, double timing etc. He played through dozens of technical set pieces from the classical repertoire and swung his ass off. It was quite a performance.

There was nothing for me to do but try to play up to him. I had selected Stella by Starlight, a harmonically rich and beautiful melody made famous by Miles Davis whose performance of the song in a live concert in Europe has always been the bell-weather for my playing. I started out unaccompanied, playing rubato (as had Lew) expecting the pianist to come in. He didn't so I was stuck playing a whole chorus by myself. I started softly with total concentration, as I realized that without the piano player I really had to nail the changes and yet play free enough to warrant playing without an accompanist. After a full chorus of solo flute the piano player came in and I played about 4 or 5 more choruses. I was playing totally on auto-pilot, deep into the music and paying no attention to my sound. I had to show my mastery of the form, the hell with the flute. That was a mistake. The first thing Lew said after I played was that the most important thing about the flute is its sound. And then went on to play the tune for a few choruses (between you and me and a number of people who spoke to me afterwards his performance focused more on playing bebop than on flute sound) but still he was the teacher. I played another few choruses playing more simply and concentrating on sound and then he made me play fours with him. We ended up playing simultaneously, improvising and trying to be musically coherent despite the fact that it had turned into a 'cutting contest.' He didn't give me a break. I did everything I could to play up to him. The session lasted the better part of a half hour. 

After the other two winners played, without much interruption from Lew and certainly without the battle that he had forced me into, the four of us played a blues and it was over. Holly came over to me and shared her feelings about the master class. The result was that we sat in the hallway later that day and she gave me some of the best tips on sound production that anyone ever gave me. Her support and her willingness to be helpful was a stark contrast with Lew's approach to running a master class. But what he did was quite typical of many musicians'  attitude towards teaching and I take it as a compliment that he put me through the wringer.

Given this is October and the conference is in the past, the question is why do I bring it up now. The reason is because I just confronted a real demon, compared to which playing at the NFA was small beer. Last year I did a number of recordings including a half an album of tangos. The story behind that is as follows. I was at a jazz convention two years ago sponsored by JazzImprov magazine. I had a number of albums ready to go and I was networking like crazy. I ran into Jochan Becker the President of Zoho records. He had passed on my album Algo Más a number of years ago, after first showing some interest (he was not crazy about the vocals, which were an integral part of the concept). He always felt badly that he had not put the album out since it led to my long-standing relationship recording for Jazzheads. Jochan suggested that if I wanted a good chance at a Grammy nomination I should record a tango album (by far the category with the fewest entries) and that he had just the right guy to do it with me, Pablo Aslan, a bassist who recorded for Zoho and who was interested in innovative tango projects. I contacted Pablo and we decided to do a half album. He selected the material and wrote arrangements for flute, piano, bandoleon, bass and guitar, classic tangos in the heart of the tradition. My job was to do something new with them.

Pablo is a meticulous musician. He hired the best guys around (bringing in a pianist from Buenos Aires) and wrote classic settings. We rehearsed and recorded the material in my usual fashion, one long day. I handled the material, read the charts and played solos. The date was finished. I made a copy of the recorded material and took it home to listen. My initial response was: Why? The music was good enough but there was no reason for me to be playing it. I knew very little about tango music so I played my usual Latin inflected bebop and it was totally meaningless. There was nothing in what I did that added anything beyond the novelty of the flute. I sat on that music for more than a year, terrified to even think about dealing with it. I would listen to the  session from time to time, enough so that I eventually had those melodies in my head, but I didn't have a clue as to how to handle the improvisation. I had no idea as to how to make a musical contribution to the form. In the meantime I had connected with Aruan Ortiz and recorded the second half of the album, Cuban danzones as I discussed a few blogs back. Playing the danzones moved me closer to the spirit of the tango, but still I had no sense of how to play the music. The beauty of the tango, as I listened closely to the recordings, is the tension between the strict 2-beat rhythm (carried mainly by a bowed bass) and a free almost rubato approach to the lines. You had to always end up on strong beats, but in between you sped up and slowed down, playing freer in time that either Cuban or Brazilian music permits, which is much freer than bebop. The lines swooped rather than swung. Pablo had notated some runs for me as 11-tuples, that is, 11 notes across a half note. Now that is hard to do and not even accurate since the way you get the odd meters in time is by playing the line with an accelerando and then slowing down to compensate. It is a style of playing that takes a life-time to master and I had dealt myself the task of doing it right the first time. Or at least the 2nd time. I gave myself another shot.

Last week I went into the studio and played the five short solos over and over for a few hours. Each one took lots of takes and lots of listening until I was finally able to find a way to add my music to a form that was completely alien to me. I tried everything from bebop to Cuban to completely free jazz, letting my fingers and ears lead me. By the end of the session I had the music recorded. It is different from anything that I have done and shows a whole new side of my playing, yet it sounds like me. It will be a while before anyone else hears it. I have Timbasa coming out in February and I still have the album with Kenny Barron that I recorded around the same time finished and in the pipeline. But I can wait. I confronted the demon and I got through it. The tangos are finished!