Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Motivated to Play...by the Music

My personal preferences in music have been formed around the tradition of creative improvised music that is never played the same way twice. I love a good rhythm and a great horn solo and the spontaneous interplay of multiple improvisers. 

Most of my great experiences playing music came after the age of 50. Past the age when Pres and Jug had already left us. An age when cave men would have been long dead, and past a man’s life expectancy in many of the world’s poorest countries today. I never seriously considered playing music professionally full-time since most all the world’s improvising musicians are near destitute – see the heart wrenching video about Kalaparusha 'That's not a horn, it's a starvation box' that appeared on the Guardian web site in 2010 to prove it. Lester Bowie once said that at the height of The Art Ensemble’s worldwide fame, he earned less than his mailman. The great Sam Rivers – whose playing was too advanced for Miles in the 60’s – admitted that he only had two years of steady work in his whole life, and that was when he played in Dizzy’s band in the 80’s (Dizzy, as essential as he is, had more or less stopped innovating by the late 1940’s whereas Sam never stopped). 

As much as I love music, I never had the stomach to teach 8-year-olds forced to take lessons by their dragon mothers who dream of their child on stage at Carnegie Hall, like some of my bandstand compatriots must do to earn a living. Live gigs are few these days when anyone can twiddle up instant entertainment on their hand phone, and good gigs where the creative improvising musician can have full artistic control are even fewer. But those are the gigs we focus on and yes they do exist. I am playing for the creative outlet the music provides, the feeling of flow that can only be achieved through fully-engaged high-performance endeavours (such as race car driving or equestrian sports), to be in the rare mental space created by guys like Sonny, Pres, Mex, Rahsaan, Booker Ervin, Fred Anderson and others sung and unsung, to be behind a bent piece of brass that is one of the most genius inventions of mankind, to be where nobody can get between me and what comes out the other end of the tube, and to preserve and proliferate the tradition of creative improvisation with utter truth and honesty. Maybe even contribute something however small. Oh yes, and for the joy of music. Music needs to be fun; it is not meant to be a painful, complicated, academic experience.

Monday, 30 January 2012

State of the Horn, One Player's View

Playing sax is a never ending learning process. Most of the players I like are way older than me – the recently passed Sam Rivers was close to 90, Fred Anderson was in his late 70’s when he left, Ornette and Sonny are now 80, Vonski is about 88 now and still going.

Since my school days the music in many ways has transformed from a vibrant, free, expressive art form to a stodgy, academic, ossified craft you learn in class by studying method books based on John Coltrane’s 1959 approach, an approach he himself rapidly advanced away from. So-called jazz can now be “graded” and there are “jazz competitions” with monetary prizes awarded. I've never understood how an art form founded in self expression could be treated as a competition like weight lifting or horse racing.

Ornette is back to being considered radical again more than 50 years after he established the mainstream. Learning jazz is now mostly “take a random mathematical pattern like 1-3-6-5, memorize it in every key, then play it as fast as you can”. Harmonic complexity is treated as the only value worth striving for; formulaically twiddling up and down chords at high speed is what makes you a good horn player. The more complicated the better. Memorizing solos, other people’s solos, is mandatory (but only those that slavishly follow chord changes, the kind of music the pioneers abandoned in the late 50’s, mainly because formulas can be replicated but creativity cannot). The conventional wisdom after 30 years of musical Reaganomics is that music is like speech – you imitate your mother to learn to speak, so you must imitate other musicians to play jazz. An inaccurate analogy – I learned to speak from my mother but my voice sounds nothing like hers, I never needed to ape her voice pitch, emphasis, and inflection to speak, and I never had to copy her exact words, grammar, and syntax to be understood. There is still a pocket of creativity in the music today but it is small and the giants are leaving us one by one. Much of what I hear labelled “jazz” is corporate pap and the word is close to becoming meaningless since many uncritical listeners confuse lounge music that incorporates a bit of syncopation and a blue note or two with the creative storm that stems from the tradition of Pops, Pres, Bird, Miles, Trane, and Ornette. Where I live it is difficult to hear a horn at all.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Audio Files, China House on Friday the 13th

The audio from our China House gig on Friday, January 13, 2012, is available for download in 320k mp3 format at First Set and Second Set. The zip files decompress as individual tracks. These are audience recordings on a Zoom H2.

First Set
1. Killer Joe and band intro
2. Beatrice (tribute to the late great Sam Rivers)
3. Equinox
(L to R) Leonard, Jackie, Adrian, Ron, James  
4. Flintstones
5. Hold 'Em Joe
6. Kidney Stew
7. Blue Monk
8. Cold Duck Time
9. Mamacita
10. Someone Like You (Jackie vocal) 

Second Set 
1. Doxy
2. Song for My Father
3. Tequila
4. The Black and Crazy Blues
5. The Happy Blues
6. Listen Here
7. 'Round Midnight *

The Chicago Jazz Quartet +1 Live at China House. Ron Ashkin, tenor sax; Jackie Ashkin, alto sax and vocals; Adrian Jones, bass; Leonard Selva, keyboards; James Peterson, drums. Recorded at China House, historic Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, on January 13, 2012. 

* for some reason, the second set closer, 'Round Midnight, did not get recorded and does not appear on the audio file.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Performance Videos, China House on Friday the 13th

Here are two performance videos from China House in Georgetown on the night of Friday, January 13th, 2012. We billed ourselves as The Chicago Jazz Quartet +1, the +1 being Jackie, and played to a full house. We had rehearsed together only the night before - Adrian Jones on bass, Leonard Selva on keys, and James Peterson on drums formed the nice rhythm section. Two firsts - Jackie's first vocal solo with a live backing band (well, almost, she fronted the Dalat Jazz Band last spring singing A Train), and James' first club gig. China House is a cool place, a unique space for Penang, three shop houses that go long-ways through an entire city block in the historic district, housing restaurants, bars, galleries, and performance spaces.

First, Jackie singing a cover of Adele's Someone Like You:

Next, Trane's Equinox:

There are three more videos from that night up on YouTube: Gene Ammons' Happy Blues with Tonal Alchemy sitting in as the rhythm section, Rahsaan's Black and Crazy Blues, and Beatrice, done as a tribute to the late great Sam Rivers who recently passed. Click here for the link.

Friday, 27 January 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 4

A few months before college graduation I acquired a Mark 6 alto for $500 from a Berklee student who quit alto to concentrate on tenor – I didn’t get his name and wonder what famous player he is now? I still have it. My $150 Bundy went to Don Baker. I also acquired two horns from old guys in Terre Haute, the original owners who were big band players in their prime years – an all-original Buescher tenor which I still have right here next to me, and a perfect Selmer padless alto which had a reed in its case marked June 1, 1944. The Selmer owner was on his way out and said he held on to it as long as he could but wanted someone to play it who could appreciate it, so he was happy to sell it to me. That horn was stolen during one of our many wretched moves, which really hit me hard. I played the Buescher for the first time at the American Legion on Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute with Donn Armstrong’s band, Born Too Loose and Land of a Thousand Dances, where a big boxbelly spun her skinny duck’s-arsed tough-guy-shirt-wearin' husband around the dance floor while I honked na-na-na-na-na backed by Rod and Doug on 'bone.

Fast forward about 20 years…younger days jamming with friends (Aneurism Blues and Boxbelly Woman) but then a saxophone hiatus of about 15 years where my horns were in storage and we worked and travelled all around the world. Typical hooey of being too busy with career or whatever, because being a good horn player takes serious work. But I always loved the music and accumulated a massive CD collection…only to have it stolen in yet another wretched move. In that one our entire household disappeared, unbelievable. Come 2004 and working in Kazakhstan where it was deathly boring, I thought and thought about playing again rather than just passively listening. After about a year I eventually got off my duff and bought a clunky communist-era Czech-made Amati tenor from one of the office drivers who had played sax in the Soviet circus. At $350, it was the only horn in town. I took it down into the basement and from the moment I blew it, I wondered why I ever quit playing in the first place, and why I had dithered so long about playing rather than just picking up a horn and doing it. Something clicked and I’ve played pretty much every day since. Just lost 15 years in the process. I've since concentrated on playing tenor as the pitch range fits my hearing best, and it is complicated enough to play one horn relatively well, although lately I have been blowing a bit of alto just so I don’t totally lose it. When I started playing again I just wanted to play a few notes, a few phrases, in the mindspace of Sonny or Pres or any of the giants. After I played for a while that wasn’t enough and I found I could actually play the music, even if at a minor league level.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 3

The 1970’s were the height of the New York loft scene; a live show costs just a couple of bucks in those days and most places did not clear the floor between sets. I used to take the train frequently to NYC, where my Lab School best friend Gilbert lived. Gilbert loved music and had the world’s largest record collection but he never had any musical talent himself (his amazing talents lie elsewhere - he is now a world-renowned artist, see http://www.gilberthsiao.blogspot.com/). I guess we have that in common, no innate musical talent. I used to go hear live music all the time – Studio Rivbea and the Tin Palace come to mind. Once I walked across lower Manhattan blowing my alto in the street the whole way; when we walked in front of Ali’s Alley, Rashied Ali himself came out to see what the commotion was – can you imagine doing that in post-Giuliani NYC? Probably get locked up.

Some of the greats I’ve had the fortune to see and hear live: Miles Davis (his pre-retirement electric band with Sonny Fortune and Pete Cosey), Charles Mingus (with George Adams and Danny Rich-man; Mingus cussed me out with some racial epithets when I naively tried to say hello between sets in Montreal), Dexter Gordon (once with Woody Shaw on trumpet; Dexter was a real gentleman), Dizzy Gillespie (who was interested in my wife and not the least bit in me), Sam Rivers (at Rivbea), Sonny Rollins (in Philly where I sat so close I could’ve shined his shoes), Leroy Jenkins (at the recording session for his JCOA album), Clark Terry (I interviewed him for WHRB), Archie Shepp (I interviewed him for WHRB and got to hang out with him and Dave Burrell in their hotel; he certainly never showed any hostility towards white people to me), James Moody (in Terre Haute!), McCoy Tyner (maybe his best band with Junie Booth and Azar Lawrence), Kalaparusha (I had, and still have, a real taste for the AACM), Muhal Richard Abrams, Ornette Coleman with Prime Time, towering Randy Weston, Max Roach (with the fabulous Billy Harper on tenor), Dewey Redman (whose music puts his much more highly touted son to shame), Julius Hemphill (Tim Berne was his manager at the time and sent me some unreleased cassettes of Julius), David Murray (the saxophone prodigy of the day, not much older than me), Jimmy McGriff, Lou Donaldson, Ray Charles, Pepper Adams (in Munich’s famed Domocile), Chicago’s great Fred Anderson, Joe Henderson (whose introverted style I never really understood until I saw him in person), Jackie McLean (one of his last concerts), Cecil Taylor (who plays the piano like he has three hands), Paul Quinichette at the West End, Art Blakey (not one of his best bands unfortunately) and Sun Ra and James Brown multiple times…JB twice with Wilson Pickett on the bill. My favorite is Vonski Von Freeman who instructed me that “Music is not mathematics.”

Someone I didn’t see…Rahsaan…one of the dumbest things I ever did in my life. Big Dave called me to come down to Bloomington and see Rahsaan at the Bluebird and I was too lazy to make the hour drive by myself. Rahsaan died that night after the concert. Big Dave is gone now too.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 2

Fast forward to college. Growing up in Terre Haute I didn’t hear any jazz (though I later discovered that Duke played one of his last road gigs at Mr. Boos on Third Street). 16 years old at Harvard where my classmates included Yo Yo Ma, who was already a recording artist, and Jerry Harris, who went on to play bass with Sonny Rollins. I liked music so I went down to WHRB in the ancient Memorial Hall basement and joined up. I didn’t know enough about music to get any on-air work at first so I began by running the boards in the control room. I was good at it and found a lot of work there, and eventually got on the air.

My exposure to jazz began at the deep end, with Coltrane and Dolphy, and I pretty much immediately lost interest in rock and such (although I have retained some fondness for hillbilly music). The radio station had a huge record library and WHRB had the custom of suspending regular programming during reading and exam periods in favor of “orgies” dedicated to individual artists or styles. I did a 24-hour Monk orgy at one point and we put Monk on the cover of the program guide that month. Once while I was spinning a Bird disc late at night Roy Haynes actually called me on the phone to tell me he was the drummer on that record! What really ruined me was taking A.B. Spellman’s Black Music course, which started with Jelly Roll and ended with The Art Ensemble, with Pops, Duke, the Count, Bean, Pres, Bird, Miles, Trane, Mingus, Ornette, Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor in between. Ornette and Albert Ayler are the mainstream of the tradition. I used to set up the sound system for class; once I sat some equipment down on A.B.’s peanut butter crackers and his famous retort was “Get off my cracker, cracker”. ROFL.

After a year or so of listening to records, hanging out with hard core fanatics, and hearing live music at Boston’s Jazz Workshop, I was compelled to play again. I got a Bundy alto in Terre Haute over the summer. By the time I was a junior and living in Dunster House we would jam on weekends in the basement piano rooms. There was a cat named Phil Gardner who could already play like Bird and I was a talentless near beginner in comparison. Senior year I took an independent music course and studied saxophone with Hankus Netsky from New England Conservatory on a study-exchange program. Hankus is now famous for leading the Klezmer Conservatory Band and at one point was head of jazz studies at NEC. In my first lesson he made me transcribe Miles’ solo from So What. Jeez.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

My Musical Biography, Part 1

I don’t know how I caught the bug for saxophone. I certainly didn’t come from a musical family. My parents had a Dean Martin record, a Frank Sinatra record, and Andy Williams singing Moon River. My big brother once had a friend who played accordion at Bar Mitzvahs when I was real small. We had an organ in the living room but nobody in the family could play it. My parents were a young couple in New York in the late 40’s around the time 52nd Street was hot, so maybe that rubbed off on me somehow. My dad did have an 8-track tape player in his car.

I grew up in rust belt Terre Haute, Indiana and went to the world’s best elementary school ever, the Lab School. In fifth or sixth grade music was mandatory and we were divided into choir, orchestra, and band. I couldn’t sing worth a darn and still can’t, so choir was out; I hated the sound of violins and still do, so orchestra was out; so band was it for me. I remember being taken into the band instrument room at Lab School and staring in awe at the racks of instrument cases. I still remember the smell – the musty old instrument case aroma of my current practice room reminds me of that – cognitive bliss since sensory memory is so intense. My first instrument was a plastic Bundy clarinet. My first band teacher was the legendary Wilburn Elrod. In junior high we took the yellow school bus up to Elkhart, then the band instrument capital of the world, and toured the Conn factory. Wow. Must’ve been a few years before some wise accountant figured that moving production to Tijuana would save a few bucks.