What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Connie Crothers Connie Crothers, a Brooklyn-based pianist and teacher. The bulk of her recordings have been issued on the New Artists label, an artist-run imprint she founded, including Swish, an early '80s duo album with Max Roach. Her latest New Artists recording, Music is a Place, featuring long-time collaborator, saxophonist Richard Tabnik, bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Roger Mancuso was reviewed in PoD Issue 11. For more extensive biographical and discographical information, consult: http://www.newartistsrecords.com.

Pandelis Karayorgis Pandelis Karayorgis, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based pianist and educator. A stalwart of the vibrant Boston scene, his main ongoing projects include his trio with bassist Nate McBride and drummer Randy Peterson and the mi3, featuring McBride and drummer Curt Newton. His most recent CD is Foreground Music (Okka Disk), a collection of duos with saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark. Chicago Approach (Nuscope),a trio date with McBride and saxophonist Guillermo Gregorio, was reviewed in PoD Issue 10. Karayorgis has an extensive site located at: http://www.karayorgis.com.

Marilyn Lerner Marilyn Lerner, a Toronto-based pianist whose work spans jazz, klezmer and 20th century classical music. She composes for film, theater, radio and television in addition to writing for her own projects. Ongoing collaborations include Queen Mab, a duo with bass clarinetist Lori Freedman, and, with the addition of violist Ig Henneman, Queen Mab Trio. The Trio's Thin Air was reviewed in PoD Issue 9; Lerner's solo album, Romanian Fantasy, was reviewed in Issue 11. For more information about her various activities, visit: http://www.marilynlerner.com.

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Bill Shoemaker: Having a personal voice is essential in your respective endeavors. The process of articulating this need and realizing it tends to happen in stages over time. How did you articulate this process in terms of your own work and, generally, what stages did you go through to arrive at your current approach?

Connie Crothers: To me, having a personal voice is what jazz is all about. Prez said it: “You can’t join the throng until you sing your own song."

When I was a kid, I felt this need so strongly it impelled me to compose. Performing classical pieces, beautiful as they were, felt to me like replicating another musician’s “song.” When I was old enough to live my own life, I came to New York City to study with Lennie Tristano. Even before I met him, I knew that I’d get to my own identity working with him, which proved to be true. I couldn’t learn by playing the way other musicians play, to progress from imitation to my own way. That meant that my improvisation was limited for several years. Then, I heard some music in a dream. I had no idea what it was. Even though it was on a tune, it wasn’t really tonal. Although the form was apparent, it didn’t seem to correspond to the bar structure. It took me awhile to release it from my dreaming mind to my conscious mind and find it on the piano. Then, I was home free. Everything came through all at once.

I agree with the old-time concept about the need for roots. I feel that genuine originality comes through by personally internalizing the music of the first few thriving decades of this art form, the crucible years – the sound, the feeling and the concept characteristic of those years. I did a lot of singing with the recorded masterpieces of the original masters – Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, many others. Singing with them made it possible for me to get to know them personally, get beyond the enthralling notes, to the source of these notes, their feeling. That was how I contacted the source of spontaneous improvisation within myself.

For me, the real content of a personal voice is personal feeling. It encompasses the entire range of sound and emotion. It is open, so it will shift and change. I don’t feel that creating a unique style is the same thing as having a personal voice. The style, to be recognized, must be replicated. Ultimately, the style controls the music which then becomes generalized.

Marilyn Lerner: I once heard creativity described as the new re-combining of known elements – this has always stuck with me…

First and foremost, I would describe myself as an improviser- before even calling myself a jazz musician. And as a pianist, the sound takes priority for me. I have been intrigued with developing a sound – hence my interest in solo playing. I realized after many years that I sometimes miss the subtleties of the instrument, and only in solo can that sound really be heard – as in the harmonics for example.

I studied classical music, jazz and also ethnomusicology in university, and all three worlds figure strongly in my work today. I would say that integration is the most honest description of the path of my musical career. It has been a long process – and one not without struggle – but I have come to the realization that for me, having a distinctive voice evolves out of a natural restlessness – and to some extent, dissatisfaction with categories.

I take what moves me from different traditions and this forms my basic vocabulary. Beyond this, I try to stretch myself beyond what I know. Free improvisation has opened this door for me, especially in playing with people who come from the classical and New Music worlds. This is because in my experience, sound for its own sake can be a significant parameter in music making and the way is open for individual expression and experimentation. And in a roundabout way, all improvisers come from somewhere-and those influences are in almost always in evidence somewhere.

Having said this, I think that penetrating and studying the masters is essential- and endless-I believe we must a depth of knowledge from which to venture. I know I keep returning to Parker, Powell, Shorter, Lee Morgan, Clifford Jordan, Andrew Hill …

My roots are jazz and I constantly re-listen with deeper ears to the great players. But I always leave them behind when I’m playing. The attempt is to come fresh, open and humble. Over the years I have developed into a pianist who likes to get inside the piano. Gesture, energy and intention- a conception of painting-maybe abstractly so, are current foci. I learn from Shostakovitch, Ellington , Mercedes Sosa and the wind chimes outside my door.

In your question is the idea of stages over time-and this also brings up the aging process – in some way our music shifts as we experience life – and this I find to be true.

In terms of roots it’s also been important to me to know the music of my own cultural heritage -which is Eastern European. So it’s natural that I then take the folk melodies of this tradition, which I feel in my blood, and bring the honest influences of my culture in North America so expressing these tunes with a jazz sensibility, that I hope something emerges which is honest and an expression of who I am as a musician.

One last thought – who I am is also shaped by those with whom I make music – because I think we grow in relation to those with whom play live!

Pandelis Karayorgis: At first, personal style was not something I was really aware of (I think this is true of most, at an early stage). My early jazz education emphasized bebop styles, and at that time I strived to emulate my musical heroes, even if some were post-bebop players. Some of my teachers strictly enforced jazz orthodoxy and others encouraged me to feel more comfortable with my personal voice, or 'accent,' and develop it further (Joe Maneri, for example).

From that point on, there has been a continuous process of evolving a personal style that I have been aware of, but not too preoccupied with. For me it's just a natural process, part of being true to one's self. Part of what goes into it is discovering particularly inspiring musicians (Monk, Tristano), part of it is musical realizations of my own, part of it is ideas, and part of it is just mystery -- and probably better left that way! In other words, I think that developing a personal style is a mix of rational choice and idiosyncrasy. Extra-musical factors certainly come into play too.

Quite often I find what is not played as important as was is played. To limit can be a challenge and it forces me to seek alternate solutions. But just like instrumental technique, personal style must allow you to express your ideas fully even if it has to be at times resourceful in unconventional ways.

Shoemaker: How do your priorities as an improviser shape your practice regimen? What do you practice and what don't you practice?

Lerner: Overall I try to be creative about my approach, and I go through different phases in my regimen. For me there are different modes of approaching this – there's ”practicing" and "studying" and "exploring.” There's at the piano practicing and away from the piano practicing. Warm-ups – might use scales as a warm-up, or maybe a bebop solo or a Bach prelude or fugue. I approach these like studies, extrapolating ideas and transposing them, being creative with them....and also refine my execution

I may practice for a concert, a certain repertoire for example.

I study – for example I analyze a solo for intention, conceptual ideas, technical ideas...or I listen to the compositions of Wayne Shorter for form.

I also spend time ear training – whether it's figuring out changes or transcribing...

Then there's exploring, and that's really the most personal part of it for me-say I like an idea I've heard-in that solo for example. I figure out the basic idea behind it and how to be creative with it and make it my own. Last year I was listening to a lot of Aldo Ciccolini playing Satie. In these very short pieces I hear Ciccolini use an astonishing amount of variety as to color, attack, approach etc. This work is done away from the piano- and then i might try to improvise with these ideas, eg. Very sharp short notes, a interesting dynamic shape, etc! In terms of Bach I am interested in voice leading and also non- chord tones – very interested in exceptions in style. So I may try to adapt these in some way. I also go through periods in which I record myself and then listen back to see if what I'm hearing is what I'm playing – I find this very helpful in bringing these two parts closer together.

Finally there's exploration – and that's when I seek and explore- this is largely gestural and improvisatory-maybe I'm inside the piano, maybe working with sustain-for example-hold down A below middle C and strike a chord in the left hand ,release and hear the harmonics.

I just try to experiment with something different. I really enjoy this!

In terms of what I don't do? I try to stay conscious and not zone out. Even in playing scales extreme attention to evenness (or contrast if that's what I decide). Ya, I try to stay awake and listening. If it's not happening I may stop playing-I think mindless practicing is not useful.

Karayorgis: As an improviser I am mostly focused on the conceptual aspect of what I play, and practicing has to help me deal with issues that relate to that. Piano technique concerns me only to the extent that it serves me to execute my ideas effectively. Having played my fair share of scales and exercises earlier on, now I mostly practice learning the pieces in my repertoire. I avoid working on patterns, scales or sequences because I feel that they lead to sequential or pre-determined finger pattern-playing. It can also become tedious – I once heard Steve Lacy talk about how practicing should not do anything to spoil one's appetite for music.

I also spend a lot of time exploring new material in general, and I enjoy practicing playing in bebop style. I find that this gives me tools and depth for my "real" playing. Once in a while I also transcribe and analyze interesting solos.

Crothers: Actually, I never practice. I “practiced” when I was a classical pianist. What I express now is so very different from that. I can’t conceptualize it as “practicing.”

It is all music to me. I don’t differentiate. For example, scales are, at this point in my musical life, very moving to me. If I am not moved by whatever I play, in any context, it has no value to me. It has to sound beautiful to me. It has to draw me in. Unless it has my complete mind, it has no meaning for me.

I spend a lot of my time at the piano improvising. When I am not improvising, I fathom the aspects of our music--melody, harmony, rhythm, form, sound. To name these aspects is too general. Each one has many expressions. I feel that this kind of investigation is one working definition of infinity. It is impossible to run out. Each investigation opens up another.

When I am spending time with a specific musical expression, I can also focus deeply on being physically open, my entire body relaxed. I want all of my piano playing to be released from openly moving energy. Breathing awareness is important to me.

I play most of this specifically focused music very slowly. When it’s slow, I can fathom everything about it much more deeply.

Here are some current examples:

I have sets of tonal chord voicings which combine extensions with alterations. I find that changing even one note in a voicing gives it an entirely different character. If I hear, understand, and vividly see on the piano keyboard the voicing, I can go deeper with a conception I have been pursuing for years, of extending tonal harmony to include all twelve notes at any given point in a tune, so that no notes are “outside,” they are “inside.” Tonight I played a tonic minor chord (minor with major 7), voiced 1, b3, 5, b6, 7, 9, +11, +13, +15 (C as root; C, Eb, G, Ab, B, D, F#, A#, C#). I played it melodically as slow arpeggios in all keys.

Another set of chord voicings is atonal--no root, or tonal harmonic reference. They are arrived at by interval only. By going through all the intervals in a chosen grouping (such as five notes, with a minor second as the bottom interval), I can find beautiful voicings that open up my connection with atonal harmony as a personal expression. The one I chose tonight was -2, 6, 3, 6 (C, Db, Bb, D, B). I played it from every note in all registers and then sang it.

Sometimes I play these chords in a chosen series, by ear. I also displace individual voicings by all the intervals.

I am now playing several melodic fragments. (These are not arranged phrases or “licks”--a waste of time, I feel.) I prefer to play these fragments in diatonic scales right now, because I am enjoying the way they shift and change as they begin from each note of the scale. I find my fragments from hearing and imagining melody in specific ways. Right now, I am playing one that expresses modal ambiguity; it’s a three-note fragment, thirds in a diatonic scale, 3-1-3, where the first 3 is “wrong” (in C major it would be Eb-C-E, F#-D-F, G#-E-G, Ab-F-A, and so on). I’ve spent time with fragments to become conversant with melodic counter-rhythm, expressing more than one key in just a few notes, etc. My single criterion for these fragments is that they must sound beautiful to me.

I play a lot of “straight” melody; I find it to be an unending source. I improvise with CDs of melodies that I have recorded with one hand, just the simple melody. Sometimes, I sing these melodies. I get a strong feeling for the song that way, and also an intuitive contact with the form. To me, the words of a song are important.

Singing with recorded solos of the great improvisers has always been important to me. Most recently, I sang with an extended solo by Lennie Tristano on his CD, Note to Note--the title track. I prefer this to getting solos from transcriptions. Doing that just gives you the notes, beautiful as they may be, but not the underlying concept or the sound or the subtleties. I don’t transfer any solos to the piano anymore. I just want to experience the feeling of the soloist.

I love to live this way. If I didn’t have other things to do with my life, I could just go this way. I have given my music great wonderful quantities of time. However, I don’t feel that quantity is the important thing; it’s quality. One focused hour is more real than twelve hours during which the mind wanders. I don’t work on things to use them in my solos. “Use” is not really a musical concept to me. I like to just spend time, like a deep friendship--a conversation between my purely creative mind and the part of my mind that can notice and remember.

Shoemaker: Granted, there is a skill set that can only be developed through playing with other people. Repeatedly, improvisers have told me that’s when the real quantum leaps in their playing occurred. What leap or giant step in your playing happened because of shedding or gigging with others?

Lerner: There were two particular musical partners with whom I developed as a result of shedding. The first was Jane Bunnett. In our early 20s we worked six nighters in Toronto playing standards as a duo. The night after night thing really was wonderful at the time and I learned a ton of standards that I still play today. Second was Lori Freedman, in our duo Queen Mab. We went through a period of several years during which time we would tape ourselves improvising, often structured improvs, and then listen together and analyze what we did. It was a tough process – but it taught me mostly to hear myself better and to become the subjective nature of music. I think we both really grew as a result of that time together. I treasure it because as I get older I have less time to put into those kinds of studies.

There were of course single encounters and also teachers who inspired me – teachers Fred Hersch, Joanne Brackeen, Sonny Bravo, and Cedar Walton, and players like Steve Lacy, Ab Baars, Michael Vatcher, and Tito Puente.

These leaps are different – the shedding experiences are gradual and built a foundation, the encounters are inspirational and push me forward. I also discover that these musicians all have a very unique voice-that is what is distinguishes them for others. This is very inspirational. You see and feel the personality, the conviction, the time spent developing language. I feel encouraged by this.

Crothers: Jazz improvisation is conversational. When we create music together spontaneously, we’re talking with each other. I feel that the session is invaluable in this way. It isn’t a gig; it’s not a rehearsal. When it’s at its best, it’s great time spent with musicians who have creative affinity, conversing, creating music together for its own sake. My quartet’s most recent CD is “Music is a Place,” New Artists label. This release followed five years of weekly sessions. In these sessions, the four of us – Richard Tabnik on alto saxophone, Roger Mancuso on drums and Ratzo Harris on bass – just played spontaneously, with no objective in mind. Several months before the recording session, we hit a breakthrough. While playing standards and maintaining the usual order of solos--so that we would not have to keep anything in our minds--just through creating music together intuitively, we got to music that could go anywhere, that had spontaneously generated “sections,” surprising resolutions, unplanned shifting variety and contrast, each “piece” having a distinct sound and character. Much of the time, it can be hard to tell who is soloing, the conversation between us flowed so effortlessly. The four of us merged and played as one improvising organism. In this way, through playing together, we found an improvising solution to a band conundrum that many solve through arranging or composition.

Karayorgis: It's true that with some people, over time, the exchange of ideas leads to the formation of a unique musical language, a set of usually unspoken guidelines and ideas that can then be taken away and applied to different contexts. I guess those are the quantum leaps referred to in the question. In that respect I see some of my past and present musical partnerships as very important "musical world-view forming experiences." (Not unlike our everyday non-musical interactions.)

It's hard for me to name a specific "leap" or "giant step," Instead, I would rather say that I owe a good part of my musical personality to certain musicians I have worked with. On the other hand I am also thinking that musicians who mostly play solo make "quantum leaps" too. The skill set of group playing is a very specific one but I think it's somewhat separate from that of improvising.

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