August 25, 2008

I had the pleasure of sitting in on tuba with Gene Maurice’s Chicago-style jazz band And That’s Jazz at their monthly rehearsal last Thursday. This was a new experience for me, as while I have been playing (and recording) tuba in my own home as part of my own music, I have not sat in with an existing jazz band with this instrument. This occasioned a few thoughts on the challenges of playing tuba, as opposed to the trombone which is my regular instrument.

Gene’s band was missing their banjo that night, which meant that the sole source of bass and chords was myself. Coupled with the different repertoire that Gene’s band plays as opposed to some of the groups I have played with in the past, I had some difficulty in producing the correct chord changes. And this is very important. Tuba is responsible for providing the chords and leading the group into the right changes, especially when there is no other rhythm player present as in this case.

Tuba in traditional jazz is the bottom- the tubist (or bass sax player, or string bass player) provides the chords that the rest of the band triggers from. The front line builds on the bass, and priovdes the melody, but the bass is responsible for making sure that the tune has the correct chord structure, and is also the primary source for leading the band into the changes, though when a piano or banjo is present, they also share that responsibility.

However, on Thursday night, I was alone, and I fear that I was not as accurate in my use of chords as I ought to have been, thus I led the band astray in a a number of instances. I think most of this can be corrected by a study of the repertoire- knowing the tunes for me will eliminate the problem of missing chords. This is true in many cases- if one is familiar with the actual tune, then one knows where the chords will be going and can provide the correct changes without needing recourse to a lead sheet, which may or my not be correct. This is especially important if the band chooses to use a different key, which renders the written changes on the lead sheet less useful.

it was very enjoyable to play with Gene’s group and I look forward to increasing my knowledge so that the next time i won’t be wondering where the changes are heading!


Leading a Jam Session

August 25, 2008

I was at the monthly meeting of the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society this past Sunday at the request of jam session director Jim Harget. the session was led by cornetist Dick Williams of the Mission Gold Jazz band, and this occasioned a few thoughts on how to lead a jam session, and also a few notes for those who wish to play in said jam sessions.

Dick is an accomplished leader, and easily maintained control over the jammers. He counted off each tune clearly, and before counting off, set the scene for the musicians by specifying tempo and how each break (if a break was present) should be handled. In addition, h went over the method in which the tune would be ended. He also had no compunction about stopping the tune should things go awry. Once the tune was started, he ensured that each musician or group of musician knew when his solo was coming and maintained contact with each member of the jam set.

This was a well-managed jam session, and I highly recommend aspiring leaders to pay close attention to the way that Dick managed the session. The main flaw of any jam session is the sheer number of musicians who wish to participate, and if the leader does not keep a close eye on things, it is easy for such sessions to disintegrate into complete confusion. Dick avoided this problem, and the jammers mostly paid attention to Dick’s direction. This allowed the dancers to enjoy the music while giving the jammers opportunities to play.

For musicians who wish to join in a jam session, it is important to follow a few simple directions. Firstly, it is important to make yourself known to the leader, and to follow his or her directions as to when (and when not) to play. Once the session begins, it is important to play within your ability. If you are a beginner, or someone who is unfamiliar with the repertoire, then you should listen to a musician who does know the repertoire if one such is present. This is especially important if there are multiple players on your instrument. Recognize the most skilled and/or experienced player, and defer to him or to her within the section. On Sunday for example, in addition to myself, we were fortunate to have both Bill Carson from the Natural Gas Jazz Band and John Soulis who leads the afore-mentioned Mission Gold Jazz Band present, though they chose not to play for the session.

If the leader chooses to have multiple players on the same instrument play a solo, it is important that at least one take a melodic line while the other improvises. This is a classic method, best demonstrated by an occasion when the great trombonists Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey played together in a studio session. Dorsey played an absolutely straight melody line while Teagarden improvised around it. By splitting things this way, it will allow both players to showcase their skills, while not producing an situation where both try to improvise and it results in a musical mess!

If a musician is granted the opportunity to play a single solo, it is important to maintain the principles of musicality. Volume and tone are of particular importance. The volume should never be too lound- if you cannot hear the bass line, you are too loud! This is also true of ensemble playing- if you cannot hear the lead line, then you need to modulate your volume. Many beginners in traditional jazz think that it is necessary to have a brassy, obnoxious tone. This could not be further from the truth. Traditional jazz contains as many opportunities for playing beautifully as does any other form of music, and maintaining an attractive tone makes it more pleasurable for the audience and also for one’s fellow musicians.

As for the actual solo, there are many schools of thought, but for beginners, it is important to keep things as simple as possible- this method minimizes opportunities for getting lost and potentially turning a good solo into a bad one. Until you are familiar with the changes, it is a good idea to stick close to the melody. As a side note, if you are not able to identify the changes and do not feel comfortable in taking a solo, there is no shame in waving off an offered solo- simply give the leader an unobtrusive head shake when he points at you, letting him know you are passing this solo up. However, you cannot learn if you do not do, so I recommend taking solos in order to increase your skills- even a bad solo can be a useful learning experience!

in closing, jam session are a wonderful way for musicians to participate, but it is important to recognize that it is very important to be cognizant of your fellow players, and to work as a team. Don’t play too loud, listen to the leader and fit in with the other players, and a jam session is one of the best ways for an aspiring musician to increase his or her skills and to play with people who can help you increase your skills.

CORRECTION: I mistakenly wrote Bill Carson’s name as Ed. Thanks to Jim Harget for the correction.

More on the RIAA

August 15, 2008

According to a post on the site of political blogger Michelle Malkin, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is plannning to try to ram through a tax that would be added to everyone’s Internet bill. She reported on this back on March 28, quoting the site as follows:

The plan—the boldest move yet to keep the wounded entertainment industry giants afloat—is simple: Consumers will pay a monthly fee, bundled into an internet-service bill in exchange for unfettered access to a database of all known music.

I have said before that the RIAA is behaving in a manner that smacks of borderline illegal strong-arm tactics. Ms. Malkin hits the nail on the head, remarking that the RIAA is “engaging in a protection racket, pure and simple.” And so they are. I am all for musicians receiving due credit for their creative efforts. But record companies are not the creators. And with the technology that consumers currently have at their disposal, the question arises whether the recording companies even need to exist. However, that is a question for another discussion.

First, let’s ask our elected representatives first if  they plan to support this thinly-veiled attempt at extortion. Even though I consider the music freeloaders as thieves and have no sympathy whatsoever for them, I for one intend to oppose this new idea of the RIAA with every effort I can muster.

Custom Drum Tracks- Part Two

August 14, 2008

Well, I feel approximately six inches tall. After posting my initial screed on the lack of features ((as I then supposed it to be) on the Alesis SR-16, I sat down with the manual last night and discovered that not only was I completely wrong as far as the ability of the machine to create custom tracks, I read right past the instructions for so doing it! Needless to say, this embarrassed me to no end.

So, to rectify my mistake, I am posting this today. The SR-16 does in fact seem to contain all the requisite tools for producing such drum necessities as rolls, differing tempos and so forth. I have not yet masterd the methodology for combining them into a single track, but I am working on it. i will be posting the process here as I complete the new drum track i am creating for my arrangement of the old classsic ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’.

I am planning to commence this arrangement with a tuba lead, backed by long tones from the trombone and trumpet and a series of slow drum press rolls. The tuba plays the melody once through, then picks up the tempo into a fast two-beat, whereupon the lead transfers to the trumpet, backed by the tailgate trombone with the tuba sliding back into a walking bass-line. Solos will take place at this same up-tempo, then we will slip back into the slower original tempo for the tuba to restate the lead and close the piece with the brass calling out the ‘Amen’.

So for this to work, I will need to create both the slow press rolls, and the segueway into the faster tempo for the main melody and solos, then drop back into the original tempo for the closing refrain. I will be working on this today and hopefully over the weekend somewhat. Once I succeed in creating this pattern and master it, I will post a first draft on my MySpace music site for your listening pleasure.

RIAA Thoughts

August 14, 2008

As a working musician, I am conflicted about the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and their war against illegal downloaders and sharers of music. On the one hand, content does indeed belong to its creator, and the folks who illegally download and share said content are in fact stealing from the creators of the music.

However, the tactics that the RIAA is using are quite simply over the top in my opinion. The companies that produce the methods should in fact be held accountable and be forced to pay the fines associated with this stealing of music, since they are the ones who made it possible. Finding the actual people responsible seems to be invasive and the RIAA has a long -standing (and deserved) reputation for engaging in borderline legal tactics and out and out strong-arm behavior in its efforts to pry money out of people.

If it were up to me, I would remove the RIAA from the picture entirely. Instead, I believe that this should be the responsibility of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM- the musicians’ union), not the RIAA. Just as the songwrtiers’ associations, ASCAP and BMI, regulate the used of songs for which they own the copyright, so should the AFM regulate the use of a performer’s music illegally.

Currently, if an establishment- restaurant, bar or whatever- wishes to have live music, unless the band is playing entirely original songs, that establishment must pay the ASCAP and BMI for the use of songs for which the copyright is owned by that association. For traditional jazz and swing bands, this means that anywhere they play this fee must be paid, as the classic tunes of Glenn Miller or Louis Armstrong are what the clientele comes to hear. ADCAP and BMI retain people who will visit these establishments and if they recognize songs being played for which their organization owns the copyright, then that establishment will be forced to pay or they will be legally forced to discontinue their sponsorship of live music. I believe that the musicians’ union needs to do something similar with respect to their members. The RIAA should merely be the medium- not the end-all.

Having said that, I also believe it is incumbent both on the musicians and the record companies to find a better way to deliver their product. Apple’s iTunes Store is certainly one option. It allows the consumer to purchase a single song, instead of forcing them to buy an album that said consumer may or may not want. As opposed to the current structure that forces a consumer to spend 20 dollars or more on a whole album that (especially in the case of popular music) may contain at best one or two good songs.

The major gray area here is what happens once a consumer purchases an album or a single song. Does that consumer now have the right to freely distribute it to anyone he or she wishes? Or is it like computer software, where one purchases a license for use on a limited number of systems? Copyright law seems to be divided on this issue. Personally, I would suggest that it ought to be treated like software- a consumer is purchasing a license to use (listen to) the music, but that license does not contain a transferable right. In other words, a consumer can use it or copy it onto a different medium for personal use, but does not have the legal right to transfer it to another person. Of course, that brings up the issue of enforcement, especially among the younger generation who are the biggest listeners and the biggest offenders in the area of copyright. How would one enforce this?

I will continue to post thoughts on this issue going forward, but the problem of illegal copying is not going away, and the RIAA’s ham-handed tactics are not doing anything to gain either goodwill or support for the content owners’ positions. We need a third way- preferably one in which the role of the lawyers is extremely limited….

About the Title

August 12, 2008

So why is this blog named ‘Newcomb’s Notations’? The former term should be obvious, as my surname is Newcomb. However, the word ‘Notation’ has a specific meaning within musical circles, thus it seemed to be entirely relevant to the content herein.

Musical notations are, according to the entry in Wikipedia, “any system which represents aurally perceived music through the use of written symbols. As this blog deals exclusively with musical issues, I found the term to be eminently suitable. However, ‘notation’ also has a secondary meaning outside of music. In the vernacular, as defined in the Webster Online Dictionary, ‘to notate’ means to ‘put into notation’. Further defined, putting something into notation, means to put said something into writing. As I am putting my thoughts into writing here, the second definition also applies.

Therefore, I decided to name this blog ‘Newcomb’s Notations’ as I am both notating my thoughts on music, and I shall be discussing musical topics, including notation. I think the title is entirely apt. Don’t you?

Custom Drum Tracks- Part One

August 12, 2008

Working with the SR-16 is mostly very satisfying, but I confess there are a few frustrations involved with this classic drum machine.

Firstly, the tracks are fairly limited. Especially in the area of jazz. there is a very good two-beat Dixieland track at number 38, but aside from that , the options are limited. Especially when I am working in the swing genre, the options that the SR-16 has available are not really suited to that particular style. Therefore, I have begun experimenting with custom tracks.

It behooves me to mention that it is important to be able to lay down tracks of differing tempos and styles. It is of particular importance to be able to do such effects as press rolls and other types of rolls. However, I have not been able thus far to find a satisfactory method of producing rolls with the device. As I like to employ a fair number of slow intros utilizing rolls, it would be very helpful if I could actually do that with the SR-16, eliminating the need to try to set up custom tracks in GarageBand. However, I have yet to be able to do it.

I shall be experimenting on the machine in the next couple of days to see what I can come up with, and will be blogging my results here. Should the SR-16 not meet my needs in the area of custom trrack production, I will be looking into alternatives that do offer the capabilities I need. In the meantime, any suggestions are welcome.