Jazz Tuba

September 30, 2008

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to play some tuba with the jam sessions of the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society. The Society had their monthly meeting over at the Swiss Park in Newark, California over the weekend, featuring the Churchill Street Reunion Jazz Band.

The South Bay society usually has two jam sessions in between the sets of the regular guest band. This format allows a number of jammers on stage, thus guaranteeing that musicians have a chance to struyt their stuff for the audience. This arrangement also permits the maximum number of players to play, as there are often a plethora of instrumentalists present.

This month, we had an especially illustrious lineup. Not including the afore-mentioned John Soulis (trombone) and Dick Williams, we also had trumpeter Don Abel of the South Bay Stompers, reedman Lyle Gillison, banjoist Pat Dutrow, and drummer Bill Todd. One of John’s friends also joined us on clarinet- I regret I did not catch his name, as he was an excellent clarinetist- I thoroughly enjoyed playing with him.

I normally bring only the trombone to these meetings, but jas in any jam, one never knows in advance who or what instrumentation will be present. Therefore, since jamset director Jim Harget requested me to bring along a few of my horns and as I live fairly close, I brought along my tuba as well as my trombone. I knew that trumpeter Dick Williams would be present, so I did not bring the trumpet to this gig. Upon arriving, I discovered that trombonist John Soulis was present, so I ended up playing tuba on both jam sessions

Some thoughts on playing traditional jazz tuba. The tuba is far different from playing trombone. Not only is it important to keep the beat so that the badn does not drag- a responsibility shared with the drummer, but the tuba, together with the piano and banjo is also responsible for ensuring that passing chords are correct so that the players are led into the next musical passage. I trust that I did not embarrass myself in this regard. Tuba is also an instrument that requires the player to watch the other musicians carefully, so as to avoid any sour notes if alternate chords are used by other members of the rhythm section.

Volume is another area where aspiring tuba players need to be careful. Tuba is a very powerful instrument- make sure to watch the leader and listen carefully to avoid overpowering soloists. In Dixieland, tuba normally continues to play at all times, unless there is a particular break or the leader indicates otherwise. It is very easy to forget how loud one is actually playing, so it is important to keep your ears peeled and your eyes on whomever is playing the lead so as to modulate your tone appropriately.

Finally, soloing on tuba is a little different than most other instruments. Once again, there is no ned to try to overpower with dynamics. A tubist should slightly turn up the volume when soloing, as tuba can get lost in the background, but there is no need to play fortissimo all the time. This also applies to technical expertise. Taste is independent of technique. Technique should be used to enhance the solo- not to be the end-all of the solo. Some of the best tubists in jazz play close attention to the bassline and structure their solos around it, so that at the conclusion they can lead the band back into the appropriate chords, while they drop back into a solid bassline.

In addition, the tuba is much heavier than the trombone. If one is not used to the weight of the instrument, it can become a drag to play for an extended period of time. I was standing throughout the first set, and thus the sole source of support for the horn, other than my strap, was my left arm. By the end of the set, i was thoroughly tired, so on the second set, i availed myself of the stool used by the guest band’s tubist. This was much mroe comfortable, as I was able to rest the horn on my lap, as opposed to actually holding it throughout the set.

In conclusion, it was a very good experience for me, and I gained quite a bit of insight into the specific requirements of playing jazz tuba. I look forward to continuing my education on this instrument.

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Multi-Track Recorders- Part One

September 30, 2008

I have been doing most of my recording on a Macintosh PowerBook G4 equipped with Garageband, Apple’s free music editing software. Unfortunately, my PowerBook died a week or two ago, leaving me without a functioning studio. I intend to purchase a new laptop in the near future, but since I have more uses for a laptop than merely recording, I am considering purchasing a multitrack recorder for my studio and thus removing the need for the laptop at all.

I am currently looking at recorders with a built-in hard disk, as I believe this to be a better alternative than removable media. Although the initial prices are higher than removable-media recorders, the sizes of the built-in storage permit more tracks and remove the need to switch or purchase additional media as well.

I am currently looking at the Fostex, Tascam and Zoom brands, as they are the ones that fall within my price range. The specific models are the Fostex MR 16HDTascam 2488MKII, the Tascam 2488MkII, the Zoom HD8CD, and the Zoom HD16CD.

Feature-wise, it would be nice to be able to record more than two instruments simultaneously, since there may be times when i want to record an actual band, as opposed to my usual over-dubbing. However, the only 16-track that has the four XLR microphone jacks is the Fostex. I am not familiar with this brand, so although it is definitely the right price, i am a little wary of this machine. i am more familiar with the Zoom brand, though their 16-track is at the top end of my price range.

If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to comment. i am still in the researching phase, but will be making a move in the next month or two, as I do need something to do my recording.


Mission Gold Review

September 25, 2008

I had the pleasure of hearing the Mission Gold Jazz Band last night at Swiss Park in Newark, California. The band is a traditional jazz ensemble, featuring leader John Soulis on trombone and vocals, Dick Williams on cornet, Thomas Banuelos on trumpet, John Stringer on reeds and vocals, Bob Sterling on tuba, Roz Temple on piano, Jack Wiecks on banjo and a young man named Mark on drums (didn’t catch his last name).

The band began the night with a single cornet (Williams) but apparently usually play a trumpet/cornet lead in the Watters/Oliver tradition, as Thomas Banuelos was with the band for the final set when I returned. I enjoyed the trumpet/cornet lead, as it provides an extra dimension and allows more fully realized harmonies than a single cornet does. Several of the members are capable vocalists- I had the pleasure of hearing both John Stringer and John Soulis vocalize and I am told that the other members also can do so on occasion. Based on the tunes I was able to hear, it would appear that the band is in the Watters/Murphy tradition of San Francisco jazz. Due to the members’ extensive knowledge, they also play some tunes that I have rarely heard from other groups- ‘Beale Street Mama; for example is one that I rarely hear played for some reason.

The hall and its surrounding park were built in 1934 by Swiss immigrants. Due to being built primarily out of wood, with a completely open design produces interesting dynamics- especially if one is sitting directly in front of the stage. In design, it is a n open hall, with a bar/restaurant off to one side. There are no obstructions for the audience, thus the sound carries well, with something of a slight echo at times. The band does not require much if any amplification at all, though they do use some on vocals.

They began the night with one of my personal favorites- a tune entitled ‘Beale Street Mama’ which was first performed by Bessie Smith way back in 1923. This featured reedman John Stringer on vocals and he did a very creditable job. They followed this up with ‘Shine’, another old standard in the repertoire. I was unfortunately forced to leave temporarily at that point (my young son had a small diaper accident), but was able to return towards the end of the night and caught their final few tunes, which included ‘Creole Love Song’, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?’ and ‘High Society’. The band was kind enough to invite me to sit in with them for the last few tunes, which was a very rewarding experience- it is always fun to play with musicians of that caliber.

The band is entertaining to watch- the musicians have fun on stage and are clearly very comfortable with each other. In addition, the music is highly danceable and the hall is quite spacious enough to permit dancing with no fear of running afoul of tables or other obstructions. Throughout the evening, I observed a number of couples dancing. For the final tune, several of the ladies engaged in a parasol dance as the band played Lu Watters’ Arrangement of the classic ‘High Society’. This was an entertaining experience, as I had not previously played ‘High Society’, though I was of course familiar with the tune. As is usual with Watters’ arrangements, the arrangement was a little hard to read, though not nearly as bad as some of his other charts.

All in all, I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in traditional jazz to stop by on the second and fourth Wednesdays from 7 – 9 PM. Mission Gold is an excellent representative of the traditional style that was popular in the Bay Area in the late 1940s and early 1950s.


More Thoughts on Jam(s)

September 10, 2008

I attended (and briefly played in) a jam session at a local blues club last night, which occasioned a few thoughts about jam sessions.

Firstly, I would like to discuss volume. Why is it that many musicians, when they enter into a jam environment, seem to feel that it is necessary to increase the volume? Last night, the host band began the evening by playing the first set or two on stage before inviting up the musicians in the audience to jam. While the host band’s volume was on the loud side, it was still definitely possible to conduct a conversation, albeit in voices pitched above a normal conversational volume. However, once the jammers took over the stage, conversation became impossible save for literally screaming into each others’ ears from a distance of less than an inch or two. This is simply unacceptable. There is no need for music to be played at a volume that precludes conversation.  The principal focus of any musician should be to create a musical structure that is enjoyable both for the musicians and the audience. Unfortunately, the volume last night, as it has in previous visits, got somewhat out of hand.

My second peeve is vocalists (and musicians) who substitute their supposedly great technique (or lack thereof) for taste and musicality. This occurred last night when a lady (whose name I regrettable failed to catch) got up to sing with the host band. While her voice was not actually that bad, her understanding of music was virtually non-existent. Time and again, she tried to hit notes that were clearly out of her comfort range, and her inventiveness in her concluding cadenza was sadly lacking. She substituted screeching into a mic for any real musicality and altered her volume level not at all during her ‘performance’. The second singer, one Tia Carroll, was a pleasant contrast to this lady, as Carroll displayed both musicality and a firm grasp of performance technique during her turn on stage.

This has happened before. there was a young kid at a previous jam session I attended, who during others’ performances took out his guitar and showed off his technique. However, when it was his own turn on stage, he showed that he lacked any real understanding of the genre, playing wildly inappropriate licks and turning his solo into a fortissimo attack on his audience’s senses. To me, this singer falls into the same category. It is a pity that taste is so rarely displayed when musicians are in this type of environment. And it is quite interesting when one juxtaposes this jam with traditional jazz jam sessions I have attended in the pat- this type of behavior is far rarer in the traditional field, at least in my experience. Perhaps the R&B genre brings out this type of thing, but I doubt it- i think it is a failing of amateur musicians trying too hard to impress their more accomplished peers.

Other than the volume issues, I found the jam to be quite instructive. While R&B is not my preferred genre, I do enjoy occasionally stretching my chops by sitting in with musicians in this field. It also is a good opportunity for playing in keys and chrod progressions I do not often encounter in my main playing experience. For example, during my set, there was one tune that sat on the I chord, before changing to a IV-V-I pattern on the bridge. This is a pattern that one would rarely if ever encounter in mainstream jazz, and so it was quite educational for me- especially playing in the key of A! One thing I have found about the R&B players- there are a lot of the so-called ‘guitar keys’ that are far rarer among jazz players. I am more used to encountering keys such as F, B flat, C, E flat, and so forth.

Overall, I enjoyed myself imensely, and it was quite useful from a musical standpoint. But I do wish that jammers would moderate their volume somewhat, as it is far more enjoyable to listen to music without feeling that one’s eardrums are stretched to the breaking point!