How Playing Tuba is and isn’t like riding a bike

When I am further along and in a more thoughtful mood, I’ll write a more complete post explaining why I decided to join a community wind ensemble and play tuba again. This post, however, is just a smattering of reactions from going to my first rehearsal in about 8 years.

Overall, the experience was a lot of fun. It’s amazing that I sat in a room of total strangers and was able to make music as part of a large ensemble. Some things went well. Some things did not go well. Here were the highlights.

Things that were liking riding a bike

1. Hitting notes. I’m probably overestimating how well I did, but in general, I was able to find the intervals fairly well. I tested my range up to 3 octaves, so that’s pretty much all there as well.

2. Rhythms. We got some funky time signatures like 4/2 and 5/8, and for an instrument best known for playing downbeats in a polka-like fashion, we had some strange syncopated rhythms as well. I definitely flubbed some faster sections, but I mostly didn’t get lost.

3. Counting rests. Nothing makes you feel more special in music than counting rests for 20 bars.

4. Hearing tuning problems. During warmup and in a few long notes, I could hear that I was badly out of tune. I actually didn’t even have a tuba when I showed up for rehearsal, and the director fortunately had an extra tuba lying around to lend to me. at least it was a miraphone, which is mostly what I have played. Anyways, I didn’t know the instrument and didn’t get a chance to tune with a machine.

Things that were not like riding a bike

1. Fixing tuning problems. Just because I could hear the issues and knew why they were happening didn’t mean I could fix them. On more than one occasion, I stopped playing because I knew I sounded bad and couldn’t do anything about it.

2. Key signatures. Were it not for the big poster on the wall of the middle school music room with the circle of fifths, I would give myself a 50-50 chance of naming the key I was in at any given measure. I instead relied largely on instinct for whether a note should be sharp or flat based on roughly how many symbols were in the key signature. Many apologies to the tuba player next to me who listened to me miss the same notes over and over.

3. Accidentals. I could not think fast enough for some of the accidentals, especially the weird ones like F-flat. Actually, combined with my uncertainty about the key signature, I probably accidentally played the accidentals correctly. Nevermind. This one went okay.

4. Endurance. This actually didn’t go as badly as I thought it might: the tuba parts were not too difficult, so I made it through a 2 1/2 hour rehearsal without blowing out my chops. However, I felt a lot of tightness in my lips while I was warming up and generally did not play the full dynamic range during rehearsal, so it was a constraint. On a related note, if you have not had tightness in your lips from playing a brass instrument for the first time in a long time, take my word for it that it is extremely bizarre.

5. Reading ledger lines. In my high school music, I was largely spared playing low notes because the music tended not to go that low (maybe an E below the staff). The music we were sightreading, however, was much more challenging in this sense because I was regularly reading 3 or 4 ledger lines below the staff, and I have no idea what any of those notes are. I know I can hit them if I had a fingering written in, but I didn’t, so I just put a lot of fingers down and played low. I think most people are not trained to distinguish notes that low anyways, so I got away with it.

Overall, I thought that the rehearsal went well, and I really enjoyed playing again, even if I missed so many key signatures. I hopefully will write more about the experience soon, but in the meantime, you can check out my view of rehearsal.

the picture is sideways because I don’t know how to fix the orientation in wordpress

My Top 10 Christmas Songs

Thanksgiving has passed, and the holiday season is well underway. As is now American tradition, there’s outcry about how commercialized Christmas and other December holidays have become, but there are also the more heartwarming parts. There’s the tree decorating that I don’t do because I just go home a few days before Christmas. There’s the gift shopping that I don’t do because my family is too pragmatic to leave purchase suitability is to chance. There’s even the family time that my family can’t quite make because we’re all using our vacation time differently.

I personally only have two holiday traditions. First, I start wearing my Santa hat 2 or 3 weeks before Christmas. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s rare enough that strangers may be incorrectly convinced of my holiday spirit. It also happens to be a great way to keep my head warm since my haircut is not optimized for winter. Continue reading “My Top 10 Christmas Songs”

My Stanford-USC Game Day

It’s 8AM, and I don’t want to get up. I’m supposed to be at the Band Shak between 9 and 9:30, so I should leave and bike to Stanford by 8:45. It’ll take maybe 10 minutes to get ready, so I should be done with breakfast by 8:35. And I have oatmeal in the fridge, so maybe another 20 minutes to eat breakfast and digest, which puts me at 8:15. I set my alarm for 8:05 and flop back into my pillow.

I park my bike near the stadium since I know there are spots there and am uncertain whether there are more any closer to the Shak. As I walk over, I check the time and see that I have plenty of time, and other band members still haven’t left for rehearsal. Walking past the bike parking spots beside the Band Shak door, I head up to the second floor to put my backpack down and grab a sousaphone. None of the other “toobz” are there, so I wait to take my instrument off the hook and relax after my bike ride and before the morning rehearsal.

The morning rehearsal is mostly the same as the first rehearsal I went to on Wednesday. We warm up by playing another chart that I have difficulty finding in the flip folder I was given. So far, the music hasn’t been too tough. Playing tuba is actually quite lucky in this circumstance since tubas often get repetitive bass lines, so once I learn the fingerings and rhythms of 2 bars, I can play more than half of a song. A very nice bari sax player keeps me

Giancarlo, the director of the Wind Ensemble, next rehearses the national anthem with us. I witness the trumpet soloist having his focus tested in a very disturbing manner and am only somewhat comforted to know that I have now seen a band tradition happen. We play the national anthem, which mostly goes well. Giancarlo singles out the tubas as slowing down through one measure, insisting that we need to “watch [his] hands, not listen”. Garrett, the section leader, is very confident that he was watching, and from where I am, I agree. Maybe there are some phasing issues since we’re at the back of the band. After he runs through the measure a few times with us, we play it one last time, then move on to rehearsing the show.

Well, almost. The saxes are currently following our drum major around the practice field while seeming to improvise a little diddy. Ben, a former roommate and longtime band member, wanders over and wonders out loud whether they plan these sort of distractions. For coming together spontaneously, they sound really good.

Rehearsing the field show goes roughly like how I remembered. We receive printouts of the formation and move between them as necessary. The obvious difference from high school is that the LSJUMB is a scatter band, not a traditional marching band, so we don’t need to practice marching between the formations as much. Even so, we move, play, move, play, and run the show over a few times to work on details. We get some direction from the guys on top of the tower about staying together as we play, moving people around to make the formations look better, and other details. It all feels pretty familiar.

That is probably also helped by the marching we actually have in this show. The USC Trojan Marching Band is a traditional marching band with all of the unnecessary flourishes. Their band can cover the whole field (and even has reserves because there are so many), sometimes marches knees high, and is led by a guy dressed in armor. As part of our show, half of the band participates in the “Spirit of Stanford” band, which marches onto the field, knees high and instruments swinging, in a box while playing our own take on “Tribute to Troy”. I not very reluctantly offer to participate in this half of the band.

The last run-through is a little rough. We’ve been rehearsing for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, and I’m remembering all of the aches of playing. My lips are tired, and I’m cracking more notes that I can’t quite hang onto. I’m trying to keep the sousaphone rested on my right shoulder as much as possible so that it hurts the least while playing. I’m skipping most of the playing by now, only playing when it’s an exposed part.

We break and are told to come back in 2 or 3 hours for pre-game activities. I head over to Ike’s to meet up with my usual football-going gang. Although this game is certainly all sold out, we all have season tickets and are very excited for the game. I’m convinced we’re going to lose. More convinced than perhaps ever before. When we weren’t as good when I was an underclassmen, any game could be a pleasant surprise. When I was an upperclassmen, we were good enough to challenge any team. This year, however, we seem to have taken a step back into the 10-25ish range, while USC has a Heisman-hopeful QB and two of the best wide receivers around. We’re good, and I think we’ll challenge them this game, but I don’t see us pulling through. Still, my eggplant sandwich is very good.

Having already picked up my vest after rehearsal, I only need to get a hat and tie to complete my uniform. Garrett hands me an extra tie as I button up my white shirt. The tie has dollar bills printed on it. Did I mention we’re playing USC today?

We walk over to the Alumni Center where we rank up. I expect the toobz to move to the back of the band, but instead, my section seems to be in front of everyone. The bari sax player explains that we give everyone high fives as they march past, then form up behind them. I get lots of high fives, fall in, and move towards the stadium with the rest of the band. This also is very reminiscent: although we aren’t all marching in pairs and precisely in time, there are lots of cheers and small dance moves as we go. Suddenly, Garrett starts counting down, and the section scatters. I begin running too, vaguely following some of the others who are darting in-between (mostly) stopped cars. I keep looking around, hoping I don’t miss the cue to rank up again. I make it back without injury though slightly out of breath.

We form arcs just outside some of the tailgaters and begin playing. The next song is indicated with a signal, often cryptic, just like the flip folder titles. Although I can only find about a fourth of the songs, I manage to make it through anyways by watching the fingers of the other toobz. This, however, becomes much harder when we’re supposed to wander into the crowd. It’s also much harder to improvise my part when there are 5 others around me playing over my mistakes.

We play at another couple tailgates, and it all goes by in a flash. There was another song where we needed to wander into the crowd, though I figured out that part pretty quickly. I miss a lot more notes and play in a few places when I’m not supposed to. I’m beginning to see why the band doesn’t always sound great: people like me legitimately don’t know what’s going on half the time. I guess I can’t complain too much about it, though, now that I’m the problem. Besides, were the band stricter, I couldn’t have joined on a whim and perform a few days later. Amidst all of my confusion, the other toobz help me out a lot, and it’s a ton of fun. There’s a lot of dancing going on, and I try to copy, though I don’t think I quite have all of the moves figured out as the rest of the section does. There’s a lot of energy, and it’s great to be playing again.

After a break, we’ve entered the stadium. The national anthem goes fine, and the Trojan band performs their pregame show first. Watching them on the field, I’m actually not very impressed. Their formations and marching aren’t difficult, and they don’t actually look very good from the sideline. And given their size, their not the wall of sound I was expecting. Meanwhile, the band around me is heckling them. I don’t really get into that but am amused anyways.

We run on for our pregame show. This experience is actually one of the calmer parts of the day because for 10 minutes, I know exactly what is supposed to happen. I actually still don’t know what the show was about, but I get everywhere I’m supposed to be and play the right cuts.

The game is finally starting. After years of lazy days leading up to game time, I can’t believe how much I have already done before kickoff. The first quarter goes by, and it feels fine. The offense doesn’t look great, but our defense appears to hold well, and we’re tied. In the meantime, I think I’ve missed almost every song we play in the stands. I actually have missed at least the beginning of most songs today. The song gets called out, then I need to ask someone what it is, then I put the sousaphone on, then I fish my mouthpiece out of my pocket, then I unsuccessfully look for the music in my flip folder, and look at that: we’ve already 10 bars in. I guess I’ll just watch the fingers of the guy next to me and listen to figure it out.

It’s halftime, and we’re on the field again. There’s another uninspiring performance by the Trojan Band, and then it’s our turn. I march on with the “Spirit of Stanford” band, trying to high step (though I was later told by my friends that I wasn’t doing it close to the same degree as anyone else). At the beginning of the next song with a loud opening for the 3 toobz on the “Spirit of Stanford” side, I horribly crack one of the notes. My lips don’t feel bad, but I’m definitely tired after the morning rehearsal and pregame shenanigans. I resolve to play the rest of the notes with sforzando.

I scatter at the end of the last song, then remember that I was supposed to skip off the field. Whoops.

We form up around the tunnel as the football team reenters the field. The “William Tell Overture” is next, and it’s actually really hard as we’re moving quickly to our corner, and I can’t see our drum major or hear anyone. In the future, I’ll reserve all criticism for how it sounds.

We get food vouchers after half-time, and I get food. While eating the garlic fries, I feel like a normal fan for a few minutes. The game appears to be going well, though it’s been very low scoring.

We have the ball back with about 8 minutes left on the clock and up by a touchdown. The clock cannot possibly count down fast enough, but we’re definitely burning up the rest of the time. We get a few first downs, though we do stall. The Trojans get the ball back deep in their own territory with just a few minutes left.

Sack. Sack. Incomplete pass. I, along with most of the stadium, is freaking out. What I thought was an unwinnable game is looking to end with us on top. So much for Matt Barkley looking for revenge. It’s hard to believe that a class of Stanford students went through 4 years without having lost to USC.

We start playing the victory mix of “All Right Now”. Thankfully, it’s not a hard piece, and I can play it without music. It’s the end of the day, so I’m playing full volume since I don’t have to save it for anything else. We play the alma mater next, then play another set of songs.

Meanwhile, the crowd is on the field, though I don’t really notice them. I’m either trying to watch someone else’s fingerings or fumbling through my flip folder. It does look like there’s a big party going on, though, and I’m absolutely a fan. Right now, though, I can’t imagine a better way to party than playing tuba and dancing as part of a band.

It’s over. Security begins ushering people off of the field, and the band ranks up to leave the stadium. My friends wander over to meet Ben and me and plan our escape. We decide to skip ranking up and head straight for the Shak so we can move on to post-game food at our usual dive.

We’re sitting around, and most of us have burritos. I myself am not very hungry and just have the largest cup of horchata they have and to rehydrate. I had forgotten how much playing takes out of you, though I’m still very amped about the result of the game. We talk over all the details: the amazing scrambles from Nunes, the USC wide receivers, stats from the game, results of the other games, and where might end up in the rankings.

After hanging out a bit longer, I’m back home past midnight. Although I’m quite gross after a day of running around and playing, I can’t quite settle down, so I surf the web. My ears are ringing a bit, and I still have a couple of my parts stuck in my head. Getting a chance to play with the band was amazing after being away from an ensemble and the instrument for about 3 years and away from marching for almost 6 years. With the surprise win over USC, this is definitely one of the most personally fulfilling days I’ve had.

I’m glad I decided to come back to tuba for this one game and have no regrets about it. Maybe this will be a one-and-done experience. Over dinner, someone asked me whether I would do band again. “Maybe,” I said. At the moment, I’m not thinking I will, but having used just about every excuse and reason to avoid it for the 5 years I was still a student at Stanford, maybe is non-zero.

Band Pride

During marching season in high school, band practice dictated how I dressed. On practice-free days, I could wear anything, but when we had after-school rehearsal, I always wore one of our white band t-shirts. The shirts were absolutely plain other than a small logo on the right chest, but that logo meant a lot to me. That logo branded me as a member of the JET Band, and I was proud to wear one every time I marched. With all of my sister’s old band shirts, I was ready from the outset to have a band shirt for every day I needed one.

Because there were a lot of days. In a given week, we might have 3 rehearsals, 1 football game, and 1 competition, and because every practice and performance tested the saturation of my cotton shirts, each day required a fresh shirt. By my senior year, however, I had sufficiently worn and stained several shirts out of use, leaving me in a potential shortage for long weeks. I needed more shirts. I needed to act.

A tradition in my high school band program is “Money Day.” Held after-school on the first day of classes, students try various sizes of marching shoes, specify their meal plans, and pick up equipment for the rest of marching season, including band shirts. Duties as a senior meant I didn’t get equipment until the end, when all of the medium shirts were gone. I wouldn’t wear anything except one of those medium band shirts in shortage, so I just wrote my name down on a list to receive one when more shirts arrived. Things were not going according to plan: instead of multiple shirts, I had none.

Several hours later, we were cleaning up the band hall from the chaos of “Money Day” when we came across an unopened box. My band director used his keys to open it, cutting the tape to discover the treasure within: the missing medium band t-shirts. With an abundance of fresh, shining shirts before me, I eagerly grabbed one out of the cardboard box, satisfied that I had something to show for “Money Day.” In my glee, I foolishly missed the opportunity to take more, a mistake that might haunt me if not for more luck.

The following day, I was rehearsing in class when I saw our drum majors passing out band shirts. At the time, I thought nothing of it, but the greatest gifts come when we aren’t looking. Now, I can’t remember whether I had a chance to intercede or not, but before I knew it, I had another shirt. Maybe I was standing and playing when the drum major came and dropped the shirt off on my seat, or maybe I accepted it sitting down, with thanks and a mischievous grin. In any case, I resolved my confusion when I remembered that I had never indicated to anyone that I had eventually received a shirt the day before: they still thought I was one of those poor, shirtless students on that list.

That made me question whether I actually knew who “they” were. I knew I had stolen from someone; I had only paid for one shirt. Through the rest of class, I argued with myself about what to do. I could give it to my band director, but he had better things to worry about than a band shirt. I could give it back to the drum major, though she would probably care even less. As I went down the list of potential contacts, I gradually realized that my mistakenly received shirt mattered to no one except me. To me, that shirt represented one day a week where I wouldn’t have to wear a shirt with a hole in the armpit, or a pizza stain down the front. And as soon as I determined that there was no victim in my crime, the shirt truly became mine.

I still wear both shirts to this day. Other than that logo, they’re plain white shirts I can wear under button-downs. Whenever I pull one out of my wardrobe, it reminds me of my pride for high school band, a pride I wear with me everywhere. And whenever I see them next to each other as I fold my laundry, they remind me of my pride for my loot, the band shirt that found its way to me.

Tuba – Take 2

After dinner last night, I grabbed my tuba and made the 10 minute walk to Dinkelspiel Auditorium (Dink) for rehearsal. I arrived a little late, but rehearsal hadn’t started yet, so I sat down next to the bass trombone and began unpacking. After chatting with Michael, the bass trombone player, and warming up some, we started to rehearse Wagner’s Overture to Tannhauser (include umlaut somewhere in there).

A few weeks ago, I emailed the summer orchestra director wondering if there was a spot I could play in. As far as he knew, their regular tuba player wasn’t going to be around, and he’d be willing to let me get a school instrument to practice before auditioning for the ensemble. This Monday, I went in for my audition with a given excerpt and 2 etudes to play. My audition was pretty bad, but also completely honest; although I think I sounded good, I also cracked a lot of notes and even missed a few fingerings. I had mostly practiced warmups and exercises to condition myself some and not focused so much on actually preparing the pieces I would need to play. It all ended up well, though, and he said he would be able to get me involved. THey hadn’t been planning on having a tuba, but sets can always be changed.

When I got my seating chart yesterday, I saw I would play on 2 of the 6 pieces; there was a brass fanfare and a Wagner, both of which were kindnesses to me. Given the relatively long set and little rehearsal time, we couldn’t spend much time on any one piece, so we skipped the fanfare until sectionals next week and rehearsed the Wagner for about 35 minutes.

It went alright. Key of E meant I missed the fingerings for about 10% of the notes, and I couldn’t find the partial on half of the rest of them. Even so, those maybe 5 minutes that I actually played were so much fun. I’m depending on having immense improvement very quickly as I remember how to tune my instrument and listen and blend into an ensemble, but even playing as I did, I had so much more fun than sitting in a practice room by myself.

I guess the last thing I have to say about it is that I’m glad that this orchestra confirms 2 of my previous beliefs:

1) The low brass section is filled with goof-offs. We talked while rehearsal (even gaining the attention of the conductor for us to quiet down). I’m not sure exactly whether the trombone attracts the silliest people or whether all that slide action makes one lose their senses after playing for too long, but I’m glad to be in good company.

2) No one actually counts. 49 measures is a long time to count, and I got pretty lost. I knew I wasn’t alone, though, when the trombones all sighed in relief after Martin stopped +/- 5 measure from our entrance. I hope that’s a minus, because maybe he stopped since we didn’t start playing?

This should be a fun summer.

Concert Review 5 for the Coho

This evening, I went to the Coho to listen to the jam session. Leland, a friend of mine, mentioned that his combo would be hosting, and it seemed like a good opportunity to both support him and get an assignment done.
The combo included a trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax, bass, piano, and drums, so they fit the typical small ensemble. Looking at them, most were familiar from either the Stanford Latin Jazz Ensemble or Jazz Orchestra, so I was fairly sure that this would be a good group to listen to. Even without knowing that they were a combo, it was apparent that they were more familiar with each other. As they began their performance, they went through the intro for quite awhile. They played off each other, but after a couple minutes, they suddenly went into the head of their first song.
The first tune was “Blue Bossa,” played relatively slowly and was easy to listen to. The first soloist on tenor sax played a relatively consonant solo that stayed very close to the melody. What impressed me, though, was that he managed to play it without sounding overly smooth and losing my interest. Each of the horns went through their solos, and through each, the rhythm section started out quiet and progressively got louder and louder. This sort of movement helped to carry each of the soloists through. When the piano began his solo, I was impressed by the bass who immediately filled in as the pianist’s left hand. By listening to the bass, I could follow the chord changes while listening entirely to the piano in his solo. Going into the ending, it was again very apparent that the players were familiar with each other. I remembered a particularly bad ending by the performers the last time I was here at the Coho: each had a phrase he wanted to end on, yet when they all played together, they went through a series of false endings and confusion. This time, however, the players managed to stay together, trading phrases back and forth until the piano finished it.
The next piece was somewhat more upbeat. The head was a call-and-response between the trumpet and saxes. Although I can’t recall the name of the piece right now, the head sounded familiar as something out of the hard bop style. I was even more impressed as the piano filled in the gaps for the trumpet during his solo, more proof of the familiarity between the players.
The third piece, “Freddie Freeloader,” continued in the same hard bop style. Perhaps the best tip came from a surprise scat solo from the alto sax player, who then rattled off a couple very soulful verses. Barring the setting, I might’ve mistaken the performance as a part of an R&B recording. The bassist continued the feel, beginning in the lower range for a richer, warmer sound before moving onto the rest of a more creative solo.
The last piece I listened to was “Oleo”, a bebop piece with the three horns playing the first part of the head in unison with the piano on the rest. The piano took the first solo, blowing through a series of chord changes underneath the main line. Proving his range of playing styles, the tenor sax played through his solo, running up and down scales and playing in the upper range of his instrument, contrasting his first solo earlier this evening. The piece ended playfully as the piano and saxes went back and forth with the drums, playing 8 beats of whatever came to mind first. And in typical bebop fashion, the piece ended suddenly after repeating the head.

Concert Review 4 for the Stanford Jazz Orchestra

Earlier this evening, I made the trip across campus to listen to the Stanford Jazz Orchestra perform with guest artist Jon Faddis. Having heard him play two days before in class, I already knew that he could play just like Dizzy, but I was anxious to hear him play in an ensemble.
The first piece, “Manteca,” was straight out of Dizzy’s songbook, and I honestly could’ve closed my eyes and seen Dizzy standing there playing the exact same thing. The same high trumpet passages came just as rapidly as in the recording, and the larger orchestra balanced it well by keeping up and being just as bright. The piano solo provided a good contrast to the trumpet solo and managed to fit in quite well.
One aspect that surprised me in the performance was the amount of communication going on on-stage. Perhaps it’s part of Jon’s personality, but the transitions between solos and direction were more than I expected. That sort of impromptu judgment seems more situated in smaller combo setting than larger sets. Seeing as improvisation is an important part to jazz, however, it makes sense that even that doesn’t change based on the size of the ensemble.
The performance of “‘Round Midnight” was just as fun as I was hoping. Having listened to several different recordings of it from Monk himself, Miles Davis, and the Bill Holman Band, I was familiar with the number of interpretations and arrangements of the piece. Unlike some songs that have a definitive recording, I knew I was going to hear something new, and I enjoyed it. The alto sax against trombone sounded great, and the rest of the orchestra blended very well. The solos seemed to mostly match the melody closely, which still sounded great. Instead of playing off the chords, the soloists seemed to be playing around with the melody.
The last song before going into Jon’s songs was “A Night in Tunisia,” another classic Dizzy piece. There was some instability in the beginning as the tempo might have started slightly too quickly, but the rhythm section quickly regrouped and provided a solid beat for the rest of it. I thought the choice of trombone over trumpet on the head was great, though I imagine it’s significantly more difficult to get through the technique on trombone. Leland’s bass solo was great, and Bill Bell fit into the ensemble immediately. Being a song I’ve heard many times, I was looking forward to something good, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The rest of the pieces written by Jon seemed to covered a wide range of genres while still having that same feel. While “Waltz for My Father and Brothers” sounded like something Frank Sinatra might sing, “Hunters and Gatherers” sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. The arrangements all had great balance between the soloist and the orchestra. Being less familiar with these pieces, I can’t compare them as well to other recordings or pieces.
The last piece before the encore, “Teranga,” was the most notable to me. More obviously than any of the others, this song had a foreign influence, and having the percussionist basically made it possible. Although I’ve never heard flute and trumpet in unison on a solo, the two distinct timbres of the brighter trumpet and more lyrical flute provided great contrast. And to cap it off, we even got a surprise solo from the director. Finishing on that, I thought the encore was the right choice as I wanted to hear more, and having the trumpets featured on “Intimacy of the Blues” fitted perfectly.

Concert Review 3 for the University Latin Jazz Ensembles

Concert Review 3 for the University Latin Jazz Ensembles

Jazz performances tend to be cool, relaxed settings. Unlike orchestral performances, the performers will walk around, talk to and react toe ach other during sets, and occasionally even laugh. Even with the informal feel, the performers usually have an understood feeling of restraint to maintain the focus on the music. I don’t think that was an issue for the San Jose State University Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble and Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble.
Earlier tonight, I went to Campbell Recital Hall to listen to these two groups perform. Because of the small room, the setting was very intimate and perhaps appropriate for as little as a soloist. The SJSU ensemble, however, brought 24 performers, with at least 18 on stage for each set. I had never been to a Latin jazz performance before, so the instrumentation seemed somewhat odd to me immediately, and my surprise continued when the first piece began with everyone just clapping different rhythms. Once they began playing their instruments, however, I discovered how unsuited the ensemble was for the room. With at least 8 percussionists, there was constantly noise coming, which often drowned out the 5 horns. The first piece, “Intercambio,” was through-composed and did the most to set me up for the style of music I would hear for the rest of the evening. The instrumentation and rhythms were definitely derived from jazz, but the timbre and blend of sounds was distinctly Latin.
Their second piece, “Philadelphia Mambo,” had an aaba form that was fairly easy to follow. Going into the solo sections, the performers reminded me most of a swing feel; it wasn’t complex like bebop or contemplative like cool but actually something familiar and almost danceable. The third piece was a Gershwin tune, “Love Walked In,” with a decent vocalist. The performance really let loose, however, on the fourth piece, “The Big Payback” by James Brown. They brought up a vocalist who did an excellent James Brown impression including gestures and spontaneous sound. At this point, I realized that the various players dancing while playing and smiling and grooving were likely more of the style than disrespectful. While in a different setting, a player snapping his fingers might be the biggest gesture, the ensemble definitely added an entire visual aspect to their playing just to make it more fun. Add in some audience participation, and the experience was just fun.
After two more sets, the Stanford Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble took the stage with only 10 performers. While they also played with a similar style and had the fun aspects thrown in, I was amazed how much they contrasted with the previous group, especially given my unfamiliarity with Latin jazz. Perhaps best put by Leland, SJSU was more Latin jazz while Stanford was more Latin jazz. The first piece was “Un Tipo Como Yo,” a fun piece with a good vocalist. Along with the second piece, “Piesotes,” I realized that this ensemble tended to focus more on the individual soloists instead of just grooving and seeing what happened. In their performance, they made a gesture towards SJSU with a beat-boxing duet, so it was clear that while the Stanford ensemble perhaps took the structure of the pieces more seriously, they were just as willing to have fun playing.
The performance concluded with both ensembles on stage together playing John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.” While absolutely absurd, the performance by more than 30 musicians ended up being just as lively and entertaining as the rest of the concert. A token amount of direction was necessary to avoid chaos, but it was the perfect example of performers on-stage and performing for themselves, just because they enjoyed playing.

Concert Review 2 for Coho

And here’s another. This was just from 2 nights ago at the Stanford Coffee House. They do weekly jam sessions for anyone who wants to show up and play.

Concert Review 2 for a Coho jam session

Tonight, I went to the Coho to listen to the jam session for awhile. As usual, they had a core of a drummer, bassist, and piano to start performing and to ensure that any horns had someone to back them up. I actually hadn’t been to a jam session since the summer, and I was curious whether the regulars were as good as the players in for the summer jazz workshop.
I sat off to the right of the stage, so I couldn’t see or hear the bass player so well, but otherwise, everything sounded fine. The rhythm trio started with “All the Things You Are,” which I have a Dizzy Gillespie recording of. The piano stated the theme, then went into a solo. The playing was mostly consonant, which seemed to sound the best because the song sounds like a vocal piece. It was followed with a bass solo, which I couldn’t hear so well. It sounded good, except when the piano started to lightly comp, I felt like either the pianist or the bassist was lost, but it ended smoothly enough.
On the third song, they introduced a vocalist and trumpet player. Thanks to the words, I determined that the song was “Blue Skies.” The vocalist had a decent jazz voice, but not a particularly good range. Admittedly, I tend to prefer instrumentalists over vocalists, but I also found his solo unimaginative and perhaps too close to the melody to be interesting. I was very pleased with the trumpet player, though, who played an equally lyrical, low, slow solo. Barring the dramatic difference in style, his timbre reminded me of Louie Armstrong, which I can certainly enjoy.
The fourth song started with a piano intro on top of a bossa nova beat from the bass. The same trumpet stayed on to play the head, though the rest of the rhythm section switched out. Until this point, I guess I hadn’t noticed the rhythm section too much, but I could tell the bass and drums weren’t too familiar with each other. While the ensemble managed to stay together fine, I found myself paying attention to the rhythm section for the wrong reasons and was surprised by them at the wrong times. While the bass player did fine staying with the simple bossa nova beat, I’m thinking maybe the drum player wasn’t so comfortable with it.
The fifth piece introduced another sax to a total of the 3 horns. The tenor sax took the lead, and I could immediately tell it was bebop. The theme was relatively simple, and the tenor immediately began his solo. The walking bass behind him helped to keep the tempo moving as the tenor slowed down slightly through the faster licks. The trumpet player managed to surprise me again by playing a blistering solo, so I was suitably impressed by him at this point. The final head was played in unison by the tenor and trumpet, and they had clearly planned some sort of coda. Unfortunately, I think they forgot to inform the pianist, which ended up as a mess of half-endings, trailing sounds, and maybe even shave and a haircut.
I think I was most impressed by how quickly the players matched each other. I’m assuming that on most of the studio albums and other live concerts I’ve heard, the players have had the chance to at least run the tune once before to know what to expect. The interaction was absolutely live, with a lot of eye contact and talking during the set. I’m assuming the songs were mostly standards even if I hadn’t heard them some of them before, but I still enjoyed hearing the clearly fresh sounds of unfamiliar groups of players.

Concert Review 1 for Fly

Since migrating onto my own domain, I have decided to combine all 3 of my blogs into a single one split up by categories. The vast majority of my posts are still personal topics, but posts that would’ve once gone to my fiction or nonfiction blog are going to show up here, now. Like this one.

One of the things I’ve been doing in my nonfiction blog is posting essays, reports, and write-ups for the courses I’m taking. Well-aware that most of it is no interest to most people, this at least gives me the comfort that what I do isn’t doomed to an inevitable disk crash or deletion without having ever been available for someone other than my instructor to read.

So here’s one. I’m taking a jazz history class right now, and part of the work is going to a couple jazz performances and writing up one-page reports. This one was written from a performance I went to just over a week ago.

Concert Review 1 for Fly

Last night, I went to Yoshi’s to see Fly perform. They’re jazz trio comprising Mark Turner on tenor and soprano sax, Jeff Ballard on drums, and Larry Grenadier on bass. I had seen them perform this past summer with Joshua Redman here at Stanford, and that time, it was quite beyond me, and I didn’t enjoy it that much. Fortunately, the music didn’t seem as “out there” this time.
The smaller room at Yoshi’s was definitely the right feel for the trio. Most of the songs focused mostly on sax, usually somewhat in conversation with either the bass or the drums. Unlike the bebop songs we’ve been listening to, almost all of the songs were only loosely based around a melody, and usually actually around something else. For example, one song started with a bass intro, which turned into an 8-beat phrase he repeated through the rest of the song. While I could hear the solo fall into the same chords as the phrase from the bass, the sax and drums were largely just playing around that sound. In another, perhaps the only unity I could find was that the sax was soloing around some minor scale that I’m not familiar enough with to identify.
I was impressed by the wide range of the sax player. He sound was clear whether playing through a slow, lyrical part, or a fast run up and down the range. What distinguished his playing from what we’ve been listening to in class was the focus. Charlie Parker was playing around the chords and creating a frantic, constant sound that feels like it’s driving towards something. Mark Turner would also have fast licks up and down a scale, but each of these seemed like a distinct musical thought. Instead of playing straight through each of his solos, he would seem to have an inspiration, play for a couple bars, then stop again. And when he was playing against the bass, I did have a lot of difficulty following the song as there wasn’t a piano comping in the background.
Only one piece had a very clear structure to me. In the second to last song, the sax had an 12-beat riff that he repeated several times at the beginning, end, and in a couple places in-between. Unlike the mostly dissonant sounds so far, I found myself less often surprised through this piece. The performers seemed no more or less comfortable playing in this style than anything else more far out they had played, but as a listener, it was a lot more comforting to return to a form that I could follow. The piece seemed the closest to the bebop music we were listening to: I found the head easily enough, and each of the performers traded the solo around. The tenor solo was the more blistering pace I had heard in class, and with the bass behind it, I could hear parts of the head in what he was playing.
Although each song had some theme, whether a scale, a riff, or a rock beat from the drums, I found myself thinking to try to put the music together. By the end, though, my foot was tapping, and I felt myself enjoying it, even if I didn’t understand all of the music. The style was certainly very modern, and I think I’m just going to need to listen to it to learn to appreciate it. In comparison to when I heard them this past summer, I enjoyed it much more, and I think that’s because I know more about the music. And I’m glad to know that I’ll continue to enjoy the music more and more as I come to understand it better.