Jun 27, 2011

Concert Review: Oscar Castro-Neves and Gary Meek

Great concert last night at Stanford - Oscar Castro-Neves on guitar, vocals, and piano, with Gary Meek on flute, soprano and tenor sax, and keyboard. Oscar has been a major figure in Brazilian music since the beginnings of bossa nova, in the late 1950s. He plays the genre with as much mastery as anyone. Gary Meek has been playing with Castro-Neves' groups for at least 5 years, but this was the first gig they had ever played as a duo. Gary sounded terrific on every instrument - chops used with taste!

To me, it seemed to be a perfect match of players and material.

The music was all bossa nova, and almost all Jobim, with the exception of three tunes by Oscar, one Bonfa piece, and a bossa/novelty "In the Mood." The duo played arrangements originally written for Castro-Neves' 6-piece band; this gave a sense of arrangement, but with a greater sense of communication between musicians, and a greater spontaneity, than we might have heard from the full band. That is, both guys were figuring out how to cover what was important to the arrangements, and then delivering it to the audience.

I could go on, but it would just be a lot of superlatives. Oscar should use this format more often. He is otherwise often seen as a sideman with major jazz and popular artists (see his biography on his website).

Here's a Youtube clip of Oscar doing Waters of March; here's one of She's a Carioca.

There are quite a few Youtube videos featuring Gary Meek (a lot of fusion, as a sideman with Jeff Lorber, Dave Weckl, etc.). None of it sounded anywhere near as good to me as he did in person, with Oscar, playing Brazilian music.

Jun 19, 2011

Review: "The Best of Charlie Parker," by Mark Voelpel

I’m always interested in a good Charlie Parker book; I hadn’t seen this one until recently, though it was published in 2003. The full title is "The Best of Charlie Parker: A Step-By-Step Breakdown of the Styles and Techniques of a Jazz Legend." It’s part of the Hal Leonard “Signature Licks” series. The advertising blurb promises “in-depth analysis of twelve classics.” The book is an educational tool aimed at music students, particularly sax players, who want to better understand what Parker's style was all about.

This 48-page book includes an eight-page introductory essay on “Charlie Parker’s Music,” which begins with some biographical information regarding the development of Parker’s improvisational/compositional style. The essay goes on to list some of the characteristic melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices that contribute to that style. The rest of the book consists of twelve solo transcriptions, each preceded by a short introduction offering comments on points of interest in the solo.

This is a product worth checking out, but it is not without its flaws. 

The essay on Parker’s stylistic devices is pretty good. Voelpel discusses about seven devices in some detail, with musical examples: tritone substitution, chord extensions, a favorite triplet arpeggio figure, a chromatic triplet figure, “bebop scales,” chromatic approach notes, and “upper neighbor/lower neighbor” approach tones. These are indeed factors in Parker’s style, and this is a good presentation. However, if you are looking for a more complete and in-depth examination of the components of Bird’s style, I‘d refer you to Yardbird Suite, by Lawrence Koch, an excellent biography that includes a 32-page appendix in which Koch discusses something like 17 devices or aspects of Parker’s style in detail (I’ll post a review of that book in the near future).

Any published transcriptions of Parker solos will inevitably be compared to the Charlie Parker Omnibook by Jamey Aebersold and Ken Slone, a terrific collection that came out in 1978 (I’ve used it in teaching for years). All but two of the solos that Voelpel has chosen are covered in the Omnibook as well. Voelpel has improved upon the Omnibook in quite a few spots, but to my ear, there are still occasional missed notes and rhythms in the transcriptions. Some errors seem to be due to typos. Voelpel published a similar book for guitar two years earlier (which I haven’t read). Perhaps this book, directed at sax players, just wasn’t adequately proofed by a sax player.

The short written introductions to each transcription don’t really deliver the ”in-depth analysis of twelve classics” promised by the publisher’s advertising blurb. For example, the introduction for “Billie’s Bounce” comments on just nine spots in the 61-measure solo (I’ll post my own take on this solo before too long). Other introductions contain some biographical or discographical info, but little or no musical analysis.

A CD is included, with the transcriptions played by alto sax, piano, bass, and drums. On the one hand, some students might find it helpful to hear these versions, insofar as they are played with better sound quality than the original Parker issues, and at a slower tempo. The sax part is recorded on only the right side of the stereo, so that the tracks can be used as play-alongs.

On the other hand, something is lost in translation. The best reference for a Parker solo is - by definition - Bird’s original recording, with all its inflections, accents, timing, unquantifiable thinking and emotion, and of course, “correct” notes. The versions on the CD are the result of several steps of processing: first from Parker to the recording, then to the ear of the transcriber, then to paper, then visually from paper to performer, and finally from performer to the new recording. Even considering just the notes, errors accumulate along the way. The character of the music changes too, and the end product is not exactly a Charlie Parker solo. But we have to be understanding; perhaps the rights to the original recordings were not obtainable.

I may have been a bit critical here, but I’m glad that Voelpel put this book together, and that Hal Leonard published it. It’s a contribution that is worth checking out. For those who would like to dig deeper into the elements of Bird’s style, I’d suggest the Koch book, and also Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck. You might also have a look at these websites:



Jun 12, 2011

A Bugs Bower Story

When I was in college in Portland, a fellow sax player introduced me to some great jazz duets: Bop Duets, by Bugs Bower. My friend’s teacher in Chicago had used them as lesson material when my friend was in high school.

After I finished college, I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area. When I started teaching, naturally I started using the Bop Duets book with some of my students. I had no idea who Bugs was; I just liked the music.

One Sunday afternoon, after I had been teaching for 10 years or so, I was playing in a sax quartet rehearsal at the home of Bob M., the soprano player in the quartet.

We played for an hour or two, and then took a break for coffee. Bob was standing at the kitchen counter mixing up his instant coffee, and the rest of us were sitting at the table. The bari player said, “So, Peter, I hear you are a teacher. What do you use for jazz duets? I like the Lennie Niehaus duets...” I replied, “They’re OK, but I really like the Bugs Bower Bop Duets. Bob, standing with his back to us, sort of froze up and then turned around and said, "Bugs Bower? How do you know that name?"

I started to explain about the duet book, but Bob was already into nostalgic memories. He said, "I was in the Army with Bugs Bower during World War II...when the war ended, we were stationed outside Paris. One time, we had a day free, and we decided to go into Paris to look up Marcel Mule, the world's greatest classical sax player. We found him in the phone book, and took a taxi to his house, in one of the suburbs. We knocked on the door, and introduced ourselves as American servicemen, and Marcel Mule invited us in for lunch. After lunch, we went into a room where he had a collection of antique saxophones, and we played on them all afternoon..."

I couldn't believe how lucky I was to get this great story out of Bob. Besides being a great story, it gave me some idea who Bugs Bower was, besides just a name on a book. I asked Bob what Bugs’ real name was. He said, "I don't know...we called him 'Bugs,' because he was kind of crazy, like Bugs Bunny. I think his name was Maurice."

This was before the internet. I know more about Bugs now. His name is indeed Maurice. After the war, he went on to an illustrious career in the music business: record producer and A&R Director for many major labels, two Grammys, nine Gold Records, worked with Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Perry Como, Jimmy Dorsey, Kool and the Gang, etc. He also wrote quite a few more educational publications. More recently, he put in some years teaching at Five Towns College in New York.

I managed to contact Bugs, and sent him this story, asking if he remembered it. He sent me this gracious reply:
Sorry---it was too long ago, and thanks for the nice words. I'm 89 and still creating CD's & Music Books. They are all on CD Baby including my latest: THE BEST 101 CHILDREN'S SONGS. 3 Hours of Fun & Music on 3 CD's! 
Stay Well and Happy in the Music Business-- Kindest regards, Dr. "Bugs" 

Here's a link to the site with Dr. Bower's latest books and CDs.

If you don’t know who Marcel Mule was, check out this Wikipedia article.

There’s a nice video clip of an interview with Bugs here.

Thanks again, Dr. Bugs! 

Jun 5, 2011

Keep Practicing

Here's another story about tempo, from my Uncle Ted:

Uncle Ted put himself through college in Chicago, in the 1920s, working as a jazz pianist. At one point, his group hired a teenage kid to play drums, who had such a lousy sense of time that they had to let him go after only a week or so.

Uncle Ted went on to a successful career as a patent attorney. The kid's name was Gene Krupa.