Influential books

Technical Books

Any and all books by David N. Baker. He was my teacher at Indiana University and I can’t begin to tell you all how much he helped me. While I would suggest that you study with him directly if possible, his books are full of a wealth of information that will definitely benefit any student of music.

A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody
David Liebman
ASIN: 3892210306

This book solidified a lot of the concepts that I learned from David N. Bakerwhile at Indiana University. That shouldn’t be taken as a slam against David. On the contrary, he presents that material so solidly and extensively. I think what happened for me was that I was final at a point where, when I looked at this material again, I could see how to incorporate it into my playing and writing.

Self-portrait of a jazz artist : musical thoughts and realities
David Liebman
ISBN: 3892210136

What a great opportunity to take a peek inside the thoughts of one of the greats in jazz.

Devloping a Personal Saxophone Sound
David Liebman

I happened upon this book at just the right time. Just as I was really searching for my own voice (both as a saxophonist and an improvisor), I found some amazing information in this book. I would highly recommend this book to any saxophonist interested in honing their technique, tone and overall knowledge of the instrument. Short of studying will Joe Allard (Liebman’s teacher) or Liebman himself, this book might help you get there.

Biographies, Analyses

Ascension : John Coltrane and His Quest
Eric Nisenson
ISBN: 0306806444

This was an enjoyable read about Coltrane’s third development stage. Not a biograpy per se but much more than an anlysis.

Blue : The Murder of Jazz
Eric Nisenson
ISBN: 0312167857

I always enjoy reading about these “current state of jazz” and its future ideas. Everyone’s has their own and is entitled to it. But I always learn something when I read these. I dug it.

Miles : The Autobiography
Miles Davis, Quincy Troupe
ISBN: 0671725823

A very entertaining book from one of the most influential musicians to have graced the planet. How could you pass this one up?

Spiritual Books

Effortless Mastery
Kenny Werner
ISBN: 156224003X

Kenny Werner has written a truly insightful book I think every musician should read. I think we as musicians tend to become overly attached to the music we make. So much so that it inhibits the possibilities that lie before us. Kenny talks a lot about getting out of the way and letting the music flow through you. I fully subscribe to that idea. I know from experience that I play my best when I’m relaxed and sit back and watch the music happen all around me. The moment I try to push it, the magic is lost.

The Musical Life: what it is and how to live it
W. A. Mathieu
ISBN: 0-87773-670-7

This isn’t a “music geek” book at all. Its actually really amazing in that it speaks about the spiritual side of music so honestly and humbly – you can’t help but be drawn in and probably learn something about your ears. Equally valuable for non-musicians and musicians.

On Being Human

The New Peoplemaking
Virginia Satir
ISBN: 0831400706

From my work taking the Pairs course (, this book taught me a lot about being human.

Victories of the Heart
Robert Mark and Buddy Portugal
ISBN: 1852308001

The two authors reflect on their experiences leading a men’s group. There are numerous stories of how the human spirit can triumph over any painful experience if we let it. And often that involves sharing your story, empathisizing with another and, basically, bonding with your fellow man. Something society seems to be trying to prevent.

A Scream Away from Happiness
Dr. Caswell
out of print

If you ever find this book BUY IT! It is one of the most moving pieces of literature I’ve ever read. Dr. Caswell was among the first to use encounter group therapy for drug addicts. But soon after he saw that it was also extremely powerful among all his patients. Among other things, those groups let the participants be honest with each other. So honest, in fact, that many patients are shown, in vivid detail, how they’re hindering their own lives. An intriguing look at how we play games to cover up our anxieties.

Bitonal Concepts in Jazz

Tom Gullion – Jan ’97

While studying at Indiana University, David Baker opened many doors for me. From private lessons, his compositions and playing in his small group (the “21st Century Bebop Band”) I was exposed to a LOT of bitonal/pantonal music. Here I will give a brief introduction to bitonality and share some insights I’ve gained along the way.

David Baker has many excellent books on the topic and David Liebman also has a very thorough book (“A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody” Advance Music, 1991) that covers a lot of this material.

Though the definitions haven’t seemed to finalize yet, bitonality is basically music characterized by the mutual coexistence of two tonal centers. Bitonal music thus offers the musicians two separate, yet interacting, harmonies to draw from. Although the nomenclature is the same, bitonality differs from pedal point. Pedal point is just a chord/scale played with an alternate bass note. Consider the following example:

example 1

Note that the C/Ab symbol can denote either a triad over a bass note or a triad over another triad.

In pedal point, the improvisor would play a C major scale over an Ab in the bass. He/she could either include Ab in the C major scale or ignore it. In bitonal music, an improvising musician may play from the C or Ab major scales, or as we’ll see later, a combination of the two. In this article, we will be dealing with bitonality, not pedal point.

When first exposed to bitonal harmony, it is difficult to simultaneously think in two keys. Sometimes it helps to distill a scale from the two chords. By playing the chords on the piano or arpeggiating them on your instrument, you can usually determine which notes are most important and create a scale from the resulting notes.

You might choose a mode of F ascending melodic minor to play over C/Ab.

example 2

While finding a scale that approximates the chord sound is helpful it doesn’t really open you up to the inner beauty of bitonal music. Playing off the sound of the chords is often a very rewarding experience that brings out musical ideas you may not have otherwise considered.

There are many approaches to practicing these chord/sounds. Given the above example chord (C/Ab) one could practice in the following manner. First I would definitely play the chord(s) on a piano and try to internalize the sound of the chord(s). Playing the two scales (C and Ab) simultaneously (by alternating between the two scales) is also very effective and a good intellectual exercise as well. For example, play the two scales alternating:

example 4

Another approach is to assign scales to particular ranges (usually octaves). For example, from C3 to B3 play C, from C4 to B4 play Ab, and so on. Yet another is to create a “hybrid” scale that best represents the sound to your ears. It could be an altered diatonic, pentatonic or whatever scale you dream up. Woody Shaw was a master at this.

Often, through this type of practicing, you will make many discoveries such as licks, phrases and/or harmonic insights. Try to stay open to these because these discoveries are what I find most exciting and interesting. Many of these can carry over to your “straight-ahead” harmonic conception and may just give you that fresh sound you’ve been striving for.

One of my “pet” bitonal concepts that has proved useful in all kinds of music has been the relation between chords stacked at the interval of a major third. There is a simultaneous consonance and dissonance that really opens up a lot of possiblities for me. This, of course, is nothing new. Just consider the bridge to “Have You Met Miss Jones” or the Giant Steps cycle. Giant Steps has just three basic tonal centers: B – G – Eb. With some experimenting at the keyboard, you’ll see what I mean. Playing any two of those chords (just as triads for simplicity) will show you where the consonance/dissonance lies. Each chord has a common tone but introduces two half-step clashes. But yet, to my ear, there is a very settled, consonant sound. Consider the following example:

example 3

Note the symmetry between these stacked chords. These make for some interesting lines.

There are many more symmetrical licks like that one that might be worth exploring. There are also lots of altered pentatonic possiblities as well. With this music you really take note of the endless choices available.

Hopefully this will provide some inspiration for you. Personally, bitonal harmony really opened up my playing and showed me a lot about how to control dissonance. When you get right down to it, controlling dissonance is what improvising is all about. All those incredible musical moments occur because of the constant struggle toward resolution. Effective manipulation of consonance and dissonance makes your music more powerful and more meaningful. Just like life.

Benefits of transcribing solos

Tom Gullion – Jan ’97

We often hear older jazz musicians brag about the way they learned to play: transcribing solos from records. Our first response is to often write it off the same way we ignore Grandpa’s comments about trudging five miles through the snow to get to school. Now we have cars and buses to get to school and jazz play-a-long recordings to learn to solo. But maybe there are some hidden benefits to taking the “long road”.

The end result of the transcription process, a beautifully written score, should not be the main goal. The “act” of transcribing is what is important. It subtley but powerfully teaches ear training, concentration, notation, harmony, rhythm, sound production, articulation, and many more skills. What other exercise in your daily practice routine can condense so much into so little time?

When I was coming up, I remember thinking transcribing was just another dumb exercise, similar to etudes. Some sort of rite of passage. It wasn’t until I was deeply involved in the process that I started to hear so much more music. I discovered the beauty in the interplay of all the instruments and got my first glimpse at why this music was moving me so deeply. Subconciously I suppose I had been hearing it but conciously I had been too overwhelmed by the soloist to truly hear all the music.

The most obvious benefits of transcribing are ear training, rhythm, articulation and notation. The process involves hearing the line and figuring out how to notate it. Thus, at first glance, one might think these were the only skills to be gained. These skills are undoubtedly very important and should never be trivialized. But there are some deeper lessons to be learned.

Concentration is a skill which can’t be overemphasized (especially in jazz). As improvising musicians we are confronted with the monumental task of spontaneously creating meaningful art in some of the most hostile environments. Nightclubs are notoriously full of distractions such as noise, smoke, temperature (too cold or too hot) not to mention the close proximity of the audience (clubs like the Village Vanguard have the first row of tables right at your feet!).

An added benefit of listening so closely is that you begin to pick up the subtle parameters that make up a player’s sound. While playing back the transcribed solo, it is virtually impossible not to sound like the soloist. Intrinisically you start to play with their articulations and sonic nuances which soon lead to discoveries about that individual’s style. I encourage all of my students to try to imitate the soloists exactly. While I don’t want them to become exact copies of the soloist, I believe they learn invaluable lessons about sound production and variation as well as increasing their possible repsonses to particular musical situations. While playing, my mood is often changed when I hear one of the other musicians play something (a piano voicing, bass line, rhythmic figure, etc.) that reminds me of a recording I’ve heard and I will often evoke the emotion I remember from that recording. Its subtle but I believe it adds to the depth of the music.

creating meaning

My colleague Bill Neil recently wrote “Why waste the time and notes at the fundamental level when you really want to get at the notes with meaning?” We were discussing a composition we’re collaborating on.

Anyway, the power that sentence really struck me. Exactly! He condensed the essence of musical expression into a short question. BTW, he has an incredible knack for doing that sort of thing.

Consider Miles Davis’ use of space, Charlie Parker’s use of flat nines (among many other incredible note choices) and Coltrane’s use of extended chord tones…they all create meaning. Sounds quite simple when you distill it down to this. However, we all know just how difficult it is to create meaningful music.

Perhaps Bill’s question suggests a way to approach making music that will guide us toward creating meaning.

IAJE judging forms

Recently I had the honor of working as an adjudicator and clinician for a couple university jazz festivals. A large number of high school bands participated and, as always, blew me away! It’s always a pleasure to enjoy the hard work of the students and see their enthusiasm.

I take the role of “judge” very seriously and try to offer useful advice (instead of criticism). I was very happy to see the festival organizers leave room at the end of each performance for the judges to do a quick workshop with the band. Obviously, an interactive workshop is far better than static comments on a sheet of paper.

But the real reason I’m writing this is a dilemma I see within the IAJE-approved judging sheet. For competitive judging, there are a number of criteria you’re to assign numbers to. The very first one, for 25 points, is Improvisation. Being a devout improviser, I think this sets the proper tone for the judge work sheet.

The dilemma arises when bands play the repertory pieces from Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. There was one band in particular who did a stellar job playing three Ellington charts. I mean, this band was swingin’, playing all the right phrasing, etc. But every soloist played the transcribed solo included in the chart. Not one ounce of improvisation.

The kids did an admirable job playing the various solos by Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Bubber Miley, etc. But, as I said, they didn’t do anything beyond just playing them. Is it improvisation? Of course not. But I did give them credit for at least studying the recording.

But I really wanted to give them a zero for improvisation because it just wasn’t there.

My suggestion to band directors is to take these charts from JALC and use them. No one can argue with the quality and the price. In fact, I’m very happy kids are being exposed to this music. But, please, open up some solo sections. Ellington did not play this music in such a static fashion.

recorded music is a commodity

As I sit here thinking about the new year ahead, I feel compelled to group some growing thoughts on the value of recorded music.

Recorded music obviously adds tremendous value to our everyday lives. The market for recorded music has, until recently, proven just how valuable it is. However, as we all know, recent trends (e.g., digital music, file compression, peer-to-peer file sharing networks like Napster) have fundamentally changed the industry.

Previously it was quite simple to “protect” recorded music since copies were obvious degradations in quality. Digital recording and CD ripping software have changed that forever.

People are very willing to shell a few hundred bucks for an iPod but seem to think the recorded music content should be free. This has been debated elsewhere so I won’t belabor this.

But the most interesting aspect of this for me is to consider the implications of these actions.

Consider – which is a next-generation label that is trying to get seed funding for recording projects as they are being created. I find this interesting in that it is helping an artist record something but it also establishes a community (since participants subscribe to ongoing details behind the project).

There is an interesting interview with Brian Camelio (president of artistshare) where he does some financial projections behind what an artist makes per download on some of the pay-per-download sites. Very sobering.

But this all condenses down into the core value of music: providing a live experience for people to share. Composer William Neil ( recently started using the term “experience” to describe what we offer audiences. I agree completely with this idea. We have to share much more than just music if we’re to really reach out to people.

I see all this as a boost for live music. It’s the beginning of a new year. I can feel optimistic, can’t I?

listening for music

This blog is all about trying to find the true essence of music. In my studies of Tai Chi I came across the term “ting jing.” This is loosely translated as a mystical listening power where one could “hear” the intention of an opponent.

I prefer to think in more peaceful terms. 😉 But I strongly believe music is successful when we tune into this deeper power.