Is jazz relevant anymore?

So, I’ve been doing some thinking about how to reach audiences. I mean really make a connection.

It’s generally come pretty easily for me when it’s a crowd that has really come to dig the music. I love feeling that connection with one or more people out in the audience. It’s the thing that keeps me motivated.

But that generally only works when the crowd is in the right place. That is, it only reaches out and touches people who are already jazz enthusiasts. Most of the others just leave scratching their heads thinking jazz is somehow beyond their grasp.

I think if that’s the case then I’ve failed as a musician. I don’t think that’s where our forefathers (Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, etc) wanted us to be.

Of course, we’ve all noticed the current trend among jazz records to include more recent hit tunes – such as Brad Melhdau’s covers of Radiohead tunes, the Bad Plus doing their thing and even Don Braden doing popular tunes with an organ trio.

I don’t think that’s the answer, personally. Well, it might be but the current situation misses the mark for me. Why? Because they’re approaching these rock tunes from a jazz perspective and the musics are fundamentally different: jazz expects rather complicated chord progressions and rock tunes avoid them. Thus, to simply play rock tunes in a jazz setting is going to produce very bland results. 🙁

I think we’re at a point where a new approach to reharmonizing these tunes in a more profound way is required. That’s what I’m experimenting with back at the wood shed. Hopefully you’ll be hearing the results from a recording project I’m spinning up later in October…

Stay tuned! 🙂


I began, like most kids in the US, when I was 10 years old. You know, middle school band. But I was extremely lucky to hook up with a fantastic teacher, Larry Kirkman. He produced a whole gang of fine saxophonists through his charisma and dogged insistence on excellence. I learned the fundamentals of sound production, technique and musicianship from him and I will always feel immense gratitude to him for all he taught me (both in music and in life).

One of the “gems” he gave me was to appreciate the importance of sound. Sound is one of those words that takes on many different meanings. If you think only in terms of tone quality, you’re missing a large part of the subject. Through Kirkman, I learned to think in terms of tone quality, phrases and the emotional output of music as one thing, sound. They must all work together to make good music. I needed no explanation when I heard the masters talking about someone’s “sound” – I knew they meant their entire musical being.

Later, when I was studying with Eugene Rousseau at Indiana University this same concept held and was strengthened by Dr. Rousseau’s gifted insights into music. But, given what I think to be an excellent education, David Liebman’s book “Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound” finally gave me the information I needed to really find my “own” sound. I had already been using the overtone exercises for a long time but what helped me tremendously were the mouthpiece alone exercises (playing scales, arpeggios, etc. on only the mouthpiece). These studies exaggerate the techniques involved in playing the saxophone and really help you master them quickly. I highly recommend them along with lots of long tone and overtone exercises.

Because I have such a strong fundamental base to work from, I have achieved a high level of technique with the saxophone and can pretty much always play exactly what I’m hearing. I am comfortable playing in all registers between low Bb and double F and rarely miss phrases I attempt to play. Sorry to sound like I’m bragging here but what that really means to me is that I’m free to conceive the music any way I please and am not limited, to a large degree, by what I can play on my instrument.

I have to admit though that I made a large mistake that I hope you won’t. I came up learning jazz with the Aebersold play-a-longs and all the books. Unfortunately, I got caught up in the technique and analytical sides of the music. Despite repeatedly hearing my teachers and clinicians tell me (and most of my colleagues) to listen and transcribe, I stubbornly went down the wrong path. I was determined to be able to play as fast as Bird and Trane and mistakenly thought I was picking up the music at the same time. I was quite accomplished in the bebop tradition and got one of my dream gigs – the J.J. Johnson Quintet – in 1988. It was there, playing every night with J.J., Cedar Walton, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis, that I learned what real music was. I am so thankful for that experience because it changed me into the musician I am today.

on traveling overseas

July 21, 1997

Clunia TV Production (TV de Galicia)

This was definitely the hardest gig I’ve ever played. The music easy and enjoyable but the torture I endured in getting there basically ruined what would have otherwise been a great experience!

First, my flight was cancelled and I was forced to take another airline, change schedules and worry about making connections. Instead of going through New York to Madrid to Santiago de Compostela, I ended going to Amsterdam to Madrid to Sanitago de Compostela. That wouldn’t have been so bad except the first airline didn’t actually setup the new itenerary like they said they had done. So I arrived in Amsterdam only to find I didn’t have a reservation on the flight to Madrid. I had to fly standby and luckily got on the flight. The same thing happened on the flight from Madrid to Santiago. I got really lucky and got the last seat on that flight! This itenerary took longer and I was forced to arrive late for rehearsals in Santiago. Luckily I was able to reach the other musicians and tell them I was going to be arriving late. But, as you’ve probably already guessed, as a result of all those changes and the bungled reservations my suitcase (with my clothes for the concert) got lost! It went to Barcelona instead of Madrid. After several phone calls and arguments with airline personell, they agreed to send the bag directly to the stage in Noia (a beautiful fishing village in Galicia). The bag didn’t arrive until two hours before I had to play! That’s cutting it pretty close.

From there the day took a turn for the better. The producers took us out for a wonderful lunch of some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste – necoras (crab), navarras (?), salmon, tuna, bonito as well as a generous sampling of Ribeiro and Rioja wines.

The concert ended up going very well despite all the problems the airlines threw my way. The concert featured Clunia (Nani Garcia – piano, Baldo Martinez – bass and Fernando Llorca – drums) as well as Antonio ? – guitar, Javier Ferreiro – percussion and a stellar group of saxophonists (if I do say so myself!): Jorge Pardo, Perico Sambeat and myself, Tom Gullion. TV de Galicia produced the concert and I’m sure it turned out to be something quite spectacular. They erected a huge stage in front of an amazing medieval cathedral. To be honest it seemed to be a little much for a single jazz concert. There was a full, computerized light show, eight cameras including one on a crane, one on rails, several stationary and several hand-helds.

Unfortunately, there was still the question of getting paid after the concert. I had sent at least three faxes stating the conditions under which I must be paid. It was relatively simple: a bank check for a certain amount of dollars (not the equivalent amount in pesetas). This is very important or you will lose money when you change to dollars. Well, that didn’t happen. Of course, the guy from the office who made these agreements wasn’t there and didn’t send a check. So they had a big wad of Spanish money waiting for me! Of course, I had a cow after the day I had had. After much discussion I got them to agree to pay me what they had (plus some cash they had to go get from an automatic bank machine) and deposit the rest into my bank account.

I have to assume some responsibility for these problems with the production company because we never wrote a formal contract. We just sent some faxes back and forth. This lesson had been well learned. I’ll never go out of town without a serious contract complete with penalties and options again!

The day after the concert I had to get up really early and catch a flight. Luckily that seems to have gone okay up until now.

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.