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Who teaches whom?

Here we are. End of March, first of April. This is when universities release acceptance/rejection letters and scholarship offers. Over the past three Springs I have worked with one senior each year. Parents, students and I discuss recommended programs that will continue to challenge the student and help develop their artistry. We prepare audition material. I write recommendation letters and help record supplemental content for their applications.

In each of the three years these seniors took on these tasks with enthusiasm and energy. They did not let the additional work get in the way of their continued development. Preparing music and performing the auditions helped each of them become a stronger musician.

jodyBerkleeI learned this morning that Jody M., this year’s Senior, has been accepted into Berklee College of Music (my Alma Mater) and offered a four-year full tuition scholarship. He studies classical violin with an excellent teacher, and works with me on contemporary harmony and jazz improvisation. He was also accepted by UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State University. Each of these schools has an outstanding contemporary music program as well.

Once we completed work on Jody’s application and audition material we took time to evaluate the past months’ work and think about new goals. It would have been easy for Jody to say, “I have worked hard and accomplished what I set out to do. Can I coast a few weeks and enjoy the end of my Senior year?” In fact, he did not consider that. Jody feels he needs to solidify his understanding of chord progressions, learn essential jazz tunes, and listen to historic jazz heroes between now and when he leaves for school.

We listed tunes that we will work on between now and mid-August. The plan is to listen to versions of the tunes recorded by jazz masters, learn the melodies by ear, analyze the chord progressions, and learn to improvise over the changes. I am sure Jody will transcribe improvised solos that catch his attention as well.

I have written that students often teach me. Jody’s hunger for learning and constant work toward his goals is an inspiration. We can all take a lesson from Jody, for sure.


Christmas Music – Scott’s Top Ten

santa-musicBlack Friday to many means shopping frenzy. For me it is the opening of Christmas music season. Typically I review the various holiday playlists in the weeks leading up to the season and scout out a few new albums, looking for new treasures.

Thinking back on family favorites, I realize that nostalgia often trumps the quality of the music. This might explain why broad smiles appear when my wife, Karen, and I hear Bing sing that novelty Christmas tune, “Mele Kalikimaka.” I can close my eyes and see Karen mimicking a hula with that bright twinkle in her eye.

Also, so many seasonal songs are overplayed and tired. Mariah Carey comes to mind with her “All I Want for Christmas is You.”  I tried to avoid the too-familiar and the over-the-top gimmick songs in the list below. Here is a Top Ten list of my favorites. You can hear each of these on Spotify or Google Play.

10. James Taylor – Who Comes This Night
Not bad for a heathen – he is a professed agnostic pantheist. I guess many of the recordings we revere are not from Chrisitian artists. I, for one, am glad to hear beautiful Christmas music regardless the source. Lush recording of a beautiful melody written and arranged by Dave Grusin.

9. Lou Rawls – Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Hot. Funky. To quote Maceo Parker (and many others, I am sure) this one will “make your neck jerk.” Let’s dance!

8. Mel Tormé – The Christmas Song
He wrote this song. When he sings “Chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” you know it is from the heart. Add to that the beautifully arranged studio orchestra recorded in a large theater and you have pure magic. This is the real deal.

7. Diana Krall with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – Winter Wonderland
I have to admit some bias here. I grew up in the same small town as Jeff Hamilton and watched his growing career as I dreamed of becoming a professional musician one day. I was Diana Krall’s RA in the dorms at Berklee. I trust that familiarity does not cloud my assessment of this recording. Diana is a beautiful singer. Subtle and powerful arrangements well played by the big band. John Clayton gives a clinic on walking bass on this one as well. Swinging!

6. Joan Sutherland – Twelve Days of Christmas
Sorry for the whiplash. Big Band with a silky singer, straight to Orchestra with a renowned Soprano Diva. The arrangement is constantly surprising and the singing is in great humor. Puts a smile on my face every time.

5. The Singers Unlimited – Silent Night
This starts as a very square Germanic a capella arrangement and moves into a ethereal portrait of that mystical first Christmas eve. Gene Puerling was the quintessential vocal arranger. He proved it here.

4. Ella Fitzgerald – Sleigh Ride
We all hear this in the movie Elf. Do yourself a favor and give this one a careful, critical listen. Ella back in 1960 (as throughout her career) was simply superb. ‘Nuff said.

3. Harry Connick, Jr. – (It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus
What a New Orleans romp! Big band is full of energy and personality. Clever, upbeat, nostalgic lyric. You can feel the band is having a blast with this one.

2. Les Brown and His Band of Renown – The Nutcracker Suite
I know Brian Setzer’s band revived this arrangement – you can hear it in the movie “Elf” but you owe it to yourself to hear the original. This recording is tighter, more in tune. Woodwind doublers are far more confident on the clarinet parts. Brass is glorious. Should be required listening for all aspiring big band players.

1. The Manhattan Transfer – The Christmas Album
The whole album. From uptempo romps featuring the Count Basie band to a guest appearance from Tony Bennett on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this is one gem after another. Catch the vocalese solo on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Lifted from Paul Desmond’s solo from the Brubeck recording. Awesome. Don’t miss this one.

So, seven more days and I’ll have to pack these gems away for another ten-and-a-half months. Until then I plan to keep these and many more on constant rotation in the house, car – everywhere.

Merry Christmas to you!

Santa’s Boots – sort of

BootsRWhat can put a sax-playing curmudgeon smack dab into the heart of the Christmas Spirit? That right, kiddies!  Transcribing an iconic tenor solo. What better to hear this season than Boots Randolph’s solo on Brenda Lee’s hit single “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”? None. Simply none.

Here it is. Rockin’ like that one-horse open sleigh going over the fields. Hot as chestnuts just off the open fire.

Brenda Lee was just 13 when she recorded this back in 1958! Boots was 31. Not until five years later did Boots record his famous “Yakety Sax.” And yes, he toured a bit with Elvis in the 60’s.

Here is a link to the transcription, if anyone cares to take a peek.   Rockin Tenor Sax

It could have been the worst gig ever!

mccartney-showIt could have been the worst gig ever.

I would rather have my fingertips stripped to the bone and soaked in battery acid Madge/Palmolive-style than be late or unprepared for a job. Half-hour early is my typical arrival time. Over-packing is standard operating procedure.

Packing for a Pops weekend with Charlotte Symphony. Bari, tenor and instrument stands – Check! Tux with studs, cuff links, shoes, black socks – Check! Downtown Hotel room for the night – Hmmmm. Thunder Road Marathon is downtown, so available hotel rooms are elsewhere. Southpark area is known for heavy traffic, but there are four hours between end of rehearsal the start of the performance, so – Check!

Off I go! Ten minutes down the road I remember that I had forgotten to bring a phone charger. No problem – I have a car charger cable thingy. Two hours later I discover the car charger cable thingy is broken. Navigation to the venue could be affected, but (ta-daaa) I also had printed directions – just in case.

Rehearsal went well. Driving through the beginning of Friday rush hour was tedious. Into the hotel room with plenty of time to eat and relax a bit. Clock says I can finish watching the HBO boxing documentary, dress, drive the twenty minutes to the venue and still have a few minutes to prepare before showtime. A bit tighter than I prefer, but – no problem!

Manny Pacquiáo ends up face down in the ring, and I spring into action. Socks, t-shirt, then tux trousers…..uh-oh. This tux used to fit, like, 30 pounds ago. I’ll look like an overstuffed sausage, but ok, I can squeeze into this for two nights. No problem. Waistband strained but fastened. Whew! Pull the zipp….BOING! Broken zipper! Definitely a problem. Looking down at my gaping front,  I see bright red shorts. Like hazard lights on a hearse.

First thought: Do I have black underwear with me. No such luck. Call the front desk, beg for safety pins. Feebly work to close the gap as I watch the minutes slip away. Check the mirror. No crimson cloth peeking. Throw on cumberbund, tie, jacket, and do my best Usain Bolt to the car, tenor case strategically in front of my makeshift fly in case of any further wardrobe malfunction. Jump in the car, look at the clock. I have 25 minutes to get there. Close, but no problem!

Uh-oh. No left turn here because of an accident. Right turn only. Now I am going Southeast. I need to go Northwest. Grab phone to turn on navigation. Oh, no. Deader than disco.

A couple of left hand turns and some less than responsible driving, and I am at the parking deck. Six minutes to concert time. First available parking spot is seven floors down. Three minutes. Elevator to street. Two minutes. Summons Mr. Bolt again, burst through the stage door. I don’t hear the orchestra playing – maybe there is a chance…

Look onstage – everyone is seated. Grab the bari out of the case – leave the tenor. I won’t play it until after intermission. Sit down just as the tuning note is sounded. Get some moisture on the reed and fasten. One deep breath and the conductor gives a downbeat.

No problem. Reach in my breast pocket for my – Hey! Where are my reading glasses?

Answer? Back at the hotel. Notes and rhythms are faint fuzzy apparitions. If I squint and move my head back and forth a bit I can make out a meager few details.

It could have been the worst gig ever, but it turned out OK. Barely. Good preparation on one side balanced the poor preparation on the other.

Factors that saved the day: I played the show a half-dozen times in the past. I have known the Beatles/Paul McCartney songs since childhood. Not seeing clearly forced me to look ahead, think about what was coming and concentrate on how the music should work.

It did turn out ok, but I never – EVER – want to repeat this performance!

Don’t miss Beatles music with NC Symphony!

ClassMystTourWhat would you do if I played out of tune?

On June 8th, I will be appearing with NC Symphony as we welcome Classical Mystery Tour back to Raleigh. This will be an outdoor pops concert at Koka Booth Amphitheater. This promises to be a lovely evening. Tickets are available.

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”