It’s been a while

My last post was the night before Thanksgiving, 2016.  It goes without saying that a lot has happened since then.  I seem to have taken some time off from posting.  This wasn’t planned nor was it intentional, but it happened.  So…what’s new?

Transitions!

Thanks to some fortunate timing, I’m transitioning from the Navy a bit sooner than expected.  I’ll be finished up here in September and I’ll be back in Chicago in October.

Yes, I said CHICAGO!

Stephanie and I have decided to make the big leap and move back to where I’ve always considered home to be.  We’re excited about this move and I can’t wait to begin exploring the scene in Chicago and figure out where I fit in.

Didn’t you say something about some recordings?

Yes, at the end of last year I went into the studio with my Italian Quartet and made a couple of albums.  I’m really happy with the results and you can learn more about them here and here.

I’ll try to do better at writing.  I always feel better after I do it, and I hope there are those who enjoy reading…

Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Eve here in Napoli and I just finished a duo session with my man Francesco D’Errico.  We are moving very quickly toward our recording next month and I am getting very excited about the project. 

This is a time of year where I begin to look back and take a little stock of what the year has been.  While 2016 has been – shall we say challenging – I still have some reasons for optimism.  

Yes, I’m away from my family, but I have a warm place to go tomorrow with dear friends to slow down for a bit and enjoy my favorite meal of the year.

I get to work with some truly amazing colleagues every day.

I have dear Italian Brothers and Sisters with whom I am privileged to make art, share food and drink, and enjoy deep friendships.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone… 

Adding Value

I recently came across a new (for me) podcast..”The Minimalists Podcast“.  I’ve always been drawn to the idea of minimalism and the idea of living better with less, if for no other reason than it resonates with the somewhat austere lifestyle that awaits as I transition from the relative comfort of my current situation.  As I listened to the first episode, I knew I would be hooked…but not for the reason that I thought.

In the first episode, Joshua Fields Millburn spoke about “adding value” and the idea that adding value is a basic human instinct.  That idea really made me pause…adding value is a basic human instinct.

I’ve been thinking all day about how I choose to spend my time and if I’m honest, much of it does not add value.  I consume…a lot.  I consume web content.  I consume videos on Netflix and iTunes…not because I am genuinely interested in them, but because they distract me.  They distract me from doing the kind of things that really would add value to my life.  I don’t know why I make these choices…that’s a question for my therapist…but I SUSPECT that I make these choices because they’re comfortable.

It’s comfortable to sit on my couch and watch movies that I’ve seen a hundred times.  It’s comfortable to consume salty, pre-packaged food (in ITALY of all places!!), and it’s comfortable not to challenge oneself.  But, none of these things – if I’m honest – adds value to my life.

Now to be clear, I stipulate that there is value in recreation and relaxation.  But, when that state of being becomes the default, something is out of whack.

Everything one owns should have a purpose, or bring one genuine joy.  I’d extend that tenet to say that everything one DOES should serve a purpose or bring one genuine joy.  How then, do we balance the needs of survival with living within these tenets?

I don’t have the answer, but I am starting to look around and within with a very questioning attitude.

Here are some things that have added real value to my life this past week:

  • Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”
  • Greg Fishman’s ideas about practicing
  • Dexter Gordon’s solo on “Three O’Clock in the Morning” from the album “Go”
  • Time spent with my Italian brothers and sisters
  • Deep conversations with small groups of people

I tell people all the time that any choice you make will either take you towards a goal or away from a goal…saxophonist, heal thyself….

September News and Detritus

September is not yet half over, and its been busy.  I wanted to take a moment to talk about a few things…

GIGS AND PROJECTS

Last Sunday I was able to participate in Jazz Napoli’s benefit for the Amatrice area.  A great day of music with the Leonardo De Lorenzo Quartet.  I was also able to hear some wonderful sets from dear friends Francesco D’Errico, Giulio Martino, and Elisabetta Serio.  Jazz is alive and well in Napoli and I am really happy and lucky to be a part of it.

 

Coming in October, I’ll be playing on a new series in Salerno with the Elisabetta Serio Quartet.  E plays beautifully and has an individual conception to her own music as well as her interpretations of standards and popular songs.  I’m really looking forward to this collaboration.

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In November, I’ll finally be documenting some of my music.  Francesco D’Errico and I have been playing together for several months and we have stuck a really great level of communication and musical empathy.  We’ll be doing a recording of some of his and some of my original music.  Some will be in Duo and some will be in Quartet.  Ahead of the sessions, there will be some local performances…watch this space.

There is a studio here in Napoli that does a unique version of “Crowdsourcing”…they combine the precision and laboratory-like environment of a studio recording with the immediacy of a live performance by opening the studio to an audience during the session.  Cover charges et cetera are used to defray the costs of the recording.  This will be my first recording project of my own music.  To say I’m nervous doesn’t even to begin to describe it.  But, an artist creates…I can no longer afford to wait for perfect.

PROJECTS I’M CONSIDERING

I’ve been friends with Giulio Martino for years (see above photo of us together).  He’s a FINE tenor and soprano player with whom I have been lucky to collaborate.  We have conceptions that balance each other well, and we share a similar background with regard to our influences and important recordings.  One of the most important recordings in our shared history is the Elvin Jones “Live at the Lighthouse” recordings with David Liebman and Steve Grossman.

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I think a reason that this recording resonates so strongly with us is that we both have a personal connection to it.  Giulio studied with Grossman and I with Liebman.  The instrumentation is one of our favorites – two tenors/sopranos, bass, and drums.  We are talking about presenting a recital of the music from this recording.  No details yet, but I am hopeful that we can make this happen before I leave Europe.

That’s it for now.

Straight ahead and strive for tone!!

Catching Up…

I really didn’t intend for it to happen…

It’s been close to a month since I posted.  I hate going that long, but this month has really gotten away from me.  There’s a lot to talk about so this post will be a bit of a stream-of consciousness type of post will no single topic.

Poland

A couple of weeks ago I took a couple days for myself, jumped on a plane, and visited Kraków Poland.  This was my first visit to the Motherland and it was wonderful.  I don’t know what I expected; maybe some kind of post-Communist utilitarian wasteland…NOTHING COULD BE MORE WRONG.  Kraków is wonderful.  Amazing “Central European” architecture, warm people, AMAZING FOOD, and incredible history.  I had a good balance of traditional Polish food and “world cuisine”.  “Craft burgers” seem to be a growing thing in Europe and I counted no fewer that 10 local burger bars.  I will say that I had one of the best burgers of my life in Kraków.  

One really can’t talk about history in Europe, and especially in Poland, without addressing The Camps.  I was really conflicted about visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau but I ultimately decided to visit and bear witness.  It was an awesome experience…I use the word awesome in its classical sense – inspiring awe.  When I see the places that these unspeakable things happened, see the evidence that remains, hear the stories retold, and make actual physical contact with this part of the past I found myself standing in awe of how one group of humans could do this to another group of humans, how one group of humans could systematically dehumanize their fellow humans.  I was a soup of emotions after the tour.  It’s difficult to recommend this the same way one would recommend seeing the Vatican or the Louve, but I really believe that visiting The Camps is something we should all do at some point in our lives.

“Wake Me Up…When September Ends”

August is always a hard month for me when I’m on the road or away from my family.  My anniversary and my son’s birthday are both at the end of August, within two days of eachother.  Stephanie and I had our eyes wide open when I accepted this assignment, but this milestone was harder than I was expecting.  This wasn’t the first anniversary we’ve been apart and with the realities of Doctoral work, road bands, ships, and the multitudes of other realities of working as a musician post-navy it certainly won’t be our last.  I’m not trying to figure out WHY this one has been so much harder, I’m just sitting with it.  August also always reminds me of Stephanie’s adventures in health.  She’s doing great, but August is always a reminder of from where we’ve come.

Aural Thearpy

It’s not all gray and pouty though.  I’ve come across some amazing things to listen to.  My listening of the past couple of weeks has tended toward vocalists.  I want to mention three recordings – one that I’ve know about but got pushed to the back of my pile for a bit, and two that are new for me.

Moss – Moss is a vocal quintet featuring some of my favorite vocalists:  Luciana Souza, Kate McGarry, Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, and Lauren Kinhan.  They have one recording out on Sunnyside –  “Moss”.  It is some amazing singing and the setting of e.e. cumming’s “I Carry Your Heart” is worth the cost of purchase alone.

Also, two recordings by percussionist/arranger John Hollenbeck, both of which feature McGarry and Bleckmann – “Songs I Like A Lot” and “Songs We Like A Lot”.  Both recordings feature transcendent writing for jazz orchestra and are not traditional “big band with singer” at all.  Check out “Man of Constant Sorrow” (yes, the same song that was in Oh Brother…) on the “Songs I Like A Lot” recording.

That’s it for now…next time I promise to talk about reed storage or something…

Processing about Process

I am a nut for process.  I love reading about people’s daily routines, processes, how they do what they do.  One of the first things I observe when watching someone I admire is how they approach tasks – both mundane and specific.  I think there is something comforting about having a “template” or something that I can base my own processes on – “this is the way XXXX does it, so this is the way I’m going to do it.”

This is important for creative types because what we do is not nearly as sequential as some other things.  It’s comforting to be able to place a process, routine, or schedule on what can be a very abstract thing.

I really began to go deep into this well shortly after I left my undergraduate studies and began working as a professional.  Up to that point practicing was, relatively speaking, easy.  What is my assignment for my next lesson?  Without weekly lessons, juries, auditions, et cetera, my practicing had become much more self-directed.

The best teachers prepare us for this by essentially teaching/revealing to us how WE learn. By showing us this about ourselves we become equipped to address any issue with our playing ourselves.

I think I have a pretty good idea how I deal with things, thanks to some great teachers in my life…a word of caution – this article is about to become very saxophone-specific and a little geeky.  With things like fundamentals I do best with a very regimented approach.  Sound production, articulation, technique, reading are all things that I have to address first and in a very rote kind of way…with a detachment.  Things to be done everyday without a sense of positivity or negativity (like brushing teeth as one teacher would put it).  This has to be done every day just to maintain the “machine”.

The next part is where I tend to struggle a bit.  Developing myself as an improvisor.  There are tangible things to be done to be sure, but it feels different.  It is not as simple as “play this etude for x minutes” and move on.  The focus required is different and the specificity required is much different.  I have to be able to focus on macro and micro at the same time.  Transcribing a solo requires that one constantly “zooms in and zooms out” – getting deeply inside one phrase and then placing that phrase in context with the rest of the solo.  Developing language from a transcribed solo requires a similar focus.  I have to absorb the original piece of language (absorbing means hearing it completely, having it available in all keys and a variety of tempi as well as understanding the harmonic implications all while not having to “think” about it).  Once that is done, I have to practice placing the language in the various harmonic situations that apply – working to make it happen effortlessly.  While that is going on I am working on variations of the language.  Each “new” line that is developed gets the same treatment.

This type of practice does not lend itself to a “routine-like” schedule as neatly as instrumental practice does.  There are also things like learning tunes (an everlasting process), composition and arranging, playing piano, playing DRUMS, required doubles, writing articles (such as this) and focused listening.

It is very easy to become overwhelmed.  I think this is why I am so interested in reading about/hearing about/asking about successful artists’ processes.  Not to copy and adopt wholesale, but to add new strategies to my own.  It can be a real dilemma of balance.

I know I have many friends who are working musicians, artists, and educators.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts…

You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means…

As I speak to people about my plan to move on from military music next year, the conversation always seems to come around to preparation.  “Do you have something prepared?” is the common question.  I know that this question is very well meaning, but I can’t help thinking that it is the wrong question.

The military culture, as strange as it seems to someone who is outside of it, is very risk-averse.  Decisions are gamed out to anticipate every possible outcome.  In doing this type of preparation the second-order is to have a plan (they’re called COAs – Courses of Action) for every conceivable outcome.  A decision usually isn’t made if any of these COAs are not thought out and a reasonable expectation of success isn’t likely.  Of course, the type of work the military does requires this type of thinking.  What I’m finding is that many of my colleagues – and if I’m honest, me – will allow this paradigm to inform all decisions that they may make.

The reason I say that I think it’s the wrong question has to do with the idea of preparation itself.  The focus that many have is on preparing a “situation” that one can land in.  A stable job, a clear and guaranteed income stream, and a type of checklist of things that need to be in place BEFORE a decision such as retirement is made.  I have so much respect for this discipline.  The problem is that, for me, that type of preparation isn’t practical.

As I am visualizing my post-military life, I don’t see a specific thing.  That is to say, I don’t see a specific job, a specific lifestyle, or a way of living.  What I do know is what I want to do – play artistic and creative music and teach artistic and creative music and whatever is required to support those habits.

So, how does one prepare?  What I’ve been realizing is that preparation for me is an inward thing.  I don’t know what opportunities will present themselves.  I can say that I have NO IDEA what my first year post-Navy will look like, but I can also talk about several ways it can go.  So, preparation means preparing MYSELF to be in a place that I can take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves (and opportunities WILL present themselves).  This means have my craft at the highest level I can as well as having a clear vision of what my aesthetic is.

Things like networking, making connections,and the like are critical but they are not the preparation.  The preparation is the intrinsic work that will insure I am ready to accept an opportunity that is presented to me.

On Teachers, Dogs, and Leadership

It didn’t surprise me a bit when I began to see several pictures of dogs on my NIU saxophone professor’s Facebook page.  Stephen Duke was an amazing teacher, and like most amazing teachers one doesn’t realize how amazing they were until much later.  Steve often made references to dogs in his teaching.  He would make the analogy that playing lead alto in a section was like being a Border Collie.  Always watching the flock and ready to nip at someone’s heels if necessary.  Looking back it seems to me that he taught that way too.

Our lessons were not incredibly structured by routine.  Of course there were assignments and juries and the like, but often the entire lesson would be taken up playing the first six or seven notes of a Ferling etude.  Six. Or. Seven. NOTES.  Steve would always question…can there be more sostenuto?  Can your articulation be more natural?  Can your timbre be more even?  It was rare that he would tell me:

a) What I was doing was wrong.

or

b) Specifically HOW to correct something.

He would question.  Question intent, question choices, question everything.  He was “nipping at my heels.”  He wouldn’t force a change but one would always happen.  I think that by asking these questions in a non judgmental way, he was allowing me to find my way to where I needed to be.  To work closely with someone like this every week between the ages of 17 and 21 was a very galvanizing experience.  Steve was a guiding teacher, not a directive one.  Do not misunderstand, he had incredibly high standards.  I remember a quartet performance that we played for a “woodwind convocation” that didn’t go well.  It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t how we had been playing.  He had us back in his studio and he made his disappointment clear.  Again, not in a disparaging way, but in a way that led us to understand what was acceptable for a professional.  I have never forgotten that.  I believe that any success I have had as an artist and craftsman, I owe to these values being instilled.

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What does this have to do with LEADERSHIP???

More and more in the past several years my job as a Navy Musician has been about leadership.  It is a natural progression in the military that with success and longevity come more opportunities for leadership.  As I continue to find myself in situations where I am coaching, directing, mentoring, and sometimes disciplining, other musicians I find that I often need a compass.  Without even realizing it, Steve has become that compass for me.

I find that a group succeeds when it is allowed to develop in its own way within “left and right limits.”  I learned that from Steve.  Establish what the edges are and explore freely within that area.  Did you find something that you were interested in?  A phrase?  A certain interval?  Take it to the Nth degree.  Find everything you can in that cell.  One of the hardest things about guiding people is to balance their interest, excitement, and joy with the direction and end state that an organization needs to move towards.  Steve was hyper-aware of when something “turned one of us on.”  He would grab that nugget and use it as an entire semester’s syllabus.  So it is with leadership.    I find that the more I pay attention and really connect with others in my organization, I find things that really resonate with them.  A great day is when we can find a way to connect those things to a task or job that needs to get done.  Which brings me to…

I’ve found that people are more successful when they understand what the end is, but aren’t confined with how to get to that end.  I learned that from Steve too.  Just as the key to developing a beautiful sound is first have a concept of what that sound is and then to “get out of your own way” and let that sound happen.  The key to a successful group, band, team, whatever is to have a clearly defined and articulated goal that everyone understands and to get out of the way.  Let the musicians, artists, Sailors succeed.

I’ve found that the more I try to specifically control the way something is done, the less effective it is.  I also learned that from Steve.  By being in the musical moment and reacting to what is happening vs. what we feel SHOULD be happening we allow the music – improvised or written – to grow and expand far beyond anything that we could have consciously manipulated.  So it is with those we coach, mentor, lead.  When the goal is defined well, “letting” becomes very important.  We have to accept that others may not do it the way we would; we also have to trust that they see the same end goal that we do and are just as committed to getting there.  We also have to be able to let go of our micro-view enough to be able to see the way things ARE unfolding and engage at that level vs. filtering everything we observe through a filter of what we think things SHOULD (I have come to hate that word) be.

Leading, teaching, coaching, mentoring…these are incredibly important roles.  All too often they are looked at as a “secondary” role.  Teaching to supplement performance income etc.  Probably the most important thing I learned from Steve is that your student…or person you’re mentoring, or the people you lead…will tell you exactly what they need to be successful.  You as the teacher or leader have to learn to listen.

Rituals

Tomorrow I head out on the road again for a few days.  This time to do some playing!  I’m really looking forward to playing some standards with a great colleague in a duo setting.

As I finish getting ready I find myself reflecting on ritual.  For as long as I can remember – or at least as long as I have traveled as a musician, the night before a tour – regardless of length – has felt the same.  Of course, there is the packing…trying to pack enough but not overdo it.  Once I joined the military, uniforms entered the picture, so there is the checking and re-checking of all of that.  I go over all my gear; mouthpiece(s), reeds, neckstrap, and the like.

As I get older and have less tolerance for junk food, I find myself packing “road food” into my bag as well.  Nuts, dried fruit, water.  These things can make a day of travel go much better.

One of my favorite parts is picking music.  In some ways I miss the days when I carried a disc-man and physical CDs.  I used to love sitting in front of my shelves (often with my toddler son crawling all over me) and trying to pick out 5 discs to throw in my bag.  I had to be much more specific about what I wanted to bring.  With everything being digital now, and available everywhere, it can be easy to just assume that one will have one’s entire collection available anytime.  As strange as it is, I am not a fan of this.  I enjoy taking some time to reflect and consider “what to I want to feed my artistic self with over the next few days?”  I make playlists and load them on to my phone. It’s rare that I carry more than 10 albums with me at any time.  I am about to sit down and make my playlist for the next few days.  It feels familiar and comforting.

I wonder if other musicians who travel or tour have pre-departure rituals as well??