Listening to Ourselves

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You’ve played a gig that was a blast. You left feeling terrific - you had killed the music, kept the band bouncing and played outstanding solos.

Three days later, someone posts the video on YouTube, and you’re mortified.  "Is that how I really sound?" You ask, and, warding off cardiac arrest, spend the rest of the day contemplating taking your uncle up on his long-standing offer to join his insurance company.

Hold off, my friend. Breathe. Stay in the moment. Channel your inner Deepak Chopra.

This is a critical moment of musical growth.

One of the most challenging things we have to do as musicians is to listen to our own recordings. But it’s essential, as self-critique is perhaps the most important thing we can do to improve. 

To make the process more palatable, here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Embrace Your Mistakes

So maybe you did drop some beats, rush here and there, or even screw up the form. While “Failure” may be too extreme a word, we need to learn to embrace our mistakes. Not only is it the only way we’re going to improve, failure is an indicator that we’re showing up, putting it out there as best we can.

We may not have succeeded in the way we wanted, but we put our best effort out there, stepping up to say what we had to say. It may not have come across as well as we would have liked, but the more we fail, the closer we are to succeeding.  After painful close monitoring of our playing, we immediately grow. We haven't had to practice for an extra 15 hours – we’ve improved merely by listening for the 5-10 minutes of the tune and noting the things to try not to do in the future.

2. Try Not To Focus So Much On Your Own Playing

Jazz is ensemble music. In the end, our role is to serve the group. It’s not just about us. Shift your focus to the overall sound of the group, or the soloist whom you’re supporting.

During playbacks on a recent recording where Adam Rogers was the guitarist, I noticed that while we were all in the control room, Adam was strolling the hallway, listening intently to the playback, but not closely monitoring in front of the mixing console with the rest of us. I asked him about this, and he explained that when listening to playbacks this way, he was better able to assess the entire ensemble, as opposed to narrowly focusing just on how he sounds. Something we can all learn from indeed.

3. It’s About the Journey

We’ve all heard this so much over the years that it’s almost become a platitude that goes in one ear and out the other. But, let’s try and remember that as with anything, one of the most beautiful things about being a musician is the process of learning itself.

To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for NYC bass lessons or Skype bass lessons. 

The Jazz Path

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I just returned from playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival, where I performed with Joe Locke’s Quartet, featuring pianist Jim Ridl and drummer Samvel Sarkisyan. Guesting with the group was vocalist Paul Jost and saxophonist Tommy Smith. I play electric and upright bass on Joe’s forthcoming release, Subtle Disguise

It’s always incredible to work with Joe. He’s not only the premier vibraphonist in the world. He is the apotheosis of the NYC jazz artist. He’s been on the scene here for more than 30 years and has dedicated his life to this music. His playing is the state of the art of jazz improvisation; he’s a devout student of harmony, continually studying new possibilities for approaching soloing over changes. Play him a Cmi7th chord, and you’ll get myriad possibilities for what to play over it. In essence, a living master of this music, and a constant source of inspiration. He is one of the few who has dedicated himself to the pursuit of jazz mastery and who also has a thriving career.

I view dedication to jazz mastery as first and foremost, a practice; a quest of incredible courage and determination. In many ways, it’s akin to dedicating oneself to becoming a Zen or yoga master. Because the depth of the work isn’t valued in our society, it can be a lonely path, most attuned for one who is comfortable being a solitary walker.

Like the Zen practitioner, one has to approach it as an aspirational practice that is a value as a thing in itself. This is where things get tricky, since the solitary walk of the yoga or Zen practitioner isn’t, from my understanding, tied to the notion of building a career. For most jazz artists/practitioners, however, the end goal is developing the international performance career. I have yet to meet a musician here in the jazz mecca of NYC who feels that her work is a dedication to a practice, to a yoga of jazz, an end in itself, not for the goal of building a career (and let’s not forget, as high an art form as it is, pursuing a career in jazz is still pursuing a career in show business; dedicating oneself to the work never guarantees a career. There are just too many factors one can’t control, namely, the desirability of one’s “product” in the music marketplace)

This is a conundrum we all must face as jazz musicians. We navigate a world in which we are trying to monetize a practice that, for mastery, must be approached as an end in itself.

To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for NYC bass lessons or Skype bass lessons. 

Groove Rule of Thumb #3: Long and Fat

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My third Groove Rule of Thumb (GRT) is one of the most important, mainly because it applies to any style of music: all notes should be as connected to one another as possible. With this ‘GRT”, I’m talking about the importance of legato playing; playing each note in a fat, connected, and smooth manner. We don't want our notes to be “choppy” or short – sustain is what we need to strive for. We want our groove to flow, one note melting into the other, like hot molasses merging.

This is a particular challenge on the bass. String crossings and fingerings are all working against us in connecting notes. We have to play in a positional and ascending, or vertical manner, as indicated in the diagram below:

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Navigating this “real estate” for legato playing takes work. Here are three tips for doing so:

1. Focus on the Left Hand.

Many bassists focus too much on the right hand. I see this all the time teaching bass lessons in NYC and globally via Skype.

A focus on the left hand holds true for the electric and upright bass. Practice with a focus on the smooth connection of notes in the left hand. Prepare for each left hand fingering and shift before the next note is played. Always be thinking about where each note is moving.

(Note: We’re always going to have to balance short and long notes, depending on the tune we’re playing. In no way am I implying that Staccato fills and choppy “stabs” aren’t a huge part of what of what we do. But, for the vast majority of our playing, this “GRT” holds true)

On the upright bass, keep the left hand thumb more on the treble side of the fingerboard, in line with the D and G strings. For both instruments, keep the hand curved, and relaxed. If you’re left hand feels strained or tight, stop playing! You're doing something inefficiently and need to course correct. Video yourself practicing to make sure you’re left hand posture adheres to the principles above. This technique will allow the left hand to move positionally (see diagram) more efficiently.

2. Listen to bassists who do this masterfully

Here are a few bassists whose notes are always long, connected and “fat”:

Upright

Ray Brown

Bob Cranshaw

Paul Chambers

Sam Jones

Hassan “JJ” Shakur

Israel Crosby

Electric:

James Jamerson

Bob Cranshaw

Tom Barney

Anthony Jackson

As a result of adhering to the long and fat rule of thumb, your groove will fulfill the main criteria of playing in the pocket: it will be relaxed, laid back, smooth and warm. For electric bassists, there is probably no more magnificent an example of this than the playing of James Jamerson (that old-school, flatwound sound, increasingly popular today does help make things fatter).

3. Play on one string

Keeping left hand string crossings to a minimum and playing on one string is a beautiful way to maintain a broad, even, and connected bass lines. This is a pretty unorthodox approach, as we’re taught to play in such a positional manner. Playing up and down the fingerboard on one string also forces us to get comfortable the full length of the instrument, breaking away from the boxes of positional playing. This will open up new possibilities, enhancing our master of the full range of the instrument.

Notice I didn’t mention anything about the right hand? Playing long and fat lines is almost entirely about the left hand. Yes, proper hand technique is an integral part of playing the bass, and this will be subject of a future blog post. But concerning my “Long and Fat” Groove Rule of Thumb, working on the left hand is the first order of business.

So go for sustain; beautiful, long, fat lines. This is what will keep your phone ringing. Or, more accurately in our era of the smartphone, “pinging.

To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for private in-person lessons in NYC or via Skype.

 

 

  

Groove Rule of Thumb #2

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Mind The “Ands”

In this second installation of my "Groove Rules of Thumb" Series, I want to talk about syncopation. Jazz rhythm is rooted in syncopation, which is the essence of Swing. It's inordinately difficult to define or notate Swing, but its clear that Swing is an idiomatic feel that is all about the “ands”, or “upbeats”. Playing jazz, we necessarily spend our lives trying to articulate these parts of the beat in a swinging manner.

This distinguishes jazz from classical music. Our music is about a highly idiomatic style of syncopation that is ingrained over a lifetime. Just try and get a classical player to play a jazz line and you’ll quickly hear what it sounds like when someone hasn’t spent their life immersed in this essential building block of swing.

I’ve noticed that most musicians have more of a tendency to rush than to drag. To combat this tendency, we have to look at how we're interpreting upbeats. Upbeats naturally want to rush. Waltzes and "Straight Eight" tunes are two areas where we should be especially mindful.

Upbeats, like all rhythms, should be played broadly; in the center, or towards the back end of the beat.

This upbeat-based rhythm is an essential building block of jazz:

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I like to call this a “Charleston,” as it’s the same rhythm from the dance from the 1920’s (the great Chicago-based conductor/arranger Cliff Colnot uses this term for rehearsal purposes - “take it from the Charleston in bar #33” )

The Charleston is endlessly used in jazz waltzes to imply 2 over 3. As bassists, we’ll be playing this “clave” a lot.

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Placing that eight note on the “and” of beat two isn’t easy. If we’re not mindful of the upbeat’s tendency to want to rush, we’re going to compress the rhythms in the beat, and the groove won't be locked down.

In addition to its essential role in establishing the “clave” of a waltz feel, playing this rhythm properly is essential for making “straight 8” or Afro-Cuban music feel good.

Let's take a classic Tumbao figure, for example, the same rhythm as above, just now in 4/4.

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We’ll face the same problem here – we can’t rush that upbeat on the “and” of beat two. Even though salsa and Afro Cuban music have a tighter, more 16th note feel than, say, a jazz waltz, the time still has to be broad and bouncy. This is especially true in this style of music, where all the parts are syncopated. If we don't place that “and” right where it needs to be, we’re not going to lock into the clave. We’re going to piss off the congueros, and we don't want to do that.

So this is where the rule of thumb comes in - if somebody wants to play “Jitterbug Waltz";   the first thing I’m thinking is, “Ok, I’m going to be playing a lot of "Charlestons" – lay those upbeats back!”

To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for private in-person lessons in NYC or via Skype.

Groove Rules of Thumb

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Over the years, I’ve come up with many “rules of thumb” for playing the bass. These are things that hold true in any context, regardless of style, instrument (electric/acoustic) or setting. 

This is first in a series outlining my “Groove Rules of Thumb”.

Groove Rule of Thumb #1:

Dance

Dance much? You should. If you’re a bassist or drummer and you’re not into dancing, it can show.

I started playing the bass because I wanted to make people dance. When I was 15, I gravitated towards the low end; at that age, I loved the fact that my bass playing could fuel the flames of a packed, bumpin’ and grindin’ dance floor. To this day, my prime directive is laying down a pulse that gets folks kinetic.

As bassists, playing with good time is necessary but not sufficient. We have to do more than lay down a rock-solid foundation – our pulse has to feel so good that it gets everyone in the club bobbing their heads.

Now I’m not talking about unnecessary physical histrionics. I’m just talking about getting your body moving in some subtle way to add some centrifugal force to your beat.

I will say this – you won't necessarily find the vast majority of the great bassists out there doing this. I envy their ability to groove without involving their bodies. But for me, it helps tremendously. And, I do know that Robert Hurst, one of the most grooving bass players of the last 35 years, advocates this approach. In a lesson I took with him some years ago, he talked about the idea of rocking side-to-side, one foot to another, on beats 2 and 4.

This is an exceptionally powerful technique when we're playing in real time on the bandstand. We need to have an internal “click.” While some bassists can rely on that alone, I need a bounce in my step to help me out when I’m in timekeeping mode without a metronome or any accompaniment. If I’m moving in some way on beats 2 and 4, or even 1 and 3, I’m going to feel much more confident in my role as a timekeeper.

We should always devote a sizable chunk of our practice time to grooving as if we were playing on the bandstand. This means playing WITHOUT A METRONOME. We’re not going to have the crutch of a metronome on the bandstand, and we should practice as such. We want our practice to reflect the reality of playing on the gig. 

We all have naturally good time. We have a steady beat in our step when we walk, don't we? In this way, we don't need a metronome. Rhythmically speaking, walking a bass line is as simple as physically walking to our innate beat. And when we actually “walk” in place when we play, the movement can invigorate and distinguish our rhythm and swing.

So try it out - If you’re not dancing on and off the bandstand, you may be doing a disservice to the music, your audience, and your fellow musicians who depend on you to make the band bounce.

To learn more about how to improve your groove, contact Lorin Cohen for private in-person lessons in NYC or via Skype.

Remain in Light

Angelique Kidjo

On May 5th I was lucky enough see “Angelique Kidjo and Friends: Remain in Light” at Carnegie Hall.

The show was her Africanized take on the Talking Heads album Remain in Light.

I’d been relatively unfamiliar with Kidjo and hadn’t listened much to The Talking Heads/ David Byrne since their moment back in the day. But from the minute Kidjo took the stage, that all changed. It was unequivocally clear: she’s one of the greatest artists of our time.

Her voice and the story she had to tell knocked me out of my seat.

She’s a force. At one point, she talked about growing up in communist Benin in the 1980s, and how to her, The Talking Heads represented the sound of freedom.

In search of freedom, the music of David Byrne and Co. inspired her to leave her home. Doing so, she revealed, was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

I think about her journey - from Africa, to France, and eventually to the US, to this night, to this stage, to this most famous concert hall in the world.

I’m sure it wasn’t an easy path. But she had dreams to remember. 

As artists, we all face discouraging obstacles. Remembering our dreams in spite of it all is a daily challenge.

Our chosen paths can take their toll.

But, thankfully, there are artists like Angelique Kidjo to inspire us to “Remain in Light”.

 

Tabula Rasa

As artists, our creative lives are measured in states of feast or famine.

Even in our greatest periods of flow, tabula rasa, the blank slate, lurks…

That's just the way it is, and it can affect our lives in profound and complex ways.

Most “civilians” don’t really get it.

We who experience it however, do our best to do the dance, knowing that our creative lives are often more of a tango than a ballet.

The "You" in You

As the film Alive Inside so beautifully demonstrates, music can unlock treasure-troves of memory.

The vicissitudes of life transform us, and there are inevitably times when we feel like we’ve strayed off course. 

Unlocking lost memories can right the ship.

Lately, I’ve been listening to albums that were seminal in my musical development. Very often, doing so re-connects me to certain feelings, dreams and memories I’d lost sight of.

The Pat Metheny Group’s Still Life (Talking) is one album that has had this effect on me.

It’s perfect in every way: the writing, the playing, the production (shout out to Steve Rodby), the cover art, and, most importantly, the story - told in a mere 42 minutes.

Like all of the Metheny Group’s best work, the listener is taken back to an archetypal dreamland of hope and romance. 

Those feelings are what put me on the course of being a musician in the first place, and when I listen to an album like Still Life (Talking), the music somehow puts me back in touch with an inner voice - my “song”.

It’s one of the many great works of art that help me to find my center, the “me” in me.

In this New Year, here’s hoping you all can find a way to do the same, navigating the ebbs and flows of the coming year without losing sight of the “you” in you.

 

 

 

 

 

 










HOME: A Primer

On the release of my album Home,  Chicago Tribune Arts Critic Howard Reich asked me to answer a few questions about the album. I think this one sheds some light on what I was going for.

1) How would you describe what you were trying to do on "Home" ... particularly regarding its instrumentation and ensemble sound.

On Home, my first album as a leader, I wanted to connect to the listener with a complex but inclusive palette of sounds, moods and grooves.  I wanted to produce something that would appeal to music lovers of all kinds, not just jazz aficionados. .

The groove element was the first order of business.  I started playing bass because I wanted to make people dance, and I wanted to reflect that here. 

I chose mallet instruments and harmonica as the lead voices for my melodies. The steel pan and vibraphone, particularly in the hands of Victor and Joe, represent a synthesis of harmony, melody and rhythm.  Moreover, there’s a vocal quality in the way Joe and Victor play which I love - that seeming incompatibility of managing to “sing” by means of mallet and metal alone.  It’s a testament to their unique talents, and I feel like it gives this music a special character.

The chromatic harmonica and steel pan are essentially “folk” instruments, and I like that.  The former was popular in France as a more agile alternative to the accordion and the latter, as the national instrument of Trinidad, grew out of people's primal need to express themselves using what they found around them, which at the time, were steel oil containers.  The steel pan is volcanic and rooted, while the chromatic harmonica is almost transcendent, soaring above the ensemble.  With this instrumentation, I can take the listener on a journey from Chicago to New York, the Caribbean, Europe and back again.

Like the song “Saudade” (Sau-da-djee) on the album, whose title comes from the Cape Verdean Portuguese for a feeling of being dispossessed, this music represents my personal journey away from home as well as my dedication to the wonderful home in which I grew up and the family and friends that gave that home its glow.  After losing that home, coupled with the passing of my father and brother in recent years, the urgency of paying tribute and expressing hope and joy through my music became a priority.