Hearing Protection

Years ago, after playing professionally for many years, both live and studio work, lots of acoustic jazz, but also a wide range of musical styles, but none at what would be considered excessively high volume levels, I went to Michael Santucci of Chicago’s Sensaphonics for the test. I was disappointed to learn at the time, when I was in my forties, that I indeed had a hearing loss in my left ear, with the right happily being unaffected. This loss, fairly common I believe, is a “notch”, meaning the damage is in a certain specific frequency range, in my case 5K-7K, roughly the area in which the ride cymbal frequencies tend to reside. Above 7K it was found to be normal and the same below 5K. From that time until the present, I have been a consistent user of hearing protection.

The pro plugs can be fitted with filters in different levels of noise reduction, usually -15db and -25db the most common. I had some -9db filters at one point, which I really like, but mostly used the -15db ones and they work well for the range of my work. The bottom line for me is that I love playing music wearing the earplugs and do not find them to be detrimental to me in any way. I think wind instruments are more of a challenge and so I defer to those players but will say that I enjoy playing flute, which is my only wind instrument, with the plugs, though it’s different. Playing bass, guitar, piano, etc. is a blast because I hear a good representation of the sonic image, just softer, and at the same time I can sing along with my playing which, in some cases at least, gives me a bit of a stronger sense of self image and presence. So, I highly recommend earplugs for your health and musical longevity.

Recently, I lost one of my pro plugs, and so had to resort to over the counter products and want to report on the two brands I purchased. I think both work very well, though I do plan to eventually get a new set of pro plugs. I think, for students on a budget, it’s important to state that these products are very close, if not the equal of the pro product. The main criteria I would mention are getting a good seal while being comfortable to wear, providing a reasonable representation of the sound (not muffled) and providing sufficient protection.

I purchased a set of “Earasers” plugs, at around $40 and also a set of “Hearos Rock and Roll” at around $8. I’m finding the Hearos to work well for general gigs with some degree of volume. Vendors like Guitar Center also sell other variations of the Hearos which are less noise reduction, so surely will be even more enjoyable. They are -26 db, so a little more than I would like, but I’m doing ok with them. In other instances, the Earasers are giving me more detail, so they are worth the extra money I think, but might not be enough protection for some gigs. The most important thing to notice is that they come in different sizes so you need to choose carefully. Go to their website and go over the video instructions. https://www.earasers.store.

So, my advice is to protect your hearing and do it today! If you have the money ($150 for the plugs along + an exam) the pro plugs are the best, but just don’t lose them! In the meantime, I think the over the counter products, the right brands at least, are very close, and so I highly recommend you consider them. There are other brands out there, so my report is not scientific, but just on the two I chose to buy. Feel free to comment with your own experiences with earplugs or related questions.

Advice to a Student Regarding Transcribing

I thought folks might enjoy reading this short article on early bassists and transcribing in terms of developing a stronger soloing voice.

Of course the first bass soloist, of the “modern era”, at least, is Jimmy Blanton (above) and you might enjoy learning his solos on Jack the Bear, Pitter Panther Patter, and Mr. JB Blues, especially among others.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKD-1YvFjkk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xJlV0Agi1w&frags=pl%2Cwnhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrvHckvHj90&frags=pl%2Cwn

Interesting to contemplate that this is like 1941!  All modern bass soloing starts here I think. 
The other important early bassist is Oscar Pettiford. You can go way down the rabbit hole of Mr. Pettiford, but here’s a taste, which I never saw until just now. His timing is just perfect and interesting to watch his right hand. There’s very little video of Pettiford, but plenty of recordings; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7da4WkFqE2g&frags=pl%2Cwn

MIngus, Ray Brown, Chambers and everybody else are coming from Mr. Blanton and Mr. Pettiford, so that’s the source here. Do get into MIngus and Ray of course.

That said, and moving away from just bassists, I’d say go with your taste in terms of who to copy. In the earlier jazz, 1940-60 let’s say, I think Lester Young, Clifford Brown are two to get into because of their clarity and their economy. 
A few of my favorite short solos:

  • Clifford Brown Ida Red and I Come from Jamaica
  • Wes Montgomery- Days of Wine and Roses, For Heaven’s Sake, Movin’ Along
  • Cannonball Adderley, Never Will I Marry
  • Wayne Shorter Infant Eyes
  • Gene Ammons Sack Full of Dreams

Now here’s a source: 
Lester Young These Foolish Things (the melody he plays is a solo!) 

First, listen to the song sung by Nat King Cole


Check out all the verses, wow! 

There are many versions of this tune by Lester and totally different. Compare these two, wow: Dodo Mamarossa on one track, Oscar Peterson the other.

Interesting to ponder these “interpretations” of Lester’s


Guitarist Charlie Christian and his follower Wes Montgomery are all about Lester, so a bass player with Lester in her DNA along with some of Bird via Chambers, brings a lot to the table. 
That said, go with your taste and grab, steal, that which appeals! 

Observations on Endpin Height

I want to share some very recent experiences I’ve had with experimenting with a significant change in my endpin height. I”m going to keep experimenting along these lines, and I wanted to keep my students in the loop.

As background, I’ve stayed with a fairly high endpin for a long time now, and really evolved my technique out of it. There are many benefits to the high endpin. These include (1) access to the upper register for the left hand, (2) access to the region near the bridge for the bow arm, (3) avoidance of hunching over to go to the instrument, enabling the player to bring the instrument to herself.

I had a somewhat earth shattering experience recently when I tried, for whatever reason, playing much lower. What I feel, without question, is that I have way more power in the right hand this way. I basically feel so powerful now, playing really effortlessly with the right hand, both very fast passage work where I don’t even need the third finger, and especially in my groove playing. But, as you’d imagine, playing with the bow is more like a weekend holiday and I feel a little limited there, though I can get over because of all my experience. . So, the experiment will be how to get that to feel comfortable in this new environment with all my tricks. By the way, I’m left handed so my power side has always been my left side, but playing various instruments, all right handed tends to make me pretty equal. I play drums right handed for example.

I strongly advise everyone to experiment with two to three different modes of operation- (1) Sitting, especially for arco, so you learn to feel the way the left and right hands interact with the bass without concern for its balance. (2.) Standing with a high endpin, where I think it will be easier to balance the instrument so that it falls forward in the lower register, freeing the left thumb. (3) Standing with a low endpin, which will feel the most natural for connecting the whole arm to pulling the string.

That said, there’s no doubt that one can play powerfully with either the high endpin or sitting, but the natural way to feel the righthand for pizzicato is with the low endpin. It may be, and this is for long discussion, that high endpin is just more natural for arco, and low for jazz pizz, but everything with an instrument of this size has to involve compromise.

That’s it for now, but let me know your thought, questions and comments. I must say, I felt a bit like King Kong picking up buses and trains last night. Or, in another word, I felt more like a “real jazz bass player,” haha! Wishing you all great luck and continued discovery!

Before and after. 1. with John Moulder 2. with Jim Pryor, piano, Frank Kurtz, drums

Weather Report

….was a very important group, essentially co-led by Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter and which stayed together for many years until Shorter’s departure in 1986. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_Report

Here a couple of great videos from important times in the groups history.

Weather Report was originally a three person project, with the great Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous being the third member. Vitous’ tenure was short lived but to some, including myself, provided the most creative moments in the first two records the band put out, Weather Report and I Sing the Body Electric. Here’s a classic video of the band, in 1971, with most of the original lineup- Shorter, Zawinul, Vitous, along with Alphonze Mouzon, drums and Dom Un Ramao, percussion (Airto Moreira appears on the first record and Mouzon was replaced by Eric Gravatt on the second, so this is right in the beginning.

The band most people think of as Weather Report had Jaco Pastorius on bass, along with Alex Acuna, drums and Manola Badrena percussion. Among other recordings, the album Heavy Weather was widely loved. Here’s a good example of the band from that period, 1976 or so, with Jaco Pastorius a relatively newcomer.

Of course both were great, but clearly different, and each represented a big change at the time. To me, I really enjoy the organic feel of the first Weather Report the most, but that’s my opinion.

Development of the Ear

How do I develop my ear? Simple answer is use it – use it or lose it!

More specifically, how do I stay actively engaged and avoid auto-pilot?

Aside from self evident, circular responses, here are two major answers:

  1. Be able to sing everything you play. If you don’t like singing, then whistle or hum. Go slow enough, in practice, that you can accurately hit each pitch. When you sing with the instrument, try to always lead with the voice.
  2. Whenever you are learning something new, be it a tune, a scale, a phrase, etc., learn it in all 12 keys. This is equally true at the instrument as away from it. As you transpose, I think it’s essential to know what notes you are singing. You need the notes and of course you need the intervals.

Students often ask the best way to learn tunes. First of all, I would say that you should expect that it will take a lot of repetitions over a few days to know a tune. Don’t feel badly if you are not retaining everything. The main thing is to keep after this on a regular basis. It’s the regularity, force of habit that will make the difference long term. Playing a new tune in all the keys will open everything up, including the melody itself, the rhythm, the intervallic structure and harmonic implication, as well as the harmonic rhythm, fundament bass-line and the form. If you can do the same tune every day for a week you will know it in a much deeper way and your retention should improve.

Of course this works better if you have a recording in mind that you love, but I think both experiences are key, meaning the recording itself, and your interaction with it, and the act of taking the tune through all the keys. That said it would also be great working from a lead sheet alone, a way of putting yourself into it more.

Four Key Elements

I must be honest and admit that while I don’t always adhere to what I”m about to tell you, I definitely feel better when I do!

For the musician I think that it’s important to have a daily regimen of core activities some with and some away from our chosen musical instrument. For me, there are four essential activities-exercise, meditation, core work at the instrument and improvisation. You will undoubtedly make your own list, but I would say that this would be a very good place to start.

While core instrumental work, such as technic, scales, rudiments and such and improvisation can both be thought of and experienced as meditative, I do find/feel that pure meditation is a separate practice and should be explored as such. . For me, a Zen style of meditation, quiet sitting with an empty mind (or facsimile thereof!) is very rejuvenating. Cycling or running, especially running, is the best for me. If I find time for these two practice away from the instrument, I’m in a much better place when I do get to it. I think it’s a good balance to have one of the away from the instrument activities be active and the other be passive. Practices like Tai Chi, Yoga do both, so you might have active and passive in one discipline. As I said, find your own way. To be fair and complete, reading music in a deep way is equally meditative, so we all design our own program. Find what works best for you!

At the instrument, as I think we all realize, the more efficient our technical system is, the better we’ll be in terms of musical output- we’ll play more, it will sound better, and we won’t hurt. Further, it will actually feel good, as in the best thing we could possibly be doing for our health and well-being. This is why I believe core work at the instrument is so essential for the complete musician. People who get this down when they are very young are blessed to be able to not have to think about it so much, but there’s still a maintenance factor and damage can and will occur is the system is not functioning efficiently. This is why I highly recommend a significant amount of core practice in your work at the instrument. Most students I see are still very much getting it together when they arrive in college, so that is, in particular, why I’m mentioning this to my college students.

Improvisation is the balancing element, in my view, and should be port of the core work, before we get to playing a specific tune, form or chord progression. On the one hand it’s important to be able to play a particular rudiment, such as a finger combination, scale or the like, in an exact, prescribed manner. On the other, applying such rudiments in play both reinforces the assimilation of the device and helps build the creative juices along with the overall comfort of the physical aspects of the player, and the sound. I’m talking here about improvisation which if free of any particular preconceptions, such as playing a certain tune or form. Basically, if I spend ten minutes on a chromatic finger study, working to perfect its execution literally, I want to spend ten or more minutes improvising, but improvising using primarily the same kinds of chromatic figures. So that’s the fourth element, the act of play.

So there you have it, four elements in your core work – exercise, meditation, core technical work and improvisation. See if you can begin each day with all of them before moving on to a specific tune or piece. I hope you find this thinking helpful in your own work, let me know if you have a comment or question.

The Importance of Improvisation

One thing which I think about a lot in my own playing and in my teaching is the importance  of balancing and  integrating structural work with creative work in my practice. Exactly what that balance looks like will vary from person to person and also in each individual at different points in their growth, but I think the general idea is an important one of which to be aware.

On the one hand, it’s very important to be successful in a given task, and structural competence, like technique or the ear,  gives the foundation to better enhance anything creative.  For example, playing a scale, or memorizing a tune, and cultivating the concentration and follow-through to do that is important. At the same time, I think it’s healthy for all musicians, and especially students of jazz and other kinds of improvised music, to spend significant amounts of time actively improvising from the beginning. I think this reminds us of some of what it was that drew us to the instrument in the first place-why we PLAY! I say this especially because research in music cognition is clearly showing that we use different parts of our brain in creative musical activity as opposed to interpretative. One’s not better that the other, they are just different. It would be like going to the gym and only working on your arms and shoulders, etc.

So, where does imitative practice, including transcription, fit into this thinking? On the one hand, I would say that it is another structural activity that is key to one’s development. Thus, jazz musicians need not only the instrumental control as would an interpreter, they also need the understanding of style, vocabulary, which includes gestures in different styles and also tunes as well as standard forms. At the same time, this idea of including improv will mean that we experiment with playing our own phrases,  in these styles and forms. That’s why I love, to this day, playing along with records in a creative way along with imitative. I do both in other words.

Ultimately, I would say that we follow our on heart in terms of these kinds of things, so each of us will be a little different. My point with this brief essay is to remind and encourage you to include improvisation in your daily work. There is a rather interesting prejudice against improvisation,  found not just with interpretative musicians, but also with many jazz musicians, and my feeling is that could be counterproductive.  This creative work might be anywhere from less to 10% to almost 100%. All I’m saying is that including some time for it will help with your growth. Start with “free improvisation” because nothing is free once you make a decision. For example, I could decide to use the whole tone scale and deal with that for a while. I could decide to be in time or not, etc. Some of this kind of play is a nice contrast to the more usual activities of keeping up with some kind of “play along track” or the like. Spend some time every day in touch with your own sound. Then do all the rest!

The next topic from this line would be: What is the relationship of improvisation with composition? There are different opinions out there. Is is the same basic kind of activity with just differences in terms of practice or expressivity or control, or is it something altogether different? There’s a range of thought out there on it, so I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

More Thoughts on Practicing

This follows nicely the previous post, Practice Outline.

Practicing is a personal kind of endeavor, and certainly evolves with each of us. I really, honestly, advise you to find your own specific methods, but, it’s good at times to take stock of what you’re doing and  evaluate our organization.  Lately, I’ve come to think about the many kinds of things which we do in musical practice/study to be grouped into three main areas: Core, Repertoire, Creative.  Let me try to explain and give some examples.

Core will include anything specific to the instrument, so for us it starts with foundational things like shifting, finger studies, open string studies, arco and pizz, but also scales, patterns, etc. It could also include etudes and much more.

Repertoire for us as improvising musicians has a wide range. It could include tunes of course, as well as anything “classical” you study, like pieces, suites, but it also needs to include so-called transcriptions, which I like to call imitative practice, which helps to develop what some like to call “vocabulary,” in other words an understanding or reference to a sound and style.  As musicians of the future, we need to be equally adept at reading and playing by ear, so both aspects are part of this.

Creative This of course means composition and it’s twin, improvisation. Not all will agree that they are exactly the same, but I’ll loosely paraphrase renowned saxophonist and composer Dave Liebman and say that composition can be though of as improvisation slowed down and vice versa. Of course there are advantages to each activity, and one should do both at least to some extent. The thing I observe with more than a few students is little or no activity that is actually creative. It’s understandable that we need to spend a lot of time with Core and Rep to become great musicians on any instrument, but don’t put off daily creative activity until later. In simple terms, express yourself! It might feel like what you want to do is not in line with what you think is expected of you, but that’s way too much thinking. The greats balance reference, expectancy with surprise. One of my favorite quotes from Benny Golson: “Ron Carter, you never know what that guy is going to do!” That to me means surprise. Work to really be in the moment when you play, and including this in your daily regimen will help you. Do something right now- improvise! It’s what you will be doing when you play with others, much of it anyway, so make it a habit as part of your practice and you will be more confident in your playing in groups.

Jimmy Garrison, Master Bassist

I always loved Jimmy Garrison’s playing, it was really unique and so innovative. He was of course the perfect bassist for the John Coltrane Quartet, and there are many classic recordings you should know, like A Love Supreme, Crescent, Impressions, and Live at Birdland. Here are a couple of lesser known track you will enjoy.  His rhythmic innovations are with us all!

First, the Beautiful Dear Lord, from Transition.  The link mistakenly identifies the drummer as Roy Haynes, while it is most certainly Elvin Jones.

Here’s a track from Elvin Jones’ trio recording The Ultimate, with Jimmy and saxophonist (soprano here) Joe Farrell (an Illinois alum!- concentration in classical flute) in Jimmy’s composition Ascendant. 

Here’s a live video of I Want to Talk About You, with some pretty good sound and a chance to see Jimmy and the group!

And last but not least, Impressions from the television show Jazz Casual. Check out Jimmy’s solo!