Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jazz Workshop with the Bobby Avey Project incl. Ben Monder, Miguel Zenón, Jordan Perlson and Michael Janisch

Leeds College of Music, Leeds. Wednesday 10th December 2014

I attended an excellent workshop at Leeds College of Music yesterday led by pianist Bobby Avey with contributions from all of the band playing as part of his latest 'Authority Melts From Me' project including Ben Monder on guitar, Miguel Zenón on alto saxophone, Jordan Perlson on drums and joining them for the UK tour, Michael Janisch on double bass.

The workshop kicked off with the band playing the opening section of the 'Authority Melts From Me' suite. Avey then explained the background to the project, it being a suite for quintet inspired by the Haitian people who've persevered through a tragic history of colonialism, slavery, and foreign occupation. The suite focuses particularly on Haiti's slave revolt. You can find more on the general background outlined on his website

Avey then gave us an example of how Haitian Vodou drumming formed the basis of the rhythms of the suite. He played a short recording of some multi-layered rhythms he'd recorded at a Vodou Ceremony in the small village of Soukri (You can download these recordings). He explained how he transcribed the recordings to break the rhythm down, then giving some of these rhythmic parts to the piano, guitar and drums. He said that although it would be possible to accurately transcribe the time of the rhythms using complex subdivisions such as septuplets, the written parts would look a bit crazy and would be very difficult to play. To convey the essence of what he wanted, it made much more sense to pass the audio files to the players and get them to understand the vibe and learn them by ear.

Someone asked about harmony of the music. Avey noted that although standard western notation and chord descriptions are used to convey the information to the players, the music is coming from places outside of western functional harmony. An example given (if I'm recalling correctly) was a chord containing the notes F, F#, G and A. Avey noted that it's a valid and real sound, but describing it in terms of root notes, b9s, natural 9s etc. doesn't really make sense. It would have been great to have heard more on the harmony but this discussion came at the end of the first part of the workshop which rounded off with a take on 'On Green Dolphin Street'.

Following this, four of the LCM students bravely performed a version of On Green Dolphin Street after which the band gave some feedback. There was some really useful stuff here and it was interesting to hear pro musicians from other countries discussing  ways to learn and get better at jazz. It was reassuring that all of this resonated with what I've been taught, mainly by guitarist Mike Walker, but also tutors such as Les Chisnall and Iain Dixon.

Janisch emphasised the importance of practising switching between the two and walking four feel to the bassist and drummer . He got the players to play several choruses switching at the top of form from one to the other. It was noticeable how much focussing in like this improved the time and feel. I think it was Janisch that also stressed the importance of recording yourself playing and improvising as much as possible. Listening back to your own playing really highlights where your own weaknesses are and what needs addressing. For him, the listening back and learning process is almost half of his practice time. 

Avey noted that some of the improv was a bit meandering and ideas were not being developed. He suggested it can be a great idea to write a plan down for solos over a number of choruses to make sure there's some strategy and conscious development. Then see if you can play it. The plan could include all kinds of different ideas. It could be using a specific comping idea for each improviser, focussing on a scale pattern, specifically using repetition, playing quieter, louder, slower, faster and so on. Avey also emphasised the importance of transcribing solos to build your vocabulary and listening to different versions of tunes to build up reference points. He compared just using the Real Book to only reading the spark notes for Macbeth. Clearly you need to read/hear the originals to get deeply into the pieces, as only so much can be noted down on paper.  

Zenón noted that some of the players were struggling a little with technical obstacles. He stressed the importance of really working on and nailing the fundamentals, relating to the feeling players have when struggling to express themselves. There's no greater wisdom here than making sure you put in the hours of practice and don't try to be too advanced too early. 

Monder said he didn't feel the students were stating the harmony as clearly as they could in their improvisation. He mentioned that it's really important to be able to comfortably play all the chord tones of the sequence of a piece. On the guitar it's important to be able to do this in position in all the positions on the fretboard, though you may find you have to jump around the neck initially to get this down. He suggested the improvisers try playing two or three choruses based on chord tones before bringing in tension notes and other approaches.

We stuck around for the concert in the evening which was phenomenal. It's challenging stuff for sure, but really engaging if you focus in on it. Avey's approach to harmony is really intriguing and something I want to find out more about. All the playing was great, but I particularly enjoyed the gorgeous fluidity of drummer Jordan Perlson who was a delight to listen to.