HONK!TX 2019 memories…

Austin, Texas – March 28-31

Day 1: Brass Band Blitz 7

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Featured 30-minute sets from several of the visiting bands. From 9pm to 12:30am we heard from Chaotic Noise Marching Corps (Seattle, WA), Clamor & Lace Noise Brigade (Chicago, IL), Damas de Ferro (Rio, Brazil), Desperate Measures Street Band (Somerville, MA), Emperor Noron’s Stationary Marching Band (Somerville, MA), Funkrust Brass Band (Brooklyn, NY) and Vibrass Project (San Salvador, El Salvador). Here’s the link to the  Facebook event. Because it’s an indoor event, you get to enjoy delicious beer:

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Day 2: Friday Night in Mueller Park

Six locations, four 30-minute time slots from 6:30pm to 8pm.  After catching a set by Austin locals MeowNow, we settled into another location to hear Funkrust (they impressed heavily the night before), followed by Minor Mishap and then Chaotic Noise. At 8pm in the park’s amphitheatre we had a preview from each band as they played one song a piece.  We volunteered to help with set-up so I didn’t bring my camera.

Day 3: Saturday in Adams Park

Seven locations, 45-minute sets.  We enjoyed back-to-back sets by Vibrass Project, Big Blitz and Funkrust and managed to catch snippets of a couple others, including March Madness Marching Band…

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…and Minor Mishap Marching Band:

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Day 3: East Austin Parades and Band Review (Pan Am Park). Just past noon, we joined one of the sidewalk processionals.  In this photo, you can see me on the left lending my prodigious clave talents to the group (a lot of musicians are not playing; hope it wasn’t my fault):

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Day 4: Wrap Party

Also indoors, also featuring beer.  Too dark for photos (that’s my excuse, not the beer).

You can check out the Full Schedule and/or peruse the Festival site:  http://honktx.org

Can’t wait for next year!

In the meantime, it’s off to Pittonkatonk in Pittsburgh this weekend!

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Memorial In Motion

Memorial in Motion - Van Attack - 2019 Flyer

In remembrance of the Toronto Van Attack, April 23, 2018, I led a small group in what was intended to be a processional along Yonge Street from Finch to Sheppard.

We managed to play for an hour or so, keeping out of the rain under several sheltered spots along the first few blocks of our route.  Ultimately, the weather thwarted our attempts to make it all the way to Sheppard.  Nevertheless, I was proud to do this and grateful for the support of my lovely Street Brass comrades.
I’ll be arranging this again next year and hope to make it an annual event.  Our music can express aspects of grief, honour, solidarity, compassion and love that can’t be expressed otherwise.  What a gift!
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Jason Sax and Gerry's Trumpet Memorial in Motion 2019

Group Improvisation: A Pep Talk

Wanna get better at improvising? Wanna be able to capture more of that New Orleans polyphonic style?
Your brass band has gotta jam…
…even if everyone is open to soloing over a tune that you all know or are learning.  That’s awesome, but it’s a different experience from jamming/group improvising.
In group improvising, you don’t have to sustain a creative statement over the whole form of a tune.  Instead, you can find a short figure that you can repeat, or find notes that sound good as sustained “pads”, etc.  You’re contributing to the overall texture of what’s happening.
Group improvising in a jam setting offers an opportunity to experiment (because it’s not, generally, a performance) with what works for you and what doesn’t, all the while other people could potentially be doing the same thing (and not staring at you while you do it!).  It’s an opportunity to stick with a musical context for longer than the chorus of your solo and try out some things.  It’s also an opportunity to combine this exploration with listening to what others are doing and working from there (i.e. responding).  Often in soloing we approach it as creating a melody over the given harmonic/rhythm context but this is only one kind of improvisation.  Also, you could be so concerned with what you’re doing that you don’t listen to the degree that you’re capable of.  That’s a skill that takes time and practice.
Part of learning to improvise is taking the initiative to do so.  It’s intriguing when musicians who want to improvise don’t do so on a regular basis in their own practice sessions.  Even while alone and unaccompanied (which I HIGHLY recommend).  Or along with favourites records (also, recommended and probably more obvious).  And now there are lots of materials available for private practice, e.g. recorded accompaniments specifically designed for this purpose (which I’m sure you all know).
So, why is there a hesitance?  My feeling on it is that people are generally concerned with “I don’t know what to play”, seeking “right answers” to this challenge.  It can become more complicated as one develops other skills (including, ironically, technique adequate to the task) but also decreasing self-confidence/increasing fear: the “mistake” factor.  This can happen at an early age sadly, but speaks to how we generally learn music in our Western education system.  I could go on…
Group improvising offers a solution to this challenge AND it’s integral to the style of street band music (or “second line” music) that many of us practice.
It’s also fun, individually rewarding PLUS it will ultimately help with how to arrange tunes: it can give a band more flexibility in what can happen (duets, section playing, etc.).
I’m not necessarily suggesting jamming with “no structure” – although I do think there’s a place for that, too. Rather, someone can introduce a riff (not unlike some of the stuff we street band players already play as basslines to our pieces) and that we collectively improvise around it.
Part of our practice – part of the “lineage” – includes improvisation (with a strong emphasis on the collective to boot) and it’s worth spending more time on it. In my experience, the only time that band members get “to practice” (loosely) their improv skills, is when it comes time to solo on a tune.  It’s not enough, in my opinion, if members want to be better improvisers and better able to play creatively as a collective.
Even if one’s primary goal is to learn tunes and not be a jam band per se, working a little bit regularly on group improvisation in the manner I suggested is not mutually exclusive but rounds out the practice nicely.

Hard Swingin’ Music for Hard Weather

When everything gets shut down due to inclement weather, you feel like you’ve been blessed with extra time.  In response to a Twitter post from Ted Gioia (jazz historian), who mentioned a thread on Reddit about “the hardest swinging” jazz tunes, I decided to create a playlist. I posted individual YouTube links – one per Tweet – as the ‘snow day’ went along and it was a hoot revisiting some of my long-time jazz favourites.

The core of the list is comprised of pieces that I’ve been fond of for about as long as I’ve been interested in jazz.  I consider most of these to be “formative tracks” in a way. For example, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” and Stan Getz’s rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” are two of the pieces that I remember from my earliest listening sessions.  Since I’m a sax player and, as a result, created a list that is “sax heavy” (no apologies for that though!), I rounded it out through a conscious effort to provide some contrast. There are a couple featuring a piano trio (well, one is a quartet that includes an extra percussionist) and a couple large ensemble pieces.  The Ahmad Jamal and the Charles Mingus pieces are two that I’ve fallen in love with much more recently

As much as I love other types of music, there’s nothing quite like the “swing feel” in jazz when it’s done really well – in other words, when the music “swings hard.” When I came across Jamal’s live version of “Poinciana” just this past month, I remarked in the YouTube comments just how much the music swings.  It’s a remarkable thing when you encounter it really, when the music makes you want to move along to it.  I say this to point out a key concept: not all great jazz, even that which can be said to swing, swings as “hard” (or as well) as other great jazz. At least, in my opinion.  Also, slower tempos tend to be more indicative of this quality, but not always.

I imagine I’ll make a repeated effort to continue what I’ve started here because it’s such awesome music!  But to begin with, here are 10 tracks (with YouTube links) in no particular order:

“I’m An Old Cowhand” – Sonny Rollins

“Bloomdido” – Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie

“Poinciana” – Ahmad Jamal

“Wayne’s Thang” – Kenny Garrett

“Moanin'” – Charles Mingus

“Blues for C.M” – Dave Holland Big Band

“The Way You Look Tonight” – Stan Getz

“Autumn Leaves” – Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis

“Night Train” – Oscar Peterson

“Take Five” – Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck

 

Annika Socolofsky and the value of discordance

New Jersey-based composer Annika Socolofsky (AN-ih-kuh SO-co-lawv-skee) posted something really funny on Twitter: that she’s considering creating an ‘anti-bio’ based on negative views she’s received, particularly those of a regular Daily Gazette reviewer who consistently refers to her music as “discordant” (which is hilarious in itself – I’ll get to that in a sec).

I hope Ms. Socolofsky follows through on this because 1) it would show her sense of humour 2) readers would find this fun 3) it would instigate curiosity about her music 4) it’d be an unusual thing to encounter on a composer’s website.

She also mentioned something else interesting: “Meanwhile, I’m not sure I know of any living composers who are more tonally-oriented and melody-driven than me. Such a weird beef to have…”

Of course, as per #3 above, all this made me very curious indeed.  I became determined to check out Ms. Socolofsky’s music and, fortunately, she has provided several SoundCloud links on her website.

But even before I got there, and as I was tweeting encouragement to go for the ‘anti-bio’ thing, I kept thinking, “this reviewer doesn’t seem to know much about the subject at hand.” Why? Because saying a new music composer is ‘discordant’ is kind of like referring to a comedian as ‘witty.’  In other words, that characteristic might not always be present in the art, but it sort of goes with the territory, in general.  I mean, has this reviewer even heard of Arnold Schoenberg or listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? – stuff from a hundred years ago that marked pioneering forays into non-tonal, discordant music?

So, yes, it is a very “weird beef” for a critic to have!  Of course, there has been concerted, and more recent effort toward valuing tonality in new music, even a veering far away from discordance, as much of the minimalist movement has tended to do.  However, for many of today’s composers, playing with degrees of discordance is as essential as the age-old manipulation of consonance-versus-dissonance is, more generally – as fundamental as notions of repetition-versus-contrast.

What I’m mainly getting at is this: being “discordant” is not only NOT A BAD THING, it is necessary to express certain things artistically.  The critical question is: “how is discordance handled?”

I’m no Daily Gazette reviewer but, as far as I’m concerned – now after listening to several of her compositions – Ms. Socolofsky handles it brilliantly.  She is indeed “tonally-oriented” and “melody-driven”; she is also very colourful and evocative with a wide emotional palette. She’s not always going to hand you something that’s “pretty” but who would want that all the time? I love the way, for instance, she often blends singable melody (she is a singer as well, after all) within in an ebb-and-flow of sometimes strident and, on other other hand, more soothing textures.  She draws on many elements to shape her compositions but control of  consonance and discordance is a key facet of her artistry.

My favourites so far are “Hush” (for string orchestra + electronics) and “One wish, your honey lips” (for flute quartet), both having their share of colourful dissonance but also shining through with aching beauty at times (and the two often aren’t mutually exclusive). “Bulgarity” for saxophone quartet is a boisterous and virtuosic dance that will make you smile (and, for the record, thoroughly lacks in what certain Daily Gazette reviewers might remotely call “discordant”).

 

 

The Beauty of HONK!

No horn? No problem. Here are some shakers.

No rhythm? No problem. Just make a joyful noise.

You don’t have to even play an instrument; you can dance or juggle or do a hand-stand, etc. The only limit is your imagination.

Anyone can be involved in HONK! – literally, anyone. Among the many characteristics that make the HONK! street band movement beautiful is its inclusivity.

As Tim Sars, of Vancouver’s The Carnival Band, is fond of saying to anyone around to listen: “You’re all in the band.”

The Carnival Band’s website says further: “We believe community music is grounded in collaboration, with the aim of empowering the individuals involved.”  They invite anyone with an interest, even loaning instruments and providing instruction.

The Party Band from Lowell, Massachusetts says, “Open rehearsals encourage players of all skill levels and dedication to attend and join our cause, none are turned away.”

In Toronto, you can come play with Street Brass. We don’t have instruments to lend, sadly, but we can hook you up with some spoons at the very least.

Beyond being directly involved in the music-making, the second key aspect of “inclusivity” involves the participatory nature of the performance, the breaking down of the (very common) barrier between audience and performer. “Bands don’t just play for the people; they play among the people and invite them to join the fun” (honkest.org).

There are so many divisive, polarizing aspects to the world. HONK! actively thwarts this. On the one hand celebrating tremendous diversity in expression (musical and otherwise), HONK! is one tribe and openly invites you to be part of it.

HONK! ON (HONK! Ontario) is July 26-28 in Toronto (details TBA).

HONK ON Postcard

The Sound of HONK!

One of the things I absolutely love about the HONK! world is its musical eclecticism. The predominant unifying factor is the general timbre, which emanates from the use of brass  instruments, saxophones and percussion (other woodwinds and mobile instruments like accordion are also common – I even saw one musician playing electric bass with an amp on a little trailer!)

However, in terms of musical idioms or the kinds music played, pretty much anything goes.  According to the HONK! Fest website:

“bands draw inspiration from sources as diverse as Klezmer, Balkan and Romani music, Brazilian Samba, Afrobeat and Highlife, Punk, Funk, and Hip Hop, as well as the New Orleans second line tradition, and deliver it with all the passion and spirit of Mardi Gras and Carnival.” [honkfest.org]

That’s a lot of fun music right there.  If you go to the HONK! website and check out the bands that have been involved, you can follow links to their sites to hear samples of what they play.

Now go hear some HONK! [Band List]