Building A Jazz Set: ジャズの曲



Building A Jazz Set

Being a professional musician these days is a challenge, especially if you are a woodwind specialist. We study and practice the finest details of theory, composition, improvisation, and so on. But there is little discussion, especially amongst young players, of the art of creating an interesting series of songs (a set). Thus, strategically choosing songs and their sequence for a performance can make a major difference in your career both artistically and economically. To illustrate how, I will discuss in this post music written or arranged specifically for a jazz quartet consisting of trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums (in honour of my saxophone teacher Ornette Coleman, whose (piano-less) quartets are a huge inspiration to me.). 

There are many benefits of well-planned set, especially how it can help deliver a decent performance when you are jet lagged, dehydrated, coming down with a cold, hungry, and/or whatever else happens when you tour and perform. An organized set is also very useful when there are last minute personnel changes, and you have little to no time to rehearse before a performance. A well built set also leave room for flexibility and spontaneity if you decide, for example, to alter the set mid-performance to fit the mood of the room. The most important aspect of a well-planned set, though, is that you have in mind a target performance, a standard to which you aspire. Hitting this significant target requires the intense focus typical of a traditional Japanese archer, or legendary violinist Nicolo Paganini when he wrote difficult pieces to be played on a single string. So let’s look at a few key points that will help you build a great set.

A very effective way to begin a set is with an opening solo number. It may be freely improvised, but I have found that having a pre-planned, original solo arrangement of a standard song is most useful as a whet, an effective way to engage with the audience immediately. And though many saxophonists will use an excellent ballad like John Coltrane’s Naima, choosing songs such as Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman or Dave Brubeck’s Three To Get Ready instead is more surprising and entertaining show opener to jazz audiences (while also being a fun textural challenge for the soloist). With proper planning and preparation then, the solo intro will engage both you and the audience right from the start.

Having too many mid-tempo songs in a set is a mistake many young saxophonists make. Not being able to play artistically at faster tempos, they tend to stick to a comfortable, medium speed overall, with little variation in form and tempo. So when choosing songs, it is particularly effective to strategize towards your stylistic rather than technical strengths, until they are equal. This is where you may compensate by showcasing original arrangements of up-tempo songs, as is often the case with John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, or the classic standard Cherokee. Thelonious Monk ‘s composition Well You Needn’t is also useful as a stylistic vehicle, as its bridge section is difficult at high speeds, for saxophonists especially. Altering both harmonic and metronomic speed thus provides both artistic and technical solutions to up-tempo songs.

Another pitfall in set building is arranging a standard 4/4 song in other time signatures like 3/4 or 5/4. Although in theory it is a good idea, young saxophonists almost invariably just try and fit the melody into another time signature verbatim, without exploring any of the myriad possibilities of form and texture. The key to arrangement then is to find creative ways to maintain the essence of the original while featuring it in an unexpected context. So rather than re-arranging an entire song into 5/4 for example, simply alter a single bar of the melody into 5/4, which creates a surprising “hiccup” effect in the song, before returning to the standard time signature and chords for improvisation. You can also play the song in its original time signature and then arrange the solo section to be in 5/4, before returning back to the original form. Both methods provide an opportunity to create fresh arrangements without overcomplicating both the music and the overall set.

As I am using a piano-less quartet as an example, the lack of a chording instrument can be either an advantage or weakness, depending on the quality of the set. Though a piano might add more musical colors and possibilities, the space created in a piano-less quartet is an opportunity to demand more of yourself and the ensemble texturally. Thus, including a traditional song, or original arrangement of a song that does not require chordal accompaniment gives you the opportunity to explore more textural and improvisational elements, which are then played equally amongst the entire quartet in a contrapuntal rather than harmonic approach.

An example of this would be arranging songs that use various ostinati/patterns, such as traditional African balafon songs, or your own compositions based on South Indian drumming patterns arranged into complimentary parts for the entire group. Using this method is not only enjoyable for the audience but also prevents you from staying rooted in your comfort zone. And when you add space to these arrangements to create freer forms of improvisation you create moments of chance and uncertainty, which simultaneously makes great art possible, and keeps the set from being over organized and predictable.

Ultimately, strategic set building helps bridge the gap between our goals and abilities, while creating a memorable experience for your audience. So make sure you enjoy the process, and good luck!

An Introduction To Robert Okaji



ロバート・岡地: 天才


Poetry is a strange thing. It is often amazing, but also often considered by its detractors as odd scribblings that seem to have nothing to do with anything that makes a difference in our world. How can we understand poetry? A common mental image of the poet is of one who lies around avoiding actual work; a precious elitist lying on silk cushions writing pretty, rhyming nonsense, or maybe the Beat poet sitting around abusing opioids while writing strange, erotic things. Why is this?

It may be that a kind of reversal of Romanticism happened. The “Romantic” of the mid-19th century created the impression that the ideal (true) poet/artist/musician, in resistance to the sprawl and noise of an emerging Industrial Age, was regaining Latin ground, that the poet was a scholar of the soul like the Greek and Roman masters, and not a person of the machine mindset. Thus, the silk and opioids were “classical” in the sense that they were not “machines,” or “working in a factory”. They were now symbolic of the beauty of a golden age when the philosopher, lying on his chaise lounge reading and philosophizing, also participated in an aesthetic divinity (Inspiration) through which the poet could “breathe in” the ability to be profound. Drinking/smoking opened the psychic space of the great classical Muses, and absinthe/heroin consumption became part of the sacraments through which one abides with the Latin/Greek godhead of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Horace, and others (sylphs still hovering high above the growing sprawl, factories, smoking chimneys, and giant gears.). But as Modernism arrived in the 20th century the “classical animal” became a polluted, feral anti-establishment animal: seen as “indecent”,”refusing to work”: one who retreats to the pillows, musings, and heroin as a way to avoid civic responsibility. With no more Muses and sacraments, the poet is a no-good-nik, a junkie with a typewriter. Suddenly wise Athena becomes William S. Burroughs, much to the chagrin perhaps of the working class man who feels disenfranchised.

The real struggle then is to find a path away from the idea of silk pillows to a place where poems – beautiful ways of saying – matter to us, are once again ours and not “theirs”. Thankfully, the struggle is not a struggle at all when we peek behind words and look at the Logos of a poet, the organizing principle or principles that animates his/her words. And there are few better poets to be ‘peeked’ than American poet Robert Okaji. So rather than the usual formal analysis of the poetry as structural expression, I want to peek behind such things as iambic pentameter and visual rhythm, and provide for you an existential primer to the work of this great poet, through which you can go on contemplate his words at his website.


In the Analects of Chinese philosopher Confucius, a disciple named Zi Gong is asked about the intellectual abilities of fellow disciple Yan Hui, of whom he says, “How dare I compare myself with Hui? Having learnt one thing he gives play to ten…” This statement, describing the ability to understand ten things from hearing one thing, is a perfect way to approach the poetry of Robert Okaji, his ability to tease out relationships, colors, shapes and forms from text, revealing something wonderful moving in its peripheral vision.

First, it is important to note that Okaji is an American: a true son of his land like every other American whose ancestors arrived after the 15th century. But the beauty of Okaji’s work is that it lays bare the limiting notion that the truly great American works are exclusively lexicons of Americanism, and his expression (like all great expressions) uses the Vox Americana to tell us about all time itself, manifesting in all times and geographies.

The “covering cherub” of his time or genes does not constrain him, and this is where he shines as that best of artists, a unique voice within a history of words and speech. “Unique,” as I use it in this case, refers to the Latin word unicus, from a root word meaning “one.” So I don’t mean Okaji is unique in that he is completely original, but that in reality he is something better than original, something more powerful than a singular voice or style. Okaji’s “oneness” pops up all through history but the power of the popping is significant. And when it arrives we call it genius: the Logos – the “it” of “it all”  – finding special voice in the one.

What Okaji does is an inherently human thing that has transcended styles and forms and cultures: “it” shows up all over civilization. What is exciting is seeing it return, both similar and new. So what is this oneness, this “it” that Okaji is a manifestation of? To explain “it” I will first show you what it looks like, and where it has been. Then, we will get to Okaji and see how it has returned. To do so I will refer to Greek, Chinese, Japanese, American, and Germanic cultures as context to analyze his words.

The Key Idea

When we talk of the West, or Western culture (America, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, etc), we are also speaking of the Greek politics, philosophy, and poetry that formed the base of what would become European culture via Rome and the Latin language. So to be Western is to know something of and participate in this Greek foundation, however much it has changed since 1190 BCE, roughly the time when the Greek epic poem The Iliad was finally written down. I start with The Iliad because it is the most famous and maybe the most influential of the great poetic forms of Western culture. The Iliad was spoken aloud for centuries as a performance and people gather in the thousands to hear a great speaker recite it. So it had its power in personal expression more so than in the reading until humanity became increasingly more literate and could read and speak it for themselves.

One particular line stands out: when the war hero Achilles is arguing with his ruler Agamemnon, he angrily shouts “you parasite king of the nobodies….” This statement stands out as a moment of personal truth for Achilles and lets the audience feel the force of his feeling as only an insult can. Insults are personal. One can speak and write of the beauty of flowers, but insulting someone is personal and speaks more so to a very present human presence than poetic feeling. Mocking someone, singing love songs to them, speaking in real terms, the humanity of profound abstractions: This “groundedness” in humanity is the “it” I am talking about. I use this example from the Iliad primarily, but “it” pops up in human stories of all types and forms all over the world from the very beginning of our consciousness.

There are two types of “it” that can make or break poetry: (1) capturing qualities of it through formal techniques (rules), or (2) finding ways to actually say it (making new rules). I have met so many people who hate poetry because it sounds and feels to them like the product of snobs and/or lazy “hippy” types lying around avoiding real jobs. “Poetry is not real,” “it is just fancy nonsense. Poets are people who don’t have to sweat and struggle like regular ‘good’ people do” goes a common refrain. This subconscious or fully conscious hate for lazy people, whether pointed at poets or not, usually does finally end up in the arts scapegoating the abstract artist/poet. Strangely enough, the fact that most poets work at demanding day jobs (and are in fact significant contributors to the economy) is ignored.

What breaks through this negative stereotype though is a word or phrase that makes us feel we are in the world, that we now know and feel something of value in our world. Poetry stops being lazy nonsense when we become newly grounded or re-grounded in Life through what stands for Life in our consciousness. Fancy words can be beautiful and formal poetry can be profound (“it” No.#1). But I and many others find great power and personal uplift in “it” No.#2… the words that go out of the rules, or seem ready to burst through the seams of the rules at any moment, if they have not already.

As this is a human “it,” the Iliad and later Western works are not the only, or exclusively most significant, source of this “it.” The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and  the Hebrew Torah contain “it”, all stories and religious texts have “it” in places, so it is within this human context that we can look at “it” as it occurs in what we call the East, or the South, or the North, or anywhere. Wherever “it” was recorded first is original in that limited sense, but what is in all of us is its true origin.

With this in mind, Robert Okaji contains within himself the potentiality of manifestation, coming through the legacy of our human heritage. Okaji can read Icelandic texts and be inspired by them and realize “it” in his own verse, thus I am going to refer to the previously mentioned cultural manifestations for a reason. What Robert Okaji writes has occurred very similarly in particular historical manifestations of “it No. #2.”

Germanic Element

There is what I call a “Germanic Element,” found in the translations of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926). Okaji does not write like Rilke, but often gets to a place where his humanity tunes in to itself as Rilke does. Rilke, an Austrian, thus represents a Teutonic (“Germanic”) expression of something that resonates with his fans. Rilke, in his brilliant (first) poetry collection The Book Of Hours, writes the following:

You mustn’t worry, God. They say mine
To all patient, unprotesting things.
They’re like the wind that gusts through branches
And says my tree (39).

If you will notice, Rilke doesn’t finish sentences on the same line but rather continues on underneath: “they say mine to all patient, unprotesting things” is cut in two. This technique is called in enjambment, and it creates a visual rhythm (like objects in a painting) on the page. This is why some poems are more powerful when read than spoken. Enjambment makes a poem do something unique on the page itself. Also notice how Rilke uses a common thing like wind blowing through tree branches and give it a desire. Whoever “they” are, they claim to own what is not theirs, what is beyond their capacity to claim; all this from wind and tree branches! This particular style of Rilkean enjambment and use of a natural metaphor I find appearing in Okaji.

Japanese Elements

First of all, a classical Japanese Element cannot exist without the massive literary traditions of China preceding it. Thus, a Japanese Element itself is the unique manifestation of Japanese culture that arose from within a literary tradition that informed the academic an social traditions which Japaneseness in writing arose from. To this day, the Japanese language still uses written Chinese characters and both Japanese/Chinese pronunciations of the more significant ones. A similar scenario occurred in the Koreas as well as pre-colonial Vietnam as well.

A vital feature of the traditional Chinese and ensuing  international Asiatic canons was an almost exclusive focus on the seasons and associated plants, animals, colors, elements, and moods. Nature is utmost, and to write was to do an exhaustive study of practically every tree, river, flower, bird and animal within the 3300 mile span between Beijing, Tokyo, Busan, and Hong Kong. Thus, part of the great genius of these works also lay in the fact that it made the writer a student of botany, geology, zoology, and ornithology as well. To be an Asian artist was to know one’s surroundings ergo “the world” rather intimately. As Japanese haiku poet Basho said: “Those in art follow nature, and make friends with the four seasons. Follow nature and return to nature.

(Note: the suffix “-ology” itself is based on the word/idea of the Logos, the “organizing principle” behind things that we are seeking in Okaji’s work, so it is no surprise various ologies would appear in this discussion!)

But Chinese scholar Yen Chih-t’ui (531-91) also stated that the function of poetry and other forms of writing is to “to develop one’s own native sensibilities,” that to be in nature and study it results in one’s own particular resonance with nature to be revealed. Some glory in the summer, some shiver in wonder during winter, still others (namely myself) stand on the Togetsukyo Bridge over the Ōi River near Kyoto’s Arashiyama (Storm Mountain) and watch the cormorant fishermen and their birds earn their daily bread by lantern. Autumn in Kyoto, what a time!

But what is supremely special about the Japanese Element is a very Japanese way of living with paradox: the co-existence of austerity and simplicity with extremes of technology and creativity, Japan’s long standing appreciation for things that don’t last long, that which decays and becomes un-beautiful only to become profoundly beautiful (the worn and cracked tea bowl), a profound haiku expressing the feeling of a season coexisting with an booze jug epigram:

Rather than being a so-so human being, I’d like to be a sake jar and get steeped in sake!” – Ōtomo No Tabito.

Long before the Imagists of the 20th century (discussed later in this post), Japan had prose poets recording thought and feeling in the form of zuihitsu, free form journals filled with random musings and often-hilarious lists of things; coming from a lived quality of being in the world, being cold and lonely, being bothered by the shrill, incessant noise of clustered cicadas, glorying in a downpour of cherry blossoms, and categorizing “things that lose their charm by being included in a painting…” (from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book).

The classical Japanese Element thus is how the passing, impermanent, loneliness of things is expressed so directly and often hilariously in poetry and free form prose without the interference of cheap sentiment, that things decay and there is no right or wrong to it, only the reality of the fleeting moments. The impermanence of rice in a bowl means the joy of eating (more rice in the stomach), but the process of digestion (impermanence of rice in the stomach) and impermanence of one’s dwindling rice supply will also bring hunger.

Japan also has a tradition of acknowledging and celebrating what are known as “preservers of important intangible cultural properties” (jūyō mukei bunkazai hojisha), informally known as “Ningen Kokuhō “– “living national treasures.” There are three categories, one of which Okaji qualifies as, the Kakko Nintei: an individual who has attained high mastery of an art. This also implies they preserve the soul of the art: the thing that gives it power as a cultural watermark incapable of being counterfeited by the sophist or dilettante. The ningen kokuhō concept is applicable in Okaji’s case.

Thus, what I define as a classical Japanese Element in Okaji’s work is this intangible “being here for a moment” quality “the impermanence of things”: mono no aware) is an intangible cultural legacy that is so worth preserving as part of the fine arts. This classical Element is obviously neither the only element, 100% representative of Japan, as a living evolving social system nor the definitive Element. But of what Japaneseness has gifted the world, there can be no doubt that mono-no-aware and zuihitsu-istic prose are precious human legacies and they can be found in Okaji’s work. For example, as you read Okaji’s work, notice how he often connects mathematical and alphabetic themes with descriptions of birds, such as in his poem The Sky Refutes East And West:

Here, the horizon lingers. 
The open eye, the mouth’s shape.
A hoop, the circle without iris. 
Does the screech owl acknowledge latitude and hemisphere?
The Semitic alphabet contained no vowels, thus O 
emerged as a consonant with a pupil, morphing into a dotted ring, 
and later, with the Greeks, an unembellished circle (which they
subsequently cracked open and placed at the end). The female lays eggs
on the remnants of earlier meals lining the bottom of her den.

This also hints at a strong influence from the “Imagist” approach to writing.

Imagist Element

The Imagist poets of England and America, most notably Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were interested in creating a poetry of directness, economy, and less adherence to strict verse forms which would make their poems more “musical” – you could say, less like a “march” and more like a “waltz.” Pound, heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese classical forms, had a huge influence on poetry after him, as the public did not generally know of quality English translations of such works. Thus, the Asiatic drinking and moon references in Pound’s Epitaphs would seem radically simple to most people when compared to the large, metered Western works of the previous centuries:

Fu-I loved the high cloud and the hill,
Alas he died of alcohol
And Li Po also died drunk
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.

We also see this economy of words and effect in the following segments of fellow Imagists Wallace Stevens’ poem (1) Peter Quince at The Clavier, and (2) William Carlos Williams’ The Bull:


Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
on my spirit make a music too.
Music is feeling then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music…


Unlike the cows
he lives alone, nozzles
the sweet grass gingerly
to pass the time away
He kneels, lies down
and stretching out
a foreleg licks himself
about the hoof
then stays
with half-closed eyes:
Olympian commentary on
The bright passage of days.

Though poetic, a key feature of this Imaginism is very simple sentence structure, a perfect balance of poetic words with an everyday ‘sentence’ quality that is easy to follow while clearly being poetic in expression, just the right mix of metaphor and directness; with little abstraction and little reference to the linguistic complexities of past, classical forms.

One might expect, considering this inclination towards simplicity and prose that Okaji would also be a potential byproduct of the Beat poets’ fascination with unconventionality as a style unto itself, considering the Beats were heavily influenced by the writings od historian D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhsim, in which they found their rationale for the “profound irrationality” they thought they saw in such forms as the Zen koan, and the mystifying, nebulous qualities of oxymoronic Zen meta-rationalism: ”form is emptiness, emptiness is form…”) Bebop jazz, as well, symbolized to them the notion of unconventionality itself as a distinct (and possibly definitive) style of artistic expression, but Okaji’s freedom is not unconventional. In fact, it is wonderfully conventional, bordering on creative non-fiction at times, and much in tune with Imagism over the social dissonances of the active Beat.

(Note: what I personally find profound about the Imagist nature of Okaji’s work is how the Logos of humanity has found voice in the best way, through the “search” of words, through his uncertainty: that he questions and wonders about birds and circles and Greek letters, knowing that the answer eludes him as he postulates. This existential honesty is significant. Okaji’s work has a patina of uncertainty because there is real uncertainty there. He wonders… and in being uncertain he, and we all, are most human.)


So taking account of these elements, we can briefly summarize them as follows:

Being grounded in a human quality: groundedness in Okaji’s use of his daily life (food, life as an accountant, music, dogs, birds), embues his work with an intangible, enriching humanity, making the conventional structures of poetry and prose come into the qualities of Life”, rather than “come to life” on the printed page. Germanic enjambment and allegory, the Japanese sense of literary free flow and the aesthetic expression of Life-as-fleeting as beauty, and Imagist simplicity all help facilitate a creative flow of distinctly American expression, better than original, the flow of a common humanity so hard to capture in words.

Thus, when reading Okaji, we can begin hear the cries of the falcon, smell the spices in the bowl, and learn a new way to know how they feel.

Having read one one thing, we thus can give play to ten things within ourselves  and Robert Okaji gives us that chance.

The Art of Drum Brushes

The Art Of Playing Drum Brushes 

The art of playing drum brushes is indeed an art unto itself, yet many take this aspect of their training for granted. To them it is old fashioned, best reserved for traditional jazz, thus a rudimentary ability to play swing on the snare is all they care to develop. But I suggest that this technique is very much a modern technique when done well, and with all the many hybrid forms of pop and jazz music occurring theses days, the ability to make original music with brushes is in one’s own economic as well as artistic interests. So, to help the novice drummer start building a solid set of brush skills, I have put together a few (road-tested) tips.

To start, make sure to keep the brush’s wires not too spread out, and the angle of the brush low. Also, own a couple of pairs of brushes that have differing wire gauges and take advantage of their extension capacity, as sometimes you will need a little more dynamic power e.g. on an outdoor or unamplified gig. Personally, I use 5” (heavy gauge) Vic Firth jazz brushes fully spread outdoors, and the light gauge VF Heritage brushes at a 3” spread indoors, and find this to be the ideal set-up. Brushes are most useful at an acute angle of about 7º to 10º degrees, though personally I like to keep my right hand at around 12º to 15º degrees since I use traditional grip. Also, keep your wrists completely devoid of pressure, putting zero weight on the brush. Then once you get used to letting the brush make all the sound, even tiny amounts of added pressure can make the brushes sound totally different. Let the brushes do the work, and you will be amazed at how easy it is to play evenly and musically at any dynamic marking.

Second, you should be able to swish the brushes around the full circumference of the snare’s batter head or in the smallest circles with no difference in consistency, creating a lush kind of drum ‘white noise.’ No changes in dynamics or slightest hints of a pulse: your foundational technique should be as smooth as silk no matter what you are playing. Also, be able to use all parts of the snare in as many ways as you can. The sound of the head near the rim is different from the middle, and dampening the head while tapping with one brush can also create many types of sounds depending on how much pressure you use in the dampening hand. The rim can also act as a closed hi-hat for high-pitched taps mixed with rim shots and batter head dampening, which is especially useful in a small jazz combo when creating multiple percussion parts on a Latin tune. Also, make sure that the batter head on your snare is a decent quality one-ply, coated head that is not too old, as the type and age of the head you are using makes a huge difference in your sound. Also make sure your snares are not too loose, and both the batter and resonant heads are properly tightened and tuned.

Furthermore, you should study the various brush patterns that different drummers find most comfortable using. Everyone is unique, and there is no one ‘official’ way to move the brushes around the snare. Taking your wrist flexibility, hand positions, and coordination into account, find the ways that you most easily create a good sound and develop them. You should also be able to create not only a traditional swing sound, but be able to creatively mimic anything from a South Indian mrdangam drum to a beat from a Slayer song. Your drum brush control should be to a degree that you can vary any aspect of it any time you want without it affecting any other part of your music making.

Brushes are such an expressive set of tools it would be a shame to waste their potential for highly developed phraseology during your solos. Thus, learning well-known standard jazz melodies and a number of sticking/swishing variations to help accent the key points of these melodies becomes an extremely useful and wise activity. Charlie Parker compositions not only have fantastic melodies, but are also a wonderful source of rhythmic material for you to memorize, and improvise with. Also, working through the first couple of pages of Stone’s book Accents And Rebounds For The Snare Drummer in conjunction with Charlie Parker tunes can also help build extra strength, control and independence in your hands.

It is also important to develop the ability to play with combinations of sticks and brushes. There are many places where this can enrich your playing as well the music you are performing, especially if there is improvisation involved. For this technique I use combinations of a Vic Firth SPE2 Erskine ride stick (or a Vic Firth 8A), one of my Vic Firth Heritage brushes, a Pro Mark Lightening Rod, and a Solutions ST-1 mallet because the extra heaviness of these particular mallets helps create luscious, round tones in my toms. This ability can also help you create your own unique beats and patterns for composition or improvisation.

Having said that, start working on your brush technique today, and don’t forget to have fun in the process. Practicing and playing music is a joyous affair, so go for it with gusto.


Odd Time Signatures: 奇数拍子


There has been so much technological and musical advancement in the last twenty years it is almost dizzying. But even with such change there still is not as much discussion in woodwind circles about the organized, practical study of odd time signatures as I feel there should be, so I thought I would discuss them with you in this post.

“Odd” time signatures are any that are divided into non-even numbers: 3, 5, 7, and so on. Also, it is almost always the case you will eventually encounter, or be required to play in, time signatures such as 5/4, 9/8, or 7/16. What makes them feel “unusual” at first is that since most Western music (jazz, rock, classical, etc.) is in 4/4 or 2/4, a time signature like 7/4 feels “uneven,” or often hard to keep track of. But there are three basic approaches that will help you understand and feel comfortable with odd time signatures.

First, one must get used to note groupings less common in 4/4. We get so comfortable playing even eighth or sixteenth note groupings of four (in bebop for example) that playing odd note groupings feels strange. Thus, first learning to accent groups of five and seven in 4/4 is an excellent way of first getting the feel of odd numbers in a comfortable setting. A relatively easy way to do this is through scale practice. Using the C major scale in 4/4 for example, play the scale very slowly, in sixteenth notes, accenting the first of every three notes in sequence (C, F, B, etc). Thus we play [C d e F g a B c d E f g A…] and so on. Doing this makes it sound like we are playing triplets over 4/4, like we are playing in 12/8 simultaneously. This effect is a cross-rhythm (often mistaken called a polyrhythm) that plays against the main pulse.

Once you are comfortable with accent triplets, then accent in groups of five: C d e f g A, and so on. Another fun way is to accent notes in groups of two and three: C d E f g A b C d e, etc. What this does is introduce the feeling of playing in odd time signatures without counting in your head, which you want to avoid. This preliminary exercise also moves you out of old habits and clichéd (comfortable) patterns. Another really effective method is studying/adapting the first ten pages (pg. 4 – 14) of George Lawrence Stone’s book Accents And Rebounds For The Snare Drummer, to your scale studies. It will simultaneously strengthen both your motor and intellectual skills.

Second, one must actually listen to odd time music in order to get used to hearing its ebb and flow in traditional Greek folk music, for example. A classic example of simple yet brilliant usage of 7 and 5 are the songs on Dave Brubeck’s albums Time Out and Time Further Out, (including the wonderful “Unsquare Dance”). Many songs by Sting are also excellent examples of using odd time signatures very musically, and not just for show. “Seven Days,” for example is an excellent, minimalistic use of 5/4, while “Straight To My Heart” is an excellent example of creating a catchy riff in 7/4. It is important to start with music that is easy to analyze, as many groups  (e.g. Animals As Leaders, Frank Zappa, Meshuggah, King Crimson, etc.) often play with such complexity that it is difficult to follow and analyze what their music by ear.

So I suggest listening to as many examples as you can in order to find what you are initially comfortable with, and progress from there. Then, when you have found a few songs you like, memorize the main theme or pattern as a kind of mental guide. For example, the main guitar riff from RUSH’s live version of La Villa Strangiato (starting just after 5:30) off the album Exit Stage Left is such a fantastic riff that for years I used it as a mental rhythmic guide if I had to improvise in 7/4.

Lastly, when you have begun analyzing odd time you will notice that many feel “lop-sided,” like they kind of limp along. This back and forth quality may feel strange at first, but it is a quality that other cultures enjoy. In Turkish folk music, for example, these rhythms are known as aqsaq (“stumbling”) rhythms. What is important to note about such rhythms is that they are divided into groupings of two or three counts in a (repeating) chain, e.g. 3 + 2 + 3 + 3 = 11/8. This stumbling or wobbling quality of threes and twos gives the music a pleasurable bounce, often figuratively compared to a young woman carrying sloshing pails of river water back to her village. Knowing this then you can begin to create your own odd time songs and riffs, using groupings of three and two that you feel comfortable with, as composing is often the most effective musical education. There are six basic combinations of two and three you can begin to play with: 232 (i.e. 2+3+2), 223, 332, 323, 322, and 233, before creating longer chains of 19/16 or 21/8.

For more on odd time studies, see my previous articles on aqsaq rhythms or South Indian solkattu, or read Trichy Sankaran’s fantastic book The Art of Konnakkol. Good Luck!



The Density Referent in Jazz Improvisation


Young woodwind players (jazz saxophonists especially) often ask me how to develop the ability to “play really fast.” The truth is that playing fast is meaningless, unless it is really musical and enhances the performance aesthetically. So the better goal would be to seek out how to develop your mind and body to be able to use a variety of tempi and note values musically.

For jazz saxophonists the gold standard for speed and musicality combined are artists such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, and others. But having studied their music, one will find that they were always extremely musical, and that even at high speeds their tone was rich and their improvisations were lyrical and dynamic. And, the true “secret” to their success is revealed in how they approached slow ballads (!).

It is often said that ballads are the surest test of a jazz musician; being able to play a ballad with intelligence and sophistication separates the average musician from the masters. Jazz ballads expose a musician’s ability to keep time at slow speeds, organize their thoughts, and demonstrate their understanding of harmony and space. Most importantly however, ballads reveal how well a musician understands what is known as the density referent.

The “density referent” in a song is the fastest unit of time that a piece of music contains or is based upon, i.e. if you are improvising over the jazz song Take The A Train at mm = 130, and the fastest subdivision of the time you can improvise in comfortably is sixteenth notes, they are your density referent. This is why it seems easier to play fast runs on a ballad, as the tempo may be so leisurely that the density referent could be as high as 32nd notes yet still be comfortably playable. This is also why young jazz saxophonists struggle with musicianship. They assume ballads are “easy” because they are slow, and have lots of space to fill up. Thus they play a density referent that crowds the music with too many notes. Likewise, when they try and play a fast number they rush and stumble, as they attempt a density referent beyond their skills.

But specifically focusing on the density referent in the practice room and in performance has many great benefits. It teaches you that musical time is not primarily a case of speed alone, rather one can move at different speeds within a given timeframe, which means we can be artistic with our time/referent choices. Thus, you are then given a better understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are in terms of metric modulation at various tempi. You also develop a greater technical and creative control over your improvising, and are able to be more musical at higher speeds. You train you mind and body to react faster to the improvising of others, as well as play more of what you hear in your head instantaneously. Also, developing finger and mind dexterity while applying your conceptual understanding of the density referent is a transferable skill you can apply to other instruments that you double on.

To start studying density referents first go through the various jazz standards you know and find out what they are and which tempos you can handle them at. Most songs you will at least be able to play quarter notes in, so the next three densities will be eighth notes, eighth note triplets, and sixteenth notes. Catalogue the various metronome markings and referent values in your practice journal, and then begin to work on slowly increasing the tempo of the song. You’ll notice that even a small increase in tempo will increase the difficulty of the referent while hardly affecting the remaining densities. This is why you should keep track of the tempo at which you can play the density referent, not just the tempo you play the song at. If you know you can’t play sixteenth notes at certain tempi just yet, you will save yourself from playing a song too fast. Also, work on being able to play the density referent in jazz breaks or cadenzas. For faster numbers, work on being able to shift to your density referent from the note value beneath it, gradually building the ability to spend longer lengths of time at the ‘top.’

You should also gradually increase the metronome marking, noting that you can only physically play so fast. If you just can’t play sixteenth notes any faster than a certain tempo, make a note of it and then focus on making as much music as you can with the other densities remaining. A fun way to do this is to invent your own scale exercises that combine different densities (“density shifting”), i.e. create exercises that move from quarter notes to sixteenth notes with a few eighth notes and eighth note triplets in between, and so on. You should also spend some of your practice time dedicated to improvising through various density shifts. If you can’t play the density referent for more than a short burst here and there, turn this seeming “weakness” into a strength by making density-shifting part of your overall style.

By using your knowledge of density referents thusly you will be able to build something new and exciting out of what you thought was an obstacle. 

371 Days: Reflections On Ornette Coleman


vn tem flags

It has been 371 days since my saxophone teacher and beloved friend wandered off to Elysian fields, to God, to Paradise, to the place where thoroughly kind and wise people go when the body cannot contain such a soul any further. Ornette Coleman, Pulitzer Prize winning genius and man of peace, encouraged me to pursue my passion for free improvisation and Asian/Buddhist aesthetics, and was the spark that lit any/all greatness that I am able to muster. I loved him madly, and he was in my thoughts when I walked the streets of Ha Noi, Vietnam recently. So as I wandered words began to come to me in a particular form: part haibun: a 17th century Japanese literary form mixing autobiographical haiku and prose, also involving travelogue., and part zuihitsu: (literally “following the brush”) a scattered selection of essays and fragmented ideas inspired by one’s surroundings. The following haibun/zuihitsu hybrid is for you and Uncle Ornette.

Canto One

(I will be your today, and rejoice!)

“Wonderful, wonderful” said Ornette and the Buddha; Ha Noi is a genre

its passages scooters improvising counterpoint in composed roads

…having dreamed a thousand dreams… I dream him.

Ornette singing peace upon a flag, and the earth seeing war no more….

Every waking rhythm, every note = cars all fending for themselves

bio-industrial bebop, a love letter to such girls named Minh and Kanh.

I sit inches from Ha Noi’s street/songs; arteries swarming with drum solos

A traffic light; merely a fermata all ignore

the beautiful dust; the motorcycles screaming [everythingallatonce].

Traffic is theater: streams of circumstantial kabuki. Even the sun sweats after 7 am…

…I fell again on my morning bed, and returned to him with sleep.

He sang peace upon a flag,

and the earth saw war no more….


Canto Two


To know Ha Noi? To find a pocket of pause in vascular streets. I love Hanoi!

vascular roads, deciding moment by moment what phố comes next

in the minimal parade of #IAmHere… abandoned by trends.

Except only now do I drink good tea,

only now am I too old to gaze with fire,

to bend my talk into a casual tai ch’i of engaged action.

Poets marry experience and honeymoon within.

How small! That is when “I don’t know”

should be their poem, honestly? Be my poem!

What if I am merely bad fiction,

and I don’t see Ha Noi as her grandness.

Only seeing myself reflected back in t-shirts

and the hookah smoke that leaves me behind like Ornette did,

glorious and ethereal, remaining only me

and my efforts to not sound the silent gong

of my failures.

Astonishment is an addiction

and Ha Noi is too busy to know me…


Canto Three


A Ha Noi street is a zither and we navigate

the 10,000 motorized things pacing the

flat harp of 7 to 9:30 am… at least.

The melody is us plucking inward.


Sound the Ionian! the basis, the street.

Sound the Dorian! ignore me, I am just writing stuff.

Sound The Phrygian! sweat falls like notes from an old piano.

Sound The Lydian… or is it lunch yet?

Sound the Mixolydian… the salt panel when it fell into the lake.

Sound The Aeolian… keep clams and carry on.

Sound The Locrian… the rotting roofs only I notice.


the zither calls us, (Ornette called us) all to fret, to mahogany,

to make harmonics of us all,

to make harmonics of us all!


Canto Four


goodbye ornette!

Your holy city is gone, the gaze is gone.

walking backwards home the silent gong, me!

real here, real…her

i am like an empty table, somewhere, lacking a feast

Ha Noi comforts me, but I am inconsolable.

tourists eat copycat pudding, they wander feeling justified, “righteous” visions

my little blue cup offers up Ha Noi’s finest, coconut espresso

the best in the world: dark jazz, minor funk!

this town is still a drum solo, played with a million sticks and mallets a day!

But who will love the 80 year old with her baskets and shoulder pole

who will love the tired quang ganh ladies? The pole basket navigators?

Their onions wilting

are the onion lifters forgotten? Noone to hold them

after they wander up and down Hang Dieu street?

All that is left is to drink the water at Nội Bài Airport

And leave for Seoul.

Goodbye Ornette

I miss your cooking, the anthology of your flavors…

I want to be unsalted

gone beyond your gone beyond,

beyond the place you left here. But,

I will be your today and rejoice….


Chromatic Improvisation And The Art of Wu-Fa.



When I mention the word ‘chromatic,’ to young musicians they most often think of the chromatic “scale,” merely running up and down their instrument in half steps. But the world of chromaticism is much more creative and complex than that, so in this post I would like to share with you one particular method I use to improvise and compose chromatic music. Before I do so, it is important to understand where I am coming from conceptually or aesthetically when I talk about such things.

In my studies of music and art I have been most influenced by Japan, and have spent a major part of my life studying Japanese aesthetic culture. But in this case, my studies of Chinese aesthetic culture inform my conceptual approach to chromaticism.

The ancient Chinese masters often used related terms to discuss form and structure in art. The most significant of these are what I call the “Three Fa-s.” The first is ku-fa, translated as “bone means.” This refers to the various structural requirements and considerations necessary to create truly masterful works. But the goal was not the mastery of purely formal properties of painting. Their greater goal was to create works that captured the nature of form, the very essence of structure: ku-ch’i, “bone spirit.” This ku-ch’i speaks to what is “above shapes” (Li), its universal principle(s). And through the expression of Li, they would achieve a natural mastery that was far beyond structure, arriving at a freedom from method (liao-fa) so natural and effortless it seemed like no method at all (wu-fa). Indeed, the great masters of any art and music create in such a manner.

So, to allow for chromatic flexibility (wu-fa) while having something structural to study (ku-fa), I use rows of chromatic tone sequences (see image below). These are varying combinations of the 12 chromatic half steps available in standardized Western music, set in rows. I also use combinations of both semi-tones and quarter-tones, but as most Western saxophonists for example have not studied micro-tonal music, I will stick to semi-tonal tonal rows in this instance. Although some intervallic repetition in such an exercise is natural, this system guarantees enough variety to ensure you don’t fall into instinctual, repetitive patterns. It trains your reflexes and mind without limiting your vocabulary to pre-rehearsed riffs and phrases. By moving beyond fixed scales and chords, you can develop the ability to literally play anything without hesitation, without using conscious memory.

Tone Rows

To start creating these tone rows, I cut out twelve little paper squares and write the tone names on them. Then, I throw the squares up in the air, collect them at random off the floor, and write down their order. And, if a couple of intervals repeat from the line before, I just change their order. There are probably more efficient ways to create these rows, but I find the whole process kind of fun: something interesting to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon. And if you get tired or bored after a couple pages of these, you can always take a couple of the rows, reverse them from back to front, and put them further down the page.

So now that we have some rows, there are a number of things we can do to practice improvising chromatic ideas. Using the first three pitches from the first row of the image (B F# C), we can start by playing the first note then improvise/pick a note nearby, doing this for each tone in the row. Thus, we end up playing something like this: {B C# F# E C D…]. Go slowly so you can have the time to improvise the extra pitches without stumbling or feeling rushed. This is not about speed, but rather developing the ability to play any sequence of notes at random without hesitation. Then, when this is comfortable for you, improvise two notes between the written pitches, using random intervals, e.g. [B D Eb, F# A B, C B A…]. Then, move on to three and four notes, always making sure that you go slowly enough that you are not panicked or stumbling forward. Then when you have done this, move on to doing alternating sequences up and down so you do not get in the habit of always going in one direction. Switch up the direction, and try keeping track of it, for example two notes up, then one down: [B C Eb E, F# G Ab B, C A G# G…].

At first it will be easier to do this without a metronome. It is most important to be able to improvise these structures easily, adding time afterwards. Then, when you use the metronome, start by playing each tone on the beat (quarter note = 70). Once this is easy, move the metronome up a few clicks until you are playing at medium speed. Then move the metronome back down to where you can play eighth notes easily, each beat consisting of one written note from the row and one improvised note. Go slow and do it comfortably without stumbling. Then when you are completely comfortable with this, repeat the process with an eighth note triplet on each beat: one written note from the row, and two improvised notes. Then do this with four sixteenth notes and finally a sixteenth note quintuplet. As you are doing this keep track of the base metronome markings you are doing each of the note groupings at, and try to move each up a click at a time, playing with clarity and ease. Keeping track of your progress will also guarantee you see clear results, which builds confidence and reduces procrastination.

This exercise is designed to be a way of combining organization with chromatic spontaneity; just letting your instincts fly without hesitation. And, even spending just 15 minutes a day on the process will guarantee great results within days. Don’t forget to invent your own exercises too, and play around with the process.

ch paint