My new goal…Classical Piano Recital in 2011 (maybe 2012)

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I’ve decided to go public with this so that I can be held accountable!

I started playing the saxophone when I was 10, and my first teacher had a piano in his studio.  He would occasionally play songs for me on the piano and I thought it was such an awesome, mysterious instrument.  When I was was 12, I started splitting the lessons – 30 minutes piano and 30 minutes saxophone, and after about a year or so of steady piano practicing I got seriously addicted.

I could already read music from my saxophone studies, so I developed pretty quickly as a pianist and started playing Chopin Nocturne’s around age 15, and until age 26 I always had a classical piano teacher.  In college I played a couple of short piano recitals, and was an active chamber music accompanist for several student recitals as well.  When I got to Manhattan School of Music to get an M.M. in Jazz Performance, I continued my studies with a great pianist and teacher – Jeffrey Cohen, which lasted for a semester.

At MSM I was surrounded by classical pianists who had been playing since they were 5 or 6 and practiced 6 to 8 hours a day.  It was intimidating for a hobbyist like me, and besides I was at MSM to study jazz saxophone! I can remember when I was in a practice room struggling with a piano piece (Berg’s Sonata No. 1 to be exact!) and hearing another pianist working on some Rachmaninoff Concerto next door.   A switch flipped in my head and in that moment I decided to put the piano on the back burner.  I quit my piano lessons and ever since the piano has been a tool for my arranging, jazz studies, and earning some money playing the occasional piano gig.

2 years ago, I bought a used piano…a semi decent Kranich & Bach console piano.  I’ve started delving back into the classical world a little bit: I learned and memorized the first movement of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata, and a prelude and fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier.  When I was first studying piano,  I didn’t really understand the depth of the classical music tradition…I thought that this music was just notes on a page that was put there by someone 200-300 years just to challenge and frustrate me! Throughout my years of study of music and composition, as well as some classes at MSM (like 20th Century Music taught by Nils Vigeland, one of the best classes I’ve ever taken!) I’ve gained a new perspective on classical music and with it, a strong desire to return to my classical piano studies.

So here’s the goal: To perform a one hour classical piano recital by 2012.  Nothing fancy.  I’m not shooting for Carnegie Hall.  Maybe a small recital hall in one of the piano retailers on 58th St. and for friends and family.  You heard it here first.  Wish me luck!

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I lost my saxophone. :(

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On Sunday I did something really stupid! I left my horn, a lovely Selmer Super Action 80 Serie II alto saxophone that I’ve had for 22 years, in the back of a van cab in NYC.  I’m currently trying to recover it, and I’m hoping that some honest soul out there picked it up and will return it to a lost and found.  It’s only an object, and definitely replaceable, but it still stinks…I’ve been through a lot with that hunk of metal.

There is a slight possibility that the taxi driver is still driving around with the instrument and it hasn’t even been noticed yet…it was between the two seats in the back.  The next time you’re in a van cab in NYC, check between the seats to see if it’s there!

Musings on (and off) the piano

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Tonight I’m going home after work and I’m going to practice some piano.  I love the piano…in a lot of ways it’s my first love, musically speaking.  The saxophone is great and all, and it was the first instrument that I learned to play, but I’ve always been attracted to the piano.  I can sit for hours at the piano, whereas with the saxophone it’s a struggle for me sometimes to even practice for an hour. I think one of the main practical reasons for is is because I’ve always been learning classical pieces, so there’s something concrete already on the page to learn. With the sax, I’m always working on more conceptual stuff.  Also, at the piano it is possible to be completely melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically self sufficient.  Solo piano has it all!

My favorite composers for the piano are pretty standard: Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, and Brahms are all composers whose works I’ve studied in recent years.  I’m currently working on a couple of Preludes and Fugues from Book II of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and for the past year have been working on Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata (I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to play the last movement, but I keep trying!).  I also recently picked up a copy of the Chopin Nocturnes which I read through from time to time. 

This is essentially my second time around with the piano.  When I was going to MSM, I was taking private lessons with Jeffrey Cohen, an amazing pianist and teacher who was on the piano faculty at MSM.  I was pretty overwhelmed though by all of the amazing pianists that were there, practicing 6-8 hours a day and on the concert pianist track.  I remember one day struggling through the Berg Sonata No. 1 in one of the practice rooms and hearing someone next door to me ripping through a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.  I thought “I’m here at MSM to learn more about the saxophone, it’s time to lay off the piano for a while.”  It was almost a clean break.  I quit my piano lessons and stopped learning pieces.  A couple of years later I did have a few follow up lessons with Jeffrey when I decided to learn Mozart’s Piano Sonata in Bflat Major (a true masterpiece!).  Other than that, I haven’t had a piano lesson since. 

That hasn’t kept me coming back to the piano time and time again though.  I feel like my work as a composer, improviser, and performer have deepened my appreciation and understanding of the classical style, and have also informed my approach to practicing classical works on the piano.  Travis the Piano Player Version 1.0 had a great deal of technique and some excellent teachers, but hardly a bit of understanding of classical music as a tradition.  I never had really listened to any classical music, and yet I was trying to learn Beethoven Sonatas and Chopin Ballades, which is basically the equivalent of learning Bird solos out of the Omnibook, but not owning a single Charlie Parker album.  At MSM, this really turned around for me. although I wasn’t focusing on piano performance any more, I taking classes that focused on the history and esthetic of the classical tradition. 

Now, I’m taking a more casual approach to learning the pieces that I want to play.  They are no longer just a set of notes on the page that some dead person wrote down to stump me 200 years later, which is how I used to feel about them.  Instead, they are opportunities for deep musical expression and inspiration.  As I continue to delve deeper into these works, I’m continuously humbled and in awe of these pinnacles of human creative ability.  As they say, it’s always better the second time around. 

My dream is to someday, hopefully within the next 5 to 10 years, perform a full length classical piano recital.  It would include the Waldstein, a few Bach Preludes & Fugues, maybe some Bartok or Schoenberg (or maybe the Berg Sonata, I never did finish learning that!), and some Chopin.  Nothing too fancy or flashy, just something for family and friends.  Anyway, you heard it here first!

Sessions in the winter can be hazardous to your health!

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You may have to excuse the brevity of this post…I slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk last night and hurt my left wrist.  I don’tn think anything is broke – it’s just a little uncomfortable.  I have an ace bandage wrapped around it right now to rest it, I’m hoping that will do the trick.  Don’t worry everyone, I’ll still be able to play the piano and saxophone (if not, there’s always the nose flute!). 

Some dude playing the nose flute. I just love Google Image!

The reason why I was out and about lasr night is because I went to the session at Royale in Park Slope.  I hadn’t been in a while (like a year, time flies!).  It’s good to see the session there is still thriving.  Diego Voglino has been running it for a couple of years now and he always brings in great players for the house band – last night it was Chris Cheek on tenor sax, Matt Pavolka on bass, and Ben Monder on guitar.  Very cool! I sat in and played “It Could Happen to You.” It was a good time…except for the whole falling on my ass afterwards thing.

Bjorkestra: The Lost Banff Tracks

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I attended the Banff Jazz Workshop for Improvised Music in spring 2008, and had the amazing opportunity to have my Bjorkestra arrangements performed and recorded by several of the students taking part in the workshop.  It’s been awhile, so I don’t exactly remember the names of everyone that took part in recording these tracks, but I do remember a few: Natalie John, vocals; Mark Nelson, drums; Chris van Voorst van Beest, bass; Dan Gassin, piano; Stan Killian, tenor sax (solo on “Pluto”).

The cool thing about these recordings is that none of these tunes have been recorded in the studio previously or since.  Everyone did an excellent job, pulling it together in just a couple of rehearsals, and everyone’s enthusiasm in making this music happen was absolutely special and beautiful!

Big Time Sensuality – This arrangement was inspired by Bjork’s live version on “Post Live” from her “Live Box” collection.  The intro and outro has a classic Ellingtonian vibe, and fully exploits the energy and impact of jazz big band with an intense slow shuffle feel. 

All is Full of Love – One of the few instrumental arrangements for The Bjorkestra, this arrangement is an alto saxophone feature that I wrote for myself to perform as the soloist with the band.  It has a Gershwin-esque introduction that gives way to a jazz ballad.  The saxophone solo section goes into double time for a medium swing feel, and there’s a nice (if I may say so myself) saxophone cadenza at the end. 

Pluto – This is one of my favorite arrangements for The Bjorkestra, because of the distinct contrast between it and the original version on Bjork’s “Homogenic.”  I had the idea from the first lyric of the song, “Excuse me, but I just have to explode” to contain the energy of the arrangement into a re-harmonized and sensuous bossa-nova that has a real inner tension and pathos.  The energy and tension slowly builds to the end, where the music “explodes” into a collective free improvisation.