A conversation with The Corporation author Joel Bakan

Joel Bakan is a highly-lauded and brilliant legal scholar, author, and filmmaker, including the powerful books and movies The Corporation and The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel.  He is also a very good friend of many years, going back to our teen years in Vancouver, Canada, where we talked, laughed, discovered Vietnamese food, and most importantly played jazz.  As Joel says, in his heart, what he really is? A jazz guitarist.  I could write a lot of words about Joel and our 44 years (and counting) friendship.  We have both experienced some true highs and lows, including some truly good music, from the joy of being ushers at each other’s first weddings in 1987, to bearing witness to the tragic loss later on in our personal lives, but I am delighted that he is happily remarried, and he and his wife Rebecca remain 2 of my favorite people to visit when I get back to Vancouver.  He is very funny, easy to laugh, insightful, and incisive, but simplest just to say he is a mensch.

We got together over zoom for a wide-ranging conversation about everything from jazz to politics to his new film and book, not to mention maybe even a little basketball versus hockey. (Hoops is jazz, Joel!).  Here it is, unedited.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1CC0l8ZzokB2mZaPYISWE_3fRFssvI0U6/view

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/621948/the-new-corporation-by-joel-bakan/

Draymond Green on Jazz

Got your attention? Didn’t know the fiery Basketball heart and soul of the Warriors was a Jazz fan? Well, not exactly, but what he said about basketball applies EXACTLY to Jazz. I am going to print his quote word for word, with the exception of substituting Jazz for Basketball, Gig for Game, etc..and italicizing the words and phrases where I swapped jazz in for hoops. We who play and try to teach this music have conversations similar to this all the time, and bemoan that we have these absurdly highly prepared “hot house flowers” who do not get to (or do not choose to) learn on the bandstand. It is yet another way that great jazz and great basketball are such perfect analogs. Preach, Draymond:

“There’s no better teacher than playing Jazz,” Draymond Green said. “If you teach a guy to do a practice routine all the time and he never plays and then you throw him on the gig, he’s going to sound like somebody who practices all the time and never plays gigs. So the reality is him being on the bandstand, there’s no better teacher than that. You can’t simulate that pressure. You can go play in a pro-style jam session in the summer at summer jazz camps, with all pro players, and it still does not simulate the real-life experience of a gig with real players. So the only way to feel that is to get out on the bandstand.”*

*The original:

“There’s no better teacher than playing basketball,” Draymond Green said. “If you take a guy to do a basketball workout all the time and he never plays and then you throw him in the game, he’s going to look like somebody who works out all the time and never plays basketball. So the reality is him being on the floor, there’s no better teacher than that. You can’t simulate that speed. You can go play in an NBA-style pickup game in the summer, with all NBA players, and it still does not simulate the speed of the game. So the only way to feel that is to get out on the floor.”

Mike Drop 8 – more from the shed

So here are 3 shed tunes done in the past week that I hope you will enjoy.  A duo each with Jeff Marrs on drums and Peter Barshay on bass as well as a trio tune with the two of them. As always, first take, no edits, no surgery, no compression, no gating, just live in the room as we did it.  I always dig playing with these characters, going on 28 years now!

Sax and Bass:  Black Orpheus

 

Sax and Drums: Romburn (loosely inspired by Softly as in a…)

 

Sax, Bass and Drums:  Never Let Me Go

 

And with love and gratitude to Chick Corea for six decades of beautiful music and amazing compositions.  You changed the music we love for the better.

Chick Corea (Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images for OGR )

Mike Drop 7 – something from Jason Lewis

One of the prerogatives of the Mike Drop is it can be whatever strikes me that day.  Today, I want to feature a beautiful bit of music from a friend of mine. So Jason Lewis is a wonderful drummer and a criminally under-acclaimed musician, even though he is beloved in the Bay.  Under-acclaimed due to his genuine lack of interest in being involved in any part of the hype game, even to the point of having no Facebook, Instagram or even a dusty old Myspace as far as I know.  Truly humble and also funny and insightful. Anyway, Jason sent me this lovely and heartfelt piece he wrote many years ago, and has gotten around to recording this past few months, a piece entitled Gone – but not forgotten, an elegy for some of our cherished friends and colleagues in jazz, including I am sure, the redoubtable and much missed bassist John Shifflett, Jason’s partner in crime on so many projects, including 3 CDs co-led by John Stowell and me., as well as my Billy Collins Project, among a number of other excellent playing situations, stretching back 25 years  Jason is the essence of musicality, always playing the right thing for the right situation… and on this video, he plays drums, bass and piano, a video that also has his brother  on flugelhorn and his son on cello – almost like it runs in the family.  And he is also a mensch and fellow Warriors fanatic, so there is that.   I asked Jason if I could Mike Drop his piece, and he agreed.  Please enjoy Gone, written and performed by Jason and his family.

 

Mike Drop 6 – Soul by Committee?

I watched and have many thoughts about the Pixar release “Soul”. It was a mixed bag for me, as are almost all movies about jazz.  The music felt more “jazzy” than jazz to me, although the musicians are excellent at what they do.  But I am not writing about that or the plausibility of a middle school teacher being a complete unknown in his 40s in NYC but being at a level where a true jazz great hires him on the spot to join the band.  (And people called Lord of the Rings a fantasy!)

In this case I thought there was an added complication.  The main auteur, Pete Docter, decided he needed to make sure Soul was authentic to the jazz and African-American experience.  OK…. it is somewhat ironic that an animated film insists on authenticity in a story where one main character, played by Jamie Foxx, ends up inhabiting a cat for a while, and an amorphous “soul to be” (Tina Fey) inhabits the body of the Jamie Foxx character for a while, but that’s another discussion. So Docter and Pixar brought on new creative partners to write/co-direct with him in search of authenticity. It makes sense, in a way, although if we start restricting writers, actors, composers, etc to only do art from their specific and particular background we may as well just throw out any and everything creative folks do and did that doesn’t check their specific history.   “excuse me, Jane Austen, you have no penis, what business do you have writing male characters?” “Pardon me, Mark Twain, how DARE you depict Merlin the wizard?  You sir, are NO wizard!” Anyway, like I said, no issue with that if that was Docter’s choice.  But it gets much stranger.

There was, I kid you not, about a 100 person committee so to speak, a cultural phalanx, so to speak, brought in to vet and pass a stamp of approval on the finished film. (watch the credits if you don’t believe me.) That did not work in the Soviet Union or Mao’s China, and it does not work here. No disrespect to the carefully curated committee, made up of some real leading lights in arts and culture. However!  Anyone who has ever composed, written, etc, knows that past a very short number, there is subtraction by addition, whether it be a symphony, a play, a film a painting, a song, etc…usually when you see 7 or 8 folks attached to a script it is gonna be pretty bad.  But when you have to run the gauntlet of 100 or so big-name celebs to get your stamp of authenticity? Well!  You know the saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth?  Try having 100 different chefs having to taste and approve the bouillabaisse!  That is what Soul felt like to me.    Trying to satisfy so many extra-musical, extra-artistic concerns and agendas that all of the afterlife got sucked out of it. The film was so overly vetted and micro-managed that whatever excellent script/idea may have originally been there lost all of its – wait for it – soul.

 

Speaking of, now THIS is some serious soul, NOT vetted by a committee!

 

 

Mike Drop 5 – a couple from the shed with Barshay

So this is a shot taken by Peter Barshay yesterday in my back yard, after we had done a few live takes in the shed.  Late-afternoon winter light on the Berkeley Hills.  Beautiful picture and I think the music came out pretty well, too.  As always with shed takes, free range organic jazz, no separation, no headphones, just a sax mic, bass DI, a touch of reverb, and no studio processing. Barshay on bass, MZ on tenor.  (I think you know the tunes.) What you hear is what we did. Hope it brings you a smile…

 

Mike Drop 4 – The New York Times pulls off the Anhedonic Daily Double

Well, this is funny. I am a long-term and regular reader of the New York Times. Hardly flawless, the paper is, nonetheless, excellent and largely well-written journalism.  That said, I have noticed the Times can find the downside in just about any seemingly positive news.  For instance, as an extreme example, a Times Headline might say “Scientists close to a cure for cancer, NIH reports – Millions will now live, but significant concern as to the impact on the health industry and economy.”  This is only slightly exaggerated.  I was reminded of their ability to look on the downside of life, their endless anhedonia and concern trolling, by this headline from today’s paper, reporting on the remarkable first day of Biden’s presidency. They managed to find TWO, count ’em two downsides to Biden’s auspicious start, as the omnipresent “some experts” say he is at once overly optimistic AND not ambitious enough.  What’s next, Times?  “Contrary to most studies, you can be too fat AND too thin at the same time,”  reports the New York Times

Mike Drop 3 – Introducing Morty, with Free Jazz Trumpet and Trombone

Ok. So for those who know me well, you know I like to do certain voices/characters when in the proper mood. One of my faves is Morty, the curmudgeonly old altakaker (you can look it up) who tends to show up at recording sessions and rehearsals (and even the occasional gig) to break the tension that can happen when musicians are really focused and tempers can fray.  Morty has a unique knack for saying just the right thing to lighten the mood, despite himself.

This is the first of what may be many Morty appearances on Mike Drops. I take no responsibility for what he says. If ya got a problem with it, take it up with him.  In this one, Morty has some ideas for how to make Jazz more popular, accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Erik Jekabson and John Gove from the group Happy Hour.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Mike Drop 2: The Song Is You – On Melody in Jazz

(This essay was written a couple of years prior to the terrible pandemic we currently find ourselves in, but I still think it is relevant to those of us who love and play jazz. I also have faith and hope that we will get past the awful year that was 2020 and be well on our way to a new and hopefully better normal this year, including live jazz performance. Hell, I am a jazz musician, so I HAVE to be an optimist!)

 

Do you remember when Clinton ran for President in 1992 and his winning slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid”?  His campaign bridged my last year of nearly 15 on the East Coast and the first of my past more than quarter century on the West Coast.  While I was not a particular fan of Bill and his slick Willie centrist triangulation DLC ways, I did crib his slogan, and wrote a version for myself, taped inside my sax case. “It’s the melody, stupid”.   Like so many jazzers then and even more today, I was, for a brief period in the late 1980s, so into the inside baseball of this advanced jazz lick/permutation and that, that I would forget the fundamental principles of playing that appealed to me. A powerful sense of melodic development in solos coupled with a beautiful sound, strong time, deeply steeped in swinging and the blues.  I had been composing seriously for about 12-13 years at the time, and yet, despite having a good natural instinct for melodic soloing, had moved away from that, enthralled by the blinding tenor pyrotechnics of the era.  Around that time, I began making a concerted effort to start playing more melodic and pure melodies, even on the fast tunes, and I continue to do so, with no regrets. 

I have observed that one of the grand jazz traditions honored more in principle than in practice is that of melody, and especially in playing melodically.  

Why do I say more in principle than in practice? Because so many aspiring jazz musicians now go through a jazz education/training system where they are working out licks and scales and patterns and triad pairs in all 12 keys, transcribing and regurgitating solos or parts of solos, and so on and so forth. 

Meanwhile, when we think of what is memorable in the soloists and songs and solos we love, a beautiful sound, swinging time and beautiful melodic sense are what come to mind for most of us as practicing musicians, and for virtually ALL lay listeners. (You know – those folks who come to listen to us play, and DON’T expect to be on the guest list?).  We pay lip service and obeisance to the notion that solos should be melodic and “tell a story”, but so many of our younger players, professional or student, do anything but that, and for the most part, those who teach this beautiful music glance over it or even dismiss the value of learning melody. 

One of the shining examples we all like to point to is Miles Davis’ solo on So What, a masterpiece of economy, blues, development and song.  And when we look at the players who we love who also connect with a larger audience (IE communicate), they all had or have, among other virtues, a deep and profound sense of melody in their solos. To list just a few:  Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane,  Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, etc, etc. (I am sure you can add others to that list.)

Now they were/are also imbued with other virtues of great jazz soloists, to be sure, including incredible time, a striking sound, the feel of the blues, a mastery of jazz harmony, and the clichés that help give eras of jazz their specific dialect, etc…but everyone on this list had in common the ability to put a melodic element into their solos, the idea of an arc, of a story, of space, of the “singing” notes.  Not a one of them was simply a licks player or only a lines player. And ALL of them knew many great American songbook songs by heart, melody and harmony and even, in the case of folks like Lester and Dexter, the lyrics.  So whether they were prolific composers like Kenny Wheeler or Wayne Shorter, wrote very little, like Lester Young, or somewhere in between, they all had absorbed a full understanding of what made a great melody. That shone through in their playing, in how they constructed a solo, and made their playing so much more memorable and compelling than the latest triad/pair, lick-spewing, 8th note-depositing internet sensations we get subjected to/infatuated with nowadays.  I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is, there is so little in the way of melodic structure and memorable content in a lot of solos today, and I think ONE major reason is the lack of understanding of melody and its crucial role in creating beautiful and memorable solos.  In fact, I am stunned at how few melodies many younger players have memorized now.  

I think I have a pretty good perspective to speak on this, as I am someone with a foot planted firmly both in the jazz player/composer camp and the jazz educator camp. As a player/composer, I have been fortunate enough to gig and record with some of the truly great musicians in this music for more than 40 years now, starting at 18, and have 12 well-received/reviewed CDs and counting to my name as a leader.  As an educator, I have been teaching this music almost as long, starting with running ensembles at Tufts when I was 22, and continuing to doing clinics and masterclasses around North America, as well as running a college jazz program in California and teaching groups and composition/improv theory classes at the California Jazz Conservatory, both for well over 20 years.

In those roles, I have seen the widely-remarked on transformation of jazz.  It has changed a lot. It was music we learned largely on the bandstand, where its practitioners were diverse and mainly working-class and middle class, where one learned through on-the-gig training under the rough “tutelage” of leaders and club owners and audience. Through the mid-1990s most jazz musicians were protean souls who could be counted on to play well and convincingly in every setting from funk to blues to pop to Broadway to, of course, many varieties of jazz, from bebop to fusion to free.  Now the model is one where the elite jazz academy and its “star” teachers have become the new guides for a largely upper-middle-class clientele, where the gigs are far less plentiful, and the ones available are largely door gigs or even “pay-to-play”.  The concerns addressed in the new jazz academy are rarefied and specialized, so that students may become adept at negotiating an Indian Tali form hybridized into a 15/16 broken-up quasi-funk groove, or throw various triad pair permutations over an F Sus vamp. And yet, the idea of grooving convincingly on a swinging blues or standard in 4, not to mention having a thousand (or more)  beautiful melodies and harmonies committed to memory and ingrained in the DNA?  Not relevant or of interest. I am constantly shocked at how many students can spit out 20 memorized Sonny Stitt solos on classic standards, but cannot play the melody or truly sing on the harmony of the tunes these solos come from.  In fact, I am stunned at how many young musicians nowadays blithely dig out their IRealB apps on their phones/ipads to read melodies and changes to tunes that previous generations would have been embarrassed if they had not committed them to memory, even tunes as canonical as Stella or All The Things…

And this is where the problem lies, in my view.  I am no outlier. In my generation, it was commonplace to know at least 1000 tunes, and some of the musicians I knew were legendary, having around 3000-5000 in their brain vault.  In my case, I probably know, with brushing up of a bar here or there, somewhere around 1500, and am still learning new ones and refreshing old ones to this day.  As someone who both improvises and composes, I know it is nearly impossible to create as beautiful and coherent a melody in the moment as with pencil and paper at a piano. But that is a noble and worthy goal, and sometimes we can come close.  There are all kinds of other virtues and challenges to the in the moment creation, including the common language movement and phrasing and interaction, etc. However, having all of these melodies from the great American Songbook, as well as a good representation of the master jazz composers’ melodicism in your veins cannot help but inform and shape what you play for the better and more musical. 

To me, it is not either/or, by the way.  But I think the transcription/lick cart may now have been put before the melody horse for many young players.  Transcription becomes an end in itself. Licks are an easy shortcut to apparent competence.  But, as I have told any student who will listen, much better to learn 1000 melodic standards and perhaps 8-12 transcriptions than vice versa.  (The discussion on transcriptions is a whole other conversation, but I would refer you to David Liebman’s excellent writings and approach to it, where the developing soloist learns 8-10 solos deeply and fully as part of the process of getting one’s own voice.)  

A friend of mine, who is a superb teacher, has a method where he prepares his students marvelously to have fantastic technique, transcribe Charlie Parker and other icons, and dive down to the nuts and bolts of bebop harmony at a granular level.  It is pretty wonderful what he achieves with motivated students.  Many teachers do similar good work in prepping their students to be competent in the bebop/post-bop language.  And yet, as he and I were discussing, it is interesting how many of these students do not find a way to develop their own voice. My belief is that in addition to the excellent prep they get from their teacher,  an aspect we need to guide them to is for them to write music from an early age, always keep an eye on understanding why solos work, not just that they work, and especially to learn these beautiful melodies/harmonies that will help them develop their OWN in-the-moment compositions. It, along with a deep immersion in the blues and swinging, will keep them from sounding antiseptic and like schooled re-creators of what has already been done, since 1000s of melodies marinating inside your neurons as you improvise will give you a sense of song and development that will shape your voice in a way that is uniquely you.  I would much rather hear a player allude to a fragment of a song than spit out a worked-out Brecker or Bird line. It is so achingly obvious when a soloist does that, whereas it is melody and sound and rhythm that connects our solos to our audience.  Playing a worked-out burning lick or triad pair is inside baseball that appeals mainly to fellow jazz musicians/students, and most all of THEM want to be on the guest list. Conversely, playing in the moment with a deep intuitive and organic understanding of 1000s of melodies, along with having done the necessary homework of the common language, will create an experience that musicians and non-musicians alike will love.

To this day, one of the main reasons that folks like Herbie H, Jarrett, Metheny, Mehldau, Lovano, and many others can connect with audiences beyond the “put me on the list, man” jazz bros, is the ability to create a free-flowing in-the-moment melody that effortlessly weaves its way among the harmonies.  That, a powerful and emotive sound/tone and a deep and rooted sense of rhythm? These are the three legs of the stool that will draw in any listener from a pure babe in the jazz woods to the most seasoned aficionado lovingly caressing their pristine vinyls.

So yes, jazz student aspiring to make your mark. Like Bird said, learn all your chords and scales. (Never forget the second 1/2 of that famous quote -“then throw it away and play music”) Listen to and emulate the masters, especially for feel and sound and how they resolve their lines. (By now, 70 years after Bop, especially with the surfeit of transcriptions and software slowdown programs, there’s not that much mystery to the notes and resolutions if you take the time, on your own or with the help of a teacher). Fully imbibe the subtle moves that make a line swing and breathe.  Comprehensively understand harmony, and how melodic tension and release over that harmony and rhythm can create a captivating drama. But never stop learning those beautiful and timeless melodies, a lifelong practice that will help make you an in-the-moment composer, even if you never set pencil to paper,  (and THAT is something you should begin the lifelong practice of doing).  After all, ultimately, while we pay lip service to it, it is a cliché because it is true.  Soloing is a composed melody in real-time, marinated in a rich stew of conversation with your fellow musicians on the gig.  

However you want to say it, whether “it’s the melody, stupid” or “It don’t mean a thing if it don’t make you sing” or “tell me a story”, the truth is: The song (and melody) is YOU!

 

Mike Drop 1 – Soul Eyes

in the midst of the covid and constitutional mishigas, have started to learn how to live record in my shed, with a lot of thanks to Dan Feiszli for his sensei guidance on mics, etc…and to Jeff Marrs and Erik Jekabson for help on getting started with Logic. Am not at all interested in doing a ton of software surgery, but just getting live takes as they happen, as close as possible to how we play in my shed for a jam or rehearsal. Getting there, so thought I would share with you a live trio recording that Jeff Marrs, Peter Barshay and I just did in my rehearsal shed. 3 drum mics (2AKG overheads and an EV Bass drum mic), one sax mic (Sennheiser 441) and a bass DI, through Presonus interface into logic. Just as is…I’m getting set up to do instant snapshot takes for a many as a quintet (piano or guitar, 2 horns, bass and drums) once Covid is done, with no headphones, separation or after the fact EQ and other”fixes” in logic, so it is naked, but we get to hear each other just the same as on a gig. So we get what we get. It will get more dialed in, but am pretty happy with this for a first effort. Hope you enjoy it…MZ