Remembering Fred Sturm

A couple of weeks have gone by now since the sad news of Fred Sturm’s passing. I had the great honor of studying with Fred while at Lawrence University. I’ve been thinking constantly about all he gave me and wanted to get my thoughts written down. If you knew Fred, maybe some of this will ring true with you as well. If you never had the opportunity to meet him, let this be a glance at why he will be missed by so many. If you have a memory of Fred that you want to share, please leave a comment; I’d love to hear other experiences with him.

I had been warned by Mr. Wiele, one of my high school directors and a former student of Fred’s, to watch out for Professor Sturm as I started at Lawrence. He warned me about his joking nature and advised that I never, EVER get into a prank war with Fred because there would be no hope of winning. Fred and Mr. Wiele had been involved in an elaborate game of Hide & Seek for years – the object of the game was a statuette of Louis Armstrong, lovingly called “The Louie.” My high school friends and I had been hearing about this elusive “Louie” since we started with Mr. Wiele and the dastardly Fred Sturm who was supposedly keeping it captive against its will. When my friends – Carl and Ken – and I first met Fred, we asked: “What’s the deal with the Louie?” Fred, whose wit was fast and sharp came back right away: “You’re Wiele’s boys, aren’t you? I can tell you three are no good. Go back to Kenosha and tell Wiele that he’ll never get his hands on the Louie!” We tried a few different times to get the Louie away from Fred, but no matter what, he always managed to stay three steps ahead of us. I suppose it was all the years of practice he had with Prof. Keelan just down the hall and all of their pranks. It was understood – Fred always won. When Mr. Wiele was given the reins of a new high school program in Kenosha, Fred sent the Louie as a congratulatory gift. Fred knew how to joke, but his joking was equally proportionate to the amount of care he had for you.

I didn’t work directly with Fred until my second year at Lawrence, but I knew from watching his jazz ensemble as a freshman that I needed to work with him in some way. It was a strange, gut feeling that I hadn’t experienced before. I could tell that studying under Fred would be something special, even if I didn’t know the goal or have an idea of what the finished product might be. When I finally got to work with him, I knew I had a lot of homework to do. I worked my butt off trying to keep up in his jazz ensemble while studying to get through his theory and pedagogy classes. Through his composition classes, he started me down the writing path. I was pushed harder in that class than I had been to that point, but made some of my strongest relationships with the other students in that class – it was as though Fred had planned that we would all be friends and put us in that room for that reason. We learned to write because we learned to communicate with each other. I often wish I could have been a fly on the wall during my lessons with Fred. It was constantly amazing to come to some conclusion that I thought I had discovered, only to later find that it had been subtly planted by Fred. He didn’t teach by showing you the answer, but made you think deeply about the problem before exploring every possible avenue that could solve it.

I got into trouble with Fred once, and it was awful. I wish I had thought to use his problem solving tools then. I never saw Fred actually get angry at someone or something – he would express disappointment, and that was the worst feeling of all. He held all of us to an incredibly high standard, both musically and personally; anytime you feel below that standard, you knew from Fred’s response. Letting him down and losing his respect was one of the hardest lessons I learned in my time with him. Thankfully, Fred was also an extremely gracious man, so it lasted only as long as it took for me to learn. Before too long, Fred welcomed me back and continued to push me higher.

The last time I saw Fred, I had just moved home from Oregon and was visiting Jazz Weekend. Fred wrapped me up in a great, big bear hug and told me that he had to run – understandable, considering the size and scope of the festival. I was able to catch him for a minute once more after the jazz ensemble played. He welcomed me back to the midwest and promised that we would be in touch as the school year unwound. We occasionally would catch up, and he continued to play a role in my real-world education. Even now, the lessons he gave me come up all the time. Every piece I write inevitably contains a Fred-ism. When I direct a jazz ensemble or run a professional rehearsal, I can hear Fred’s words and see his rehearsal techniques coming through me.

Mr. Wiele warned me that my time with Fred would go by way too fast. Sadly, it turns out that Fred’s time went by way too fast.  The lives he has touched are countless and the legacy he leaves behind is as massive as his indomitable spirit.

He was so much more than a teacher, director, or mentor. He was one of the most unapologetically warm and giving people I have ever been fortunate to count as a friend. Rest in peace, Fred. The world misses you so much more than you know.

 

Bob Reynolds: I Don’t Need No Doctor

I’ve been listening to a lot of short solos lately. I generally find that there’s much more than meets the eye (ear?) to a solo limited to one or two choruses, especially when it’s a great player. Joe Henderson’s album “The Kicker” is one of those records – EVERYTHING is condensed to only what is necessary! While this solo isn’t by Joe (you can expect transcriptions from The Kicker soon…), it is a short solo played by someone whom I consider great.

Bob Reynolds is currently John Mayer’s saxophonist, has worked with Snarky Puppy (among many others), leads a fantastic project as a leader, and is a generally good go-to guy for creative, melodic playing. I’ve been a big fan of John’s for a while, which is how I discovered Bob. On “Where the Light Is,” John leads three projects through a night of music, and the last set is his band playing the top-40 hits. One of them, “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” was originally recorded by John (Mayer) with John Scofield on Sco’s record, “That’s What I Say.” Here, they take a slightly more pop-based approach than with Scofield, but with all the same heart.

Bob takes his chorus right after another modern heavyweight, Brad Mason, right around the 2:30 mark. The thing I love most about Bob’s playing, both generally and highlighted here, is his ability to mesh the bluesy language that pop music demands and the bebop inspired language that makes it more interesting than a run-of-the-mill blues soloist. Check out mm. 9-15. Bob starts by playing what can only be considered a blues lick. To connect that to another blues lick at the end of the phrase, he uses the end of his first blues lick to start a bebop lick, leading him straight into another blues-drenched lick.

The other thing I love about Bob’s playing, especially with John, is his ability to play the style. One of the hardest things we do as performers is fit into the musical situation appropriately. As much as we’d like to do it, it just wouldn’t be right to plug in all of our Coltrane-isms and Warne Marsh-isms in an R&B or funk setting like this. Listen carefully to Bob play this solo and do your best to pick up all of his inflection and nuance when you play it back. Besides the language, the bends, the scoops, the grace notes, they’re all part of what makes this solo great.

I Don’t Need No Doctor – PDF

Buy John Mayer: Where the Light Is

Follow Bob Reynolds on Twitter

Walter Smith III: Rumor

For my transcription this month, I turn to one I completed in grad school for use in my degree lecture. The focus of that lecture was on development of rhythmic vocabulary and versatility. I looked for a number of examples of players that I thought displayed flexibility in time and have/had a unique execution in terms of time feel/phrasing/etc. Walter Smith III is, without question, one of my modern musician heroes. A lot of fantastic vocabulary can be found in this solo, which is the original reason I got to work on it. After a lot of time spent on my lecture, I realized that this solo showed prime examples flexibility and control of time.

There are a number of things I admire about Walter’s phrasing in general, but I notice most his ability to play outside of a steady ostinato (grouping 3+2 or 2+3). Take his chorus at Letter B, for example: the rhythm section keeps playing their steady 3+2 subdivision, and Walter plays (nearly) constant eighth notes above it. If you listen for the melodic accents in his line without following along, you’ll notice that he superimposes his own subdivision.  Even if you follow the transcription, it’s hard to notice where the barlines occur.

Walter’s ability to play between eighth notes is the other general facet of his playing I greatly admire. By that, I mean he doesn’t rely on simple subdivisions of 2, 3, or 4 to comprise his groupings; there are note groupings of 5, 9, 13, 15, etc. Beyond that, he can alternate the accent pattern within those groupings to make it sound like a different grouping. For example, look at mm. 56-65. If you just listen, it sounds like running sixteenth notes and triplets, but Walter found a way to stretch and compress his lines so that he could move freely between those subdivisions and blur the line of pinpoint accuracy. Further, m. 63 shows his ability to switch gears and play with pinpoint that accuracy he had just ignored – switching from two groups of three to three groups of two within the space of two beats.

Paired with this rhythm section, Walter has the freedom to play with time, not just harmony and note selection. This solo stands out to me as a masterful example of playing across both barlines and beats. If you’re looking for a good place to gain some rhythmic flexibility and control, I highly suggest looking deeper in Walter Smith III’s direction. Hopefully this solo will give you new ideas for developing rhythmic vocabulary of your own.

Rumor – PDF

Buy Christian Scott: Live at Newport

Follow Walter Smith III on Twitter

Constellation Chicago, 4.5.2014

I’m trying to keep a better online presence this year, and part of that goal involves keeping recordings and videos updated. The last videos of me on YouTube are from Oregon, when I had very long hair, playing tunes that were getting ready for my record. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

I recorded my quartet at our show last weekend at Constellation Chicago. If you live in or around Chicago and haven’t been there yet, I highly recommend it. They keep the focus on having quality music on a regular basis, not just bringing big names because of the draw. As you might expect, they contribute a great deal to the creative music scene here in Chicago.

Here are five videos from our set last week. All compositions by me unless otherwise noted. If you have any feedback, please leave it below!

Before the End

Gone West


Solo Saxophone Introduction to New Rain

New Rain

Epistrophy (comp. Monk)

Scott Wendholt: Pfrancing

In an effort to give something useful to the internet/jazz community, I’m going to try uploading a different transcription I’ve done each month.

This month features a solo I transcribed in college. Scott Wendholt playing Miles Davis’ “Pfrancing.” I remember wanting to transcribe one lick he played (at the end of chorus three), but the solo was so compelling that I had to do the whole thing. I transcribed it at pitch, meaning I learned a lot about playing altissimo through the process. I’d encourage any saxophonists reading this to do the same. You’ll figure out a lot about voicing and pitch by just playing those lines in the same range as Scott.

I’m forgoing a formal analysis on this one; I think it speaks for itself in a lot of ways. Scott’s language and time-feel are the two main things that I love about this solo, but it’s really an excellent study in pacing as well. Check it out – 11 solid choruses of blues from one of the modern masters.

Note: this PDF is in Bb, so concert, Eb, and bass clef instruments will have to transpose. If I get enough requests, I might post separate transpositions as well.

Pfrancing – PDF

Buy Scott Wendhold – Beyond Thursday

Authenticity

A new group on Facebook – Jam of the Week – has been seriously taking off over the last month. The premise lies in players from all over the country sharing a chorus of improvising over a song picked by the creator of the group. At a glance, it’s a great idea. It fosters community among players, allowing us to check out players we probably would never have even heard of personally, let alone heard their playing.

In listening to all of these talented players, who have clearly done some homework, I can’t help but notice an overall trend: basically, everyone sounds the same. That’s not a knock on anyone’s playing, merely an observation of the state of our music.

Everyone playing today (well, almost everyone) is firmly rooted in the bebop tradition set forth by Diz, Bird, and their contemporaries in the ’40s. That totally makes sense; for the highly chromatic, fast moving harmonies found in most jazz recordings, bebop is an extremely good system of outlining and defining those (or other, superimposed) harmonies while creating some sort of melodic line.

Personally, I’m drawn more to players who have abandoned (to some extent) the bebop sound. Guys like Joe Lovano and Rich Perry jump to mind. Anyone who knows me already knows that I actively avoided learning how to play in a more straight-forward bebop style until very recently.

Most astonishing to me in viewing the group is the some of the things I’ve seen posted or heard from other players about those who don’t show a great deal of bebop prowess in their playing. Many of these sentiments are shared by many of the players I look up to now. (I once heard in a masterclass that no one really needs to be transcribing anyone modern until they’ve done their homework by checking out the greats of the ’50s and ’60s.) I have a big problem hearing something like that spoken as gospel. While I agree that it’s important to be aware of the tradition and study it to some degree, I by no means believe it needs to be a clear influence in anyone’s playing, which brings me to my point…

Some of these same people have mentioned that they would have enjoyed a particular solo or someone else’s playing, except for the fact that it didn’t sound like they checked out the tradition enough. It’s almost as if they say “yeah, you made great music, but your lack of reference to the past turned me off of your performance.”

Clearly, this is an extreme, but it is something we all deal with in our development. We have to find a delicate balance: respecting/checking out the tradition while finding a way to develop our own voice. A teacher of mine once said “you’re the only one that can decide when you’ve checked out enough tradition to understand it and let it inform the development of your own voice.” When I heard that, my mind was blown – I could decide when I had checked out enough tradition?

We, as a jazz community, have many problems, but the music is not one of them. In the last 18 months I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve heard more great music from more players than I thought possible in as short a period of time.

Maybe this is just another facet of the “defining jazz” discussion. As far as I’m concerned, if you make great music and give a sincere performance, then there’s nothing else to discuss: you made great music. As far as being an “authentic jazz musician,” I care less and less about what it’s called. Players will keep coming up with new systems to improvise – some of it may sound bebop-based, some of it may not. As a community, we should be as supportive of everyone trying to make music.

The next time you hear a player that “hasn’t checked out the tradition,” ask yourself: did they make good music? The next time you hear someone shredding changes over a bop tune, ask yourself: did they make good music? Process vs. product. That’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?