Art of Virus

I was excited to be nominated to participate in the Art of Virus, an “initiative using music to model the spread of a pandemic, the mutation of a virus, its latency, disappearance, and re-appearance.”

I was tasked with orchestrating my nominator’s melody, and then leaving a melody for my future nominees to orchestrate and continue the chain. Check out my contribution to the project here.

It is really inspiring to be a part of these types of initiatives that bring the global music community together. I look forward to seeing how our collective creativity will continue to carry us through the challenges of our time.

Listening Log: Week 2

This week’s Listening Log was dominated by incredible saxophonists, plus one legendary pianist.

Whimsy – Sharel Cassity

Sharel Cassity’s latest album, Fearless, starts with high energy right from its first track. Whimsy sets the tone for the album consisting of imaginative originals and an exciting reimagining of The Very Thought of You, one of my favorite standards.

Part 2. Saudade – Immanuel Wilkins

Immanuel Wilkins made a great impression with his debut album, Omega. I was particularly taken by his four-movement piece, how it builds in energy and is immensely expressive.

Them That Got – Maceo Parker

I enjoyed listening to Maceo Parker’s album Roots Revisited. It’s an eclectic offering of music that was energetic and sincere. I particularly enjoyed the swinging, blues-infused track Them That Got.

Apache Dance – George Coleman

George Coleman’s album Amsterdam After Dark is full of hard-hitting music filled with intensity and ingenuity. His contrafact of the classic Cherokee is elastic and inventive.

A Beautiful Friendship – Gerri Allen

Geri Allen’s live album Some Aspect of Water is captivating. She uses a variety of instrumentations, each with a unique quality, but the track that most resonated with me was her piano trio rendition of A Beautiful Friendship. She seamlessly transitions from a contemplative rubato piano solos to the lively groove of the tune. I never heard anyone do that with such a sense of ease.

What do you think of this week’s listening log? Who’s music is grabbing your attention these days?

Listening Log: Week 1

During these uncertain times, it is easy to rush back to the music, foods, and activities that make me comfortable. It’s time to shake that up!

I need to find a way to stay accountable to listening to “new” music (whether it is recently recorded or something from 100 years ago that I never heard before). After a long hiatus, I started keeping a listening log again and thought it would be fun to start sharing five of my favorite tracks of the week.

This is not a review or critique. I am just going to share five tracks I really enjoyed this week and where to learn more about the artists. Please don’t send unsolicited requests for me to review music.

The tracks are not listed in any particular order.

With all of that out of the way, here’s Listening Log: Week 1!


If It’s Magic – Artemis

I was blown away by this magical track that jazz supergroup Artemis dropped to promote their upcoming self-titled album. The group honored this Stevie Wonder classic, yet found their own voice on it, a magnificent accomplishment.

Cynical Sideliners – Ambrose Akinmusire

This stripped down track from Ambroses Akinmusire’s album on the tender spot of every calloused moment is pensive and haunting. It made me reflect on how critical people are from behind screens in the age of social media without putting anything on the line themselves.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business – Jason Moran

Ain’t Nobody’s Business has been one of my favorite songs for more than a decade now (particularly the Billie Holiday version). It was refreshing to hear Jason Moran’s take – crafting practically a new setting – on this tune in his album ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller.

Play Money – Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller

Play Money, the first track on Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller’s album Parlour Game, is a series of winding melodic lines infused with blues language. I enjoyed the journey of the entire album, and the warm quality the violin brought to the music.

(While there is a rich tradition of violin in “Jazz” and improvised music, it is still a less featured melodic instrument in these idioms.)

Rosetta – Johnny Hodges & Earl Hines

Okay, I’m cheating with this one a little bit because I knew this track and album (Stride Right) before this week. It is a song I know and love that brings me joy and comfort during this time. I’m also including it here because I want more people to know about this album!

What did you think of my list this week? Who have you been listening to? Let me know in the comments!

OUT NOW: The Ragtime Project EP and Ebook

I am so excited to release my Ragtime Project EP and Ebook! It has been an intense and challenging process to bring this multi-faceted project to fruition, testing my performing, composing, producing, research, and writing chops to the max.

Thank you so much to everyone who has encouraged and supported me through this process. Special thanks to Henry Godfrey for playing drums, mixing and mastering the audio, and keeping me focused on the end goal.

I have been wanting to share this music and writing with the world for months. I can’t wait to hear what you think!

With gratitude and excitement,
Sam

FRIDAY: The Ragtime Project EP and Book Launch

On Friday, August 7th, I am going to be releasing my Ragtime Project EP on Bandcamp! The recording will consist of three tracks – Rag in Fourths (released as a single last month), Imitation Rag, and a third track loosely inspired by the Ragtime aesthetic.

And if that wasn’t exciting enough, I am going to be self-publishing my first book! The book will contain some of the material from my Ragtime Project blog, plus additional material.

I am so excited to share this project with you. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious feat I’ve taken on as an artist, combining my passions for performance, composition, research, and writing. I hope my music brings joy and my writings spark curiosity during this trying time in our lives.

Jelly Roll Morton: Bridging Ragtime and Jazz Traditions

Ragtime and Jazz are two musical traditions that are closely related, yet distinctively unique. In a previous blogpost, I wrote about the defining features of these two styles pertaining specifically to the piano. Now I would like to explore the works of a specific artist who was crucial to bridging these traditions – Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, better known by the crude moniker “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941).

Morton claimed that he invented Jazz, a bold statement. Nonetheless, Morton was active as a pianist and composer during the shift between Ragtime and Jazz. Morton’s influence on American music was well-documented in his 1938 interview series with Alan Lomax.

Using Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, Morton demonstrated the difference between a Ragtime and Jazz interpretation of the piece.

Morton performing Maple Leaf Rag in a Ragtime and Jazz style in his 1938 interview with Alan Lomax

In his critical book Early Jazz (1968), Gunther Schuller singles out this particular recording as a prime example of the evolution of swing feel. Schuller purports that the key to Morton’s “smoothing out” of the “rhythmic tightness” found in Ragtime is due to the improvisation in his right hand (Schuller p. 144). “By means of his improvisational methods, Morton was able to horizontalize the music, as it were, and to suppress the vertical, harmonic emphasis of ragtime and other musical forms” (Schuller p. 144).

In other words, Morton’s rhythmic language was less predictable and contained more forward momentum than Ragtime. The side-by-side comparison Morton offered makes the difference strikingly clear.

I agree with Schuller’s observations, but I also need to add that there is more in the music than can be expressed in mere words. We are fortunate to have this recorded history of a primary innovative source demonstrating the nuances of the music he grew up around and went on to advance irrevocably.


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Stop-time Across American Art Forms

Stop-time, now a commonly used musical device, once sounded like a radical means of ambiguating the pulse of a piece of music. Barry Kernfeld wrote for the Grove Music Dictionary this description of the technique:

 An ensemble or pianist repeats in rhythmic unison a simple one- or two-bar pattern consisting of sharp accents and rests, while the soloist takes command. Metre and tempo remain intact; only the texture of the accompaniment changes.

Grove Music Dictionary

Stop-time became a prominent musical device around the turn of the 20th century and was important to the rhythmic vitality of Ragtime. Some of the first examples of this in written music are in Scott Joplin’s rags such as The Ragtime Dance (1906) and Stop-time Rag (1910). In these pieces, Joplin discontinued the steady, predictable left hand patterns, leaving the melody line exposed. Joplin did compose an accompaniment for the melody, not to be played by the left hand as expected, but rather by the feet. In the sheet music, Joplin indicated intricate feet tapping patterns with the word “stamp” and a line pointing to the melody note with which the stamp was supposed to co-occur.

Stop-time Rag, as performed by Joshua Rifkin

Reaching beyond the musical world, stop-time became a prominent feature of the emerging popular dance at the time, tap dance. Like Ragtime, tap dance originated from global traditions that converged in the United States. The Irish Jig and the African American Juba derived from the African djouba or gioube coalesced on plantations in the 1700s. [1] But, it was around the turn of the 20th century when tap dance underwent its most significant transformation. {2] It absorbed the highly syncopated rhythmic vocabulary of Ragtime, including stop-time figures, and evolved into the sub-genre jazz tap. Or, perhaps rather than tap dance taking from Ragtime the relationship between these two art forms was more of a cross-pollination. This bond between American music and dance is something I want to explore further in the future.

Around the same time as Joplin’s stop-time pieces were published, another important innovation in music was under way – the invention of the drum set. Prior to this consequential development, the various instruments that comprise a drum set were each played by individual musicians. Percussionists in theater orchestras and dance bands realized that they could position their drums in such a way that they would only need one performer. [3] In order to play more drums at once, drummers created pedals to allow one foot to depress a lever that sent a beater toward the bass drum’s batter head. [4] In 1909, William F. Ludwig patented a design for a bass drum pedal with a cymbal striker. [5] Is it possible that the drum set’s evolution, particularly the use of foot pedals, be informed by Joplin’s foot-stamping stop-time technique? Or, perhaps, were the foot pedals merely employed to allow a single musician to play more percussion instruments simultaneously, with no regard for Joplin’s innovations? I have yet to be able to answer these questions.

Examples of Stop-time in the First Half of the 20th Century

Here are a few examples of how stop-time was utilized in music following the Ragtime Era.

Louis Armstrong, Potato Head Blues (1927)

There are numerous solo breaks where the accompaniment stops, but the most brilliant example is Louis Armstrong’s solo starting at 1:50.

Benny Goodman, Sugar Foot Stomp (1937)

In Benny Goodman’s rendition of Sugar Foot Stomp, there is a great example of stop-time during the trumpet solo starting at 1:10.

Ralph Brown, Ornithology (1946)

Throughout this dazzling take on Ornithology, Ralph Brown takes incredible breaks when the time “stops,” the first one being at 0:21. At 1:16, Brown trades fours with the band (i.e. the band plays for four measures, followed by Brown soloing without accompaniment for the next four measures).


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Waltz into the Week with Scott Joplin

Ragtime music is often associated with duple meter pieces played at a march-like tempo. However, Ragtime repertoire is rich with beautiful waltzes. Look no further than the “King of Ragtime” Scott Joplin to hear some of the finest waltzes of the era. Here are a few of my favorites. For each waltz, I have included a solo piano performance as well as an arrangement for a larger ensemble.

Harmony Club Waltz (1896)

This is one of Joplin’s first published works. It begins with a brief introduction in 4/4 time, but quickly transitions into a waltz (3/4 time).

William Albright’s rendition of Harmony Club Waltz
J.S. Ritter’s arrangement of Harmony Club Waltz for flute and piano

Bethena – A Concert Waltz (1905)

This sentimental waltz was composed about a year after Joplin’s second wife passed away from pneumonia only ten weeks into their marriage. Some considered one of Joplin’s finest waltz.

Bethena as recorded by Joshua Rifkin on his first Scott Joplin Piano Rags album, which was an important catalyst for the Ragtime Revival of the 1970s.
Gunther Schuller’s arrangement of Bethenam as played by The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble

Pleasant Moments (1909)

While this waltz is overshadowed by Joplin’s masterworks such as Bethena and Maple Leaf Rag, Pleasant Moments still offers a “bright and festive” listening experience that is pure Joplin.

Pleasant Moments as performed by pianist Cory Hall
The Southland Stingers’ rendition of Pleasant Moments

Sources

Bethena – Wikipedia
Joplin’s ‘Bethena’ Sounds As New As It Is Old – NPR
Scott Joplin : Bethena, A Concert Waltz – mfiles
Pleasant Moments Ragtime Waltz, for piano – allmusic.com


Learn More About Ragtime

This is a collection of the sources I have used for my research on ragtime. I am always looking for more places to learn, so please let me know if you have any recommendations.

Praise for The New Groove

Thank you so much to Tristan Geary from Sound of Boston for writing a wonderful review of The New Groove! I am so appreciative of the time they took to read up on my music, background, and inspiration behind the project.

Here are a few of my favorite lines:

Spear’s alto playing is incredibly relaxed, melodies and improvised lines are delivered with poise and ease that makes them sound like overlapping conversation.

sounds like a pocket-sized Duke Ellington big band

This track is loaded with blues articulations but Spear never over-blows, and each line is sparkling, clear, virtuosic but also singable.

The New Groove is still available for purchase on Bandcamp and for streaming on most major services (SpotifyiTunes, and YouTube Music, and others).

Sheet music for The New Groove is also available on my Bandcamp merch store and The New Groove Songbook is 20% off with the code new_groove_songbook through Friday.

A Guide to Transcribing Jazz Solos

Solo transcription is a vital part of learning how to play Jazz. Learning how to play the solos of important improvisers note for note is a long-standing tradition in the community and one that builds a number of critical skills for every musician (even musicians who are not interested in playing “Jazz). However, this process can be intimidating for the newly-initiated. In this article, I’m going to break down the steps of transcribing a solo and offer some tips along the way.

Step 0: Play a lot of solo transcriptions

Before you embark on your own solo transcription project, I highly recommend studying other people’s solo transcriptions. Observe what kinds of information they include, how they notate difficult rhythms, and how notational practices vary from transcriber to transcriber.

Not sure where to look first? I have a lot of solo transcriptions available on my website for free!

I also recommend searching for a transcription book of one of your favorite player’s solos. The Charlie Parker Omnibook is a popular starting point for many saxophonists. There are comparable books like this for a number of players (and not just saxophonists).

Back to transcribing a solo yourself…

Step 1: Listen to the solo, a LOT of times

Become incredibly familiar with the solo. When you know it well, no sections or notes should sound surprising. Be able to sing along to the solo. This doesn’t mean you need to be an amazing vocalist or have 100% pitch accuracy, but do the best you can. This level of familiarity will help you be able to transcribe the solo faster and retain the information better.

Plus, if you are able to tolerate listening to it that many times, you must really love the solo. Transcribe solos you love and want to emulate. Don’t choose a solo only because you feel like you are “supposed” to transcribe that solo or player.

Step 2: Figure out the form

How many choruses does the soloist take? Does the soloist start playing at the top of the form or have a short solo break leading into it? What tune is the soloist playing on and how many bars are in each chorus? What are the chord changes?

Answering these questions can help you map out the solo so you can fill in the details later. It can also help you divide the solo into smaller chunks to transcribe.

Step 3: Rhythms and notes

This step is perhaps the most daunting. There are a few ways to make this process a little easier.

If you’re stuck, transcribe the rhythm first. Write down the rhythms without any pitches. Make sure you have the correct amount of beats for the time signature. Then assign pitches to the rhythms. If you have too many pitches to fit in the rhythm, then reevaluate the rhythm you transcribed. It is a tedious process, but it helps to isolate one part, the rhythm.

Don’t be afraid to slow down the recording. This is not cheating. People have been doing this for a long time, and in this day in age we are fortunate to have technology that makes this incredibly easy! Here are a few things to try:

  • Audacity – free software for your computer, make sure you “change tempo” instead of “change speed” to keep the pitch consistent
  • Amazing Slow Downer – phone and computer versions, exceptional sound quality maintained even when substantially slowing down the recording
  • Transcribe – a powerful computer software designed specifically for transcribing music
  • YouTube – If you are transcribing a live performance that you can only find on YouTube, it is possible to slow down the speed of the recording in the settings at the bottom right of the video display.

Loop sections of the solo. If you have an audio file of the solo, loop a small section (even 1 bar). Play the recording, then try to play it on your instrument. Go back and forth until you get it. It is tedious, but there is really no way around this hard work!

Step 4 (optional): Write it down

I personally think there is a lot of value in writing down a solo. It allows you to observe the solo on the page in addition to experiencing it aurally. More perspectives = more knowledge.

Some transcribers like to learn the entire solo on their instrument before writing it down while others prefer to write down the solo as they learn it. I have used both of these methods and found that I can learn a solo faster by writing it down as I learn it, but will retain the improvisational vocabulary if I learn the whole solo on my instrument before writing it down.

Some rhythms are difficult, if not impossible to write down using our limiting music notation nomenclature. One common work around for this is using words such as “lay back” over sections that are behind the beat or “rush” for sections on top of the beat. There are many variations on theses phrases, and you might need to make up your own!

There are two main options for writing out the solo – pencil and manuscript paper or a music notation software. I personally like to write everything out by hand first and then entire it into a software. I usually use Archives paper because it is thick and the off-white color is easy to stare at for a long time.

There are wide variety of music notation softwares. I use Finale, but if you are just getting started with music engraving, I recommend trying Noteflight. It is very intuitive and will give you all the tools you need – and more – to get started with transcribing. Plus, you can start with a free account.

Some more advice

Here are some more pointers for your transcribing journey.

Learn the tune that the soloist is playing on, especially if it’s a standard. Learn the melody and the chord progression. Better yet, learn the lyrics (if applicable), or at least read through them and know what the song is about.

Play along with the original recording. This helps you check for note accuracy, but, more importantly, it helps you emulate the nuances of the performance – time feel, vibrato, articulations, etc.

Record yourself playing the solo (alone, with the original recording, with a backing track, all of the above). Listening back to the recording will give you a more objective way to determine what you’re nailing and what needs more work. This is true for practicing in general, not just solo transcription!

I mentioned this previously, but I will say it again. Transcribe what you love. The saying goes “you are what you eat.” The same thing applies musically; you will begin to start sounding more like the people you transcribe. Don’t transcribe something just because you think it will make your teacher happy or impress your friends. Choose something that resonates with you.

I hope you found this guide helpful! How do you approach transcribing solos? Who are your favorite musicians to transcribe? Let me know in the comments.