My Five Essential Jazz Recordings

Saxophone

I am not a jazz expert, but I wish I was one.

My jazz experience began in high school and continued through college, right up until the moment when I realized I had taken my saxophone abilities as far as I could. I saw the wall, I could touch it… and I knew that whatever I needed to break it down, was not in me.

For those that aren’t certain what I mean, I’m talking about feeling the music in your own performance and then claiming it. Oh, I could play a song that was put on the stand in front of me, I could even do a “successful” solo. (I put that in quotes, because why it might sound good to the audience that day, I knew I was just repeating what I did the last time I performed the tune.) In other words, I was merely doing what I needed to do.

See, I’ve never been the kind of person to be satisfied with just “doing what I needed to do,” and this is especially true around the arts. If, for example, I am to write a book, it needs to be different from every other book you may pick up. And if it is in a genre, it will break the mold. If this sounds arrogant or bombastic, you are right. For that is how I see myself. I claim it. I am loud. You pick up a Scott Southard work and you will get something unique and different, nothing cookie-cutter. And I could never be that for jazz with my saxophone so I dropped being a music major, walked away from the music muse and ran over to the one that oversaw writers.

As much as I know my own limitations, accepted them, and my saxophone continues to gather dust in my closet, I still love jazz. I read books on artists, have watched Ken Burns’ documentary on Jazz numerous times, and collect jazz on vinyl. My weekends begin with the scratchy sound of the needle dropping, and doesn’t stop until the kids are asleep.

Below are my five favorite recordings, with my reasons and links. These are the one that stir me, inspire me, and make me wish I was something more than I am. I can’t give you reasons why they are important like an expert could for Mr. Ken Burns, I can only say, “this for me is jazz.” Continue reading

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If I was… (part 2)

Chef1 of 4

If I was a chef I would have cheap macaroni-and-cheese dreams. My kitchen would never hold a single box of it. Heaven forbid! That kitchen would be photographed for magazines and analyzed by other chefs, debating the ingredients and items in it (Oh, he uses that product, I need one too!). One hint of such a box could ruin my reputation, make me a laughing stock. And, yet at 2 AM when everyone else is asleep and I am staring out my window I would think of that little quick dinner my grand-mama would make me so long ago. I would sit on the counter as she did it, and she would sing me songs in French, now and then taking a moment to rustle my hair.  In the morning, my master chef days would return: arguing with my maitre d over the menu, yelling at my assistants, and cursing at the delivery boys who always seem to arrive a little later each day (even though in my heart I know it is the same). Yet, through all of that, I would be reciting in my mind over and over again, “packet of cheese powder, little bit of butter, three tablespoons of milk and pasta…. maybe even with funny shapes.” Continue reading

Drums and Kings: Turning Forty

Gandalf by Ted Nasmith I have always been a book nerd.

A great example of what I mean is my first reaction to J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. I read the book that first time when I was around nine and while I loved it, my favorite moment was probably not the same as for other readers.

There is this wonderful chapter in the first book The Fellowship of the Rings called “The Bridge of Khazad-dum.” For those that don’t know or remember, this is the lowest point for the fellowship as they run to escape the dark of Moria, pursued by unspeakable evils. Yes, I worried about the heroes but really what made me sit up straight and take note was what Tolkien did in his writing and I had never seen anything like it before.

The orcs and goblins chasing our team were using drums but their drums were more than drums. They were speaking.

Doom, boom, doom, went the drums in the deep.

They are relentless, and obviously doing more than simply beating. They are screaming a warning, building to a crescendo over the course of the chapter until finally at the end Gandalf is lost and the drums then fade into the distance, leaving the fellowship and the readers all breathless.

But for me, I wasn’t breathless because of the action and the loss.

No…

I wanted to know how Tolkien did that.

Continue reading

So-So-So (3 Days to 40)

Birthday CakeSo I was at the grocery store buying my wife a bottle of wine. The cashier (a broad-shouldered, older woman with a haircut reminiscent of something you would see in a lumberjack camp) took my ID. She looked at me, looked at my ID and then looked at me again. Immediately, I was overcome with a feeling of dread at the conversation coming.

“You got a birthday coming up,” she began. She sounded like a smoker, or she had a cold. Either way, her voice was rougher and deeper than mine. When I speak to people that have voices deeper than my own it always makes me feel like a kid and I should use words like “ma’am” and “sir.”

“Yup,” I replied simply. I hoped my short response with a word that wasn’t really even a word would end the discussion…. it didn’t.

“A big one,” she said with an evil smile. The smile was a tad disconcerting.

“Yes,” I  said with a nod. There was then this awkward pause.  Her, holding my license and smiling; me, doing my best not to make eye contact. After what felt like a minute, I added, “I’m trying not to think about it.” Continue reading

Music Review: Yvonnick Prene’s Jour de Fete

Jour de FeteBefore Yvonnick Prene I never considered the harmonica.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the extent of my knowledge even around harmonica and jazz mixing together was an odd little collaboration from the 1990’s. It was The Glory of Gershwin headlining the legendary harmonica player Larry Adler. The CD, like most collections, has some high points (Peter Gabriel doing “Summertime,” Sting performing “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and a spirited “Rhapsody in Blue” with Mr. Adler taking on the clarinet part) and some definite low points (Cher). You can’t put a CD on like that and just press play, you skip tracks. Your musical sanity demands it.

In many ways I am a jazz snob.

  • Electronic instruments can wait at the door (Sorry Miles Davis)
  • I don’t care for too much experimentation (Sorry Miles again) unless it is in the solo
  • Smooth jazz puts me to sleep
  • I feel more at home in the world of hard bop and be bop where the saxophone is king

Basically, even in that little rundown, I’m not sure where the harmonica fits in. It’s an anomaly, a glitch in the system, a hiccup; an almost hypnotic variation on the human voice, able to show as much emotion, passion, and charm, but fitting in… where?

Yvonnick Prene’s new CD Jour de Fete opened my beady eyes to new possibilities in jazz… and frankly, for me as a snob, that is kind of cool. Continue reading

Finding the Soundtrack of Jaleel Shaw

Jaleel Shaw's MasterpieceI live vicariously through Jaleel Shaw.

Before I fell completely into the pool of being an author, for a time I dipped my toe in jazz.

I don’t know why I was so drawn to playing saxophone, but there was something that took my breath away immediately with it (not always a good thing to have happen while playing a reed instrument, by the way). A sax can convey so much, with the power to move you to tears or to get you to your feet to cheer. Two things I have seen happen live, but honestly never when I was performing.

For almost a decade it was an obsession, and not an evening would go by when I wasn’t at a lesson, taking part in a rehearsal, or practicing up in my bedroom. Because, I believed, with enough practice, yes, I could sound like Charlie Parker.

It was a happy dream, and I felt like I was doing something important while under it.

Looking back now, I can almost laugh at my passion around it, but for years, I would fall asleep each night with Bird and Branford Marsalis playing on repeat on my CD player; certain I could get their chops through a form of musical osmosis. Continue reading

My Online Literary Experiment: Be John Coltrane

One of my favoritesSince I started my online literary experiment, Permanent Spring Showers, a novel written off-the-cuff, with a new chapter each week, I’ve had quite a few writers ask me about the experience.

Some seem to have a dark fascination, much like a driver passing by an accident on the road, while others seem to be excited by the prospect, wondering if they will risk attempting the experience themselves.

If you have been following these occasional editorials I  have created around the experience… well.. you can tell it is kind of emotional with a lot of highs and lows. Basically, the best way to explain what it does to your nerves is what you experience while writing a book but heightened a great deal and rushed, since there is always the pressure to make it work and you can’t go back. Because it has to work, and if one chapter falters I have no excuse but to continue. So somedays I think I am the biggest idiot in the world, while on others I would kiss a mirror of myself. (Actually, I’ve been known to go through those feelings in the same hour of working!)

This Friday, I am sharing the last chapter (which is in a first draft form now) and I am now, finally, more in a position  to look back over the experience and feel out how it worked for me… and one word comes forward more than any other:

Jazz Continue reading

I Love PBS

Sometimes I feel guilty when I write something.

It happens. I am only human, but whenever I write an editorial it is coming first and foremost from a good place. Usually my negativity, when it is presented, is because I believe there are better ways that things can be done (the bad in a way acting as an introduction to me explaining why I am giving the advice in the first place). I have never written a negative post for the sake of attacking. I’m not wired like that.

Basically, I just want to put in my two cents … Which, in a way, is the entire point of having a blog, right?

I’ll get to my apologies in a bit.  Let’s start with the love…

I would estimate that when it comes to TV, PBS makes up 85 percent of all of the television my family watches. From PBS Kids in the morning (my son loves Super Why, Dinosaur Train, and especially Wild Kratts) to History Detectives, Masterpiece Theater, Great Performances, Ken Burns documentaries… Well, the list can go on and on and my DVR is full of just that one station.

Yes, PBS owns my DVR. Continue reading

The Nat King Cole Inside My Head

I am obsessed with The Beatles, I adore Belle and Sebastian, I’ve seen They Might Be Giants five times in concert, and I can’t stop playing the new Fiona Apple CD… but Nat King Cole is the musical comfort food for my soul.

I have read a few biographies about him over the years, and as amazing of a life he had, it’s always hard for me to connect him to his voice. Frankly, his voice is so engrained into my own life, it is hard to think that it once even belonged to someone else, as strangely as that sounds. I don’t feel his struggles against racism in his career and his growth from jazz pianist to just a singer fronting a band in a studio, lost in the business of just singing singles hoping for a hit, when I listen to his music.

I hear my own life in his voice, in his performing, making each recording I adore something akin to a special gift. Continue reading

Introducing Your Child to Jazz

Recently, I’ve been listening to jazz a lot with my children. What can I say? It is like comfort food for me. I play it in the morning, around dinner time; it’s a Scott thing. Anyway, it got me thinking of an article I wrote a while back for Green Spot Blue (a literary parenting online magazine) about jazz and parenting.

In it, I recommend some records for the young listener and give some parental suggestions on how to listen to the music with the younglings.

Here is the beginning of the article:

As parents we all want the best for our kids, and our plans are filled with the best intentions.  Many times this relates to music and our desire for our kids to know more than just what is on the pop stations. Some parents may try to listen to classical more, but for me I have always chosen jazz. Jazz, above all other music genres, seems to me to sing of creativity, the thrill of thinking outside the box. Songs are filled with experimentations, expressions. You feel love more, you feel pain more. There is a story there that surpasses any you may hear in the lyrics of a country song.

The problem is that many times when we parents sit back and look at our own musical choices, we can’t help but feel guilty. Usually it is the same artists, the same albums; we return to the comfort of what we like the most, not realizing that our child is hearing the same thing again… and again… and again….

Well, for the parent that wants to introduce their child to America’s great original artform, might I recommend 7 classical jazz albums to share with the family. Consider this an opportunity to lose The Wiggles, this is an introduction to jazz.

I go on in the article to recommend work by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, and others. You can check out the article here.

I still stand by my anti-Wiggles statement.