One interviewee I spoke with laughed at himself when he used the term “famous jazz musician.” Most Americans couldn’t name three seminal jazz greats, but jazz is certainly more ubiquitous than most suppose, and especially in this new millennium encompasses a huge variety of sub-genres, from Dixieland and big band music to the plaintive wail of a single sax in the dusky night.
What is so striking about the jazz scene here in the Poconos is how robust and multi-generational it has become. Of course New York was the fertilizer that made the Blue Ridge Mountains sprout jazz music, a ferocious fecundity that has spawned a musical culture unrivaled in any but the largest cities. The regard these musicians have for one another, and for any and all other musicians, is truly touching. Decades of milling around backstage at the COTA festival, watching odd assemblages of world-class musicians scribbling charts, smoking butts, and busting on each other was an education many would give an arm and a leg to have, and I was honored to be included.
One of the greatest things about playing the COTA fest as a street urchin was seeing some of my students as COTA cats, rehearsing after the jazz mass and before they were to take the big stage. Invariably they were happy to see a familiar face, and always there was one or two kids rolling their eyes at me, a “Jesus, what the hell am I doing here?” kind of thing. But the elders knew what the hell they were doing, and they weren’t shy about telling their young charges that all would be well.
Kind of odd to think of Pat Dorian as a soothing father figure, but it was so, and the COTA cats always slayed the audience. And I believe that is the coolest thing about music: there is no age to a player. It’s nothing to see a 12 year old wunderkind and a bent-back geezer goofing around, grooving on the music like they were both just a couple of kids, talking with notes and nods and grins as if they had always known one another.
Most good musicians are just big kids at heart, working hard so they can play well. Heck, the only other bunch of alleged adults that get paid to play are athletes. Matt Vashlishan did a nice job of breaking down the genre for a bluegrass geek like me.
Native son and saxophonist Matt Vashlishan will be performing selections from his new CD “RSVP” at his CD release celebration at the Deer Head Inn on Saturday, January 28th.
“I’m playing saxophone, with Evan Gregor on bass. He was a COTA cat for a couple years, went to school and grew up in Stroudsburg. He’s around my age (28). The drummer is Bill Goodwin, and that’s the trio. It was recorded in NJ at Skylines Productions. We just did this in one day because of the nature of the project. Paul Wicklisse engineered and produced the CD; he was one of my first teachers in the area way back when, “ Vashlishan said.
Vashlishan attended Eastman School of Music in Rochester and William Patterson College in NJ, then got his doctorate from the University of Florida in Jacksonville, where he taught while finishing his degree. He has played for audiences since high school, where he began his career in jazz.
For the casual listener, the term jazz might conjure up images of beatniks on bongos, but the term encompasses a wide variety of musical forms. Beginning with vocal standards like “Summertime” or big-band dance tunes like “Take the A Train” in the 40’s, improvisational jazz evolved into what players during the 50’s termed “cool” or “hot”jazz.
“Jazz is a very wide term now compared to in the 60’s and 70’s. You could probably label it five different ways (today), there are so many new guys that are abandoning everything that would have made it jazz (back then.) You have funk, fusion, I suppose there is even a techno-jazz. The whole term ‘cool jazz’ comes from Miles Davis and his album “Birth of the Cool”, and guys that were associated with that. Think about a person, if he’s acting cool, he’s got a trench coat, smoking a cigarette and leaning against a building, it’s not as ‘in-your-face’,” Vashlishan said, talking about musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.
“ With Coltrain, there was lots of energy, loud, screaming through the horn. With cool, you have a mild, singular melody,” Vashlishan said, adding that his new disc is more in that cool vein. The tracks harken back to the days of places like The Blue Note in Water Gap and The Lone Pine Inn in Henryville, back when jams lasted until the break of day.
“That’s the intention of the whole thing, that’s one of the reasons Bill is on there, to capture the history, while still being fresh and modern. He is a link to the 60’s. He played with some of the greatest clarinet and sax players of all time. I wrote the chord structures for this CD. My first CD (entitled ‘No Such Thing’) was goofy compositions, heady and intellectual, the kind of tunes I’m not comfortable playing. That was starting from a blank page, harmonically, rhythmically. This one starts with chord structures from familiar songs, like “Autumn leaves,” I just take out the melody that fits over the chord,” he said.
The next step was to replace the more familiar melody with an improv melody evocative of the original piece. Because Vishlishan wanted a live feel to the CD, he avoided over-rehearsing.
”Our rehearsals were limited to talking about the tune, maybe 15 minutes. We wanted to keep it fresh. We wanted it to be spontaneous. Some modern music is so very, very rehearsed and calculated. People are kind of losing the idea that it should be fun for everybody. There are some people who go to jam sessions that get weird if the chords progression gets messed up. I think if somebody screws up, it’s making everyone think about the music. I grew up listening to a lot of tenor players, even though I play alto, so I’m more influenced by what I hear the tenor players do,” Vashlishan said.