Tim O'Leary

You can read my musical bio on the Author Bios Page by clicking here

Jan 132011
Jackie King, Virtuoso Jazz Guitarist

Jackie King, Virtuoso Jazz Guitarist

I was fortunate to be able to share a house for several months with Jackie and his family in San Francisco. I had known him previously from his San Antonio days. There were a lot of  Texan musicians who were in San Francisco or Hollywood at that time, and we all tried to stick together. Many of them breezed in and out of Jackie’s house for impromptu jams, where I watched with dropped jaw.

One of Jackie’s gigs I went to was with legendary blues artist “Lightnin’ Hopkins”. Doug Sahm, another San Antonio man, also dropped by that night. Through my association with Jackie, he introduced me to a lot of great musicians. This gig was right at the time when Governor Reagan called out the natural guard because of the so-called “student unrest”.

Jackie is a left-handed guitarist virtuoso. I think that part of why he is so good is that he can take a “normal” right-handed guitar, turn it upside down and play just fine. Also, he got put on the spot (gigs) at an early age.

Country music was and is a big part of the San Antonio culture. He was enlisted at a very early age to do gigs, often with people associated with the older legends of the time, such as Bob Wills. On these “Country” gigs, a jazz feel and jazz playing was welcomed. This continues today, as many Nashville studio musicians and players are very accomplished with jazz. When George Strait is not on tour, some of his group play a regular jazz gig in Austin, TX.

Jackie has also played with Tony Bennett, The Boston Pops, Ray Charles, Bill Evans,  Jerry Garcia, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, and many others.

Having known Jackie for many years, I know first hand that Jackie is unpretentious, humble, and always pleasant. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a smile on his face. When playing, he often bursts out laughing, looking at the other players, when a song ends, as if an obscure inside-joke just occurred. In his own words:

The first (thing to know) is to always try to be around at least one person who is either a better musician than you or at least as good. The second is to remember you can always learn something from everyone, regardless of how well or poorly you think they play. Through the years I have found this to be consistently true…Somebody will say or play something that you think he or she really should not be able to say or do according to the level of player you think he or she is. Wow! I have learned a lot of licks, etcetera, that way…Control of energy is absolutely necessary to a great technique.

He once had a guitar school in San Antonio located in the historic Majestic Theatre building. In more recent times, he is or has been based in the San Francisco/Mill Valley area for years, but still does tour some, and makes it back to the San Antonio Jazz Festival most every year. He did have some instructional videos, but now, I think they are out of print. He has CD’s that are available on the Books & Media page on this website.

In the following clip, he plays solo, then with the band, his rendition of the song, “If”. Later in the clip, they play “There Will Never Be Another You” with Willie singing.

Jackie King and Legendary Sax Player Richie Cole

Here he plays some Charlie Parker tunes.

Willie and Jackie have an album of standards named “Angel Eyes” only available on Vinyl or cassette. Here is a video clip with Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Jackie King. I believe this is from the DVD of their HBO special, which is available for purchase on Amazon. They do a blues, then the song “Angel Eyes”.

Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Jackie King

In this clip they play Bach and Improvise over it. I saw this concert at the La Villita church in San Antonio sometime in the ’80’s.

Jackie King and Classical Guitarist David Underwood

This next clip was filmed at the Travis County Exposition Center in in Austin, TX. Jackie played a solid year of concerts (300+) with Willie that year. Here he holds back and lets Willie shine. After the concert, my family and I got to go backstage and then get on Willie’s bus and meet him–a very sweet man.

Willie Nelson, with Jackie King – On The Road Again (2000)

Willie Nelson on Wikipedia

Jan 112011
The Young Glen Gould

The Young Glen Gould

“The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations.The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” – Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) Genius, articulate, reclusive, asperger’s syndrome/OCD, 4-time Grammy winner, writer, documentarian, iconoclast, alchemist, and revolutionary. He is, or has been called all of those things. He used to stay up all night and play piano and then call friends on the phone. He enthusiastically embraced recording technology. Continue reading »

Jan 092011

Equal Temperament

Pure Pitch vs. Equal Temperament

Equal temperament (ET) means the same distance between each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, as a ratio. Pure pitch is tuning slightly altered from ET. The reason it sounds more “pure” is that there is no degrading of the harmonic overtone series, as there is in ET; Although ET’s 4th, 5th, intervals are nearly identical to pure pitch; these intervals in ET do not degrade the harmonic series.

A Do-It-Yourself-er Finds a Problem

When I was young and foolish (now I’m old and foolish) I once tried to tune my piano by ear. I could tune any chord, say, an F, A, C, F to perfection and it would sound great…until I tried to play something. Most other chords sounded horrible. That same F chord on a properly tuned piano doesn’t sound quite as pure, yet we don’t notice.

An a cappella choir, an orchestra, or any configuration of instruments can sound pure chords in a piece of music that goes through many chords, changes key, and so on, as long as there is not a piano or fretted instrument in the ensemble. What about piano concertos? And other piano/instrument configurations?

The differences between pure pitch and ET are subtle. The other instruments can adjust pitch, and the “off-pitchness” of the piano is so slight that it could be looked at as different keys having different “colors”. Most people can’t notice a difference–this includes many musicians. The fretless and variable pitched instrumentalists use their ears to make subtle shifts (from a piano-pitch). For example, a Cb is flat from a piano B, assuming we are not in the key of E, F#, or B (perfect 4th/5ths, although for those keys, unless modulating, the note would be written as “B”, not “Cb”). Similarly, an A# is sharper than Bb. Some types of wind instruments, and single-reeded instruments can only approximate the actual pitch; the same situation as a piano.

Enter J.S. Bach

.Until the 18th century, the problem for music and composition was that until ET was discovered, a piece of music had a very limited harmonic pallet. The research, discovery, and gradual implementation,  must have facinated J.S. Bach. One of his major groundbreaking works is the “24 Preludes and Fugues for the Well-Tempered Clavier“. A series of pieces first in the key of C major, then C#major, then their corresponding minor keys. Twelve Major-key preludes and fugues, and twelve minor key preludes and fugues.

A Brief Introduction to the Math Behind It

There has been a lot of research into the history of ET. The formula needed to derive it, most likely discovered by trial and error, or applying the theories of the day to practice, was a major mathematical insight. The formula involves the 12th root of 2. Twelve, because there are 12 tones that span an octave, and two, becauuse the highest note is double the frequency of the lowest note. Also, we are concerned about the pitch-difference (measured in cycles per second) between 2 adjacent notes. The result is a decimal number, which is a multiplier constant applied to cycles/second.

The 12th root of 2 is algebraically equivalent to its inverse: [12√2 ➾ 2^(1/12) = 1.0594630943593]. The decimal number result is the multiplier. It can be thought of as a ratio,. Logarithmically, the distances between pitches are equal. We multiply, say, 440 * 1.0594630943593 and the result is 466.16 (rounded to 2 decimal places). This is the pitch for the next chromatic note up, in this case, Bb, or A#.

The table below shows the octave from A440–just above middle C–to  one octave higher, “A” at 880 cps. Incidentally, by tradition, A440 is the pitch the concertmaster plays for the orchestra to tune up to before they begin to play. The numbers in the 2nd column are the result of the adjacent note’s pitch times the ET multiplier, 1.0594630943593. For purpose of illustration, the result is rounded to 2 decimal places.

The practical implication of equal temperament is that each note is “compromised”, but just barely, for the best fit–and the fit works out for any piece of music no matter what key it may modulate to.¹

Equal Temperament

Note NameCycles per Second (Hz)

The Big Bangs of Music

Howard Goodall, a musicologist and composer, has an excellent DVD collection called “Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs”. His idea is that there were a number of historical events without which we wouldn’t have music as we know it today. These “Big Bangs” were originally aired on BBC TV.

The five “Big Bangs” were

  1. Notation and Sheet Music, so music could be distributed and assimilated across generations and geography;
  2. Equal Temperament tuning, so compositions of music could venture into many keys;
  3. Opera, which started to spread music to the masses, and large music halls were built;
  4. The invention of the Piano, which could handle all the elements of music, i.e., melody, harmony, and rhythm, and also began to bring music into the living rooms of the (initially, “upper”) middle class;
  5. The invention of recording–first wax, then tapes which could be played on the phonograph or tape deck. Recording technology made it possible to make records that could be mass produced from a master recording. About the same time, the microphone came to be in use, and that allowed for more control over balance to produce better ensemble recordings. An up-close-and-personal style of singing began to be developed, as opposed to the operatic type of singing, which necessarily requires volume and projection from the singer in order to be heard. Of course, before recordings, you could only hear music performed by live musicians.
You can watch a brief intro of Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs here:

Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs

Equal Temperament explained on WikiPedia

¹. In practice, when tuning a piano, the theoretical ET is not followed precisely. Called “scaling”, the notes are gradually stretched (the intervals widened) across the keyboard. A concert grand, because of it’s longer strings can be tuned in ET so that for example, a 3-octave unison pitch does not “beat”; whereas in smaller pianos, as the tuner moves higher up the keyboard the stretching increases. This is partly to compensate for the perception that higher notes sound flat. In the keyboard’s upper reaches, the ear can tolerate the “beating”, i.e., the off-pitchness found in the higher tones. The overtone series of the highest C, for example, soon get out of range for human hearing.

It’s just my opinion, but I believe an experienced tuner who tunes by ear will give the best results. This is due to the previous explanation, as well as the fact that every piano is different;  A machine can only measure empirical data, whereas the tuner can apply human perception.

Jan 082011

Young Franz Schubert

What makes a melody beautiful, interesting or memorable?

I wish I knew the formula to make that happen. Of course, there is no “formula” (fortunately). But we can all look back at songs we know of and make these sorts of assertions.Here we will look at examples of melodies and deconstruct them for the purpose of shedding light on the craft of songwriting.

On a big poster you could write the names of all 600+ songs Franz Schubert wrote in his 31 years on the planet, throw a dart and hit a gem. Let’s look at his song An Die Musik. The song was once sung (really well) by Garret Morris on the first season of Saturday Night Live. (The gag was joke text scrolling by as he sang).

The song is an homage to music, as you can see in the english translation (it doesn’t translate very well from the original German):

Oh lovely Art, in how many gloomy hours,
When life’s fierce orbit entangled me,
Have you kindled my heart to warmer love,
have you carried me away into a better world!

How oft’ has sighs, flown from your harp–
A sweet, sacred chord from you–
Unlocked for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you for this,
You lovely art, I thank youI

Looking at this song from a compositional standpoint, let’a see if there are any clues as to why the song works so well. There is just enough intro (2 bars) to establish the key and to set the singer up, that is, enable the singer to get the beginning in his/her head. The bass in the piano does that, and the pattern is echoed throughout the rest of the song. Then the intro resolves to home key in the 1st beat of the 3rd bar, Now it’s the singer’s turn. When it goes to the IV chord, the piano’s high note changes, and “clues” the singer for the chord change (bar 7). It goes the the relative minor after that, and back home, setting up the piano. The piano then does an interesting sequence to get to the I, where the singer comes back in; but that line is mostly on the V chord, and the piano is right there with it. Shortly, the piano part plays an obvious build-up to move the the IV chord, which soon becomes B minor, the climax of the song. Then the vocal line’s movement brings us to the end of the 1st verse. The piano interlude, bringing us around to the 2nd verse is memorable. It even briefly includes a lydian mode IV chord, and later, an E min/maj 9th chord.

Wikipedia->Franz Shubert

Jan 042011
Antonio (Tom) Carlos Jobim

Antonio (Tom) Carlos Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927 – 1994) was an arranger, a composer, singer, pianist, and guitarist.

In 1964, the album “Getz/Gilberto” launched him into the public in the U.S., and also the world. It was wildly popular, and is definitely a desert island pick.The album includes the song, “Girl From Ipanema” which was a huge hit in the U.S. It has since been recorded hundreds of times, and is considered a Jazz Standard. In this album, the song is sung in both Portuguese and English. Joao Gilberto sings in Portuguese and his wife, Astrud Gilberto,whose native tongue is Portuguese sings in both English and Portuguese. This cut is usually considered the original. The personnel on the album are Stan Getz, saxophone, Joao Gilberto, singer and guitarist, Astrud Gilberto, singer, and Jobim, Guitar, Piano, Voice,  Commposer. This album and song launched the Bossa Nova craze in the U.S., and soon, the rest of the world.

Jobim is known in Brazil by “Tom Jobim”. In 1967, he scored the music for the film Black Orpheus. This film is a love story, but it is also one to see if you need more Carnivál in your life

Jan 042011

Marcus Roberts, Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies, Florida State University

Marcus Roberts (1963 – ) was born blind and studied music and piano at the Florida School For the Deaf and Blind, the same school Ray Charles attended. He later was discovered by Wynton Marsalis, and they went on to do a number of collaborative projects. He has recorded many albums, both solo and in other varieties of musical settings.

Most of these pay homage to the great American composers of the past such as Ellington, Gershwin, Monk, Porter, etc. [button]Read More…[button]His recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is unlike any other recording I’ve ever heard of the same piece.

Gershwin wrote the piece for piano and small jazz band. He enlisted Ferde Grofe to orchestrate it, and it is written for full orchestra. Of course, the piano part is fully written out, and most all performances and recordings are of this version. That is, played in the “classical” vein where you do not change the score, you only interpret it. However, Gershwin’s roots were informed by the music of  jazz, pop, and stage. Gershwin’s mission was to write music that would fuze jazz and classical music together.

Unlike these other recordings, Marcus Roberts’ version takes many liberties with the score. He will include his jazz trio (with bass and drums) along with the orchestra. During piano solos, he will take extended flights of fancy, acknowledging the written themes, and extending or modifying them. He ad-libs; The version you’ll hear in the clip below is certainly not a note for note replay of the Robert’s recording. The orchestra has been silent during these interludes, and the cues for them to re-enter are both dramatic and pleasing.

In this video, the expressions you see on Seigii Ozawa’s face are well worth the price of admission.

Marcus Roberts Plays Rhapsody in Blue With Seijii Ozawa

This next part picks up where the first part left off, at the beginning of the E major “pretty part” (that’s a technical term). During his improv, you can see the members of the orchestra and band smiling, probably because it’s not known what he’s going to do next. For example, he quotes an extensive passage of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”; later, he goes into a quasi stride piano part during part of his solo. The fact that there are quotes and improvisation is not the interesting thing. It’s how well he makes it work, blending in an out of what’s written, or hinting at it.

Marcus Roberts on Wikipedia

Jan 032011

The Whole Tone Scale

The whole tone scale is a symmetrical scale. It’s called “whole tone” because it contains no 1/2 steps. You can start on any random note and play a scale up or down, always making the subsequent note two 1/2 steps (a whole step) away. The characteristic sound is hard to describe; however, you don’t get a sense of tension and resolution. (This is true of any symmetrical scale). You will hear it in movies and programmatic music. Thelonious Monk was one of the first major jazz pianists that seemed to be fascinated by it. Continue reading »

Dec 152010

Ted Greene, Guitar Guru of Solo Playing

Ted Greene (1946 – 2005) was a guitarist of immense influence to other guitarists, although he was mostly unknown to the general public. He was known for his solo guitar playing. Everything, melody, harmony, and bass was played simultaneously. He knew at least 50 ka-jillion chords, and how to use them in any context. He only made one record album, “Solo Guitar“, that finally was made available in CD form a few years ago. He wrote a number of instructional books; “Chord Chemistry” is the first one to get. He also contributed to “Guitar Player” magazine. A number of books have been by him and about him. Some of the books and CDs are listed on the “Books & Media” page.
He mainly tutored private students and taught some at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood. He didn’t do many gigs; some solo, others as a duo with a singer. In the videos that exist, he often appears shy or nervous.
Here are three classic melodies he played at a wedding gig. Although there is crowd noise, the playing comes through pretty well.

In this video, he plays “Autumn Leaves”

This is a guitar lesson that was filmed by a student. This is Part 1; Part 2, not shown here, delves more into rock and blues.

Ted Greene played and recorded using the Fender Telecaster, which is not the “normal” guitar many jazz musicians use (He did play other types of guitars as well, and was somewhat of a collector). He would sometimes tune the guitar down to Eb, as Stevie Ray Vaughn did. In D-tuning, he sometime tuned it down to Db.

If you are a guitarist, and are interested in guitar setup arcana, you should watch this video where he explains how he sets up his guitar.

On his website, there is a radio interview where you can here a couple of tunes from the album “Solo Guitar”.
on the Ted Greene official website.

Ted Greene CDs and Books

Wikipedia – Ted Greene

Dec 152010

Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall

Lang Lang (1982 – ) classical pianist, seems to have been “on a roll” since birth. He is a superstar in the world of classical music. In China, much of the youth culture really loves classical music. I have seen the video where Lang Lang returns to Beijing triumphantly from the studying and touring in the U.S. It was reminiscent of the Beatles arriving in the U.S. at the height of their popularity.

Although some critics have panned him in various ways, audiences go wild over his often sold out performance. Major conductors such as Christof Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, Seijii Ozawa, and Zubin Mehta have either championed him or sought him out.

In the following video clip, he plays a Chopin etude in E Major. Towards the end, he plays so quietly and delicately that it seems to transcend possibility of how this can be done. Although he is quite unlike Glenn Gould, he seems to share the tendency to rotate his body in a clockwise motion.

This if from a DVD of his Carnegie Hall debut. Here he plays Liszt’s “Liebestraum” as one of the encore pieces.

Here is evidence of what he might do at a concert, not your father’s concert. He plays “Flight of the Bumblebee” on an iPad, just for fun.

Lang Lang’s website

Lang Lang on Wikipedia

Dec 132010

George Shearing, The Dean of MusicaUnderstatement

(The ingredients for a great performance are) a good audience, a good piano, and a good physical feeling, which is not available to every soul, every day of everyone’s life.

Your intent, then, is to speak to your audience in a language you know, to try to communicate in a way that will bring to them as good a feeling as you have yourself,” – George Shearing

George Shearing (1919 – 2011) pianist, composer, emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1947. At that time, his musicianship was fully developed, and he was quite accomplished. When people speak of the “Shearing Sound” they are referring to the sound of his quintet. The quintet lived from the late 1940’s for about a decade. It was a huge success. If you are unsure as to what that is, when you here it, you will recognize it. It was and continues to be copied seemingly ad infinitum. Unfortunately, “muzak” was provided with a lot of fodder for bad copycat sound.

This style of piano playing uses block chords, which he has attributed to pianist Milt Buckner. These block chords are 5-note chords where the melody is played in octaves, and the chord is formed with the 3 inner voices. The left hand plays the thumb on the lower octave of the melody, (when on the white notes).

The right hand thumb is directly next to the left hand, usually a half or whole step up. This “Shearing Voicing” has been called “locked hands”. The inner voices can be diatonic or every other chord diminished, as you traverse the scale. Since they are 5 note chords, they are usually the triad with major or minor 7th, or 2nd or 6th added.

A number of internet tutorials are incorrect, as far as the “pure” Shearing block chord. The following is not one of those. Dick Hyman has a number of tutorials on the internet. To see his tutorial on block chords, click here. When done, hit your browser’s Back button.

The “Shearing Sound” was the above described piano, along with vibraphone playing the melody in octaves, and the guitar playing usually the upper octave melody. The bass part was written out because the harmony was precise and complex, and the drums usually played brushes.

Here is the quintet playing “I’ll Be Around”

Shearing was known for his unusual, and very impressionist treatments of songs when playing solo piano. Here is an early example where he play’s Gershwin’s Summertime.

Here is a later example. This song, “I Cover the Waterfront” was done by Billie Holiday, and just about everyone else, usually in a jazz style. This video is unabashedly impressionistic. Influences of Debussy, Satie, and Ravel can be heard. He even quotes a bit from a Debussy piece at about 3:38. In other works, he has quoted Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and others. When he does, the quote fits in as if it were written that way.

He was a huge influence on jazz and jazz piano players.

I consider him one of the greatest musical minds I’ve ever been around. In the ’50s, George paved the way for me and the (Modern Jazz Quartet), and even today jazz players, especially pianists, are indebted to him. – Dave Brubeck

John Pizzarelli, who recorded 2002’s “The Rare Delight of You” with the George Shearing Quintet, said,

The Shearing sound is something that lives on ad infinitum. There’s definitely a George Shearing style on the piano that really is hard to copy but we do it all the time,” he said. “It’s still something that’s employed by groups when they’re arranging things. They’ll say, ‘Well wait a minute. We’ll do something like Shearing in the middle.”

In 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth !!. George Shearing died on February 14, 2011, Here are two very informative obituaries:

The U.K. Guardian obituary

New York Times Tributes
George Shearing on Wikipedia

Dec 132010

Gypsy Jazz Guitarist, Homage to Django

Bireli Lagrene (1966 – ) is a guitar virtuoso, who could play Django Reinhardt‘s repertoire at the age of eight.

One of the things about the legendary jazz guitarists is that they believe the naked, unprocessed sound of the guitar is beautiful in and of itself. While they may go to great lengths to set up their guitars for just the right tone and action, for the most part, they tend to avoid electronic effects. Although In the studio, at least reverb would likely be used. Clean playing–every note fully articulated–is highly valued over fast licks or runs. You could say the same thing about really good pianists or other instrumentalists. The epitome of clean piano playing, in my opinion si Glenn Gould. In other genres, guitar effects are de riguer.

Here he plays a jazz standard, “Stella by Starlight”.

This is a clip of Bireli Lagrene and guitarist Sylvan Luc playing Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely”. Sylvan Luc is just as awesome a player as Legrene. These two guitarists have a wonderful CD of their playing as a duo. Isn’t She Lovely”, “Blackbird”, and even a good version of the ’80’s song, “Time After Time” are on it.

Here he is playing Chick Corea’s “Spain” along with bassist, and 2 other guitarists.

This guitarists gives a lesson on playing a “Gypsy” standard in the style of Django Reinhardt, “Minor Swing”. The way he names the fret numbers and talks about what he is playing is easy to follow and very helpful.

Bereli Legrene on Wikipedia