In Tune or Not in Tune... That Is the Question

Jack Bowers By

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Suppose a month goes by, you have a column to publish, but nothing has happened that's worth writing about. What do you do then? Read on, as the question is about to be answered.

A while back there was a discussion at a Stan Kenton web site (Kentonia) about musicians or groups of musicians (more specifically, soprano saxophonists) playing out of tune, either occasionally or frequently. My response (entirely personal) was as follows:

"Well, there is obviously something wrong with my ears, and I suppose that's a blessing, as most of the soprano solos I've heard (on recordings) have, to me, sounded very much in tune. Logic tells me that if they weren't, some of the other musicians (or those who mixed, mastered, supervised, engineered and carried out other technical chores like that), who presumably have an ear for music, would have noticed and said, 'hey, that's out of tune; let's try it again'—or, 'let's use our space-age technology to correct it.' My brother Tom (a musician himself, amateur division) will say to me, 'He (or she) is playing out of tune.' 'Sounds fine to me,' I'll reply, and so it does. Then I think, 'Why didn't anyone else (besides my brother) notice that while they were recording? They are, after all, musicians, and should know when something is being played out of tune.' It doesn't make sense to me simply to release a recording on which someone is playing 'out of tune' because that is the path of least resistance. There are, after all, such things as multiple takes and, these days, even electronic correction.

"The occasions on which I've heard (perhaps I should say 'noticed') someone playing 'out of tune' have been extremely rare. That's not the same as being put off by the 'sound' of a saxophone (or clarinet, or any other instrument). Obviously, there are some who sound better than others (Zoot Sims, for example, was a master of every horn who sounded great on any and all of them). I wouldn't know about Kenny G; perhaps his playing out of tune would be an asset. But for most saxophone players it's a liability, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that, even accidentally. Saxophonists may miss a note here and there, but that's not the same as playing 'out of tune,' which implies they are doing it consistently. I've never quite understood the assertion that a professional musician, who has labored and studied to master his craft, likely has a good pair of ears, and must know when something is being played in tune (or not), would be playing out of tune while blithely unaware that he (or she) was doing so. Are musicians really unable to hear the difference? If so, how are they ever able to play music well? It seems to me that if they can't tell the difference between being in or out of tune we'd be left with cacophony, which isn't the case at all. Logic dictates that (most) musicians must know when they are playing the music correctly. Logic also tells me that most it not all of them do (an opinion reinforced by my admittedly average ears). Well, as I said, my ears may be deficient, but I do think that enables me to enjoy music more than others who may notice more (defects) than I do, and I like that trade-off."

That's how it looks from one non-musician's point of view. I may be completely off base, so please feel free to poke holes in the argument wherever warranted. I would, of course, expect you to back up your opinion with facts, which may prove difficult in this particular case, as "in tune" or "out of tune" can sometimes lie in the ear of the beholder. In other words, one listener's Jo Stafford may be another's Darlene Edwards. Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone on a recording who is playing even slightly out of tune (I'm referring here to jazz musicians, not rockers or their ilk) wouldn't want to try and get it right. It's just plain common sense.

And that, dear readers, is how to make a column out of nothing. I hope you've been taking notes.

Swingin' on a Riff

Toward the end of May, Betty and I plan to be in Los Angeles (at the Airport Marriott Hotel) for the Ken Poston / L.A. Jazz Institute's latest extravaganza, "Swingin' on a Riff: Big Band Masters of the Twenty-First Century," the dates for which are May 23-26. Four films, four panel discussions and no fewer than seventeen concerts in four days, more than enough to assuage anyone's appetite for big bands. There'll be plenty of big names too: Bill Holman, Don Menza, Bobby Shew, Tom Kubis, Bob Curnow, Mike Barone, Pete Christlieb, Roger Neumann, Gary Urwin, Bill Watrous, Kim Richmond, Steve Huffsteter, Alan Broadbent and many others. Obviously, the June edition of Big Band Report (the last after a fifteen-year run; more about that next month) will be devoted to coverage of what promises to be a spectacular event.

RIP, Derek Watkins

British trumpeter Derek Watkins, a star lead player in several big bands who also performed on the soundtracks of all twenty-three James Bond films, died of cancer March 22 at age sixty-eight. Fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie once said of him, "When you speak of lead trumpets, Derek is 'Mr. Lead.'" Watkins started as a trumpeter in his father's dance band before turning professional at age seventeen. He was a member of the Ted Heath and John Dankworth bands before touring with Benny Goodman in 1969. He moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and spent four years as a first-call studio musician, meanwhile playing after hours at Donte's jazz club with the likes of drummer Louie Bellson and saxophonist Don Menza. He also played jazz with Gillespie, Count Basie and Oscar Peterson while accompanying performers such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Elton John and others, and opera singers including Kiri Te Kanawa, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Besides the Bond films, he performed on Basic Instinct, Gladiator, Superman 1, Superman 2 and Bridget Jones's Diary. His trumpet solo opens the film Chicago. In association with Dr. Richard Smith, head of acoustics at Boosey and Hawkes, Watkins established a manufacturing company, Smith-Watkins Instruments, which manufactures and supplies trumpets and cornets to musicians. As a composer, he collaborated with Colin Sheen and James Talbot to provide incidental music for the long-running television show Midsomer Murders. Watkins was also a visiting professor of trumpet at the UK's Royal Academy of Music.

Recent Big-Band Releases

Stan Kenton Tribute Band / McGill University Jazz Orchestra 1
Double Feature, Volume 4
Tantara Productions


Big Band Report Jack Bowers United States Stan Kenton Zoot Sims Kenny G Jo Stafford Bill Holman Don Menza Bobby Shew Tom Kubis Bob Curnow Mike Barone Pete Christlieb Roger Neumann Gary Urwin Bill Watrous Kim Richmond Steve Huffsteter Alan Broadbent Dizzy Gillespie Ted Heath John Dankworth Benny Goodman Louie Bellson Count Basie oscar peterson frank sinatra Bud Shank Bob Cooper Bill Perkins Conte Candoli Jiggs Whigham Pete Rugolo Frank Capp Doug Miller Milt Bernhart Shorty Rogers Maynard Ferguson Charlie Parker Manny Albam Ken Hanna Remi Bolduc Johnny Richards Rob Parton Eric Richards Mike Pinto Bob Rummage Tim Coffman B.J. Cord Victor Garcia Clark Terry Ted Hogarth Joe Henderson Thelonious Monk Mark Colby, Joe Policastro Chris Madsen John Wojciechowski Miles Davis Bill Evans Bert Joris Jim McNeely Johannes Walter Jurg Bucher Ian McDougall Ross Taggart ben webster Gene Ammons Dexter Gordon Sonny Stitt Wardell Gray Johnny Griffin Lockjaw Davis Horace Silver Woody Herman Don Thompson Kenny Dorham Ken Lister Oliver Gannon Brad Turner Craig Scott Rob McConnell Asuka Kakitani Toshiko Akiyoshi Maria Schneider Kenny Berger John Bailey Jason Rigby Dave Ambrosio Mike Eckroth Pete McCann Matt McDonald Mark Ferber John O'Gallagher Jacob Garchik Ben Kono Matt Holman Mark Small Mark Patterson Seamus Blake Russell Malone Robin Eubanks Bobby Watson Scott Robinson Marvin Stamm Bob Summers John McLean Bob Bowman Kelly Sill John LaPorta Henry Mancini Shelly Manne Dave Young Dave Pell Thad Jones Charles Mingus Hank Mobley Sam Jones Kevin Turcotte Terry Clarke Chick Webb Edgar Sampson Mike Murley Fred Sanders David Pulphus JERI SOUTHERN Peggy Lee Gene McDaniels


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