Music can be a form of perfection - with nothing added or subtracted, flawless just the way it is.

Stupid, frustrating fears

I’ve struggled with this ever since I started this blog; I’ll get an idea to write about something, get really excited about it, then not go through with it. It might be a great idea, and I’ll probably write two or three different beginnings but eventually will just succumb to different doubts and fears. It’s such a common and persistent pattern, that I thought it might be a good idea to write about it. Not to reveal some grand realizations, but to simply put it down somewhere.

I love writing about the things I care about. I enjoy dwelling on an idea/subject and thinking about how to put it into some sensible words. I love creating and collecting these short pieces about different subjects. And when I’m done with a piece, I like sharing it and talking about it with others. All of that is what gets me going. It’s why I write in the first place. On the other, much heavier hand there are all these reasons and thoughts that tell me I definitely should not write, let alone share it with others. Mostly, I am able to go past that, but very often these stupid fears will paralyze me. They will make me take a long time to finish something in the best case and drop the whole thing altogether in the worst.

One such example is a (non-existing) blog post about hearing Cécile McLorin Salvant live. I should preface this by saying, Cécile is phenomenal! She’s what I’ve been looking for in music for a while, but haven’t found it elsewhere (save perhaps in some older musicians). Her artistry and authenticity are inspiring and precious. In short, I adore her. I am obsessed with her work and can’t get enough of it.
So you can imagine my excitement last year, when I went to Germany to see her live for the first time. It was all I hoped for and then some. I was excited and it meant a huge deal to me. So much to write about! Exciting! Yet a week passed, a month passed, and I hadn’t written anything about the experience. Eventually, the year was coming to an end, and I had already made plans to hear her again, this time in Vienna. But I still hadn’t written the blog post about the first time. As the concert in Vienna was getting closer and I was standing still, I decided “well, it doesn’t make sense to write about that experience now. I’ll just write about this concert instead”. It sounded like a good plan, right? Vienna concert happened and it was incredible and I was again excited to write about it. Well, that was 3 months ago…

I wish this was an exception, but it’s what usually happens. I find that the more I care about what I am writing about, the more likely it is to happen. Hell, it took me a couple of years to write about Louis Armstrong, who got me into all of this in the first place.

As common as it is, I still haven’t found an efficient way of coping with it. Still gets me every time. The most common ways this fear comes up for me are:

  • The feeling that what I’m writing is crap
  • Feeling silly that I would ever publish such a thing
  • The fear that I’ll write something that is obviously stupid, but I don’t see it since I’m not experienced enough
  • The fear of being called out on something stupid I say

And no, listing it isn’t very helpful either.

I was talking about this with a friend the other day. She asked, if that’s what I experience when trying to write, why would I want to write at all? If I struggle with all of this every time, am I just forcing myself into something for no reason? This is something I’ve asked myself as well. That maybe these fears are telling me writing just isn’t for me. And on bad days, that belief wins. On good days I realize that being self-conscious about something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. If anything, it’s something that I can work on and learn from it. On good days I know that these feelings (it’s all they really are) are temporary and the love of music overcomes.

Do you ever experience such walls? How do you cope with them? I’d love to know, because this is incredibly frustrating.

27. May 2016
writing

There are days when I’ll put on one of Satchmo’s records and just love and enjoy the music. Then there are days when I put on his music and listen in admiration. AND THEN there are days when I’m doing something else entirely and simply have some music playing.

Until a certain song comes up and hits me like a train; mind you, a song I’ve listened to countless times before. The song comes up, and in the middle of my work I realize I suddenly stop typing and start listening. Intensely. Not because I’m intrigued, but because I’m stunned. As if I’ve heard it for the first time, I am in awe. The singing, the moans, that beautiful, heart-wrenching solo. And man, that otherworldly glissando.

After listening to what surely must be hundreds of hours of his music, how can his music still sound so fresh?! How can he still surprise me, like I’m hearing him for the first time? I don’t think I’ll ever know. But what a great thing it is.

29. March 2016
Louis Armstrong

It would not be possible, if she didn’t bravely put herself out there. But she did and the results are phenomenal.


For One to Love cover

Finally, Cécile’s new album! I’ve been waiting excitingly the whole summer and I have not been let down. It exceeded my expectations and every time I listen to it, I find new ways to appreciate it. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a vocal jazz album so much. And that makes me extremely happy – music like this is rare and precious!

I’ve written about Cécile McLorin Salvant before; she is an incredible, young singer based in New York. It is often said she extends the lineage of the great singers in jazz before her; Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith. Once you hear her it’s easy to see why. And it’s not just the singers. You can also easily spot other influences, such as Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong for example.

If you haven’t already, I recommend you listen to her first album WomanChild. It’s a great start and shows perfectly why she’s so loved and adored by both critics and fans. It’s also interesting to note how it differs from For One to Love. But more about that a bit later.

For One to Love is absolutely striking – Cécile has outdone herself! It’s beautiful, sincere and precious. There’s something about Cécile’s music that draws one in completely. I can’t put a finger on it, but a big part of it has to be the authenticity and intimacy of it.
It’s also exactly what makes this album stand out. It’s not easy to find music like this. And Cécile’s ability to express herself so fully makes it all seem so simple. I love how she has these amazing vocal skills, but never uses them for their own sake. She uses them very deliberately, always to bring a point across. She doesn’t show off. And she doesn’t have to. Her expressiveness is much more powerful than any technical fireworks could ever be.
The incredible broadness of her expression is matched only by her choice in songs. I really appreciate these choices – they’re refreshing. She seamlessly jumps from an original song to a show tune to a standard to a song from a musical back to an original song. Yet no matter the song, she creates magic. This actually reminds me of Louis Armstrong; he could be given any song and create a masterpiece out of it. And Cécile is the same. She picks these songs and makes them say exactly what she wants them to say. She brings such a fresh air to them and makes them feel completely new. And they all fit together, even though they are taken not only from different contexts but also completely different periods! That’s not an easy task.
I mean, listen to what she did with The Trolley Song or how she channels Bessie Smith on What’s the Matter Now?. Or the theatrical performance of Growlin’ Dan. And how all of these sound so fresh and relevant, regardless of their age. Mix in the incomparable originals like Fog, Look at Me, and the heart-breaking Left Over and marvel at how it all fits together.


All of this is amazing. But by far my favorite thing about this album is the intimacy of it. I’ve been listening to her previous album and noticing how it has most of the same qualities I’m talking about here. However it’s not nearly as intimate as this one. Hell, when listening to Cécile on this album it sounds like you’re listening to a friend. You feel you know her. She is telling you a secret. She is bravely and trustingly sharing her experiences. And because of that, the album swallows you whole. It takes you with it. You want to listen what she has to say. You sympathise. You relate to what she’s saying. You want to listen to her talk to you. And because she is so good at expressing herself, you know exactly what she’s talking about. Not understand. You know it, deep down.
This would not be possible, if she didn’t bravely put herself out there. But she did and the results are phenomenal.

Singers are often praised for many things, but you rarely hear them commended for bravery. Yet I am convinced that the courage of self-exposure is an especially rare skill, and not the least of the virtues of the finest singers. If I had the power to award medals for artistic bravery—what a marvelous idea, an honor for courageous love in the musical field, not war on the battlefield!—I wouldn’t hesitate before giving one out for this album. – from liner notes by Ted Giola

Let’s not forget that all of these amazing qualities shine through partly because of the amazing band that supports her in these creations. Aaron Diehl’s ingenuity on the piano kills me every time.

I seriously love this album. Seeing and hearing what Cecile has shown us so far, I have no doubt that she’s only getting started. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead!

And that makes me happy. Thank you, Cécile.

15. October 2015
Cecile McLorin Salvant

Louis Armstrong’s lifework visualized

I’m always excited when I create something that combines my passion with my profession. This is one such project, and I am very happy to share it with you.

Louis Armstrong doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he deserves, given his vast and lasting impact on music. I talked about him more extensively in my previous post, but this time I wanted to explore something else. I thought it would be interesting to see his career visualized. To get a closer look into how and when his music got captured on record. So this is my humble attempt at that.

This is a visualization of all sessions that comprise Louis Armstrong’s discography. Each session is represented as a circle. The size of the circle represents the size of the band at that session, and the color is related to the location. The height of each session is given by the quantity of recording dates in a year around that session. So when he was busier recording, the circles will be higher.
The visualization is also interactive. You can zoom in closer to get a better look. Scroll to zoom and click & drag to move around. By hovering over the sessions, you will be able to see the details about them. You can also highlight only specific recording dates; say you are interested in seeing all the recording dates with Jack Teagarden. You simply select his name in the form below and all the sessions with him present, will be highlighted. You can also search by location by clicking the specific location below the graph. Or, if you’re still not satisfied, you could also search for something like “all the sessions that happend in New York with Jack Teagarden, when they played Blueberry Hill”. Just input “Blueberry Hill” and “Jack Teagarden”, click “New York” and the sessions that fit that query will pop up. This means you can do some fun stuff with this visualization.

I invite you to explore it and let me know what you think. Let me know what are some of the things you looked for.

Details about the visualizaton

The main source of information for this visualization was this online discography by Michael Minn. Some recording dates or radio broadcasts have limited information about the dates, lineups and so on. This means that the uncertainty is also reflected in this visualization. Some sessions are excluded due to the lack of information. There are also some typos and other errors, which I am still cleaning up. If you find anything, let me know.

And a few technical details, for those interested. I used d3 library for the actual visualization. I love it more and more, each time I use it. To get the data from the online discography, I used import.io. And finally for parsing and cleaning up, Python was the way to go.

Unfortunately this interactive visualization is not supported on mobile devices. Come check it out on your tablet or computer.

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29. August 2015
Louis Armstrong Visualization

“Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” - Art Blakey

New Orleans funeral

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

How often do you hear about jazz being difficult, not accessible and generally something scary? Often? Well, maybe not since talking about jazz scarcely happens in the first place. When it does it tends to have this connotation that jazz is overly complex and not for an everyday man. But is this really the case?
I’m here to tell you a little secret that I’m pretty sure no one has ever told you. Are you ready? Jazz is for everyone! *Gasp* Yes, that includes you. I know, I know, it’s very possible that the mere thought of jazz makes you roll your eyes and think of endless solos that don’t make any sense and that sound… well, weird. Or perhaps you think it’s supposed to be sophisticated and it would be cool to listen to it, but it’s simply too overwhelming and difficult. Whatever the case, it’s likely that you think ‘It’s just not for me’. That’s most people’s relationship to jazz. So I am writing this post because it doesn’t work for me that we live in a world where such an immense art form is mostly overlooked and misunderstood. I honestly believe every single person has a place in their heart for jazz. It is not meant for only a handful of people, but should be enjoyed by everyone. It has so much to give and I really don’t want anyone to miss out on that. Jazz is for everyone, people!

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for." - John Keating, The Dead Poet Society

Public image and media are making us believe otherwise. It seems to me that jazz is always portrayed as something that is meant only for a small and chosen minority. This leads to people avoiding jazz altogether. Maybe the thought of listening and liking jazz has simply never crossed their minds, or maybe they see it as something too difficult, therefore not something they would want to get into (i.e., “It’s just not for me”). You might see yourself in here too. I get that and I can relate to that feeling. I used to feel this way some years ago.
And today? Today I see something else. Jazz is incredibly diverse and it is actually such a broad term. The area it covers is vast. One of the reasons I love jazz so much is how diverse it is. Anything that you could possibly imagine and anything that you couldn’t, is covered. There is something for everyone! So when I hear people say that it’s not for them or that it’s difficult to listen to, I know this has more to do with the perception of this music than the reality.
Because you know what’s almost always the case? People hear one or two jazz songs and after they don’t like it they decide jazz is not for them. However not liking some songs says nothing about your relationship to the whole genre. Nobody likes everything. That’s ok and we’re all the same in that. I mean I am what you would call a jazz lover (in case you haven’t noticed already), but there is tons of acclaimed jazz music that I don’t enjoy. You don’t have to like everything, nobody does. But don’t disregard the whole genre because of that.

Louis Armstrong

Before I started listening to jazz I fell into this trap too. I was pretty certain that I didn’t like it, until it swoop me off my feet one day. Which came as a shock. I didn’t see it coming at all. I’m not saying everyone will go head over heels for jazz like I did - I’m just saying you may not be aware of it yet, but I’m 100% certain there is a place in your heart for jazz.

To be clear, I’m not promoting everyone should start getting crazy over jazz. Not at all, that would be no good. Diversity in the world is what makes life beautiful. What I am saying though, is that people get afraid of jazz and that shouldn’t happen. It’s such a precious treasure and failing to see its value and treating it like it’s difficult and only for a ‘chosen’ minority is no good. Musicians don’t get the recognition they deserve, and most of the world is missing out on something huge. Something exciting, exquisite, and one of the most honest forms of human communication.

Why jazz?

The reason I am writing about this is that I passionately believe jazz is one of the finer things life has to offer. It’s far-reaching and speaks to tolerance and encourages individuality and diversity at the same time. It can be exciting or relaxed, intense or mellow, joyful or anguished, sensuous or childish but most importantly it’s always honest. The stories it tells are relevant and relatable. The people who have been creating it come from all walks of life. They are as diverse as they come, but they all share the devotion and passion for music and give it their everything. Simply put, at the end of the day jazz is fun, fulfilling and… it swings!
I’m certain there isn’t a person alive who couldn’t use a piece of that in their lives.

“Jazz music celebrates life! Human life; the range of it, the absurdity of it, the ignorance of it, the greatness of it, the intelligence of it, the sexuality of it, the profundity of it. And it deals with it. In all of its… It deals with it!” - Wynton Marsalis

Why does it matter?

In this day and age where radios and TVs play mostly over-produced soulless music, made with the sole purpose of earning as much money as possible, we are blasted with superficial crap with no originality. It’s intentionally made simple and uses proven hooks that are bound to bring in cash. The commercial radios poison our ears by playing same stuff over and over again. They’d rather play one song a hundred times than play something that deviates from their mold. In turn, they numb our senses and make it harder and harder to be really touched by a piece of music. It is rare or practically impossible to hear something authentic, honest and from the heart. I think that’s awful and no one should stand idly by and suffer that. Music is something that can enrich our lives extensively. And jazz offers that full-heartedly.
Do yourself a favour. Take a step away from the everyday, shallow stuff that’s blasting at you and take the time to enjoy something that’s soulful, honest and courageous. It will put a spark in your life.

“I was in awe of jazz musicians because of their power, because of the mystery of their sinuous but overwhelming power. Nothing else in my experience was so exhilarating, so utterly compelling. The laughter in the music, the intimacy, the range and bite of the life-tales each player told in textures and cadences entirely his own. The irony, the deep blues, and, as I grew older, the sensuousness.” - Nat Hentoff, Jazz Is

Ok, let’s do this

So how do you get into jazz? Since it’s so vast, where do you begin, how do you find a piece of it that you enjoy? That’s a whole different story and I will get into that in my next post, so stay tuned.

16. February 2015
jazz thoughts