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Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Trumpeter Miles Davis, circa 1959. He once said, ‘”There are no wrong notes in jazz. It’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”‘ A small study suggests that jazz and classical music have different effects on the brain.

Pacific Standard loves these small-scale studies because they are fun and interesting. But as a retiree from an organization dominated by economists, I feel compelled to remind you that larger studies are needed.

Now for the fun. Tom Jacobs writes at Pacific Standard, “Can creativity be taught? Not directly, perhaps. But if such a curriculum exists, it would train one’s brain to regard unforeseen occurrences as potential springboards, rather than disturbing anomalies.

“Fortunately, there is at least one type of specialized training that shapes neural activity in precisely that way. …

“In a new, small-scale study, a Wesleyan University research team led by Psyche Loui and Emily Przysinda report the brains of jazz musicians are uniquely attuned to surprising sounds. Electronic monitoring revealed these players have ‘markedly different neural sensitivity to unexpected musical stimuli,’ the researchers write.

“These musicians are trained not only to anticipate unpredictable turns, but also to engage with them in a positive, creative way. That dynamic reflex stimulates creative thinking.

“The study in … Brain and Cognition featured 36 students from Wesleyan University and the Hartt School of Music. Twelve were studying jazz (including improvisation), 12 classical music, and the final 12 were non-musicians. …

“The participants completed a short version of a well-known creative thinking test, in which they were given six open-ended prompts such as ‘List all the uses you can think of for a paper clip’ in three minutes. They were scored on both the number of items they came up with, and their originality (that is, how often each answer was also given by other students). …

“The young musical improvisers were uniquely receptive to unexpected sounds. …

” ‘The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas,’ Loui and her colleagues write. ‘This could lead to the increased cognitive flexibility in jazz musicians.’ …

“It’s possible that people who decide to learn an instrument have brains that are pre-wired in a certain way, but previous research suggests that’s unlikely. Loui plans to study that issue, as well as whether other types of artistic training — say, improvisational theater — will yield similar results.”

More here.

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Photo: World Music
Harold López-Nussa, pianist and leader of the Harold López-Nussa Cuban jazz trio, which astonished the crowd at the Berklee Performance Center last night.

We have now seen the amazing Cuban jazz trio headed by Harold López-Nussa twice, and we still can hardly believe the pyrotechnics and joyfulness that explode from this young crew.

A documentary maker who is a part-time resident of New Shoreham had been to Cuba and, having gotten to know Harold, was determined to bring the trio to Rhode Island. It took a few years. We got to hear them last summer in the St Andrews parish hall.

Last night they played for an astonished crowd at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center as part of the World Music/Crash Arts series.

Here’s what the World Music website says: “Havana-based composer and pianist Harold López-Nussa travels smoothly through his classical, Cuban, and jazz inspirations to create an exceptional style of global jazz. His trio includes his younger brother, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, a renowned musician in his own right, on percussion and Gaston Joya on bass.”

What is not conveyed by that description is the extraordinary virtuosity of each of the performers. Harold, yes, but also his younger brother the drummer, and his “brother of another mother,” the bass player.

The trio is like a fireworks display that you grin all the way through. In any one piece, they seem to be ending and you start cheering, when all of a sudden there is an explosive burst more astonishing even than the one you just heard — and you’re off to the races again.

Harold is the only one who speaks enough English to introduce the numbers, which he or his bass player or various Cuban greats composed. He likes to tell you about composing one long piece in his rattle-trap Polish car (in video below), which he says is so slow he has loads of time to think. A gentle, nostalgic piece was written for his late mother.

From Harold’s website: “López-Nussa was born into a musical family in Havana on July 13, 1983. Not only are his father and uncle – Ernán, a pianist – working musicians, but his late mother, Mayra Torres, was a highly regarded piano teacher.

“At the age of eight, López-Nussa began studying at the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music, then the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory and finally graduating with a degree in classical piano from the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA). ‘I studied classical music and that’s all I did until I was 18,’ he says. Then came jazz.

“ ‘Jazz was scary. Improvisation was scary. That idea of not knowing what you are going to play…’ he says, his voice trailing off. “At school I learned the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and then it was all very clear. That permanent risk in which jazz musicians find themselves in all the time was terrifying-of course, now I find myself in that risk all the time.’ ”

Last night, as Harold thanked all the people who helped the trio get to Boston, he said, “You wouldn’t believe what it takes to get out of Cuba to come here.” Here’s hoping it gets easier so they can reach all the audiences who will love them.

Check out the trio’s website here and this, the blurb for the World Music concert at Berklee.

Although the video doesn’t show the fireworks of the current trio, it nicely documents how Harold worked with an earlier group of collaborators. And it features the Polish car.

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I was delighted when Will McMillan asked me to review his Blame Those Gershwins CD, with music composed by Steve Sweeting, who also is on piano.

I think the first time I became aware of singer McMillan was in a production of the musical Tortoise, in which he played a sweet, low-key guy unimpressed by the hectic modern world. But I may have seen him in television ads when he was a little boy. He’s been performing that long.

I’ve listened to this CD several times now, and I’m really loving it. The title song playfully borrows themes from the greats — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and more. It tells the story of a fan who finds more comfort in the American Songbook than in the unreliable world of romance (but who is also able to poke fun at himself).

I ought to think twice;/Should I really be relying on Kurt Weill for advice?/Life doesn’t rhyme like lyrical knowledge/You get from Rodger and Hartenstein College.

The lyrics for that song are written by Sweeting, who wrote the words for several of the other songs. The joyful “Bounce to the Wave,” with words by Betina Hershey, had me thinking of swing dancing but may suggest other bouncy activities to you, including children jumping on a new mattress. One tune was created for a lovely ee cummings poem that I wish we had known about when Suzanne and Erik got married. The cummings poem we chose was more obscure. In fact, I told the congregation, “We don’t know what it means, but we like the way it sounds.” (“Not even the rain has such small hands.)

McMillan wrote the lyrics to several songs, including “Stuff,”  in which he ponders his good fortune in experiencing the beauty and peace of nature and compares those wonders to other “stuff” we collect in our getting and spending world. He asks, “What have I done in some other life, to be blessed with this stuff,” reminding me of an uncharacteristically plaintive Elaine Stritch singing “somewhere in my youth and childhood/I must have done something good.”

Sweeting’s gentle, wistful persona in “Wait” is self-critical for hoping that something wonderful will happen without action on his part — and for being so resigned. “I sit and watch a year or ten just slip away/I let life come to me,/If it doesn’t,/Say it wasn’t meant to be.”

I really loved each song for its different strengths: the carefree “Let’s Go to the River,” the hopeful “What Am I Doing Alone,” the wise and accepting “Let It All Go,” in which Sweeting suggests that if a poem fails to flow and a friend fails to know when you need a friend, “Maybe the answer/is to love a poem and to write a friend.”

This is music for the thinking music lover. It is thoughtful without being cerebral. It doesn’t talk down to the listener. The questioning, patient vibe suggests a tentativeness that is a kind of strength, a self-knowledge that is OK with not having all the answers and an openness to receiving the joy that is offered. Amazon has the CD. And iTunes. It’s going to be my companion in the car at least until I have all the lyrics memorized.

Oh, and kudos to Doug Hammer, McMillan’s longtime piano collaborator, for the recording and mixing on this one.

McMillan and Sweeting’s launch party is October 2 in Somerville, Mass. Call 617 628 0916. Or check Brown Paper Tickets online.

Will McMillan and Steve Sweeting, the guys behind the jazzy, bluesy CD Blame Those Gershwins

Will McMillan & Steve SweetingA

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At WBUR’s The Artery, Andrea Shea has a story about a composer with a penchant for unusual texts: the package blurbs practically everyone reads at breakfast when the newspaper hasn’t arrived.

“Musicians are always searching for inspiration,” writes Shea, “and sometimes they find it in some unlikely places.

“Take Brian Friedland, a prolific Boston composer and jazz pianist who’s discovered a creative goldmine in his cupboards. He takes words on packaging for products such as granola, mouthwash and tea, then sets them to some pretty sophisticated music. Friedland calls the funny-but-serious project ‘Household Items’ and he has a new CD. …

“Friedland is not a singer, but he sees amusing, absurdist potential in labels featuring characters, quests or ‘extreme’ wording. He started foraging for inspiration about eight years ago and had an epiphany when he read a can of carpet cleaner after his cat missed the litter box.

“It read, ‘Do not. Do not puncture. Do not freeze. Do not incinerate. Do not expose to heat above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not inhale.’ He made them into a percussive, vocally complex work where the singer repeats, ‘Do not! Do not! Do not puncture,’ with urgency.”

Percussionist and singer Laura Grill “performed a few songs, including one about a fragrant skin moisturizer.

“ ‘There’s one benefit of having these sort of accessible lyrics,’Grill said, ‘because people are like, “Oh right — Avon Peach Hand Lotion — I can connect with that.” ’

“Grill, also an [New England Conservatory] alum, says Friedland has found a unique solution to an age-old problem.

“ ‘As someone who enjoys composing and arranging, one of the hardest things is trying to write lyrics,’ she said, ‘so Brian finds them on his coffee packages and appliances.’ ”

Listen to Friedland’s SleepyTime tea music with lyrics taken straight from the box at WBUR, here.

Photo: Andrea Shea/WBUR
Brian Friedland, a composer who puts text from product packaging to music.

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Sometimes it just takes one person to be a catalyst. Internationally known jazz musician Danilo Pérez is a catalyst for a growing jazz scene in his native Panama. He has a special focus on getting young people excited about jazz and giving them a chance to become musicians.

At the NY Times, Melena Ryzik writes, “Even in jazz, which has a long tradition of mentorship, Mr. Pérez, 49, has emerged as a singular figure. Nearly 30 years after he left his native Panama to study jazz composition at Berklee [College of Music in Boston], he has made promoting musicianship in Panama — using music as a springboard, cultural unifier and teaching tool — his life’s work.

“In 2005, a year after he started [a] jazz festival with his family, he created the Danilo Pérez Foundation, a nonprofit center for music education and outreach; the festival, which draws as many as 30,000 people over its six-day run each January, provides money for the foundation. The club, which opened last February at the new American Trade Hotel, a luxe outpost of the Ace Hotel chain, is, in his view, the last piece of the puzzle.”

Read more.

Photo: Jennifer Shanley
Danilo Pérez (right) directs the Berklee Global Jazz Institute inaugural class.

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I love listening to Worcester-based WICN (jazz radio). Bonnie Johnson had an especially good show yesterday, opening with Cynthia Scott and 3rd, 4th & 5th graders of PS32 in Brooklyn, NY, singing “Dream for One Bright World.”

“There is a new day dawning
“The time is now
“The world is ready for a change …

“Let’s teach out children to care
“To help one another
“And mend broken hearts
“So many children in the world
“Have never had a chance
“Their time has come …

(More lyrics here.)

You can listen to WICN online at wicn.org. Bonnie Johnson’s program is described at Colors of Jazz. “Bonnie Johnson is host of Colors of Jazz on Sunday afternoon from noon-4 pm. If you asked the Worcester native how she found jazz, she would tell you that jazz found her. As an undergraduate student at Howard University in Washington, DC, Ms. Johnson became a fan of the Quiet Storm featured on the college station WHUR-FM. …

“Ms. Johnson appreciates the diversity and the evolution of music. As a self-taught electric bassist, she has enjoyed many years of playing various types of music with her daughter and close friends in a family band. Growing up, she sang in the St. Cecilia Girl Choir at All Saints Worcester. …

“Ms. Johnson holds B.A. in Liberal Studies and M.S. in Communications and Information Management degrees from Bay Path College. She believes the future of jazz is in our children, stating, ‘Music and the arts is one area that gives young people an outlet and release of creative energy. While there are many children exposed to music through lessons and attending live performances, there are too many more that are not.’ One of Johnson’s primary goals as host at WICN is to reach youth in creative ways through community engagement.”

That’s something to think about on Martin Luther King’s birthday — and maybe to act on, too.

Bonnie Johnson, host of WICN radio’s Colors of Jazz 

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You never know what will turn up at Studio 360, a radio show on the arts. A feature on November 21 explained how one of the legendary jazz greats toilet-trained his cat.

“The jazz musician Charles Mingus was a celebrated band leader and one of the most important composers of his generation. But at the same time he was recording The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he was working on another masterpiece of sorts. He figured out how to get his cat, Nightlife, to poop in a toilet — and he decided he’d share his method with the world.

The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat was a step-by-step guide available for purchase by mail. It’s full of charming advice and meticulous pedagogical detail:

“Here’s an excerpt from Step 1:

Once your cat is trained to use a cardboard box, start moving the box around the room, towards the bathroom. If the box is in a corner, move it a few feet from the corner, but not very noticeably. If you move it too far, he may go to the bathroom in the original corner. Do it gradually. You’ve got to get him thinking. Then he will gradually follow the box as you move it to the bathroom. (Important: if you already have it there, move it out of the bathroom, around, and then back. He has to learn to follow it. If it is too close to the toilet, to begin with, he will not follow it up onto the toilet seat when you move it there.) A cat will look for his box. …

“Reporter Jody Avirgan put the method to the test on four-month-old kitten Dizzy. His owners, Kevin and Nicole, even played Mingus throughout the process.”

More at Studio 360, here, including a recording of the show.

Photo: Jody Avirgan
Dizzy the cat is interviewed for Studio 360.

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