Pocket Jazz is a new online jazz course created by Arizona-based trombonist and Music Savvy founder Michael Lake. It aims to deepen a musician’s understanding of some of the more complex aspects to playing jazz, providing for those who enrol a series of short video lessons by Lake himself, as well as lessons and advice from Ron Carter, Steve Swallow, Richie Beirach and many others. Review by Charles Rees
During the COVID lockdowns of 2020, American Grammy-nominated alto trombonist, author, multimedia artist and entrepreneur Michael Lake began a jazz education video series which he published on the social media platform TikTok. The videos were designed to conform to the platform’s three-minute time limit and were intended to accommodate a phone that could fit into your pocket; in his own words, ‘short attention span learning.’ It was around the same time that he also began to conduct lengthy interviews with some of the most influential and respected names still active in jazz. Over the ensuing years, he has worked to develop both projects into a more focused and comprehensive resource for musicians. The result: an online course which he calls Pocket Jazz.
Pocket Jazz is broken down into eight individual categories: Deep Thinking, The Jazz Language, The Musician’s Ear, Better Rhythm, Music Theory, Improvisation Hacks, Practicing Well, and The Master Speaks. These eight categories are then further divided into subjects, with the most including eleven per category, and the least including five. Each of the lessons follows a similar formula that begins with a written introduction to the subject matter. What then follows is the core lesson itself, delivered by Lake in the form of a video with a duration of no more than three minutes (included with the first seven categories is the option of reading through the lesson instead).
Each of these lessons covers a mix of method, advice, discussion and theory, often punctuated by Lake playing examples on his trombone, covering such topics as how to go about speed-learning a tune, a breakdown of how a great jazz rhythm section interacts with each other, and how Ron Carter uses Bach to better his musical ear. Viewers are then directed to what Lake calls ‘lesson materials’, either several recordings that serve as examples of what was just discussed (‘related listening’) and/or extracts from books that break down the subject matter in more depth. For example, “I Thought About You” from the Miles Davis recording Live at Philharmonic Hall and Bill Evans’ “Peri’s Scope” are both recommended listening for the lesson on swing. For the lesson on what Lake calls the ‘four quadrants of competence’, a chapter from one of his books with Richie Beirach, Teaching and Learning Jazz, is provided.
Following on from the lesson materials is perhaps the most interesting element to each of the lessons – what Lake calls ‘related thoughts from the masters’. These are short video anecdotes taken from his interviews. For example, Sheila Jordan responds to the lesson on finding your own voice, and Randy Brecker shares the story of his journey to play less like Woody Shaw and more like himself (further thoughts on this topic come from Dave Liebman, George Cables and Lew Tabackin). Other extracts from the many aforementioned artists are provided plentifully. Additional names to feature throughout the Pocket Jazz course include (but are not limited to) Joe Lovano, Steve Swallow, Adam Nussbaum, Lewis Nash, Conrad Herwig, Rufus Reid and Jamey Aebersold. An archive of Lake’s complete interviews can be purchased separately (linked below).
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A key question here is what it is that distinguishes Pocket Jazz from the countless interviews and jazz education resources that are available on the Internet for free. In the first place, Lake has cultivated an environment in his interviews where these artists can feel comfortable talking, so an enrolee gets a more open and warm experience than is otherwise available as standard on YouTube. But perhaps more importantly, there are so many self-proclaimed teachers who preach methods of learning jazz on platforms like Instagram today that the average consumer has no way of differentiating mediocre advice from true wisdom. Pocket Jazz is offering a modern method for learning jazz that comes with a guarantee of authenticity – the mere fact that these greats have put their names to it stands as a testament to that fact. This is a gateway to understanding jazz concepts on a much deeper level than has surely ever been available in one place online. One that is appropriate for almost any level of musician provided they have basic competency on an instrument, whatever that instrument may be.
Charles Rees is a London-based saxophonist, composer/arranger and is the Assistant Editor of LJN