Hans Helewaut, a Belgian film composer and saxophonist, came to jazz late in life, but not too late to use Jamey Aebersold’s play-along CDs as a resource. “I still use them,” he says. “I’ve gotten better because of them, and still I do other things with them.”
However, he also noticed their limitations. They’re for horn players, but don’t offer as much to rhythm instruments; they’re no use at all for deep listening or transcribing; and worst of all, they’re just no fun.
“Those play-alongs are so, so lifeless,” Helewaut says. “So many of them are machine-generated. To me, music has to have an artistic value to be able to say you can learn something from it.”
On top of that, CDs seem to be going the way of the dodo. It’s the digital age, he figured: Why not create something that uses current technological trends and combines a listenable, enjoyable experience with an educational tool for students? Thus, Jazz Master Tracks was born.
Jazz Master Tracks is a mobile app (currently only available for iPhone and iPad, although a Google version is in the works) that features a virtual mixing board, a three-way equalizer, and an audio editor. It comes bundled with one track, Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait”; a full 10-track album, Standards Sessions Vol. 1, is available for an additional charge. But this is no click track, or machine-generated chord progression. The album, “Good Bait” included, is a studio recording by an international all-star group: Hungarian tenor saxophonist Tony Lakatos, Russian jazz trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, American pianist Danny Grissett, Austrian bassist Hans Glawishnig, and Belgian drummer Bruno Castellucci.
While Lakatos was the one who organized the band, there’s no leader per se. “I wanted artists who were on an equal level, so I asked Tony to put a dream team together,” Helewaut explains. “But it’s not Tony’s record; it’s everybody’s.”
The quintet essentially recorded a blowing session at ICP Studios in Brussels. No rehearsals, no arrangements; the musicians decided together which standards they would play and in what key, played the heads, and off they went.
Helewaut recorded them with stem separation, so that each player is in his own channel on the app’s mixer. A user can turn any instrument (or combination) up or down in the mix, or mute them entirely, thus using the same recording for either transcription or play-along. (Alternately, the equalizer allows the user to control for low, middle, and high register.) The visual editor divides the songs according to structure— “Good Bait,” for example, is sectioned into head in, horn solos (two choruses each for Lakatos and Sipiagin, respectively), piano solo, bass solo, bass and drums trading eights, and head out. The user can choose to listen to only one part or even make loops. The app even offers lead sheets, in multiple keys, for each track.
Purchasing the entire Standards Sessions album doesn’t just offer redundancies for the student. Whereas “Good Bait” is a midtempo but hard-swinging bebop tune, “Why Don’t I” speeds things up; “Darn That Dream” presents a ballad feel; and “Bolivia” and “Bluesette” work out two different Latin grooves. The closer, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” even features the two horns in counterpoint.
In short, Jazz Master Tracks allows a student to learn from master soloists, play along with an unadorned rhythm section, and any number of other educational functions, all by way of a single recording. But most important of all, says Helewaut, that recording itself is not a bland academic exercise, but a high-caliber jazz performance that casual listeners can enjoy.
“For me that’s the charm, and the thing I want to capture,” he says. “Putting on a click track and then having everyone play on it would not make a jazz record. I wanted to put people together just for the fun of playing, but they’re also playing on a very high level and being creative and having fun, so it’s something interesting for the general public to listen to, too.” To that end, Standards Sessions Vol. 1 is also available for streaming on all the major platforms.
The genuine aesthetic value also makes for a better educational experience, Helewaut adds. “I think for a trumpet student who uses the app, he’s going to have fun because he can still play his thing, but with a real exciting band behind him. Or, if he wants to transcribe Alex’s solos note for note, he can press a button and do that instead, hear a really great solo and learn the phrasing and how you do it, get lines in your ears and your fingers that you normally don’t play.”
Though the musicians mostly had carte blanche, there were some rules they had to follow for the sake of accessibility. Solos couldn’t be too long (three choruses max); no unaccompanied drum solos, which would remove any sort of guiding structure. And, of course, they had to stick to standards: Part of Jazz Master Tracks’s utility is helping students learn both the repertoire itself, and how to make an original statement within that repertoire.
Another part of its utility is the long list of possibilities for future recordings. A second volume of Standards Sessions is already in the can, this time featuring a completely different band and instrumentation (vibraphone, alto sax, guitar, bass, and drums). Helewaut has also commissioned a set of arrangements for octet, allowing students to work on learning parts and to interact with a wider array of players.
“For me, the fun thing of the app is you can dissect it however you want,” he says.
I like playing just with the bass and piano, but you’re still playing with great musicians. That’s the nice thing about the musicians: a play-along CD usually is made just for the front-line figures, the horns. We’re giving bass players and drummers something especially for them, too. And for the front-line figures, you get to play with these great bass players and drummers. There are so many good musicians, so to put them in the spotlight and let you discover these great musicians and learn what you can learn.” Jazz Master Tracks truly has something for everyone.