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Musicality and Improv at Tiger Speak’s Hip-Hop Jam

Carter Lee and Michael Summer are the minds behind Brooklyn’s Playground Sessions Hip-Hop Jam and its host band, Tiger Speak. The concept behind the jam is an intriguing one — a live band, complete with vocals, horns, and a rhythm section, plays a set of music tributing a hip-hop legend and then the stage is opened up to eager emcees, singers, and instrumentalists from the crowd. It’s a unique and immersive musical experience for performers and observers alike. Carter and Mike shared some thoughts on creating the jam, what makes a great solo, and how to embrace artistry in music. 

Do you believe everyone has the potential to be an artist?

MS: I think everyone has the ability to express themselves honestly through whatever medium they choose. And that’s art to me.

Let’s say somebody wants to express themselves through music. How do they unlock that potential?
Michael Summer Pic
Michael Summer on sax at a Playground Session

CL: Don’t look at it as a race. Put in the work and look objectively at your development. I wasn’t necessarily born with any musical skills, I’ve just worked really hard at it… and I’m glad it was that way. Having a decent work ethic is way more important to me than having any sort of “gift.”

MS: I try to focus on the word “musicality.” You need to balance that and what Carter’s talking about, which is honing your craft. Be able to lose yourself in it and have fun. Explore your own voice and work hard at the same time. I think one of the worst things you can do is focus too much on the technical aspects of music and neglect the artistic side of it. When you were a kid, you didn’t think about making music, you just sang and jammed. That can easily be lost when music is placed in a more academic setting.

CL: Something happens when you decide you want to be a serious musician. All of a sudden your mistakes are mistakes. You stop seeing them as the necessary things they are on the path to getting better. Growth in music can happen so sporadically. Just put in those hours and make those mistakes.

MS: Being okay with occasionally “failing” — takes a lot of courage.

What do you think it takes for someone to get up at your session? The band is kind of intimidating.

11154724_1059928074036328_9135261397186333748_oCL: I’ve felt that at other sessions. It’s pretty rare that someone gets up at the first one they go to. Eventually, you get tired of waiting, so you just do it. And you don’t die. Everything’s fine. It’s a session. It’s supposed to be free and open. We’ve had people come up and do some bizarre stuff, but for the most part, everyone’s been super talented. The margin for error is so wide. If someone’s not great, we’re still supportive. The worst thing that can happen is a tune gets a little derailed for a moment, and whatever! Who cares?

MS: It’s like cliff jumping. All your survival instincts are telling you there’s no reason to jump off that rock. It’s similar in those jams. There can be a high level of anxiety. You almost feel like your body’s trying to protect you from something, but at some point you just say “whatever” and you do it. You just jump in.

What made you decide to start your own jam session?

CL: I don’t know, I was probably frustrated. I love going to other sessions, but it gets hard. The wait’s part of it. Also, people inevitably start to get cliquish at these things. You hang with people that you’re comfortable with. That’s not the worst thing, but it can be detrimental to the community vibe. I also wanted to build a network and I wasn’t happy with how I was doing that. Most of my musical life was online.

MS: I was impressed by the idea, but I didn’t think anyone would come (laughs).

Yet they consistently do.

11080829_895546277133260_1127645285213174109_oMS: The one word I can think of to describe that is “magic.” I guess the components were already there — it’s Brooklyn, it’s New York. The players, the rappers, the vocalists are all here. If you create a space where people are comfortable enough to step out while also raising the bar to a high level of musicality, I think you can create something special.

What are some of the most memorable moments so far?

CL: The last one for sure.  We took it to another venue after having some issues with the first place — mostly that it was pretty small and we wanted to keep growing. The band is huge. At minimum, there will be nine people on stage at any given point.

MS: The last session was amazing. The first one was amazing. My favorite tribute so far was the A Tribe Called Quest one… I just love that music so much. Also, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to adapt it for the band since their stuff is so instrumental.

What are some of the challenges you run into trying to adapt hip-hop music for a live group?

MS: Some of the songs are so bare that you’re not sure how to translate them for an eleven-piece band. Sometimes we have to write new parts, but we don’t want to detract from what’s already there. It makes you appreciate the original tracks even more.

A lot of the artists you tribute draw from jazz, and so many of you have backgrounds in that style. It’s cool to hear how connected the two genres are.

1899742_961160640579739_2447330570837237511_oMS: I think people feel that. To a lot of people, jazz is this old, obsolete style, but all of a sudden you have that kind of instrumentation playing music the crowd can relate to… and it doesn’t sound corny. It feels organic since the roots were already there.

CL: I didn’t grow up with a lot of this music as much as some of the other guys did. I started listening to rap in grade seven, but my introduction to it was The Slim Shady LP. Later, when I was studying jazz, it all connected for me. When we do the tributes, people get nostalgic. It triggers something in them. If we were just getting up there and doing four hours of open jam, people might not be as into it.

MS: A lot of that open jam is actually influenced by the tribute set we do before it.

How are you able to do these shows on a single rehearsal?

CL: We have a list of artists we want to tribute. We’ll pick one, put together a set, and get that out to everybody in the house band. Honestly, lots of the forms are pretty simple, so it’s not too crazy. Everyone learns what they’re responsible for on their own, and then we basically get together and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

What are some of the things that the stronger performers tend to have in common?

10397222_980467125315757_8070158942266292757_oCL: It’s really about confidence. Listening is huge. If an emcee comes up and is willing to listen and doesn’t try to take over and go two minutes straight, handcuffing the band… that’s the best. It only takes a bar or two for everyone in the room to know what you’re about.

MS: They’re most successful when they approach it selflessly, contributing to what the song’s trying to be. Don’t get up and try to “murder the microphone.” Be musical. Don’t make it a competitive thing.

CL: A lot of the people who have impressed me didn’t necessarily do it with their performances. They were humble when they talked to the band. They realized it’s meant to be an inclusive and immersive experience.

Who are you guys influenced by personally?

MS: I guess I wanted to be John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon

CL: I wanted to be Jaco Pastorius and I wanted to be Cliff Burton. I wanted to be Dave Ellefson from Megadeth, I wanted to be John Paul Jones… but, that’s only a good way to think when you’re first starting out. Once you’ve been playing for a long time, thinking that way can be dangerous. For instance, I love Thundercat’s playing, but I can’t do what he’s doing because he’s already doing it.

MS: You can only be yourself. I just want to make good music with good people. I want to feel like I gave it my best shot and expressed myself as honestly as I could.

What made you pick your instruments?
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Carter Lee

CL: My dad had a bass. He had a bass so I got stuck playing bass. (laughs)

MS: I started on piano. The band director came to my school and for some awful reason I played the clarinet. It’s like Pokemon. If you give an Eevee a fire stone, it becomes Flareon. I’m pretty sure the clarinet naturally evolves into the saxophone. I wish I played bass or drums.

CL: Yeah, I guess I wish I was really good at piano. I should put more time into that.

What are some key things in improvisation in general?

CL: Not being in a hurry to get anywhere. Tell a story. If someone gets up and immediately starts shredding, I mentally turn off. Listen to Miles Davis forever. Use space. And the obvious buzzwords like “great phrasing” and “good sound.” Hopefully you’ve been practicing and those tools will come out naturally as you develop your own sound. Honestly, being overly theoretical about what makes a great solo can be counterintuitive to what makes a great solo.

MS: Thinking large picture about a solo is one of the hardest things to do. You’re trying to impress people, and if the band doesn’t come down, sometimes you’re stuck playing loud and fast. Of course, if the band is listening enough like they should be, they’ll support you and make that easier.

What do you think people need to do to prepare themselves for improvising?

MS: If you’re thinking too hard, people hear that. Sure, you can intellectualize it and talk about starting simply and playing more angular and all that blah blah blah. When you’re on your own, find little targets. I’m gonna play melodically. I’m going to play with good phrasing. Isolate those concepts. Practice them. And then, whatever happens at the session, happens. You really have to lose yourself in it and hopefully it’ll take you to an organic place.

CL: Whatever music you’re trying to play, whatever instrument, whatever style… get your hands on some great recordings and check them out forever.

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Carter, Mike, and the rest of Tiger Speak will be tributing Wu-Tang Clan at the Playground Sessions at Black Bear Bar in Williamsburg on Wednesday, April 22. The tribute set will kick off at 8:30 and, as always, will be followed by an open jam. The cover’s only $5 and the event is open to everyone 21 and over. For more info, email [email protected]. Check out their music here.

For more about improvisation, read our interview with Jared Yee, another Tiger Speak member, and take our course, The Improviser’s Toolkit.

Keep an eye out for Carter Lee’s course on how to build a better band, coming to Soundfly this summer!

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Mahea Lee

Mahea Lee is a classically trained pianist and composer who has a degree from a jazz school and leads an electro-pop band. Her greatest musical passion is lyrical songwriting, but she's been known to write the occasional fugue. She graduated from Berklee College of Music, where she majored in Contemporary Writing and Production and minored in Music Theory. For more Mahea, check out Soundlfly's course, The Improviser's Toolkit.