Three very different books recently came into my life, so different it actually took me seeing them all sitting there together on my table to realize they all share an important theme - music, of course!
My friend Carolyn in Las Vegas recommended "Effortless Mastery", by Kenny Werner, to me. I love this book. It's aimed primarily at jazz musicians, but really it's for anyone who does any kind of creative performance that requires flow. Werner tackles head on the biggest obstacles to this flow, fear and the ego. He writes about how to be genuine and play from within, and because both his writing style and the issues at hand are very personal, it's the kind of book some people will be tempted to dismiss as too hand-wavy, new-agey, touchy-feely. But anyone who's ever played music and really felt what they're playing, really been in the moment, will not be able to deny that he's right on. "Effortless Mastery" brims with both inspiration and practical advice.
Had the piano at the studio tuned the other day. Piano tuning and temperament is a topic that seems straightforward until you start to learn more about it. I know the tiniest bit about it and each new piece I learn seems to open up another vault of mysteries. Just recently, for example, I figured out (on the back of an envelope, literally) that the circle of fifths is a sham because there's no way you can multiply the fraction three-halves (3/2, the frequency ratio for two pitches in a perfect fifth) by itself some number of times and achieve a power of 2 (the frequency ratio for two pitches in a perfect octave) - which is what you would have to do if the circle of fifths were actually a circle that started and ended on the same pitch (ignoring transpositions by octaves). If this sounds like fun, then just ask your piano tuner to tell you more about it, and your head will start to spin. And if the problems of tuning are baffling enough, wait until you hear about the various solutions humans have come up with to deal with them! I asked my piano tuner a question about equal temperament and we were off and running for half an hour. It was fantastic, I was very confused, and at the end he told me to read "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)" by Ross Duffin to get more background. So this is what I am doing, knowing full well I may possibly be more confused in the end, but maybe not, and at the least it will be fun along the way.
"The Jazz Piano Book" by Mark Levine is a thorough, well-written book filled with explanations, insights and examples. I have high hopes that it will help fill in some of the gaping holes in my knowledge, both theoretical and practical, in jazz piano. If you're already familiar with much of the basics of music theory and jazz, then this book is a pleasure to page through - with a keyboard nearby, preferably. It already made me happy when it confirmed my suspicions that sus chords are for people too lazy to go through a proper II-V progression. This is good stuff.
I know I said three books, so this fourth one is for extra credit, as I just now saw it lying nearby and can't resist including it. The book is "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns", by Nicolas Slonimsky. My friend Paul Hastil, jazz pianist extraordinaire, lent it to me partly just for the "wow-factor" (which I will get to) and partly because I am actually interested in poking through it. What does this book contain? Aside from a brief but interesting introduction covering some music history, the meat of this book is the reproduction of every way you might possibly imagine carving up a series of octaves to create a scale or mode. The "wow-factor" comes in when you turn page after page of staves blackened by scales named by a consistent but dazzling nomenclature system that ranges from the simple "Ultrapolation of One Note" and "Sesquitone Progression" to the slightly more complex "Inter-Infra-Ultrapolation" and "Quinquetone Progression: Equal Division of Five Octaves into Six Parts." In short, this book is more about combinatorics than music. Arnold Schoenberg is even quoted on the inside jacket: "I looked through your whole book and was very interested to find that you have in all probability organized every possible succession of tones. This is an admirable feat of mental gymnastics. But as a composer, I must believe in inspiration rather than in mechanics." Which sums it up nicely I think. Still, a great book to leave out so that when friends come over you can say, "Oh, that? That's just some light reading."