Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Got to be Free

I've read a bit of somewhat negative commentary lately on the nature of jazz and whether it’s relevant or even worthwhile today. Nothing new there. I think most music genres are difficult to truly sort out, and jazz is especially so, in part because so many people who don't understand it attempt to explain it nonetheless. Like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, the result can be a nonsensical jumble.

Personally, I would rather play jazz than any other music style. It's not because I'm particularly good at it, or that I necessarily enjoy it more. To be honest, some of my most memorable and rewarding playing moments have been laying into a deep country groove (and some of my worst moments have been while attempting to play jazz). There's nothing quite like locking in with a solid groove. But though it may feel great, there's often not a lot of room for branching out. Perhaps that's why it's called locking in: you're locked in!

So maybe there's nothing truly new in jazz -- nor in most art forms. The great strides and discoveries were made long ago, and about all we can look forward to now is 'creative repackaging'.

Does that mean that jazz is repetitious and boring? Far from it. Yes, it's all been done before, but with that rhythm? With that feeling? With that instrument? In that time signature? The various parts, though already well explored, can still go together to create something novel, possibly even new.

When I look hard at what I love about jazz, I'm left with three things. The first is improvisation: the cornerstone of jazz. And what is improvisation but permission to do whatever the heck you feel like doing. So the primary attraction is freedom. When playing jazz, I'm answerable to no one. I can do what I think and feel is right for the music and for me in that moment. I can't think of any other situation where I have that kind of freedom.

The second factor is the challenge, and jazz is very challenging. I think all music can be challenging (I also think we should always look for the challenge therein) but with jazz, becoming even a passable player is a tall order. To me, the biggest challenge -- and biggest thrill -- is to constantly improve technically and musically, and with ever greater empathy for the music and musicians.

Finally, there is joy, and I see it in the faces and body movements of just about every jazz musician. We love this stuff … it really is the best kind of high. Plus it's legal, non-fattening and sometimes it even pays the rent.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Let a Few Go By

I love seeing drummers with a ‘unique’ sense of musical taste. They can also be a great source of both good and bad examples. This time I'm thinking about a very energetic fellow who nailed all the shots, all the patterns, every time, in every tune. It was very impressive. It was also rather busy and a bit tiresome. As a result, none of the musical figures were allowed to stand on their own or to rise above the drums because there were no holes, no spaces, and thus, no intrigue. 

An important part of our job is to help define, support, punctuate, and otherwise draw attention to musical figures. This can be done in a variety of ways, only one of which is to play the entire figure. Most drummers will instead opt to play a sub-set of the figure, possibly highlighting the accented parts. It’s also OK to ignore them completely.

Space is a very important musical concept. Space is what keeps everything from happening at once, and without space, music can become a monotonous blur. There are some styles where hitting all the shots works, but even in the most extreme cases, there should still be space for contrast.

Admittedly, it's tempting to fill all the holes, and no musician is immune to the urge. Sometime this is the ideal thing to do, but overdo it and the music will sound more like a drum feature (or vocal or guitar feature).

Of course, being able to play all the figures is quite an accomplishment. It takes a lot of work to memorize and co-ordinate all that stuff. So it's no wonder that we'd want to show it off a bit. OK, point taken. But I still would prefer a more sparse approach.

So trim back the figures and let a few go by. You may even like the result.