The Way Things Feel
Living in midtown Manhattan it sometimes seems as if it couldn't be possible to add any more people into the mix, any further noise, any further activity. And then for a few weeks in late August there is a marked decrease in the amount of people. Less traffic, less sound, less movement. While many folks choose this time to vacate the city I find it to be one of my very favorite times to be in town. A little more room to think and feel. And perhaps catch up on maintaining this blog.
I realize that the posts here have been coming less frequently as of late. Not sure entirely why that is except to realize that the intuitive mode of working often requires a degree of retrospection in order to articulate and make sense of what’s been done. Or perhaps it’s OK to simply admit that I have little to say for a particular length of time.
Writing about music tends towards intellectualization. Not that it can’t be done. Good writing is it’s own form of expression, not a substitute for experiencing the things it is describing. The direct experience of hearing music is by nature non-verbal (lyrics aside). So how is it processed, before the act of intellectualization? What does the music sound like? “Like” in this instance is a comparative word. Perhaps we can better ask, what does the music feel like? Feel is experiential, direct, even physical. If there is any theme or cohesion in this lengthy post, it may center around the issue of how things feel.
I turned fifty-five this year, and that feels good. This past summer has been a time to more deeply connect with family and friends while considering just what it means to make a life in music. In this culture, devoting ones life to music requires making a living at it, being able to do it as much as you can and to the highest degree you can. Certain sacrifices may be required. There can often be pressure to compromise our artistic goals as we figure out how to earn a living. And yet there is another potential compromise if in the pursuit of these goals we somehow miss out on too much of what life has to offer.
Having raised this issue, perhaps it’s best to start with a philosophical essay, inspired by some recent statements by one of the masters in this music.
Sonny Rollins did in interview recently with NPR which was titled “You Can’t Think and Play at the Same Time”. There was one quote in particular that got me to…thinking…
“The thing is this: When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don't want to overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time — believe me, I've tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast.”
That’s something I can strongly relate to, as I’m sure most of you can as well. By the time you calculate, or separate yourself for even an instant from the music you’ve lost your place. If we try and be too clever about intentionally putting this or that idea into action we may actually derail the process. Then he went on to say:
“I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that's when it's really happening.”
This is not an uncommon sentiment among musicians, especially improvisors. And while I understand what he’s saying, the way he says it draws my interest in a bit more deeply. At the risk of reading more into it than was intended there are some fundamental questions raised that are worth considering.
The first thing that caught my attention was the idea of “I’m not supposed to be playing” and that the music is coming "through" us. That seems to imply that the music comes from some other source. But if we’re not the source of the music, who or what is? As for “standing there with the horn, moving my fingers", if I disengage to the point that I am letting my fingers go on their own I will likely wind up playing rote, practiced ideas that may not relate very well to the music in the moment. Obviously Sonny Rollins does not have that problem so let’s look a little deeper.
If the music is coming “through” us perhaps we need to think about the words “me” and “music” in some other way. Let’s consider “me” in the context of “thinking”. It’s very easy to identify with our thoughts as being “me”. But clearly this can create problems. Thoughts change. And they may well get in the way of doing certain things. Playing music requires a sense of flow. So how do we turn our thoughts off when improvising? Simply by turning our attention towards how it feels to actually do the thing you’re doing, without distraction or personal commentary. If we entertain the possibility of losing ourselves in the music, then we won’t perceive any separation between ourselves and the music. Perhaps asking where the music is coming from is not the correct question.
What are we really talking about here? More than just playing the saxophone, we are also listening to the sounds being made around us, interacting with other musicians in real time. In order for a group of musicians to improvise a coherent and compositionally balanced piece of music there has to be enough overt connection and development of ideas between the members of the group to create a sense of continuity. And there has to be enough variety, initiation of new ideas and independence among the musicians to create contrast and keep things moving. This involves issues of intellect, organization and negotiation. And yet we leave all of this to our intuitive, non-verbal, non-thinking minds to accomplish. What could possibly go wrong?
If the participants each took too passive a role little music may actually take place. Too aggressive a stance and the players get ahead of the music. How to balance being pro-active and being responsive? I would suggest that by placing attention on the overall music and intuitively asking, “what does the music need right now” we remain engaged in the moment and ready to guide the music in any particular direction or achieve the proper balance at any particular time. Our intellect and years of training and study inform the process but the music is guided simply by the act of playing the music itself. Our attention stays on what we are doing at the moment we are doing it, no more no less.
You may have noticed that I left out “feeling” or “emotion” when discussing what is involved in playing music. I attended a chamber music concert earlier this year which was followed by a discussion with the composers and artists involved. Someone in the audience asked the vocalist about the role of emotion in the process of interpreting the music. The vocalist surprised me by bringing up the fact that if she were to become emotional during the performance it would physically interfere with her ability to sing. Even as I understood the obvious truth of that statement I didn’t want to fully accept it. I don’t like to think of music as being cold or cerebral. But of course that’s not an idea that she was endorsing. In some way this could be similar to the idea of ”thinking” as it interferes with the process, and yet intellect is still present. Emotion may also interfere with the process and yet feeling is still there. Intellect and feeling are accessed naturally in the act of “doing” music. To the point that we may even say that playing music is not “about” these things. If we want to be intellectual there are ways to be intellectual and if we want to be emotional there are ways to be emotional. And yet music involves both. Clear away notions of intellectualism and emotionalism, remove any baggage that we may potentially bring to the process and what is left? Only the music. And the music contains everything.
Swing as a Creative Act - Towson University Residency
I'm not an idiomatically “correct” player. When placed in any particular musical situation I'm usually predisposed to situate myself somewhat left of center, meaning that I understand the context I find myself in yet there is a desire to expand that context just a bit. And yes, there is a fine line between expanding the music and imposing one’s self on it. I’ll be honest, there have been times in which I’ve crossed that line. I’m tempted to point some of them out. But I won’t. So don’t ask.
Expanding the music simply means adding something, ones own voice. But what if you are consciously trying to recreate a music on idiomatic terms? There may well be a set of unwritten rules by which one is guided. Asserting one’s own voice may be problematic, raising the question of the appropriateness of such a notion in recreating a music that was new, say, eighty years ago. The problem is that we know too much. Too much history has taken place since then. So we have to edit the creative process to such an extent that it becomes questionable whether it’s still a creative process. If anything it’s a re-creative process, a different dynamic than the one that was in place at the time that music was first played.
If you listen long and hard enough to early jazz at some point you may get beyond the style and hear the creative process that was going on. And you may recognize that process with such familiarity that you think, “that sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. That sounds modern.” At least that’s what happened to me in the past few years. So the question then becomes, can that music be replicated? I’ve raised that question before but I haven’t closed the door on the possibility that it can be done.
It might be accomplished by simply dealing with the musical raw materials as such. If we understand the conceptual parameters of the music (as determined by the materials) we should be able to find creative choices within those parameters. But what of the fundamental relationship we, as individuals, have with the music? You may respect the music, even revere the music. You may in fact love the music. But do you love to play it? What does it mean to pick up an instrument and play from your own feelings of how it feels to be alive, no agenda, no function, in this moment. Letting go of everything else, obligations, requirements, the word “should”. No need to prove anything to anyone, particularly yourself. What would you play?
I won’t risk projecting any of that onto musicians from generations back. There were agendas, conventions, obligations, of course. But at certain times in history it seems that particular values come together, values of entertainment, art and personal expression, resulting in a music that speaks to it’s time and yet remains vital well beyond that time. To the degree that we perceive a form of honesty and directness in that music, a sense of pushing at the boundaries, a sense of expanding the music even as it’s being played, we hear musicians who were creating music, not recreating it. Is it safe to assume that they loved playing it because it was a personal expression as well as a collective expression geared to the realities of it’s time? If so, would we regard this as an essential ingredient in trying to play this music today, beyond the technical issues?
There are many musicians who play very well in these early styles yet I sometimes yearn for them to break the rules and go a little wild. But if I’m honest, I never have that feeling when I listen to the original recordings from years back. So maybe it’s not rule-breaking and mania that I’m missing. There are also many musicians playing this music from a less reverential stance. They sometimes surprise me with how much vitality there still is in this music when having some fun. But I often wind up feeling that these performances tend towards a degree of shallowness, lacking in a certain depth that is evident in the early recordings. So just what is the proper balance, the missing ingredient? Again, I’m not saying it can’t be done, just looking at the issues.
This past April I had a chance to experience firsthand how these issues can play out. I was invited to do a week long teaching residency at Towson University in Baltimore. When doing these types of workshops with students I'm often hired to bring a "creative" improvising ethic to the proceedings. I have no problem with that. It’s only natural given the music I make. But there is a troubling implication in making a distinction between creative improvising and jazz improvising. The former is often regarded as a personal expression while the later is often regarded in terms of style. This results in a tacit omission of certain essential musical elements in the stance of being "creative" or “modern”, namely swing. But swinging is one of the most creative acts we can manifest in our music. To simply regard it as a style diminishes it's power.
Addressing this issue head on there seemed no better place to start than to have the students play some early Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington compositions. I've been listening almost exclusively to early jazz for the last couple of years but that alone could not prepare me for what I was getting into. I had never done this before with a group of students. Thankfully much of the heavy lifting had been done by director Jim McFalls in preparation for my arrival. We knew this was not going to be a straight repertory project but we had to find the essentials of the music in order to find our own approach.
As I walked into the first rehearsal the band was already there and warming up. They had been working on the music for some weeks so I asked to hear something. I didn’t know quite what to expect (as there were a number of freshman students in the band) but was pleasantly surprised by how well they navigated the chart. There was one issue however that deserved immediate attention. The bass sounded muddy and indistinct. This affected the way the drummer played and by extension the way the entire band played. I figured the amplifier was turned up too high and suggested turning it all the way down then incrementally raising it until the proper level was reached. But as soon as the bassist turned off the amp and started playing time with the drums the difference was clear to everyone. They were swinging so hard I wanted to pick up my horn and join in. There was now a clarity to the sound and a sense of the proper weight on the proper part of the beat that was lacking just a moment ago. Now we had a foundation for the rhythmic feel, the essential quality of the music.
As a result each member of the ensemble was able to feel their own relationship to the time. And being able to hear every other person in the band allowed the ability to interact with various subsets of the group at any given time according to the orchestration. This became the entry point for making creative choices based upon the issue of “how does it feel”. As the rehearsals progressed we picked up on certain textures or events in the music that seemed to be viable points for further exploration, designing introductions, endings or insertions of improvised material. Some of the pieces we played more or less verbatim according to the scores, even replicating some of the solos as they were done on the original recordings. What’s so creative about that? Making that decision in and of itself. There were numerous choices available in the playing of these pieces, and most of them are not arrived at by looking at the music. How to phrase, how to articulate, issues of dynamics, blend, contrast, and of course how to make it all feel good. In deciding whether to open a piece up or play it straight the only obligation we had was to explore the inherent creative possibilities that the music offered.
We continued to rehearse using no bass amp nor any microphones at all, either on the piano or for any soloist. Playing completely acoustically cleared up many things but would it work in performance? The concert hall was rather large and some of the students had their doubts but I insisted we try it. We set up for one last rehearsal, this time in the performance hall and to my own surprise I could hear every instrument with no problem whatsoever all the way to the back of the hall. When this music was written there was little if any amplification used. That meant that composers and arrangers had to know how to orchestrate accordingly. This was like listening to chamber music, both subtle and powerful at the same time. The students got a first-hand lesson in the meaning of creativity beyond the issue of style. I and learned a bit more about just how this music works. The questions raised at the beginning of this essay remain open. But I take that as a positive sign.
As part of these residencies I’m also invited to present a concert of my own music. The natural choice in this case was to bring “Trio New York” to explore our version of free improvisation as it relates to the Great American Songbook. The lineup of the group (tenor saxophone, Hammond B3 and drums) also speaks to a time when Baltimore was a bonafide organ town. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey joined us for this engagement along with Gary Versace on the organ. It was very rewarding to deal with the very same issues that I had been working with the students on in lectures, rehearsals and private lessons that week.
As always, there is quite a lot of work involved in making something like this happen. Getting a proper Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker on a gig is sometimes a risky proposition. In this case however we were very fortunate in that one of Baltimore’s great organists, Dennis Fisher was in a position to provide an instrument for this event. I remember Dennis from many years ago as part of saxophonist Mickey Fields’ group. All of us young musicians would regularly go to clubs like the Birdcage to sit in. We got one education in school and we got another education on the streets of Baltimore from folks like Mickey Fields and Dennis Fisher. Thanks Dennis.
And kudos to Dave Ballou for building up a vital program at Towson University. Thanks to the Music and Arts department and thanks also to the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency for continuing support.
The Classical Saxophone
Another area of practice that has emerged in the last year involves investigation of the classical tradition of saxophone playing. As with early jazz, my interest is not based on style but rather on issues of sound. The manner of playing saxophone in classical music and in early jazz was not nearly as different in those early years as it is today. As to who borrowed from whom that’s an interesting question. Marcel Mule claims in an interview that he was the first saxophonist to introduce vibrato to the classical tradition, having been coaxed into it by a composer who had heard him playing in a jazz band. This composer wanted Mule to utilize that same vibrato as soloist in his symphony orchestra piece. Over time Mule employed it more consistently in his performances. Prior to that it is thought that classical saxophonists did not use vibrato.
I'm currently practicing a transcription of the Bach cello suites and in the process gaining insight into issues concerning the saxophone as well as issues concerning interpretation. As with improvising or playing jazz, there are choices to be made with respect to each note, each phrase. The choices are often different than the one’s I’d make in a jazz context but again, rather than be guided by notions of style I prefer to be guided by the process of figuring out how to make everything speak clearly and feel the best it can feel.
Saxophonists may be interested in the gear involved. I find that my Buescher Aristocrat tenor along with a Rascher mouthpiece and Vandoren reed make things much easier. As an experiment I sometimes try to play the Bach suites with a “jazz” mouthpiece. It becomes immediately evident how far we’ve gotten from certain tonal aspects of the instrument in the name of increased volume, power and brightness (increased high end) of sound. None of that is bad in and of itself but it is instructive.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m in the process of commissioning a chamber work in which I can utilize this kind of tonal pallet yet in a modern language. News of developments will be made as things move forward.
Different But the Same
“Different But the Same” European Tour Spring 2014
David Liebman - tenor saxophone
Ellery Eskelin - tenor saxophone
Tony Marino - bass
Jim Black - drums
I first met David Liebman in 1980 when he came to Baltimore to do a teaching workshop. When I moved to NYC a few years later I tracked him down for some lessons which over time led to informal jam sessions and occasionally hanging out. Over the years we have continued to keep in touch and in 2004 David proposed that we combine forces and start a two-tenor quartet. We call the group “Different But the Same”. The band has made three albums for the Swiss hatOLOGY label tours Europe regularly. Each member of the group contributes material to the book, which has grown considerably over time. One night on this most recent tour however, we got the idea to hit the stage without the book, improvising the entire set. Given the history of the band it proved none too difficult and the process opened up territory that we had not fully addressed in the past. We completed the entire tour in this fashion. Aware of the potential challenge to the listener (generally a continuous piece of music lasting nearly an hour) we focused on creating a vivid aural journey, providing a sense of structure that invites the audience in with us. Very direct playing and a very rewarding experience. As long as I have known David I have been impressed and inspired by his continuing thirst to learn and his capacity for artistic development. I never fail to learn something from playing with him, every time out.
The band does not often play in the states so it was a special treat for us to play the “New Music in Bryant Park” series this past August. This is a free concert series curated by Chamber Music America presenting a jazz group and a classical group on a double bill. The concerts take place outside in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. People walking through the park are able to stop and take in sounds they would not likely be exposed to otherwise. It was a terrific feeling to stand in the heart of the city playing what I’m sure to many sounded like some pretty weird music. Folks seemed to be listening intently but what did they make of it all? Did they understand the music? Personally I don’t think understanding has that much to do with it. But it was clear that they were feeling something. Their focus and attention demonstrated that. All in all a very gratifying experience. There should be more opportunities for musicians and the public to intersect like this.
Swing as a Physical Act - NYC
If you’ve been paying any attention to this blog over time you’ll know that I’ve been immersing myself in the listening of early jazz and finding all kinds of inspiration from the sound, emotional directness and above all the rhythm of this music. One night, somewhere in that strange middle ground between waking and half-way dozing off, losing myself in these sounds I began to hear the music in a different way, and it occurred to me that this was really dance music. Not that I didn’t already know that, but I felt it in a way that I had never felt before. It was if there was no other reason for this music to exist if not to swing and move people, and quite literally at that. I’ve always regretted that I never learned to dance. Seems not an uncommon situation among most musicians. After all, we’re always on the other side of the dance floor. So I got to thinking that if I were to be able to dance to this music I might learn something more about the essence of it. My wife loves to dance so I decided this year to take some lessons. Fortunately there are a good number of dance events in NYC during the summer both at Lincoln Center and on the Hudson River. But still, I’m embarrassingly awkward on the floor. But even though it’s tough at times I always come away feeling very good about having done it. In trying to figure out the reasons for this stereotype (that musicians can’t dance) I’ve come to sense that dancers seem to feel the beat in a different, perhaps looser way than musicians. There’s also the fact that musicians typically use smaller muscle groups and fine motor control for very precise movements while dancers use large muscle groups and in a much larger range of space. Given these larger movements it’s sometimes difficult to know exactly where certain movements originate, especially given my initial preoccupation with where my feet are at any given time. After some humbling experiences on the dance floor I decided that rather than worry about what I was learning in the lessons I should simply begin by connecting with the movements of my body in an improvisatory way (safely in the confines of my room). Not being afraid to look like a goof I was able to open up my physical awareness as a whole. Not worrying about where my feet go made it possible to concentrate on moving the core of my body. I soon realized the connection here to playing music. If all we do is concern ourselves with the rules we may never give ourselves the chance to explore our natural musical tendencies and idiosyncrasies. And without that, without feeling something, what are we doing? This has not immediately resulted in me becoming a good dancer but it’s essential if I’m going to get any better. And I’m also not sure that I’ll reconcile the different modes of hearing and feeling the beat but if nothing else it’s great fun.
Two New Projects
I’ve taken part in two new projects this year, both centering around a current musical trend of sorts, that of odd or mixed meters in jazz and improvised music. This area of the music has been developing steadily for some time and is now reaching a stage where an entire generation of young musicians is able to play fluidly in a rhythmic language that is quite complex while making it all sound and feel quite organic. The first of these projects is led by by pianist Marc Hannaford (from Melbourne, Australia). This past March I worked with Marc’s ensemble here in NYC for a week of rehearsals, a concert and recording session. The band includes trumpeter Scott Tinkler (also from Australia) as well as NYC based drummer Tom Rainey. The second project is led by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin (based in Paris, France). Jozef’s project took place in June with a week of rehearsals, a number of dates in Europe (including the Jazzdor Berlin Strasbourg Festival) and a recording session in Paris. Jozef plays Fender Rhodes piano and NYC based Dan Weiss is on drums. Both of these projects involved cultural grants. Given the state of finance for the arts in general (and jazz in particular) in the context of economic recession, politics and technology these grants are often an important part of the overall equation in getting projects off the ground.
Musically these new projects have been very stimulating and challenging. While my phrasing has developed along different lines (and is not particularly metrically based) I feel a strong kinship to the overall sound and feel of this kind of playing. Drummers Dan Weiss and Tom Rainey are able to make any kind of mixed meter or cross rhythm feel loose and relaxed while grooving intensely. It’s kind of amazing to think about how far we’ve come in this area in the past thirty or so years. The first measure of one of Marc’s compositions contains groupings of 5, 7, and 3 with irregular portions of note groupings tied across beats and the occasional quarter note triplet feel superimposed on top. As Tom said at the recording session, “when we were coming up we were just happy to play in 7/8!"
Both of these groups will be releasing CDs in the near future.
Nine Musicians, No Music - Sibelius Academy Workshop in Finland
This year I was invited to travel to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland to do an extended teaching workshop. This event, however, had a twist to it. I was to work directly with the faculty, no students involved. It’s an idea borrowed from a similar workshop in Denmark but it’s also in keeping with the idea of ongoing teacher training which is maintained throughout Finland’s school system. In discussions about the state of education in the US the educational system in Finland is often held up as a model for the rest of the world.
I was also invited to bring some of my own music with which to put together a concert from a group made up of the participating faculty members. There would be two other groups as well, one led by drummer Obed Calvaire and another by pianist Antonio Faraò. I explained that most of my music involved either pure improvisation or utilized compositions in which open improvisation plays a large role. Rather than try and adapt music to an ensemble I suggested putting together a program using no written music whatsoever. The idea was received enthusiastically.
On day one I entered the rehearsal room and was faced with eight musicians; vocalist, pianist, bassist, drummer, another drummer, guitarist, keyboardist, saxophonist. And myself. That makes nine. Thinking back to my original suggestion I was now faced with the issue of “where to start?”
First, in order to simply hear the sound of everyone playing together I asked for a five minute piece of improvised music. I gave no direction, wanting to be able to learn something about the group as they operated within uncertain parameters. Afterwards we discussed the sound and what it felt like to play. Various issues came up depending on the perspective and orientation of each musician. It was these very challenges that became the catalyst for creating structure and form over the coming days.
I then posed a question, “How do we know when a piece is finished? How to we recognize the ending?” I suggested that endings are not created but are achieved when the balance of elements is correct, requiring no further need of playing. By being ready for the ending to occur potentially from the the very first note we play we’re brought into and kept in the moment. There’s little or no time to think and analyze during this process but there are a couple of guiding principles that seem to help. Any time we might experience doubt as to what to do or second guess the value of what we’re doing simply listen harder to everyone else and ask yourself, “what does the music need” Then simply do that. It may require you to play or it may require you not to play. In either case you are actively engaged in what is going on.
We then improvised in trio configurations in order to get to know each other’s playing better and to be able to hear a little more clearly what was going on. In between each short piece we discussed what it felt like from each musician’s perspective. In this discussion we investigated the idea of independence, when to maintain one’s idea against the others and when to match ideas heard from others. As a practice device to develop our ability to better “hear” contrary forces within the group we started a series of overlapping trios, each maintaining it's idea while the other entered with its own idea. We discussed how to play and influence the music without necessarily signaling one another musically or visually. At a certain point I asked the participants to play with their eyes closed in order to see if we could all agree on the ending of a piece (which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean stopping together). In each case I asked with respect to the ending, ”did we get it right?"
Over time certain issues became clearly important to certain musicians. “Why does it have to be atonal?” asked one of the keyboardists. “Who said it had to be atonal?” I replied. “What about groove?” asked the guitarist. “Great question!” I said. The bassist brought up the difficulty of differentiating his sound (textures and ideas) from moment to moment in the midst of a large group. At this point I suggested that free improvisation not be thought of as a style and that the music could be inclusive of any musical devices that we were interested in trying out. We then began assembling a structure based upon some of the practice ideas that emerged involving internal groups within the larger group. We introduced tonality against atonality, groove against non-groove, soloists against small groups and so on. From this came a large structure piece that lasted about twenty minutes and which could have easily gone longer had we wished.
Sensing that members of the group may have had some remaining concerns or musical interests I went around the room and asked each person to suggest an idea for a short group improvisation about one thing and then instruct us in how to proceed. This proved to be a excellent way to find out what was really on people’s minds as they addressed issues that were personal to them that might not have come up in discussion.
After an evening’s relaxation (involving a very hot sauna and a very cold lake) we looked at things the following morning and decided on some clear strategies with which to create our improvisations on the next night’s concert. In the process of playing versions of these pieces we discovered that success or failure was determined by our ability to perceive the collective whole while we were each involved in smaller internal groupings which were sometimes in opposition to each other. There seemed to be a fine line between the exciting musical tension created between contrasting events and undifferentiated noise. Someone walked into the room when we were deep in the middle of two diametrically opposing grooves, each drummer self contained yet listening deeply to the other. Our visitor stopped in their tracks laughing. “What kind of groove was that?” he asked. He really wanted to know. It was then I knew we were on to something.
At the sound check I made sure to ask for the minimum required amplification. If everything were to go through the PA system it would be much harder to differentiate who is doing what. We needed to hear where sounds were coming from and balance our own sounds accordingly. It was a somewhat tricky proposition with this size ensemble but in the end the concert was a success. Why? Because the music felt good. I had advised the group to perform with an ear towards the greatest clarity, imagining what the music might sound like to a listener. Could we convey to the audience what we were doing? In the end that might not even matter. Whatever the intent or however created, music primarily communicates on the basis of feel.
I learned a great deal about how musical energy is translated from intent to result. And it was a real pleasure to work with a group of professionals who were open minded and willing to try and create something from nothing. Of course we weren’t working from nothing. In the end we learned just how much is there to work with in the moment once we begin to turn challenges into advantages. The moment contains everything.
This workshop also provided the opportunity to address the issues of learning jazz in an academic setting in an extended discussion with all of the teachers present. The issue of using the ear as the major tool (as opposed to reading) was the largest area of discussion.
My basic position is:
By using the ear as much as possible (rather than rely too heavily on the written page) we better internalize the material we are dealing with. This work is internalized experientially, not from a book. By doing the work ourselves we make discoveries. Even if these discoveries have been made before by others they become personal to you. This is a direct relationship with the music. The ear becomes strengthened to the point that we are more agile, spontaneous and creative in our playing.