Rhythm is supreme
If I were asked, …’what is the most important element of music?’, I would answer, …’rhythm’. For actually, you cannot have melody without rhythm. In order of importance, first comes the rhythm or phrasing, second comes melody, third the harmony.
I believe there are some artist’s like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, who don’t have the most perfect singing voices, yet are so popular. I believe the key to their popularity is their phrasing, or, the way Miles put it, the space between the notes. That is what defines rhythm, the space between the notes. Sometimes the most important thing is not what note to sing, but when to sing it. Have you ever heard someone with a trained voice that cannot sing in time, or who’s phrasing is stilted? I have. No matter how good the quality of their voice is, they won’t be nice to listen to if they can’t phrase well.
Good phrasing is an important thing for a musician to be aware of, yet it’s one of the hardest things to teach. In that way it’s similar to the concept of swing. Swing’s a bit hard to describe but easy to feel. Good phrasing is a characteristic which has nothing to do with speed or technique. Take for example a comparison of McCoy Tyner and Grant Green. One plays many notes and the other tends to play few notes, yet both have great phrasing and feeling (check out Green’s album ‘ Matador’ with Tyner on piano).
Technique and speed are easy to explain and practice, it’s simply an matter of repetition.
It’s more than the notes
I once heard a drummer complain about Elvin Jones being sloppy. I think that’s a pointless comment. Even if he were sloppy, who cares if he can swing and play like that? Drum machines are not sloppy at all but I won’t enjoy listening to one for long! I have an album featuring Jim Hall and Art Farmer playing with Steve Gadd on drums. While Steve doesn’t play any ‘mistakes’, his precise style doesn’t swing enough to adequately accompany Hall and Farmer. John Williams plays amazingly perfect guitar, but when it comes to the very romantic Spanish styles, I prefer someone who interprets the music more slowly, rubato, and less machine like. Similarly there are a lot of guitar players who play rock and blues very well but I don’t care for their ‘straight ahead’ jazz playing, even though they know well what scales and notes to play. To me for example, Mike Stern sounds better when he’s playing rock or fusion than when he plays a standard like Stella by Starlight. Hendrix played out of tune and sloppy at times, but I still love the expressiveness of his playing. Who else could get the guitar to speak like that? Grant Green plays very few notes and simple blues motifs, but I love his feel and innate sense of rhythm.
Music is not an exact science (even science is not an exact science!), and it’s better to play ‘ feelingly’ than ‘perfectly’.
Art or craft?
I feel there is a subtle distinction between an artist and a craftsman. A craftsman can be impressive, dazzling one with technique honed through many hours of practice. They can copy an artist’s style so well that it’s difficult to tell the difference between the original artist and the one who copies. One can easily respect the craftsman for their patience and hard, hard work. Most artist’s, indeed, would not choose to do what the craftsman does. But a craftsman cannot do what the creative artist does. An artist blazes their own path, usually in the face of opposition. Take Miles Davis early in his career, surrounded by Bird, Diz, and Fats, all players who could play higher and faster than him. But instead of trying to copy them he developed his own unique style. And when Coltrane came on the scene many criticized him for his ‘raw’, grating sound. Once the reigning sax player of the day heard Charlie Parker play tenor, and was quoted as saying a tenor should not be played that fast. Their detractors were many! But eventually all these musicians forged new ground and became famous for the very thing they were criticized for. That’s because true artist’s are always ‘ahead of their time’, and it can take years for the audience at large to recognize their genius. In fact, sometimes the artist is dead before they get the recognition they deserve. How many of our great classical composers died penniless and un-appreciated because they had forged new ground?
To be a craftsman, one must copy. To be an artist, one must create.
Open your ears
When I was into rock music like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, I was given some different records to listen to, like Genesis and Yes. The new music didn’t appeal to me at first. It took some listening time before I liked the new records. The first time I listened to Brahms Violin Concerto, I couldn’t get into it, but I kept listening and now it’s one of my favorites. This has helped teach me an important lesson. If you patiently listen to any good music, putting your judgement aside, you will learn to appreciate it. Humans are creatures of habit. What we think is good or bad depends on what we’re used to. Our ears are bombarded daily by computer generated ‘muzak’, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Giving a Bela Bartok record to the average person is like giving a great literary novel to someone who’s spent their whole life reading trashy romance written by formula to sell, sell, sell. They won’t have the patience for anything really good, because they’re not used to it. But that problem can be overcome through exposure. In order to really appreciate good music you have to listen often, and patiently.
In and out
I personally feel that one can play ‘free’ only after they can play ‘inside’. I believe it’s vital to understand and assimilate what came before us. So, when it comes to avant-garde styles, I tend to prefer those who arrived at that style through years of development, like Trane and Miles, as opposed to those who pick up an instrument and play whatever they feel without studying some of what came before them. Sometimes the evolution to ‘freer’ forms of improvisation is quite natural. This is because as we become exposed to more music our ears become more ‘open’. Our definition of dissonance broadens. What was dissonant years ago is now melodious, what seemed a-rhythmic then, now makes sense. If you love music, the music will draw you in and you will find yourself being challenged. You will seek new sounds and new expressions. What is ‘in’ or ‘out’ is a matter of perception and training (though we are well reminded that …’It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’…)!
Can’t please everybody all the time …
change, change, change…
One quality of a great artist is that they keep changing. Over the course of their life and art, they have different periods, and they are are forever moving ahead and trying new things. There are many examples of this in the painters like Picasso, who actually had periods named after him. I visited the Salvador Dali museum in Florida and discovered that he began by copying the former masters like Van Gogh, and did exquisite miniatures in realistic detail before he advanced to the more unconventional surrealism which made him a household name. Similarly, players like Miles and Coltrane were always creating new forms, seeking new ways to express themselves, though they also had strong foundation in the the rudiments. Like the painter Dali, they began by copying the earlier masters, then went ahead and blazed their own trail. When Miles went ‘electric’, he left many of his fans behind, and the same with Coltrane when he went ‘free’. True artists’ march to the beat of a different drummer, and one cannot hold them back or limit them by imposing one’s own judgement. The fact is that if they are great, they will keep moving forward despite what others think, and it will take time for those ‘left behind’ so to speak, to catch up and recognize their genius.
Much to the frustration of some artists’, marketing executives in record companies will try and neatly categorized music styles to fit into their marketing molds. By naming something, you limit it, and true Art is limitless.
The real pro’s
It’s interesting to hear McCoy Tyner’s playing on the album the Coltrane Quartet did with singer Johnny Hartman, and compare it with the playing from the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions done about the same time. Can you recognize it’s the same piano player? Make the same comparison with Elvin Jonesa playing on those two sessions. Some people think of him as always playing loudly, but can you hear what a great player he is with brushes only? That’s the mark of a great artist, the ability to adapt appropriately to different musical environments, while maintaining integrity and identity. While usually we all have our speciality, sometimes there are players like McCoy and Elvin who can do everything well!
Sitting In, the emotional element
I believe a person dedicated to music loves to play, no matter what. I believe in jamming, rehearsing, sitting in, anything as long as it’s playing. I’ve moved around a lot in my life. Each time I move to a new place I would try and find out where people were playing jazz. I’d go there, listen, and try to sit in with the band if they would let me. Sometimes I’d end up going to sit in with the same band almost every night, playing for free. Here in Singapore I was out of work for 6 months, but I played with two local bands for free just to be able to play some in public. I encourage sitting in on my own gig now. In the old days this was how younger players learned from the masters, on the bandstand. Now there are plenty of other educational programs available, but nothing can replace going onstage to sit in with strangers, playing in front of strangers.
People forget that there’s another element to performing which traditional practicing doesn’t address. That’s the human emotional element, getting nervous, getting jealous, getting distracted. You can practice it perfectly at home, but onstage become nervous or distracted and forget everything. And of course as much as I support the use of play along tapes, playing with real people is better. Each band and rhythm section will treat the song and harmony differently, which means the person sitting in has to learn to hear and adjust to what the band is doing if he wants to fit in and sound good. Difficult to practice that at home.
Since I’ve been in Asia I discovered that people here don’t sit in so readily even if they have the opportunity. Generally speaking making money seems to be the most important thing, so some don’t like to play unless they’re paid. Then shyness is another reason people don’t sit in so readily here. Before I had the opportunity to work this regularly, I really missed the jam sessions I used to have in the States. Players would think nothing of driving for an hour just to get together to play informally, even though there was no specific gig to rehearse for. The thing is, you improve at what you do the most of. If you want to be a better player, play as much as possible, even if it’s for free.
Usually, even though they may be versatile, there is one particular style most players really excel at. So far for me, that style is mainstream jazz, improvising lines on standard changes at a medium swing tempo, in a trio setting. While my playing direction may change in the future, I’ll always be comfortable in that idiom.
Someone asked me recently why didn’t I play pop-rock even though I like some of it and could make more money. The reason is, that I’d be bored with the music. It was the enhanced harmonic possibilities of jazz which first attracted me. Jazz is more challenging, and rewarding for my mind, if not my pocketbook.
I hope my music makes you think, draws you in, even challenging you occasionally. But I do appreciate music which induces a relaxed mood in the listener, and this has been said of my music. I hope there is a subtleness to my playing which gives the listener the option of listening closely or just relaxing, allowing the music to help create or change a mood. This kind of playing is different from the kind of music which hits you over the head or is ‘in your face’ so to speak. Perhaps it can be compared to a conversation. If someone is speaking slowly and calmly they stand a better chance of being listened to than if they are preaching or screaming in order to prove their point.
I believe if one does listen closely to my music, they will find it has a lot of depth and sophistication to offer.
My most important view
In the end, no matter what your opinions and preferences are, there’s room for everybody! So it’s best to put judgement aside and appreciate the diversity and abundance of this world. Have fun with music! It needn’t be so serious.
If you are a parent and your child wants to play an instrument, please don’t give him the idea that he must be great or it’s not worth it. Try not to discourage or set unreasonable expectations. If he is meant to play it will come naturally, and if not, let him at least have fun with music so he learns to appreciate it.
If you are a corporate executive and want to play guitar for fun, don’t let the fact that you’ll never be a professional stop you from trying. (I’ve met plenty of those!) The fact is, music is for everybody and anyone can do it! It’s not true that some people have it and some don’t. We all have It, but of course we’re not all meant to be professionals. That means, for some of us, it’s quite all right to play or sing solely for fun, without judgement.
Music, like all of God’s gifts, is to be enjoyed and shared by all. It is not separate from life, it is life.