Saturday, July 31, 2010

In defense of imperfection


I have had my share of ups and downs in the music business . In terms of finding employment as a pianist/keyboard player , this year has been a bad one . It's hard to pinpoint the reason why . The economy maybe ? An oversupply of great players in town ? Those 2 things certainly are a factor . It's not really the " New York thing to do " to let people know that you are having a rough patch . People I meet here always seem to me to be overenthusiastic about their own lives and careers . There is a tendency to try and hide your own flaws here . Imperfection is frowned upon .

Things had changed drastically enough that I got to asking some of my colleagues for a reason why . Perhaps there was something I could change about my personality , playing or way of thinking that might help things . I got a variety of responses . No-one said I was an arse-hole which surprised me . A few people mentioned my "stylistic differences" with their preferred method of expression . Fair enough . Some people even went as far as telling me I should leave town . That didn't surprise me either . A few others mentioned a perception amongst them and others that I have hired that my gigs and CDs weren't " perfect enough " . They didn't think the idea of a "workshop" happening on the bandstand or in the recording studio was good for my career . I have certainly been guilty of that on more than one occasion .

I think back to my time as a youngster learning classical music which was my first experience playing music . I was the guy who invented my own harmonies during the choir rehearsals and sang them . I used to improvise vocal harmonies to all my favorite pop albums too . Playing the violin , I was always the guy in the orchestra who embellished my own parts . Once someone showed me the blues scale , the last bar of a Bach piano invention always involved a crass bluesy cadenza . At that point in my life I didn't really know anything about jazz but eventually found out a bit about it and learned it was improvised which was pretty impressive .

Australia was a little isolated then before the internet etc and it I was about 21 before I discovered my favorite improvisers who changed my life . Same as most people my age ... Herbie Hancock , Miles Davis , John Coltrane , Allan Holdsworth and Keith Jarrett ( especially " facing you " ) . During my time at jazz school ( 1992,1993) and shortly after I dissected and studied the music that those folks had recorded in depth . I read their writings too trying to figure out how they did it .

What I loved about Miles' bands in particular was the sense that it was very fresh and that anything could happen at any moment . I studied recordings of Miles classic quintet and realised to my surprise that musicans got lost . On some of my favorite CDs of that band it sounds as if they are playing the music for the first time in the recording studio . I remember being impressed by Miles talking about the importance of the band NOT knowing the music too well before it is recorded .

I got deeply into Allan Holdsworth at one point and was trying to figure out how he managed to conceive some of his rhythms in his solos. I asked Chad Wackerman if he thought Allan had used a computer or worked on unusual sub-divisions of the beat at great length . Chad's response was " I don't think so ... Allan is not that sort of guy he just FEELS it I think .

I also loved the "swing" element of jazz . I loved it enough to come to New York to try and figure out how it was done . The thing about swing that is so powerful to me is that it is INEXACT . My favorite groovy piano trios like Herbie , Kenny Kirkland or Wynton Kelly had "that special something " rhythmically that is certainly beyond notation , and a lot to do with interacting with your fellow musicians on the spot I think .

All of those lessons seem to go against the idea of "perfection" in improvising . To me the 2 things shouldn't possibly be able to co-exist . I try and improvise from the basic standpoint of "inspiration" . "Groove" , " the zone " , " inspiration " , "god" ... all those things to me talk about an intangible thing that happens "in the moment" I believe . For me to try and improvise without inspiration would make the whole thing pointless . I wouldn't know what to play . I am someone who at times writes a tune everyday . The act of composing is not different to improvising for me . It takes longer but .. I get " in the zone" and write down what I am inspired to write . It often seems pointless to try and improve a composition further the next day ... Should I come back next week and rewrite this blog ? ? Sometimes at a gig or in the recording studio the most inspiring thing for me to play I wrote the day before . That can be frustrating to my bandmates . The results can be mixed but sometimes the "vibe" is there more than for any other pieces . I think that is what Miles was talking about .

I know it's not the 60's any more . LSD is a thing of the past for most people . I think that that is probably a good thing . Doing a gig is different to "improvising" with your brain using a cocktail of chemicals . I don't know anyone personally who wen't insane after losing the form at Smalls . I don't like to go back to the past and listen to old CDs over and over . I like to know what is happening now . As best I can I try and listen to the new jazz music and get out and hear it which is the best thing about living in New York . Being able to hear great players often is the best reason NOT to leave town . On a great night I still hear music here that is as good as any ever recorded no doubt . On a bad day however , sometimes the music here sounds too "perfect" to me . I miss the looseness .. the "swing" if you will of my favorite old CDs . Sure the "level" of playing is as good as it ever was .. but sometimes it can be a bit like watching paint dry . I like to hear people try and play things that are beyond them or that they don't even know what it is . I remember Miles saying " I pay you to practice on the bandstand" .

If someone calls me to play their music I am usually more conservative than on my own gigs . Often in New York these days the band has never played before and we are all trying to perform difficult music with one rehearsal . Under those conditions it can be stressful for everyone if someone is getting lost or messing up the music . I try and keep things together then , but when I get to be the bandleader I like to give "inspiration" the front seat . I would hate to think that " I pay to to practice on the bandstand" will end up being " I will give you $50 to NAIL this piece of music ...