I'm on the road somewhere between Montreal and Sault St. Marie. Well actually I know exactly where I am. I'm in Deep River Ontario and yet somehow I still don't really know where I am. Taking a little road trip this week to back up Dawn Tyler Watson with my friends Adrian Vedady and John Fraboni and we are stuck behind an emergency road closure on Hwy. 17. It troubles me to think that up ahead there is some kind of wreck that necessitated jamming up the highway since 6am...and that I'm driving on the same road! In moments like these I remember why I stopped touring and settled down with a little family in Montreal and luckily stumbled into some teaching work. Speaking of the family, disease and pestilence has prevented me from writing much this month. But now with a few hours to kill in the car (12 or so!) I though I'd go back to my installments on line writing and improvising.
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of taking a few lessons with NYC based pianist David Hazeltine. David is one of my favorite players for several reasons. First of all he is an example of a modern improviser who is deeply grounded in the jazz tradition. When he demonstrates a proficiency in one of several jazz piano bags (block chords, improvising lines, comping, touch on the instrument etc...) he is the "real deal". And yet I never feel when I'm listening to him that he is subjugating his musicality for "stylism". Musicians might know what I'm talking about here (especially since "stylism" isn't actually a word!) David is not concerned with showing-off his knowledge of the jazz tradition. I always get the sense that he is improvising and making music when he plays. Check out his records or better yet go see him on the bandstand and you'll be blown away by his honesty as an improviser.
This aspect of David became really apparent to me when I sat down with him in his Brooklyn studio and he demonstrated just how deep his understanding of the tradition really was. I explained to him that its sometimes just so tempting for me, after checking out a pianist all day (like playing my favorite Herbie solos...I dare anyone to hear "One Finger Snap" and not think its one of the greatest recorded solos Herbie ever made), not to go to the gig and try to do my "Herbie Impression". Its really hard because I really love that music but somehow its really not artistically honest. Sure impersonation is an important aspect of developing as a player but at a certain point it becomes a foray into what I call "stylism" when it begins to dominate your aesthetic judgements. A great stylist is always really impressive to an audience. Think of someone who is always trying to play "fast" like Oscar Peterson, or someone who is always trying to bang out loud 4ths in their left-hand like McCoy Tyner. In my own experience when I get into these states of mind I feel that I'm more or less scratching the surface of what I feel or want to express but its just a taste and not the full meal. The whole crux of the problem is how do we take our studying and love of the music, the tradition, and the players and use that knowledge to serve our needs for self-expression.
One of the things that David practiced involved a little more intuition and creativity than just rambling off licks and bits of solos. After having spent time studying the recordings of these great pianists he put all of the recordings and transcriptions aside and wrote some studies for himself that assimilated those sounds all together. These exercises are just as much a technique work out as they are way of developing a vocabulary for improvising. The great thing about playing these exercises is that after a while you can internalize a very personal rendering of the language of a great musician. I also found that the process of distilling the sounds of these musicians into a practice exercise also made me get away from spitting out licks in my solos. These little studies can really help develop an understanding of melody and time in a way that doesn't limit you to repeating anything from them in your own improvising. Enjoy!