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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are there mistakes in Jazz?

Recently I was having a discussion with a younger bassist about a gig we played a few months ago. I was focusing primarily on my enjoyment of playing music that night. Just to update those of you reading this blog I have 2 young children and a demanding day gig teaching at McGill University and Vanier College. Needless to say I feel like someone who is always making the food but rarely gets to taste it if you catch my drift. A good day for me is when I can get even an minimal amount of practicing in before I need to clean up, give baths, read bedtime stories. All the stuff I really love to do as a parent. Anyway my young bassist friend was focusing the conversation primarily on the mistakes. And in particular those instances where I played certain chord changes that were unfamiliar to him and there were moments that clashed between the chord I was playing and the bass note. These sorts of things often crop up in inter-generational moments like when a younger musician is playing a standard with an older musician. They often just know different chord progressions to the tunes because they've had different teachers for the music.

For example several of the standards I know I learned from recordings of Miles Davis and in particular the 60's quintet with one of my big heros Herbie Hancock. For sure as a student I would always be looking for places to put my favorite Herbie-isms. Here is one that I always wanted to do on "All of You" by Cole Porter. Check out the decending dominant sus chords in measures 13-16 of the form:



I'm sure if you're a jazz pianist this passage absolutely makes your eyes water with envy for Herbie's moment of superlative slickness. Well the whole solo is just about as great a herbie solo as it comes. It was even transcribed by Bill Dobbins in his seminal publication of Herbie Hancock solos published by Advance Music.(Just as an aside: a couple of years back I bought the box set "Miles Davis: Seven Steps to Heaven" and found to my utter amazement that the Herbies solos from these live concerts with the band that included George Colleman were heavily edited to remove entire choruses. When I heard these missing choruses put back into the solos it was like going to going to sleep and waking up in some kind of paralell universe like Bizzarro jazz world in the DC comics if that ever were to have been imagined. The previous Youtube clip plays the recording with the solo restored and not what was on the original cd)

Ok so I got the chance to play with Dave Young, veteran Toronto bassist, a number of years back and here's what those bars sounded like:



In Burrell's  version this passage is:

EbMaj7 (Db7) Gmin7(b5) C7(b9) Fmin7 Bb7

which more closely resembles the original changes to the tune as opposed to the Miles/Herbie chords which are:

Eb7sus D7sus Db7sus C7sus B7 EMaj7

In jazz it is quite common for different musicians to play the same tune with even far greater differences than these and make them work. In my opinion the question is not whether or not these differences constitute "mistakes" when played together but rather the question is how do these players play what amounts to unrehearsed repertoire and make it sound so "right". The first question is phrased in the negative, glass-half-empty approach (which I find a surprising number of musicians are willing to take) and the second question is phrased in a positive, glass-half-full, how-do-we-make-this-thing-work approach.

I suppose the analogy I often use for my students is when we hang with our friends socially. In this context we are constantly using language to express and riff off completely unrehearsed ideas. Someone brings up a concert they recently attended, an episode of "Curb your enthusiasm" (nerd!), gossip about a gig they were on. All of these "ideas" existed internally as emotions and concepts that needed a language for them to be expressed. These ideas also needed an audience or an interactive human outlet for them to be "performed". During their performance they grow to include influences from the subtle emotional subtext of the "hang". Things like the vibe in the room which is often humourous. Or maybe the subtext involes an inter-generational vibe like when we're with family. The point is that there is so much that goes into the expression of ideas through language.

The only mistake we can make in these situations is to not be completely present. Humans are just naturally sensitive to each other but we sometimes do things that get in the way. We feel insecure about ourselves and so we start an internal negative dialogue that has nothing to do with anything external. We use drugs that dull our minds. Music only sounds wrong when this sensitive exchange between people isn't happening. Yes understanding of language is a very important part and so is the quality of our ideas (typically you don't hang out with your friends to bore them with mundane ideas) but so is an attitude of open mindedness and a willingness to listen and respond honestly to one another. Possibly THE greatest thing about jazz and improvisation is that it rellies on conventions and languages that are the best at representing the subtlety of complex human interaction. The only time it sounds bad (not Shaft bad but yucky bad) is when that interplay isn't there. All the right notes in the world won't change a band that isn't happening!

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