Jazz gigs seldom turn out exactly as we expect them to. Since jazz is, by definition, an improvised art, this should come as no surprise. It’s a maze which often thrills, sometimes shatters, and continually amazes us.
Let’s say, for example, that you arrive at the gig late, stressed, un-showered, and unready to perform. It’s at this point that a fan drops a hundred dollar bill in the tip jar, Herbie Hancock asks to sit in, and your first solo provokes a standing ovation. In your dreams, right?
The nature of jazz will, at times, lead to the unexpected, to exciting innovation, to surprise, to joyful discovery. …Occasionally, it leads nowhere. After all, life’s mazes do include blind alleys. Just the same, we “press on regardless” (as my father often preached on rainy hikes), in search of the perfect note, aye?
Back in the not so good old daze of youthful exuberance, a few clams could easily shatter my confidence and derail the whole performance. These days, a half dozen beautiful notes add up to a great evening.
Countless anecdotal sagas throughout jazz history tell of unplanned miraculous innovation spontaneously erupting on the bandstand. While some legends are born of bluster and fabrication, many are meticulously documented. Any seasoned artist has repeatedly marveled and rejoiced at their unanticipated advent.
Here’s a simple unremarkable example of personal surprise experienced first hand: I began playing the horn last night without any expectation, with only one paltry idea in hand. It was a twelve-tone row I composed 40 years ago. It goes like this:
As I began playing it and messing around with it, the row inevitably started to morph into other streams, other ideas. Does that tendency indicate restless inquisitiveness or merely a lack of discipline? Either way, for better or for worse, it causes me to constantly change lanes throughout the musical journey.
By the end of the session, that little row had mutated into this phrase, which I practiced in all twelve keys:
If you want to try out this phrase in all twelve keys, a chart and recording are provided at the end of this post.
Do you improvise or compose like this, restlessly exploring the outer limits of your imagination? If so, please share your experience in the comments section below. Some would refer to it as “iterative experimentation,” while others chide us, accusing us of “haphazard meandering.” If this is the way you work, you will soon begin to discover that you tend to prefer certain paths rather than others. These preferences of yours are roughly analogous to your unique choices of certain foods, clothing styles, verbal expressions, friends you gravitate toward, and favorite activities. Those proclivities help define your unique personality, help to make you who you are, an individual, one-of-a-kind, a treasure.
In my case, these are some things I prefer in music I listen to or create:
- I generally prefer rhythmic vitality, variety, swing, funkiness, and syncopation, rather than static rhythms. However, rhythmic patterns should not be so arbitrary, jerky, or non-repetitive that they become random, like darts thrown at a board or paint dribbled on a tarp. If there is too much variety, then unity and coherence are lost. That tendency creates music which is difficult to perform and jarring to the listener.
- I take care to avoid repeating the same pitch on the same strong beat, as this becomes monotonous. (A notable exception to this rule would be the conscious, intentional repetition found in pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” in which repetition creates the desired emphasis, drama, word painting, or humor.)
- I prefer a winsome melodic contour with peaks and valleys, smooth rather than jagged.
- During the iterative process, my harmonies tend to evolve toward simpler, less atonal, more logical progressions. Visualize a sculptor chipping away at a stone or sanding a board until a shiny, smooth surface emerges. Of course, the creative process generally begins with a bit of helter-skelter “brainstorming,” in which streams of consciousness are encouraged. But the ensuing editing process narrows down all these random flights of fancy into a more organized architecture. So a composition initially cluttered by many off-the-wall non-related chords is transformed into a finished work free of “gnarly edges,” (chords that feel out of place). This gives improvisors a set of chord changes they can easily navigate to create beautiful melodies, rather than those jerky non sequiturs you hear in solos over disjunct, “outside” changes.
So what are your preferences? Are there consistent trends in your style, or is your music all over the map? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. If you have not yet determined the nature of your own personal aesthetic criteria, now may be a good time to start. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you ain’t got no destination in mind, any old road ‘ll take you there.”