Saturday, December 21, 2013
People talk about jazz being a language, and learning it is similar to learning, let’s say, French. It’s important to listen to how others speak, how they phrase their sentences, where they put their accents, so that when you try to converse, you don’t sound as silly as Inspector Clouseau, (“Did you say ‘meen-key?’) And it’s not just about pronouncing things correctly. A big component of learning to speak a language is learning how to listen, and respond wisely, thoughtfully and, when you’ve really got it down – cleverly.
Let’s compare this concept to the conversation between two people on a blind date. They met on match-com or some such site. The guy has been rehearsing all week what he is going to talk about. He has one phrase worked up that will definitely wow his new friend and maybe help take things to a deeper level. So as the two are talking, the guy is trying to gently manipulate the conversation so that he can work in his impressive sentence. But the woman won’t stop talking about her cats. The guy just can’t wait any longer, so he finally blurts out:
“WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, I WAS ON THE DIVING TEAM, AND I SAVED SOMEONE’S LIFE.”
Good date or bad date? Well, sorry, game over. The evening ends early, and the woman tells her friends, “He was such a jerk, all he talked about was himself. He didn’t hear a word I said.”
Generally, in conversation, we are able to be so flexible, because we are comfortable with the language. When someone throws in an unexpected line or phrase or pun, we can fairly quickly switch gears and respond in a way that makes sense.
Thankfully, in jazz, we are not booted off the stage for playing a well-rehearsed phrase at the “wrong time” in our solos. In fact, the thoughtful and generous musicians I play with have such incredible listening skills, they can take any “new ideas” in my playing and make them seem right. Maybe I will try out a little riff of four notes, and think that, ugh, that didn’t work, I meant to play a B instead of an A on the last note. But the person next to me responds by acknowledging the A, repeating the A, testing the A, and helping me feel like the A was actually interesting. He’s saying “ooh, let me try and see what I can do with that” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way, I see what you mean.”
Probably one of my favorite performance moments this year was at the Chatterbox Jazz Club in October. Playing with the incredible Sandy Williams on guitar, Fred Withrow on bass and Gene Markiewicz on drums. At one point during the soloing, Sandy stopped playing, and asked Gene to stop, which allowed Fred and I some space and freedom in our improvising. Sandy spontaneously yelled out “Yeah, Becky!” during a moment that I was being very experimental. When he started playing again, he responded by repeating and toying around with some of my ideas and of course making them sound brilliant.
When I wrote these thoughts down a few months ago, I couldn't come up with a conclusion...