Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Jazz Acquaintance

A rare sighting of the behatted b. watson saxophonii
I've played a fair amount of jazz this summer. While nothing particularly groundbreaking, I've had seven jazz gigs that actually paid money (in addition to one or two free ones). The amount of money is not great for the time involved -- none of them have paid over $60, and all of them are over three hours of play time -- but it's a personal milestone. Take that, minimum wage!

At its core, jazz is improvisation. A particular jazz song provides a loose framework of chords that are called the progression, and there's a melody associated with that progression. Some people write new melodies for already-used progressions, and half the fun of listening to soloists is when they bring melodies from other songs to a place they don't belong. My relationship to jazz, even as a performer who sits inside of bands and actually plays jazz, is mostly as a spectator.

The reason why I feel a disconnect from jazz as an art form is that same reason that makes jazz unique: the improvisation.

I don't improvise. In fact, I can't improvise. I've studied it, I've tried it, I understand the concept.

But the only thing that study has created is a better appreciation for the people who can do it -- the process has imbued me with no skill beyond the level of "none."

Luckily, I happen to play the one instrument in a jazz band that has improvisation as an optional add-on: the bass trombone. Nobody ever expects the bass trombone to improvise. When a new tune is being called and the solo spots are being apportioned, it is very rare to see a bass trombone throw their hat in. At best, the leader will look to me just as a novelty -- "I haven't asked you this decade." -- and at worst, it's basically a good-natured joke -- "Oh, come on. I bet you've got great ideas about how to play loud and low."

And that's all fine with me. Jazz done poorly is not particularly listenable. And out of band of seventeen people, the other sixteen all improvise. Because they have to. At any given moment, they may be presented a solo slot. And that's fine, because they entered into the jazz contract knowing (and perhaps even loving) that their chance to shine would one day come.

I've played in jazz bands off and on since my high school days, but I wouldn't say I'm particularly adept at jazz. It comes easier to me than some other people, but probably just because I had the advantage of failing earlier when everyone else was also failing. I got a bit of that failure out of my system.

My first bass trombone teacher had been on tour with Buddy Rich in the 80s, something that I always think about whenever a Buddy Rich tune is called. I had four years in Chicago learning from a master jazz educator. And then I had a lot of time off.

But coming to KC brought jazz back in, mostly because it's everywhere. Even being a substitute with the symphony here has provided me with several opportunities for "the jazz." But I would never consider myself anything more than a very advanced and capable placeholder in the jazz idiom.

*** *** ***

And so it is with a certain detachment that I participate in jazz. Much of what happens in the course of a single jazz piece (which can be anywhere from four minutes to twenty, depending on what's happening) doesn't involve me. Leaving the improvisation to more experienced souls, my responsibility is playing the printed music.

When there is music to be played, that is. Duke Ellington performed with only three trombones, so when I had the chance to play in a band that was doing historical editions of his music -- with the names of the original players included in the header of every part -- my music said "Trombone 4 - Optional."

And while I sit there during the rest of the tune, I get to watch jazz unfold. And this is my true joy concerning jazz. Listening to jazz while watching the performers is experiencing a conversation.

During a solo, the rhythm section (drums, bass, piano/guitar) is chugging along, keeping time and the chordal framework. That framework is usually the chords that fit under the composed melody. So often the melody and an improvised solo could be layered on each other without too much collision (it would definitely be busy). This shared structure means that a good thing to include in the solo are fragments of melody. And if you can get into or out of those fragments creatively, you can create surprise and expectation, and then create more interest by fulfilling or subverting the expectations.

Individual players have good nights and bad nights. They have good and bad solos even within a single night. Any component that is inferior can start to unravel the groove. If the drummer gradually changes tempo, it can throw off the players. If the bass player isn't engaged, they can sap the energy from an otherwise-blistering affair. If the pianist plays some wrong notes, then it can strand the soloist or other players, making them uncertain where they are and where they're going.

Of course, I say "wrong" notes, but in reality there are few wrong notes, if any. Like all music, there can be clashing notes, but those clashes can be resolved (or left permanently unfulfilled) as part of the soloists process. There are still notes that are more distant than others, but these can be accepted if the soloist is adept at "explaining" why the notes are included. A total lack of relation to the underlying groove descends into auditory chaos, the musical equivalent of writing a poem but without using any of poetry's verbal imagery, meter, rhyming, or structure. It's just a babble, whether it be words or notes.

This intricacy rewards listening critically to the improv conversation. Maybe one soloist uses an idea too much, so the next soloist quotes it. Maybe one soloist uses some other tune on top of the chord changes. Maybe one soloist grunts or swears or rocks up onto toes or points the horn at a strange angle for certain notes. Just like in verbal conversations, all the parts of a solo influence and are influenced by the surroundings.

Had I a month to plan, I might be able to write down a suitable solo, and then perform it when the time is right. But what happens if something is not to expectation? A regular improviser would not be thrown: I've seen soloists continue when drummers drop sticks, lights fall down, and a fight threatens to break out between the second tenor and the guy at the bar. But I might not be able to recover, because I'd have to figure out where I was and jump to the appropriate place in the music. I certainly wouldn't want to make any sounds that weren't already pre-approved on the music. And that's why I'm no improviser.

But what I *am* is consistent. I come ready to play, and I read jazz tolerably well. That reading is important, because there's not usually a rehearsal. Sit down, open a folder of a hundred pieces I've never seen before, pull out 73, 14, 26, 15, and 39, and off we go. I do well enough. Enough to be appreciated by the people who sit around my chair. There's almost no higher compliment to me than having someone who has spent years learning and playing jazz -- someone respected on the scene --
come up and compliment me on my playing. Because that means that I've done well enough to be praised, and that I've done well enough to not draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.

And it also means I can sit back and relax in one of the best seats of the house. Until the next tune gets called!

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