Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Science, Scofield, and Schoolin'

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." - Arthur C. Clarke
I like this quote because it is indicative of my philosophy when it comes to improvising. Basically I see thing like this: when you're are in the middle of an improvisation (either solo or group) you can approach it safely, play things you know you can play, and try not to venture too closely to the edge of your ability. This ensures that you won't make any major mistakes or cause any train wrecks, but it also ensures that each performance will be more or less exactly like the last one. Alternately, you can check your inhibitions and attempt things you would never have thought possible - thereby allowing your own inner sense of composition be the final arbiter of what is or is not played. This comes with risks, obviously, but with risks come rewards. Many times, after a performance, people will come to me and compliment my playing, but I seldom feel as if I am deserving of it, mainly because I know that there were several things I attempted that night that I could not pull off cleanly. Perhaps this is the very definition of the phrase "my own worst critic."

A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from someone who was looking for additional musicians for a project and when I indicated that I might be interested, he checked out our site and my writings here. When he called me, the first thing he asked my was why a particular artist was not listed among my influences. I won't mention the artist specifically other than to say he is one of the more well-known of the "jam band" guitarists. My response was that, rather than making things happen, musically, he tends to lay back and LET the music happen. To put that in the context of this discussion: this particular guitarist is not a risk-taker. You know what he's going to play before he plays it, because he plays the same kind of stuff all the time. As a listener, I have no CLUE about where his limits of possibility lie because he never goes anywhere near them. Obviously, the other problem I have with any improvisational artist who "lets the music happen" rather than making it happen is: what if nothing happens?

Now, on the other hand, I went to see John Scofield on Sunday. THERE is a guy who is constantly playing right at the edge of his ability (and beyond), and his ability is considerable! He was playing with Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow, which, in my opinion, is the perfect band for him. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE the stuff he has been doing for the past 5 years with MMW and some of the other jam band elite, but when he's playing compositions which allow for greater improv and more complexity, like the hard bop flavored stuff on his new album EnRoute, you really get a feel for what a monster this guy is. If this trio comes anywhere near you, I highly recommend checking it out.

Perhaps here I need to insert a point of clarification about what I mean by "playing at the limits of possibility". This could be misinterpreted as "play as many notes as you can all the time." This is not what I mean. Like any other artistic endeavor, improvisational music is a product not only of technical ability but also of artistic vision and insight. So, aside from the technical aspect of playing a bunch of notes, there are other more subtle technical aspects, such as use of passing tones, chord substitutions, motif and variation, etc. In addition there are the choices of spacing, phrasing, harmony, etc. which constitute the artistic or musical portion. You could be improvising in whole notes over "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and still play at the limits of possibility, provided you are making the effort to make it interesting through your note choices.

One final thing to mention here. This Friday I will be attending a "master jazz workshop" with none other than Pat Martino! I'm very excited about this - I'll post again this weekend and let know what I've learned.


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