I've been playing sax for a little over twenty years and one of my most influential horn players has always been Art Pepper. While he could swing and bebop with the best of them, he really shone the brightest as a soulful balladeer. He used to play a lot with his favorite pianist, George Cables (whom he liked to call "Mr. Beautiful") and one of my all-time favorite recordings is of the two of them playing "Over The Rainbow." These days, the song may have something of a cheesy reputation but its melody is as beautiful as it is simple, yet the chords are moving around enough in the background to open up lots of interesting possibilities when improvising. Even so, it was only a few months ago that I finally got around to learning this song and have fallen in love with it all over again 😳
His auto-biography, "Straight Life," is a great read and there's one bit that has really stuck with me over the years. I don't have my copy with me now so I can't give you the exact quote, but it went something like this:
You play the way are. If you're a selfish, inconsiderate person then that's what will come out when you play. You'll elbow the other musicians aside so that you can take the first solo and then keep playing loud and fast behind them, even when it's their turn. But if you're a generous, laid-back sort of a guy, you'll let others go first and play something supportive behind them before stepping up yourself.
You play the way you are.
I've seen and played with so many musicians across the globe, some of whom are insanely good. Incredible technique, fantastic delivery, yet more than a few of them just leave me cold. Seemingly intent on copying every nuance from the CD, the final result often sounds pretty good but it comes across, at least to me, as somewhat fake. Female vocalists seem to be especially prone to this kind of thing, probably due to the rise in popularity of the many near-operatic divas in recent years. Jazz cats too, since so much emphasis is put on technical excellence. We spend all this time practicing how to play at blistering speeds with lots of jazzy "outside" notes that we sometimes forget what it's supposed to be all about . So these days, when I'm looking at a musician, I want to see something more than just raw technique, I want to see something of them on stage, their persona, a window into who they are.
I used to think I had a reasonably good handle on that side of things until I saw a young lady perform the other night who just put me to shame. She played alone, guitar and singing, and while her technique was OK, her performance just blew me away. The warmth and joy she put into each song simply filled the room and you could tell from the way she moved that it was coming from every bone in her body. I absolutely had to jam with her (and yes, I always bring my horn with me these days) and got the surprise of my life when she tentatively asked "Do you know this one?" and without giving me a chance to answer, launched into "Over The Rainbow," thus invoking my first ever public performance of it .
After the show, I had a few beers  with her and one of the things she said really got me thinking. "I choose to be a happy person," said she, "I don't like being around grumpy, cynical, bad-tempered people  'cos they just drain me." Normally I would've just dismissed this as the babblings of another bubble-head blonde but not this time. She really was one of the most genuinely cheerful and happy little vegemites I've ever met and I don't think I've ever seen anyone who played their music in a way that was so honest and in tune with who they were off-stage. You play the way you are, indeed.
Yet, having said all that, I don't think it's quite enough.
Art is about exploring the entire gamut of the human experience and it's not enough to take only the happy, nice stuff. It's when things get mean and nasty and dirty that they get really interesting. Many great artists have struggled with madness, depression, or just simply been really unpleasant people, but that negative energy often translates into some amazing work. Charlie Parker's recording of "Lover Man" is legendary , where he was so trashed on booze and drugs, he could barely stand. They had to prop him up, put the horn in his hands and stick the thing in his mouth, yet when it came time for him to play, what came out was so painfully heart-wrenching that even after the umpteenth hearing, it still gives me the screaming cold shivers. That kind of thing only comes from being in a place you really don't want to go.
I know that some of the best music I've ever played has come when I've been furious or upset or just plain miserable about something. The energy these emotions generate can be incredibly powerful and I've sometimes scared myself with what has come out of my horn, things so intense that I don't want to think about where inside of me they could possibly have come from. I remember one time getting fired from a band and then having to go play another gig elsewhere straight after. I was extremely upset but people, who had seen me play many times before, were coming up to me after the show saying "Man, WTF happened to you tonight?!" Somehow, they could tell that something heavy had gone down.
But getting back to this trip, I also got to see a local barbershop quartet that were amazingly good and while I could certainly dig what they were doing, it also left me a little disappointed, knowing that if I went to see them the next day, I would see pretty much exactly the same show. There was none of the creative fire and passion of, say, a screaming jazz gig, no real dynamic connection between the musicians, or audience. I get the same kind of reaction at classical performances; it's a wonderful experience to be in the theater with an orchestra in full flight but I can't help but get the nagging feeling that something is missing. Can a meticulously planned, precisely executed performance really be considered a creative activity?
Anyhow, someone once expressed surprise to find discussion about philosophy on a site that's supposed to be for a feed reader and now we're examining the emotional aspects of the creative process . What can I say? Writing C++ code that parses XML and bungs it into a database can get kinda boring after a while. Sigh..
 I was lucky to have started off with building a strong foundation in the blues, where the emphasis is on playing from the heart, before switching to the more technique-heavy jazz. But it still cracks me up that I can play jazz gigs and have people tell me after the show how bluesy my playing is, yet when I play blues gigs, people say they really dig the jazzy bits I throw in every now and then 🙄
 Unfortunately, she totally messed up the chords during my solo. Thanks a bundle, girl
 Well, I had a few beers. She had a glass of milk to go with some cookies she had been carrying around in her bag I am not making this up
 Which is unfortunate since this is a pretty accurate description of me But despite being almost completely opposite kinds of people, we really connected musically on stage. Still trying to figure that one out...
 There is a great scene of this session in Clint Eastwood's biographical movie, "Bird."
 And not for the first time, either 😉