October 3, 2010

A Wrong Note?

Let’s return to the initial reason for this blog: the resource of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. Our interview sessions now number 300 + and I was recently reflecting on how my questions have changed since we started the project in 1995. While we didn’t go into the sessions with a set agenda, there were questions I often asked of interviewees. A sampling of these questions are: (1) at what point did this particular musician think they could make a living in jazz; (2) what was the learning process before formal collegiate jazz education programs; and (3) what was your worst gig ever (a question that rarely worked).

In the last couple of years my interviewees have been from a significantly younger set of musicians, typically in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The experiences of these musicians are far different from the veterans who started their careers in the 1930’s. A question I have been asking of late is: in jazz improvisation, what constitutes a wrong note? My most recent interviewee, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, said what others of his generation have been saying. In short, there is no wrong note. I thought of all the mistakes I have made while soloing over the years. Perhaps I was wrong about them being wrong.

Of course these musicians went on to explain and qualify their answers. But first we need to take a look at what constitutes a wrong note in music. A wrong note in classical music is much more apparent than in jazz, especially in jazz improvisation. In classical music, if a performer plays a note not written by the composer, it’s a wrong note. Even people who take a certain perverse pride in saying they’re tone deaf, can sense an incorrect pitch in a familiar classical piece. Victor Borge, the highly accomplished pianist/comedian, made a career out of well placed mistakes, incorrect notes that people could identify in the midst of classical performances.

I can remember listening to both Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, two trumpeters with vastly different sounds and approaches, but both of them often played notes that struck me as being incorrect, unintended, and from my definition at that time, a “mistake.” However, if Miles Davis played a note, with that fragile tone of his, it took on a certain extra poignancy, whether or not he intended it. When Dizzy Gillespie played a wrong note, he could, being that he was Dizzy Gillespie.

In jazz improvisation the playing field is different. Jazz artists are spontaneously creating melodies, phrases and licks that usually correspond to a scale or a choice of notes that “match” the underlying chords. But jazz vocabulary has changed a great deal from when Sweets Edison was ready to quit the Basie band in the late thirties because he felt he was playing too many “wrong” notes. Nowadays there is a certain attitude of anything goes, because anything can be justified or codified by the jazz theory and pedagogy currently being taught at the university level.

When Javon Jackson said there is no such thing as a wrong note, he went on to say that even playing a C sharp over a C chord can be made to work. It depends on where you place it in the phrase, if you leave it hanging out there at the end of a phrase it more likely will sound incorrect than if you resolve it with a certain intent. We must admit though, that Javon Jackson’s C sharp will sound less questionable than a timid junior high player playing a C sharp over a C chord. The tone, the intent, and the confidence all make a difference in how we perceive what people play.

Joe Magnarelli, hard bop trumpeter of some renown, had this to say about the question of right and wrong notes:

JM: I think a wrong note is when you give up on that note. When you give up on it then it’s wrong but, because there’s no wrong notes, really, there’s no wrong notes. You can make any note valid on any chord. I mean think about it. If you have a G major chord and you play an A flat, depending on how you resolve that A flat, it could be a beautiful thing. Now if you go back to study classical music you’ll find things like that all over the place. And I think being sure of yourself and having faith in yourself to play something that doesn’t sound good and then play your way out of it. I mean I have done that. I played something I like and I’ll think to myself in that split second, wow, what was that, you know? And then I just play it again and develop that thing and bring it back into the solo, that’s the key. But if you play something and you make a face or you musically give up on it, then it’s wrong.

Tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama (of the same generation as Joe Magnarelli and Javon Jackson) is very big on tension and release in his solos, and constantly improvises with that concept in mind. He was very succinct and thoughtful in his response to my question.

MR: In jazz improvisation, to you, what constitutes a wrong note?

RL: Well okay that’s a good question. It’s like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, okay? I think there are wrong notes. A lot of people don’t. I do. I really do. Because you have a background, you have a chord, and then you could use all twelve notes but it’s how you organize them. You know what I mean? It’s the organization. Sometimes you might put a wrong note in a wrong part of the beat or something, and it sounds wrong. And I just get this tension up my spine. You know what I mean? But, then technically you can play a wrong note, technically meaning theoretically it could be a wrong note but it sounds right. You know, because of the placement. You know Thad Jones was the master of it. Coltrane too. Sonny Rollins, all those masters, Joe Henderson. As far as theoretically, in other words we have a chord, we have a scale and we have the chord tone. So if you play outside of that, it could be considered wrong. But if you know how to phrase it exactly right and resolve it right that’s another thing. It’s in the resolution. You can resolve a wrong note and make it right see. And then sometimes I know when I hit a wrong note, you know like I say I feel it up my spine.

What constitutes a wrong note certainly can be addressed and thought of in many ways. The style of music has a great deal to do with it. If you’re playing modal jazz and improvising on one chord at length, the tendency to play non-scale tones is certainly there and almost required, because your palette is limited. In this case I can embrace the “no wrong notes” philosophy. If an accomplished jazz musician is consistently playing notes chosen for a purpose, placing them in a phrase, in time, and with confidence. This goes double when they stray away and play outside the chord changes (see the last blog posting for a definition of chord change).

I think that all the musicians who addressed this question would say that if you play something by accident, take responsibility for it, account for it, and try to make it work. That’s part of what makes modern jazz sound different than classic jazz.

This weekend I traveled to SUNY Fredonia to participate in the annual alumni jazz reunion concert. I had some challenging improvised solo opportunities and I tried to keep this right/wrong note topic in mind. On the way home I had a few regrets over notes I stumbled upon. Whether or not I was able to recover and turn them into “right” notes remains in the ears of the beholder.

No comments:

Post a Comment