November 23, 2011

When Less Equals More

The music I love has always had to pass the good groove test. In the mid-60’s I had my AM radio next to my ear waiting for songs like “Green Onions,” “I Feel Good (I Got You)” and Doris Troy’s “Just One Look,” songs that had killer grooves. I was also fascinated by well crafted arrangements that employed the layering of parts and the skillful use of horns and strings. When my listening expanded to jazz, it was the economical swing of Count Basie or the melodic improvisation of Paul Desmond that pulled me in. Recordings with torrents of notes played by emotional instrumentalists were rarely found on my record shelf.

I recall a friend telling me to listen to John Coltrane. I bought an LP called “Om” having no idea what to expect. It started out with the chanting of “Om,” followed by avante garde, cacophonous screaming on the saxophone accompanied by gongs and cymbals. It was not music I cared for at all, and I’m surprised I ever bought another Coltrane record. Even when I did, his playing demonstrated the virtuosic (typical was his classic “Giant Steps” where he plays page after page of running the chords); or the intense and extended soul searching. There is no doubt it was important music, but it didn’t appeal to me. While my sax hero Cannonball Adderley could play ferociously fast, the albums I liked best were from his middle period in the sixties, where he was playing soul jazz with their ear-catching melodies and formative funk. Even though he typically only had two horns, they meshed perfectly in the arrangements written by his brother Nat and Joe Zawinul. Those things appealed to me, along with Cannon’s great tone and soulful approach. People compare his playing to a Gospel preacher delivering a sermon, and he did have a highly vocal approach to his improvising. When I started playing, I didn’t recognize this concept until I started working with guys who played as if soloing is a competitive sport. At first I was enraptured by this type of playing. Later I came to think of it as an exercise in self-indulgence; too much information for a listener to comprehend. This type of player often likes to surround himself with musicians who play the same way, so a quartet results with too much information times four. It makes the listener (or at least this listener) want to wave a white flag.

On the other hand, some players are capable of playing a ton of music if they want to, but they choose their moments. I find that the better your rhythm section, the more likely you can afford to play less, and be able to choose your moments. If the rhythm players lay down a sparse but tight groove, the soloist can play more melodically instead of just running the changes. For me, playing with a well oiled rhythm section is the Holy Grail because I don’t feel I have an overabundance of technique on any of my instruments. I love to play melodic phrases— licks that can be whistled or sung back to you. If I’m playing with people who are fighting each other for dominance, I feel I have to join the fray and start playing a whole bunch of notes in an attempt to fit in on the bandstand. I am not someone who cares to or is even capable of doing that. Jon Hendricks related a story about Count Basie’s interview with a British reporter. The reporter asked Basie why he chose to play so economically. Basie replied “that’s all I can play.” It’s really true. If you can find people who complement the way you play, that’s the way to go.

My first real experience in a big band, and an important period of growth for me, was playing in a group under Chuck Mangione while in high school. Chuck had written some outstanding jazz ensemble charts before he became well-known. I remember having a couple of solo opportunities. At one point Chuck pulled me aside, and his comments had a sobering effect. He said that what I was doing was pretty much bullshit. Nice phraseology, but in retrospect he was correct. I was playing as fast as I could with little thought of the context or what served the song. The co-conductor of the band, drummer Vinnie Ruggerio, was trying to tell me the same thing in a different way. Specifically, I had a solo spot on a James Brown song, a one-chord vamp, and Vinnie was telling me “look, just get down low on your horn, on that low B flat, play something real good rhythmically and honk away.” I remember dismissing his advice, thinking he was foolish for telling me that, because the song was in the key of B and here’s this drummer telling me to honk on a B flat. I completely missed the point of what he was trying to say, but it was the same message Chuck had. The point was not to play everything I knew, especially because I barely knew anything. The first requirement is to improvise within the groove. Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote about the cymbal that came flying across the bandstand when a young Charlie Parker tried to play many notes, beyond his capability. Jo Jones threw the cymbal as a critique of Bird’s effort. Chuck Mangione delivered the same message to me that day. It took a while for me to think of it as a favor.

Almost all young improvisers go through a phase of overplaying. It’s a way to deal with an inability to create melodic statements over chord changes. Sometimes it takes years to develop that skill, and sometimes the skill doesn’t mature at all. Even though it can be painful for the young player to hear, it helps to have someone point it out, even though it may not sink in until many a chorus later.