Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Easy Comfort and Inevitable Rigidity of Ethos

I had an embarrassing flaw as a jazz musician which very few people ever noticed: I wasn't particularly inventive as an improvisor.

This is surprising because I'm very creative. Likely to a fault, even. So you'd think invention would stream out of me. But I had a very bad day back in the early 90s when I for some reason thought to merge three consecutive recorded choruses of the same tune into one lump. And, gulp, I was playing essentially the same thing each time.

Well, maybe not quite that bad. But there was way more synchrony than there ought to have been. To make things worse, shortly after, I did something trombonists don't often get to do: I led two consecutive weeks of nightly small group jazz gigs. Trombonists are normally the character actors of the music world, playing the sidekick role, but this time I was protagonist. The gigs were all about me; I carried it all. And coming after my flaw had been revealed to me, I was listening for monotony, and, after eight or nine gigs, I found that I was boring myself. Horribly. By the end of the run, I was ready to chuck my horn into a garbage can.

I soon recovered. Amnesia set in, and I was once again impressed with my own repetitive shtick. You must be forced (ala Clockwork Orange) to hear yourself night after night to maintain appropriate self-loathing, and, as a musician who wasn't playing the same genre night after night, and who was rarely occupying the spotlight, I was shielded from my own limitations. When your job is to serve as a contrasting color, you needn't stretch to cover the whole spectrum.

I never solved this problem. I'd marvel at the playing of a Joe Henderson, who'd tear through song structures with rich inventiveness, milking fresh-ripened goodness out of each and every go-round:

But I never learned to do it, myself. I offered an excellent contrast color. And, at a broader level, was the ultimate chameleon, able to fit in, at a nearly cellular level, with just about anyone anywhere. Also: my narrowness was at least my own unique narrowness. I didn't imitate anyone else; my playing was highly original. Just not as stretchy as I'd have liked. But if I'd ever become a headline jazz star, carrying gigs on my own weight, a few listeners (mostly my own sidemen) would have noticed this weakness. And, most of all, me. I'd be an alcoholic for sure.

I was too distracted in those days to really ponder the mystery - why someone so exuberantly creative would wind up so imprisoned. But the answer just flashed into my mind, a few decades too late:

It's hard being a musician. There's a lot going on, in terms of music, audiences, business, maintaining technique, not starving to death, etc. Your mind gets distracted. So I sensed, early on, that I needed an overriding ethos to help get me through the chaos. Here's what I settled upon:
Just choose the most beautiful possible note to come after whatever just happened.
It seemed foolproof, and I got a lot of mileage out of it. While others tried to prove themselves or battle colleagues, or make a certain impression, or simply not mess up, I was in another universe, cherishing notes one by one. This excluded me from opportunities where a bandleader or producer was looking for some certain this or that (I didn't match anyone's canned expectation), but audiences loved me, as did my social circle of 80 to 90 year old semi-forgotten jazz OGs. This is how I built a career for myself (along with my tenacious sense of commitment).

But it dawns on me - right now, today, all these years later - that if an improviser sticks to choosing the most beautiful possible note to succeed whatever just happened, he will inevitably be imprisoned by his static sense of beauty. Aesthetic preference is a constant; a gravity well. I'll always tend to hanker for a dissonant rub at some certain juncture, and a bold ballsy proclamation at another. A mouse run through a laboratory maze umpteen times, trained not to tactically seek cheese but to follow its visceral inclination, will tend to follow the same route every damned time.

While an ethos serves a helpful clarifying purpose, its inherent rigidity will always be limiting. Though it's blissfully simplifying to cling to an organizing ethos, real artists must reject such comfort. You just gotta reframe. 

Two new trombone snippets I've unearthed (neither of which reveal my dirty horrible secret):

Funky solo on a recording for some long-gone group
From a German film soundtrack (I get extra points for difficulty: heat was broken in the recording studio this February morning, so we were all playing in parkas).

Previous trombone stuff:
A flamenco/carnatic/jazz trio in Madrid with Indian tabla drums and Spanish acoustic guitar. (R.I.P. Xavier Turull)
Good Clip of My Trombone Playing Back in the Day
All trombone-related postings in reverse chronological order
All music-related postings in reverse chronological order

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