The jazz-centered web site All About JazzÂ is today featuring a track from Dan’s Art Attack album. The album is nominated for a Hawaii Music Award, with voting by the general public until January 31.
Dan says: “Give it a listen — if you like it, please cast a vote at www.hawaiimusicawards.com for Art Attack in the jazz section!”
Ever wonder what a genre of music is? To me, a genre or style is a group of rules that, if obeyed, make music sound a certain way. In a sense, these rules tell us what to expect next in a song. Because of that, they also give the composer or artist a very powerful tool - the tool of non-conformance.
It can be artistically powerful to play a piece that conforms to a genre in enough ways to force a listener to expect what comes next, but then deliver something subtlely different from what was expected. If what was delivered can be related by the listener to what was expected, recognition occurs, and the listener is excited to have heard something different - yet related - to what was expected. If what was delivered cannot be related by the listener to what was expected, the listener is likely to conclude that the musician has “forgotten the tune” or something like that.
In a sense, each jazz standard is its own “genre”, providing the artist with an expected progression of melody, harmony, or rhythm, that can be “stretched” (and hopefully not lost) in the form of improvisation.
So, how does this help the artist? Understanding why audiences find tunes exciting is powerful knowledge indeed. But in the end, if a musician is intent on creating art, all of this is just a tool-kit to be used in the process. None of it changes the art itself, which is a form of communication between artist and observer. The genre or the song being improvised provides a skeleton upon which the flesh of art can be hung. While we can each feel good about playing technically well, or getting through a tough piece or a tough genre, ultimately those things are skills (and skills that can make you sound darned good too, and can earn you a living). Art comes about through a different process, which uses these tools, but is not beholden to them.
Just a brief note from the road. Today, I was fortunate enough to have a tour of the Fazioli Pianoforti Company’s factory, which is located in the town of Sacile (pronounced Sa-CHEE-lay), about 80km North of Venice, Italy. This is where Paulo Fazioli and his team create some of the world’s most amazing pianos, including the enormous “308″ (which is 10 feet one inches long - about 13 inches longer than my Steinway D, and about 7 inches longer than my Bosendorfer Imperial Grand).
As expected, all of the pianos I played today sounded wonderful, especially the full size concert grands. The 308 has an interesting feature - a fourth pedal, that moves the entire piano action a couple of millimeters closer to the strings, reducing the force of the hammers as they hit the strings, and therefore quietening the sound. This is different from the normal una corda pedal (the left one), which achieves a quietening effect by horizontally shifting the hammers so that they only hit two - rather than three - of the strings for each note. The former leaves the timbre unchanged, whereas the latter changes the timbre. It isn’t a case of one being preferable to the other, but it is nice to have both available. To me though, it wasn’t an interesting enough feature to warrant selecting a piano on the basis of its presence or absence.
I have not previously been to a piano factory, so it was interesting to see the wood being bent around forms, the giant paint booths, the string-making machines, the keyboard actions being adjusted, and so on.
I’ve played many pianos in my time, and the ones I played in Sacile today at the Fazioli factory deserve their place amongst the finest available today.
Oscar Peterson frequently spoke in interviews about the need for a musician to have a good vocabulary. But what did he mean? He was always aware of the need to communicate something to an audience - to leave them with a feeling, an emotion, a sense - something that wasn’t there before. In many respects this is similar to what a poet does when writing poetry. Now imagine trying to write a poem without sharing a language with the person who would later read or hear it. This is the situation many aspiring pianists find themselves in, where they have not developed their playing language enough to be able to put a string of musical words or phrases together to make a musical poem.
There is a lot of music theory surrounding vocabulary and phrasing, but in the end, it’s going to take a good ear to really get a grasp of it. Listening - and not just passive listinging, but highly active, analytical listening - can do wonders for learning someone else’s musical vocabulary. As a musician, if you try hard, you can learn the vocabulary of any particular musician, and sound quite like them. But this just means you can read their poetry, it doesn’t mean you are a poet. To be a musical poet, you need to develop your own language of communication. Analytical listening is still a great and required tool, but to the musical poet or artist, it is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Bottom line: Quickest way to sound good: copy someone else who sounds good. Best way to be a musical artist: learn from the musical words of other artists, then develop your own. In my view, this is much harder, but much more interesting.
During a tour of the Berklee College of Music today I was fortunate enough to meet with the school’s president, Roger H. Brown. Among other things, he mentioned something that we are hearing more and more about these days. He said that the recording side of the music business is in dire trouble, whereas the live side is healthy. He also mentioned that whereas it used to be the case that the Michael Jacksons of the world would make $100m/year and most others would starve, there are more musicians than ever now earning a living from the music they make.
I’ve heard other people comment that in the old days, musicians would gig and tour in order to get people to buy their records. Today, musicians put out a CD (and put their music up on the Internet) to get people to come to their gigs and concerts.
Put another way (and this is also something being said by a lot of people - not my own invention), music as a product is now free, or very close to free, in the minds of its consumers. Music as a service (specifically as an entertainment service), involving live performance, has come back into vogue and has more value than ever before.
For those of us who really enjoy the connection that comes from playing for an audience, this is all very welcome indeed.
What’s the difference between art and craft, particularly when it comes to music? Words can be delightfully or despicably imprecise, and who is to say whose definition is correct and whose is not. To me, something is craft when it’s about technique or about performing to some model ideal. Art is about communication, and applying great craft to a communication makes it art.
So, to me, if you copy a Bill Evans solo, and do it well, you are a great craftsman. You can likely entertain and bring joy to a lot of people, and your contributions will be remembered for their trueness to the form you’ve chosen to copy.
But if you interpret a song Bill never played, or interpret one he played but do so in your own way, not in his way, you are getting closer to art. If you do it with a purpose of carrying the listener to a new “place”, you’re in the realm of artistry.
This may well be controversial. If you think so, let me know your take on it, by leaving a comment.
We all have those “great days” where the playing (or whatever it is that you do) just goes so well that you end up glowing from the experience (and so does everyone who listened). Similarly, we’ve all had days where we were not proud at all of our performance. What’s the difference? While there are a variety of obvious factors such as practice, preparation, familiarity, comfort, and so on, I think there’s another that weighs heavily on the outcome.
Those times where I’ve played the best are those times where I’ve been able to “let go”, to just play for the joy of playing, without the pressure of “trying” to be great or perfect. Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, spells this out very clearly - try more and you will achieve less. Let go of the need to be great, and instead just be who you are. This should not be an excuse to avoid practice — you can’t get out more than what’s inside, and practice is a great way to load more inside. But it is when we actively try to play above our own level that we fail most miserably. And it is when we just let what’s inside come out that we play the best.
It sounds a little metaphysical, but perhaps what it comes down to is that creativity is not really a reasoning process, so the more we try to reason, the further away from it we end up.
The short answer is: yes. Whether itâ€™s leading a concert, sitting in with a group, giving a master class, or frankly any kind of public speaking, I get that familiar tingly stage fright sensation before going on.Â
However, since Iâ€™ve been performing all my life, Iâ€™ve grown very used to the feeling, and it hasnâ€™t caused me much grief for a long time. Actually, that feeling has grown to be more of an old friend, always on stage with me, reminding me that Iâ€™m there for a purpose, and keeping me honest. Without it, a part of me would be missing.Â
For those of you who arenâ€™t musicians, Iâ€™d describe the feeling as similar to what youâ€™d feel just before asking someone out for the first time - before you know whether your overtures be warmly welcomed or roundly rejected. If that analogy doesnâ€™t work, perhaps one that might would be going to a job interview where you really want to do well.Â
Many aspiring musicians find stage fright to be very debilitating, but I donâ€™t. As I say, it keeps me honest, and I always give a silent smile and nod to â€œhimâ€ for being right there with me. And then I go on, and donâ€™t really think about it from that moment on. Regardless of the venue, from the moment I go on stage, I seem to stop being an individual person and start melding with the audience, the other performers or speakers, and even the venue itself.Â
In another blog entry, Iâ€™ll talk about what some people call â€œthe zoneâ€, which is a state of mind where I donâ€™t think much about what Iâ€™m doing, I just do it. But for now, let me just say that stage fright can be a useful tool if you remember as I do that it is there to remind you of the contract with the audience (in other words - reminding you that the audience is looking to you to bring them some wonderful music and entertainment).
I get asked a lot about equipment and about recording, so here goes.Â
I have two grand pianos with very different qualities (which I’ll talk about in another blog entry). One is a 9 foot New York SteinwayÂ DÂ model, built in around 1985. The other is a 9 1/2 foot Austrian BÃ¶sendorferÂ Imperial GrandÂ with 97 keys, that was built in around 2000.Â
On the electric side, I have a RolandÂ FP-5, a ClaviaÂ Nord Wave, and an EdirolÂ PCR-M1.Â
These keyboards all feed into an Apple iMac running Apple’s excellentÂ Logic StudioÂ Digital Audio Workstation software. I also use Mark of the Unicorn’sÂ Digital PerformerÂ a bit, and alsoÂ Ableton Live.Â
The DAW software comes with a bunch of built-in virtual instruments, but I’m very partial to Synthogy’s excellentÂ IvoryÂ sampled piano, Spectrasonics’Â TrilogyÂ bass, and FXpansion’sÂ BFDÂ drums.Â
In the studio, I also have a set of mesh-headed RolandÂ V-DrumsÂ hooked into a RolandÂ TD-3 Percussion Sound Module, and I normally have a Warwick 5 string electric bass (but it’s currently on loan to a nephew).Â
When listening, I use a pair of SennheiserÂ HD 280 proÂ headphones, which I find to be very comfortable.Â
Although I have two very nice acoustic pianos, there are many others I’d be just as happy to play. I’m always happy to see a Yamaha CF or C series. One of the most amazing pianos I ever played was a Stuart & Sons grand piano, hand-built in Australia. I think they only make a few every year. There are technical reasons why that piano sounds so interesting, and they are well explained on the company’s web site. I’ve been fortunate to play many excellent pianos over the years, and some that stick in my mind as being notable include: Fazioli, Mason and Hamlin, Grotrian, and Bechstein. I’m sure I’m forgetting many other fine pianos.Â Drop me a lineÂ if you think so (or even if you don’t).Â
Hitting the right keys is obviously very important for any pianist. Frankly, it’s something I find to be a great challenge. If don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it (while playing), I end up hitting a lot of wrong keys or (more often) just not landing “squarely” on the right ones. If I let this happen, I then have to spend brainpower “recovering”, when I should really be thinking about the ongoing phrasing and improvisation of the song, and so on.Â
Why am I telling you this? Because in 2008,I am targeting this as a major upgrade task for myself. I want to hit more of the right keys and less of the wrong ones, so that my mind won’t get so derailed in the middle of a song. I can already hear the difference in my playing over a few months ago, and the difference is in what the brain-freedom lets me do improvisationally, not just in tonal clarity.Â
So, if any of you folks know of a book I should read, or something I should try, please drop me a lineÂ and let me know!