MORE WORDS TO LIVE BY

“His main theme was that you didn’t have to play loud but that you needed intensity to get the listener’s attention.  This turned out to be the greatest of all lessons in how and what to play.”

wo-smithThese words come from a fascinating book, now apparently out of print but worth searching out: SIDEMAN: THE LONG GIG OF W.O. SMITH.  William Oscar Smith is the bassist on Hawkins’s 1939 Bluebird session, the one that produced “Body and Soul.”  That should be enough renown for anyone, but Smith went on to be a generous and respected educator.

Those of you who follow this blog will not be surprised that the quotation is something Smith remembered Sidney Catlett telling young musicians in the early Forties.  I’ve included it here not as another tribute to Sid, although who would deny me that?  But it’s applicable — in its own way — to current jazz performance practice.

At the gigs I attend, musicians rarely feel the need to outshout one another.  Most of the clubs are intimate (read: “cramped”) so that raising the volume of your solo for the sake of loudness isn’t something people do.

But I am always amazed and dismayed by how many musicians unconsciously accelerate tempos, carried away by the intensity of the solos they hear.  Musician A plays more intensely, digging into his notes, so B (feeling the spirit alongside him) gets faster and faster.  These aren’t amateurs, by the way.  Now, I know how hard it is to improvise, and I am sitting at a table, silently censorious as the piece that began as a medium-tempo rock is now a sprint.  I also know that some of the greatest live performances rush or drag, and that very famous musicians tended to do this.  I will not call the roll in this blog, for, after all, jazz isn’t a metronomic art.  It isn’t mechanical, nor should it be.

But the only rushing I approve of wholeheartedly is Jiimmy Rushing.

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