Those new to jazz performance may find improvisation a wondrous mystery. “How do they know how to do that without music?” they ask. It’s a fair question: how do you play soccer without the rulebook in your hand? Is there some magic volume, known only to the favored few, that those versed in the secret craft have memorized?
The marvel that is improvisation results from practice, study, scholarly labor, trial and error — difficult to explain simply, but an analogy comes to hand.
With a few exceptions, we are born with the power of speech: we can form words and sentences and make ourselves understood, That, for the jazz musician, would be mastery of her instrument, skill, technical proficiency, the ability to execute ideas in pleasing logical sequence. Never as easy as it looks.
But there’s more, much more. How does anyone have something to express, “things to say”? That mastery, subtler and deeper, comes through communal exercise and learning from those who know the great wisdoms. In everyday life, you know the basic vocabulary, but what do you say to someone who is mourning a death? No thesaurus can teach us the right thing to say, the most appropriate thing to utter, but we can learn by saying the wrong thing and then doing better, or by being in the company of people who express themselves beautifully and learning from them.
Since music is a kind of speech, what jazz artists have is a common knowledge and common language — I’ve invented a whimsical term for it above — a series of conventions that have been internalized. Not only does the experienced musician know the melody of YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME, but he knows the verse, the lyrics, the standard key, which tempos lend themselves to which approach; he might know the Whiteman and Bud Freeman recordings. He might know several sets of harmonies; he might know the common errors he and others make.
With a solid foundation of such experiential knowledge, a musician gains the courage to sing an individual song, listen to, and add to the other songs being created on the bandstand. The craft is a matter of tens of thousands of hours of practice among friends, colleagues, mentors . . . listening intently to live performance and to recorded ones.
The results are unmistakable: an ease, an assurance, the kind of skill that lets warm personal improvisations happen, not only in solo, but also in ensemble.
The four musicians who took to the stage without fanfare on March 3, 2019, at the Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California, are masters of this conversational and inspiring art. Three of them — pianist / singer / composer Carl Sonny Leyland, string bassist Marty Eggers, and drummer Jeff Hamilton — have worked together as a trio for years, and they are as close as family. Or closer.
Jacob Zimmerman, of the Pacific Northwest, who plays clarinet and alto sax, writes and arranges, was new to the group. But these four players fell into delicious harmony easily, and what music was made! I’ve left in (more than usual) the little conversations that were prelude to each number, because they illustrate “the King’s Swinglish” well, to my eyes and ears.
They began with a lovely old tune, not played as much as it should be — the WABASH BLUES. Groovy!
Then, a sentimental song that I think no one else does (I hear Bing’s version in my ears), IF I HAD MY WAY. I love the performance, and I also urge people to watch Jacob intently learning the song from Sonny’s clear exposition. And how they swing!
And, for the last Musical Offering (four more will appear in a second post), BOOGIE WOOGIE. You’ll hear Sonny announce it as SOMETHING KIND OF BOOGIE-WOOGIE-ISH, but that title was too long for YouTube:
You’ve heard articulate people praised with the words, “She always knows the right thing to say.” These four musicians always know the right thing to play.
May your happiness increase!