I've been listening to Youtube videos of jazz players. Not the stars, but players who most people would consider to be very capable. If you consider music skill and talent to be a smooth continuum, I want to talk about the players in the circled part of the line below. Not the greats at the top nor absolute beginners at the bottom, but in that lower-mid level of skill, experience, and talent:
As I listened, I thought back to my post called Is Jazz in Danger of Becoming a Caricature of Itself.
That article focused on the scales, patterns, and licks jazz musicians play in their improvisation and how those notes and the instrument seem to take priority over musical intent. The result is collections of notes with too little musical soul behind them. I call that a caricature of jazz.
Keep in mind the roots of this music–the blues played and sung in the deep south. I don't think they were trying to outdo each other with tricky note-filled lines.
I made the point in the article that our obsession with the 'right' notes seems to be draining the soul out of the music. 'Right' notes are memorized scales, licks, patterns, transcribed solo fragments, and anything other than the driving force of the music which is the emotion from your soul.
I want to explore another element of the caricature: time and rhythm, which might be worse than the 'right' note obsession. I think you can more easily get away with 'wrong' notes if they groove. Not so with 'right' notes played with poor time.
Listen to less experienced jazz players and too often you'll hear a metronomically accurate-ish flow from one note to the next, carefully placing notes in their proper place within the beats and bars. They tend to articulate each note identically with little variation in dynamics and with a feel that is too on top of the beat. One might describe it as rushed or anxious. Uptight? It's not a swinging groove. No one's tapping their foot to it.
Just like you can put notes ahead of musical intent, you can also put the clock-like timing of notes ahead of your musical intent. Doing either (and both) can make the difference between a deep expression of emotion and merely playing notes. It sounds like jazz, but it lacks the soul and personality of the musician. It's a caricature of jazz.
Can you hear your own tendency to articulate every note the same and package a bunch of them in neat clock-like spaces of four beats? For most players, it's hard to hear. In a way, I think it's much easier to be aware of your note choices than to introspect into your own sense of time.
While improvising, you are thinking about what notes to play next. You can hear the churning of your brain and the internal self-talk. On the other hand, your sense of time seems to live more at the subconscious level. It's much more subtle than your choice of notes.
But where you place those notes in time has a profound effect on your music. Players are in part defined by their sense of time. Think of the difference in note placement between Bill Evans and Dexter Gordon, or between Chet Baker and Woody Shaw. Of course, there are many other differences, but can you hear the role of note placement and articulation on their musical personalities? In a way, their placement of the note became part of their musical fingerprints.
Here's a hard question for you: can you hear and describe in words YOUR own time feel? How does it reflect your personality? Are you simply trying to consistently fit notes into the allotted time or are you expressing yourself with articulation and note flow in order to tell your story?
Let me offer you a rewarding challenge
Richie Beirach and I recently published eBook that describes in great detail his recording session for the tune The Snow Leopard on his ECM album called Elm with Jack DeJohnette and George Mraz (who recently passed). The eBook is called The Magic Within the Snow Leopard.
Not only does Richie describe the fascinating blow-by-blow experience of how the three of them spontaneously rearranged the entire tune but he also goes into great detail about how musicians can be guided by the flow of the music if they are skilled, sensitive, and courageous enough to follow the muse.
I'll trade you a copy of this eBook for a sample of your playing and a description of your time feel. "WHAT, you want me to describe the feel of my own time?"
Being able to describe something in detail makes you much more aware of it. So I'm asking you to write in a few sentences a description of your sense of time when you improvise. Don't just use single words like "good" or "bad". Think about it deeply enough to describe it clearly with some detail. You just might discover something about your playing that you never thought of and that no one has ever told you.
I won't post your recording. It's for my ears only. However, I just told Richie that I was doing this and he offered to contribute a little write-up about the sense of time he hears from a recording I'll send him. So, I'll choose one lucky player to get an assessment of their time from Richie.
Click the blue button to get to the page where you can upload your MP3 and write your description of the submitted recording.
Yes, this is out of the box and a little different, but so is playing jazz.