I interviewed Ron Carter yesterday for the next Jazz Master Summit. He was gracious and full of insight. We spoke on a variety of topics, not the least of which was that second Miles quintet and how they did what they did on stage as well as their preparation for recordings.
Early on, Ron told me that he is starting to practice after a lifetime of his practicing being on stage every night and in the studio. I asked what he was practicing and that got us into a discussion about time. As I said to Ron, his sense of time has always been something I’ve loved about his playing.
But instead of cranking up the metronome and playing fast over clicks 2 and 4, Ron takes the opposite approach. He practices slow and very deliberate. Regarding one of the things he practices, he describes calling up one of his students and coaching him through this exercise telling him, “Now this is what I’m doing to get better.”
His description of slow, methodical, and focused practice reminded me of something I also recommend which is to set the metronome on a painfully slow time – perhaps 40bpm, and play short notes over each of the clicks. The objective is to mask the click with your precision.
But as Ron does, listen honestly for accuracy. Nothing but perfect will do. You’ll hear Ron admit that perfection on this seemingly simple exercise might take him 20 minutes.
Sometimes the skills we work on will result in improving the opposite aspects of your playing. Practicing the C major scale perfectly at a slow tempo will improve your time for all tempos. For brass players, playing low and pedal notes will build your chops and air for high playing. Practicing the slow methodical single articulations will strengthen your time and articulation for fast tempos as well as long notes.
Ron goes on to explain that he next played through the Bach Cello Suites using the skills he strengthened using that C major scale exercise.
But he makes the point that he plays the suites slowly. Not at the tempo in which they are normally recorded. He also has written out the harmony of some of them so that his ear can best hear the chords that Bach outlined in these primarily one-note-at-a-time pieces.
The point is that slow and steady wins the race. And while that is true for many aspects of life, it is also an important truism for playing better jazz.