Good advice from three jazz masters on finding one’s musical voice

One of my favorite things to ask great players is where players can discover their musical voice. One that reflects who they are within their technical abilities. This is a very abstract and philosophical topic, but one at the heart of playing jazz.

Jazz improvisation is a deeply personal art. As you play, you are translating the world as you see it into sound – melody and harmony. No one sees the world quite as you do. No one. Ever. And that provides you the opportunity for original musical expression.

The question I keep coming back to in my interviews is, how does one find their authentic musical voice? Is it manufactured piece by piece with collections of memorized fragments or is it something deeper that is composed of the fabric of your musical soul?

That’s pretty deep!

You’ll need enough technical skill to play what you hear from that soul. Not every iconic player had great chops, but their particular voice didn’t need it. Think about Thelonious Monk. He may not have had classic be-bop chops but his musical vision of himself was clear. But if your musical voice is complex and angular like Michael or Randy Brecker, you best get to practicing.

Besides technical prowess, improvisation also requires a strong connection between your instrument and your mind. You must have fingers, lips, arms all going where the mind directs them as unconsciously as one foot being put in front of the other when running. Just as Arbans, Koprash, Hannon, and others build your chops, my Jazz Patterns for Ear help build your instrument/mind connection.

Once you have the necessary technical command of your instrument and the friction between fingers and mind lessens, you have the means to play at the highest level as yourself.

Does your fresh musical voice automatically flow just because of more technique? No. How many technically adept players sound like others? Too many players are lost in a sea of sameness running scales and patterns.

So, what can you do to discover the music living inside you? Here are George Cable’s thoughts:

One tip I would offer is to record yourself frequently and when listening back, look for moments of something you especially like. It is possible that those musical moments carry with them the seed of something original? Give yourself credit for those moments and consider them acorns of a future giant oak.

In a forthcoming book called The Art of Skill on which I worked with Dave Liebman, he said the following regarding finding your unique musical sound:

Your job is to 1: identify it. 2: develop it and 3: put it out there, meaning the world should know about this because you are an enlightened being who found what is yours alone – your home base.

You have learned how to develop the music which implies that you have a responsibility to get it out to the real world. Of course nobody’s watching or punishing you if you don’t do that, but it’s kind of the last part of the puzzle. Finding, exploring, and presenting.

Most fundamental is your sound on that instrument which is an extension of one’s body. Even though we put a lot of emphasis on technical stuff and getting fingers together, the truth is that we are learning an entirely new foreign language.

What’s really important is asking yourself what do I sound like? What can I hear that distinguishes me from others?

Steve Swallow’s answer to me on this topic took a different path. Steve said this:

The answer to finding one’s musical voice is as diverse as the musical voice itself. My best advice is to have the courage to send your music out into the world – written or improvised – without fear of criticism. Spoiler alert: if your voice is strong enough, you WILL be criticized since everyone has a view of what constitutes good jazz or even good music.

There is only one person you need to please, and they are staring at you every morning in the mirror. Tell that person to work on their instrument and listen for something very personal to come from their instrument.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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