This summer, for me, has been a particularly fruitful one filled with music projects of all sorts that have challenged me and expanded my comfort zone of creativity in unexpected ways. These projects have included recording with jazz vocalist Karen Fraggos some very soulful and sultry jazz and R&B classics.
Performing in a monthly series with BOLT and improvising electro-acoustic quartet that includes Jorrit Dijkstra, Junko Simons, either Curt Newton or Eric Rosenthal and myself. Performing with the Junk Kitchen Players on a monthly concert series that most recently focused on classical and traditional Brazilian music.
Recording with the Pablo Ablanedo Octet all original music by Pablo which blend Argentinean music traditions with modern jazz. Finally my own solo recording project called ‘American Grace’ conceived in four days of solitude at my home studio thus completing a decade long project to complete the first ever solo jazz guitar recording trilogy.
(This is a sneak peek of a recent mix from my ‘American Grace’ session – let me know what you think)
This variety of work got me thinking about a philosophical conundrum in art. Is diversity or individuality more important? Specifically in music, do players thrive more as jack-of-all-trades or as iconoclasts, or is there a creative middle ground which includes both? This middle ground was the most interesting concept for me. I certainly know many talented ‘Jacks’ that can fill in for any band. They sound so good you would never know they were sitting in, but they also may not leave an impression with you because they play so ‘right’ that they don’t stand out. I also know some ‘Iconoclasts’ that really thrive at doing their thing, playing their tunes, improvise their way… but take them out of their comfort zone and watch out for the train wreck. What about the middle way, what I call ‘The Jazz Omnivore’. Pretty trendy title, I know, but it does sum up what is expected these days for musicians who are going to survive in the industry, especially the so-called jazz business. The Jazz Omnivore as I see it (and hear it) has to focus on two basic things… fluency of vocabularies and tenacious development of individuality. Music is a language with hundred of dialects and accents, we can’t be expected to know or master them all. However (and I speak specifically for American jazz players because that is what I am and that is my common tongue, but players from around the world can use this same logic as applied to their lingua franca) it must be expected that a player is fluent in the various vocabularies of their indigenous music culture. In the world of jazz, I break the language down into 3 vocabularies; Swing, Bebop and Post-bop. As a player and educator I make sure that the next generation of players knows about and can improvise, accompany, and phrase using those three vocabularies. Stylistically speaking, that covers the whole history of jazz which can include its’ folk roots of the blues to dixieland, to swing, to bop, to hard bop and cool to modal, free and fusion. The so-called post-modern era of today is filled with master players who have discovered new ways of playing and showcasing their individual voices by combining these three vocabularies in fresh ways.
These vocabularies also serve as platforms from which a player can ‘side-step’ to other styles. The blues is the foundation for Jazz, Country, Rock, Funk, basically all American folk and popular music. So with a strong foundation in the Swing vocabulary, for example, a ‘jazz player’ can jump into an R&B or rock setting and find common ground. Bebop with its technique and linear style can help a player jump into Klezmer, Bulgarian, Argentinean styles. With an understanding of Post-bop elements a player can wander into a modern classical, European improv, or even a Punk setting and find ways to make the music happen. Most importantly, however, may be the reverse approach in which a modern player should be able to absorb and incorporate elements from other styles that interest and inspire them into their improvisational vocabularies.
This brings me to my final point; individuality. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the fluency of the three jazz vocabularies and their ability to help ‘side-step’ into other styles actually promotes individuality. Since there is just so much music out there to explore, each improviser is inevitably going to find their own path and own combination of vocabularies and other dialects (music styles). The goal is to discover your own voice by concentrating on what you are naturally attracted to as an improviser. One player may really dig more traditional Be-bop early on and then later discover playing in odd meters and exotic minor modes gives their style a unique approach to harmony and phrasing. Another may really love the raw earthy articulations and timbres of the blues and free music but then connect that with the energy of punk and electric effects for a unique, personal sound. The combinations, and therefore, the potential for true individuality are literally endless.
Over the years my own playing has been described by the press, audiences, and other musicians as many, often contradictory things. I have been called a virtuoso, but my playing has also been called sloppy. I have been dubbed an ‘avant-guarde’ type player, as well as a ‘traditionalist with a strong sense of history’. I have been told I am a rootsy player that has soul, I have also been defined as ‘too intellectual’. I have been criticized for playing too many notes by some and for not being chopsy enough by others. The best, most frequent adjective used is ‘quirky’, which usually means they don’t know what to say. For years I thought they were all missing the point, focusing on the wrong things or at least not really understanding my music. But now (as a self proclaimed Jazz Omnivore celebrating individuality and the continuing journey into diverse music vocabularies) I realize that ALL those opinions are spot on CORRECT! The Jazz Omnivore can and should be all those things to all sorts of music fans, and maybe the Jazz Omnivore will lead the way for a new generation of musicians and music fans to experience music. The audience already has unlimited access to the whole history of all the world’s music (via i-tunes, spotify etc)… isn’t it time for musicians to also taste everything offered on the menu?