Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Tuning Slide- Making It a Story

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Where words fail, music speaks.
― Hans Christian Andersen

Who knows what Frank Foster had in mind when he wrote the wonderful Blues in Hoss' Flat or what Count Basie thought as he put together the band playing the number? It is a fine tune with lots of style, flair and pure joy. Most of us don't think much about the meaning behind the songs we hear or play, especially if they are instrumental. It is just a song.

But don't say that too loud. Music has probably been telling stories since the first cave dweller pounded in some sort of primitive time. Last year at the Big Band Camp at Shell Lake we did the Blues in Hoss' Flat. But first we watched this video- a classic by Jerry Lewis from his movie, The Errand Boy. Take a couple minutes and enjoy it.

Lewis is, of course, pantomiming a "chairman of the board" leading a meeting. Does it help to know that the original Basie album was titled Chairman of the Board? Even if it doesn't, Lewis' interpretation is a wonder to watch. I can never hear the number without this pantomime playing in my head as well.

My first real introduction to "serious" music appreciation was back in junior high (dates me, huh?) when the music teacher dropped the needle at the start of an instrumental piece. She gave us the simple instruction, "What do you hear?" No name, no introduction, just that question. Through the speaker came the opening bars of one of the great works of American music of the 20th Century, An American in Paris. It didn't take me long, even with my 7th grade ears, to hear a street scene, car horns and soon I saw people scurrying to and fro. After a few minutes, she stopped and asked what we heard. I don't remember what anyone else said. I'm not sure I even said anything myself. But when she told us the name and what Gershwin was doing I was blown away.

I had heard the story in the music. I had heard what the composer was trying to tell me without having words get in the way. That one day in class 55 years ago changed my life. I don't always hear stories in the music I listen to. Sometimes I look at the name a composer gave to a song and try to put it to the music. For example, I don't know what Miles had in mind when he titled one of his numbers, Solar. But I hear the sun and energy, light and bright skies when I listen. But then Bruce Hornsby, Christian McBride, and Jack Dejohnette put a different arrangement of the same song on their album, Camp Meeting. Now the sun and light and energy are placed in a different context. I still see the power and light, but now it's in the spiritual context of a tent or camp meeting. Same notes, same basic song - but now a whole new story is being told.

Isn't that what we try to do when we play? More on this sometime in the new year. For the next few weeks spend some quality time listening to instrumentals, stories without words, and find the stories they tell you.

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