Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Tuning Slide: Innovate

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Without deviation from the norm,
progress is not possible.
― Frank Zappa

As you may have noticed most of these Tuning Slide posts have been summaries of things I have discovered in my "research" of practice and performance, added to some basic common sense and then bundled in a motivational style. I am writing out of discovery mode and trying to learn things myself as well as share some insights with you. I am not pretending to be an expert on any of this. I am a learner on a new journey using this as a way to put into words what I am finding and inviting you on the journey with me.

This week's is a good example of how I am working on figuring out many things about being a trumpet player. Over the past two weeks I talked about the first two of what Clark Terry has called the three essentials of learning to improvise- imitate, assimilate, and innovate. I have said that even without being a jazz improviser, these are essentials to being better musicians and having a more interesting life.

We start by listening- a lot- so that we can imitate what we hear. What better way to learn than to listen to and imitate the great masters? Then we allow what we have heard and worked on to become a part of us- it is assimilated into who we are and into our music.

All that, for me, is the easy part. I can listen, I can work hard at imitating, I can internalize some of the great music I want to play. It is how I have been able to play some of the solos in concert band or my Basin Street Blues solo in big band. It is how I have succeeded at some of the pieces in the quintet where I have a unique part. I can do that!

But this innovation thing? I'm not so sure about that.

So I go back to the Jazz Advice website where they say this about Clark Terry's third essential- innovation.
[It is] creating a fresh and personal approach to the music....[and] is the direct result of hours upon hours of imitation and assimilation. Take a look at the great innovators that this music has already seen. Each one spent countless hours studying harmony, solos, form, tunes, etc. in order to realize their own personal concept.
We all know what that means and how it has played out over the years. We know that Miles had a different style from Chet Baker, even in the "cool jazz" era. We know that Beethoven had a different sound than Brahms. We know that the New York Symphony plays differently from the Chicago Symphony. That, I know, is the result of innovation. Or to put it as bluntly as Frank Zappa- they all deviated from the norm- and music progress occurred.

Innovation, then, in trumpet playing, is finding your own style. Very, very few of us will ever be Miles or Maynard, Baker or Alpert. They all have changed the sound of contemporary music- and in very different ways.

Innovation starts for us in the practice room when we take one of those Arban studies and change the articulation. Maybe we move slurring around or change dynamics differently. What feels good to you? What feels like an expression of your music? Pull out a fake book or one of Abersold's books and just work on different ways of playing the "head." Don't do any improvising yet. Experiment with tone and tempo; emphasize the notes and phrases in ways. Sing it first. Then play it. How might Puttin' on the Ritz sound differently with a different tempo. Here's Herb Alpert doing just that in the official video for the cut. Notice he even does some innovative camera work with one long "follow-shot" as well as at least three cameos himself.

On his most recent album he takes the classic "Take the 'A' Train" in 3/4 time. Innovation.

"Yes, but..." is the thought that comes to my mind. "I've tried it, I respond to myself, and it sounds pretty poor. I don't think fast enough, I don't know enough music theory, on and on...."

Remember the Inner Game? That's good, old Self One sitting there on my shoulder bringing me down.  He won't allow me to even try. For one, it is too much like work and, for another, can take too much time. Yes, so? Do I want this? I know I'm not going to make some big musical revolution happen, but it will be inside me. It will have an impact on the bands and groups I play with as we work together to make music interesting.

I said at the beginning of this post that these are "motivational-style" posts aimed at much at myself as for you. That means I will have to do something about these. I will have to take my own suggestions and try them on some consistent basis. "Yeah, I tried it, but it didn't go well" just can't cut it. There's a Big Band camp coming in June, not to mention the quintet doing some gigs and new pieces for us. If I always play the way I have always played, I will never change and never improve.

Let me know what you have found as ways to innovate your playing and musicality.

Again from the Jazz Advice post:
The steps of imitation, assimilation, and innovation are not limited to “jazz” music. Take any style or concept that resonates with you and incorporate it into your playing through this process. You may like the harmonies of Ravel or the rhythms found in traditional Indian music. Listen to them, figure them out, analyze them, practice them, and finally use them in new and innovative ways in your improvisations.

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