Technique in Jazz: One Guy’s Take

Somewhere in the middle of a notey solo on “Moment’s Notice” last night I started thinking about the role of virtuosity in jazz. (For those unfamiliar with the tune: that is not a good time to start thinking about abstract concepts, because it can lead to “Did I really mean that phrase there? How about that one? Crap, where am I?”–but we can’t always control what pops into our heads.) (UPDATE: Listen to this happen in real-time below.)

Tunes like that often get me thinking along those lines, though, since their chock-full-of-chord-changes-ness tends to give one the sensation that he or she is being played by the tune rather than the other way around. (The solution, it turns out, is to learn the crap out of the tune until it feels as unconscious as a medium-tempo blues. Check back with me in another 20 years and I’ll let you know how that’s going.)

Coincidentally, the jazzoblogowebosphere offered two interesting posts on the same subject this morning–one from Peter Hum and a somewhat related take at Nextbop, both worth reading–exploring the role of technical wizardry in the genre. I don’t claim to have any universal insight on the topic, but I have had an evolving thought process about it, which is tied in with my development as a player (as I suspect is the case for most players).

The short version: when I started getting serious about playing in my teens, I was focused on the high/loud/fast side of things, mainly because it came easily to me in the early days. But by my college years I had started to reach the limits of that ease, and entered a long period of struggles with my instrument. I think this is true for many instrumentalists, and trumpeters especially. My chops became a harsh and fickle mistress which I could never count on from day to day. I fantasized about the sound my horn would make as it was slowly flattened beneath a steamroller into a large brass pancake more than I care to admit. I felt in those days that if I wasn’t able to play to a certain level, it wasn’t worth trying to make music at all.

Here’s a clip of one guy who made me rethink this equation:

I know that Chet, and late Chet in particular, can be love-it-or-hate-it proposition, but I think you have to concede he’s doing a hell of a lot musically with not a lot technically–and at a time when the technical side of the equation was giving me nothing but frustration, the idea that you could find something to say no matter how your chops were treating you that day was a revelation. I credit this approach with getting me through my years of wandering in the bad chops wilderness–if I felt like I needed to sound like Freddie Hubbard every night I never would’ve made it (in fact, that ended up causing problems for Freddie Hubbard himself in the long run).

Fast-forward ten years or so, and through a combination of good teachers, hard work, ad hoc self-psychology, second/third/fourth-guessing, and dumb luck, I’ve gotten to a point where I can count on my chops to be at least serviceable most of the time, which means that I find myself prone to forgetting the Gospel of Chet and giving in to the voices that say, “You waited so long to play high/fast/loud! Let it rip!” It’s a good problem to have, and sometimes that’s exactly what the musical situation calls for. (For example, I enjoyed playing a  Friday night gig recently at a noisy bar–when my wife asked how it went, I said, “They were loud, but I was louder.”)

And chopsy playing can be great as a texture in itself (as Hum mentions in the article above)–I remember an older musician talking to me about the different strategies of building a solo–sometimes you start simple and build to complexity; sometimes you start sparse, build to notey and come back again; and sometimes “you come in doin’ it and you keep on doin’ it.” That can be a hell of a lot of fun.

(Side note: in several reviews of my CD, the reviewers included points like, “He may not be a technical wizard, but…” and then went on to compliment my musicality or melodicism. It’s a testament to how the jazz-as-technique meme is still ingrained in my head that my immediate response was, “What’s wrong with my technique?!”)

My long-term goal, though, is to get to the point where technique IS just a means to the end of being able to relax and let the music flow however it wants to.

Maybe not on “Moment’s Notice,” though.

UPDATE 7/9: Here’s a recording of the tune in question–see if you can hear where I start thinking about the forest and lose the trees.

  • Moment’s Notice (Coltrane) – Ian Carey, trumpet; Ben Stolorow, piano; Bryan Bowman, drums; Noah Schencker, bass. Recorded at Casa de Bowman, 7/7/10.

9 thoughts on “Technique in Jazz: One Guy’s Take”

  1. As a guitar player I would find myself, when confronted with fellow players who had/have more chops than me, thinking “why can’t I do that?”. Now, as I am older, I don’t think about that so much anymore and have come to the realization of what I can and can not do – technique-wise. Now, I am more concerned with having my own style and sound.
    A friend of mine, a sax player, told me recently that “you sound like you” and that is probably the best thing any musician can hear from a fellow musical peer. While I may never get to the level of, say Jonathan Kreisberg (who has chops for days) or Ben Monder(ditto), I can find peace in the fact that two of my more favorite guitarists – Bill Frisell and John Scofield are very much within my grasp.
    Cool blog, BTW; I just found it today as a link from the NPR music blog about the whole Nicholas Payton rant.
    On a side note….I was not able to hear where you started thinking during your solo in Moment’s Notice but, if I had to guess, I would say it right around the time you wrapped up your chorus?

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for reading. Hadn’t listened to this in a while, but there’s definitely some stopping and grunting at the beginning of my last chorus, which may be the sound of me realizing the value of staying focused on the task at hand…

  3. Hi Ian: I heard the grunting and thought maybe that was the place, but without the grunting, I wouldn’t have guessed!
    I signed up on your mailing list, after having missed your Nov. show at CJC because the CJC mailer arrived the day after the show. Aargh! I loved your “Playing the Changes” class in July and I’m working away at it. Thanks a lot for that experience.
    Ted Parker

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