If there is one constant theme in everything I try to do in music, it is the idea of intentionality. I once read both John Cage’s books in praise of chance operations and ambient sounds, and found them highly entertaining, and even persuasive, but when the chips are down, I beg to differ.
One of the main problems confronting people learning improvising is knowing whether what they did is good or not. The first mental cage they need to break free from is the idea of correct or incorrect based on what notes are allowed. What is a right note and what is a wrong note? To answer that question, I like to quote Duke Ellington’s famous dictum: “If sounds good, it is good.” But this may not be enough for some students. They still want to know if you think it sounds good or not. And that is when you have to throw the ball back by saying, well, is it what you wanted to play? Did it come out the way you wanted it to?
Once we have settled that the best we can hope for in performance is to match the act to the intention, we can start organising our inner game to lining up those two variables. The pathway we need to build broadly follows the sequence: the idea is born; the idea takes shape; we hear the idea as sound; we play/sing the sound, possibly adjusting it as we go, to fit the idea as closely as possible. As we progess, we hone that process till it becomes seamless.
The level we want to reach as artists is not always the one we imagined as beginners on our journey. We might start by wanting to play like Michael Brecker, without knowing too much about how he found which notes to play. If after years of hard work we actually succeed in sounding like him, we didn’t find those notes the same way he did. We found them by listening to Michael Brecker. It is only when we have developed our own strength of hearing enough to turn it into sound, that we realize that all we needed from Mike was that initial push to set us on the path. Just as Mike was set on his path when he caught Coltrane live at Temple University on November 11th 1966.
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