Jazz education generally does its best to keep up with the latest trends in music, with thousands of teachers worldwide analysing classic performances and attempting to reverse-engineer them into exercises that you can try at home.
Working always on the assumption that you are playing over (or against) some cyclically recurring chord sequence, they offer examples of how certain geniuses allow themselves to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and play to some other arcanely related chord sequence that only they can hear in their heads.
The aim in certain styles seems to be to see how long you can spin it out for before succumbing to the need to touch base and play in key. The musical equivalent of the pioneering days of aviation: trying to stay aloft as long as possible without breaking one’s neck on landing.
And the thing that this is all striving towards, is the hardest thing to teach: a sort of musical weightlessness that needs no explanation to carry the listener with it. The weightlessness we experience in our dreams.
Or the weightlessness we suddenly feel when, after a calm exposition in C# minor of the haunting Brazilian folk tune Ogunde, Trane suddenly wanders into another world, gently kicking the ground from underneath our feet with this:
The first thing to note here, is that although highly chromatic, this is not “atonal” music. There are key centres, but they shift and float around each other. Just looking at the long notes that end some of the phrases provides a clue.
After revisiting the theme twice more, with some jagged passages in fourths in between, he brings us gently back to Earth:
Looking at these passages, the jazz teacher’s reflex would be to ask: what kind of discipline leads to this level of artistry? How to inculcate this?
Well, even if you learned the whole solo by heart and pulled out chunks of it in your own playing, you would never approach the process that gave birth to it.
So I want to ask: Wouldn’t it help us understand weightlessness if we asked what is holding us down? What comes between us and playing “like singing in the shower”?
In my quest for the perfect intuitive improvising instrument, which you can read about here, I noted the various “gravitational pulls” of the different instruments I have tried.
Folk instruments generally have a very strong pull. Players of the Japanese shakuhachi flute play the bottom note “ro” to anchor themselves, while many stringed instruments from Sitar to Erhu demand to be played in D or whatever.
And of course, a diatonic instrument like the button accordion, the Irish feadog, the Peruvian panpipes or the Chinese hulusi locks you into the home key after a few notes.
The instruments we play today are mostly descendents of folk instruments, having evolved from their village ancestors in the direction of greater weightlessness – or away from home-key dependence – without, however, emancipating themselves completely in every case.
Pick up any instrument, and start exploring ideas. Chances are, the instrument itself will suggest where to start.
Violin players looking for an idea will generally start in first position, often with the third finger. Trumpet players like to test their Bb and move on from there. You could say the instrument is trying to come between you and “playing like singing in the shower”.
You might think a saxophone would be free from this tendency. And yet even though there is no design constraint that pulls you towards it, force of habit often takes over. In my case I used to like to start from a note that uses all four fingers on one or both hands.
As a teenager, I wanted to improvise on the violin, but kept finding myself lured into the keys of D or G, perhaps by the lingering sound of the open strings I kept hitting accidentally. They actually keep ringing even when you don’t hit them. Unable to find a cure for this I moved on to other instruments.
Long story short, the only totally “weightless” instrument I have found in fifty years, has been the whole-tone tuned panpipes. I often find myself picking it up and going straight for the note I heard in my head, without knowing how that happened – as I don’t think I have perfect pitch.
On the liner notes to one of his Milestone albums, drummer Jack deJohnette relates how he took to practising the Melodica, a sort of keyboard-operated harmonica, in order to develop longer lines on the drums.
In like manner, being able to develop weightless lines on wholetone panpipes has allowed me to approach the violin again, and even to stay for long minutes aloft, despite the siren call of those pesky open strings.
So the best thing I can suggest, when you find yourself hitting those plateaux in your playing, is to find a cliff, and use a different instrument to jump off it. And don’t forget to keep singing in the shower.