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Paths of Creativity: In Pursuit of Individuality in the Conformist ’90s

Music should be healing, music should uplift the soul, music should inspire. There is no better way of getting closer to God, of rising higher towards the spirit, of attaining spiritual perfection than music, if only it is rightly understood.

-Hazrat Inayat Khan (excerpted from The Sufi Message, Vol II, copyright 1962 Wassenaar Publications)

You don’t hear many musicians alluding to those lofty, esoteric goals these days. “Spirituality in music?,” remarked one wag. “I’m too busy trying to pay my rent to worry about healing myself or anyone else.” Given the glut of CDs flooding the market and a paucity of insultingly low-paying gigs divided up among the hungry hordes of both veterans and newcomers on the New York scene, these are tough times for enlightenment. Heady concepts of personal evolution, higher states of consciousness and unity through music-once so vital in the expansive ’60s-have taken a backseat to the more practical and immediate concerns of rent, record deals and radioplay, shelf space and returns, image and endorsements. To put it in perspective: John Coltrane played his last public gig in 1967 at the Olatunji Cultural Center in Harlem; nearly 30 years later, Joshua Redman had his CD release party at the Fashion Cafe in Rockefeller Center. Welcome to the corporate ’90s. Check your hippie idealism at the door.

Coltrane’s flame, which burned so brilliantly and ignited souls in his final years, has been nearly extinguished by blatant commercialism, crass competitions and a corporate teaching system that mass produces musicians like so many McDonald’s hamburgers coming off the grill. Sure, many of these conservatory grads are skilled, technically adept, knowledgeable players. But at what cost? They have crammed in all the information about their craft in four short years while losing sight of a deeper connection to music-making. In their haste to acquire chops in order to get the gig, the deal, the airplay, aspiring musicians have turned their backs on Trane’s true legacy, which lies somewhere beyond the notes.

But there are still flickers of hope. Enlightened missionaries like pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Dave Liebman-each of whom is dealing with music as a more depthful, spiritual experience-are helping to turn young disciples on to a lifelong pursuit of individuality in the face of conformity. It’s not an easy or popular road to take, especially now. But given the circumstances and timing of their musical upbringing, it was the only path.

“Coltrane is really where it starts for me,” says Liebman, a no-nonsense guy from Brooklyn who comes across like part Hazrat Inayat Khan, part Harvey Keitel. “No one…except maybe Mozart…is really born into realizing what is the power of music. It’s something that has to be gifted to you; you really have to experience it. And in my case, it was through experiencing the great Coltrane quartet. I was 15 years old and I didn’t know what it was at the time. I remember thinking, ‘This group is definitely into more than just playing. And whatever that is, I have to find out about it.’ If it wasn’t for that, I’m not sure I would’ve ever known. I can’t say that I was headed that way. I wasn’t brought up that way, it wasn’t my bent. I’m a very nuts and bolts kind of cat. But seeing that band transported me. It was a major turning point in my life.”

Liebman was already playing sax at the time of his teenage epiphany but he admits he had no real direction back then. “I didn’t know nothing about no career, I didn’t know what the fuck I was gonna be,” he laughs. “But seeing Trane made me think, ‘Whatever he’s doing, it’s definitely something that’s unbelievable and he’s using a saxophone and I play saxophone! How can you do that and play that instrument?’ That was a big question to me at 15 years old and it haunted me until two years later when I finally experienced a little bit of it myself.”

That’s when Liebman entered into what Kenny Werner refers to as The Church Of The Spark. “There’s this dancing deity inside everybody, like a flame,” he explains. “And that dancing deity is a genius improvising musician. That’s the genius that everybody has inside of them. And you see that flame manifest in musicians all over in these different areas. It just resurfaces all through history and, to me, it’s responsible for the beginning of every important movement that ever happened. Rap had it there, before it got corporate. You could see it in grunge bands for a while. The point is, where would we be without those sparks coming in from time to time? We’d certainly have no Charlie Parker, no Louis Armstrong, no Duke Ellington, no Monk, no Miles Davis, no Jimi Hendrix.

“But when this dancing deity resides in a certain music and that music becomes overly defined, it pops out of that and the spark jumps into another kind of musician. It’ll always jump out of the body of a classicist and jump back into the body of a person who is willing to improvise.”

It’s no small coincidence then that Liebman-lifelong soldier for that spark-has just come out with Meditations (Arkadia Jazz), a live interpretation of Coltrane’s spiritually-charged masterwork in six movements performed by an ensemble featuring Jamey Hadad and Billy Hart on drums, Tony Marino and Cecil McBee on basses, Vic Juris on guitar, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Phil Markowitz on piano, Caris Visentin on oboe and Liebman on tenor sax. In this age of smooth jazz and “suit jazz,” this can only be seen as a renegade act. “Two drummers, four horns, playing full out,” says Liebman. “That’s something that nobody does anymore. But that’s the spirit that we grew up with in the ’60s.”

While Liebman does acknowledge that the whole socio-economic fabric has changed considerably since the tumultuous ’60s, he still sounds a bit nostalgic for those idealistic days. “Life is just much more difficult now,” he notes, “but back then we really sought an alternative lifestyle. We had the luxury of not having to have a lot of money to live. I mean, I was living on $125 a month rent and eating rice. It was so easy in that respect. I was a school teacher for two days a week and the other five days I was just jammin’ and playin’, gettin’ high, doin’ whatever I had to do to learn. We were all into that, trying to expand and evolve. That was something that we consciously knew we had to look at.

“We were the ’60s generation,” he continues. “And that generation was trying to get into that. Guys I was surrounded by…I was living with Chick Corea and Dave Holland in the same loft building and we were reading Sufi books and Baba Krishna and everybody was trying to get something. Chick went into Scientology, John (McLaughlin) went into Sri Chinmoy, some cats went into yoga. I was into macrobiotics for three years. Some cats went into drugs…LSD or whatever. I mean, that’s a time of your life (early 20s) when you’re supposed to do that stuff. It was the late ’60s, that was in the air. It is not in the air now. No one is pushing the envelope that way anymore.”

Liebman, however, doesn’t expect an aspiring musician in 1998 to understand or get to the essence music. “He’s not going to, there’s no way he could. This is not part of the life cycle that you know this stuff in your 20s. You gotta live and get through it, and it’s a long journey. It’s really a matter of keeping at it and the light comes on slowly because you keep at it.”

But if he does take note of an especially well developed student who shows particular promise, he may try to nudge the apprentice down the right road. “When I get a student who I feel is primed for it and in need of that I say, ‘Hey man, here’s the book list. Get any of ’em and just start reading.’ I’m talking about The Sufi Messages by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Beethoven’s notebook, Picasso’s notebooks. In other words, cats writing about the meaning of what they do. That’s the thing, you have to do research outside your own field. Forget about the music. It’s gonna be in philosophy, religion, painting. Then you bring that back into what you do.”

The Great Inhibitor in this process of self-discovery, he maintains, is time. “There’s no time for this kind of pursuit today. Everything’s distorted now. We’re so inundated by entertainment, and music is definitely not about that. The people who make great music…jazz, classical, whatever…really have another intention in mind. And that’s what you have to go find out about. Of course, you get waylaid by the business, which is a drag. But you always gotta remember what made you start out in music in the first place. You got turned on to it somehow and it was pure when you loved it and that’s the reason you played. You must always try to go back to that because you’ll lose sight of that unless you think about it.

Which is why, throughout his career, Liebman keeps going back to Trane. “The thing I felt from him was complete, absolute 150 percent commitment at the moment of playing. He was just so there and so into it…no holding back, no censoring, no saying, ‘I’m going too far.’ And I realize that’s a very hard thing for people to take. Most listeners can’t really deal with that kind of energy because that’s a little bit frightening or whatever. But that intensity of feeling will stay with me always.”

It remains to be seen how Liebman’s own intense offering will do in the competitive marketplace of 1998, but Arkadia head Bob Karcy deemed it an important statement worth documenting. As Nat Hentoff writes in the liner notes: “I have known many musicians, in and out of jazz, but none have been as consumed by the search for more meaning in music than John Coltrane.” Liebman continues that search with his perceptive interpretation of Meditations.

And what does music teach us? Music helps us to train ourselves in harmony, and it is this which is the magic or the secret behind music. When you hear music that you enjoy, it tunes you and puts you in harmony with life. Therefore we need music; we long for music. Many say that they do not care for music, but these have not heard music. If they really heard music, it would touch their souls, and then certainly they could not help loving it. If not, it would only mean that they had not heard music sufficiently, and had not made their heart calm and quiet in order to listen to it, and to enjoy and appreciate it.

-Hazrat Inayat Khan

“There’s no teachers around today,” laments Liebman. “Nobody to instill the right values. I look at a guy who’s in his 20s now…he was brought up in an era, the ’80s, where conformity was the thing. Whereas, our period-it sounds like the sour grapes thing of ‘the old times were better’-but I remember when a cat used to get a record deal with Blue Note in the ’60s, he had to make a record that was different or (Alfred) Lions would throw him out. Nobody made copy records back then. The point was to be individual because that’s what you were expected to be. Guys grow up now with the idea that belonging is what’s happening, whereas we used to think rebelling was what was happening.”

Kenny Werner is staging his own small rebellion in the face of such conformity.

For the past ten years he’s been conducting clinics on the mental/spiritual/emotional struggle that working musicians face in the process of doing their art. After perfecting his “schtick” at universities and music societies all over the world, Werner has culled his observations and theories into an insightful self-help book called Effortless Mastery: Liberating The Mast Musician Within (Jamey Aebersold Jazz Publications). A sort of jazz musician’s take on Zen And The Art Of Archery, Werner addresses such concepts as “Fear, The Mind And Ego,” “Fear-Based Playing” and “Teaching Dysfunctions.”

In personal and appealing terms, Werner introduces several techniques and exercises for channeling creativity, expanding the intuitive self and maximizing God-given potential that are based on the principal of surrendering control to a larger, higher force. In Sanskrit, the word for this act of liberation is moksha. And as Werner notes, “One taste of moksha through the medium of music and a person will never want to return to a life of ‘thinking music.’ Music can shoot through the musician like lightning through the sky if it is unobstructed by thoughts. Therefore, the elimination of thoughts is a very relevant issue.”

Ego, he maintains, is the culprit in blocking an organic flow of music. “The ego’s job is to corrupt things. And what it corrupts is our intentions. Originally we played music for the pure love of it and then we started to play it more and more to define ourselves as people. And the more we started to do that the more this corrupt bullshit would start to happen.

The answer, he says, is to avoid trends, steer clear of convention and learn to channel inner creativity. Or as Keith Jarrett puts it, “Go deep into the cave to come up with the light.

“I think that this listening within to one’s own being is the thread through the human history of music, probably through the human history of all art,” says Werner. “I think this explains Cecil Taylor. I think this explains Monk’s so-called courage to play those notes. I don’t think it really took courage, I think he was just really connected to his own inner notes. And this is what has created every wave of music. People might reject their own inner creativity in favor of stylistic correctness. It’s really hard for a person to stay right on the razor’s edge of creation by not defining things. But a person has to give himself that permission to be free.”

He hopes his book can help other musicians access a virginal state where every note resounds in the heart and the mind. “If they got into the habit of saying, ‘Every note I play is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard’…as unrealistic as that may sound to some, if a person had programmed themselves to believe it, what a light would be around that person’s playing. And the light is simply the light of their own self-acceptance. That’s the message behind Miles’ playing. There was such intense focus of ‘This is my next note, this is the baddest shit you ever heard and I don’t have to think about it, I know it.’

“Miles obeyed that inner directive completely. We all obey that to one degree or another but Miles obeyed that completely. As soon as the next note lacked his presence, he didn’t play it. Consequently, when we think of Miles, we think of him as the transcendent master of modern jazz. I don’t even think of him in the line of trumpet players with Fats Navarro and Dizzy. I think of him as this mystical character who…it was his presence, his self-acceptance that created everything. So I came to really understand that the only key to my power…in order to have the same fun that Miles had when he played…was in honoring what comes out of me the way Miles honored what came out of him.”

In his enlightened manifesto, Werner addresses the role and responsibility of his fellow musician/healers: “It is our destiny to conduct an inward search and to document it with our music so that others may benefit. As they listen to the music coming through us, they too are inspired to look within. Light is being transmitted and received from soul to soul, as the planet gradually moves from darkness to light. We as musicians must surrender to our own inner selves. We must go down deep under that ocean while the slude of the ego floats on the sources. We let go of our egos and permit the music to come through us and do its work. We act as the instruments for that work.”

Through a series of meditations (included on an enclosed CD), Werner hopes to purge musicians of such gremlins as fear of failure or inadequacy, an obsessive need to sound good and the tyranny of ego while promoting acceptance and self-love. The first half of the book articulates the original purpose of music and the mystical consciousness that music came from. “In fact, that’s why jazz became something that we all got so excited about,” he explains, “because the early players possessed this vast, undefined quality. It’s only when they got older that they acted like musicologists and talked about how this all has to go a certain way. But the irony is that they had to violate the ways before them in order to reach this kind of rarified air. Each heretic revels in his heresy when he’s young and then he tries to set up a conventional wisdom that no one else can violate when he gets older. And then it becomes of relatively mundane value.”

The mistake, Kenny maintains, is confusing the medium with the message. “A human being reaches down into their inner state and with whatever language available they express something of an intensely human nature, and then people respond to it. Now the mistake that happens…and this has happened from Jesus on down…is that they pay attention to the music and not the inner state that created it. Therefore they go, ‘That music will make you free.’ And that music will never make you free. We have more hung up, neurotic people trying to play jazz today, like we had in classical music for years. Jazz alone will never make you free. A musician must become free and then he expresses that freedom through the medium of music.”

The ultimate goal of Effortless Mastery, he says, for musicians to outgrow the petty ego-ridden patterns that they’ve adopted, to try and reach their own higher selves and merge with the universe. “Now you’ve got a lot of dysfunctional musicians myopically worrying about their level of play or even more laughably worrying about the authenticity of what they’re doing,” Werner notes. “I mean, like anybody could really care about that. We respond to human sparks. We don’t respond to stylistic correctness.”

Another musician thinking along such enlightened lines is guitarist Philip Toshio Sudo. In his book Zen Guitar (Simon & Schuster), Sudo applies the ancient wisdom of Asian arts (karate, akido, brush-style calligraphy, samurai swordsmanship and the Japanese tea ceremony) to the most popular Western instrument, presenting a unique path to spiritual fulfillment for guitar players of all levels. In his Zen Guitar Dojo, Sudo provides 58 lessons that establish the beginner’s mind and into more advanced levels of Zen. As he writes, “Zen Guitar is nothing more than playing the song we’re all born with inside-the song that makes us human. Any one of us can do it. The music is waiting there to be unlocked. This dojo will give you the key…I believe that learning to play the guitar is inseparable from learning to harmonize body, mind and spirit. To truly play from your soul, you must have all aspects of yourself working together as one.”

In his inspiring book, Sudo distinguishes between information and wisdom. “Information (chords, tunings, theory) alone cannot teach you what you need to know to play your song. Our aim is not to acquire information but wisdom. It is only through the experience of our sense that we truly gain wisdom. One cannot learn Zen Guitar simply by reading. Just as no words can teach us how to ride a bicycle, the only way we can learn to play our song is through the direct experience of our bodies. To learn through experience-that is the path of Zen Guitar. There is a zen saying, ‘Paths cannot be taught, they can only be taken.’ So it is with Zen Guitar.”

Even Madonna is addressing spiritual matters on her new album, Ray Of Light. Hey Liebman…maybe this stuff is in the air now.

Originally Published