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Inside Out, Part Two

Saxophonist and educator shares his knowledge of developing as a performing and improvising jazz musician

Mel Martin
Mel Martin

Besides talent, study and practice are the prerequisites to being a great performer. This involves dealing with the two sides of brain power. The mind has two separate orbs that interact. The goal is to get them to interact in a cooperative way and not battle each other. Using the intellect is a powerful part of brain functions. This is where study takes place. While practicing and learning music, the musician is “feeding” that part of the brain with much detailed information. There is training and discipline going on caused by drill. The intellect deals with the minutiae of every aspect of learning, conceptually and mechanically. Problems arise when the intellect tries to dominate the brain. The other, and perhaps the most important part of the brain is the intuitive side. It functions on an entirely different level than the intellect. The instinctual element doesn’t require much thought in the sense that the intellect does. Instinct is the alert, aware, in-the-moment part of the brain. This is where performing takes place. Many great players have described their personal process as “getting out of the way of the music.” The music needs to come through. Intellect inevitably clouds the process. Some players have talked about going into performance with a “blank slate” as a mindset. This doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. It refers to putting all things aside that were studied and practiced. The music happens so fast that there is not time to think. This is why drill and study are so important. This is why great players always talk about the need to practice. The layperson doesn’t see the process. It all goes on “under the hood”. This is the “right brain-left brain” concept.

One can also “practice performing.” Commonly, many of us use play along recordings for this purpose. It simulates the performance environment. It isn’t the same thing but it elevates practicing to another level. These are great resources for learning repertoire. Another approach is to practice a song complete with soloing through changes acapella. Everyone does not easily do this. On a horn, it requires a thorough knowledge of the harmony and an ability to deal with rhythm just as if there were rhythm section present. The goal of this type of practicing is to establish and maintain the flow that should be a part of your approach whenever performing. This becomes the “Zen” of jazz. It is precisely this flow that connects all of the elements of music with the player and the listener. This is the point of reference from which everything emanates. In a perfect improvising world, every idea is derived from a previous one and leads to the next one. Sometimes there is an impulse to take it somewhere else entirely. Doing this can leave the listener confused. But one must follow the muse, right? Yes and no. The ability to flow is probably the most valuable quality a player has. While playing with McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson and Freddie Hubbard and others I could observe the way that they built their solos by flowing from one idea to the next in a very connected way. It is a train of thought. Joe Henderson had a particularly sequential mind. When recording, he would never start or develop solos in the same way. It was as if he would pick up where he left off on each take. Orrin Keepnews told a story of editing two takes of Joe’s entire solos together to make one brilliant solo. This takes a very special mindset and I believe this can be developed with practice, understanding and personal attitude.

Improvising jazz is an art form. This does not equate with “anything goes.” It also does not equate with merely sounding good and displaying tons of technical skills. The requirements are intense and need to be worked on and drilled thoroughly. The goal is to get to a point where there is an overview to create something unique and full of content. This often involves risk. Along with risk, comes the two-pronged possibility of success and failure. The best way to be prepared for risk-taking is drill and study of fundamentals. This does not mean regurgitating a bag of tricks and licks. It does not mean hiding out in someone else’s sound and style. It does mean to always try and speak in your own voice. One should learn to make the connections that keep the music flowing and vital, to take chances when the opportunity arises. It means living with the results. In a performance, each time we solo we try to make a “perfect” statement. This does not mean every note or lick has to be perfect. Again, Sonny Rollins comes to mind. He has the phenomenal ability to develop a solo so that the results end up greater then the sum of the parts. He may not always make what he is trying for. This is like the big league baseball slugger that hits balls right out of the park and strikes out in the same game, even the same inning.

The greatest jazz soloists come from deep within. They can dig into resources that most of us can only imagine. These resources come from practice and study and life experiences. They also come from playing together every day and night, traveling and sharing and caring. The music of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties was so great because bands would travel and play in various locations six or seven nights a week for up to a month at a time. Not only were the individual players great but also the intensity with which they made their music came from having to do it so much. Skills and resources had to be developed to deal with these situations. They were on call to deliver inspired performances night after night. This required a very high level of discipline. Obviously, the inspiration can’t always be there, but I know that there was a very high batting average at that time. Today, very few players have the opportunities to play as much or with players that phenomenal. One of the things that are required to develop real greatness is to be around players that are truly accomplished and inspired. This forces development. A little bit of them rubs off on you. Today, with such an emphasis in our culture on youth, real experience doesn’t seem to count for much anymore. I hear talk of some young twelve or thirteen-year-old wunderkind that everyone is raving about. Well, short of being the reincarnation of some great musical spirit, but I fail to be impressed that they are so good so young. Not to take away anything or anyone, but they simply haven’t lived or had the experiences necessary to make a great artist. They may be the next great or are they simply a result of the relentless assault on culture that constantly emphasizes “sounding good” over content and originality? A major part of the process of internalization is living. There is no substitute for this. Music is great and, for many, not as difficult as life.

In the African culture, music is an integral part of life. If someone gives birth a song is played, drums deliver the message. Every life event is accompanied by music. We are not that much different. The music is just not as natural. We have music in commercials, played at weddings, sometimes funerals. Birthdays, supermarket openings. Film scores are almost as big in sales as pop music. It is a very natural phenomenon. The only thing that is unnatural is the way the music in Western culture has become so manufactured. In pop music, it is common to overdub every single part and mix and master by computer. This has resulted in some clearly uninspired music. We simply value jazz as some sort of shared attitudinal connection. This would be the perfect time to change the value system that we assign to the music. The shallowness needs to be replaced by something much deeper, something more internalized. This is true of spiritual connection that we shared when John Coltrane played, the depth of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the internal workings of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, the mastery of Bud Powell, the soulfulness of Milt Jackson and Cannonball Adderley. These are internal connections that do not have as much to do with the techniques of music as the realization of art. The success of this music has reached its highest points when their internal realities connected with ours. Kind of Blue is still one of the best selling jazz albums of all time. Not only were some of the greatest musicians of an era involved, the recording captures an internal reality that is beyond description. Beauty is a shared concept. Inspiration is a shared concept. These things are born internally and delivered in such a way that they connect internally. The moods captured on Kind of Blue are deep and profound. The solos are perfect models of lyricism. One day, someone may make another recording like this, one that can touch people across all barriers and time constraints. Until then, we, as musicians and spirits, must work hard at internalizing all of the elements that may make this possible.

Originally Published