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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.

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