Corey Mwamba


more thoughts on the art/craft

Had an interesting chat on Twitter last night with Ethan Iverson initially about Monk, which was joined by Han-earl Park, Vijay Iyer, Andre Canniere and Darcy James Argue. This of course led to me thinking a bit more and just rambling on my own, so I'm just summarising the conversation and collecting those thoughts here.

It started with someone [I forget who] sharing a post that Ethan had made a year ago about people playing Monk songs incautiously. It might read as dogmatic, but I can see where he's coming from; if we're going to agree that Monk is "a major 20th Century stylist and artist", then paying due attention to what he's saying with his music —and how it is being said—is key. As someone who's played a lot of Monk's work over the years, I can say it doesn't get easier either! There are always new things to find.

In any case, there was a conversation with Ethan and Andre about the harmonies of the middle eight bars of Well You Needn't—the bit that Miles Davis changed, for reasons I don't know, but am interested to find out. If you're not sure of the difference have a listen to this:

and then compare with this:

The middle sections of the theme are different. In terms of chords they look like this. I've always played it as a sequence of major triads, with the sixth and ninth suggested from the melody rather than the harmony.

All of this led to Darcy making a great point:

Jazz musicians have a gift for messing up the simplest things: Freddie Freeloader, All Blues, Blue Bossa... And since these are the tunes young players learn on, they also learn that no one actually listens carefully.

Which immediately led to my stating that listening is not really part of music education. Not the way "seeing" is part of a visual arts course. Han-earl made some good points about dogmatic, refracted listening: where a student is taught to hear the things that the teacher hears, which may or may not be what is actually there [playing the (supposedly) improvised music the way it "should" be played]. I hear younger musicians doing this now.

I realised that through the discussion I was sounding dogmatic about Monk, which I'm not. Also, Han-earl made some really good points about the use creative play in negotiating the music which really resonated with me. So this morning I tried to reconcile this. Here's where I got to [and apologies if you've already read all of this on Twitter]:

Maybe there is a conflict between three things...

  1. informed playing, where the musician has a deep understanding of the piece and uses that information;
  2. exploratory play, where the musician doesn't know the material at all and is testing what can be done; and
  3. schooled play where the musician has generalised rules on how to play and applies that to ANY material given.

I think it's the third of these that bothers me. It's from personal experience. I learned music through jam sessions/gigs and the library. And listening to Monk was one sound-world: playing Monk with others was another. On Well You Needn't most people knew the Davis version. I remember one Tomorrow's Warriors session where I was accused by a pianist of not being able to play because I knew the original harmonies to the song.

What got me thinking about this was Han-earl Park's comments about play, and Darcy James Argue's comments on transcription. I differentiate transcription with listening: transcription uses listening but it is not the same as listening. I'm saying that listening—concentrating on sound—is not focussed on in these situations; and even though the mythology of jazz is about the ears, education is fixated on paper/pen [or computer].

the mythology of jazz—initial thoughts

This is a knotty topic, but I started with thinking about the idea of desecration: in the sense of the choices a musician makes about older material; and specifically older material written by an agreed pantheon, or even a musician choosing newer material that is outside an unspoken yet seemingly understood canon. But it isn't the musician who internally decides whether Jazz has been desecrated; it's those who experience his/her work. This sentiment is encapsulated in "that band ruined that song for me"; and I know I do it when I hear Monk played "badly" or "wrong"... "Badly" and "wrong" are almost meaningless in a music that thrives on change, but THERE THEY ARE. Chord/scale theory—the idea that for a given chord there is a scale—is another part of the mythos. The concept of adding minor 7ths to any chord, no matter the context, is another strand.

These are clearly based on observations of patterns, but when I was starting out they were constructed into a form of truth: but it was a truth that had almost nothing to do with what you could actually hear on the original recordings these people revered.

Again, it goes back to how musicians listen and what this has to do with education, which I'm thinking about a lot more nowadays. In a previous post I briefly mention Plato's Republic with respect to the importance of tales. We use the tales [in a musician's case, sound] we experience early on to negotiate the present. Funnily, in The Republic, Socrates advises against teaching children certain stories, so that they don't form negative impressions of the heroes—a reinforcing of a pantheon.

I'm wondering how much of a difference there would be if specialist music education focussed on listening, THEN technical playing. I mean, it's entirely possible to reach high proficiency in an instrument without liking or understanding any of the music you've played.

There are kids in jazz big bands who don't listen to jazz in their leisure time. Maybe they shouldn't have to: but in a music where "masters" always suggest the primacy of the ear, how is that going to work?

Transcription is important, but without having developed skills to listen, it will always fall short.

comments (1)

Corey Mwamba

20th Aug 2012 | 8:27am

Ethan Iverson has also summarised the conversation, in a less waffly format!

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