I’ve been studying jazz off and on for decades. My parents loved it, so I’ve been hearing it since the day I got home from the hospital. Over the course of my musical life, I’ve devoted extensive periods of time to studying it, then gone on to other things, usually work-related skills. Around five years ago I decided to really devote myself to mastering the idiom. I began taking jazz guitar lessons with Peter Prisco, a world-class player who has devoted his life to teaching rather than playing. (He plays me under the table every week in spite of this.)
Shortly thereafter, I started playing with Monty Alexander, one of the greatest living jazz musicians, in his Harlem-Kingston Express reggae/jazz fusion project. This unusual group features two complete rhythm sections: upright bass and a small jazz drum kit and electric bass and a larger reggae drum kit. I’m in the reggae section on guitar and stationed right behind Monty’s piano, the best seat in the house. The music alternates between rhythm sections and sometimes both sections play together.
Since I’m often listening, not playing, while Monty is playing with the jazz section, I decided to make the most of the experience by imagining that I am playing with them. This means keeping track of the song, where they are in the form, and also trying to hear what the chords and substitutions Monty and Hassan Shakur, the upright player, do as the song evolves. Not only is this a lot of fun, it’s been tremendously educational. Both Monty and Hassan have perfect pitch, which allows them to make remarkably adventurous substitions together. The gig is a wonderful lesson in the art of the possible, as no matter how wild they get, they always swing and sound like they are playing the tune correctly. Monty doesn’t often ask me to solo in the jazz sections, but it does happen, so I have to be ready if it does.
Of course, I’ve also been studying on my own, and I’ve also been playing electric bass with Robert Silverman, a fine NYC-based jazz composer/trumpeter/singer/pianist for the last ten years. I’ve also started playing bass with Earl Appleton, a wonderful keyboard player on the reggae circuit who also plays with Monty on occasion. In Earl’s group, we do a wide variety of music: straight-ahead jazz, soca, R&B, and reggae. I haven’t played much soca bass so I’ve been practicing that instrument as well as guitar. So I’ve been attacking the subject of jazz from a wide variety of angles recently, on and off the bandstand.
I love playing bass for a variety of reasons. It’s a lot more powerful than the guitar in the sense that you can instantly reharmonize the entire band. If the rest of the band is playing a C chord and you play a D, well, it’s now C/D and a very different sound than if you add a D to your C chord on the guitar while the bass is playing C. Your interaction with the drums is very powerful, and you also get to hear the music from the bottom up, which makes you hear the chordal instruments very differently. Instead of trying to find your place among the chordal instruments, you’re trying to find your place under them, another problem entirely.
Last week I went to a Guitar Center and tried out guitars. This is one of my favorite recreational activities. I just love playing unfamilar instruments, and occasionally I find one that makes sense for me to buy. They had a cheap jazz hollowbody that looked interesting. I took it off the rack and didn’t even bother to plug it into an amp, I just started playing it. All of a sudden, all the work I’ve been doing on jazz over the last ten years came together. I found that Monty-esque ideas were flying out of the instrument. I was swinging hard, and it felt like I had a whole band backing me. I must have played for an hour without realizing it.
The next time I listened to a jazz record, I concentrated on the piano player for a minute. All of a sudden, I could hear the inversions and extensions he was using, rather than just the basic chord. When he put in a substitution, I could hear what it was. This was exciting. But when I started my regular practicing I realized that other changes had taken place as well.
I’ve been working on a Lee Konitz tune based on “What Is This Thing Called Love.” It’s called “Sub-Conscious-Lee” (beboppers, like me, love puns) and I’ve been able to play it, but I never felt I understood it. I was just learning a sequence of notes and playing them correctly. I couldn’t hear it emotionally and I couldn’t memorize it. This time I played it and realized that I now understand it, the same way that I understand tunes like “Donnalee” that I already play well. Even better, I can actually remember it mentally, though my fingers don’t totally have it down yet.
So why the breakthroughs? I think I can identify several things. First, in learning any style of music, long periods of listening are essential. Listening isn’t a substitute for practicing. You can listen to Charlie Parker all day and you won’t be able to play any of it without practice unless you are already very, very accomplished. But listening helps you internalize the sound and feeling of the music you want to play.
Second, working on seemingly unrelated musical issues pays off in unexpected ways. There is very little musical relationship between soca bass and jazz guitar. But for some reason, practicing soca bass made me a harder-swinging guitarist.
Third, if something really interests you, don’t stop working on it. You will get somewhere eventually. One of the things I love most about music (though not the music business) is that it’s one of the few areas of life where you are guaranteed to get out of it what you put into it.