If I was to analyse what is it that makes my favorite players stand out, the first thing that would come to mind is style – they all have something that defines their playing, something unique and interesting. Also, there aren’t many people who have a style that is associated with them exclusively, which makes the concept of personal character even more intriguing. So how can we define it?
To address something as complex and subjective, I would have to mention a few of my most liked guitar players, since I am writing with reference to guitar playing mostly: John Abercrombie, Mike Stern, Tim Miller, John McLaughlin, Al di Meola, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel…the list can go on. Despite all of them being associated with the idiom of jazz, their ways of playing and improvising are entire individual musical worlds.
In improvised music, the good players eventually come to a state of mind where personality becomes part of the process, and since personalities are unique, this is a significant part of defining style. A combination of influences, personal preferences – both in and outside music, temperament and vision account for what we identify as originality. And then, the context in which improvisation takes shape is the factor that defines the great bands: Shakti, Return to forever, Trio Beyond are all good examples of group improvisation at its best, musical experiences that in turn shape playing and composition.
After this rather lengthy introduction, it’s time to get back to the quote that prompted this post, a Kurt Rosenwinkel interview or masterclass where he talked about creativity and originality. Picasso famously compared it to drawing a perfect circle – because nobody can do it, the individual imperfections will be what is ultimately defined as style. In a previous article, I talk about Mike Stern’s idea on the same subject, where what a guitarist can’t play is at the origin of uniqueness in music, something very much identical to Picasso’s thoughts on the matter.
In the light of these, the quest for originality ultimately leads us to an unexpected conclusion: play the music as well as you can possibly play, and the honest imperfections that will inevitably emerge in the process will be the identifiers behind others’ perception of the way of performing that is unique to you.
Similarly to improvisation being spontaneous composition, creating a musical identity implies significant and continuous hard work. I came to see the proficiency of great improvisers as the tip of the iceberg, where it – the visible part, about 10% , is supported by the other 90% – years and years of hard work and experience.
In a way I wish I started this blog much earlier, about 10 years ago. I first saw Mike Stern live in May 2002 at the Mean Fiddler, which currently doesn’t even exist, but over the years I’ve drawn inspiration from such shows that I’m only now able to share.
This time I saw the Mike Stern/Bill Evans band on Tuesday and then Thursday during their residency at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Here’s a short clip of them playing ‘Chromazone’:
Stern and Evans of course share a glorious musical past that saw them play with Miles Davis in the early 80s among other things. Interesting and stimulating for the general listener, occasions like these are even more valuable for aspiring players, myself included – apart from enjoying a gig of the highest profile, it is also a chance to get closely acquainted with some of the most original pioneers of jazz history.
Having seen Stern on numerous occasions, I can only say he’s getting better and better as years go by – natural, fluid and consistently positive, his live shows are a generous source of inspiration and positive energy.
The band he brought to London on this occasion can only be described as truly phenomenal: the ever-pulsating Dave Weckl and astonishingly impressive Tom Kennedy ensured Stern’s tour with Bill Evans will resonate around the jazz scene for a long time, or at least until they are next around!
Last weekend I did something I hadn’t done for a long time – went to see the same artist for 2 nights in a row at Ronnie Scott’s, and seeing the John Scofield organic trio turned out to be a very inspired (and inspiring) decision!
The last time that happened was when I could still get into Ronnie’s on a student discount – yes, very long time ago! I remember watching Mike Stern for 5 nights in a row, 2 sets per night, and that king of jazz marathons a great deal.
Overall, a 5 star jazz occasion, not least because of the band on the night – Greg Hutchinson on drums and Larry Goldings on Hammond B3 organ really drove Scofield’s improvisations into fluid and exciting territories.
The repertoire included a selection of compositions from Scofield’s earlier albums, with ‘Still Warm’ bringing a slightly nostalgic vibe among the listeners that packed Ronnie’s on both days. More recent tracks followed, combined with a healthy dose of jazz standards.
As a guitarist, I guess my perception of the 2 shows will always be instrument-specific, but everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy the grooving trio. Guitarists took away inspiration for playing and practising, the rest of the audience were simply treated to a truly special jazz occasion, similar to John McLaughlin’s appearance a few years ago.