Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Off the page

Over the weekend I went to the Douglass St Music Collective in Gowanus to see my friends Patrick Breiner and Kenny Warren play. Kenny was playing with his quartet called But the Monster is Sick. Patrick has just moved back to the east coast after living in Madison, Wisconsin for a few years. He is a mean tenor player and was playing with a trio called Sons of Daughters with Aaron Darrell on bass/voice and Devin Drobka on drums. The band was kicking off a tour, and they already sounded like they had a lot of playing under their belts, rattling off their tunes by memory. For me, the thing that really announces that a jazz/improv group is a Band (with a capital B) is that NO ONE IS READING MUSIC ONSTAGE. This is something that's taken for granted in the rock world, and jazz musicians playing original music could stand to benefit from it. It totally transforms the performance when a Band plays from memory. It breaks down a barrier between the audience and the musicians. The music sounds freer and more natural, and the Band listens to each other better and blends better. It also takes on the appearance of a kind of folk music, where the musicians don't need to refer to the written note, they just call out the songs they want to play. Of course, in a musician's reality this is not always possible. A lot of people write music that is either too complex to memorize, or the charts themselves are necessary guides to performing the music in real time. (Although Steve Coleman's bands don't read music, and that stuff doesn't seem simple). I don't think that a group like the Claudia Quintet is any less of a "Band" for reading John Hollenbeck's labyrinth compositions onstage. It is also not always possible because at least in New York, everyone is quite busy playing with many different groups and trying to make a living that no one has a lot of time to rehearse. So seeing a "Band" playing their music by memory is indeed a rarity. I can only think of a few: Little Women, Kneebody, the Danny Fox Trio, the Bad Plus...umm... I've been fortunate enough to achieve no-reading status with two bands I play with, NOOK and Old Time Musketry. It's a beautiful thing. A long time ago when I was studying at Berklee College of Music, I saw my piano teacher's band play. They played some pretty involved fusion music, and when I saw my teacher at the next lesson he asked me what I thought. I told him that I enjoyed the concert, but that I found it distracting that the band was so engrossed in reading the music onstage. Such a naive comment! My teacher scoffed at it. But there is truth to it. When I work on classical pieces with my piano teacher Sofia Rosoff, she encourages me to memorize, which she calls "getting it off the page". Which makes sense considering that another thing she always says: "The music isn't on the page."

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