Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Quiet Fire

Originally Posted on February 13, 2010

I played a week at Birdland with Jim Hall recently and on some nights, as a result of Jim’s direction, a large part of our sets was played very softly – almost to a whisper. It was an effective choice for many reasons. Not only did the audience find it to be captivating and were naturally drawn in by the dramatically reduced volume in order to hear every minute and subtle nuance, but as a musician, I found myself confronted with an entirely new set of challenges, given the volume impositions. Some of my most treasured and reliable ideas and approaches were simply not effective when played at hush tones and I had to adjust and compensate on the spot, in the moment. In short, it wasn’t as simple as I would have thought, even at this point in my career and development.

Interestingly enough, I used to have tremendous issues with saxophonists in particular and all musicians in general that played with what some of us called a “no-balls” approach, which was our description of anyone without a huge (loud) sound. Many a player’s effectiveness was (erroneously) determined by the sheer brawniness or bravura in their sound, and we were misled into believing that volume and power were the ultimate definitions of “a big sound”.  I’ve since realized just how much content during a jazz set is fatalistically obscured by the sheer lack of dynamics. And as a player, it has become tiresome for me to continue to try to put my best musical foot forward within a perpetual wall of relentless sound. I have lost interest in musicians who are obsessed with the utilization of loudness as an indicator of strength or as a measure of superiority – I’ll leave that to musicians whose egos require constant reinforcement, gained when drowning out other members of their ensembles or when creating such a dynamic imbalance that all but guarantees that all ears are on them at all times – by default.

I feel that it is imperative that we should consider a broader range of dynamics in our music (now more than ever before) as a measure that will more accurately represent our truest intentions as artists. Our music is far more rich and complex than the very erroneous placement of triple fortissimo/lack of dynamics approach on every single performance or the stigma that has been attached to us by those who think that playing recklessly and loud is all that we’re capable of. Playing softly appropriately and effectively is just as difficult as playing fast tempos or negotiating alternative meters (notice that i didn’t write “odd”, which perhaps suggests that there’s something wrong with it). It is entirely possible to maintain intensity and passion in a performance without a sustained, wild, raging and oftentimes, immature failure to communicate, musically speaking, happening throughout.

This subject reminds me of many fond memories that I have from listening to Billy Higgins play in New York in the early 1980’s at Bradley’s and other Greenwich Village clubs. Never inordinately loud or inappropriate, his touch was impeccable and he played with refined grace, finesses and power, yet he never fought the natural dynamics of the groups and there was never any question that he knew that his role was to elevate the music as a whole and to make everyone sound and play better. I was in my early 20’s then and I would watch and listen in awe at how he could drive the band so effectively without drowning anyone out. My friend, author and journalist, Stanley Crouch and I used to call  it “Quiet Fire” and we would often have lengthy, and sometimes heated, discussions concerning who was or wasn’t adhering to volume and accompaniment principles. I miss those wonderful musical moments and also, the arguments. Good times.

And so it all has come around full circle, this subject, which again raises the question of what defines great playing and ensemble interaction. is it all simply a matter of taste, interpretation, good decision making and musical judgement? Maybe one remedy is to simply play just a little softer, please.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Greg, great post. I agree, if you're at an established venue or concert hall. But right now I'm club musician. And lot of club rats, like myself, want to go a show and hear a good band, Yes. BUT, I want to also be free to hit on the cute brunette in the back row, without being SHHHH'd by a jazz snob. Sometimes, as audience member, I like bands that have a high energy, and everyones talking and laughing, cuase that's when the fun starts. I watch so many ladies, and gentleman, walk out of jazz clubs because it to got tense, and they wanted to get loose. Of course, Birdland, is not the kind of club where I, or most, would get that reckless.
    The hard part, I find, is letting a crowd get reckless, but reeling them back in with showmanship and charisma. I've seen some shows around town that have the best akward/funny segways in between songs.