"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Musical Inspiration versus Musical Intimidation

Have you ever listened to someone play and come away feeling that anything is musically possible?

Or maybe you came away feeling that you wanted to quit music? And I don’t mean because you thought they sounded horrible.

If you have, you’re not alone.

Skilled improvisers can often leave us feeling inspired by what they do, or they can intimidate us. The best way to recognize the difference between the two is this: If after hearing someone play, you say to yourself, “I’ll never play that well. He or she makes me want to stop playing music, ” then this is obviously a feeling of intimidation. On the other hand, if after hearing someone play, you say to yourself, “This person makes me excited about playing music and being a musician. I can’t wait until the day when I can play as well as him, ” then this, of course, is the feeling of being inspired.

To say it plain and simple: An inspirational player makes you feel like you can, an intimidating player makes you feel you can’t.

I started thinking about these things while I was a student as the Berklee College of Music in the mid-eighties. Back then, I found it puzzling how I could listen to CDs of saxophonists like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and be left with a great feeling about music and myself, and then hear some 19-year-old kid at a jam session playing fast, furious, and complicated stuff and I would feel totally intimidated. Which didn’t make sense. After all, Coltrane and Rollins obviously played on a higher level—playing with an instrumental command, and ability to swing and spew raw human emotion matched by few. They were Jazz Masters. So shouldn’t I have been more intimated by their greatness?

So what is it that makes us feel inspired when we hear someone play?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that players who inspire me tend to have an original approach. By original I mean either having something totally new to say, or having a fresh perspective on old ideas. Case and point would be John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Coltrane’s originality is evident in the new musical language that he created, as well as a new approach to playing the saxophone.

Whereas, Rollin’s originality was displayed in the way he breathed new life into the bebop and hard bop vocabularies. All of these things are inspirational because they create feelings of hope, potential, and possibility. Whereas if someone is playing the same old stuff, so to speak, only cleaner and faster, we aren’t left with hopeful feelings, only with the feeling that we have a lot of work to do, if we, too, want to play very clean and fast.

I also find players who have a strong melodic and rhythmic sense inspiring. Even though these two qualities tend to captivate the listener in different ways: One resulting in the aural stimulation, the other affecting us physically-- they often work in conjunction with one another in helping us play more expressively. Melodious sounds coupled with a strong, yet, unpredictable rhythmic drive can often take over our mind, body, and spirit. Whereas when I hear someone who sounds intimidating, not only do they tend not to have much originality, but often don't play with much rhythmic variety--even though they can have great time. They’re playing often sounds very “eighth-notey” and fractional. Meaning they tend not to play solos, but are often more idea-oriented, playing without creating a singular comprehensive musical picture.

Another case in point: Charlie Parker, from a purely technical perspective, may have been one of the greatest alto saxophonists to have ever lived. But still, vocalists and lyricists have been inspired to write words to his improvised solos.

All of these things mentioned, of course, are somewhat relative. If you aspire to be the fastest guitarist in the west, then that style of playing is going to be more inspirational to you. Or if you want to sound just like Cannonball Adderly, then you will be inspired by other players who have been successful at cloning him.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to this. We're all born into this world, original creatures with original perspectives. And if we can channel that innate originality though any medium, whether it be art, dance, or music, then that in itself is a major accomplishment, not to mention inspirational!

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