Being that our sound is the first thing that people hear, it’s ironic that it’s not our first priority when we play? Imagine a top fashion model being more concerned with her voice than her face, or a writer being more concerned with his style of font, rather than his story. You would probably think that they have their priorities in all of the wrong places. The same can be said of a musician. If you are more concerned with what you’re going to play, than the sound you’re using to play it, you, too, may be a voice-conscious model, so to speak.
One thing that all great jazz musicians have in common is being able to tell stories with their sound. Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis—they moved people just as much with their sound as they did with their ideas, if not more. When we think of John Coltrane, it’s usually of his technical virtuosity and harmonic innovations. But one of the most unique things about his playing was his concept of sound. I’m a firm believer that if want to have an original vocabulary you have to start with an original sound.
This distinction between sound and ideas has led me to realize that there are, in fact, two schools of thought when it comes to improvisation. Whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, many players seem to have either an idea-centered approach or a sound-centered approach. Even though these two approaches overlap, they produce very different results.
Idea-centered playing, as I see it, is when you first realize the idea and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages to this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.
One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at Berklee College of Music, I remember attending numerous jam-sessions knowing what lick I was going to play on which tune and on which chord. Like most developing players, I figured why practice something if you're not going to play it, even if the situation does not call for it. This type of approach can make one sound very uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical I mean playing ideas that sound premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. If you notice someone's technique apart from his or her music, chances are that he or she have not figured out how to musically integrate it.
Sound-centered playing, on the other hand, is just the opposite. This is when the primary focus is on the various nuances of your sound, and the ideas heard are a by-product of the various ways in which you manipulate these nuances. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, exploring its timbre and textural possibilities to the fullest before moving on to the next note, your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality. Not to mention, with your sound now the forefront, listeners can tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you.
These two distinct approaches first dawned on me many years ago after I attended a concert at the “old” Iridium Jazz Club (when it was this hip, chic place, with a modern décor, located in the Lincoln Center area). That night featured two bands. One was led by tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, and the other by an up an coming tenor saxophonist, who will be referred to as “The Young Tenor Player.” Both players sounded great that night. However, being able to listen to one after the other, I noticed there was something distinctly different about their approaches. At first I thought it might have been the generational difference—with Dewey being in his sixties at the time and “The Young Tenor Player” being in his early thirties. Then I thought maybe it was the stylistic difference. Dewey’s style being the bluesy-tough-Texas tenor, laced with flurries of Ornette Colemanisms and “The Young Tenor Player’s” style was coming straight out of the hard bop era, paying much homage to 1950s Rollins and Henderson. But then it dawned on me that difference was this: Dewey was leading with his sound, “The Young Tenor Player” was leading with his ideas --or licks, for lack of a better term. Now when I say “leading with his sound.”
When listening to Dewey play, because his approach was sound-centered, his ideas sounded more inspired by what was happening musically. He never played something technical just for the sake of playing something technical. Even when he played fast flurries of notes--ideas that would be perceived as technical if they were attempted by others—it sounded more like abstract forms of sound manipulation, that were part of a much broader melodic and musical statement, than well-rehearsed licks which fit perfectly over the changes. Players who play this way tend to leave me feeling more inspired. And I’m not really sure why. I think it may have to do with the fact that sound-centered playing tends to be more spontaneous and organic in nature, which tends to engage me more as a listener--which probably holds true for the players who are accompanying them, too.
“The Young Tenor Player,” even though he had a very nice sound, it seemed to always take a backseat to the things he wanted to play. Which is very common amongst modern players. My theory is that there is so much music and musical vocabulary readily available through CDs, iTunes, books, YouTube, not to mentioned live performances, it puts a certain pressure on us to think that we need to play everything, all the time. Lester Young probably had a handful of influences on his instrument, whereas a young player today probably has three times as many--making it possible for them to have a lot of ideas to play, often times at the expense of lacking clarity and originality.
This, by the way, is where focusing on the sound helps. Since not all ideas sound good with every type of sound, knowing your sound will help you to know which ideas or approaches are a good match. If Paul Desmond had Ornette Coleman’s harsh and strident tone, he may not have developed the lyrical style for which he was known. The fact of the matter is, that if you’re going to play fewer and more sustaining notes, you are going to want them to be nice, warm and pretty—which by the way, personifies Desmond’s approach.
If want to hear more extreme cases of sound-centered playing, improvised music is a good place to start. This is actually one of the more intriguing aspects about free players like Albert Iyler and Anthony Braxton, and not so free, but open players like Pharoah Sanders and Billy Harper, is that you get to hear improvisation which is based on emotion and sometimes sonic sensationalism than the typical jazz-lines-oriented vocabulary. This approach can sound non-Western and primitive at times, with players making “noises” that sometimes sound environmental and animalistic. However, if you’re just learning to improvise, listening to these types of players may not be how you learn to navigate your way through chord changes, but are great resources for studying how to convey raw human emotion and hearing sounds they go beyond the original scope of your instrument.
As students of jazz we often feel that it’s OK to borrow other peoples concept of sound--until we can find our own, of course. And why not, you can’t copyright a sound. Even though it may not be copyright infringement, it is, however, a type of artistic plagiarism. As artists, we never want to lose sight of how important it is to have our own sound that is as unique and interesting as the things we play, and not just be musical dispensers of licks, ii-V-I patterns and transcribed solos. Many people have expressed to me that when they listen to the radio, they can’t tell who’s who. Which is my case in point. If they are familiar with your music, they should know before the DJ even announces your name.
If you read some of Downbeat magazine’s “Blindfold Tests,” you notice that the interviewees rarely guess whom the modern players are. And in all fairness, many of the participating musicians did not grow up listening to the kinds of modern players who are played as they are with people like Joe Henderson and Keith Jarrett. But on the other hand, I’ve probably listened to two John Scofield records in my life, but I still know his sound, even if what I’m hearing are others imitating it. As did all of the before-mentioned players, this is why it’s important to go beyond the theory, the ideas, and the harmony and learn to embrace music’s mystical and spiritual sides, the unexplained and the unexplainable, which will undoubtedly prevail the real you.
There was a popular TV game show in the 1970s called “Name that Tune,” where contestants would test their knowledge of musical songs by bidding against each other, seeing who could identify a tune hearing the fewest notes. And the contestant who made the strongest case, would say, “I can name that tune in (blank) notes. ” Now wouldn’t it be great as jazz musicians if listeners were so confident in the originality of our sounds, they would have no hesitation saying, “I can name (you fill with the player of your choice) in two notes.”
This article was originally published in Jazz Improv Magazine. Date unknown.