A few months back, I did an interview piece for the New York City Jazz Record. Throughout the interview, I touched on many topics, but one point I remember making was this: Those of us looking to carve out a niche for ourselves need to be willing to do the work that others are not. We need the courage to walk down that musical back alley that would scare most away. And must be willing to surround ourselves with the musical company of like-minded thinkers, no matter how popular or unpopular they may be.
In my case, I was referring to my willingness to be committed only to the soprano as well as being open to drawing influences from those not a part of the typical jazz canon. I call this philosophy picking from the high hanging fruits. In other words, experimenting with ideas and studying players that are considered atypical. And low hanging fruits are ideas and players that are more commonplace.
Most contemporary jazz musicians were raised on the low hanging fruits from the jazz tree of knowledge. Usually, these are players introduced to them by their private teachers, high school band directors, and college music professors. And I'm speaking of the usual suspects who have come to define jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Herbie--and the list goes on and on.
Let me stress that there is nothing wrong with studying these players. It would be foolish not to. My issue is that students around the globe often end up studying the same 10 players on their respective instruments. Again, this is great when students are at the stage of just taking it all in. But when these same players remain their paths of study for the entirety of their careers, typically what grows artistically lacks originality. Only nurturing our creative aspirations on the low hanging fruits can potentially prevent us from finding a musical voice that it uniquely our own. This is especially true in this stage information accessibility. And let me be clear: I do realize that this way of viewing things is somewhat shortsighted. Whom we study is just half the battle. What we do with the information is what counts.
Having said that, I am convinced that growing your musical concept on the nutrients of the low hanging fruits is certainly the safer of the two. Who's going to criticize you if your concept is a cleverly crafted blend of Coltrane, Rollins, Bird, and Chris Potter? From these players, you'll get the vocabulary to navigate your way through most musical settings. And because most will already be familiar with this ideas, they're unlikely to criticize your efforts, unless they're done badly.
Challenging the status quo is a lot more risky, not to mention that you become more susceptible to critique, even if you are excellent. No one ever questioned Cecil Taylor's ability to play the piano or execute his ideas. What they often viewed with an air of suspicion, were his ideas--his aesthetical judgment, if you will.
This is the double-edged sword of growing your musical concept on the high hanging fruits. It's a harder path. And it's a path that can leave you with little company. One might be inclined to ask "Why to bother?" And for me, the only answer have is "Because I have no choice."
I hope that one day I can arrive at the covenant status of high hanging fruit. That which is mostly consumed by connoisseurs of unconventionality and experimentation. At the end of the day, I may not feed many, but at least I know that I will at least feed the hungry.
Anyway, check out my new CD, Sopranoville: New Works for Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone. Let me know what you think. Send me your address, and I'll even mail you a copy.