A Last Word on Week 1

For me, the most important lesson from my first week at Banff was learning to address music, be it jazz or otherwise, without preconceptions; put another way, I was reminded to ask myself why it was that I followed a particular convention and whether I really wanted to do so at a particular moment in time. There are some times when sticking to convention is most musical and thoughtful and best-fitting to the context, but there are many times when sticking to convention isn't even a conscious choice, as it should be. Why should there only be one soloist at a time? Do we have to start the tune with the head, or end with it always? Is the role of x or y instrument really limited to the few functions that we prescribe them? 

This sort of a bottom-up approach can be daunting and exhausting at first—the act of making every musical decision a conscious one, or "justifying one's choices"—but over time, it seems that this attention to detail and specificity is what sets musicians of the highest caliber apart from those who are just killing as players. On a related note, preconceptions about music also include thoughts about "genre" and "style"—Vijay Iyer notes that a lot of talk about genre and style really refers to communities of musicians, and for Miles Okazaki, styles are basically pointless except as a basic means of orientation when learning about music. Musicians are individual personalities; styles are an observed affinity or shared sensibility between musicians, but nothing more.

And one last thing: listening to yourself play and identifying the choices that weren't really choices is also helpful. Miles recommended one painful but novel way of approaching critical self-analysis, which is to find parts of your playing that are clearly imitations of other players or just clich├ęd, worked-out material, and listen to those clips repeatedly until it becomes too much to bear. At that point, you've conditioned yourself to cringe even at the thought of playing that Brecker lick or whatever, and you can focus more on creating music that's actually UTIMOC (unique to its moment of creation).

On to Week 2!

***A couple misc. things: the inimitable Okkyung Lee provided an ear-opening list of recommended listening for budding improvisers—YouTube videos included!


  1. I'm curious as to your personal thoughts/opinions on some of the stuff on Okkyung Lee's recommended listening. With your personal musical background/tastes/knowledge, what are your thoughts on that sort of genre-less free improvisation, sometimes more focused on timbre than conventional melodic/harmonic tools?

  2. W.r.t. "genre-less free improvisation," I think it can be great! And also, just because certain music lacks conventional tonal elements doesn't necessarily mean that it can't use elements of what we might consider conventional melodic/harmonic tools, e.g., Evan Parker's solo soprano saxophone performance on "The Snake Decides" is captivating not only because of his virtuosic circular-breathing and timbral experimentation on the horn, but because there's a dramatic counterpoint happening between the different overtones that he's playing.

    A lot of this stuff I haven't yet had too much time to check out, but I plan to dedicate plenty of time over the summer to check out guys like Parker and George Lewis — the range of expression these musicians are capable of is just incredible.


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