There’s a widespread and very annoying myth which surrounds jazz – that it’s easy, because you “just play whatever you want”. To its credit, this myth makes some sense, in the fact that, alright, okay, technically we do “play whatever we want”, but by no means does that equate to musicians thoughtlessly churning out notes completely randomly. In fact, ironically, it’s kind of what we aim for – the ability to seemingly not think at all, in the improvising process – for it to just naturally, magically happen. Unfortunately, that’s not how reality works. To put things in perspective, I guess we’re taught the rules and how to make them work. Then it’s up to us to play within and then beyond these boundaries, but to an extent that is somehow… heck, to whatever extent one wants to, really. But put it this way, the art of playing “out” is complicated in the sense that you want it to sound “out”, but not like you can’t play “in”.
Having sort of established that context, the rest of what I want to say might make more sense. So I mentioned last week that on top of tests and assignments, I also had a recital. To be honest, It wasn’t anything that major, just a combo thing that we do twice a semester, so by my third year now, it just comes by like clockwork. But this particular one was especially important and symbolic to me, because of something that happened at rehearsal the week before it. See, the thing I’ve struggled most with, at jazz, is taking a solo. Most people love it, it’s why the play jazz after all. They want to take a solo in every single tune they play, and many people take long, long ones, and get lost and absorbed in the enjoyment and happiness of it. I’d never quite gotten there, to feeling like that… After a traumatic incident on stage back when I was around 16, I’d never been able to get over the “deer in headlights”, FREEZE, BLANK, PANIC! that just completely takes over me when I’m supposed to take a solo. Sure, it’s improved a lot since then, but in my head it’s still always been miserable. Which explains why jazz school has been the hardest thing I’ve made myself stick to, regardless of the fact that I seem miserable all the time – because I hate soloing. A lot of it comes down to confidence and just staying calm, I know, but it’s always been easier said than done. The PANIC! button has been the hardest to tame, because once the switch is flicked, nothing else seems to exist, and cognizant behaviour seems completely out of the question. I guess this is a very particular form of stage fright, in the sense that I’m perfectly okay with hopping on a stage, until I have to do the specific task of playing a solo.
Anyway, the thing that happened was, I had a musical epiphany of sorts. I had brought in a hard tune with tricky changes that I decided I wanted to try and solo over and every day when it crossed my mind, I’d scare myself shitless over it. It was at our last instructed combo rehearsal with Nathan Haines and I was intimidated out of my bloody mind, but for once in my life, it felt like it was a conscious decision – an available choice – to be able to say to myself “I’m not going to panic, fuck it, I’ll just see what happens”. And what actually happened? Well I have no bloody idea. That was the brilliance of it. It felt like an outer-body experience. I don’t know what I played or how I played it, it kind of just happened. Seemingly without any consciousness of what I was doing, and without any of the blind panic. It wasn’t miserable, and I’d almost enjoyed it, even. I went hope delighted and gushed at the boy about how bizarre and scary and wonderful and all sorts of adjectives about how it felt – but the problem was, that sort of thing isn’t to be replicated. I knew that to get through the combo recital I couldn’t just conjure up that “unconscious” playing, and I would have to actually tackle the issue of the PANIC some other way. So I made the pianist play the changes with me over and over and over again the afternoon before the recital (a bit late, I know), but I finally got comfortable and just left it to be.
I’m sad to say that it never ended up being half as enjoyable or lyrical as that afternoon spent in practise, because of an arrangement alteration we’d made which made the cue to my solo a logistic nightmare that actually came true. I’m annoyed at not having put my foot down and kept the original arrangement for it, but whatever, it’s okay. It just meant that the beginning of my solo was a state of confusion for the whole band as to which chords to play, but it turned out okay in the end. I ended up being thrown off and rushed somewhat, but I’ll live. The important thing to me now, is the fact that I feel it might actually be possible for me to one day thoroughly enjoy this business of doing a solo.
A surprising and interesting thing I’d discovered though, was that even though my bass teacher has been playing for lord knows how many decades – 5? more? – he said that the “unconscious” thing where it felt like a solo has just magically happened has only happened to him four or five times in his life. I said, oh, ha, great… so once every ten years then?
And on that note, here’s a nice photo of me that he’d taken at combo rehearsal last year. Who knew that Kevin Haines wasn’t just a bass master, but also took nice photos?