Sunday, August 19, 2018

Living the Jazz Life

At my music school, my chamber group was invited to perform in an art gallery opening in the concert hall. We were asked only a week in advance but thought we could pull off a few movements of the Trout Quintet. We had a 45-minute time slot so we’d have to play some easy filler pieces as well. The violinist in our group suggested that her two sons could play some jazz on trumpet and piano instead having us scramble to fill the time. I immediately offered Adam to play the bass with them. Adam, who was present in the room, nodded and said he could do it. The violinist said that her sons would be in contact with Adam to discuss songs. Sounds good, no problem!

At this point, Adam’s jazz experience was mostly in the high school jazz band where they learn and rehearse a select few songs to perfection every year (he also racks up a bunch of Outstanding Musicianship awards for these). The only pickup jazz experience he had was several weeks of jazz ensemble in music school and a pickup jazz combo in summer camp the previous summer. When the boys gave him a list of songs to look from the Real Book, Adam started to panic because he had not heard of them. I said we’d just listen to them on YouTube. We started to listen while Adam followed along in the Real Book. Immediately the performances veered off the sheet music and Adam said he couldn’t do it. “Why are you making me do this?” I started to doubt myself in volunteering him, although he was in the room and never once seemed unsure of it when we said yes. Before the art opening, he never tried playing the songs by himself and keep dreading the day. On the day or the art opening, the boys were going to meet and rehearse the songs for a half hour before going on. When the day came, Adam had to rehearse with our chamber group first and then bow out to meet the brothers. After introductions, they actually only got 15 minutes of actual rehearsal before playing in public for 25 minutes. We played the chamber music first which was mediocre at best since one of the movements was fairly new.

Adam Jazz Combo
Click play!

Then the jazz trio took up residence and the whole atmosphere changed. It was easy going, mellow and smooth, as if Adam had been playing with the brothers for a long time. The whole room relaxed as the audience chatted quietly while viewing the artwork. Adam looked completely natural without a hint of nerves. Whew, I knew he could do it! To be honest, there was no way I could ever pull something like that off and I was beaming with pride that Adam could. There were a couple of spots where I noticed Adam got a little lost, but he played right through as if nothing happened. No one else could tell. I asked him about it afterward and how he recovered. He said he just he just played two chords until he figured out where he was. In fact, you can always tell if he’s made a mistake when you see him smiling. Like it’s simply amusing to be lost, no panic whatsoever. Now that’s living the jazz life!

At a jazz jam at the other music school Adam attends (which has a much larger jazz program), I was amazed at how versatile the musicians were. During the course of the jam, a trombone instructor scatted for a song. In another song, she sat down and played the drums. Then she switched it up and played the piano! Adam arrived in the middle where there was another bass player student already playing. The other bassist set down his bass, gave Adam the amplifier plug and then picked up the electric guitar while Adam played the bass. The leader was also a trombonist but spent most of the time playing the piano and drums (but didn’t sing as well). Even the saxophonist put down his horn and played the piano and drums for several songs! Wow, that’s some real musicianship! Adam, who plays only the violin and bass, clearly needs to pick up a few more instruments! We already have the piano at home, although I am completely useless at helping with anything jazz related unless the music is completely written out.

Jammin' - play me!
It appears so effortless when jazz players jam. There’s usually just a skeleton of the music written out in the Real Book but instinctively everyone knows where the changes and the handoff to soloists. The handoff could be just a look or a nod, and it is also completely OK just to talk to each other in the middle. No one ever gets lost or if they do can recover without anyone noticing. This concept is completely foreign to this completely classical pianist. In chamber music, when things fall apart, it’s usually full stop and then announcing let’s start at measure 132. In one performance of the Trout Quintet second movement, I sensed that we were getting out of sync and started to panic. Eight measures before the cadence I started the harmonic descent and miraculously we all arrived at the end at the same time. It was truly a miracle that we saved it. Even Adam thought it was a miracle. But this sort of miracle happens all the time in jazz.

Adam solos
Adam solos - play me!

A unique thing about jazz is probably the most frightening for beginners - solo improvisations. Adam had always refused to do solos, but thankfully this instructor makes him do it. And again, it sounds so effortless and fun. The best thing about being a jazz musician is being able to drop into a group and simply play without having hours of rehearsals together ahead of time. You can just go and make music together. So happy that Adam can live the jazz life!

No comments :