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I just got back from Longview, Texas. The Jason Harms Quintet performed at LeTourneau University last night, and the performance was unusual to say the least. Our bassist (Jesse) somehow picked up a severe stomach bug, and so our Quintet suddenly became a quartet. Those of you who know jazz know that the bass is probably the most signature component of a traditional jazz sound.

The evening became an exercise in improvising, but not in the standard jazz improvising sense. I was struck by how the vernacular and vocabulary of my playing changed so dramatically. Of course things sounded different without the bass… but I’m talking about the way my mind approached the improvising.  Think what would happen if the NBA suddenly raised the height of the hoops from ten feet to twenty feet. The game would still be the same in essence, but things like defense down low would change entirely. There would suddenly be no threat of anybody dunking or hitting a lay-up, and rebounding would be completely different. It would probably take a while for players to override the long-standing instincts of how to play in the paint.  That was the case for me last night. Not only am I used to playing jazz with a bassist, but I’m also especially used to Jason’s songs. I’ve played them many times, all with the same sonic environment, and then with no warning I found myself in a completely different set of circumstances. The improvising felt very fresh and vibrant, while also urgent and risky.

I’m just trying to say that it was a cool experience. I don’t know if we succeeded or failed, but I think it wasn’t really that kind of thing anyway. There were some cool moments, and there were some less cool moments. Either way, the experience of being air-dropped into a situation so different from the normal environment reminded me of a great Miles Davis quote. According to Herbie Hancock, Miles used to always tell the band to leave their practicing in the practice room. “Don’t bring what you’ve been playing in there onto the stage,” he would say. What he’s getting at is the nature of good improvising.  True improvisiation responds to the situation you’re in RIGHT THEN, and doesn’t force things from a different situation into your current situation. If you figure something out in practice, then that’s great, but don’t just hit the stage and wait for an opportunity to use your new-found skill or trick.  The environment of the stage (in jazz, at least) is always changing and never truly predictable.  Every moment in the preformance can be responded to in a good or bad way, and searching for the right response without the asterisk of hoping to include your new trick is the most beneficial way to serve the music.

My experience last night helped to remind me that my preconceptions of what I’m going to play at a Jason Harms gig need to be kept in check so that I have more freedom to respond well in the moment. I’m pumped to hit the gig again with Jesse back in the saddle, but especially now that I’ve got a fresh perspective on the songs.

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