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Uncertainty Principles

By Published: March 6, 2007
I am generally unable to listen to music as "pure sound (I don't actually believe that this is possible). I listen instead for a certain narrativity in the music, a sense that it came to us from somewhere, along some interesting and perhaps arduous path - audible traces of an authentic life on earth.

Once, the split tone at the crest of Coltrane's solo on "Transition seemed to tell such a story; today that same technique is neatly tucked into every saxophonist's arsenal, signifying nothing in particular. Once, young musicians developed through apprenticeships, on-the-job training and an inner drive for originality, excellence and uniqueness at whatever cost. Today, virtuosity appears in abundance, but with little vestige of the life-or-death stakes that once animated this music.

I'm not very old, and I don't mean to fetishize true hardship, but I do remember when the scene felt different. Now that the scene is defined by music-school graduates, I feel nostalgic for the days when musical expertise was a hard-won trait. When I hear mastery without risk, I feel ripped off.

This is why, in my own work, I constantly seek out situations that take me outside of what I know as a musician. Whether it's an elaborate compositional technique or a specific collaborative situation, I'm interested in finding something not just different, but shocking. In my collaborations with Mr. Ladd or with Mr. Mitchell, I have been shaken to find that many of my musical values were simply irrelevant to the situation; I have been forced repeatedly to rethink my sense of what music is and what it is for.

And that's closest to what jazz is for me: an expressive and critical take on reality, at once tough and fragile, culturally and historically grounded yet perilously unstable, miraculously existing in the most unlikely circumstance and simply devastating in its effect on one's worldview. The kind of musical experience I crave is the kind that makes me wonder if I even know what music is.

So, while I still have the megaphone, I'd like to put the call out to my fellow musicians: let us all vow to put ourselves at maximum creative risk whenever possible. In this climate, what do we really have to lose? If the experience enables us to say something authentic or to be more fully present in the world, then it will have been worth it—for ourselves and for others who are listening.

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