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David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

By Published: February 25, 2008
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Music on the Brain

AAJ: Now let me go somewhat out of this context for a bit. As a psychologist, I'm interested in neuropsychology and the study of the brain. Recently, guitarist Pat Martino participated in a documentary about his miraculous recovery from memory loss due to an aneurysm and surgery. But that aside, neuroscientists tell us that musicians' brains are different from the rest of us. Modern brain scans can show both the structure of the brain and shifting activity levels in various parts as the subject performs certain tasks.

Interestingly, it appears that jazz musicians have more connecting fibers between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, and is actually larger in jazz musicians, even larger than those of classical musicians! The left brain does the cognitive, language, and logical stuff, while the right brain deals more with images, perceptions, emotions, and so on. When you play jazz, its real force comes from the bringing together of ideas and concepts (the inspiration, so to speak) with the emotions and the musical images. I just want to check that out with you as musicians—does part of what you do involve crossing that divide between ideas and images, concepts and realization, thought and action?

David LiebmanJR: Yes, that's true, and I think it's poorly understood by the masses that that's what jazz is, that it's a combination of soulfulness, yes, but you can't leave out that it's a real intellectual process. Jazz has grown into a very complex language, yet we can communicate a very complex thing to people who may never have heard it before. But the listener doesn't have to know this. Like when you listen to Coltrane's twenty-seven minute solo on "One Down, One Up." It becomes such a visceral thing to hear, but as a musician, I go "Wow, he's wipin' everybody out here!" It's highly complex, yet it's such a soulful place he got to.

AAJ: Trane was almost chanting when he played, almost trancelike. Yet it's all been thought out in a very complex way—with chord progressions, intervals. He even invented some new ones. And you guys do the same thing.

DL: What you're looking for in any artistic statement is a balance between head, hand, and heart, or mind, body, and soul. You want the thought, the feeling, and the technical means to do it. Some musicians have only one of the three—thirty-three percent of it. Some have the soul; some have incredible ingenuity and thinking—serialism, ideas, computers, etc. but no feeling, no vibe. But I think the ideal is mind, body, and soul, equally shared between the three. That's what I'm striving for. Playing it clean, no misses. Plus you're getting that feeling like you get from Trane, which of course is spiritual. Of course you can't do that all the time, but that's the goal, the vision.

AAJ: Let's stay with the brain/mind thing for a moment. Oliver Sacks recently wrote a book entitled Musicophilia (Knopf, 2007), in which he discusses musical oddities. One anomaly he discusses is a woman student, who was failing her class because she couldn't pass the exams. Her professor thought she was bright and called her into his office to find out why she was having trouble with the exams. As it turned out, she was a vocalist, and said, "I can remember things much better if I sing them." So he said, "'Well, sing it." And she proceeded to sing verbatim the entire course! Not only that, she sang it beautifully and the professor was enthralled.

Another example which occurs fairly often is where people see sounds and hear colors—they cross sensory modalities. In fact some great artists and musicians have this. For example, various tonalities and sonorities form different colors in their minds. It's a disorder, but it can also facilitate creativity. I'd like to ask you if you ever notice such oddities in yourself or your fellow musicians?

JR: It's pretty rare for me. I guess I can have a sense that a sound is blue, for example.

DL: I've only had it when I've been high on LSD. Out of body experiences, and so on. I think the brain is definitely capable of that. Musicians definitely have something going on there. Like a cat who can play things on his left hand that we can't even do with two hands, or the guy who can play tunes upside down and backwards, things like that.

JR: I've had dreams where I'm doing things that in reality are impossible to do. Like in one dream, it's surreal, but I'm playing piano on the floor, but there's no keyboard, and yet the sounds of string instruments are coming out. Then, the keyboard I'm playing on is a person, and it's my wife! Yet even though it's a dream, I can relate to it when I actually perform. Like there are times when I'm playing piano, but I hear string instruments in my mind.

AAJ: That's fascinating, and it's what I'm really getting at—not the freak behaviors, but just what the brain can do with sounds. And I'm wondering whether jazz musicians have a wider range of what they can do with sounds.

DL: Definitely. Brains are differently wired. The brain has even evolved over history—our brains are different from the cave man, right?

Jim RidlAAJ: Scientists have differing opinions about that. But today they believe the brain is more plastic than we believed; for example, it can generate new nerve cells, so there may be some truth to what you're saying. Julian Jaynes, in his book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Mariner, 2000), held that consciousness, hence the brain, has changed over the millennia. In particular, self-awareness and the ability to think about thinking was not a given, but emerged culturally and reached its apex in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jazz improvisation would not be possible in the absence of such a development.

DL: So too, what our brains can do musically is evolving, and the next generation will have something we don't, and so on. Charles Lloyd said to me, "You guys are better than I was." Last night, I had a sixteen year-old kid over here for lessons. I couldn't figure out how he was doing what he was doing! It's in the air! His young brain is wired differently from us older guys!

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