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Dave Liebman: If I had $10 Million in the Bank!


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If a person makes his own voice artificial in order to convince people, in order to be more audible, and in order to impress people, it only means he is not true to his spirit.
—Inayat Khan
There's no question that I am going to get pinned to the mat, condemned for being close minded, negative, purist, sour grapes and definitely politically incorrect for what I am writing. It is very specific, concerned with jazz musicians being hired to play in pop situations. It is not about musically "crossing over" which is another topic.

First of all, a few obvious points: Making a living playing creative music is hard enough without turning down good paying gigs, especially if they are musically passable (a separate question beyond this scope). Maybe the financial freedom which comes from a lucrative gig, even temporarily, means an artist can devote more time to his or her own art which is not a bad payback. On the "good vibrations" front, a friend mentioned the positive aspect of "musical generosity" which results when a jazz musician joins a pop artist to make music or by extension any stylistic crossover, something which can't be denied. And who is to say that such and such a pop artist is not as sincere in their music as I am in mine? This is what they do and of course if it communicates with people, all the better. (Unlike most serious jazz performed for as few people as possible it seems.) I remember discussing this with Chick Corea years ago. His opinion, at least from what I could gather (influenced by Scientology I suspect), was that the measure of artistic worth is its success at communication, which in theory has obvious merits concerning why we create in the first place, but as a guiding principle can get out of hand.

I am not in virgin territory when I discuss this subject. My wife, who is a jazz musician, and daughter are respectively fans of Aerosmith and selected hip hop along with Coltrane and Judy Garland'quite a combination in our household! The drummer in my present band has had a rock band for years. And for those who are not familiar with my background, I was sort of there at the beginning of so-called "fusion" with Miles Davis, several rock-jazz bands (Ten Wheel Drive, Sawbuck, Ellis-Liebman Band), my own first group Lookout Farm which included tablaist Badal Roy, and have recorded several times under my own name in that style. I write from experience, and more than anything I do so after several decades of maturing as a player and artist. I would not have written this some years ago, but thankfully we grow with time.

So here's the scenario. A pop or whatever style player wants to "expand" and hears so and so's voice as an improviser in their music. Usually, but not always, it is someone already well known which stands to reason since that it is who they would be aware of in the first place for obvious reasons. They are not about to spend time researching beyond the surface to check out lesser known artists of equal or more talent. Someone makes the call and asks would you be interested, offering more money than one could ever make in that period of time, be it a tour or recording (tour after of course) and so it goes. The pop person has crossed the proverbial tracks, entered the ghetto and offered the sky to someone who can't say no. Their gain is credibility, showcasing an artist with years of musical training and sophistication, who has in one way or the other made sacrifices for the music. It goes without saying that in the final result jazz people are the best all around musicians as a whole and can play most anything. Of course this package is paid for in cash. If it is a one time event like a recording, maybe this discussion is unnecessary, but in essence the principles remain the same.

Then the artist in question tells his boys: "You know, so and so's music is really pretty hip and deeper than you think. And you know, people might know me more after so it could help what WE do. (I can tell you that is rarely the truth.) Anyway, it is only for a short time and let's face it, the bread is nice."

Sorry, but as hip as the music may be, the whole pop premise is for people to buy the music, period. It is geared, whether obvious or not, for people to love it and when I say people, I mean the common denominator, meaning the most you can get. A pop artist, with all the money that goes behind them must maximize their potential or they are finished. Opposite stands the artist who creates for their own needs in the pursuit of a sound, a way to play, a concept. This takes years of study and discipline without material rewards. Most of all it takes 100% involvement with no breaks for fun and games. Obviously most artists have to give up something in terms of time to devote to the art, whether it be for family, personal problems, necessities of life, etc. But one is at least artistically independent and in as much control of their life as can be expected. To give up that creative freedom (as musically agreeable as it might be) and have to heed someone else's interpretation as to what is right or wrong to play doesn't seem right. On one record date for a well known singer I played "chromatically" on a dorian scale for two bars and needless to say my solo didn't appear on the recording. This was after I was called in to "be myself"! Obviously if I am a sideman with a peer and want to help them realize their creative work, I will gladly accede to the leader's wish-es. Or if I play with someone ahead of me, a more experienced artist who has something of value to show me, the same is true. But to expend my energy towards music that is probably below my skills and aesthetic, taking into consideration all the sacrifices and time I have spent, for the sake of selling more product and glorifying something that is not what I wish to represent is wasting valuable time in my opinion.

I don't want to speculate on whether Trane would've done it, etc. Look at Miles, and even the great Sonny Rollins played with the Stones, etc, etc. Every situation is different but a good guideline in general when considering projects to play on could be: "Would I do play this music if I had ten million in the bank?" If you ask yourself that very basic, exaggerated, rather crass question or something like that, you may be on the way to an honest answer. Believe it, every note you play reflects the validity of all the decisions you make in life. As a young musician one should experience it all, but sooner or later you have to draw a line in the sand.

From Inayat Khan (Sufi writer/musician) on music: "If a person makes his own voice artificial in order to convince people, in order to be more audible, and in order to impress people, it only means he is not true to his spirit. It cannot be. It is better for a person to be natural in his speech with individuals and with the multitude, rather than he should become different."

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