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In Tune or Not in Tune... That Is the Question

Jack Bowers By

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Suppose a month goes by, you have a column to publish, but nothing has happened that's worth writing about. What do you do then? Read on, as the question is about to be answered.

A while back there was a discussion at a Stan Kenton web site (Kentonia) about musicians or groups of musicians (more specifically, soprano saxophonists) playing out of tune, either occasionally or frequently. My response (entirely personal) was as follows:

"Well, there is obviously something wrong with my ears, and I suppose that's a blessing, as most of the soprano solos I've heard (on recordings) have, to me, sounded very much in tune. Logic tells me that if they weren't, some of the other musicians (or those who mixed, mastered, supervised, engineered and carried out other technical chores like that), who presumably have an ear for music, would have noticed and said, 'hey, that's out of tune; let's try it again'—or, 'let's use our space-age technology to correct it.' My brother Tom (a musician himself, amateur division) will say to me, 'He (or she) is playing out of tune.' 'Sounds fine to me,' I'll reply, and so it does. Then I think, 'Why didn't anyone else (besides my brother) notice that while they were recording? They are, after all, musicians, and should know when something is being played out of tune.' It doesn't make sense to me simply to release a recording on which someone is playing 'out of tune' because that is the path of least resistance. There are, after all, such things as multiple takes and, these days, even electronic correction.

"The occasions on which I've heard (perhaps I should say 'noticed') someone playing 'out of tune' have been extremely rare. That's not the same as being put off by the 'sound' of a saxophone (or clarinet, or any other instrument). Obviously, there are some who sound better than others (Zoot Sims, for example, was a master of every horn who sounded great on any and all of them). I wouldn't know about Kenny G; perhaps his playing out of tune would be an asset. But for most saxophone players it's a liability, and I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that, even accidentally. Saxophonists may miss a note here and there, but that's not the same as playing 'out of tune,' which implies they are doing it consistently. I've never quite understood the assertion that a professional musician, who has labored and studied to master his craft, likely has a good pair of ears, and must know when something is being played in tune (or not), would be playing out of tune while blithely unaware that he (or she) was doing so. Are musicians really unable to hear the difference? If so, how are they ever able to play music well? It seems to me that if they can't tell the difference between being in or out of tune we'd be left with cacophony, which isn't the case at all. Logic dictates that (most) musicians must know when they are playing the music correctly. Logic also tells me that most it not all of them do (an opinion reinforced by my admittedly average ears). Well, as I said, my ears may be deficient, but I do think that enables me to enjoy music more than others who may notice more (defects) than I do, and I like that trade-off."

That's how it looks from one non-musician's point of view. I may be completely off base, so please feel free to poke holes in the argument wherever warranted. I would, of course, expect you to back up your opinion with facts, which may prove difficult in this particular case, as "in tune" or "out of tune" can sometimes lie in the ear of the beholder. In other words, one listener's Jo Stafford may be another's Darlene Edwards. Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to believe that anyone on a recording who is playing even slightly out of tune (I'm referring here to jazz musicians, not rockers or their ilk) wouldn't want to try and get it right. It's just plain common sense.

And that, dear readers, is how to make a column out of nothing. I hope you've been taking notes.

Swingin' on a Riff

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