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Jazz and the Rules of the Knife Fight

Peter Rubie By

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The first time a music teacher suggested I practice playing 'free,' what I heard was, 'why don’t you just go kick yourself in the nuts.' There were no rules to 'free.' There were no forms or guidelines to cling to as I swung out over the abyss like some cartoon character who has not yet realized he’s run out of cliff top.
There's a great scene near the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Butch (Paul Newman) returns to the Hole in the Wall Gang and is challenged for leadership of the gang. As Butch and Harvey face off, Butch says to his enormous opponent, "Let's get the rules straight first." Harvey straightens in surprise for a moment and says, "Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!" The script then says, "Butch delivers the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls in the history of the modern American cinema."

The first time a music teacher suggested I practice playing "free," what I heard was, "why don't you just go kick yourself in the nuts." There were no rules to "free." There were no forms or guidelines to cling to as I swung out over the abyss like some cartoon character who has not yet realized he's run out of cliff top. What was the eff'ing point?

As a young jazz player based in London in the 1970s, surrounded by boppers, and swingsters, and Dixielanders I also heard a fair amount of "free music." Most of what I heard could be considered "punk" jazz, before there was punk. It consisted of often jarring, loud and mainly clumsy honks, squawks, wails and sudden impromptu cadenzas by bearded, often bald saxophonists and pony tailed bass players and drummers in their early 20s with names like Heinrich and Kurt and Gerrard and Paul. To my ears what they created had nothing to do with jazz as I understood it, and seemed generally indulgent, uncomfortably extrovert ("Yo! MoFo, look at ME, over here!"), and non-musical. My friend Paul was a bassist who made a decent living weaving between the melodic world and the avant guard but at the time I never understood his attraction to, or ability to play "free" music.

And he was patient with me. I was trying to "get" it. We went to a Derek Bailey concert once, and it consisted of Derek playing unusual stuff in unusual ways, as usual, and doing weird and wonderful things with and to his electric guitar, while the drummer-come-percussionist crawled around a sand pit on all fours, using the sand and whistles and a soccer rattle to make a variety of noises and rhythms with a variety of odd and found instruments. I just couldn't connect with it. (I should probably more honestly subtitle this piece, the confessions of a bourgeois jazz wannabe. But I won't. I'm older and I hope a little wiser now.)

Free music had so little to do with bebop, and post-bop and neo-post-beyond-bop bop or anything, God forbid, even vaguely melodic (patoowee! patoowee!), that it made no sense to me. Ornette Coleman took a lot of listening to before he started to make any kind of sense to me, and the only "free" record I can honestly say I almost enjoyed at the time was a Warne Marsh album, Ne Plus Ultra, which ends, if you listen very carefully, with a fart and some giggling.

So why, you might reasonably ask, would I want to write an essay praising free playing as a practice that could really positively impact your playing? Well, I say, blame Larry Koonse. Larry is a wonderful player and a kind and thoughtful teacher who lives on the west coast and has had a powerful impact on my musical thinking over the last few years. He has managed to help me articulate and tackle a lot of things I couldn't previously explain to myself. Larry says he looks at playing as rather like a corporate pie chart. A third or so of the pie is made up of harmonic and melodic study: the notes you play; a third is focused on dynamics, i.e, your time feel and how you develop your musical personality; and a third is about how we use space as we play. In other words, storytelling. Are you loud, are you soft, are you high, are you low? Do your musical ideas breathe? Are there characters in your story? Is there enough shape to the flow of your ideas?

So the question becomes, how do you practice all three elements equally? The first one is relatively easy, and frankly perhaps too overemphasized in teaching jazz because it has such a mechanistic aspect to it, it is an easy fallback. But what about the other two elements?

I hear talented guitarists (and other musicians) focus on repeating preconceived solos in public the same way each time, or shredding the bejesus out of a tune, be it a blues or an up-tempo version of Countdown in 7/4 in F sharp. But ask them to play a duo with a bassist or a singer, or play an unobtrusive supportive role in the musical performance and they seem unwilling or unable to do so. And that's the real test of musicianship. It's about how you tackle filling and exploring the space you have to play in. In duo playing in particular, you get a lot of space to play in. And that can be intimidating on one level, and liberating on another.

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