Mr. P.C.'s Best of 2013

Mr. P.C.'s Best of 2013

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Dear Mr. P.C.:

I was playing at a club in town, a pretty fancy place, the gig all the guys in town want. On the break a pretty woman in the audience came up to me and complimented my playing. So far so good! But then she asked if I play professionally—right in the middle of a gig! What should I have said?

John G., Denver

Dear John:

You should be flattered! Obviously she was attracted to you and just wanted to make sure you have some other, more viable source of income. Like being a realtor, or an insurance salesman, or whatever it is you actually do for a living.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Why do guys want to play tunes really fast? Like I'll call "It Could Happen to You," but instead of having a nice swinging groove they want to play it at 280 beats per minute or something. Then they say it's an "East Coast" thing, which I guess is supposed to mean I can't understand because I always lived on the west coast. Why do people play faster on the east coast?

Nice and Easy

Dear Nice:

They just are faster—how do you think they got three hours ahead of us?

I can already hear your objection: Wouldn't that make tempos even faster in Europe, since it's several hours further ahead? That, of course, gets into the metric system, and Europeans can legitimately claim to have taken the lead in exploring meters. But those are principally odd meters, which can't be played nearly as fast as ones that aren't odd at all, but rather reflect the American ideals of normalcy and conformity.

Do the Europeans care? Not after their obligatory wine with lunch, which of course slows them down even more. Put it all together, and you have the secret to ECM's classic formula: Eurocentric sluggishness, slyly marketed as "laid-back" and "floating."

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I bought an acoustic bass guitar that you can also plug in and my son and I have been playing a lot of pop songs together taking turns on the bass and guitar. I know this is a stereotype that upsets bassists and I'm sure it's hard to play really well, but... it does seem pretty f'ing easy to play the root or maybe a little more and sound okay. It's also very fun.


Dear Andrew:

Well, you're half right. Playing simple roots on the downbeat can be easy, but it's not fun. How can it be fun when almost anyone can do it?

Frankly, so called "simple pleasures" have no place in jazz bass, or in jazz itself, for that matter. What is more profoundly fun is playing busy lines of dizzying harmonic and rhythmic complexity. That's what motivates bassists through a lifetime of desperate practicing, for they are the jazz world's true hedonists.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I heard a pianist talk about his "reharm" of a song. Why would a musician want to harm a song at all, let alone multiple times?

Ryan E.

Dear Ryan:

That's a great question! The initial harm, of course, is the banal solo he takes over a song whose harmonic structure he considers pedestrian. Can't you just see his condescending sneer as he's forced to navigate simple chord changes that are totally beneath his dignity? Musically harmful, indeed!

So he takes matters into his own hands, and writes a whole new set of chord changes. These are all about him—the way he thinks music should be, which is of course a very complicated series of chords that he alone can sail through, having worked on them for most of his life. And so we have a "reharm": the damage he's done to a song once marked by simple beauty, and now a testament to his own harmonic conceit.

The greatest harm of all—a third harm (or re-reharm, if you will)—comes when others are forced to solo over these new changes. They can't sound nearly as good as he does, of course, and a clash of egos often ensues. The end product is a series of heated arguments—on and off the bandstand—about whose chord changes are better. The poor audience members, who wanted nothing but beautiful music, are left seriously harmed, if they're left at all.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Did you ever say anything about people undercutting each other? There's a gig where I live, and it used to pay $100 a man for three hours, and then a guy who doesn't play very well offered the owner to do it for $60 a man. Seems like the bread will keep going down and never go up. How does that work? Are we doomed?

Undercut Player

Dear UP:

If lesser musicians didn't offer to play for less money, everyone would be paid the same. While that achieves some admirable egalitarian ideals, it's not really fair to the best players, is it? This "guy who doesn't play very well" is showing amazing graciousness and humility by volunteering to play for less. You should be grateful to him, not only for knowing his place, but for helping establish a pay scale that recognizes and rewards excellence.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

On a recent trip into the city I attended a master class by a well-known jazz guitarist. At one point he claimed that it is our limitations that truly define us. I have read about this kind of thing before so the idea was not entirely new to me, yet hearing him say it so clearly was inspiring. I really would like your opinion on this as I have more limitations than most and feel ready to take advantage of that in a big way. I gave notice at the local middle school where I teach P.E. and have packed my drums but am now having doubts. Please help!

Walter "Sig" Mathews, Milepost 17, State Route 4, Tulelake, CA

Dear Sig:

Milepost 17—I've totally been there! It wasn't in Tulelake, but I remember it vividly. It was just outside of Eagle, Idaho, a few miles before the VFW hall where I had a gig. Inside the hall, in the men's bathroom, they had decorated the urinal with a drawing of Jane Fonda's face, so that each user had no choice but to direct the stream into her mouth. I remember wondering: Was her acting really so bad? Distracted by that thought, and rushing to make the downbeat, I started urinating before I realized what I was doing. Could I stop, mid-stream? Hardly—I don't have superpowers! But I've never forgiven myself, to this day.

Why was I urinating so hurriedly? You see, my arrival at the Elks club—and with it, my subsequent defiling of Jane's image—had been delayed at Milepost 17, where I struck a deer. Was it my fault or the deer's? Oh, how I'd love to blame the deer! Then I'd at least have a partner in the blame for what I did to Jane. But, alas, I'll never know.

The poor bloodied deer, involuntarily quivering in the harsh glare of my headlights. The crude, glistening drawing of Jane Fonda, desecrated by an endless procession of war-hardened veterans... That's my Milepost 17, a nightmare that will haunt me to my dying day. Your Milepost 17 apparently involves some light wordplay about limitations and definitions. Forgive me, Sig, if I have trouble pretending to care.
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