A couple of weeks ago, I did an interview with AXS about competition within the context of being a jazz player. Believe it or not, as gregarious an individual as I am, I really don’t like doing interviews- I always think I have to say something really deep and meaningful- I mean, why else would they want to interview ME? I’m nobody. But, I’m already starting to digress……
The interview went well, and it seems like what I had to say on the matter had an effect on one friend of mine who is a very well thought of bassist who lives in Nashville- he read the article and then did a gig later that same day that started going badly because some of the players were rusty. Instead of getting “cranky”, he decided to try what I had said would be a better alternative, and lo and behold the gig was saved and everyone had a good time- including my friend. From my POV, that is extremely cool. I made a little bit of a difference in someone’s life, and others benefitted from it. Couldn’t ask for anything better in my book.
Which leads me to writing this blog entry.
When I was much younger, I had this penchant for wanting to always make a “statement” whenever I played. More often than not, this meant that I was always pushing the boundaries of whatever I was doing. Weird rhythms, lots of “blue notes” and tension and my idea of what constituted groove – regardless of what was going on – were the hallmark of my playing. I had no shortage of work, and I attributed it to my sheer and unadulterated brilliance of what I was bringing to the table.
On one occasion shortly after getting to college, I did 4 recording sessions in one day, and one of them (the second one of that day) was to cover 4-6 old Motown/R&B tunes for a singer, and a girl that I was seeing at the time was the drummer on that one gig. I did my thing, left, and promptly forgot about it upon arriving at the next session. And, I mean I really forgot about it- didn’t remember what the tunes were or what I played within hours, and after 1 day the whole experience was wiped from my memory.
About a week later, while at dinner, my girlfriend brought up that she had received a new cassette that she wanted me to hear. She put it on and asked me what I thought. The first thing that came out of my mouth was “that rhythm section is TIGHT!”. She looked at me funny and asked, “You really think so? Listen carefully and then tell me what you think.” She rewound the tape and started it over again, and the tune was “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”- and that’s when – you guessed it – I released it was her and I on the recording. And, when I listened critically to everything, I was shocked.
I was terrible. I mean- truly awful.
My sense of time was non-existent. My note choices, while interesting, were wholly incorrect, and the “interesting” quality of what I was doing was doing nothing more than removing direction to what mattered- the vocals and all the other instruments. All I could concentrate on was what I was doing, no matter how hard I tried to listen to anyone else.
Before I could say anything, she stopped the tape and took it out and produced another tape. She put that in and hit play, and it was the same song, but it wasn’t me on bass. It was MUCH better- cleaner execution and it sounded right. That’s when she said it- “Marc. That’s me on bass.”
I was dumbstruck. I had never seen her play bass- she had never done it in front of me. I didn’t know she knew how- and she confessed that she didn’t. She learned that tune just so she could fix the part, and had gone back to the studio at the artist’s request to salvage what I had done- or, not done more accurately.
Honestly, this hurt far more than you can imagine- it wasn’t my pride that was hurt so much (it was, but…) so much as it was that I hadn’t done my job, promptly forgot about it and someone with one week of learning had a better result. (maybe that is pride?) I didn’t say anything. I just stared at the floor- I wonder how many times something like this was happening and I never knew?
“I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I seriously considered not telling you, but that would be a really shitty thing to do. Are you mad?”, she asked.
“No. I’m not mad. But I don’t think I can show my face in there again.” I said. I couldn’t even tell her how great a job she had done, because I was so self-absorbed.
“I told them you showed me how to play the line. They like you, but, well….. I’m not sure you really ever listen to what’s going on around you. You really need to learn how to suit the tune.” She said.
SUIT. THE. TUNE. That hit me like a ton of bricks.
Up until that time, I was really taken by players who had a ton of chops. I listened to things like Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Yes, Kansas, Genesis, King Crimson and Return To Forever almost exclusively. Anything that didn’t have a ton of changes or just stayed in 4/4 just bored the heck out of me. I was constantly dissecting tunes and players by how difficult passages were- a lot of musicians do this – but what I realized in an instant was that I actually wasn’t internalizing anything. I was in to “shock and awe” and really not a whole lot more. Even the things I said I “loved” held no real meaning for me- the intricacy would register for a minute, the rest deflected off and back into space. I knew the somatic of what constituted “groove” and I could do it (and did on lots of occasions) but it never really resonated. And I really wanted it to, and had absolutely no idea how to do that.
As musicians, all of us at one time or another are taken with “shock and awe” at some level. It’s really inevitable, and it’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Sometimes it takes the form of HAVING to be able to play a million miles an hour, and sometimes it takes the form of HAVING to have someone’s tone or gear. Or both. Or that and more. Again- there’s nothing wrong with that kind of a goal, but it’s completely another thing to inflict that at a musical level on others- or worse- to laud your speed and/or gear and/or prowess over others. That desire to laud those things over others is the hallmark of the competitive spirit that I was being interviewed for, but that’s not what this blog entry is about- I want to get more granular than that.
What I’m getting at is that – now, get this- chops mean nothing. (if you’re not a musician, “chops” refer to ability on an instrument) It has taken me years to understand this (and I still struggle with it), and if you’re having trouble understanding or internalizing this, I’d like to help and offer a tangible way to look at this:
It doesn’t matter what instrument you play or hit- or if you sing. Regardless of style, all music is a collaborative effort. As such, your very first job – even before fingerboard memorization or scale studies or breathing for support when singing – is to be supportive. Let that sink in for a minute. Being supportive means to have the actual mindset of “I am not the most important thing here” or “I am not the star”. That has to be forefront in your mind, and it needs to be the guiding force in doing what you do. I am not talking about modesty here- I am talking about literally trying to make everyone else around you sound better before you try to sound better yourself. To do this properly really requires a paradigm shift in your thinking. It requires you to physically and critically listen to everything around you before you start adding your own voice to the din. That might even mean that you don’t play at all.
It also means that you have to play with other people. You HAVE TO. These days, the internet is rife with people playing along with tracks while confronted with a GoPro- kids, that ain’t making music. That’s just televised wanking. As a bass player, we are confronted with a myriad of players who show off ridiculous slap chops (almost always in the key of E major) – and it’s jarring to watch if you don’t have those. The next time you see that, ask yourself when playing like that is appropriate? I’ll give you a hint- it isn’t and never is. And don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have those kinds of chops you can elect not to use them- that is a fool’s errand. Don’t think that way, and don’t think less of yourself because you can’t do it. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I never watch these wankfests.
Music is, without a doubt, one of God’s most alluring and deep creations, as it has the ability to speak to others in a way most of us cannot. It touches the heart and soul as that “international language” we’ve all heard about because it can make us hear, feel, see and smell things on all levels. Notice in that statement that it doesn’t imbue “speaking” those things – and that’s an interesting point. We do much better at all things in life if we don’t speak, but rather depend on those other senses to tell us what’s what, and the same is true in music.
I don’t want to give the impression that bands and musicians who can exhibit chops are bad- they aren’t. But, there comes a time in all things artistic that too much is just too much, and there really needs to be balance and growth. That rarely happens when bands or musicians just stay on a single path – fast or slow – in that they get recognized by that part of the public for a single thing and they elect to just keep repeating it over and over again.
When I heard that recording of myself on that session, I was 19 or 20 years old. I just turned 52 last week, and I am still learning how to listen more and how to speak less. It’s a journey, and it’s one that is very well worth the constant effort. I still have bad habits when I play and record, and I spend a lot of time trying to rectify that, but I have to say that I am now in a place where I actually like to hear myself on someone’s record, and that hasn’t always been the case. I love working with artists on all levels and just about any style of music, and I treat every occasion that I get to play for anyone as an immense honor that I have been bestowed- that artist has asked me to be part of an intensely personal statement that they want to make, and that’s very, very cool of them to do.
So- next time you pick up and instrument or a microphone- ask yourself: What am I going to NOT do this time? The vibe and depth of the music you make will shock you.