As we work on developing our voice, one of the processes that occurs is that we grow our vocabulary. As a saxophonist, I am always working on new shapes to portray distinct sounds and colors on specific chords. The practice room is just the practice room however, and when I’m playing live I can only focus on playing with forward motion. Trying to “squeeze in” a lick or shape that I’ve been practicing never works – it usually sounds contrived and interrupts the natural flow of the solo. I’ve learned this the hard way over time, that you must separate the practice room from the performance.
Teacher extraordinaire Greg Fishman calls the attempt of forcing licks into a solo the “Lobster Theory.” When you order a lobster at a restaurant, you can’t choose it an hour ahead of time and hold on to it. When you select your lobster it goes straight from the tank to the boiling pot to your plate. Any extra time spent in between those steps will affect the freshness of the meal.
In the bigger sense of music-making, what using hip new vocabulary for vocabulary’s sake amounts to is selfishness. You know when somebody talks to you and uses big words that they don’t fully understand just to make themselves sound smart? The vocabulary usage is about the individual, specifically an individual with something to prove.
For a band to really play as an ensemble and not just a collection of players, there must be selflessness at every instrument. Rhythm section players address this issue at a much earlier stage than horn players and singers (“solo” instruments) because of their natural roles as accompaniment. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be guilty of trying to sound hip at the sake of the band’s sound and groove!
As an audience it’s natural to direct our attention to the flashiest players. Certainly this is true in most things covered by the nightly news, whether talking about the latest celebrity scandal or watching sports highlights to see all the homeruns. Sports fans trumpet the fun of having fantasy sports teams, but in so doing can miss the finer points of the games – the batter who moves the runner over from first to second in a tie game – the player who makes a key block to spring a run for a key first down.
In jazz, I’ve always had a difficult time describing in technical terms how specific drummers play. As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve come to understand why I enjoy playing with certain drummers so much – it has nothing to do with flashy vocabulary or ridiculous solos (not that I don’t appreciate those) – it has to do with musicality. To me, the ultimate drummer is one so good that you often don’t notice him/her. Their playing simply makes the band better – the tunes make sense, the grooves always feel good, and the soloists don’t overplay because everything sits just right in the pocket. A good quote from W.B. Yeats: “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”
Here in Nashville, the very top-call session guys at all instruments are folks who always play in tune, play with clean articulations, and know how to play inside of a groove. Essentially, they are virtuosic players who are mature enough to play with selflessness.
Our featured guest at this coming Sunday’s Nashville Jazz Workshop Jam Session is a drummer who is as virtuosic as any that I’ve ever encountered, but every time I’ve played with him he makes everything flow with ease. I hope that you can come out and hear the wise words of drummer Derrek Phillips.