Beyond Technique

By | February 23, 2018

Miles Davis had, as we say, great chops. But in his spontaneous, creative transformation of Herbie Hancock’s “wrong” chord into a “right” chord, he went beyond technique and showed, as Hancock says in reflecting on the event, a willingness to experience and accept situations as they are. We don’t know, of course, what Miles had in mind for his solo when he was “interrupted” by Herbie’s “big mistake” chord, but Herbie tells us that Miles found something that fitted. Clearly, from Herbie’s perspective, that something redeemed his big mistake.

What is especially instructive about this story (leaders take note!) is that at the time this happened, Davis was already an established star in the jazz firmament and fifteen years older than the twenty-two year old Hancock who was just beginning his career. A little anecdote is in order here. When Miles called Herbie and asked him to join his band, Herbie asked Miles how he wanted him to play. “I don’t know … play the way you play … that’s why I hired you.”

I was once asked at a Getting in the Groove workshop to say something about soloing in the musical conversation of a jazz performance. I said that I had come to understand that the best solos are never monologues but are always informed by the voices of the accompanying musicians. And this, in turn, led me to believe that the best solos are not so much individual achievements as they are social achievements.

In this context, alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz, said something important. “When I can’t hear anyone else, that’s a danger sign … when my attention is on myself, I know I’m in trouble.” Or as Keith Jarrett has said, “If you can’t listen, you can’t connect.” Only in jazz is telling someone that they have big ears a compliment!

Not for one moment do I want to minimize the importance of technique. In the improvised conversation of a jazz performance, fluency in the language of music and facility with one’s instrument are indispensable assets. Mastery, however, as important as it is, is not an end in itself but the means by which one contributes to and enhances the improvised musical conversation. Mark Kingwell, in his book, “A Civil Tongue,” speaks of creating a civil society as involving “free-ranging, energized, restless and inventive confabs” He could be speaking of a jazz performance.

So much of what we do together, in all our various enterprises, begins with, is grounded in and sustained by conversation. And, when all is said and done, it’s the quality of these conversations that will determine their success or failure. And yet, despite their importance, the contributions we make to them are often merely monologues advocating for some position or another that pile up, unprocessed, in the middle of the table. They are, in short, solos (perhaps beautifully crafted and technically sound) that are not informed by the other voices at the table. Little wonder we regularly find them so unsatisfying.

Technique can be taught and, through practice, can be learned and mastered. But that something that Miles possessed and that allowed him to transform a bad chord into a good chord is more elusive. I can only describe it as a kind of disposition or aesthetic sensibility. For all of its elusiveness, however, I recognize it immediately when I’m in its presence. The other thing I can say about it is that it can be cultivated and nurtured and it is the conditions needed for this cultivation and nurturing that we explore in the gigs the musicians of Getting in the Groove and I explore with clients. I have learned not to be prescriptive—by providing people an unmediated encounter with an improvising jazz ensemble, they regularly see things that would never have occurred to me. This is a good thing. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted and led to my most cherished bit of participant feedback: “Finally something for adults.”

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