Friday, March 14, 2014

Focus, Drive and Coltrane

John Coltrane was intense. 

There have been many accounts of this great saxophonist's singular purpose and drive. Those who observed him practicing have said it is unlike anything they have every seen. I remember Denis Diblasio sharing a story about Coltrane's extended sessions blowing in the mechanical room of a venue he was performing in. Despite the gig every night, he was still exploring up to 12 hours at a time. It was a wild sight.

Anyone who saw Coltrane or listened to his recordings from the late 1950s to 1960s knows that this man was reaching for something. And he had the focus and attention to someday grab it.
Now Coltrane, like many jazz musicians of that era, struggled with drug use in his past (particularly heroin). Interestingly, once he kicked the habit, he entered his most exciting, creative period of his career.  He was exploring new harmonic progressions (Giant Steps, 1960). He was extending the modal vocabulary defined by Miles and Shorter (My Favorite Things, 1961). And he was reaching to experience the free-est of the "free" jazz (Ascension, 1966). All while sober.

How was he able to focus this intensely? How did he keep his mind from wandering? How did he keep himself from being interrupted in the middle of the creative explorations? Was he ever distracted to just go watch some TV? These are questions many people ask about Coltrane's practice ethic. 

Coltrane attributed his work to forces beyond himself. He was a very spiritual person (he carried with him a variety of religious texts) and said his music came from a higher power. I think Coltrane tapped into that same power that  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as "flow". In positive psychology, flow is "mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity". That seems to describe Coltrane to a T.

From sax player Mel Martin:

In a private interview, John Coltrane spoke of a higher power. He felt that there were forces beyond himself that were driving his music to higher planes of consciousness. He certainly was on to something because he developed in a way that has never been seen before or since. This, however, never stopped him from practicing and developing his skills to the utmost. Jimmy Heath called him the greatest "practicer" that ever lived and, indeed, I witnessed him with his Quartet in the 'sixties where he would solo at great length and then go into the dressing room and keep playing while McCoy Tyner and the others soloed. This phenomenon was observed by many and led to a kind of blind imitation of both his style and approach. It is not possible to duplicate the spirituality that drove John Coltrane. It certainly is possible to be inspired by the man and his music and many were. But the important thing is for every artist to follow their own muse. Music is many things to many people. It can be a philosophy, a style, a way of life. Music, like all art, is never merely technical.

So what can we learn from Trane and adopt into our own creative practice? After all, most of us will not ever be able to devote the length of time to our craft as described in the above encounters with Coltrane. However, I think we can all strive to emulate that intensity in the time we do have. If you have half an hour for a creative project, milk that 30 minutes for all it is worth. Instead of only giving part of your attention, try to focus on your output with the same simmering intensity that you see when Coltrane plays.

I leave with you a video from 1963 of Coltrane's "Alabama". It is a haunting ballad written a mere few days after a church bombing enacted by a chapter of the Klan killed four children in Birmingham. While Coltrane is not playing as fast and frenetic as he does in his more exuberant explorations, I think this clip illustrates his focus and intensity in a unique way. Just watch his presence throughout the clip. Many describe his reverence in playing as a musical prayer. To me, it is the perfect portrait of man in the deepest state of concentration and flow.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Review: Victor Wooten's "Groove Workshop"

Once in a while I would like to showcase books/videos/podcasts that I have found inspirational and useful. Today, let's check out a DVD by the bassist Victor Wooten.

A few years ago, I read Victor Wooten's "The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music". It is a book filled with some stellar musical concepts. However, I think some people have trouble getting into this book for two reasons. One is the phrase "spiritual search". Depending on your cosmological perspective, this could be either welcoming or off-putting. The second is more of a barrier. It is presented in a fiction format. It stars a guru like figure named Michael who imparts his musical wisdom in almost a Carlos Castaneda fashion. Although I found the musical ideas great, I often wished it was more of a proper non-fiction book. But I give Victor credit in finding a creative way to publish a method book.

Wooten's "Groove Workshop" cuts to the chase and features Victor running a clinic with his band mate Anthony Wellington (it's funny when a bass player needs a bass player in his band!). In the video, Wooten imparts the same wisdom from "The Music Lesson" but in a more practical hands on way with a small class of bass students.

Now I want to say this off the bat. This is not just for bass players. It is not just for improvising musicians. EVERY musician would benefit from the ideas in this film. Even though the bass is Victor's vehicle, 95% of this 5 hour/2 DVD set is about music, pure and simple. He presents concepts that have not been explored elsewhere. I don't know why they haven't been explored, because they are paramount to all music creation and experience. (There are a few "bass geek" moments; like when the students are dying to know how Victor does his "double thumbing technique". But these instances make up a minority of the DVD.)

The basic premise is of Wooten's clinic is this:

  • What are the elements of music? 
  • What elements do we normally focus on in our practice?
  • What elements are we ignoring?
Victor quizzes the groups as to what makes up music. They flesh out a list of the following:
  1. Notes
  2. Rhythm
  3. Space
  4. Dynamics
  5. Articulation
  6. Technique
  7. Tone
  8. Listening 
  9. Emotion 
  10. Phrasing
Now, he asks the group an important question. Which of these elements do you focus on? Which are you practicing? Which element have you been taught the most in music lessons/classes? 

Number one. Notes. That is the overwhelming answer. Victor's premise is that it is easy to think and talk about notes. Keep in mind the notes category includes: pitches, chords, intervals, progressions, scales, modes. All of these involve "notes". 

Notes are important of course. But as Wooten demonstrates throughout the video, they are only part of the story. For some reason, the other 9 elements the make music come alive are often glossed over. We are just worried about playing, improvising, or composing with just the "right" notes. But what makes music come to life are ALL of these elements in consort. For some reason, the other ones are often overlooked (or at least not given the attention that we have given "notes".)

Now more mature musicians will recognize how all of the above are equally important. And a good music educator will teach ALL of these elements (And they do so even if they don't use the word "groove". Well played Bach has a "groove"!). 

But since the other nine elements tend to be a little more "abstract" they can be overlooked in favor of teaching the more logical side to "notes" (harmony, scales, etc.) Wooten has us explore ALL of these elements. In each chapter, Wooten explores these other elements in depth. He gives some very creative exercises to isolate and explore these elements. Once, again any musician would benefit.

As an aside, I am very impressed with Wooten as a teacher. Music educators need to check this video out just to observe his enthusiasm and mannerisms. He has a class of bass players of varying ability levels who he has never met before. Yet he has an impressive ability to coax musical results from each students regardless of their level. His positive nature is infectious. You can't help but just feel good listening to this man talk about music.

Here is the official preview video. It is sort of a good introduction, but it focuses a bit on Victor's chops (which are top-notch of course). There is a lot more to the 5 hour DVD that would appeal to every musician.

Melodic Contour Exercise

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