Travelling around Japan for a month and a half allowed me to take a step back from the jazzsphere and let me peer deep into my musical psyche and critique my current trajectory. It allowed me to re-evaluate targets and the most ergonomic way to reach those targets. One realisation was if you want to learn more language, transcribe more Charlie Parker. Durh. Although I make it quite clear that my musical aspirations do not include being the next Wynton Marsalis (nice tone though) or Nicholas Payton, this goal stemmed from the realisation that regardless of musical preference there is great harmonic and technical value in the bop language and while I have the privilege of being able to study jazz at a tertiary level I’ve come to appreciate the level of commitment and study it takes to imitate a language such as jazz.
“…The biggest tip I can give any young musician is learning how to play your instrument is the easiest part of it, the hardest part of it is trying to figure out who your are, trying to find your sound and style…so just go ahead and practise, do that, because on the other side of that is the true journey, the true search, the true path of being an artist.”
– Terence Blanchard.
Of course besides callisthenics, part of the practise Terence speaks of is learning to speak the language. What I enjoy most about this quote mostly because he acknowledges the importance, necessity even, of taking the journey to find your artistic voice, something that, surprisingly, a lot of musicians deem superfluous.
Tradition vs. Originality is something I grappled viciously with during my first year at the Con. In high school I swiftly gravitated towards the more free forms and contemporary styles of improvised music after first being introduced to jazz and never really took the time to become fluent with the tradition as much as I would listen to it. It was the freedom and artistry in this fringe music that really appealed to my creative senses and right off the bat answered the question of what it meant to be a musician. But there was a rude awakening when my musical pockets were empty of licks to fire in impro class and so it got me thinking…
I approached Phil Slater with the question of what is the worth of tradition today? Phil has forged a truly individual voice on the trumpet and I believe epitomises more than nearly anyone else in Sydney the musician as a true artist. His answer to my question, or the part which resonated the most, was anecdotal. He told me the earliest part of his musical life was against tradition where he was harbouring an interest in original music through the study of composition. He then spent the next 10 or so years exclusively checking out and playing the tradition- I think I remember him saying he refused to, or at least disliked playing original tunes and went into incredible detail of imitation, including analysing the different vibrato lengths of the jazz greats. Out of that period he became the player he is today, a trumpeter who sounds truly distinct but also holds a firm grasp on the jazz convention. If you’ve seen an Abel Cross Neo-bop Quintet gig you’ll hear him fire a lick or two or if you walk past the jazz corridor at the right time you’ll hear him punching out contrafacts Donna Lee or Confirmation but check out one of his projects and at times the link to 40-50’s African American improvised music will seem quite obscure.
Phil also used his friend, band mate and as of 2014 his teaching associate, Sydney Drummer Simon Barker (congrats Simon!) as an example of the path to originality. He said Simon grew up listening to and imitating the likes of Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakely etc., which seems slightly far-fetched sonically if you listen to Simon drum now. In fact, I really had no clue until Simon showed me some early recordings of him playing with the Mark Simmonds Freeboppers and I went and dug up some young Barker recordings that he actually went ting-ting-a-ting like the rest of them. Then, as the story goes Simon turned to Korean drumming, studying it with the same veracity as he did jazz and came out as a man of two disciplines which he forged together to generate this innovative percussive voice- so innovative that Phil said it was the first not only in Australia but the world, leading to international attention.
To take a step back, it’s worth considering what is originality, or I guess more importantly, where does originality come from. Originality, seemingly counter-intuitively, stems from the past, because only once you cognise what has come before can you take a step forward into the unknown. From a trumpet standpoint, if you haven’t checked out everyone from King Oliver to Ambrose Akinmusire how can you be sure what you are playing is truly original? If you were to see a G7 and blew an Ab over the top, and your aural palette only stemmed as far as late 30’s swing and trad you would of thought you were the next Louis, but lo-and behold people have been flat nine-ing for a couple of decades now.
There is another, more slightly abstract school of thought that originality no longer exists in its purist form and is merely the melding of ideas from an already full pool of pre-conceived philosophies and knowledge that produce something innovative, but not truly original. Even this slightly left of centre take on originality pays credence to both acknowledging and understanding what has come before you.
Phil also mentioned the words of trumpet master and educator Clark Terry: “Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation.” (Which are well explained in this jazzadvice.com article) and seems to succinctly summarise the path to artistry, through any medium, whether it be music, visual arts, landscaping, locksmithing etc. As a jazz musician, we only need to peer into the early days of those we now imitate to see the validity of this process. For example, before Ornette Coleman pioneered the NY free jazz scene he could imitate Charlie Parker to a tee. And, let’s not forget Parker’s musical prelude to turning jazz on its head was spent on the bandstands of the day’s RnB and Dance groups
Speaking of Bird, here is his solo on Bloomdido. I chose Bloomdido while doing some sight-reading though the Omnibook and really enjoyed the traditional, tried and test birdisms mixed in with a couple of quirkier lines in this solo. Bloomdido is a Bb flat blues, with a Bird head that I assume he come up with moments before they started recording if not whilst recording. I thought learning a couple of choruses of Bird blowing the blues would be an sure fire way to get a nice, fat chunk of language under the fingers. In fact, for me, Charlie Parker playing the blues is the cornerstone of the jazz idiom. If you look at it in an additive way, Bird is the superlative patriarch of the modern jazz language and the blues is the cultural and harmonic foundation of jazz and all it’s permutations, so naturally the combination equals something worth checking out.
Just a couple of quick notes on this transcription. Firstly, I made a point to learn the transcription on my horn before transcribing it, which as a method of transcribing I can’t recommend highly enough for longevity sake. The repetition of trying to nail it really works its way into your muscle. Also, I should add that I only transcribed the first two choruses. I think he goes for another two but I thought he blew best on the first half.
Cover photo credit http://www.mikenickells.com/