I opened up Jim Snidero's Jazz Conception today and played through a simple blues etude. It was 6 AM and the sunlight wouldn't let me rest so I gave in to the impulse to play guitar and it has been a long time since I've looked at that book. It reminded me that simple is almost always better. I soon tired of reading the notes on the page and set off to improvising, developing themes that I'd read. Here's the thing: they were good notes on the page. Good for reasons that would seem obvious to experienced musicians and perhaps less so to beginners but they'd sound good to practically everybody. It got me thinking, as I was improvising, about the vocabulary I choose and the challenges I'm willing to tackle in order to express something of worth. Music has always been about communication for me. If I have to utilize advanced concepts and cover new ground in order to satisfy a curiosity or be hired or just be relevant to my audience I will, but I am more often called upon to just play the music honestly, clearly and with some measure of joy. I can only do that if I start with simple materials.
Here's a story. When I was in high school we attended the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival and I took part in a soloist competition for guitar players. I took second place out of 15 or so players. This surprised me at the time but not as much as hearing the guy after me. He played perfectly even bop eighth notes and had a superior harmonic grasp. He had it all over me with his vocabulary and his phrasing and I was inspired by this fact. I remember that for the rest of the day, I walked around listening to a mental muzak of even eighths over all kinds of changes played on the guitar of course. The sound of the guitar and the articulation of the pick was an important facet of that exercise in imagination. It was the beginning of an ongoing process. I had an ideal to aspire to. The ideal was this epiphany of what he and others had that I wanted. A sound. It got me asking all kinds of questions about the minutia of tone production and picking technique and chord scales. The simple stuff I needed work it out! The idea that I had a lot to learn was solidified when later that same day I took part (played a blues) in a jam session with Russell Malone and John Stowell. Russell was unbelievably fluid playing over Giant Steps at a fast clip and it made me aware that something I had never known was possible, was both possible and very, very compelling to me. Beautiful is the word for what I heard. His technique was seemingly flawless, the guitar was a hand-crafted Buscarino Monarch (featured on the cover of his album Black Butterfly), and his attitude toward the music and the musicians was humble yet assertive. John Stowell was less accessible to me at the age of 16 but no less compelling and I have been a fan of his music ever since and consider him an important friend and mentor. I was not prepared to understand it just yet but I was old enough to be inspired by it. He got me studying close interval voicings and harmony more carefully. I also learned the ins and outs of melodic minor thanks to John. John's influence led me to places of musical introspection and Russell's influence led me to ambitious musical extroversion. I have since thanked John for that Jam session which took place in his hotel room in Moscow, Idaho, many years ago. Thankfully there is still much I don't know and new facets of my ideal emerge daily. I do my best to chase the sound I'm after and make it mine. What I hope to do is make it relevant to the community of aging jazz musicians as well as the younger generation of innovators and basically play real nicely. I simply want to enjoy the music.