I was at Twin Cities Jazz Festival last weekend and I saw more than a dozen acts. There were lots of pleasant surprises, which is great because I spend a lot of time researching the myriad of performers for the couple of weeks leading up to the event, going so far as to color-code my schedule by time and jazz genre.
I’m pretty good at choosing the kind of thing that I will like, performed by the best and most interesting musicians at the festival. By the last show on Saturday night I’d been immersed in some extraordinary musicianship and was very in the groove. The last act I saw was a collection of really extraordinary musicians. They were all highly skilled but I one of the performers left me feeling a bit dissatisfied and I became somewhat fascinated by what it was about his playing that made me feel that way.
What I finally realized was that he was playing a lot of notes, as were the others, but when he did so, it was different. I recognized something that I have intuited and discussed about what makes a jazz musician great even more clearly. More than once I’ve talked about how being completely present is crucial when improvising. The necessity of a quiet, responsive mind to the process of the give and take, the inspirational quality of playing with others is key under any circumstances, but when playing improvisationally, it is an utter necessity.
This level of quiet mind, of deep awareness of the present moment is not only necessary in terms of being able to respond to other players, but in making the micro-fine decisions about each note, it’s tone, volume, quality. That quiet mind leaves a lot of space for that sort of decision to be made clearly and almost instantaneously. A solo no longer is a series of notes, but a series of choices and responses to those choices, each an interpretation of the melody, the other players, the rhythm, the inspiration of the moment. It’s where the magic happens, where the music becomes thrilling, an adventure for the player and the listener.
This player was not quite in the moment; he played like he was trying to get someplace instead of playing like he was right here, right now. He was in a mad rush to make music instead of letting the music come. The result was that, although he had good technical skills, I was never quiet sure what he was saying. I’m sure that this was because he wasn’t always either. I wanted to sit him down and say, “Look, let’s just practice sitting here in this room, enjoying the space, being present without expectation.” And then helping him play with that same level of awareness.
Just another example of how training ourselves to have a quiet, present mind changes how we interact with and experience the world in ways that make it more beautiful for ourselves and those we want to share our world with.