by Stanton Kessler
What in the world is going on in the mind of a jazz player during an improvised solo? To most people this is a mystical and magical feat, akin to conjuring spirits or finding an honest politician. To a jazz player it's the Holy Grail. If it was easy everyone would be doing it,
making it about as special as eating a hamburger. The task is both complex and elementary. To comprehend the process, it is necessary to reveal the multitude of elements involved.
First and foremost you have to have a highly developed ear. All of the intellectual knowledge in the world cannot prepare you for the task of repeating a melodic phrase on your instrument that you just heard. Ultimately, after years of training on theory and history, you just want to play what you hear. If you have a tin ear, forget it. Occasionally you will be asked to "fake" a song that you have never played, a distant memory heard twenty years ago. No problem. In fact, a soloists vocabulary is comprised not just of things we practice, but of everything we've ever heard in our lives. It's simply a matter of recall. If only I could recall what I had for lunch.
There is the matter of great risk. You have to be willing to bear your soul to a room full of people without worrying about making a mistake while you compose on the fly. It takes a special kind of courage and confidence. Most classical players these days would rather put their hand in a running garbage disposal than to improvise in public. There was a time when any classical musician worth his/her salt had to improvise to be taken seriously. I'm usually too preoccupied about whether or not I look fat or where the Chardonnay I ordered is to be concerned with anything as trivial as a misplaced note.
Jazz musicians are almost always great multitaskers. Ask us to cashier, direct air traffic or run a hospital and we'll take it on without blinking an eye. During a solo you are monitoring your note selection, the time-feel, the form, the shape of your phrase, your tone, the original
melody of the song, what others are playing and the chord changes. And your ex-wife just walked in with another man, one of many possible distractions. While you are occupied with balancing all of these aspects, you're expected to play something that is meaningful, soulful and coherent. Sound like fun?
In addition, the mind has to constantly be aware of what you are hearing on many levels. At a time on Earth when people talk way too much and listening has become a lost art, this is a rare commodity.
Even some jazzers still have a difficult time with this. You have to listen to yourself, each individual in the group and the ensemble as a whole.
It's a skill that can be developed, but ultimately it must become second nature. Try this sometime: While at a social gathering, listen to what you are saying while taking in each individual conversation in the room, along with the overall sound of the gathering as a whole. Then, try to say something pertinent or memorable at the same time.
What in the world was that? Did the pianist just play a chord substitution? Will he/she do it again next time around? Will the drummer switch to sticks? Is the bass player going to play a pedal on the bridge?
Is it going to snow during the gig? These a just a few of the thoughts that can arise while you make split second decisions during your solo. If you hesitate you are lost.
Musicians who play together frequently develop an intuition based on tendencies learned over time. The ability to anticipate each others’ moves can enhance a solo considerably, creating subtle moments of excitement that thrill the players and the listener. When you
see players suddenly turn and smile at each other, it's for that reason, not because someone just passed gas.
A soloist must reside in three time zones simultaneously. You have to be in the present moment with each note and in the same instant remember what you just played while having an idea of where you want to go. Jules Verne would have loved this. Repeating the same idea twice in one solo is a no no, so retention has to exist side by side with forethought.
The physical challenges are equally daunting. You must have control over your instrument to be able to play the ideas you hear without worrying as to whether or not you have the skills to execute them. Classical training and thousands of hours of practice are needed to develop chops on that level of virtuosity.
The player's mind during a jazz solo is a maelstrom of activity, a flood of sounds and information that could overwhelm most humans. It is for this reason that so many young players are intimidated by the process. It takes some getting used to and is not for the faint of heart.
While everything is swirling around you must remain calm like the eye of a hurricane. This is a world fraught with peril and excitement. It is both thrilling and scary. It’s the extreme sport of the music world.
So, what in the world moves someone to aspire to become a jazz soloist? Perhaps it is partly that it is so difficult and dangerous that makes it appealing. Perhaps it is partly that you have the freedom to play what you want, what you feel. It is for these very reasons that I decided to become a jazz soloist. There is no doubt that surviving and excelling on the rough terrain of several choruses of Giant Steps will get the blood moving. You feel very much alive having created something unique and beautiful while negotiating the hairpin turns of Inner Urge.
It's difficult to explain. You should try it sometime. What in the world are you waiting for?