27 March 2013
Insight: Group interactions in real time
On forming and playing in an ensemble
© Christopher Hockings
Composer-pianist Tom Vincent writes about the art of forming and playing in a jazz ensemble. The article continues our series of 'Insight' features by the AMC's represented artists. Browse all articles in the series.
Tom Vincent Quartet 'Morphic Resonance Project' (Tom Vincent, piano; Danny Healy, tenor/baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Leigh Barker, double bass; Alf Jackson - drums) is touring nationally in April-May.
Usually the art of jazz improvisation is framed by a set melody and supporting chord progression. The freedom of invention and creativity within this basic structure is immense. When practising, rehearsing, and also during performance, one of the most exciting aspects of this adventure is the discovery of new chords, polyrhythms and phrasings, new melodic structures and new types of spontaneous group interactions in real time.
Documenting the daily melodic, rhythmic and harmonic discoveries would involve stopping to write them down. This would detract from the essence and vitality of jazz art form: of letting go and allowing the flow of unique one-off inventions to continually enrich the end product - an end product which actually has no end. It's all about creating anew in the flow of real time. It is a very different aesthetic orientation to music to that of which the corner stone is not improvisation.
To record jazz is to kill it. Jazz is not about an end product. (Of course - where would we be without all those fantastic recordings? But for me, and I think many jazz musicians, this is an important comment to make.) The essence of music, and of life, is emptiness, change, and impermanence. This essence is celebrated in true jazz art, an art form based on improvising and existing as live music, only in the very moment. You cannot capture it. Recordings might be nice, but they disguise a separation: the effect the audience has on the performers. When you listen to a recording you do not change the performance. Even a performance you attended that was recorded - it is dead; it is not live anymore.
The joy from the ongoing letting-go of this art form is infectious, often humorous and sometimes has a deep bittersweet sadness-joy. The blues is a founding perennial element in this music, along with improvisation. Swing and swing feel are equally essential qualities - but because of their highly elusive and inexplicable nature, let's not talk about them here. Instead, let's talk about who is playing.
Every jazz musician comes from different stylistic conditionings. To have a great ensemble, all the players have to be excellent players and share common aesthetic sensibilities. Perhaps the most fundamentally important thing is that the bass player and the drummer sound as one - one breathing organism. If the band does not have that, then forget it.
To a certain degree, there has to be this same type of rapport between all the members of the ensemble. It's not something you can work on; it's there from the beginning or it's not there at all. It is like when you meet someone new for the first time and you either click or clash, or somewhere in between. When all the players click from the start, then a solid ensemble will form.
As well as immediate good chemistry, there is also the mutual influence growth factor. It is really inspiring when you can rehearse and perform with someone when both of you are fuelling the music with new invention in real time. These galvanising musical relationships inevitably lead to exhilarating concerts, spiked with unplanned synchronicity. It feels like a psychic connection that you can't explain (when, for example, you both sidestep in an unusual way, together, at the same time). When the whole band is having these types of experiences in performance, the musicians are relaxed and it is almost as if they were doing nothing. The music flows by itself and everyone is happy.
In the process of forming a new ensemble it is best not to waste time trying to make something work that will never work. Players can, however, improve dramatically over a year or so. If there is something there to start with, that can grow, and grow together with an evolving group.
This year I am performing, recording and touring with a new line-up. We've been calling the ensemble 'Morphic Resonance Project' for a few years now, and for a few different reasons. A while back, I started getting pretty free with structures. I even started dropping beats on purpose, which is both fun and funny, and very naughty. It's a big no-no to drop a beat in jazz. Normally the form of a piece is what keeps everyone together. You can do what you like within the form but you can't change the form and drop beats or skip a whole eight bars!!!
On bandstands, when beginners drop a beat by mistake, they get sighed at behind their backs by rhythm section players. It happens a lot because the music can get very syncopated. In a way it's good. It shows they are going for stuff. It shows they are relaxed, like a drummer who drops a stick. You have to be relaxed to be able to engage with the music.
I started breaking all the rules because I felt like doing that, musically, and also because my bass player, Leigh Barker, has been playing with me for a long time now and he is able to follow me without any problems. So I started morphing the music, freely going into different tempos that are not even metrically related. Different keys, different time signatures, different grooves, even different songs, and sometimes for only eight bars. Very collage-y. I may not do this so much any more, in the future. I don't know.
There were a couple of other reasons I called us Morphic Resonance. We would take requests from the audience and resonate with each particular audience we had. Also the line-up would change. The size of the band morphs between duo, trio, quartet, quintet and septet.
You can hear this morphing starting to happen on the 2006 CD Blood Red by the Tom Vincent Trio. On track 13 'Unstick Stuck'. Towards the end of the piece, our then drummer suddenly starts playing faster - not double, or 2/3, or related; just faster. Blood Red was recorded here in Hobart for ABC Radio.
On tour with my Quartet at Cameron Undy's 505 Venue in Sydney, in 2009, we spontaneously blended three tunes, including one 3/4 tune: 'Impressions', 'All Blues' and 'Bernie's Tune'. Cliché now, but fun in the the moment, and the audience loved it. Performing like this keeps all the band members on their toes. And now it's done I won't do it again, or any other specific morph I might remember. (Jazz can be SO boring. It doesn't have to be like that.)
When the trio was living and performing in Amsterdam in 2001, we got pretty far out, but always swinging, and often with really unexpected endings. Our bass player missed one too many endings and so we had to let him go. After gigging with a couple of other local guys on bass who just didn't have the chutzpah we needed, we humbly requested our original bass player's unresignation :\
I've tried 'better' bass players in the past (read: more chops). But in the end they weren't better. Groove is everything. And if you play in an unusual way, in unexpected ways, then having shared performance experience with a bass player is a glue that adds tremendous cohesion to the music. With his deep walking bass groove, Leigh is one of the few double bass players who never uses a pick up. He is always just acoustic, if there is a smaller audience, and in bigger situations he uses a regular microphone only. And he is never too loud. If you have a bass player dictating the harmony at you or thinking, man, jazz is a democracy! then you can easily get hemmed in. Sure, it's sort of a democracy. The amount of give and take varies depending on the intensity and durations of momentary creations.
Touring this year with Morphic Resonance is Danny Healy on tenor sax, baritone sax and bass clarinet. Danny moved to Hobart two years ago and since then we have been rehearsing and gigging and have developed a strong rapport. I was so impressed by his playing that at the beginning of 2012 I put a Septet together in Hobart and wrote twelve new charts that featured him at our first concert here in August. He played exceedingly well at this concert, so much so that I decided to tour Australia featuring Danny in quartet setting.
In ending, I thought I'd mention a little bit about stage fright - and also lack of stage fright. The other morning I heard Christopher Lawrence interviewing a concert pianist from Korea. At one point she talked about stage fright. I was taken back to the nine-year-old trumpet player Tom Vincent performing outside for a school assembly at Roseville Primary school in 1978, dizzy with stage fright, no idea what he was doing but relatively safe, buried in a mob of fellow squawkers also somewhat oblivious to the how-tos of making music. Over time, the stage fright diminished. On reflection it appeared to happen quickly but in fact it was a process that took many years. Then, a few years ago, I realised that I now no longer experience stage fright.
It's not that what we perform is that much less complex and technically difficult than classical music. (Usually, to start with, it's simpler - a base line to build up from.) But there are no set things you have to achieve with the music. It's entirely open. Classical concert musicians often have very challenging music. With all the notes set in place, so many notes, they can, and no doubt from time to time do, get notes wrong here and there. But if there are no right or wrong notes, there is nothing to fear, no stage fright: just the pure joy of creating in the moment, with guys you love, to a receptive audience. It's very liberating and exhilarating. And some parts of the music are even more complex than you can write down. When you are improvising across or within the form, you can branch off on several simultaneous tangents either harmonically or rhythmically, or both, keeping your place within the structure of the form by feeling it with your body, and still find your way back. It helps if your ensemble players have empathy, rapport, a strong groove, and at times join together on various tangential excursions.
Tom Vincent Quartet Morphic Resonance Project is touring nationally in April-May, supported by a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. This year, Vincent is also composing music for his new Septet with grant funding from Arts Tasmania.
Vincent - AMC profile
2013 tour details (Tom Vincent's AMC profile: events)
'Insight: Clock time, imaginary time and the Resurgence Band' - an article on Resonate by Mark Isaacs (18 November 2011)
'Insight: Residual by Peter Knight and Dung Nguyen' - an article on Resonate by Peter Knight (17 October 2011)
All articles in the 'Insight' series (Scoop.it)
Tom Vincent - homepage (http://www.tomvincent.com.au/)
© Australian Music Centre (2013) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Hobart-based pianist and composer Tom Vincent has been playing nationally and internationally for 25 years. His Quartet Morphic Resonance Project is touring nationally in April-May.
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