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Conversation Piece

Sometimes music is more than just that. In the hands of skilled jazz improvisors, it’s more than melody, harmony and rhythm. It assumes its role as a language, a means of communicating ideas, even poetic ones.

Until recently, the first time I noticed this was at a concert by the Marsalis family, an immensely talented group of jazz musicians, the most famous being Wynton and Branford. They were joined by their brothers Delfayo and Jason as well as their elder statesman father, Ellis. We were extremely lucky to see the family live, and not just because of the high level of musicianship, but because of the depth and variation within that stratospheric level of talent. To clarify: although the brothers were top-notch pros, Wynton was out of their league. Next-level. Why? Because he wasn’t playing tunes any more — he was speaking to the audience through his horn. Just as we can convey ideas, statements, questions and emphasis through speech, he did it through music. It was incredible — he had such a command of the horn, he was so comfortable with expressing himself on it, he knew it as well as spoken English. Amazing.

Fast forward to earlier this month, when we had the good fortune to attend a concert by jazz pianist Chick Corea with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. This time, however, though the musicians were also top-drawer, this time there was something different: they were having a conversation.

Of course, this is generally only possible in the context of improvisation, since most conversations are improvised. If the musicians were playing a written piece, there can be interactions, but it would have been like seeing actors perform a script … with chemistry, yes, but a script nonetheless. However, in an improvisation, every moment is new, and each player has something to say. Believe ti or not, I felt I was party to a lively conversation between bass and drums, with piano agreeing, complementing and supporting the bass player’s point of view. Although it took some concentration to follow (I felt concerned for our poor companions), it was quite extraordinary.

Yet they made it seem quite common. Their comfort with the instruments and the basic harmony of the piece (the framework) made it all look too easy. So easy in fact, that it was possible to see a strong connection between the musicians. It was as if you were watching a conversation in a foreign language, but you could see the relationship between the speakers, and were transfixed.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well … when you just get so good at something, when it becomes natural, you move to another level. You go from technique to communication to energy transfer. Maybe. I’m not talking about raybeams or heat … just something that’s powerful but hard to pin down.

Does that make sense?

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