Monday, October 15, 2007

Jazz Musicians: The Ultimate Multi-Taskers

The more I learn about jazz, the more I am impressed that anyone can play this music well! All musicians have to deal with a common set of skills—understanding the mechanics of the instrument, time, rhythm, scales, etc. Reading music may not be mandatory but it is certainly an expectation. I took piano lessons for a few years and I could read music and pretty much put my fingers on the right notes at the right time, at least if I went slowly enough to coordinate what I read with what notes I touched. And after a while I could simultaneously play one set of notes in my left hand and the corresponding set of notes in my right hand. Reading, left, right, sometimes a little push of a pedal with a foot… that was the extent of my multi-tasking. And the results were not too promising.

Look at a jazz musician. Reading or remembering the melody. Reading or remembering the chord changes. Often transposing the key on the spot without a crib sheet. Then there’s improvising—recomposing with infinite variations in response to the variations of the other musicians on the bandstand as well as in response to the feeling of the moment. Keeping the form, melody, rhythm, tempo in mind at all times. Coordinating at least two and maybe all four limbs that might each have a separate game plan! Just watch a jazz drummer—left leg pumping on the hi-hat; right leg on the bass drum; left hand beating out a pattern on the snare while the right hand alternately taps the tom-tom and ride cymbal….. whoa, how did he hit the cowbell? The toes are doing what while the heel is doing what?

I am convinced jazz musicians (and drummers in particular) have brains constructed of multiple lobes that operate independently, yet in concert, with each other. Is this anomaly present at birth or does the jazz brain mutate over time? I don’t know but I wonder if Microsoft has ever analyzed the neuro-circuitry of a jazz musician. There’s a blueprint for some pretty amazing software between jazz ears.
Above photo: Multi-tasking drummer Matt Wilson put all limbs to full use with his Arts and Crafts Quartet at the Dakota in January, 2007. (Photo - Andrea Canter)