10 September 2011

Coltrane's Exercises and Excesses

Musician and blogger Truan Savage has a bee in his bonnet about John Coltrane, as evidenced by several posts on his blog, Savage Music:

The Problem With John Coltrane~~Part 1: The Audience

The Problem with John Coltrane~~Part 2: Technique

Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises...

I don't agree with much of what he writes, but I wouldn't take the time to write a dissent of this length if I thought he was a lone wolf. Rather, I think there several issues here that come up again and again, both on- and off-line, that are thus worth chiming in on in depth. Here, then, is my unsolicited reaction.

Where Savage and I agree is that not everyone can be John Coltrane. Where the disagreement lies, I think, is in the conclusions we each draw from this. In particular, when I read the following paragraph, I felt like I was reading it for the hundredth time:

"An inherent characteristic of Coltrane’s flurrying technique is that it is distracting. That does not need to be a negative property, but unfortunately the legacy that Coltrane sowed through his masterful ability can indeed be distracting in the worst way. Players today have become blinded by technique, and more often than not this preoccupation comes at the expense of good music."

There are many problems here. To start, I don't think it's wise to speak in absolutes about musical perception. Technique as an isolable concept in the mind of the listener cannot simply be taken for granted in this way, the seeming uniformity of experience among present day jazz audiences notwithstanding. This is, however, a relatively trivial point in comparison to what follows. The most insidious part of this paragraph is the final sentence, where we encounter a very common but nonetheless most tenuous assumption, namely that the world is filled with teeming hordes of latent musical geniuses ruined by the scourge of technique, which is largely if not solely responsible for seducing them away from the vital, individualistic work they might have done in favor of the flashy, boring, derivative work that seems to dominate the landscape. This is assuming far too much. These people have nothing to say, and they would not magically find something to say if they had less technique; if anything, their lack of artistry would be even more painful to listen to. If it seems that there are more soulless technicians than middling individualists, this is because even a middling individualism is a hard-won achievement. The tree of musicianship is very tall, and for many players, technique is simply the lowest hanging fruit.

The "Problem with John Coltrane" to which Savage obliquely refers here is that Coltrane was both an eminent technician and a potent and eloquent creative artist, and that these two characteristics are inextricable in his music. He always seemed to have something to say, no matter the technique involved, and this is indeed a singular and exceptional facet of his work which the rest of us only hope we might someday achieve. Yet it is also undeniable that even his prodigious technique wasn't always adequate to realize what he had to say. For me as a player and teacher this is the more constructive, salient point and a facet of his music that is equally central, distinguishable, and powerful. It is not that Savage evinces ignorance of this; rather, he seems neurotically overburdened by it, implying that because us mere mortals will never achieve Coltrane's degree of creative potency we would be better served cutting our technical development off at the knees before the two get out of balance with each other.

I think that to demonize technique in this way because of something John Coltrane did is to sell both him and ourselves way too short. I also think it is clearer yet that to demonize it because of something his shameless imitators did is to give them way too much credit. It is a terrible waste of time to complain that subsequent generations of musicians have exhibited only those aspects of Coltrane's mastery which can be taught while remaining deficient in those which can't. This outcome is indeed frustrating, but it is also wholly predictable. It is bad enough to worry excessively about that which one cannot control, and it is worse yet to be overtaken by this anxiety and jump to the conclusion that technical and creative sophistication are essentially anathema to each other; that is, that "more often than not this preoccupation [with technique] comes at the expense of good music." The latter sentiment is one of colloquial discourse's most enduring and destructive gestures against human creativity, a complaint which is as old as time, and one which is one-hundred and ten percent false on account of a textbook conflation of correlation and causation.

Such observers as Mr. Savage are in this sense themselves "blinded by technique" more so even than the objects of their ire: they fail to see that there is no latent creative potency trapped inside all those soulless technicians, nothing their technique is inhibiting them from saying with their music. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is simply a soulless technician with nothing to say. To issue broad condemnations of technical sophistication on such grounds is to let the technique terrorists win, so to speak. As long as we don't let them, they can't; so don't, and they won't. It is that simple.

It is more easily argued that there are only so many hours in the day and hence that allocating all of them to technical development and little or none to pursuing other aspects of musicianship will cripple the musician. That is very different, though, from arguing that technical development inherently retards the development of these other facets, even when a concurrent effort is made. There's no reason whatsoever to believe that this is the case; what is more clear, to me at least, is that technique is simply apt to blossom in many players long before a commensurate musico-intellectual maturity can been reached, and that social, environmental, and developmental factors alike undoubtedly have roles to play here. A perfectly concurrent development among all aspects of musicianship is an attractive ideal for many reasons, but ultimately it is neither plausible nor particularly necessary.

But what, then, of those who, whether by dint of nature or nurture, never even out, who continue playing boring, derivative, technically astute jazz into their 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's? Savage wrote:

...only the most masterful musicians are tastefully capable of balancing endless technical development with musicality. Today, unfortunately, players, listeners and critics alike are much too concerned with technical ability than quality output, and it is because of the success and misunderstanding of Coltrane’s restlessness that this has occurred.

Again, I would dispute the conceit that "technical development" and "musicality" are isolable, mutually dependent forces which can become out of balance with each other in a destructive way. I can only argue anecdotally, but I simply don't see or hear this the same way; there are too many players who demonstrate too many degrees and combinations of the two attributes for me to think that a surplus or deficit of one could render the condition of the other in any way predictable. Surely there are a few technicians who truly neglect to develop musically despite having the potential to do so, but this tells us more about them than it does about John Coltrane.


Aside from Coltrane the saxophonist, there is the question of Coltrane the composer, also addressed by Savage on his blog, and also, in my estimation, misjudged therein. Regarding Giant Steps and its myriad musical and musico-social implications, Savage argues that musicians play the tune more to show off than because they (or anyone else) actually wants to hear it. I lack the requisite omniscience to evaluate this assertion. I do, however, refuse to accept the supposed smoking gun here, namely that Coltrane himself as well as others around him considered tunes like Giant Steps and Moment's Notice to be "exercises." On this point, Savage writes:

If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way."

This is a very troublesome sentence, with a lot hinging on what exactly "approach" means in this context. I suspect Savage is referring here not to the technical approach to learning, practicing and performing the tunes, but rather to their place in the pantheon, the weight they carry socially among musicians, and the frequency with which they are played. And that would imply he believes that we take this music too seriously, a profoundly counterproductive view.

At the very least, Coltrane thought enough of these compositions to record them once, but if that doesn't settle anything, neither does the "exercise" label. Classical composers like Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin, Bartók and Ligeti certainly were able to write great music even while consciously and overtly addressing some central technical or pedagogical issue. It would be an utter shame, just as I'd argue it would be with Giant Steps or Moment's Notice*, for this music to be dismissed sound unheard simply because the composer has intentionally imbued it with a utilitarian quality and was unafraid of reflecting this fact in the title of the work. In any case, the world certainly would be a much less interesting place if all the exercises, etudes, and inventions were suddenly outlawed from concert performance.

For someone so troubled by dry technical displays, Savage here reveals a peculiar blindness to one of their overarching causes: it is precisely when exercises are not taken seriously as artworks that they are reduced to this level. There is little pedagogical dispute that the ideal way to practice even the driest of materials, such as scales and arpeggios, is expressively**, meaning making intentional use of a variety of dynamics, articulations, tones, meters and tempos. Giant Steps no less than any other lead-sheet-style composition can be performed mechanically or it can be performed expressively; the challenge of making music over a formulaic structure can be accepted, met, constructively subverted, and so on, or it can simply be evaded. Savage himself notes the repetitive nature of Coltrane's own Giant Steps solo; are we to simply "approach" the changes this way for all time, hiding behind the supposition that Coltrane didn't take his own composition seriously enough to bother making music with it? This is absurd. We not only should take every interpretive challenge seriously, we must. The consequence of an irreverent "approach" to musical material is precisely the consequence Savage (and I) would prefer to avoid.

In the end, Savage is as entitled to his own aesthetic judgments as anyone else and the fact that he obviously thinks less of this tune as music than I do is irrelevant. I can respect anyone's informed judgment that Giant Steps is not a great enough composition to warrant being played as often as it is; I could even make the argument myself. I personally happen to like it enough to remain thoroughly perplexed at the vitriol it can elicit from the blogosphere, and while I'd always like to hear it played better, or differently, I wouldn't ever think to bemoan the frequency with which it's played.

To become truly overplayed, a tune needs to do more than facilitate gratuitous technical display; there are myriad jazz compositions which can be abused in this way, but few of them attain the status that Giant Steps has. The archetypal jam session tune has to have more going for it, combining manageable structural features (say, a short form and simple melody) and wide exposure (say, the title track from an iconic record by a major figure) with some wrinkle that makes it unique and tedium-combatting (say, changes that move around a circle of major thirds rather than a circle of fifths). Viewed through this lens, Giant Steps, like Solar, So What, St. Thomas, Song For My Father, Killer Joe, and so on, was simply made for jam sessions; you could even argue that it fills a niche therein. For these reasons (besides the fact that I actually, for some odd reason, like the tune), it just doesn't bother me that people play it a lot at sessions. That's something that it's good for; we might as well use it.


Finally, a couple of necessary disclaimers. First, it's possible that I simply haven't been given the opportunity to learn to hate Giant Steps and Moment's Notice the way others obviously have: for one thing, there are no jam sessions in Minneapolis, and for another, if anyone there plays Giant Steps, they sure don't do it in public. The last time I can recall hearing it played live by a locally-based musician was around 10 years ago, and that was at a performance. Hence, I'm not particularly well-qualified to pass judgment on others who have been beaten over the head with it, though if all it took for them to reach that conclusion was hearing it at a jam session one too many times, I doubt they ever had much of a predilection for it anyway. (Secretly, I still think Girl From Ipanema, Bemsha Swing, and Solar are great tunes even though they're overplayed and I'm thus hesitant to call them.) The upside? You heard it here first: if you hate Giant Steps that much, move to Minnesota! I promise you'll never hear it again. Even if we had jam sessions, we're way too passive-aggressive to ever call it: "Well, I was going to call Giant Steps, but how about Blue Monk instead?"

[Update 4/7/16: Commenter Dan, whose musicianship and earnestness I can vouch for based on offline encounters, quickly chimed in to relate a different experience of our hometown. Of course there are sessions in the Twin Cities, but not like there are in Los Angeles, where the adult hobbyists at the monthly Blue Whale jam would shred 90% of the "pros" back home. I meant my original comment about the Twin Cities only in the sense that the Germans once succeeded in saddling England with the label Das Land ohne Musik. Even today, as an alumnus of Jazz Ahead, of Joe LaBarbera's and Darek Oles' combos at CalArts, and of too many high-powered original groups to list, I am mildly intimidated by the Whale sessions. They are that good. Conversely, after Brilliant Corners closed (i.e. over decade ago, when I was barely old enough to drink), I never found another regular session in Minnesota that was on my level. As for the few I did attend subsequently out of hubris or self-torture, I was being honest about what I heard, or didn't.]

Second, I play tuba, not saxophone. Giant Steps is not a fait accompli for my instrument, it hasn't exactly been overplayed by tubists, and I feel a certain sense of accomplishment in being able to hack through it from time to time that a self-respecting saxophonist probably shouldn't. The DJA post I linked to above includes the following outburst, which points to the crux of the matter:

in case you hadn't realized (because you were too busy practicing) -- lots of people can and do play the shit out of this stuff. I don't care if you are even more flawless and even more polished than the currently reigning heavyweight champion of polished flawlessness, this stuff is just not impressive anymore. Even if your sole objective as a musician is to blow us away with your l33t skillz, the only way you can actually accomplish that is by doing something we haven't heard done a million times before.

On a different day with the wind blowing in a different direction, I could have written that myself. However, it is far less true of my instrument's (non-)tradition any day of the week than it is of DJA's, and I think this largely accounts for our difference in perspective. I don't know that changing the instrumentation of a warhorse and leaving everything else intact should count as "something we haven't heard done a million times before," but if I seem to be implying that it should, this is part of the reason. Certainly I have hardly ever heard myself succeed at playing Giant Steps, and this provides motivation to return to it periodically. Playing melodic eighth note lines clearly at any tempo above quarter=250 is still a real challenge for me, regardless of the changes, and frankly, I'd agree that the Giant Steps changes themselves are not among the most difficult. (Much more difficult to learn from a changes standpoint, even at its more moderate tempo, was a tune like 26-2, where the sequence is occasionally fudged.) I wouldn't bother, though, if I didn't like the tune, nor would I bother with blues, Rhythm, or Impressions changes if I didn't also find each of those structures to offer something vital and pleasurable. Is the 12-bar blues merely "overplayed," or has it rather "stood the test of time?"

By the same token, if anyone reading this comes away with the impression that I worship irrationally at the altar of technique, it's because as a tuba player, my efforts to both assimilate and create roles for the instrument in music in which it does not traditionally participate are constantly hemmed in by insufficient technique, and as such, I view a high level of technical achievement as a necessity. If I show up to a jazz jam without it and someone calls something fast, even a two-chord tune, I literally have to pack up my horn and go home. I've done it before. You'd think I'd be even more alienated than the rest of you based on that kind of experience, but I'm not; really I just want to be a full participant in jazz music and culture, and that means meeting the challenge head-on, not evading it. Far from skewing our perspective, I actually think this allows those of us who play "non-standard" jazz instruments to see the role of technique more clearly than those who inherit the weight of the saxophone or piano traditions the moment they start playing. These traditions are models of clarity which a tuba player can never hope to fully match; far from just being discouraging, this enables us to proceed uninhibitedly in refining our technique, secure in the knowledge that no saxophonist or pianist will ever go on their blog and accuse us of being technically overdeveloped.

One teacher of mine defined technique as control, which I think sums it up well: when we control what comes out of our horns, the world is our musical oyster. Facility without control is just a parlor trick; it's the difference between always producing a "correct" sound and always producing the sound you intended to produce. This has absolutely nothing to do with who can play higher, faster or louder, and everything to do with whose intent is expressed most clearly. I for one don't feel that I could ever be too good at the latter, and that we disavow the pursuit of this ideal at our own peril.

*IMHO, Moments Notice, formulaic as it may be, is an entirely different case, a minor masterpiece, hardly overplayed, and utterly undeserving of being dragged through the mud here.

**I would argue for substituting "intent" for "expression," but that's a subject for a future post. In the interest of clarity, I've used the more widely accepted term for the musical phenomenon I was referring to.

09 September 2011


I am now located in Valencia, CA where I'll be working towards an MFA in the Performer-Composer program at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), as well as playing outdoor basketball in January (awesome).