(Ep3mis3) What types of mistake are likely to occur when playing jazz and why?
What types of mistakes are likely to occur in jazz?
MISTAKE TYPE #1 in jazz: Not always being present during the music; not listening; negatively judging fellow musicians contributions; not listening/perceiving and not reacting appropriately to what was played.
Stefon Harris in his TED talk explains why jazz musicians while on the bandstand strive to incorporate and musically respond to any note, chord or musical direction played by fellow musicians. If that 'wrong' note gets successfully incorporated into a current musical performance, then it wasn't a mistake to begin with, so believes Harris. The mistake gets made when not perceiving and reacting to whatever gets played by anybody in the band.
Harris finds that something can only be considered a mistake if one's fellow musicians fail to react appropriately to that 'alleged' mistake. He says that “the idea of a mistake: From the perspective of a jazz musician, it's easier to talk about someone else's mistake. So the way I perceive a mistake when I'm on the bandstand -- first of all, we don't really see it as a mistake. The only mistake lies in that I'm not able to perceive what it is that someone else did. Every "mistake" is an opportunity in jazz. So it's hard to even describe what a funny note would be. . . . So someone could conceptually perceive that as a mistake. The only way that I would say it was a mistake is in that we didn't react to it. It was an opportunity that was missed. So it's unpredictable. We'll paint this palette again. He'll play it. I don't know how we'll react to it, but something will change. We'll all accept his ideas, or not. . . . So you see, he played this note. I ended up creating a melody out of it. The texture changed in the drums this time. It got a little bit more rhythmic, a little bit more intense in response to how I responded to it. So there is no mistake. The only mistake is if I'm not aware, if each individual musician is not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea and we don't allow for creativity. . . . If I really want the music to go there, the best way for me to do it is to listen. This is a science of listening. It has far more to do with what I can perceive than what it is that I can do. So if I want the music to get to a certain level of intensity, the first step for me is to be patient, to listen to what's going on and pull from something that's going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musicians and they give you more, and gradually it builds. Watch. One, two, a one, two, three, four. . . . Totally different experience when I'm pulling ideas. It's much more organic. It's much more nuanced. It's not about bullying my vision or anything like that. It's about being here in the moment, accepting one another and allowing creativity to flow.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Somewhat ironically, Harris does not seem to fully and completely realize that there are mistakes in jazz. Notice that he wants to claim that there are no wrong, mistaken, or as he puts it, 'funny notes' when playing jazz IF the band members don't judge it as a mistake, but instead incorporate it into what they are playing in an effective manner. On the other hand, Harris stresses that the mistakes come about when band members either (1) judge the note or chord to be 'wrong', or (2) fail to perceive and then react fast enough so as to successfully incorporate that new sound into the tune being played so it ends up not being 'wrong', but right!
“We're playing one of Miles's classics, "So What," and as we hurtle toward Miles's solo, it's the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats. Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he's about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don't even know where it came from—it's the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it's hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, "Oh, shit." It's as if we've all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.
Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.
I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. Miles wasn't one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.
It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the "wrong" chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we're doing? And because he didn't judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing. Miles trusted the band, and he trusted himself, and he always encouraged us to do the same. This was just one of many lessons I learned from Miles.
We all have a natural human tendency to take the safe route—to do the thing we know will work—rather than taking a chance. But that's the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment. It's about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life. I was lucky enough to learn this not only from playing with Miles but over the decades of playing that have followed.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
The mistake in mistake #1 has been described in two different TED talks (by Dave Morris and Zach Beattie) on the methods used by improvisers if one fails to support the guidelines promoted by effective group improvisations, namely, to always say to one's fellow improvisers both (1) "Yes" to what each contributes, but also (2) "Yes, and . . . " so as to continue and support the ideas of the other improvisers by going with the flow and adding to their contributions just as Miles Davis did with Herbie Hancock's 'wrong' chord!
- Possibilities, Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey, New York: Penguin Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House), first published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), published in Penguin Books 2015, opening of Chapter One, copyright 2014.