Seeing Where it Goes…
AS A RELATIVE newcomer to Jazz—and coming from the decidedly classical side of the fence—I am still struck by the informality. The entrance of the performers (with a wave of the hand holding a water bottle), the well-worn jeans, the casual management of the musical structure, and, of course, the multitude of improvisational techniques—no doubt, one of the things that gives musicians so much pleasure in this art form.
On this night at the Simons Center Recital Hall, there was a stiff feeling in the air at first, probably because this was not a night club but an extra credit class. The room was filled with music appreciation students, some of them studying under Director of Jazz Studies, band leader, and saxophone player Robert Lewis. And the trio of Robert, Gerald Gregory, and Ron Wiltrout seemed uncomfortable at first as they played the first two numbers.
But that disappeared quickly as they delved into the nuances of the music and as we settled into watching them pull all manner of tricks out of their musical tool kits.
The variety of tunes they played—from the opening 12-bar Blues piece, to the lustful ballad, “My One and Only Love,” to Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop classic, “A Night in Tunisia”—allowed all three musicians to display the range of their instruments and technique. As Robert explained after the opening piece: “So, that’s what we do—play through the tune and recycle it with as many variations as we can. We take a standard theme and just… see where it goes. It’s not really chaos after all.”
Admittedly, it usually takes me a few tunes to acknowledge this because, compared to the organization, structure, and melodic direction of most classical music, Jazz tunes can sound as though they spring from mere association, imitation, and repetition. In other words, lacking in form and structure. Like “improv” stage actors who don’t know where their lines are coming from or where the action is headed—Jazz musicians figure a lot out as they go and trust that a congruous whole will emerge from the disparate parts; which can be exciting for actors and musicians, yet frustrating at times to an audience (depending on how disparate a piece gets).
In this case, however, my resistance soon started giving way to the feeling of “flowing down a gentle stream” as the sax, keyboards, and percussion set me on a pleasant journey of musical conversations, images, jokes, and experiments. I started to hear the structure and to realize that, in the case of Jazz compared to classical, structure is just not the most important thing. Rather, it’s what happens to the structure, and what plays on top of it and around it, that creates so much interest.
Jazz is a very different kind of musical puzzle that musicians seem to enjoy putting together, taking apart, and putting back together again and again. It is a series of ongoing melodic and rhythmical adjustments. It is also an imperfect art form that is risky on the one hand yet exhilarating on the other because you can try so many things. If somethin’ doesn’t work, try a little somethin’ else—and “see where it goes.” And a good Jazz audience (which we became more of over the course of 70 minutes) invites that.
It’s obvious, though, that the best Jazz players have either formal training or great musical instincts, or both. They know that the melodies and themes are there and they honor them, but without formality, rigidity, or insisted-upon precision. Jazz players wear a parachute, but they’re in it for the free fall, the loops, the spins, and the unexpected—the freedom of musical flight.
And what a nice flight this became, starting with Robert innervating the saxophone with delicacy and power. I was in the front row, so I could hear the sax ‘breathing’ as he brought out its melodic charm, romantic qualities, and wide-ranging versatility. The sax makes for a persuasive lead singer, especially in the hands of someone like Robert who instills confidence in his listeners.
Ron Wiltrout performed his own feats with drums and various hand-held instruments that included everything in reach—even the metal legs of his drums. At times he looked like an inventive scientist searching for new discoveries in his laboratory. “Hmmm, maybe this will sound good… Oh, this will complement what Robert is doing… Maybe Gerald will get a kick out of this…” and so on. It was clear that he was hearing the music from a unique perspective of rhythmic harmony, intonation, and innovation.
The least demonstrative member of the trio was Gerald Gregory on piano and electronic keyboards. Probably because he was so understated, it took me a while to warm up to what he was doing. But as my ears of appreciation opened wider, I realized that he is as accomplished and as much at home in the keyboard world as Robert and Ron are in theirs. And then it all started to mesh. I wanted them to experiment. I didn’t want the music to be perfect or predictable. I didn’t want to keep my hand on the parachute cord in anticipation of a safe landing. And I heard Jazz in a new way.
Thank you, gentlemen. I look forward to flying with you again.