An Improvisational Attitude
Updated: Oct 17, 2018
In the first blog of this series, I Used to Disrespect Tribute Bands, I said that there are two personality types when it comes to how musicians-in-bands relate to music and each other. I qualified the statement by pointing out that these 2 types occur along a continuum; it's not all of one or the other.
I defined Type 1: They consider the iconic recording of the song to be the goal. They are concerned with recreating the sound of the original recording as close as possible. The original recording is to them what the written score is to the classical musician. These are the guys who transcribe and memorize parts and solos note-for-note and play them perfectly every time. The parts are set in concrete and not to be messed with. That's the mind-set.
In the second blog of this series, Being George, I talked more about Type 1 musicians and gave some examples of where that type of musician is most comfortable; well-rehearsed bands with defined presentations, tribute bands and, on a higher level, as hired guns in worldwide, big-name acts, playing the parts required to support the big name, whoever it might be.
In this installment I want to talk about what I call Type 2 musicians.
Type 2 musicians consider the iconic recording of the song to be the starting point, not the goal. The tune-as-recorded is the springboard or launchpad for taking it somewhere else, maybe somewhere the original artist never even thought of. It's an improvisational attitude - I call it a jazz attitude, as opposed to a classical attitude.
Type 2s are ALL about improvising, taking chances and performing without a net. They thrive on the drama and danger of doing that in front of an audience. The potential for humiliation has to be REAL!
Not just Jazz musicians are Type 2. The Blues is an improvisational genre. Blues-influenced Rock music is filled with Type 2s. Think about the jam bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish.
Type 2 works better in smaller combos. The bigger the band is, the more organized it has to be to avoid train wrecks. The more people there are on stage the more defined each person's role has to be. Type 2's don't like those kinds of restrictions. They want room to mess with things! They don't like having to play within stylistic boundaries.
In 1980, after studying classical guitar with Douglas Niedt for 3 years at UMKC's Conservatory of Music, one day I went in to my lesson to tell Doug I was dropping out of my classical guitar performance degree program so I could devote my time to studying with John Elliott, who was a Jazz pianist/arranger and taught what he called, "the Theory of Harmony" to private students. I had already been studying with John for several months and concluded that I couldn't maintain both activities, and that John's program was what I was really interested in (I was also gigging 6 nights a week at the time).
Doug was very understanding. He said, "John Elliott - I've heard of that guy. You know, I can play some Jazz."
"Really?" I said. "I'd like to hear that!"
"Ok, listen to this."
Doug then proceeded to play "Blue Rondo a la Turk" by Dave Brubeck. This song is in 9/8 time with a middle section in 4/4. It's a complex tune. Doug was playing everything with one guitar. Bass line, melody, inner voices in the chord moving around; it was jaw-dropping. Upon finishing that tune he launched into Take Five - another Brubeck tune, this one in 5/4 time. Same thing, bass line, chords and melody all at the same time, with a solo that involved variations on the theme; another jaw-dropping solo guitar performance. Seriously, take a look at the Take Five link; that's what Doug played for me in his teaching studio back in 1980.
I told him, "As long as I live I will never be that good, but I have a question."
"Sure" he said.
"Was any of that improvised?"
"No," he said. "I arranged it, scored it out and practiced it until I could play it perfectly."
I said, "Then it isn't Jazz, it's 20th-Century Classical music."
He nodded and said, "I can see that."
Doug is a Type 1. Type 1s don't like to improvise. They don't like to fly by the seat of their pants; they don't like to take chances. Their goal is perfection. In my opinion, Doug is one of the best in the world at what he does, and I spoke sincerely when I said, "As long as I live I will never be that good..." - I just don't have the personality type for it.
Every once in a while I get a student referral from Doug. The phone call will go something like this; "I was taking lessons from Doug Niedt and I asked him when would we get to improvisation and he said, 'I don't do that,' and he gave me your number."
As I stated previously, I'm a Type 2. In my formative years - the mid to late 60's - the bands and musicians I was drawn to were the Type 2s. Cream and Hendrix were my favorites - see the common thread? Blues-influenced, improvisational and with a strong avant-garde sensibility. Pushing boundaries and blurring genres - that was appealing to me. Younger people don't realize how revolutionary these guys were at the time. On top of that, I sought out the live recordings. I wasn't satisfied with listening to the same studio albums over and over. I wanted to hear how they played those songs live, because what they played on the live recordings was always different than the studio versions.
I was sooo excited to go see the movies Woodstock and Monterey Pop because I could see and hear Jimi Hendrix play live - and he didn't play anything the same way twice! I would much rather listen to live albums than studio albums - to this day. I had Johnny Winter And. Live! I had Steppenwolf Live, Grand Funk Railroad Live, Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys and Live Cream and Live Cream Volume 2. Then there was the film of Cream's farewell concert at Royal Albert Hall.
I wore these live albums out I listened to them so much. I'm going to write a future blog just on Cream's live version of Crossroads and how influential that was on me. Super significant.
One of the reasons why I was so taken with the live stuff was it helped me to understand how these players were thinking. I was never interested in copping a solo note-for-note; I wanted to know how they made this stuff up - they were obviously making stuff up because they didn't play it the same way every time. What were they thinking? What scales were they using? What patterns on the guitar neck were they visualizing? What musical vocabulary were they drawing from? Those were the kinds of questions in which I was interested.
Why learn a solo note-for-note when the guy who played it never plays the solo the same way twice? (Type 1 would answer; "Because that's the way he played it that time!") To this day, people think I'm playing Hendrix's Little Wing or Hey Joe or Purple Haze just like he did. But even he didn't play them the same way he did. I never learned them note-for-note. I learned how Jimi was thinking, what patterns he was using...and thinking the same way goes a long way towards sounding like him. But you have to know how he thinks - what his vocabulary is. Ditto for Cream, Johnny Winter or whoever. Assuming you would want to sound exactly like them in the first place - that would be Type 1.
If I was ever going to be in a Tribute band, it would have to be a tribute to Cream. Because Cream was a Type 2 conglomeration - the tunes were the springboard for all kinds of improvisation, and that's what I would be doing with it.
The next blog in this series will be how the types cross over into each other's territory.
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