This upcoming Saturday, I will be playing “cocktail jazz” with a small combo at a fundraising auction for a non-profit called “Turning Point”. This organization partners with various community services in the greater Shoreline, Washington area to serve the working poor. One service they provide is after-school programs for children of immigrant families where parents have to hold multiple jobs just to make ends meet. If you are interested in attending the auction, you can find information at http://turningpointseattle.org.
But the event is not what I’m writing this blog post about. It is about the music itself. Playing jazz is something I have never been real comfortable with, especially when it comes to improvising over jazz changes. These auction gigs come around twice a year, one for Turning Point and the other for an organization called “Go the 2nd Mile”. I prepare for these gigs with some intense practicing of good ol’ jazz standards, picking songs out of the “Real Book” and working up some licks.
Due to my insecurities about jazz improvisation, I usually go into these gigs with a certain amount of anxiety, but I always do better than I think I will do, and I realize that I have to stop being so hard on myself. One fellow musician went as far to tell me that I was “full of crap” when I would say that I can’t play jazz.
On the other hand, I am quite comfortable improvising in my chosen instrumental genre, which is similar to “new age” style piano. I am so comfortable in this style that my recorded output to-date has been mostly improvisational. Playing within my comfort zone has worked quite well for me. Until…
Until I started writing pieces that I can’t play. Meaning to say that I can’t just wing it. I arrived at this point in the midst of working on my next album which will be released early next year. Many of the pieces on this project evolved into something more than simple “beds” that I can improvise over comfortably. These are pieces that have required me to compose an actual piano part, learn how to play it, and then record it. No winging it.
There is a part of me that is a little embarrassed that I have composed material that I just can’t play by the seat of my pants anymore. But I realize that this is nothing to be embarrassed about at all. This is actually a crucial step in my growth as a musician. It means I get to stretch myself musically by listening to what’s in my head and then figuring out how to play it. Premeditated.
This is no different from most recording artists. Apparently Frank Sinatra would practice for months leading up to a recording session. George Harrison composed all of his guitar solos before playing them on the Beatles records. I remember once a long time ago when I realized that the keyboard solo on Toto’s “Rosanna” must have been thought out beforehand. As if this was unusual. Funny how one gets strange ideas in their head that can take decades to deprogram. Premeditated solos on recordings are the norm, not the exception.
All these years, I have expected myself to just magically deliver these beautiful solos improvisationally. I have been way too hard on myself. I have come to the end of what I can do by just winging it.
It may seem ironic, but now I feel liberated.