I have been thinking a lot about influences. How they change, and how they don't. How we can be initially inspired in a flash and then sustained musically for a lifetime as we come to understand our musical heroes at deeper and deeper levels. Some influences get inside of us, after awhile they may fade to the back, but never really leave forever. Others burn towards greater and greater intensity
It is funny because as I reflect back on my journey as a jazz musician there were two very strong experiences that set me on my path. These are not the type of experiences that we often talk about and they certainly aren't the ones that music teachers would recommend! It wasn't being steered to John Coltrane, or hearing Sonny Rollins play. It wasn't seeing Michael Brecker for the first time or transcribing my first solo. Not even close. It was before I even knew those players existed and probably couldn't even spell the word transcription. I am talking influence on a level that was even more basic and experiences which put me on a path where I could even begin to appreciate the genius of Rollin's motivic development, Davis's musical personality, or Coltrane's intensity. As I reflect on my journey, it very well may be that the most salient, formational experience was a red EZ Play Christmas Music book for the piano (To this day I am a horrendous piano player) and a book of David Koz music (it came with a CD)!
Don't laugh. The EZ Play Christmas book was lame. I knew it, even as a twelve-year-old saxophonist. The notes were really big by the way and had the pitch letter printed in the note head. Here's the thing - there was something about playing familiar melodies that were written in the most watered-down way possible that nudged me towards interpretation. I just couldn't take playing Jingle Bells in all quarter notes, so I started to play jingle bells the way I knew jingle bells - I was jamming. The piano ranges didn't always work for saxophone so I began playing things up the octave at times, other times didn't - interpretation was born.
David Koz - oh boy. I know what he his - a commercial saxophonist. I am not about to put him on the same plane as Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, or Stanley Turrentine. What happened was my father purchased this book at a Heid Music and gave it to me. I think on some level he knew David Koz was the saxophone player on a Soap Opera Theme Song that my mom watched. I couldn't play any of it. Not even close. I couldn't make sense out of that many notes in one measure. So I popped in the CD and listened. I was looking for any kind of musical crutch to try and figure some of this stuff out. Slowly but surely I tried to emulate what I was hearing. It wasn't transcription per say, but it was a lesson in emulation. There were things that pop-star-saxophonist was doing that wasn't in the printed book- and I tried to play it like him.
The point is, to this day, I think about how I learned concepts like interpretation and emulation long before I was serious about jazz, long before I could really improvise, and long before I started transcribing. The two experiences above are generally not the types of experiences that music teachers think are beneficial in anyway - but they were. To me, I consider these influences formational. In a not so small way they set me on the path towards improvisation, stylistic nuance, melodic interpretation and a development of a personal musical voice. Musical voice is where we'll pick up in the next post!