I don’t know why, or how, but some days you just sit at the piano and it happens. You know something is waiting to come out, and you just have to not get in the way of it. There is only one other place where one experiences this sitting down; in both cases it’s best to lock the door to avoid interruptions.
So, there I was, I could barely write the tune out fast enough, the unconscious memories of motifs, lines, harmonies, for once emerging as one single idea, finely wrought, catchy but contemporary, eminently playable, natural and swinging, it wrote itself, I was trying just to watch it happen, treading a line between improvisation and composition, seeing the whole piece and yet somehow hanging on every emerging phrase.
And so it was that I came to write, almost note for note, Thelonious Monk’s “Locomotive” (1954).
I think some people get to this point, and are unlucky enough not to realise their creative spark was merely the result of some kind of bizarre dictation from the celestial jazz boardroom, in this case the eccentric piano genius Thelonious Monk. It’s easily done. Of course there were some discrepancies. I managed to spoil the flow of Monk’s line in places with some of my own inventions, which under the circumstances could be viewed simply as mistakes, notes that he didn’t think of and so didn’t fit. I was mishearing someone else’s voice as my own, and for about ten minutes afterwards was convinced that a masterpiece of construction conceived fifty years before had just come into existence at my piano.
The line between listening (reading) and creating (writing or improvising) is a fine one. The author William Burroughs, in his essay “Creative Reading” from “The Adding Machine” said;
“I have come to doubt whether creative writing can be taught. It is like trying to teach someone to dream. So now I teach creative reading.”
Composing is, I find, no more reliable than dreaming – we have no idea of the origin of things that pop into out heads, and if it feels right and comes to us in the form of inspiration we’ll take it as ours. Of course, pretty much all music has a shared language, and in jazz that is positively encouraged, but mostly this is on the more microscopic level of a phrase, a “lick”, an old favourite woven gracefully into the fabric of an improvisation. To be reminded of something familiar and yet still be surprised by it; for me, thats’s the Holy Grail of the jazz solo.
But composing is different, it’s set in stone. It’s like the difference between a pub conversation and a Facebook post, and it is similarly important to know the difference. Playing two bars of “Locomotive” in the course of an improvisation on “Monk’s Dream” is ingenious, it’s creative, but to put it in print is straightforward plagiarism. Or is it?
These “rules” that I am trying to write about are set by me, for me. It comes down to what you can put up with. I sat down about two years ago, and in a moment not unlike the “Locomotive Debacle” (as I have decided to call it), played four lop sided, funky, fully formed bars of music. But this time, they survived, and I hear them every time “Brother Face” does a gig. I’ve heard them played by ensembles at The Royal Academy and Trinity Laban, and I’m happy with them. I’ve made my peace with these bars; it wasn’t easy because, as soon as I’d played them at the piano, Geri Allen’s music came into my head.
The thing is, she’s not quite as famous as Monk; and these bars are reminiscent of, rather than stolen from, a particular way she used to write. I reckon I could have gotten away with it, but every time I hear that piece, I’m glad that I called it “Geri”. I suppose it’s part disclaimer, part tribute, but I’m happy that it moves into other areas that are characteristic of the band rather than the composition. I’m hoping people will go back and listen to her early albums like “Twilight”, “Maroons” and “Open On All Sides”, and maybe they’ll see the connection, but be impressed with how the band moves the music in new directions. Or in old directions. Either way, an acknowledgement that I admit the theft, let’s say the borrowing, and I do it in print, sort of, means that I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning.
Rules are made for bending.