Some jazz tunes can be strange little things. They are stumpy, seemingly lightly created, they are sometimes written on a napkin or rattled off from memory like a joke. Anyone could do them. Maybe in a year’s time, I might manage one more good one.
Imagine tin foil. Imagine screwing it up into a ball, tight in the palm of one hand, and throwing it into a bin. It’s vaguely satisfying if it goes in first time. There are some people who, if it misses, will walk over and put it it the bin. This is, of course, eminently practical, and these people have other things to do, and these are “group one” people. Then there are the people who will sit back down, and try again from the same distance. After five, ten, a hundred tries, maybe the ball goes in. The apparent simplicity of a ball being thrown in the bin is thereby masked by the other ninety nine botched attempts. Already this person is a perfectionist, the fact that they attempted something that they knew could be done better compelled them to do it. The thing itself, and its usefulness, are irrelevant, the fact that it could be improved upon is like a nagging hammer in the back of the brain. this is “group two” behaviour.
Now, going back to the tin foil. How round is that ball? With one hand, it’s not easy to get a spherical kind of situation happening. And yet, something tells you that maybe it’s possible, and besides, won’t a rounder ball make a straighter trajectory? Armed with this somewhat suspect and half-formed aerodynamic assertion, you try again with the rolling. Again, you could cheat, two hands could make light work, but the one hand thing is the key to this challenge. If this is you, you are in group number three and I feel your pain.
So, writing a jazz tune, of a certain pithy and epigrammatic type, is like this. It’s like rolling a ball of foil into a sphere with one hand and casually throwing it into a bin ten feet away. It takes practice, and it is taking practice. And sometimes if you try too hard, the thing won’t go in, because despite what appear to be increasingly favourable odds, you somehow get further and further away from the target. I still come up with ideas that sound like my ideas from twenty years ago. I had more hair then, but still the same old shit in my head, foil balls scattered over old diaries and photos.
So it was that, after a day of trying to write a tune that would look as if I made it up on the spot, I sat at the piano, dejected, and made one up on the spot. And like the foil, it’s like, don’t touch it or you’ll ruin it and have to start again. That thing when you unpick a tightly wrapped piece of foil and it just breaks into chunks, and you think, all that work and its gone in an instant. Don’t touch it. And especially don’t start playing it over and over, trying to extend it, to make it into a bigger thing.
Of course, some jazz composers are not like this. They can write long stuff, never look back, start typing and keep going (this is how I improvise, which seems a lot more successful in terms of hours spent versus notes produced), maybe they have a structure in mind and are filling it out. The foil and the bin doesn’t work as an analogy here; there is no illusion, it’s long, detailed work and the listener knows it. I have wanted to be one of these people, like George Russell, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Mingus…mostly when I sit down and try and write, I tell myself, today is when you get into that arena, the extended work. I don’t know what makes these people able to do what they do. I think it’s hard wired, the need to elaborate, as is the need to condense. And maybe because I enjoy their music so much, it’s best for me to stay clear and stick to the bin stuff.
Because small things, if you look at them long enough, open out into worlds of complexity. A small jazz tune, well crafted, is like a ZIP file, opening out on your desktop into something that is finally substantial. Composing is like setting a ball at exactly the right height on a tee, then you pick the band (this is the club, I’m feeling a one wood driver) and, on stage performing, you swing the club. (If I really wanted to extend this whimsical and flimsy analogy further, perhaps a standing ovation is the ball in the hole, but I have seen too many ovations where neither the right height nor the correct club was anywhere in evidence).
But then the way the foil rolls off your fingertips, maybe a touch of spin on the ball just for shits and giggles, will it still go in?…and that sound of a light projectile hitting its mark, the joy when it just rolls around a bit on its way in (just like a televised putt at Gleneagles), knowing that it’s down to the way you rolled it right at the beginning. These are the details, this is why I’m doing it, this is why it’s important to me that in one of my tunes, half of a melody is actually the same as the other half played backwards, or that the highest note of a melody is two thirds of the way through its duration, or that it uses the absolute minimum number of notes possible. It exists, and it exists better for these adjustments, obsessive and time consuming though they are.
And that’s why I’m trying to spend more time listening to less music, to use these sounds in the right way, to be a good consumer. I know a well rolled tin foil missile when I see one, but you have to look.