Advice For Jazz Students #18: R is for rhythm

You are at one end of a long street. The early morning mist makes even familiar things look a little hazy. Further down the road you can see something is moving. You know it’s a person straight away, a moving object that big on a street is always a person. As they walk towards you, their gender, race, language, and even the brand of their phone may become clearer. These things are part of their humanity, they are details that fill out the essential truth. This person is not primarily an android user, despite what marketing researchers will tell us.

When improvising, ideas come out of the fog, and the first kicks I feel are rhythmic. The other stuff comes later, they help to project the initial idea into the musical space occupied by the instrument, the piano.

Melody is necessary because my instrument is lumbered with the man made chromatic scale, and harmony also, to a lesser extent, comes in handy to blur the melody and make it more rhythmic, to muddle the pitch, bring it closer to the drums.

Of course, the extensive canon of Western music also looms large in my memory, colour and counterpoint, thematic unity and all that. But where it used to be funnelled into a symphonic timeline whereby ideas were set in motion, explored and developed, then recapitulated and put to bed, now there’s a sense that our music is merely joining in with something that already exists. We are joining in with the world.

I used to love symphonic music, and still do but, as detailed in Nicholas Cook’s excellent essay, its hard to feel the triumph, the release, of the endings anymore. (Read his book, it’s life changing.)

Now we know that everything is essentially in an endless cycle, it seems that only humans ever made art in their own image, as an entity that is born, exists and dies. Look at this alphabet I have chained myself to. It has an arc, ending in its demise, and with letter “R” the end is near and I’m facing the final curtain. Time to plan a rousing ending, but…an ending of what?

We used to want to represent nature (from our omnipotent view above it), music that imitates what we see from our observation post. Now it seems there should be more of a feeling of taking part in it, losing the idea that we are the boss.

Music is everywhere. The cross rhythms of your footsteps and heartbeat might be music enough. At the slower end we have the seasons, the Earth’s night and day rotation, it’s year long journey around the sun. Wheels within wheels, loops and cycles.

A lot of jazz is based around Broadway hits that were only designed to be heard once. They are kind of offshoots of the Western operatic aria, and of the protagonist does at the end of her song, there’s no coming back. But Black musicians took these cast iron moulds and spun them around and around, making every calculated gesture into a signpost, a marker of not so much of progress as a point on a wheel. A sequence of chords, originally designed to stop at the end, is forced into an endless loop, each harmonic moment becoming like a rhythm itself, repeating endlessly, or until the club closes.

What I am trying to say is, try tapping two hands on a table, observe the infinite variety possible with two strands of rhythm, two arms. I like it, it’s my favourite practice routine. I like to think it connects me to the world and its workings.

A bus passes by outside, I don’t even see the number or where it’s going, and for me its story ends as the back wheels leave the edge of the window frame. The driver, though, is still there in the picture, until the end of her shift. Someone, somewhere, will see that bus to the breakers’ yard finale of its useful life. Most of us will not see where those atoms go, but they will be back, perhaps in the soles of the shoes of the woman who walks the streets of your town in the morning mist.