What a nebulous term this is. What does it mean? The Merriam Webster dictionary has this to say:
“1: great technical skill (as in the practice of a fine art)”
“2: a taste for or interest in virtu”
In music this seems to be perceived as something to do with speed of execution, and, when the fingers hit light speed and can go no faster, you can always make the material they are executing more complicated. This all seems reasonable when you are starting out, mainly because in the early stages of learning to improvise your fingers probably don’t work spontaneously at all. It’s an appealing trajectory, it’s measurable progress. I saw Chick Corea’s Electrik Band in 1989, I remember.
But let’s look at this logically from the viewpoint of a working group. Let’s assume everyone is working to this brief, which will produce, invariably, an increasingly complex web of sound where each voice is only alluding to the original idea. A mass of tangential turbulence like a room full of hyenas. That can be fun.
Fun to play. To listen to, I’m not so sure. Jazz musicians can be very snotty about the reasons why audiences for their music aren’t larger. I’m like that sometimes. When I play music that has that level of activity, now I try to accept the audience numbers. In fact, I mostly try to rein in my (admittedly) stupendous levels of dexterity and let some air in.
Virtuosity assumes this forward motion that never ends, the forging onward to greater and greater depth and intensity. What if that energy went backwards too, inverted itself? It takes energy to leave space. It’s as tiring as producing notes. It’s more like dodgems than stick car racing. But it’s rewarding, and audiences, in my experience, like it. The constant striving for balance, of groove, texture, part motion. The warming of the air between sounds. It might at least reinstate the “virtu” that Merriam Webster are banging on about which, among other things is, according to that same source, the seventh-highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy in Christian angelology.
It’s knowing when to be flash. It’s knowing when to shut up.
Which is about now.