7-25-09: I Remember Keith

7-25-09: I Remember Keith

The Keith I was referring to when I wrote that title was Keith Jarrett. Though I like Jarrett, he was never a major influence on my playing. But there are a some aspects of his playing and writing—notably the unashamed simple diatonicism amidst of all the turbulent chromaticism— that stick with me. It gets me to thinking: some artists influence you simply because they do something that, because it has been accepted by the general artistic community, allows you to feel free to do something similar—you know, the way Jasper Johns made throwing paint on a canvas an acceptable painting technique. It makes me think that a part of this art game really is just being insistent enough about your point of view, and competent enough in expressing it* that the curators of artistic taste eventually give in and say, “Fine, fine. Do it that way. I may not like it, but it must be important because you keep doing it…and, well other important people seem to like it…and probably I don’t know any better anyway…so yes, yes, I DO like it!”

 

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

This is such a sweet little theme that I’m inclined to clean it up, develop it—you know, make it into a real composition.  But that would be a mistake: the essence of it’s sweetness and sadness is that it was thrown off like a tattered old shirt you love. It’s full of holes, but it’s also bursting at the seams with history. Mending it would only conceal the history. So you hang it up in the closet and let it be.

Yeah, only this is not your damn shirt, it’s a piece of music, and the shirt was almost certainly not improvised into creation. As such, this number, perhaps more than any other piece on the album, illustrates both the power and peril of improvisation vs. prepared composition.

The power of the medium always reveals itself in the form of the unexpected. In this case, it’s a beautiful melody, full of regret and hope. Now I instinctively know how to write beautiful, searing melodies, but I’ve never written, to my knowledge, anything quite like this one. Part of what makes it different, I’ve discovered after a somewhat casual analysis, is it’s expansiveness: it takes almost a full 40 seconds for the first complete melodic sentence to unfold before the second, responding phrase begins. I’ve written hundreds of songs, with many fine melodies, but most (again, based on very casual analysis) are built on short declarative phrases.

What happened here? As far as I can surmise, this just happened on it’s own accord, unwilled by any conscious choice on my part. And therein lies the true power of free improvisation. If I tried, at least at that point in my life, to write such a melody I may not have been able to do it. But when I wasn’t trying, it just happened. More likely than not, I was thinking about something mundane or even technical—I may have been thinking: “I need to play something in a romantic Bill Evans style to balance out all of the dissonant stuff I’ve been playing lately”. I actually do remember thinking something along those lines as I played this, even though this doesn’t really sound like Bill Evans at all. The more I try to sound like other people, the more I end up sounding like myself.

So where’s the peril? Well, it’s almost as if, because it was kind of new to me, I wasn’t prepared to develop this type of melody.  I don’t want to ruin your experience of the  piece, but for my ears, I start to get lost around 1:35 or so. There are still some wonderful little moments, but it’s otherwise rather rough going until the abrupt end.

So what does all of this tell me? In retrospect, it now seems like “Sad and Sweet” was a message from the future—as in, “as you grow older, you’ll be using more melodies like this, so start preparing for God’s sake.” And that may be the most powerful thing we gain from improvising freely—a glimpse of future possibilities. My subconscious is apparently telling me that I’m going to have to develop new techniques as a pianist and composer. I’m going to have to learn to weave together more complex strands of melody.

I’ll keep this old shirt hanging in the closet as a reminder of the work that lies ahead.