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All Together Now

The thing that got me most interested in the New Orleans music that we play in Soggy Po' Boys was not the songs, not the melodies, not the instrumentations, not the wild history, nor even the sociopolitical roots of the music.. well, they got me interested, as well, and I love every one of those aspects of the music. But the hook, for me, was the group improvisation. It is utter magic. I like the form of improvisation that we call "solos" in a general way, and there's no shortage of brilliant improvisers (in and outside of music) who have made full lives of these monologues. We're all forever in their debt as audiences and musicians both. There is, though, something very special that happens when everybody's talking at once, all saying different things, that make up one clear, cohesive thought out of all of it.

Any one person's part may be very simple,. Perhaps it's just a slide from one note to another from the trombone who then goes silent, waiting a few bars, while the clarinet dances around a reinterpretation of the trumpet's punctuation of a riff he or she lifted from the bari sax player four bars ago, and then the drummer launching an aggressive counter-argument via snare drum.. the point is that no part is the point. The whole is the point. What happens when everybody's listening to everything everyone says, chiming in exactly as little as necessary but never censoring themselves, is unlike anything else.

I've heard people talk about this kind of improvisation as being akin to standing in the center of a circle of people and being pushed around by each member of the circle, but never falling: somebody always pushes you back up, often not in the direction you expected. Take a listen to a piece we learned via recordings of Sidney Bechet, one of the several songs (most unrelated to each other) called "Shake it and Break It."

Note the group improvisations throughout, broken up by micromonologues, always keeping the core sound of the groupthink fresh, and the fact that there's nearly no 'composed' music in the whole piece. Or this one, from Louis Armstrong:

One of the most-ignored piece of advice I give to my students is to listen to a piece repeatedly, but from a different person's perspective each time: try to inhabit the perspective of each person, one by one, and see what you can hear. Give it a shot with Hotter than That. Try being the clarinet player, then being the bass player, then being Louis, and try to see their side of the story.

The funny thing about jazz audiences of our time is that this music's message is sometimes ignored as outmoded, or panned as having become dated and hard to relate to, an artifact of a simpler time lacking the harmonic and rhythmic innovations of the 20th (and 21st) century. I think that this attitude is as misguided as it is prevalent. Luckily, many jazz players learned the lessons of this music, always making the story their own. Listen for the influence of this way of playing in some jazz legends:

"Moaning," just another masterpiece from Charles Mingus, couldn't operate without these ideas.

Ornette Coleman certainly knew it, especially with New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell in the band on "Beauty is a Rare Thing" (give what happens after minute 5 a look, in particular).

There's no shortage of other examples of this, but, in any case, here's to nobody saying much, to nobody saying too little, and especially to everybody saying it all at once.

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