Biology in the News Explained

Some cool ‘Tunes

This past weekend was the Montana state jazz festival. I didn’t get to enjoy the music as much as in previous years, because I had the fam in tow, but it is always fun to play there and give my students a chance for a broader audience than they get on our small campus. Here’s our mp3 of “Black Orpheus,” for the more than passingly interested.

Plus, we all get the benefit of a half hour with a professional jazz educator who hones in the band’s strengths and weaknesses and gives some great tips for taking our playing to the next level.

Those of us who play jazz consider it one of the purest forms of music, because of its emphasis on improvisation. It’s tough sometimes to be directing students because of the difficulty of convincing beginners to go out on a limb and try something new. I used to have one trumpet player (sadly just for one year) who was a great player, but did not like to solo because she felt it had to come out sounding like Miles Davis on the first try. She’s a Type A, overachieving excellent student, but performance is not like other disciplines. You cannot learn what you need from a book and do it perfectly the first time; or, even acknowledging some trial and error is necessary in fields such as molecular biology, failure is not a public exercise, and a perfectionist can accept that it will take a few tries to get it right because there are no public consequences.

Obviously I get the other type of student too, who is willing to take a risk. Those students improve a lot over time, because the only way to practice soloing is to do it there, with your whole band standing around you. About 80% of soloing is confidence, I think. Sure, we don’t really want to hear you if you have no sense of rhythm or melody or don’t understand jazz chord structure and scales at all, but that’s the stuff everyone picks up as they go, even in the big bands in which they don’t solo (that is if they are all interested in continuing to play, and are not there just because Mom and Dad made them). But all the wrong notes really start to sound wrong after awhile, and as time goes on everything you hear flows to your fingers, which start doing more and more of the right thing. Then you reach the point where “wrong” notes actually have a place in the structure of your solo.

This is why I love listening to Ornette Coleman. His solos stretch the form to its extreme, because he employs so many notes that are not in the chord changes, but fit in perfectly because of the way he sets them up. (This is not really an uncommen idea – most of the melody notes of the bridge of “Girl from Ipanema” are not actually in the chords, making it difficult to sing, but incredibly rich to listen to.) Coleman’s classic album “Free Jazz,” for which he is the most famous, explored the idea of improvisation in its purest form, by having two quartets play together without any structure at all for both sides of an LP. Each performer takes his solo in turn, and it is up to the other musicians to respond to what he is doing. Jazz is all about communication, which is why it is so fun to play when the band really clicks.

Unfortunately, at my school, it is difficult to keep students in the jazz band for longer than a year or two, so they never get the chance to see themselves really improve, and see how this connection works among musicians used to playing with each other. There tends to be a high-school mentality here that music is uncool and partying is really where it’s at – all but one of my 8 or so freshmen that started the year dropped out within a few weeks, and this mentality clearly played a role. It’s a shame of course, because understanding the fundamentals of music is a basic part of a liberal arts education, and because training in music is something that is much easier to keep with you throughout your life – which is what tipped the balance for me to become a biology, rather than music, major. It worked out, because I’m going strong in both fields, and realized I have only scratched the surface of what I could do in both of them.

The infinite possibilities of jazz make the same tune exciting to play over and over. Even when you have the head of the tune mastered, you can always stretch a little and try something new on your solo, with the rest of the band trying it right along with you.

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