Letters from Bob Anram
Part 1 -
I read on Sax on the Web Forum an entry by someone who had finally established some level of fluidity on "Giant Steps". Someone else responded - great - now play in the other 11 keys. This "key game" has been going on forever.
Originally, it was "Cherokee". Then, there were stories of bands changing the key when some new player sat in. It is that tired subordination of content game that results in so many "modernist" failing to respond to the humanity of lines of Webster, Getz, etc.
I really feel that such exercises are really counter productive for several reasons.
When you receive my collection, You will find about as comprehensive a collection of Trane as is possible. Nowhere in the collection, is there a second version (other than the alternate takes (which are enlightening) and nowhere is there a live version.
I think the reason lies in the fact that it is very easy for any member of the group to get out of sync and that the only way to counter this is to rehearse the piece heavily. Such heavy rehearsal tends to destroy spontaneity. One of the reasons that I never soloed in my rock days was due to the fact that rock arrangements tend to be very fixed and a soloist thrives on variation. If you examine Trane's live material, it is optimized for expressive soloing - "Giant Steps" is not. In fact, the bulk of the material played by the great soloists is chosen based on melodic strength and conductivity to flowing creativity.
There is a very interesting VHS -two tape concert by Getz at a California winery. The quartet is Getz's classic early 80's group-with Jim McNeeley (who I played with at the U of Illinois) on piano. Now Jim wrote some wonderful tunes-particularly the "On the Up and Up" from the Pure Getz album, but he also wrote some work that was very convoluted. On the tapes, Getz plays wonderfully inventive solos on the standards, but when the groups plays Jims pieces, suddenly, Getz is basically just making the changes - the drop in the quality of solos is significant.
I think that it is also interesting that none of the major pre-Trane soloist have played "Giant Steps", except Eddie Harris, who plays it as a bossa nova. Certainly Getz, Sims, Stitt, Miles etc. had the technical capabilities to navigate the changes- I really believe they didn't - not out of fear, but because of the loss of spontaneity.
I truly believe that the ultimate goal of any artist, jazz or otherwise, is to move themselves --to suprise themselves. If the audience is moved in the process- that is wonderful. But to move an audience and not move yourself is artistically vacant.
However, the most damaging consequence of "mastering" "Giant Steps" in all keys lies in the fact that it requires extended and continual practice.
We tend to replicate what we hear. It is for this reason that I always balance my listening. As we discussed with Bird- no artist evolves within a vacuum, free of influences. Who we listen to, and the listening ratios, in many ways, defines how we think through our horns. If we spend an inordinate amount of time practicing improvising jazz (or practicing the machinations of "Giant Steps" in all keys- we tend to listen to ourselves significantly more than others - we ultimately become our own primary influence. In essence, this means that we become progressively less flexible in our thoughts - rather than expanding our vocabulary-and therefore our ability to think - we become narrower. It is very much like expressing an opinion - the more we state it, the more it becomes rote---the less flexible our verbiage - the less fluid our ability to think and rethink the issue. For the record, I have consciously avoided memorization as a learning technique in any discipline (I hate memorizing) and have developed the capacity to forget what I have spoken - either verbally or musically.
Please understand, it is important to become fluid in all keys, if for no other reason than we are required to be fluent as a function of bridges. As an example, I start every practice by listening to Getz or Marsh-etc. play a standard. I then get my horn, while the song is still fresh in my mind, a improvise on it -sometimes up to a half hour, until my concentration starts to ebb or I get bored. In all my listening, I have yet to run into any player choosing to play in F# or B. I always end with the blues (lightly played) in all keys.
Citing the problem of progressive inflexibility indicated in the paragraph before the last, if the more we practice jazz, the more we become rigid in our lines and thinking---then how do you practice in a manner that fosters the ability to think through your instrument, but avoid the inflexibility issue.
And that answer will come next.