Peter Rubie, jazz guitarist, teacher, accompanist, arranger
There’s a great scene near the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Butch (Paul Newman) returns to the Hole in the Wall Gang and is challenged for leadership of the gang. As Butch and Harvey face off, Butch says to his enormous opponent, “Let’s get the rules straight first.” Harvey straightens in surprise for a moment and says, “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!” The script then says, “Butch delivers the most aesthetically exquisite kick in the balls in the history of the modern American cinema.”
The first time a music teacher suggested I practice playing “free,” what I heard was, “why don’t you just go kick yourself in the nuts.” There were no rules to “free.” There were no forms or guidelines to cling to as I swung out over the abyss like some cartoon character who has not yet realized he’s run out of cliff top. What was the eff’ing point?
As a young jazz player based in London in the 1970s, surrounded by boppers, and swingsters, and Dixielanders I also heard a fair amount of “free music.” Most of what I heard could be considered “punk” jazz, before there was punk. It consisted of often jarring, loud and mainly clumsy honks, squawks, wails and sudden impromptu cadenzas by bearded, often bald saxophonists and pony tailed bass players and drummers in their early 20s with names like Heinrich and Kurt and Gerrard and Paul. To my ears what they created had nothing to do with jazz as I understood it, and seemed generally indulgent, uncomfortably extrovert (“Yo! MoFo, look at ME, over here!”), and non-musical. My friend Paul was a bass player who made a decent living weaving between the melodic world and the avant guard but at the time I never understood his attraction to, or ability to play “free” music.
And he was patient with me. I was trying to “get” it. We went to a Derek Bailey concert once, and it consisted of Derek playing unusual stuff in unusual ways, as usual, and doing weird and wonderful things with and to his electric guitar, while the drummer-come-percussionist crawled around a sand pit on all fours, using the sand and whistles and a soccer rattle to make a variety of noises and rhythms with a variety of odd and found instruments. I just couldn’t connect with it. (I should probably more honestly subtitle this piece, the confessions of a bourgeois jazz wannabe. But I won’t. I’m older and I hope a little wiser now.)
Free music had so little to do with bebop, and post-bop and neo-post-beyond-bop bop or anything, God forbid, even vaguely melodic (patoowee! patoowee!), that it made no sense to me. Ornette Coleman took a lot of listening to before he started to make any kind of sense to me, and the only “free” record I can honestly say I almost enjoyed at the time was a Warne Marsh album, Ne Plus Ultra, which ends, if you listen very carefully, with a fart and some giggling.
So why, you might reasonably ask, would I want to write an essay praising free playing as a practice that could really positively impact your playing?
Well, I say, blame Larry Koonse. Larry is a wonderful player and a kind and thoughtful teacher who lives on the west coast and (along with Peter Bernstein and Jack Wilkins) has had a powerful impact on my musical thinking over the last few years. He has managed to help me articulate and tackle a lot of things I couldn’t previously explain to myself.
Larry says he looks at playing as rather like a corporate pie chart. A third or so of the pie is made up of harmonic and melodic study: the notes you play; a third is focused on dynamics, i.e, your time feel and how you develop your musical personality; and a third is about how we use space as we play. In other words, storytelling. Are you loud, are you soft, are you high, are you low? Do your musical ideas breathe? Are there characters in your story? Is there enough shape to the flow of your ideas?
So the question becomes, how do you practice all three elements equally? The first one is relatively easy, and frankly perhaps too overemphasized in teaching jazz because it has such a mechanistic aspect to it, it is an easy fallback. But what about the other two elements?
I hear talented guitarists (and other musicians) focus on repeating preconceived solos in public the same way each time, or shredding the bejesus out of a tune, be it a blues or an up-tempo version of Countdown in 7/4 in F sharp. But ask them to play a duo with a bass player or a singer, or play an unobtrusive supportive role in the musical performance and they seem unwilling or unable to do so. And that’s the real test of musicianship. It’s about how you tackle filling and exploring the space you have to play in. In duo playing in particular, you get a lot of space to play in. And that can be intimidating on one level, and liberating on another.
The point being, you need to find really interesting ways to use and fill that space, or leave it open and pristine, not just on this tune, but the next and then the one after that in an evening’s playing that really exposes your musical personality – or not, as the case may be, which is a lot more boring to listen to.
The first thing that happens in a duo setting is that the Shredders and Preconceivers start to freeze up and stop listening. Their feel gets funky, and their phrasing starts to sound clumsy and they often start playing a lot of notes revealing some less than elegant things about who they are. (It’s tough being an audient for a vulgarian. Just ask anyone who had to sit through an Andrew Dice Clay concert, or turn on the TV and be forced to listen to a certain nakedly narcissistic rich guy currently embarrassing himself and most of the rest of the country in his public quest for power.)
Duo playing, as an example depending on who your partner is, can sometimes make you feel you’re a “second fiddle” to someone else. In an authentic musical situation, both musicians work to support and enhance their partner’s playing (or singing), sometimes leading, sometimes laying back, so there really is no such thing as second fiddle, just a twirling dance going this way and then that. It’s not plagiarizing to explore something someone gives you as a gift. You swap ideas back and forth. But inexperience and quite frankly fear, get in the way too often. And that can block your ears.
Like everyone else, I’ve wrestled over the years with nailing the best way to tackle chords and harmony (and still do), and trying to play melodically with shape and spaces. I’ve worked on polyrhythms and basic independence exercises (tapping out 3 with one hand while simultaneously tapping 4 with the other then swapping hands), but the idea of a teacher seriously suggesting I play the first thing that came to mind with no ground rules while someone else does the same thing at the same time, and make it sound melodic, and hot, and edgy, and elegant and profound – it was too much to ask. Far from being liberated I became terrified in a way I was not at the time able to articulate. It went deep. Where were the support systems, the familiarity of II-V-I, or even tritone substitutions in fourths played in intervals of minor thirds in a descending diatonic yet subtly chromatic way? I could end up playing really badly – perhaps forever. Why was this guy trying to sabotage my playing like this? (Such is the idiocy that descends upon some of us, sometimes.) I kinda quietly freaked out and ignored the idea of free playing for years. Of course, the obvious point is, no one asked me to play that way – except me.
The whole point of playing and practicing free is to let go of that kind of thinking. Ignore harmony and chord tones and scales and the tyranny of “right notes.” Ignore “swinging” per se. There is no wrong way to play free, so you don’t have to obsess about getting it “right.” Instead, you can focus on dynamics and – space. It’s about spontaneity and conflict, peaks and valleys, shouts and whispers finally taking a bow on their own.
Larry told me he spends at least half of his practice time these days exploring free playing. And that got me really thinking. I’m not there yet (my kid still sleeps with his teddy bear at night too, and good for him; at least his teddy doesn’t snore), but I’m trying to make it more and more what I do when I pick up the guitar, as much as learning new songs.
It’s about Flow. And inventiveness. And listening to music with a fresh ear. Try it. You’ll be surprised what a powerful tool it can be -- if you let it.
by Peter Rubie
Gary Provost and Peter Rubie were the co-authors of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales. Thank to Gary’s wife Gail for granting permission to share this article.
Buy it at Barnes&Noble and Amazon.
Publisher: Crossroads Press
My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:
Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.
This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV interview, “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”
Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like.
Once upon a time… something happened to someone…
This is what we call the inciting incident. In other words, it’s what caused the story to kick in. Say your story begins on Thursday. Don’t begin it on Wednesday, just to set the scene and introduce the characters, a classic amateur flaw. Plunge us right into the action the moment it starts. Why? Because nothing significant happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life, you’re writing the story of a watershed moment in that life. The thing that happened to upset the equilibrium or the balance in his life is the thing that begins the story. That’s the inciting incident. That’s where your story should start.
…and he decided that he would pursue a goal.
There’s something this person wants. What is it? It’s the prize, the thing he’s trying to get through, all through the story. What is it that your main character wants? In the long run what does he hope to achieve?
So he devised a plan of action,…
Let’s call this The Strategy. How is our hero going to go about pursuing his goal, or prize? What’s he going to do? What’s his plan?
…and even though there were forces trying to stop him,…
This is the opposition, the conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Our hero wants something, and he’s figured out a way of getting it. Something has to get in his way, something or somebody has to have a conflicting goal, and a conflicting plan C something has got to try and stop him. Nobody’s interested in reading a story about an guy who wanted a million dollars and got it. They want to read about a guy who wanted a million dollars and had a lot of trouble getting it. There are forces coming against our hero, there is conflict.
…he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.
Ah, The Stakes! What our hero wants, what plan he’s devised to get it, and what this effort will cost our hero? In chess, every move forward gains something, but it also loses something as well. Nothing of any importance in this life is free. In one form or another we always pay a price for what we most desire. In a story the stakes have to be very high. What are they in your? Life or death, lovers lost forever, friends becoming implacable enemies, something very important we can all relate to. You don’t want to write a story about a guy who is going to lose his typewriter or his comb. It’s got to be something very important, something big enough to disrupt his life, to change him from what he was into someone else by the end of the story.
And just as things seemed as bad as they could get,…
This is known as the Bleakest Moment. Things are dark and dreary for this person. Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition arrayed against him have won. But somehow, from the darkness of his despair and depression, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds.
…he learned an important lesson,
Aha, a revelation. Our protagonist comes through his Bleakest Moment with a gift C understanding. At last he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t understand before. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are about people growing and changing, about their insights into the human condition. By the end of the story, this new knowledge has changed our protagonist for the better. He is a little wiser, and a little stronger, he has a little more faith in himself, or in others, or in the bountiful nature of life. He has grown and learned a lesson.
…and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it,…
He makes The Decision. The important thing to remember about this decision is that when he makes it, he gains something, and he gives something up. It isn’t much of a decision if someone says, “Hey, here you are. Here’s a million dollars, you can take it or leave it.” But if someone comes along and says, “Congratulations, now you can get your million dollars. But there’s one catch: if you take it you’ll never see your daughter again. And if you want to keep on seeing your daughter, you’ll never get another chance to get your million dollars you’ve just earned.” This now, is an important decision our hero must make.
…and in making that decision he satisfied a need…
Let’s call this The Hole. It is the Aengine that has been driving him to do stuff the whole of his life, and certainly for the duration of the story, though he may not even be aware of what that hole is.
…that had been created by something in his past.
This is the importance of the Backstory. The backstory simply means his past, whatever happened in his past relevant to the story you’re telling about our hero. The need or hole is something that happened to our hero before the story began. Something perhaps that haunts him. The enigmatic reference to the boyhood sled Rosebud, in Citizen Kane, for example. In someway the hero is still incomplete. He’s been injured, or he’s had a part of him taken away. Perhaps he’s lost his faith, or rejected love. Perhaps he’s a loner, someone who’s not good at sharing himself with others, and he comes into this story carrying this thing with him, needing this hole filled. And in the process of the story, the hole is filled as he comes to his realization.
Peter Rubie is a musician and published writer and editor, and has been on the jazz scene in Europe and the U.S., since the mid-1970s. He has studied and played with Warne Marsh, George Coleman, Peter Ind, Peter Bernstein, and Larry Koonse. Peter lives in New York City with his wife and son, a violinist, where he plays, teaches, and also works in publishing.
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