Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Risk Taking VS Technical Perfection

Chris Potter- Saxophone

Anderson Silva and (Forrest Griffin knocked out)

Blog # 52: Risk Taking VS Technical Perfection

Recently I've been listening to a lot of bootlegs; specifically live shows of Chris Potter, Dave Holland and Joe Henderson. As a result I've been thinking about technical perfection and its relationship to Jazz; both historically and currently.

Being a musician, I am constantly striving to clean up my playing, and work daily on the technical aspects of playing the trumpet. Its a weird thing to be a trumpet player today and to listen to all the greats: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little etc. All of them have their own shortcomings. For example, Kenny Dorham seemed to play a bit out of tune occasionally and frequently bended into pitches(and whether you like it or not, its not textbook precision). However, the beauty of all these performers was that sense of adventure. Each of them seem to be operating at the edge of their ability. This caused them to make mistakes, flub notes, occasionally play out of tune etc. But the positive thing that came out of this type of playing was a real sense of excitement. When these performers 'went big', there was a chance they'd mess up, and a chance that 'they'd actual pull it off'.

The problem today is there seems to such pressure to achieve technical proficiency on one's instrument. With the institutionalization of Jazz at the university level, teachers must grade their students. It would make sense to push your students hard to have perfection intonation, articulation, as well as to play within the changes at all times. I think the result is you have a huge number of musicians who leave schools being able to play 'a perfect solo'. The problem is that 'the perfect solo' just isn't very exciting. Its safe and what made Joe Henderson and his generation so exciting is that they never played safe. They made lots of mistakes. And to me, that's the best part about Jazz.

I mentioned Chris Potter earlier, who is arguably the most technical improvisor on saxophone living today. Chris has perfect articulation, intonation, and plays things every night that you thought were impossible. However, I believe that Chris still plays at the edge of his limit. He plays at that border between what he knows he can play and what he might mess up on; and that's what makes him so exciting. He's really exploring while he plays. Which is why people are so attracted to his playing. He is playing with the same spirit of adventure and exploration, just with a increased technical proficiency.(He too makes mistakes).

On a similar note, I am a big fan of MMA (mixed martial arts) and have followed the career of Anderson Silva for years now. Silva is largely considered the best fighter in the world. For years he not only easily beat his opponents, he made them look like they had no place even fighting him. He was way beyond all others in his field(much like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzsky). However in the past year he has had some lackluster performances and seemed 'bored' during competition. He refused to take any chances and seemed content with 'a safe win'. However, last week he had a very exciting fight, where he lost the entire match, up until he finished his opponent in the last round. The consensus of the fans is that he is now exciting again, and people like him more because he struggled(for the first time of his career) and came back and won.

I think this same principle applies to music. People want to see that struggle, they want to see someone show their heart and risk what they have for success. The great musicians of the past were able to put it on the line for the adventure. They didn't care if they messed up, they were all about growing and testing themselves.

My advice to musicians today is: Its better to go big and fuck up, than play it safe.

At least that's how I feel.


  1. Hey Jon,
    Joe Beaty here, I totally agree. I think perfection is something that should be strived for in the practice room. I hope that we all reach a point in our lives and careers where we really realize that every time you perform it could be your last time. For as cheesy and over used as it is, its true. I may not be the best example and by no means compare myself to Joe Hen or Chris Potter but sometimes I feel that if I play to perfectly I did not try hard enough.
    It should be like speaking, I am not a perfect orator, I stammer and studder (sp?) at times, I miss notes and dont catch phrases at times I am a human being. It is also a fine line to walk between using our humanity as a means of expression and an excuse for fuck ups. But we are not machines and the only way for us to truely know if we can or cant do something is by actually doing it.
    Again not to use too many cliches but if you never try than you will never achieve, and if you keep putting things off till tomorrow someday tomorrow wont come. Life is too short to hold back.
    That is my 2 cents, thanks for coming to my gig the other day.
    great blog!

  2. Hey Joe,

    First, thanks for commenting. I definitely get that 'playing like it could be your last time' vibe from you and your brother. Its something I really admire about the way you guys play and its made me strive towards that in my own playing. I think this kind of mindset is a challenge in of itself. We've all had rough days where maybe we had a fight with a girlfriend, or are trying to figure out how to make rent that month, or whatever. And its a mental challenge to be able to turn that switch and be in the moment of music with all those distractions, and to play like its the last time every time.

    I also dig what you're saying about the line between going for it and rationalizing your fuck-ups. I guess we each have to look out ourselves honestly to figure out where that line is, and I guess if we are making more sloppy mistakes than well executed phrases, its time to hit the practice room and do some work. We as musicians just have to be real with ourselves, and I think when we stop doing that, its when we get in trouble. There have always been tons of 'young-lions' who never got any better because they already thought they were great.

    I look forward to seeing you guys play again soon