A Rising Tide
There are musicians whose playing is at such a high level that when you play with them, you yourself are, if only for that performance, a better player. The first time I recognized this phenomenon, I was a freshman at Ithaca College, playing in a big band rehearsal. Walter White, a prominent trumpet player who most people reading this probably already know to be world-class in just about every way imaginable, was living in the area at that time and was doing some teaching in the jazz studies curriculum. He sat in with the band that night for a few numbers. Our student lead trumpet player was an exceptionally good musician with impressive style and technical ability, yet there was something magical that happened when Walter temporarily took his place. The band became noticeably better as a whole, and I felt myself playing the trumpet far more effortlessly than I was used to doing. In fact, I felt both that I was playing with less effort, and with more freedom, as if I was able to let go and exert less control while somehow enjoying greater success. This incredible sense of sudden improvement evaporated when Walter left. Overall, I was inspired, but the chronically-dissatisfied side of me was disappointed and worried. The disappointment that I felt was that without Walter to elevate my playing, I was struggling just as much as before, although I’d caught a glimpse of what was possible for me. The worry stemmed from this question: If Walter made me play better, did that mean I made him play worse? Years later, I feel strongly that the answer is a resounding “no.” Someone at that level is probably impervious to all but the most awful sabotage in the section.
Lead trumpet players are the most accessible examples of this kind of power for me, and with the very best of them, it can feel as if all I need to do is keep my ears open and remember to breathe, and everything will just emerge from the bell as it should. Drummers can also possess this power. Playing in big bands with guest appearances by such masterful players as Peter Erskine and Dennis Mackrel, I felt the bands immediately become tighter and more expressive, while experiencing the feeling that we were all components of a single musical instrument being played by the wizard behind the drum set.
The feeling of being played by another musician is probably alien and even unpleasant to the control freaks among us, but if you are willing to be vulnerable and participate in a democratic and communicative musical experience, the sensation and change in mental state are well worth the effort (and will likely satisfy your audience more). I would argue that this lies at the core of all great ensemble playing, particularly in chamber music. In an improvised setting, the effects can be even more clear than in a pre-composed one, as relinquishing control generally yields preferable artistic outcomes that could elude someone pushing a musical agenda for a lifetime. I remember playing in a master class during my first year at Eastman, given by drummer Matt Wilson and the other members of his “Arts & Crafts” quartet, which included the great Terell Stafford on trumpet. Wilson and Stafford discussed in detail the sensation of rhythmic connection they sought. Each was seeking the feeling of having his eighth notes be generated by the other during the moment of performing. I was given the opportunity to try to experience this playing “All The Things You Are” with Wilson, as a duo. At first, I could not lock in at all. It was as if I was chasing his time feel and being eluded. The clinicians encouraged me to persist, and as soon as I stopped trying to play “with” Wilson’s drums, I found that I could become part of them, albeit for a relatively short time. My conscious thoughts got in the way, as usual. Still, as with everything in music, this can be practiced.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below. Thank you for reading!