I dropped by 5th Estate in Brooklyn tonight to play some sax at the jam session, and had a conversation there that brought up a nice memory: it was shortly after I started playing with Lee Konitz, in early 2007. I had been introduced to him by the great French pianist Martial Solal, and started going over to his apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan to play. We hit it off right away. I knew Lee’s music from recordings and from hearing him live, but when I started playing with him, what struck me most was how much meaning Lee could put into a single note. You didn’t even realize that he was playing notes unless you consciously focused on that — what came across was pure expression. So after pondering this for a few days, I showed up at Lee’s apartment and after playing a tune with him, I said:
“Lee, I think I’ve figured something out from playing with you. It’s not about the notes you play, really, is it? It’s about the meaning that the notes have to you. It’s about how connected emotionally you are to them.”
To which Lee answered:
“Well, sure, but it’s also about the notes.”
I smile just thinking about this. It’s so perfect, because of course he’s right: it’s never about one thing. Everything matters. Great music — and great art in general — succeeds because all of the bases are covered at the highest level. Sure, Lee is a master of expression and sound, but he’s also a master of constructing perfectly structured melodic lines. He could put perfect notes one after another all day long. And if he hadn’t spent all those years studying how to do this — by transcribing Lester Young and Charlie Parker solos religiously, writing out his own lines, and generally immersing himself in the science of bebop as taught by Lennie Tristano —, his deep emotional connectedness would have nothing to rest on.
This reminds me of something else: while I was studying physics at the University of Edinburgh, I conducted a student production of Jan Carlo Menotti’s opera The Telephone in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Fear not, I spent most of my time in Scotland playing jazz gigs). Somehow I learned that Menotti himself lived only about 40 miles from Edinburgh, and — long story short — he invited me to his castle (it really was a castle) for lunch. I showed up (I biked, actually) and the Duchess of Northumberland happened to be there for lunch as well. So it’s 20-year-old me, 92-year-old Menotti, and the 2nd richest woman in the UK. And at some point I start talking about Beethoven, whose symphonies I’d been listening to. And I say:
“Isn’t it incredible, about Beethoven? He believes so much in what he’s writing, he has so much conviction, that he can take the simplest idea [and here I probably hummed the da da da dumm of the 5th symphony] and make it sound like great music.”
To which Menotti replied (with Italian accent):
“Hmm, perhaps, but it takes a lot more than belief to do that.”
It’s the same exact lesson. It’s such a classic youngster thing to get all caught up in one limited aspect of creation and decide that it’s the key to everything else. The wise old masters know that without the cogs and gears and chains and oil, the machine doesn’t move no matter how much you’d like it to. You gotta get everything right for it to fly.