Posts tagged ‘Jazz bands’

Collaborate! Er…or not? …

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”If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together.”

(Generic truism attributed to just about everyone from Al Gore to Richard Branson. Likely to crop up in entrepreneurial self-help or business speak – oft quoted as traditional African folklore. But … is it true?)

 

I was inspired to think and write a bit about this when reading a random tweet from a jazz enthusiast. She said she sometimes felt tired of seeing musicians cropping up in each others bands all the time and felt the sound and vibe would be too samey and predictable. I thought about times in my life when collaborating felt like the right path and when it didn’t. I think both ways – solo artist and team member on others projects are great and necessary – at different times.

 

Here’s 5 advantages of each. Thoughts that might be of use to beginners and learners, (read it here my Middlesex students, since you never show up to class!) and seasoned (even jaded) semi or full professionals.

 

COLLABORATION PROS – Music is life, is communication. The more we live, breathe and play music, it becomes one more way of being. It should be as natural as breathing and creative projects should feel as organic as any other conversation. Our fellow musicians are closer than family and what we do is in some ways more intimate than partners. Even if we ARE partners. Creating art and community together, is pure strength and joy. It’s about the ‘we’ not just the ‘I’ and everyone benefits.

 

  1. Do something as a team and your other members get to shoulder some of the work. Putting on a night with a group of co-promoters? You can get to delegate roles and responsibilities and portion out tasks according to genuine areas of strength and enthusiasm.

  2. In these days of pressure to get bums on seats, a shared project means a shared demographic and shared crowd. In this way you can bring in a lot of audience through the door and hopefully keep them via a shared mailing list/data base. Funders seem to like group projects and collectives. And since funding applications are such hard work – a team environment can really help. You can pool your all your skills, labour and industry contacts and move forward as a whole.

  3. Doing things together is fun – less loneliness, more camaraderie, shared anecdotes and laughter. Including when things are going wrong or getting discouraging or where an extra viewpoint is needed. Writing songs together is joyful and playful and sharing dreams and ambitions for the future is energising. Approaching the industry together lessens some of the pressure provides a buffer – especially when the doors are slamming.

  4.  If you put in the hours, pay your dues and earn your keep as a session player or singer in other peoples bands, choirs, recordings or gigs, you will certainly improve. Nothing like instrumental session playing to get your chops (and your reputation) to the next level. Also it’s worth being that indispensably reliable person in someones teaching deputy Rolodex.

  5. Ever notice how playing other peoples music has that emotional distance that can be liberating? It’s the vulnerability of someone elses story and history on the line. All you have to do is enhance it and get the notes right. The session player can often appreciate something new and fresh that the songwriter can’t hear. Plus doing something for someone else (for wages or not) often behooves us to work in a way that it’s harder to do for ourselves.

And ….

 

COLLABORATION CONS – I’m a bandleader. I don’t share power easily and I get uncomfortable when someone mentions ‘co-creating’ or ‘community’. I don’t welcome suggestions or feedback on my songs. I can’t help the lone wolf tendency. I have a need for and a simultaneous fear of artistic intimacy. I don’t delegate well. I like defined roles. I’ll follow, (playing/composing/arranging – for a fee) or I’ll lead. Lead the band, write the songs, book the gigs, promote the gigs, pay my players, liaise with venues/media/competitions/festivals and deal with the endless run arounds and rejections. In return for shouldering those responsibilities, it’s my name on the poster and me who owns the copyright.

 

 

  1. Writing music ‘together’ can tie you together more surely than marriage and for longer, if a dispute occurs. Personally I avoid it. It’s my song or it’s your song. I don’t share. It can get too delicate with copyright and royalty issues.

  2. Time is a factor. Just as it’s a good thing to want to do your best contributing to someone elses event – imagine if you put that great, selfless, unconditional energy into your own work and creativity. Food for thought. When is it going to be time for you? Especially if the group project starts to gain momentum. You could be tied up for a while. Which is the whole point, but don’t get spread too thin with conflicting interests.

  3. Some people are just loners. We emerge and submerge and re-emerge but do most of our creative work privately. If you’re the kind of artist who doesn’t like to share the process or keeps things secret until they’re finished – group collaborations can feel weird and forming collectives can feel too much like commitment.

  4. Even in an ideal world, it’s hard to get reciprocity and know that your fellow collaborators are truly as reliable as you. Is their definition of hard work the same as yours? Is their concept of an ‘early start’ or a ‘thorough’ job, the same as yours? Do they take too long to do stuff and are you just carrying them because they’re scared (and unable) to work alone?

  5. The necessary evil that is money and that weird boundary between work and play. If I’m being paid, then I have the energy (literally the fuel) and therefore the liberty to do the job. If I’m paying someone I can expect that they’ll deliver. It comes down again to rock solid roles and responsibilities. If something is freeform play and maybe it’s professional maybe it isn’t, then the boundary is elastic – literally. Exciting and creative for sure. Potentially draining and dissipating too.

My final analysis is that creative intimacy (like other kinds of  love relationships) has an on/off rhythm to it. Too far into ‘solo artist mode’ and it’s time to play on someone elses tunes, or work as an accompanist. Time spent giving ones all in another band inevitably has to give way to going back and prioritising the individual career. The one helps the other, for sure. I come out of ‘session player’ mode burning to get back into my own stuff and often with better technique and faster memorisation. But if I don’t have my time alone in the woodshed, (days, months, years) I have nothing to give. The magic happens in the dance between the two.

 


 

 

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The ‘Woodshed’

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(Image from The Girls in The Band.)

The ‘woodshed’. That place where jazzers go to practice. How to explain to friends, family, loved ones and significant others, (and even some fellow musicians), the sovereignty, the absolute non-negotiable sanctity of the woodshed? How to really convey this?

I spend hours and hours and hours alone, in a room with myself and my instrument (s). And I love it. I think I love it more than anything or anyone. Only the pure ecstasy of performing – of going to the other end of the scale, of  extrovert, gregarious all out curtain-up showtime beats it. Very little else. Anyone who has had to fight for this sacred chunk of devoted artistic time can recognise its true value. Painters and writers know. Also nuns, monks, hermits, ascetics, celibates and renunciates.

Things I might do in the ‘woodshed’ might include the following: composition/arrangement, then drilling through and memorising guitar parts for various solo or collaborative projects. Or, maybe the world has literally DISAPPEARED because a song is coming through, coaxing, teasing or exploding its way through the veil. For me, new music comes unbidden, uninvited and with extravagant pomp and splendour. An idea grabs onto a random hook or scale that I was practising anyway, then not just one song but 4, then a surrounding concept album are suddenly THERE, all at once, demanding refinement. It’s a visceral experience of birthing something that will have its way and just HAS to come through. A feeling both ravenous and ravening. Or I might be just in a hypnotic grip of scales and arpeggios, diminished  and major 7ths all up and down the fretboard. Stamina for hands and fingers. For ages. Or the geeky joy of 2 handed tapping in kind of Nu metal/classical way that is frank and pure indulgence. People might fairly observe that playing guitar or indeed anything on your own for hours is kind of wanky. Well, maybe, but we all need that too. For myself, I feel an intense kind of dialogue  with music as a companion and the instrument as a partner that gives back exactly what I give out.

But yes, it’s a love affair.

The woodshed is about more than practice and preparation. (These are of course, essential, but as we know, can be overdone at the expense of spontaneity and creativity onstage, in the moment.) It’s about maintaining a bedrock of physical and technical ease. Being good to go. It’s about knowing the material backwards. Being able to tap into that wellspring of  energy. I cannot feel good about stepping onstage, unless I know I have taken care of my practice. I have to connect with that source every day, if possible. It’s nothing less than a spiritual discipline. Even though I also do a fair bit of staring into space, dreaming and scratching my head…

I could rhapsodise further but…the woodshed calls…’bye for now.

 

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(Trombone player, Melba Liston featured in The Girls in The Band.) 

 The Girls in the Band is a documentary by director Judy Chaikin. Contains glorious archive footage of the great female jazz bands of the ’40’s as well as interviews and music from contemporary musicians. Enjoy this trailer and track down the full film if you can!

 


 

 

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