Whether you want to look classy as hell when you put Miles on Spotify at your summer barbecue, or because you’re just sick and bloody tired of indie folk (and who in the hell isn’t?!), let trumpeter Kevin Orrick tell you a bit about a great American art form.
How did you get into jazz?I heard Maynard Ferguson in concert in junior high and I had never heard anything like it. Quite honestly, I had a hard time following it. I had played [trumpet] for a few years, but I played music that was written down. I came from a musical family, but I had never heard anything so chaotic before. It intrigued me, but it repelled me a little bit, too. For the person who’s first trying to get into jazz, starting with Maynard or Thelonius Monk may be a mistake. You might start with Coleman Hawkins – someone who plays beautiful ballads, but also improvises well.
What excites you about jazz?I think the way we listen to music changes as we get older. When I was younger, I listened to virtuosos. Maynard Ferguson who could play higher than anybody. Charlie Parker who would play faster than anybody. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved away from those guys. I find that what impresses people about them is the virtuosity, but I don’t hear them speaking to me. The guys I didn’t care much for as a kid – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk – those are the guys who I listen to now because I can hear them speaking, saying something.
How are the tunes organized?In jazz, you start and end with the head, which is whatever the melody is. A lot of times, it’s an old time standard. The musicians’ll say, “Okay, we’re going to play ‘Softly As In The Morning Sunrise,’” so for the audience’s sake mainly, the band plays a head [hums melody] and everybody goes, “Oh! I know that song! I get it!” and then the band goes where they want to go. The band usually plays the head as a throwaway, “Here you go, but now we’re going to play those same chords, and we’re going to play our own music.”
How best to listen to jazz?Pick an instrument and follow it. Listen to the same tune four or five times. Say you listen to just the drums. What you’ll find is, in jazz, the drummers are not the timekeeper. Everyone thinks that they’re for rhythm. Not in jazz. The drummer is there for everything. Effects, movement. In most jazz, the pianist and bassist are more for time and rhythm. But even that, when you listen closely, isn’t always true. [Bassist] Ron Carter, when he knows that the other guys have it, will move around. Jazz requires trust and faith in your fellow musicians. When a band is really good and they know they’re playing with good players, they’re going to move to what they call “the outside” because they know that the other guys are going to stay in while they go out. You can do that with rock, too. I imagine that people enjoy Phish and the Grateful Dead for the same improvisational reasons. Once you start listening closely to jazz, it can change your whole listening world. It can change your ears, change your hearing.
Jazz can be a little chaotic. How do you make sense of everything that’s going on?You and I are having a thematic conversation. We’re bouncing ideas back and forth. But if you listen to what’s going on in the restaurant, it’s chaos. They’re all talking about different things at the same time. Coltrane, after he left Miles’ group once they did “Kind of Blue,” wanted to explore further because he really believed that there was a spiritual path for music. So he took it to a very avant-garde, free style where they were no longer playing chord patterns. They all just did whatever they heard. “A Love Supreme” is the album I’m thinking of. He got to a place that was so chaotic, you just can’t listen. And that’s because there’s no structure. So my thought is this: ecstasy exists, but must have a framework to exist in or it’s just chaos. So in a way, music goes to ecstasy, but only if you can hear the pattern it exists in.
What’s your favorite jazz story?Miles, when he played with his quintet, wouldn’t tell his guys what key he was going to play in or how fast. They just had to adapt to him. They’d be out there onstage and he wouldn’t even talk to them. He’d just start a song. If it had been played at 120 beats per minute on the album, he might play it at 280 live. Miles would assume the bass player is going to get the line, the pianist is going to jump in, drummer’s got it. From that point forward, they’re just talking. They’re not trying to play what everybody’s used to. When Coltrane left the quintet in the early ’60s, a young guy named Wayne Shorter was invited to play the next gig. Shorter had never so much as practiced with him before playing this paid gig with him. Miles, before they went onstage, asked Shorter, “Do you know my music?” Shorter said yes. Miles said, “Too bad.” One of my favorite jazz quotes.
Cyle Talley admits that this interview was gratuitous self-indulgence. He just wanted to talk about Monk and Miles. If you have anything you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at: [email protected]