Shit. Screwed up the note.

Try the other pattern.

Another sour note. SHIT.

I’m not going to pull it off. That’s it. I’ve had enough of this…

(insert sound of record player screeching to a halt)

It was zero hour Jazz band during my senior year in high school. It was 7:10 am. If you’re not familiar with jazz, it’s meant to be played after 9 pm. Jazz is uniquely performance-based in value v-Memes — once you’ve mastered the scales, rhythm, and your instrument, you’re suppose to improvise. Seriously. You have the freedom to solo however you want within the bounds of the chordal progression accompanied by only the drums, piano, and bass. A solo is uniquely empathic — if someone drops a glass at the end of the bar you can run with it as material for your solo and your audience will love it. Me? I liked the non-conformist attitude of jazz. I was really too busy with sports and other things to get any good at it. Besides, Performance + Improvisation + Empathy + 7:10 am = not happening + cruel + unusual.

So there I was, 2nd chair trombone, proceeding to bone it in front of the student teacher and my friends.

Nobody was awake. I couldn’t play the notes.

That’s when I decided to take a shit — in musical sense.

With the trombone slide (the thing that controls the note pitch) all the way in I started shaking it on it’s way out, playing the whole way.

fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-da-daaaa-da

The student teacher got an awkward look on her face like someone had farted.

My friend in the front row turned around and said, “What was that?!”

That’s when one of my cool friends who played first chair trumpet did something I’ll never forget.

He screamed, “OHH YAA!!!!” and proceeded to belt out a mimic of what I’d done, entirely in key, and cool.

i can still hear it after 15 years.

The rest of the band followed suit and burst in with the mimicking — all out shit storm.

The song we had been playing was gone. The band was hijacked. We’d become something more, together, and we could feel it. The head band teacher came out of his office fired up, “Ya!!! You guys came to play!”

Such is the vibe when phase change happens to unsuspecting high school jazz band members. But even the pros succumb to phase changes from time to time.

Miles Davis’ masterpiece album ‘Kind of Blue‘, released in 1959, is widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time. The album established what became known as “modal jazz” — what some have called the primary contribution of jazz to the philosophy of music. I must admit, no matter how often the teachers played it to the class, I had no idea why everyone liked ‘Kind of Blue’. It was different, and I didn’t understand the significance until much later in life.

The Phase Change that led to ‘Kind of Blue’

My favorite jazz album is Stan Kenton’s ‘Cuban Fire!‘ released in 1956. ‘Cuban Fire!’ much like the name implies is incredibly hot, intense, and sophisticated. High screaming trumpets like Maynard Ferguson and others had incredible “heavy lifting” just to perform the pieces of the list and often had to be interchanged among songs. It was almost unplayably sophisticated. Not much room for solos either. Kenton could force the bounds of what was possible, he was white (which mattered at the time) and well financed. For over a decade this was the epitome of jazz — until things changed.

In 1945, composer George Russell was talking with a young 18 year old trumpet player named Miles Davis. When Russell asked Davis what his musical aims were, Davis replied, “to learn all the changes.” Russell inferred the response as newer and broader ways to relate to chords, as Davis was already an accomplished soloist. Shortly thereafter, Russell was hospitalized for 16 months with tuberculosis. It was during this time that he developed the core of his theory, which he later published in 1953 as “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” The tome efficiently lays out the art and science of ‘tonal gravity’ and blends methods for associating scales, including minors, to traditional chords.

Through the early to mid 1950’s Davis had solidified an ensemble focusing on the jazz style known as ‘hard bop’ — an extension of rhythm and blues. But during this time, Davis had become increasing frustrated with the loss of freedom associated with the increasing complex chord progressions in ‘hard bop’. Russell’s ‘Lydian Chromatic Concepts’ offered an escape from traditional major and minor key relationships in the form of improvisation based on chord and chord changes. As one writer put it, “the musician’s palette of melodic colours is considerably wider. The harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix.” With pressure mounting, new values to act on solidified, the potential for new modal  connections emerging with a connected band, the conditions were prime for phase change. G = U +Pv -TS

‘Kind of Blue’ is brilliant in it’s simplicity. Just 2 saxophones, base, drummer, pianist, and a trumpet (Davis) completed the ensemble. Pianist Bill Evans kept notes of the preparation which included only sketches of scales and melody lines for improvisation. Davis gave them little to no time for rehearsal. The group only needed two recording sessions to complete the album and at least one of the songs was played start to finish, live, for the first time. But if you listen to any of the songs, you immediately here the modal tones played by Davis — it was all that was needed. The band was connected and understood the theory. No need for sophistication. Instant phase change and history. Perhaps the last great act of jazz.

The Sophistication versus Evolution trends of Music

Pick any genre or period of music history and you’ll see a trend towards increasing sophistication before evolution to a new, fundamentally different way of playing. Atonal modality like Davis’ has modern connotations with ‘Drake’ trying to break free of the pop sophistication.

Sophistication versus evolution can even be seen within albums and individual musical scores. ‘Tannhauser’ and other operas use increasing density of notes, intensity, and simplicity to transition to more beautiful choral transitions when the main character has a transcending realization.

One of my friends once told me, “never play your high note in public.” In many ways this makes sense from a sophistication versus evolution perspective. We know when you’re played out. Time to start looking for change.

Frank Oppenheimer once said, “Art, for it to be valid, must correspond to a plausible human experience.” Even music, it seems, knows the conditions for social phase change and can communicate this without saying a word. The chords and melodies were always there, we just couldn’t see the connections or ‘all the changes’ as Davis would say.