The first time I remember encountering Jazz music and really enjoying the experience was on a lazy Sunday afternoon at a Café situated on the canal in Lauderdale, Tasmania. I was in College, and one of my classmates had enlisted my help with completing a media project. I was toting a camera and tripod around, shooting the classic candid shots of gesturing hands, sipped coffee and smiling faces.
The sun shone through the windows, a slight breeze wafted over the sounds of small talk and laughter. And music, such beautiful music, with a light and frisky bounce to its step. The guitar chords were complex yet delightful, the drummer’s rhythm swinging. But most of all I loved the walking bass line filling in the bottom end.
I was a Bass player; it pretty much defined me at that point in my life. But I had grown up with Country music and Hillsong, and then gotten into rock music as a teenager. Jazz was something completely new. And it was something I was determined to learn more about.
Jazz and Improvisation
Jazz is a strange thing – many people like the idea of listening to Jazz yet not so much actually doing so. The way it weaves a new melody around the chord changes can be utterly complex, and at times can seem to degenerate into a cacophony of disharmonic meddling. But in the right hands it is a beautiful thing to behold.
When I started delving into Jazz the most startling thing I learnt is how much it is an improvisational genre. No two performances are alike; the players react to each other, to the audience, to the environment. The lines aren’t written out, only the chord changes, and they can be interpreted in countless different ways.
Coming from a rock background I would pick up a song to learn expecting to find the bass line written out, but instead I would find a series of chords and told to play from them. There is no wrong or right note, just the right feel to capture.
Of course you could get a transcription of what someone else has played for the song, and then copy them note for note. And I’ve done that in practise, as a way of learning from the greats. But to play a Jazz song from rote memorization goes against the whole spirit of Jazz. The chords are an outline to a performance; the details are filled in by the performers.
It is quite a different experience to sit down to play a song not knowing what you’re going to play until it starts. Improvisation is scary, but also refreshing. Every time is different. You learn from the mistakes, build from the positives and end up creating music that is very much a product of who you are.
Sometimes I wish life had a note-by-note transcription to follow. Maybe different sheets of music for achieving different things – play this tune to become a successful businessman, this one to learn how to cook, and this one when everything goes haywire.
The Leader of the Band
But life is kind of like jazz; I have a rough idea of how things should go – a list of chord changes if you like. But how I fill in the details will make my own version of the tune.
And where does God fit into all this? Well, Jazz isn’t a solo performance. When band members are locked into each other, that’s where the magic truly lies. The great jazz trios listen to each other and play off of each other. I see God as the leader of the band, playing the sax, driving the song forward. My job is to lock in with the song He is playing.
I’ll make mistakes, I already have, but that is all part of the colour of Jazz. Sometimes the harmony I choose is downright awful; totally my own thing played without regard to the fine lead the maestro is playing.
The dissonance hangs in the room as the audience wonders is this really how this should go. But the band leader gives me a look and whispers a note and I lock back in with the melody as all the tension resolves into a magical moment of beautiful music.
Thomas Devenish lives in Hobart, Tasmania. He works as a motion designer and enjoys the diverse experiences life has to offer, from wake-boarding to curling up with a good book on a rainy day.
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