Reading about an aural tradition sometimes seems unneccessary, as practically all of the Jazz masters learned their craft from studying recordings. Still, I have found a few books especially profound, as they articulate artistic approaches, practice techniques, and experiences on the road. Here are some of my suggestions:
Wynton Marsalis: To a Young Jazz Musician
Wynton’s approach is sometimes a little traditional and opinionated for my taste, but this book was an inspiration to me years ago when I was first starting out. Through many letters to his student, Wynton articulates the challenges and joys of his life as a touring musician, offering advice for how to avoid common pitfalls young artists face. Every chapter in this is gold, I would highly reccommend it for everyone. Kenny Werner: Effortless Mastery
This is probably the most famous book on my list. Through meditations, personal anecdotes, and practice strategies, Werner offers advice for how to reach a point of true mastery. When one has fully internalized a musical language, Werner argues, they can improvise without consciously thinking. Many musicians tend to overanalyze and second-guess themselves when they play instead of letting go. This book is a recipe for how to achieve that ideal mental state.
Thinking in Jazz (Paul Berliner)
This is a very long, comprehensive book that I had to read for a pedagogy class. Even though there were sections I didn’t like or even agree with, there are a lot of great stories and ideas in here. In creating this musicological analysis, the author sifted through literally thousands of pages of interviews with many of the greatest Jazz musicians in recent history, choosing quotes that best embodied their approach to playing. I will hold onto my copy forever, as it contains perspective that I will return to for years to come.
The Pat Metheny Interviews (Richard Niles)
If you’re a Pat Metheny fan, this book is a very fun read. It’s basically a transcript of interviews between Metheny and the author, offering musical and personal insight into his upbringing and artistic achievements. There are lots of surprising stories in here as well, especially as Metheny describes how he started his musical career on trumpet and listened to rock music around the house. His personality comes through in a way that is both personal and revealing.
What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body (Thomas Marks)
If you’re a pianist looking to improve your body-awareness, this book is the place to start. Drawing on Alexander Technique, Dalcrose, and years of medical research, the author describes every part of the playing mechanism in substantial depth. Many technical inefficiencies, he proves, come from “mismapping” how your muscles and joints actually move. Through studying some of the diagrams in this book, you can quickly develop more efficient and ultimately healthier motions in your playing.
Others I have heard great things about:
Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (autobiography)
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (autobiography)
Dave Liebmann: Chromatic Harmony (really complicated theory book if you’re interested in that)
Hal Crook: Ready, Aim, Improvise!
Have other music-related books to reccommend? As always, I look forward to hearing from other Morningside Students. There are tons out there, so we can keep adding to this list for a while!
Morningside Music Studio Intern
This last semester I worked as an intern at Jazz 90.1, one of the only remaining 24-hour Jazz radio stations in the country. Every week they receive countless CDs from artists who want airplay, and part of my job was to take a stack home and “grade” them. Over time, I noticed that there were very specific musical qualities that made one CD a “yes” and another a “no.” Below are a few things that I believe make a group sound professional, mature, and effective:
1) Sound quality. Do the artists on the recording get a good sound out of their instrument? Do they demonstrate technical proficiency, good intonation, and dynamic range? Do they articulate clearly and blend well with the other players? All of these things are part of what I consider an overall “sound concept.” Having a well-mastered recording helps clarify that vision, but there’s no way to hide an artist who isn’t acutely aware of how to make sound on their instrument.
2) Rhythm. A lot of musicians now record with a click-track in the studio, editing entrances and releases during the production process. Still, there’s no way to hide how someone inflects their eighth notes, or compensate for a feel that isn’t quite locking in with the other players. If the rhythmic intention isn’t there from the very beginning, I’m tempted to move on to the next track.
3) Compositional coherance. There are a lot of truly great players out there who can improvise over anything and make it sound great. However, if the tune itself doesn’t hang together as an effective tune, I’m tempted to skip over the whole track to find something a little catchier. Often also, I find that the mood dictated by the opening theme has nothing to do with the improvising, even if they share the same chord changes. The most effective soloists to me are always those who link their statements somehow to the concept of the tune. If it’s a bebop head, engage with bebop at first. If it’s a more intervallic melody, at least start by exploring some of the intervals in the melody. I’m all for exploring other characters and concepts through the course of a piece, but I think it’s most effective to at least start your solo as a continuation of the head.
4) Artistic identity. This is kind of a broad, catch-all category, but it comes down to a few simple questions for me. Among them are: why would I want to listen to this artist instead of any other artist? Does this group have a specific sound that is somehow different from other ensembles? Does the artist demonstrate an awareness and engagement with the larger Jazz tradition? There are a lot of well-done albums out there, but there aren’t all that many that answer those questions for me. Even though most high-level albums get airtime, the ones that best answer these questions often get far more attention.
I hope some of these observations are clarifying for some of you as you practice, rehearse, and record your own ensembles. As always, I would love to hear your reactions and opinions. What types of albums do you find most effective as a musician and casual listener?
Morningside Music Studio Intern