If you made a list of all the qualities that go into an appealing musical composition or performance, it might include characteristics like emotion, excitement and variety, or musical terms like good intonation, rhythmic accuracy, a good groove, and a singable melody. In the jazz world, another term you sometimes see on that list is innovation. It is a term you often see in music reviews. Many critics seem to feel that a performance or composition needs to be innovative to have maximum value. Which is logical enough: many of the classic jazz recordings that stand the test of time were groundbreaking at the time they were done. But it’s a tricky thing, trying to come up with something that’s never been done before. This is mostly because, anything that’s any good has probably already been done! In fact, most “innovation” in art is a matter of bringing a new take to an existing convention, or adding a new wrinkle or two.
So, if you are an artist, is attempting to be innovative a worthy goal, something to strive for? How, exactly does one go about that? In my personal experience, trying to shove my music into a specific category in an attempt to cater to a certain audience is a hit or miss proposition. Unless I really believe in the direction the music is headed, it comes out less than completely honest, and your listeners perceive that. It’s uncanny how often it works that way. Your average listener will forgive a multitude of musical deficiencies if the artist is honest in his intentions. But the slickest, well-played, note-perfect performance of music that is dishonestly contrived will leave them cold.
The conclusion I’ve reached in my own career is that striving to create something new can be a rather futile venture. I don’t mean that you don’t give 100% effort when playing or composing, but coming up with something new is usually a result of a persistant quest to improve your skills over time. Then, some of us are lucky enough to have the stars align and oops, there’s something that no one else has quite thought of before in the same way.
It amuses me to read a review of a concert or recording that says something along the lines of “the music was good but not ground-breaking.” The Big Phat Band has gotten a few of those. Comments like that don’t fully appreciate just how hard it is to master a musical instrument, to play in tune, with a good sound. Those things come naturally to a few, but most of us have to work years and years to accomplish those things. To imply that a performance has a lesser value because nothing new was played, is condescending to the dedication and courage it takes to choose a life in music. Especially in this day and age. Especially in jazz. To me, it’s like going to a baseball game. When the home team wins in the last at bat, that’s the ultimate experience. But you shouldn’t ask for your money back just because you went to the game and didn’t see a triple play.
Having said that, I believe that jazz journalists walk a fine line. They have a responsibility to write honestly about what they saw, while maintaining an awareness that a positive review can be good for the health of the genre, and by extension, for their own careers. A fine line, indeed.
If you, as an artist, dedicate yourself to studying music of all styles, and maintain your desire to continually improve your knowledge and skills, you may find yourself with a chance to do something new. But even if you don’t end up inventing the better mousetrap, a career spent playing good, honest music is a valuable contribution to the world as well.