The 7th Time’s The Charm

Jazz is an art form that relies heavily on inspiration. Experienced improvisers can play an effective solo virtually every time, but even the best of players will tell you they feel a distinct difference between solos they played when they were truly inspired, and other solos that were…more craft-like. And that’s where your training and craftsmanship really come into play: when inspiration abandons you. It’s tricky to know what causes inspiration to come and go. With me, it’s usually when I get bored with the material, or the circumstances. I can feel it coming on –and I know it’s a matter of time before I cannot bear to play the same song again in the same way. I start looking for something new to throw in –even the smallest nuances can be like a life preserver when I find myself stranded in a sea of musical predictability.

But sometimes inspiration can be choked off by other external factors. Like in the business of scoring films, you can be asked by the director or producer to re-write a cue many times over. I don’t mean 2-3 times, I mean like 10 –20 times. Of course the director wants it the way he wants it, and your job is to keep hammering away until he approves. But it can be daunting to find your inspiration when you are working with the same material again and again. You start to distrust your instincts, which are usually screaming at you that “You nailed it on version 1 or version 2! What are you doing rewriting this damn thing?” But re-write you must, because that’s the gig. To make things even rosier, you are often going through this experience when you are worn down from lack of sleep. And you have a recording session with a 90 piece orchestra looming in 2 days. Just try and worry about inspiration at a time like that –you’ll gladly settle for craft, just as long as your director finally gives his approval. The positive spin on this scenario is that, sometimes when you are pushed out of your comfort zone, you will find solutions that would not normally occur to you, and you will grow as an artist, and maybe as a person too.

The musicians in Los Angeles are amongst the best in the world. It has been my privilege to work with these fine artists on many film scores and other recordings. I’ve seen them have to play difficult music over and over on recording sessions -sometimes due to technical problems, sometimes because the director changed his mind about what he wanted, sometimes because they want another take, “just to have something to choose from.” It’s an impressive skill these musicians possess: to make take 6 or 7 sound as spontaneous as take 1 or 2. And every take will be clam-free, rhythmically tight, with perfect intonation. That stuff’s a given. But they are able to dig down and add that special intangible element to their playing, that degree of passion that defines a nuanced performance.

Sometimes when I feel myself dragging a little from having to face another difficult day in the studio dealing with a director or producer who cannot make up his mind, or is making what I think are unreasonable demands on the music team, I remind myself of how lucky I am to be able to make my living in music. Doing what I love. Doing what I would do for free, or in some cases, pay money to do! (See “Running a Big Band 101”) Then, I often find that inspiration is not so far away after all.