"As instrumentalists we have to try that much harder to communicate with the listener because there is no vocalist to do that for us. We have to make sure our instrumental voice carries."
I'm very often disappointed when I go and hear straight-ahead jazz guitarists play in a club, no matter how good they may be. Many have practiced their technique and have a knowledge of harmony that is clearly impressive. They have good time and play well with the other band members. But 9 times out of 10 I am disappointed and for the most part I think I know why.
Most of these players spend countless hours in the bedroom practicing, working on stuff, perfecting things, analyzing chord changes, working on harmonic ideas and so on, something that no one recommends more highly than I, but it seems that so often these musicians lack the ability to communicate musically.
It actually reminds me a little of when I used to live in London and I'd be having a drink with a few horn players at the bar during an intermission (in the UK, horn players particularly from the north of England seem to enjoy a pint or two!) and I'd listen to them say how much they had no time at all for the 'punters' in the audience. With this attitude, those horn players put themselves on a pedestal, instantly separating themselves, drawing an imaginary line at the end of the stage. More like an electric fence! I never understood it, it was almost a way of justifying how little work they were prepared to do to really get their musical point across. What they said musically might have been very clever, even impressive, but whatever it was remained on the stage. No one in the audience was invited to experience that musical conversation. The audience was the last thing that mattered it seemed.
Now I'm not suggesting that we as artists entertain with tap dancing, plate spinning, telling jokes and so on, I'm talking about finding a way to connect with the audience, and the first step to doing this is through sound projection with our instrument. Don't forget, as instrumentalists we have to try that much harder to communicate with the listener because there is no vocalist to do that for us. We have to make sure our instrumental voice carries.
And I find, going back to my disappointment with so many jazz guitarists in clubs, that they simply are not concerned with that communication between themselves and the audience. I do not believe it has been an issue with most of them and I believe it is extremely important.
I am talking about playing with real conviction. So many players lack that strength, everything is quiet and timid and they seem like they are looking for the right notes, meandering away, somewhat apologetically. This does not translate to an audience, very often does not translate to other musicians. Too many hours in the bedroom practicing obsessively and not enough time in coffee shops talking to other human beings about THEIR lives! Musicians can be horribly insular and those completely obsessed with their instruments usually end up as the biggest victims, and they may not even know it. But I digress a little...
What I am really talking about is playing every note with total conviction, with confidence, like you really mean every note. Even if that phrase is just five notes in length, really MEAN that phrase. Make it important to you that Joe Blow in the audience, who knows nothing about sophisticated harmony, feels you, understands you.
Imagine you are in a club or even a concert hall. Play a musical phrase and imagine that the people in the back of the theater need to "feel" that phrase, just like you mean to feel it. How would you do that? Imagine the sound really projecting, cutting through right down the middle of the auditorium. Imagine there's no mike on your amp and you have to really project your sound. Not loud but centered. This is the stuff classical guitarists have to deal with in their really advancing years because very often they are at the mercy of their guitar and an ambient concert hall. And get it together they do!
Go listen to Pat Martino in a club and see if you struggle to hear, and feel every single note of every phrase he is playing. And with a tone that is just unsurpassable. I saw a private concert with Pat Metheny last year at USC and he came out on stage, assumed a stance, closed his eyes and didn't move an inch for the whole song, he was so transfixed, so in the moment. His sound and tone was impeccable, and every note was played with passion and conviction.
Not communicating may have something to do with jazz guys who get concerned and somewhat insecure the more they know. Conversely, rock guitarists who are often unabashedly complacent about their musical limitations, play with a sense of angst and conviction that seems to communicate quite well! Go figure.
Whatever the genre, I really believe it is the difference between a musician playing for himself and an artist who really needs to get his or her point across.
I especially noticed this whole, almost intangible philosophy, when I first made the transition from touring sideman to recording artist. As a sideman I found it all too easy to hide behind my guitar even when I got the chance to really step out as a soloist. But the minute I had to come to the front of the stage as an artist, it suddenly dawned on me that I had to get my guitar to really speak! I had to cut through the band like a vocalist who floats on top. "How do I do that?" I asked myself.
And this is the moment that I started becoming quite focused on developing a unique sound and style. And I found that by really meaning every note that I played (and of course getting the best guitar sound I possibly could) and focusing on sound projection, I started to achieve that.
And it is an on going effort, and I find I disappoint myself too, and it is usually because I am not in the moment. And when I am not in the moment I don't communicate the way I want to musically.
I think it is also absolutely fine to play quietly. Joe Pass had everyone on the edge of their seats when I used to see him all the time playing at Ronnie Scott's in London back in the 80's. Same with Ted Greene. Just astoundingly beautiful.
Here's another thing to think about. I have been in clubs where the musicians actually stopped playing and complained that they couldn't continue unless everyone in the audience stopped talking. You know what I have to say about that? Those guys on the band stand didn't have the audience in their back pocket! They weren't communicating. And I'm not insisting on schtik, you don't have to do that. But you do have to 'get over'. Those great players I just talked about, they had the audience entranced. You could hear a pin drop. Why? because they cared about getting their point across. And get their point across they did!