Friday, May 15, 2009


Jazz is once again a metaphor for my plan, or lack thereof. The essence of jazz is that each song is a framework, a beginning and ending melody which bookend a myriad of improvisations in the middle. Each performance is completely different.

When I started playing jazz, I would go over the songs for my lessons and memorize an “improvisation” that sounded good from start to finish. It worked while I was playing alone, but once my teacher started playing piano with me, he would ask, “Why aren’t you responding to what I’m playing?”

I’m thinking life is like that, for me at least. I’ve got great players surrounding me, a strong starting melody, and now it’s time for improvisation. The trick is that I can’t plan it and I can’t figure it out without committing to play something with no idea where it’s going next. I must put myself out there, then listen and respond to what the other players are offering.

I’m going to China in September, if all continues apace. I will study Mandarin and work with my friend to figure out how to bridge the Christian/Muslim divide in our minuscule corner of a tiny corner of the world. After a school year (semester?), I’ll see if it’s time do something else, and if that something else has made itself accessible.

It is not much of a plan. It is the first note, the first lick, in a longer improvisation that I cannot hear yet. All I can do is surround myself with good players, put my heart and soul into that lick, and pray that I don’t miss what the others around me are playing.

Then, when the time for improvisation is done, I will know the exact changes, exact notes for how the tune finishes. I will be able to look back and see how the improvisations brought the melody full circle. Then, if I’m fortunate, I’ll be able to look back and discern a coherent, plan-like journey.

Either way, I was playing jazz, and that’s what it’s about.


Angela said...

it's an incredible plan that you have. courage always sounds terrifying to fear.
good on you.

Ian said...

You're one of the rare people I've met in life, Ramon, whom I trust understands the underlying structure but is capable of letting it flow, too. It seems like that's what Portland has been about for us both--both so adult in some ways before we got here, both so into the structure, we had to learn how to let go a little, trust ourselves to feel each note as it comes a little more. What I'm absolutely certain of when it comes to you is that each of your notes is played in the best faith possible, with right intention and ears open to the other notes and possibilities. I don't know you well, it's true; but that quality comes through with bright clarity.

Ian said...

Also--it's not jazz, and I'm not sure how it carries metaphorically--but I recently saw a film called 'Touch the Sound' about Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist who happens to be profoundly deaf. It features many meditative images and vigorous and thoughtful improvisations in various modes that I bet you'd dig. (It's on Netflix "Watch Instantly," if you do that. A little preview here, but it's a mood piece that works best in its longer, lingering pace: )