The Doonesbury–Horace Silver Connection

Sep 28, 2018

When I was in school, my friend Victoria had a theory that everyone's sense of humor could be traced back to a single essential influence. In her case, it was Monty Python, and specifically, I think, John Cleese's shambling, not-really-apologetic way of apologizing for things that were in the process of going terribly wrong. Mine, she theorized, was probably based on my endless re-reading of Doonesbury, which may very well be true.

More recently – today, in fact – I was talking, as I so often and endlessly do, with my friend Bret about musical influences. In particular, we were trying to sort out how we've arrived at our respective approaches to improvising, which in some ways are very different. And in so doing, I realized my entire point of view really rests on four things:

1) The blues. Specifically, '50s B.B. King, '60s Buddy Guy, Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and doses of Gatemouth Brown and Albert Collins. Unless I'm forgetting something, probably no more than than 10 LPs in total shaped my entire blues vocabulary, which is actually pretty weird and probably explains why I don't really have a vocabulary of blues licks per se.

2) Charlie Christian. Hearing Christian solo with the Benny Goodman Sextet taught me to connect jazz with the guitar in a way four years as an undergraduate music major never did. At one point, I had memorized just about every solo from Genius of the Electric Guitar and it changed the way I saw the fingerboard, although only fragments of those solos remain under my fingers now.

3) Playing motivically. Soon after moving to New York, I took some lessons with Peter Einhorn, who introduced me to the idea of applying classical thematic development to improvising in real time – which sounds much scarier and more egg-headed than it actually is. And then he showed me how to listen for this in Wes Montgomery solos: "see, here's the initial six-note theme. Now check out how he repeats it, extending it a little bit; next he plays a truncated version of the same thing, but up a fourth..." The idea that you could take a single small idea and develop it into an entire chorus of a solo astonished me, and simultaneously appealed to the lazier side of my personality.

4) Playing the form. The summer of my junior year, I took a six-week summer course in arranging at Eastman School of Music. I was in way over my head but one day the teacher, pianist Bill Dobbins, dropped this notion in passing: "The song has a form. Why wouldn't your solo have a form, too?" This mind-blowing insight has stayed with me ever since. A thirty-two bar AABA tune isn't thirty-two bars of blank canvas. It's sixteen, tops, because the As are all the same progression, and the B is the B. And within the 8 bars of the A, you can divide it up into two four-bar sections, and within that, maybe a call-and-response between the first and the second half of those four bars. So combine that notion with the idea of building your solo out of little motivic ideas, and now the solos start to practically play themselves. Well, not really, but you get the idea.

In his autobiography, Horace Silver talks about how he knew a particular musician would be a great fit for his quintet because "he could play funky, and he could play bebop." This is really the fifth piece, and the insight that has helped me start to pull all the rest together:  the idea that blues licks and playing the changes are two ends of one continuum. That, and realizing that my favorite place is where they meet, in the middle. It's that contrast that really rings my chimes – if someone's playing the blues, I want to hear the changes, some bebop, at least some of the time. And if they're playing the changes, I want to hear things ultimately resolve back into the blues. That's what makes it sound and feel best, to me, and that's how I want to be able to play.

How do you think about improvising? And for that matter, what's the greatest influence on your sense of humor?

How do you think about improvising? And for that matter, what's the greatest influence on your sense of humor? Leave a comment below; I'd love to hear your point of view.