Letters from Jonas Tauber

Jonas Tauber is a naturally gifted as well as a highly trained musician. He has a classical background as a cellist but changed courses in life (as he often likes to do) and became an Avant-garde bassist. We played quite a bit together while he was living in Portland. I'd have to say that the most rewarding experiences I've ever had playing free music were with him. This is an e-mail he sent me recently, he raises some interesting points.

Dearest David,
It sounds, I'm afraid, like you just don't have enough to do ;)

I have developed ideas on bass playing, not quite consciously, over the time I have spent here with people who practice too much in the wrong direction as far as I'm concerned, and it seems like there's a slightly more concrete idea peeking out of the woods of too many notes: once I take a chart and learn the melody, the harmony, play the harmony on the bass, play as much of it all together as I can, integrate the form of the piece, or the version of the form that makes sense to me (Speak No Evil: good example where I took and destroyed the form on the chart in a session and turned it into an AAABAC form) it seems at that point that I forget everything I have done and concentrate on the one thing that makes jazz beautiful as an art form to me: interactivity. With other musicians. Listening to what's happening within whatever form that is. I have fought with my own sense of helplessness in playing with people to have set ideas of what they were doing, feeling inadequate at every turn, and finally found my own personal solution of just listening, reacting, and stimulating things into a direction that made sense to me at least. Some of the other concrete ideas were that I don't even like doing substitutions and complicated things, my solos are becoming more and more melodic, in the older sense, singing solos as well as bass lines on the instrument so that somehow the melodic integrity of the bass line frees certain things up in the soloist, while spontaneously jiving with the drummer or rhythm part of the composition and/or band, be it a chart or free playing (becoming more and more similar to me by the way), and that way creating a sense of synergy between the music that is happening and the muse herself that is simply the most stimulating thing I can think of besides sex... Two cents for no real reason except each time I get an email from you and read the blogs this pops up in my head.

Hope you are well!
Best, jonas

  • this thread is continued in the comments.........


David Carlos Valdez said...

Here was my reply:

Good points. By writing about all this theoretical shit I'm sort of catching up on the stuff that I didn't really learn in school. I want to know as much about theory as I can now. I don't want my playing to be bogged down it though. Things we take for granted that we learned how to do early on as students are actually still quite complex. We no longer need to think about these fundamentals any more, they have become reflex. I think it's the same way with a lot of the theoretical ideas on my blog. They may not be natural at first but with practice they become second nature. This stuff isn't brain surgery after all. Take some of Mover's subs for example, at first they were totally foreign to me and I couldn't incorporate any of them into my playing. After thinking about them and slowly putting them into practice they started to make musical sense to me. What seemed unnatural at first became natural, logical and second nature over time. I still am only comfortable with a few of the subs, but I hear how the others works and they sound like classic Bop ideas to me. I hear Bird doing some of them and he sounds perfectly relaxed and melodic. I think it is the same with any of this material. It will always seem foreign and stiff at first but with time and practice it becomes reflex. It all depends on how the player approaches the music. A sad player can make the simplest tri-tone sub sound stiff and weird. Then you have someone like Keith Jarrett glide over freaked out substitutions like he was playing major scales. It's all in the approach. I want to know all of it. Mohammed once said,"Seek knowledge even unto China". I don't think that you can know too much about music. Knowledge of complex theory won't spoil your concept unless you forget what good music is all about. A player should have no problem studying complex theory and then throwing it all out the window to play totally free.

I do see your point about players who practice too much in the wrong direction (the European Conservatory trained Jazz musician or the Brecker-headed American), these players are legion. But isn't it their musical concept that is lacking rather than the theory that they are studying? I guess for me the solution to all of this has been not to practice, ever. Practicing can ruin your creativity and your entire musical concept. Don't do it! That would be my solution to this dilemma. Study theory but don't practice it. :-) Seriously though, I think it's better to learn things on the bandstand in a musical situation rather than in the woodshed. If you work things out too much by yourself then you'll probably sound stiff, too clean, lick-ridden and generally square. So I guess I do agree with you about practicing the wrong things. It's just as important, if not more, to be listening to good music and playing with good players. I would never suggest to a student of mine to practice as little as I did/do. When I was much younger I did put in quite a few hours in the shed but I've always played a lot of gigs to make up for that. I guess each player needs to find the right balance for themselves. For you that balance was to get back to your own voice rather than practicing what others were practicing.

MonksDream said...

I like what Jonas has to say, and sure, it's easy to nerd out and spend way too much time on theory. But, as a horn player, it's interesting to go study with a piano player to see how they think about music, who in turn, might say, "oh yea, sometimes you guys play this stuff that sounds awesome, like different linear sequences, and then I (the piano player) look at it and it doesn't make any sense until I get the sound in my head and notice that it's a purely linear melodic structure."

Similarly we all try out different stuff. Its in a multiplicity of approaches. Hafez Modirzadeh told me that he ran away from NEC because a certain fairly renowned composer there told him that he wasn't playing everything that he was hearing but his approach was based on training himself to hear new things as he incorporated them into his playing.

I personally find it almost impossible to play "licks" that someone else played but I still will figure out portions of tunes and play through solos and occasionally things will pop out by accident. There are sections in Bird's solos where you can hear eight full bards of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and even a section that someone pointed out that came from Klose's daily excercises for saxophone, that I used to think was like drinking down Castor Oil.

Some of the free players I know spend all day playing through classical etudes and some guys transcribe like crazy. Others of us spend some periods of time on theory. I sometimes just think its mental gymnastics but it all seems to help me slowly become a less mediocre, er, or shall I say, better musician.

Anonymous said...

Here's an answer to what you said furthermore. The concept I have when I practice is to try and reach a point at every moment where what I hear comes out of the instrument. That's a point I make when I teach. Play what you hear. Cliche, I know, but taken the right way it really works wonders. Then, a friend of mine who is a drummer here quoted Mover who quoted someone else, forget who, who said it's only when you start playing shit you have not yet heard that you are making music. To add a third point, music is a live art. Almost exclusively, in the traditional sense, except for dance, and in modern situations many things have become live time-bound performance-art. Never mind that, the fact that music is intended for audience consumption, in any sense: the audience being people who listen either to your cds or concerts, and I wonder sometimes how much of the technical stuff, no matter how natural it comes to feel to the musician, actually registers to an
audience member!? An audience member who, in very concrete terms, will
probably not be a musician (if he or she paid to hear you) or will have
taken music lessons at some point but definitely will have stopped at some point in their musical development way before that which you are doing! Meaning that fine line between audience-pleaser and hungry purist seems to be turning shades of grey more and more.

The killer punch-line comes out of my last two concerts playing solo.
Festivals, large-ish crowds, my first couple times daring to have no concept of anything that I would do on stage before actually being there -- whether structure nor composition nor forms/textures/whatever. Trying to reach "true improvisation" as it were. The result was literally screaming crowds, people from all walks of life, in response to free improv. Crazy. But I have a hunch (even though I don't think I will play more than two of those a year
ever) that it is due to a certain kind of listening--defined as listening to the audience listening to you. The silence that results from taking three or four seconds of time between getting on stage/tuning/whatever and actually
beginning to play is the seed out of which everything grows, I believe, in fact not even style-bound. I started experimenting with that silence when I was playing a lot of classical cello recitals and concertos: literally changed the energy of the concert completely. In free improvisation, listening to the sound of the energy of expectation coming from the audience, letting it pass through you, and crystallizing that energy into sound of some sort really creates an incredible vibe.

Anyway, I have found myself a much happier jazz musician if I can try at least to achieve some level or percentage of that kind of listening at every single stupid money-making gig I play. Sounds insanely trite and Buddhist, possibly, but I can't help it: there were so many situations that easily could have deteriorated, quickly, into horrible hell-raising terrifying non-listening disgusting anti-musical background grinding never-ending torture, but except for a few exceptions I have somehow been able to manage to find a key at least for myself to have an enjoyable musical time.

And I appreciate being made to think. It's important to think about

David Carlos Valdez said...

You just touched on a few topics that I've been writing about for a while. One is relating the the audience. Do you find that it is a significantly different experience playing for European audiences as compared to American audiences? Are European audiences moved by different things than their American counterparts?

On the topic of music as a 'live art', if you're playing something in an improvisation just the way that you practiced then there's something wrong. I think that this is the problem with many young 'technical players' today. At what point does a music idea stop being an improvisation and become through-composed. I think that this line is often crossed far before the lay-audience realizes it. Yes, it sounds cool and clean, but is it musical and spontaneous? Myself, I would rather hear creative, raw, emotional and loose than cool, clean and technical. How can you really interact when you're playing something that you worked out while you were practicing?
There is a point of balance that is possible between these two poles, but I don't hear it very often in most younger players.

Thanks for your musical insights.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I was just about to bring up the point that pianists approach theory much more naturally than other instrumentalists. We need to work much harder to understand what a pianist sees clearly. Most of this blog is really just a humble horn player trying to understand what the hell pianists are doing while comping behind him. For me it is 'geeking out', but for a pianist it is simply the natural vocabulary. I really wish I had spent more time on the keyboard so I had a more natural grasp of harmony. Even now when I compose it's on a computer rather than a keyboard.

MonksDream said...

Dave and Jonas-

Both of your responses bring up interesting points. Jonas is dealing with a lot of concepts in his posts. In one response, he says, "during a time when I was playing a lot of classical cello etudes" or some such thing. And then goes on to talk about music in the moment.

Have either of you ever heard "Nonaah," a recording by Roscoe Mitchell played in front of an angry crowd in Switzerland who want to hear Anthony Braxton? Well, Roscoe comes out and repeats one of the arguably most annoying phrases I've ever heard on the saxophone until he whips the crowd up into an irate frenzy. He then plays an extended solo until he has them eating out of the palm of his hands (as far as I can tell from the recording.)

Well, Jonas, you are one lucky mofo to get to play solo in front of a large crowd, on bass, no less. But you do obviously know what you're doing and you've played through plenty of music. I can think of examples and counter-examples to this, and the whole question is kind of unresolvable. One time a saxophone teacher, an old-time bebopper in the bay area told me to take a tune, I believe it was something like "Miyako" by Wayne Shorter, and go off and just practice playing the scales as fast as I could over the chords, just switching to the next scale no matter where I might be on my horn. I went home and shedded down all week, and when I came back, he stopped me after a chorus and said, "I told you to do that last week didn't I...man you're driving me crazy, you sound like Mike Brecker or something..."

Well, I agreed with him and this supports the case both Dave and Jonas are making about going out there and not playing theory on the bandstand. That is, both of my little anecdotes are supposed to support this idea. But similarly, during the swing scene of the bay area in the late nineties, I managed to get myself "black-balled" by a bunch of bands because I played a bunch of outside shit, because I thought the whole scene was totally bogus. The only people who liked it were some fine girls and some old bohemian dudes and the band members seemed like they wanted to tear my face off. The problem was, of course, that they had a really narrow definition of the swing idiom, basically limited to playing a whole bunch of pentatonic lines like the band in the movie "Swingers." Oops, I just displayed that I know a little theory. I don't quite know what my point is here :-)

But anyhows, as the late Steve Lacy said, to play a solo creative show, one needs a sympathetic audience. So Jonas, you are lucky, but without the theoretical background that you obviously have in order to recognize when you're playing a Wayne Shorter tune in an alternate form, you wouldn't be able to do what you do. So, it might be as valuable to go see a really inspiring movie, or musical event, like Bill Frisell was at the Portland Jazz Festival, or check out someone like the classical bass player Edgar whatsisname, or anyone who makes you think differently.

As David points out, some of the musical patterns and things that piano players, bass players and guitar players can see on their instruments aren't nearly as obvious as on a woodwind. At least on the saxophone and clarinets that I find eating up my time. Unless you're truly gifted, its no small feat even transposing simple melodies, but some theoretical approaches can really help the process as long as we throw it out the window when we play. Y'all should check out my first review on my blog monksdream on blogspot, which is of Ben Goldberg's last album. I will try to continue to add reviews on a regular basis.
cheers, Bill

David Carlos Valdez said...

Is the old Bopper you're talking about Hal Stein or Al Plank?

MonksDream said...

Jeez, if that last comment didn't post, it was Hal Stein, eminent bebop swinger extraordinaire, one of my few fans.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Did you see my Hal Stein post yet?


Anonymous said...

Musical audiences are definitely different to play for: they are silent, even in clubs, listening with great (classical) attention. It feels like certain things go over much more consciously in terms of harmonic variety: like playing a solo over changes and using the melodic aspect to create the tension and release really seems to arrive here. More people have actually
studied classical instruments even if they don't play professionally. And there is a love of jazz music that is like when you love something or someone you don't understand, or understand from a totally different

...and sick as this may sound, I miss the talking, clanging glasses, rude bar owners and general craziness of the jazz scene in the states.

Swing. There's a concept that doesn't really exist here. I found one maybe two drummers so far that can really swing -- the euro-swing is a totally different planet. Changes the way you walk on the bass, and I have to be really strong to get certain things across, like playing at different points
in the beat to create different feel. Jeez! But it's fun...

MonksDream said...

Nice post about Hal. Truly an American original who taught me a lot about music when I was living down there. Also, helped give me the gumption to keep playing as he was a fan of my playing and would always introduce me as a "fine saxophone player." What I really liked about him was his willingness to check out new players. He used to go check out Hafez, who we've talked about earlier, and some other guys like Paul Hansen, and he'd say things to me like, "I don't know what in the hell he's doing, but it sure sounds good!!"

I remember him getting down to Eric Crystal's playing and saying afterwards, "He sure sounds great, but I have no idea what he was trying to say." Or, knowing that I was a huge fan of John Gilmore's, turning me on to some videotape of Gilmore with Art Blakey's band and saying, "dig this, man!" My friend Tal, a badass tenor player in his own right, used to say, if I can remain that enthusiastic about music my whole life, I'll feel like it's working.

But I digress... Back to Jonas. (Funny, one of the things Hal used to always say was, "it's not brain surgery and if you make a mistake, no one dies or turns into a quadriplegic or vegetable or something.")

I think you ought to check out the links David put up to Dave Liebman's articles, particularly the one that I read about the European jazz scene. I've personally found some of the european stuff, particularly records made in europe by Americans quite inspirational in the lack of homogeneity you find, or should I just say the uniqueness of the approaches.

Check out Michael Moore "Bering," a trio album with Fred Hersch and Mark Helias. Although it might not be swinging in the traditional sense, it's a gorgeous album and I love the opening tune and their treatment of one of Wayne Shorter's tunes, is it "Albatross"? Similarly, some of the Mingus that was recorded live in europe and Dolphy's final years of playing over there are pretty inspired. I suppose maybe it's because of the "sympathetic" audience. I've played some fairly curious tunes written by europeans including a very Shorterish tune called "Blue Sky" by Jan Garbarek. It must be fairly interesting being over there. When can we move? Are the clubs as expert toker choker smoker as they say??

I think Jonas, that you've managed to tap into a free form posting, where we are creatively writing "in the moment" !!!!!!!!

JoshuaCliburn said...

If I may humbly comment...I don't think it has ANYTHING to do with practicing the "right" or "wrong" things (please let me know if you've got an iron-clad definition of what "right" and "wrong" mean in and of themselves, there are people in the Middle-East dying for the answer), but I liken it to the body-builder who spends too much time on the bench press and arm curls and not enough time on squats and leg press...you know what I'm talking about...that dude looks ridiculous! Well, cats that practice like that SOUND ridiculous. It's not just practice vs. gigs or scales vs. transcriptions or Brecker vs. Coltrane, it's well rounded practice and gigs that make a musician whole and relevant and not the perceived inherent nature of those things alone. There's my 10 cents.
-- j.c.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Right-o Joshua,
The real key is just TASTE, that's all. It's hard to learn to be tasteful.

JoshuaCliburn said...

That's not really what I meant at all. TASTE is subjective. Good vs. Bad taste...who decides? What I'm referring to is ARTISTRY...it trancends taste, genre and medium. Artistry encompasses tehcnical mastery of the chosen medium and a strong historical knowledge of both medium and genre. A good example of this would be the TV show South Park or the stage production, Puppetry of the Penis. Both could be considered truly tasteless (one is about little kids doing disgusting things, the other is basically dudes playing with themselves). Both display a technical mastery and an ability to place what they're doing in a context that makes it funny (and strangely awe inspiring) instead of just repulsive. Which is not to say that people won't still superimpose their own concept of taste, but rationally, artistry is undeniable, especially in it's highest forms.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Hmmmmm. I love South Park. Maybe I should go out and rent 'Pupetry of the Penis' then?

OK. You've made your point, tastelesness can be a good thing.

I guess my point was more about artistry then, which is a more subtle distinction.

I do know what Jonas is talking about when he refers to players who practice the wrong thing. This problem is common to conservatory trained Jazz players. They don't practice being artistic.