Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises…

Watching this video interview with Michael Wolff, I was struck by a story he told about Cannonball Adderley:

He said “You know you’re so lucky you’re not hung up with the bebop style.” He said “Quincy Jones and I are trying to get that last food out of Birdland. He said “Bebop is hanging me up. I wanna soar with my music and i’m stuck with this saxophone style.” And he was really frustrated. So I was coming from a post-bop thing. I came up more with Bitches Brew and Headhunters and, you know, the straight ahead stuff would have been more like A.R.C. by Chick and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and that kind of stuff, you know, more free. And Keith Jarrett and all that.

Bird is (perhaps incorrectly) famous for saying something along the lines of “First you have to learn the music, then you have to forget it”. This could mean a lot of different things. In relation to what Cannonball is saying, I think it means that to fully master the music you play, it has to be natural and inherent in you. This is, in one way, a asset, but as Cannonball illustrates above, it can also be a burden. Some artists were able to get past this, Miles, Coltrane, Herbie, by relentlessly pushing themselves into new areas, but it seems that it was harder for others.

What makes Wolff different, it seems, is that he wasn’t brought up in the same “tradition”. To him, coming out of Keith and Chick makes him more flexible. But aren’t Keith and Chick themselves just extensions of the same “tradition” that Cannonball is? How can this extra degree of separation make such a difference?

Another interesting quote from this brief interview shed some light on how Cannonball viewed certain aspects of Coltrane’s legacy:

So Cannon was trying to get free and I was so impressed. When I first joined the band I said “Well, Cannon”, you know I had been in New York, scuffling to learn Moment’s Notice and Giant Steps and all the things everybody was learning at the jam sessions and I said “Cannon, can we play Moment’s Notice or Giant Steps?” And he said “No. We don’t play exercises on our bandstand. Why don’t you write me some music…John Coltrane was my favorite saxophonist, but those were exercises for him.”

It’s nice to hear, even third hand, that even Coltrane himself (as well as his contemporaries) viewed songs like “Moment’s Notice” and “Giant Steps” as ‘exercises’. This is exactly what a lot of young musicians today don’t realize. If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way. I’ve opined on this before…


One response to “Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises…

  • Chryst

    Thanks for posting this clip. Never seen this one before. I like how he talks about being stuck in one style. It seems nowadays that everybody is still learning the same things and all are trying to play giant steps in 7. Don’t play exercises, play music. Great musician.

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