While I was in New York recently, I had a lesson with Aaron Goldberg. I didn’t really know what to expect, except for a roasting on various aspect of my playing. Having met him a few times before, in London, I didn’t feel overly pressured or nervous. He asked me to play something, and as I’ve been practising it recently, I played McCoy Tyner’s ‘Where is Love’. I played the head once (McCoy plays it twice) and went headlong into various different musical ideas, trying as best I could to a) keep good time and b) outline the harmonies. After a few choruses, and inspiration had deserted me, I stopped.
I’m going to paraphrase what he said to me, so don’t take it as gospel, but essentially he wondered why I’d played a little known tune only once, and proceeded to bash out a few choruses without even finishing off the performance with a recapitulation of the head. ‘Umm, I guess I, umm, wanted to show you my playing, so that you could give me some feedback, and I didn’t want to waste time playing the head’… or something to that effect. Immediately I saw the error of my ways, so Aaron moved on: “Try the head again, but this time give it some respect. Start with an intro that sets it up and when you get to the melody sing along to it”.
I played and sang, and after a couple of tries he asked my to play it the same way without the singing. Finally he got me to play each phrase from the head one by one and notice the intrinsic family resemblance of each phrase. Only once I’d focused on the head for a while did he suggest that I try to improvise. And his advice was, play like you’re writing a tune for the chords and ‘make it better than the original melody’.
I made several attempts, and after each chorus he stopped me and asked where I thought I’d succeeded and where I’d failed. It was pretty obvious each time actually. Expectation was Aaron’s way of explaining it. You’ve got to lead your listener through the music, and you can only do that by repeating ideas. Without repetition, there are no expectations formed in the mind of the listener and of course therefore no surprises either.
I learnt a few things that day. Don’t play a tune you like without doing it justice, no matter what the performance situation. Bring out the tune, so everyone can hear it. Play your solo like a written melody. Use motifs, and vary them with skill and control. Don’t just play notes from a stream of consciousness without due care to where you’ve been and where you’re going (even if you’re not sure where that is). I’ll write some more about how I’ll try to achieve these criteria soon!