You are playing with your favorite rhythm section, and playing a tune that you have played many times before. The notes are flowing effortlessly back and forth between the players, engrossed in a deep and gratifying conversation. It doesn’t really feel like you are playing, but rather you are an observer from afar. You hear things happen that have never happened before, and there is an incredible sense of joy and optimism in the moment.
This is a scenario we all strive for, and occasionally stumble onto in our quest to become better musicians and people. What are the ingredients that bring us closer to this place?
Vocabulary: To be fluent in a vocabulary one must know that vocabulary inside out, and have experience conversing with others. Public speakers generally read lots of books, articles, newspapers, have written countless papers on the subject of their expertise, and have engaged in conversation with countless others. An improvising jazz musician has presumably checked out the full spectrum of jazz in great detail (learned the repertoire, other player’s solos, and what the detailed components of the music are), gathered inspiration from other genres of music, and at some point spent a great deal of time making decisions about how and what they wish to convey in their music via their own particular vocabulary. This includes the study of other great musicians systems, and the process of melding these systems into something unique that you can call your own.
Familiarity: You have spent lots of time playing the music at hand, to the point where you don’t have to think about form, chords, or general intention of the piece. You’ve dealt with how to specifically solo on this tune many times before, and the mind is quiet. Whatever note you play suggests the next note, and then the next. It becomes a matter of feel rather than thought.
Trust: You get to a point where you have the sense that the music will take care of itself as the result of the ensemble collectively moving in a given direction, where you don’t have to single-handedly make the music do anything in particular. The collective conscience of the band determines where the music will go. You don’t feel like you have to play the whole time, and in fact, what you don’t play is as important as what you do play.
Acceptance: Whatever music results are a reflection of that moment in time and the interaction of the musicians at hand. It is ok and as it should be.
It is difficult to describe to someone who does not understand what this scenario is how deeply profound it can be. It is hard to explain why we would travel 30 hours on airplanes to play for one hour and hopefully get to this glorious place for a moment.
This place I describe is the most spiritual, centered, and enlightening place I know of.