Last week, while making my way with dogged, slightly nauseous determination through a full day's schedule of presentations for Amherst Middle School's career day, I found myself relying on the musician's favored tool -- improvisation.
For a genius, improvising can take the form of an inspired marriage of technique and daring. For the decidedly non-genius me, it usually emerges at the bidding of pure blind terror, and takes a form I wield little control over. When playing music in "above my station" situations, I find this experience thrilling. Standing in front of a room full of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders expressing (with a few notable exceptions) varying degrees of boredom, I found it less so.
During the third of the day's five 35-minute presentations, I found myself babbling, sans volition, about how significant early-life musical experiences are in what will eventually emerge as one's adult taste. I asked the kids what their first musical memories were. I was blessed with a few takers, who mentioned older siblings playing various pop songs popular six or seven years back. I then submitted that the first music I remember hearing was the Beatles' "Let It Be" record and the second, "Seven Steps To Heaven," by Miles Davis, from Columbia's "Miles Davis' Greatest Hits" LP, two of the roughly 20 albums my parents owned and played at the time. I told the kids that these two artists ended up being my very favorites, to this day.
I felt this information emerge from my babbling pie-hole like some sort of epiphany. The kids? They yawned, collectively. One smiled and nodded his head, though. But he had to -- he was my son, and he's heard me rattle on and on in similar ways many a time. Par for the course for him, then. (But thanks anyway, buddy!)
Improvisation in potentially stressful life situations is an awful lot like improvisation in music. The great jazz and prog-rock drummer Bill Bruford has an apt quote on this topic -- "When in doubt, roll." That feels poignant. I mutter it to myself, more often each year that passes.
It's interesting that the high-level improvisation on that Davis record would create a standard for me, one by which I would measure my own musical failings and, ultimately, those of others. How do you turn off your conscious will and allow yourself to be swept away in a manner that might turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one? That seems to be the big question, and not just in music.
Another early musical memory involving improvisation (or what certainly sounds like it) arrived on my doorstep in early adolescence. It involved the jazz-rock band Steely Dan, a favorite of my older, much hipper cousin Mike. He was blasting that band's brilliant "The Royal Scam" at a yearly family holiday get-together, and I was mesmerized by the whole thing in general, but particularly by one song -- the ominous, sinister but still beautiful "Don't Take Me Alive," with its thrilling "I'm a bookkeeper's son/I don't wanna shoot no one" refrain.
The song starts with a distorted guitar arpeggio delivered rubato, which begins to decay, abruptly erupts into sustained feedback, is rapidly muted, and then begins a double-stopped riff that falls into a guitar solo that still blows what's left of my mind to this day.
I know why, now -- it was an improvised jazz solo, which connected me with that early Davis memory, without my conscious awareness. I asked my cousin who was playing it. "Larry Carlton," he said, and smiled, as if imparting upon me great knowledge, like a Zen master molding a particularly naive student-apprentice.
I decided then and there that I would one day be able to play as well as this Carlton character, he of the sly, snaky, slithering lines, effortless, shimmering glissandos and apparently offhanded improvisational genius. I cursed his brilliance routinely, then immediately dropped the needle back into the groove preceding "Don't Take Me Alive" one more time.
Carlton, it turned out, wasn't a member of Steely Dan, though he did play several of the most iconic guitar solos in the band's recorded history, notable among them another "Royal Scam" gem known as "Kid Charlemagne." Carlton was a California-based session guitarist, whose brilliantly conceived improvisations adorned records by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Linda Rondstadt and hundreds of others. Carlton also ran a solo career, one where he routinely married jazz lines and harmonies to rock and R&B rhythms, creating "fusion" in the nonpejorative sense of the word. His instrumental "Room 335" is an absolute classic of the form.
Carlton is coming to town fresh from a jaunt through Europe with his band -- Travis Carlton on bass and Gene Coye on drums -- for a show at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Bear's Den, Seneca-Niagara Casino, Niagara Falls. It shames me to admit that, as Carlton arrives here, I have yet to live up to my boyhood promise. But hey, I'm not through yet! Carlton's soloing still stands as a high watermark for me, and so many others.
The moral of the story, if there is one? Only play the best music for your kids.