Set Em Up & Knock Em Down… Sonny Rollins & The Right Stuff

One of the most mind-blowing musical performances I ever saw was a few years ago at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Sonny Rollins played to a large crowd outdoors on a perfect summer evening, and the highlight of the set was his version of “The Tennesee Waltz”. Here is a man who came of age playing be-bop jazz in New York City with people like John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, and his band starts the tune sounding like a great night at a honky-tonk somewhere in Texas. People began swaying instinctively to the warm familiar vibe of the song and I noticed some couples dancing off to the side of the stage.

I’ll never forget what happened next. One step at a time, Sonny, and the band morphed the song into a metaphysical journey. He gave his heart and soul to every single person in that audience, and then gradually enticed and dared you to stay with him as he went up into a world where all the musical laws of gravity seemed to disappear and you were floating, weightless, above your normal existence.

It was as if the band and the lighted stage started levitating up and continued until they disappeared. Except that, you were still immersed in the sound. Sonny moved up one step at a time into levels of jazz improvisation that progressively smaller numbers of people in the crowd could understand. I suspect that at the height of the performance that he even left his own band and then himself behind momentarily before the return trip. Then Sonny and the band returned one stage at a time until they finished where they started with the unadorned melody.

It reminded me of a scene in the movie “The Right Stuff” where the test pilot Alan Shepherd flew the first suborbital flight of the Mercury-Redstone 3 capsule. At the apogee of his flight, for a couple of moments that seemed suspended in time, you saw stars through a tiny windshield… followed by the descent through clouds and chaos back to earth.

I have often reflected on that concert when I want to remember why I play music. I think it is safe to say that I will never come anywhere near the mastery of Sonny Rollins at playing music, but I believe that through persistent effort I can have more and more of those moments where I leave behind my usual existence and if I am in the right place, bring along some others for the ride. I also believe that anyone can master some area of music to the point where they can also fly above everyday existence on a regular basis.

How do you practice the magic of music? In the book “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” by Daniel Levitin, you can find plenty of clues. Here are two of my favorites:
– Practice, rather than talent, is the driving force behind musical expertise
– One of the most important elements in creating powerful music is how you set expectations and then break them.

Daniel Levitin gets into how we play the musical game of making and breaking expectations on all kinds of levels. I highly encourage you to check out this book (the audio version is what I am exploring). His list of prospects for surprises includes the structure of a song, volume changes, reharmonizing chords, changes in rhythm accents, and changing the timbre or tone of your instrument.

Sonny Rollins used every trick in the book (and then some) that summer evening when he played with the expectations of that crowd: everything from the choice of that tune to the series of changes in rhythms, chords, dynamics, harmonic and melodic flights kept you mesmerized and wondering “where is this going?”…

If this process seems intimidating, fear not. Becoming a musical trickster just takes some planning and practice, like learning a series of card tricks. I think one of the most reliable paths is to work at both ends of timing with a metronome. Metronomes train you to be more consistent. This sets you up in the first part of the process – creating expectations. The more solid your timing, the more hypnotic you are… and THEN when you skip or knock the beat one way or another, your ambush has a lot more punch.

What I have learned from using the metronome is how sloppy my timing can be, and also how interesting a game it can be to play something I already know against a mechanical beat and make it come alive by experimenting with deliberate variations on where to pop in some of the notes. It is one of those paradoxical things about a metronome that something so predictable and heartless can train you to express the exact opposite qualities.

Set em up and knock em down. It is a game that never grows old. If you record yourself and listen to your own music or solos from this angle, you may be surprised by how quickly you can put new life into old songs.

Thanks for reading this & I’ll see you soon!


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