Sunday, May 25, 2014

Finding a Voice

Why does John Coltrane sound different than Sonny Rollins or Dexter Gordon? They all play tenor saxophone! How can one note sound so different from individuals playing the same instrument?

Every coming of age story addresses a character coming into their own, realizing their sense of self so to speak. This holds true within music, where artists seek to find their own voice. This is a combination of individuality and personal expression.

Finding a Voice

In this Ken Burns documentary segment, Burns states that jazz demands individual expression and selfless collaboration. Jazz changes everyday, just like humans continually change. "Jazz is the ultimate in rugged individualism...It doesn't matter how anyone else did it, this is the way I'm going to do it". 

Sonny Rollins talks about finding a musical voice. He says it is very individual, and everyone has their own sound. You need to get yourself to come out, and it takes time. You sound like you today, but you want to sound more like you, you want to be a better you. 

In this performance of "Body and Soul", Dexter Gordon exemplifies his personal voice on the tenor saxophone through his tone, phrasing, and demeanor. Personality is a large factor in finding a personal voice- Gordon was known as "Long Tall Dexter" or the "Sophisticated Giant".

Wayne Shorter gives great advice to develop as an artist. He suggests to read a lot, because Charlie Parker would improvise about life, people, stories, and you have to read to understand that. There is technique, but you need a story, and that story comes from your own life.

This NPR documentary discusses the tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. Turrentine personifies what an individual voice sounds like- he can play one note and you can tell it is him because of his sound which is heavily rooted in the blues. He considers sound, feeling, and emotion, the three staples to an artist, and he tries to play his feelings to the best of his abilities, without regard to genre, because it is "all music".

This reminds me of how and why we read. I know this video is about literature, but if you think of jazz as a language, the same ideas hold true. The author John Greene states that writers use certain techniques not to be analyzed, but so that the story can have a bigger and better life in your mind. I think music and literature are similar in the way that both artists seek to express their own voice and individuality. Some may argue that Hemingway is great because he wrote about what he experienced, just like Wayne Shorter is great because he plays what he has experienced.

Final Thoughts: 
Even though these artists play tenor saxophone, they all have an individual voice. This voice is a blend of all your experiences. What is most striking is that all of the greats say that in order to become a great artist, you must also become a fulfilled person- and that makes sense because jazz is about sharing a story. And the best stories are the ones that are personal, individual, real. Authors tell a story through words, jazz musicians tell a story through sound.

Read my previous blog on individuality in jazz!

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