Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I spent last night sitting around a kitchen table, talking about music with two old friends. Once upon a time, we all worked together in a record store. For about a year, it was pure magic -- an entire staff comprised of bright, young, passionate musicians. We worked long days together, and we partied together at night. Whatever you may have liked about Empire Records, I promise you: We had more fun.

Anyway. The subject of recording came up, because Leesa is working on her first full-length album. She's faced an uphill battle, for much the same reason that I agonized over my final recital: She's a perfectionist. I'll let you in on a secret: Perfectionists envy everyone else. We do things better, but y'all get more things done. Perfectionism is ultimately procrastination, and it sucks. You know you could do a better job if you took one more day; but there's always one more day -- and before you know it, ten years have passed.

The first lesson I learned from Brookmeyer was a story about another student. During a lesson, this kid played a recording of himself playing with his band. Brookmeyer listened quietly; and when the tape ended, he lifted his trombone and repeated a few notes from the kid's solo. He asked the kid, "Why did you depart from that idea?" Then he demonstrated how that simple motive could be inverted, augmented, and developed a hundred ways to expand it into a far longer statement.

There are two schools of thought in the performance of jazz. Many old bandleaders used to encourage soloists to memorize what they would play, to be certain that every note was well chosen. Most players today, however, think jazz is defined by improvisation. The model is, fifty strangers huddled inside a darkened bar watching five musicians slug it out onstage, praying that they'll witness an epiphany. And the only way it happens is by exactly what Brookmeyer describes: You pick a spot and you start digging. Mostly, you end up with rocks and soil -- but you're hoping for gold, and there simply isn't any other way to find it.

During our conversation last night, Foley remarked that he wants to focus on recording, producing a few low-budget recordings every year. Maybe after ten years, he won't have produced a single "perfect" album. But he'll have a stack of tapes documenting his growth; and maybe, if he's lucky, he'll have captured a few moments of genuine discovery. If he waited for perfection, those ten years would go wasted.

To Kill a Mockingbird will probably forever remain a classic of American literature. But that book, those 288 pages constitute the sum total of Harper Lee's published writings. I think that becoming a great author requires more than producing a single great work. We do remember Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell, but we wouldn't mention them in the same breath with Dickens or Shakespeare. And given another century, unlike Dickens and Shakespeare, those authors may be forgotten altogether, even as their works live on.

There's something I keep coming back to, which is: Art requires craft. Any schmuck can glue together four tires and call it a statue; but you can't carve, paint, or compose anything coherent without practiced skill. There are lessons you cannot learn except by doing a thing, lessons which add immeasurable depth to your subsequent works. I don't know whether that depth might yield insight about the human condition, or may reveal heretofore unknown laws of expression, or God-knows-what. But I think achieving that depth is the goal of every aspiring artist.


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