What makes a master?

We're two weeks away from launching the 2014 TD Toronto Jazz Festival (and 11 days from the first preview concert at hmv), and I'm two weeks into this:

So please excuse me if I seem to be in a bit of daze. Sleep is in short supply, the do list is growing, and the deadlines are getting closer.

All that being said, however, the adrenaline is pumping and anticipation is building. I'm particularly excited about this year's lineup, and my creative side is feeling juiced at the moment with playing, conducting and arranging on the go.

In preparing for the Artistic Director's Guide to Jazz (live and online) and for various media interviews, I've spent a fair bit of time over the past few weeks thinking about why the musicians appearing on our stages this year are important, and what makes their music great. It is all subjective, of course; we all like different music and musicians for different reasons. But I'm noticing a few trends as I write and talk about music (apart from what seems to be my limited range of musical adjectives). Here are a few of what I found to be common traits:

  • Technical mastery. There is a tendency, I think, to relate technical mastery with playing fast. To me technical mastery can mean the ability to play at higher tempos; but it also means being able to perfectly execute an idea - flawlessly getting it from ear to air. And that could happen in the slowest ballad - the perfect note selection, the perfect inflection - or the fastest of bop tunes. The choice - and ability - to be restrained or let it all flow, to me, separates the true masters from everyone else.
  • The importance of melody. When studying at U of T, we were repeatedly reminded to learn the lyrics to tunes, whether we were ever going to sing them or not. It's obvious that vocalists need to know the words; but so do instrumentalists. To truly convey the meaning of a song, to be able to make choices about how to perform a melody - where to stretch the time, or hold a note - the lyrics have to be top of mind. Rather than having the melody be an introduction to (or even in the way of) the soloing, the true masters let the melody take centre stage. They make it their own, and then make melodies even when improvising.
  • An individual sound. My wife is a music lover, but has not had any formal music training since piano lessons as a kid. I would classify her as a casual jazz listener. But she can still identify, only a couple of notes into a tune, when Pat Metheny is on the radio. That may not be a surprise; his sound is so distinct. But each of the musicians on our stages has spent countless hours developing his or her individual sound. Whether it's the tone of the voice or the instrument; the way in which they interpret melodies; the electronic effects they use; or any of the various other factors which create an artist's sound, each artist has made specific choices to differentiate him or herself from others. That takes a dedication and commitment to their craft - not to mention countless hours of practice - which makes itself clear when they perform.

There are surely more traits to be found across the spectrum of master artists. We could talk about stage presence, or philosophy, or composing…but I thought it would be fun to throw out a few. And, of course, ask you for your thoughts. So - what consistently blows you away about great musicians?

Josh

P.S. - Oscar Unger Grossman, born May 21, 2014, weighing in at a healthy 8 pounds 13 ounces. He has not yet expressed an instrumental bias.

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