Sunday, May 18, 2008

An incredible performance

I've heard Herbie Hancock tell this story at least twice. Telling it again, with some allowance made for my interpretation, is an excellent way to comment on the topic of live jazz performance. Herbie says he was performing one night in the mid-60's with Miles Davis in what is sometimes referred to as The Quintet. Granted, there have been other groupings grandly crowned The Quintet, including another one of Miles', but this particular one included, besides Miles and Herbie, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, Tony Williams on drums, and Ron Carter on bass, a truly stellar assemblage of musicians and a "The Quintet" if I ever heard one. At any rate, in the middle of performing a tune, Herbie says he hit a group of notes that did not combine harmoniously. In other words, it wasn't even really a chord. For a moment he was mortified. A musician playing with Miles was always under a kind of pressure beyond all other standards, because for as long as Miles was performing, playing with him amounted to playing with the very best. Every jazz musician in the world was in line to take your place. When Herbie put his fingers down on the piano he knew he had screwed up. The combination of white and black keys was so awful that he envisioned many levels of badness for his career, at least with Miles. But what Herbie had failed to take into account was that he was playing with one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived. Without missing a beat Miles did what he had been doing as a bandleader for so many years: he found a note. He found a note and a rhythmic entrance that resolved the harmonic and rhythmic tensions of the composition in such a way that it erased the mistake. That note integrated Herbie's notes with all that had preceded it in such a way that it was no longer a mistake. It was, in fact, part of a beautiful on-going procession, an improvised composition that employed cacaphony as well as symphony, and did it so well that no one in the sophisticated audience of jazz cognoscenti knew the difference.

Accomplished jazz musicians know this odd truth: that at a certain level of technical facility and cooperation, there is no such thing as a mistake. Watch the linked video above from the legenday 1978 tour, during which Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea toured selected cities around the world armed with nothing more than two grand pianos. You will see that neither musician really knows where the performance is going for more than a few seconds in advance. And there are no mistakes.

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