Thursday, June 18, 2009

Two Questions (and Some Answers)

I recently sent an e-mail to various jazz artists who are good acquaintances and asked them two questions: 1) Why did you decide on a career in music? (2) What is it you love about jazz that made you decide to focus on that type of music (although I do realize that many of you also play other styles, like World and Classical. btw--I am including Brazilian under the heading Jazz. Or do those of you who play sambas, bossa nova and choros feel it should be a separate category?)

Periodically, I'll be posting the answers I've received from those who have responded. My first subject is a fine bassist who is currently my Astoria neighbor, Thomson Kneeland. His answers follow below:

1) I've played music and loved it since I was a kid, so it was quite natural for me to always be involved in the art form on some instrument or other. Since my music teachers painted a bleak picture of being a performing musician and "making it", I originally went to school for engineering and physics for a year and a half. I was always dedicated to creative music in whatever form, and I didn't want to become a music teacher, so music school didn't seem to be the answer. On top of that, my first acoustic bass was a high school graduation present from my father, so I didn't even start playing my "career" instrument until after high school. Well a year later, I was making a meager living performing jazz; since I already had some prerequisite knowledge, I just needed to learn my instrument and grow. I saw it could be done, dropped out of school at 18 and took it from there.

2) All in all, I consider myself a musician who specializes in "improvisation", with a focus on jazz. I do mainly find myself on jazz gigs these days, but also have done a lot of crossover with Balkan stuff, Indian music, as well as classical chamber music. I had my hands in many more styles in New England, but have been specializing more in the "jazz" realm for the past few years, simply out of the contexts I've found myself in. But I find that simply saying "I'm a jazz musician" pigeonholes me, because people are so categorical in terms of thought. So when the average person asks, I stick to something like "improvised based music with an emphasis on jazz".

For me, jazz and improvisation provide a freedom of choice that no other music does (and it therefore also requires an enormous responsibility to use that freedom wisely). I liken it to Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game", for anyone in the literary realm. A high artistic expression fusing visceral groove, emotion, mathematics, athletics/body movement/coordination, and freedom of choice...all taking place in real time. More than anything else, it's the fusion of these things...playing your ass off (and listening to a group that does) is an uplifting experience. And that can be combined with any level of intellectual sophistication one wants. For me, it's the highest artistic expression that I can think of. And for me, it's the biggest challenge I've ever faced in terms of a discipline. Becoming a great musician requires complete mastery on so many levels: mental, physical, emotional, and psychological.

Other art forms utilize various elements I've mentioned, but music encompasses more than many, and in real time. Perhaps the closest comparison would be improvisational dance. Or improvisational theater, utilizing language instead of sound....but I think the latter is pretty rare. I'm very curious about the Asian Noh Theater and other traditional forms that have combinations of all these things in real time with musical accompaniment, but I havent had the time or opportunity to learn. Which is not to denigrate any art form or set music/jazz above it, but I can't think of any other discipline that requires so many facets to be mastered intellectually, physically, and more. If anyone has any other thoughts on this, I'd love a perspective!
And finally, regarding jazz...I just love the music, as is, and from an historical perspective! That's the main thing when it comes down it...the spirit of the music, whether swing from the 50's and 60's, fusion, or modern chamber jazz without any hint of "swing" context. No rhyme or reason about it, it just kicks ass!

There are quite a few excellent examples of Thomson's playing on You Tube. Click here to see him perform "Solar."

For more information about him, go to

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