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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Killing it - The Virtue of Virtuosity

Killing it. Burning. Carving it up. Playing the shit out of it - all jazz euphemisms for one of the most enduring jazz values - virtuosity.

Jazz has been a virtuoso music since its inception. From the earliest times jazz has admired, and even demanded virtuosity. Although we have no way of verifying it, Buddy Bolden was considered a virtuoso, but we have clear examples of the virtuosity of those who followed him - King Oliver, Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, and this man - Jabbo Smith. This was recorded in 1929, when Smith was only 21. Recorded 86 years ago, the brilliance of the playing remains undimmed

So from its earliest years, virtuosity was a virtue and has been a true jazz tradition. Jazz is a music studded with extraordinary virtuosos - Hawkins, Tatum, Parker, Mingus, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, Miles, Shorter, Tyner, LaFaro, McLaughlin, Corea etc. and which continues to this day with the likes of Mehldau, Rosenwinkel, Ambrose Akinmusire etc.

Here is Mehldau, upholding the virtuoso tradition seventy one years after the Jabbo Smith recording

The reason this is on my mind is because recently I've seen a lot of young bands, allegedly playing jazz, who apart from the fact that their music and their approach to it would make me question their connection to the jazz tradition under any musical heading, show no signs of being able to play their instruments beyond a very ordinary level of competence. The ability to play your instrument at the highest level has always been a sine qua non for jazz players, and as far as I'm concerned, remains so.

I do believe jazz to be a broad church, but not to the point where absolutely anything can be termed jazz regardless of content or approach. For me, two essentials for any music which could be considered as being part of the jazz tradition are group improvisation, and a connection to the African-American rhythmic tradition. A third one would be virtuosity.

What is virtuosity? Often it's glibly thought of as being the ability to play fast, but it's much more nuanced than that. There are different kinds of virtuosity - rhythmic, harmonic, improvisatory, timbral. There is much more to virtuosity than mere velocity, just like there is much more to intelligence than the ability to pass an IQ test. The narrow classical music definition of virtuosity is too limiting for jazz, since jazz is a music which depends on individuality in a way that is much broader than anything found in classical music performers.

In jazz, just as there are many kinds of intelligence, there are many ways in which a player can be a virtuoso. Tatum would be considered as the supreme instrumental virtuoso, and he terrorised even such brilliant classical instrumentalists as Vladimir Horowitz in his time, but Thelonious Monk is also a virtuoso, a virtuoso of rhythm and timbre. John Mclaughlin judged by any criteria, is a guitar virtuoso, but so is Jim Hall. Hall doesn't play at the dazzling speed of McLaughlin, but his timbral variety, rhythmic creativity and ability to juggle motifs is an example of high virtuosity placed at the service of the music. Scott LaFaro did things on the bass in his all too short career that are still physically impossible for most bassists, but Ron Carter, on the face of it a much simpler player, has an ability to control the direction of any band he's in by manipulation of his rhythmic position in relation to the beat, and his note choices over changes. This too is a form of virtuosity.

Tatum, Monk, McLaughlin, Hall, LaFaro, Carter - all of them are musicians of the very highest level and all of them are virtuosos in their own way. And if you want to operate at any kind of high level of jazz you have to be a virtuoso too. You need a total command of your instrument, of rhythm, of pitch. You need the kind of knowledge of your instrument that allows you to turn on a dime creatively, that allows you to instantly, instrumentally respond to your every creative impulse, and the creative impulses of others.

These days there seems to be a suggestion that bands are the be-all and end-all of what's needed in the jazz world. It's all about the bands apparently. But, although the history of jazz is illuminated by great bands - Hot 5's, Ellington, Basie, Miles, Trane, Weather Report, Mahavishnu etc. - every one of those bands were also populated by great virtuosos. There has never, in the history of jazz, been a great band that had members who didn't play the shit out of their instruments.

And the same is true today - if you want to be part of the jazz tradition, or make any claims to be a part of it, band or no band, then you need to be a great player. As an example of how this is still true today, two bands that are highly rated in the jazz world would be Snarky Puppy and Kneebody. They're very different to each other and Snarky Puppy could also be considered more of a funk band than a jazz one, but all the members are great players of their instruments, and in Corey Henry they have a true virtuoso. As are all of Kneebody. Kneebody have created a true band identity, but it couldn't be created unless all the players were at the very highest instrumental level.

I recently saw a concert by the Bad Plus, another highly rated band, with the addition of Tim Berne, Sam Newsome, and Ron Miles, playing the music of Ornette Coleman. It was a brilliant evening of music, illuminated by the absolutely top of the line virtuosity of every musician on the stage.

If you have aspirations to be a jazz musician there are no shortcuts - you will need to put in the kind of hours and years necessary to be a true virtuoso.  Here's an example of Kneebody in action - very contemporary, a true band identity, but all encased in that indispensable jazz virtue - virtuosity.


  1. Thanks for this. Totally agree.

  2. Two points: one, I haven't noticed too much in the way of recent jazz bands with any success who are only hum-drum instrumentalists. What I see a lot of, especially in music coming out of New York, are musicians who are virtuosic but at the service of music for which virtuosity seems to be the point, at the expense of the emotional connection that comes with, for example, strong melody or rhythms that have a discernible relationship to dance; or on the freer end, something we might call a distinctive individual voice. What I have become somewhat tired of, from my standpoint as a listener, is a kind of music-school mentality where I feel like the musician is striving to prove great sophistication of chops (or great hipness) rather than communicate something human through the music.

    You might say, "Ah! If it doesn't connect, they're not real virtuosos." Yeah, maybe. But then you're close to saying "If it connects, then it's virtuosic," which is too subjective to stand up. Any fan of anyone can say, "Hey, it works for me--it's virtuosic, QED!"

    Point two, and in seeming contradiction to what I just said ;-) , I'm afraid you haven't emphasized enough the degree to which virtuosity of artistic control can come through some indefinable quality of group communication that has little to do with chops. Ethan Iverson touched on the subject in a recent (very long) blog post ( The whole thing is worth reading, but I'll quote some relevant parts:

    Tootie Heath says that in the really old tradition, when a musician sits down to play a concert, it is very important for the musician not to have worked on music yet that day. The player's mind should be fresh, and they should ask the ancestors for permission to create. Everyone in the circle should be on the same fresh page, ready to respond not just to all the other musicians in the circle but also the primordial reason to play music.

    This is a devotional attitude, an African attitude. (...)

    One of the reasons that African rhythm is so compelling is its devotional attitude. It seeks ecstasy through communion, not just with God but with every one in the immediate vicinity. You don't practice it. You plug into the ancestors and your reason for living and it's there.

    Intimacy and devotion exists in European music as well - J.S. Bach inscribed even small exercises "to the glory of God" - but what society usually views as the highest aspiration of that form is the symphonic concert or grand opera. Many of my own favorite pieces are piano concertos, which celebrate a virtuoso soloist on a high platform almost equal to the composer.

    There's no high platform like that in classical African music. Not that there aren't drum or vocal virtuosos, of course, but devotion and interconnectedness comes first.


    Some of the most-loved jazz drummers by the cognoscenti had hands only fast enough to go to church every time they sat behind the kit.

    Some of those giants would barely even take a solo.

    A story about Mel Lewis: Mel hated giving lessons, but finally a kid talked him into letting him come by a record session and watch Mel at work. During a break Mel gestured for the kid to sit behind the kit, and said, "Play me a snare roll."

    The kid played a good, professional roll. Maybe not as good as the one that starts the movie Whiplash, but still, a good roll. Not easy to do.

    Mel took his sticks back and said, "See, right there is your problem. You shouldn't be able to do that. I can't do that. You gotta quit that shit and start becoming a drummer."

    That's a fun story, but truthfully drummers do need to learn how to roll. Mel himself surely learned to roll at some early point.

    However the point is clear. At least for Mel Lewis, devotion has precedence over chops.

    1. Thanks for the comment Tom. But I think we may be at cross purposes here. I never meant to imply that being a virtuoso makes you a great musician who will produce meaningful music, but wanted to make the point that without virtuosity you can't even begin to play jazz at the kind of level necessary to engage with the tradition on the level set by the great masters. If you can't play your instrument at a high level then you it doesn't matter how many great ideas you have, they'll stay in your head because you won't be able to execute them.

      Without virtuosity you can't even begin.

      And I did go to some length to make the point that I don't believe virtuosity to mean simply the ability to play at speed, virtuosity can take many forms, but all of them require the player to have the ability to execute high level ideas. And I'm familiar with Ethan's piece, which I enjoyed a lot. And Mel Lewis, and Tootie Heath, are both virtuosos, under any definition of the word.

      Thanks Tom

  3. Thanks for this post and the comments!
    Imagination fuels virtuosity. How do you sound like you? You play what you would like to hear; there´s some sound or phrase or timbre or flow, inspired by what you have listened to and lived, that you seek to manifest in real time, that is further refined and transformed in interactions with musicians and audiences...and,with time and hard work and love, comes out as your voice...

  4. Hi Ronan, nice article as always.

    I have to wonder if you're picking the right word when you talk about virtuosity? Of course its your choice, but what you say and the word (virtuosity) don't really mean the same thing, or at least not in my humble opinion. I indeed agree that you need 'musicality' on a high level to produce great music of all kinds, but 'virtuosity' is not, I think, needed.

    Erik Satie, I suspect, would have looked over the rim of his glasses, as would have Cage and Hindermith. In the jazz arena I guess it depends on what type of jazz (or music) you like. I have to wonder what Derek Bailey or Steve Lacy would have to say? I'm sure we both agree - or at least from what you wrote - on what is great music, however virtuosity can be (and more recently often is) the road to some rather bland music.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for the response. I don't think I'm picking the wrong word - if I look up the word 'virtuoso' in the OED it says, 'A person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit', and I think that covers every person I mentioned in my piece, and every person you mention in yours. Of course usually the definition of virtuoso is quite narrow and follows the classical music way of thinking - i.e. fast and able to execute passages of great physical difficulty. But that definition is too narrow for me, and as I said in the piece, mere velocity is not the only way to be brilliant on your instrument. Both Derek Bailey and Steve Lacy were brilliant instrumentalists - otherwise anyone could do what they did.

      Of course virtuosity itself does not make good music, but to look at the quality you mention - musicality - you can be the most musical person on the planet, but if you can't express that on an instrument (or through your voice), then your musicality will have no outlet. Without the tools you just can't create. And in jazz, the bottom line has always been one of musicians being very high level craftsmen and women. High level craft - virtuosity - has been a quality of jazz playing since its inception and remains so.

      As a player myself, I don't want to play with someone who has not got good control of their instrument. For nearly every jazz musician, the ability to play their instrument well is the starting point, after that we can see how we do on the creativity front. Virtuosity does not guarantee good music, but not being a good player on your instrument will definitely guarantee a very limited musical landscape.

      I'm only taking about jazz musicians here, but to pick two iconoclasts of the classical world such as Cage and Satie as examples to refute my argument is not really germane in my opinion. "4'33" is a deliberate refutation of all traditional musical qualities, and seeks to question every element of music, so using it to disprove the necessity of playing well in the jazz idiom is a bit far away from the point, if you don't mind me saying so. And as for Hindemith - I'm not sure what his views on virtuosity were, but I'd love to have seen his face if he'd had to listen to an orchestra of beginners work their way through 'Mathis Der Maler', or the 'Sonata for Viola and Piano'!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    2. Brilliant, thanks for your reply. It's always interesting to discuss.

  5. Hi: this thread it´s so amazing!!! It´s a regular thinking in my head, and I think that every musician has his own point of view of virtuosity. To me it´s very strange to found somebody who agrees with my point, so when I go to a reharsal I try to not talk too much about the music, only play the stuff. And then, big things beguin to occurs. To me, virtuosity is more linked with pushing the envelop, this is what I expect, but for many jazz musicians there are sooooooooo many requisites that is boring to me: respect "the blues", be clean, to increase the intensity in a solo. Really I don´t agree with no one of these requisites, how can anyone that the music that is the realm of the freedom can has so many prescriptions (don´t play that, not much notes, less is more), is philosophically ironic, but, it´s our reality. IMHO.

  6. Yes, well...I think virtuosity is over-rated. It may be that there are differing definitions of "virtuosity" being used in this discussion. But personally I think virtuosity is trumped by expression, clarity, conviction, confidence, and originality. I would rather listen to highly individualistic player, than a blandly virtuosic one. (...but then, I seem to like a lot of music other people don't...) Thanks for raising the question!