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The Most Common Complaint From Older Musicians

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Once again guitarist Fareed Haque tells us what’s on his mind – this time most common complaints he hears from older musicians.

One of the most common complaints I hear from older musicians, and I mean older musicians from now through the past 40 years is more or less the same old complaint, different year….

‘These young cats they don’t play with any soul’, ‘She got the chops but she don’t understand the music’, ‘Yeah but can he play a ballad?’, ‘I couldn’t find the tune anywhere’, ‘that shit was not swinging’.  All valid complaints given the time and place….

But I think the issue older players have with upcoming players is not about Soul or emotion or swing but it’s about two different approaches to music that I would like to address in this little article.

People often say music is a language.

In some ways it definitely is, and in some ways, it is not.

There is music that is passed down from generation to generation with common structures and common phrases common songs, common instrumentation; music that is thousands of years old in some cases, with deep deep cultural roots. This music has a lot of common elements and as such has some similarities to language.

Then there’s music that one could call “pure music”…. Music that’s about the sound, the architecture, the counterpoint, the math and the geometry of sounds.

Bach might fall into this category and a lot of 20th century and 21st Century music certainly has tried.

Alan Holdsworth’s music is beautiful, abstract, complex, intense, and in many ways, very difficult to understand.

The same might be said for Zappa, the late Coltrane, Steve Coleman, and many ‘avant-garde’ artists.

You don’t have to understand any language except the geometry of sound to make sense of this music. 

And the music that is structured like this can reach almost anybody regardless of tradition, regardless of common backgrounds. 

You don’t communicate ideas through this kind of music – the music stands on its own and has its own identity.

I think what is dividing music and musicians today is their relative understanding of the value of these two approaches to music.

Those musicians who value ‘roots’ often don’t understand those musicians who value ‘pure’ music.

And those musicians that value ‘pure’ music often are downright hateful of music that has ‘roots’.

And of course, there’s every combination of these two elements…

But overall I feel like there is a side of our music community that is very invested in reevaluating, and embracing the importance of the roots, history, and cultural relevance of music.

And another side of our music community that’s trying their hardest to get away from those things.

Once again I have to come back to Chicago (and the Midwest in general) as it’s a place where these crossroads meet.

You can’t live in Chicago without getting a healthy dose of both of these approaches and they swim around together in this huge freshwater lake and make quite a mess.

In Chicago, I’ve had the opportunity to embrace both a more formal approach to music and an informal Rootsy approach (in addition to my world music background) and that I think has given me a unique perspective on this whole discussion.

There are musicians ( particularly Jazz musicians ) who look down upon the Blues as a ‘light’ art form – undemanding in skill and lacking in profundity.

Then there’s George Benson who heard BB King and thought “I could never be that good, so I should play jazz.”

I remember playing with certain bands – I would suggest we play a blues tune and the response would be “Oh nobody’s going to want to hear that, the blues is boring”

I would remind them that thousands and thousands of people go to Blues festivals all over the world to hear 10 to 20 bands all play the same song for 4 days!

The blues isn’t boring – the blues is deep, hypnotic, powerful – Unless of course, you don’t know how to play the blues.

And I’m not talking just one-four-five and the 12-bar form.

I’m talking about the drum parts, the bass parts, the guitar parts, the phrasing of vocal and instrumental lines, the horn parts, when the drums come down to a cross stick, when it goes up to a BackBeat; the layers and layers of complexity and beauty in this historical tradition.

If you don’t understand at least some of these elements well, then you probably don’t really know anything about the Blues….

The heart of the Blues isn’t only in the notes – it’s in the rhythmic feeling and emotional feeling, which is at once a very scientific, complex, and intuitive understanding to master. It’s complex, it’s technical and it’s not just “emotion”. Or ‘feeling it’. 

(I hate it when people reduce traditional music and art forms to something purely ’emotional’ … any roots music demands sensitivity, chops and technical skill : Respect the craft!)

It takes a lifetime of study and attention to detail to learn how to play a pocket, to learn how to phrase from the Masters in powerful and emotional ways. This is not just so much ‘magic’. It’s in the sound, it’s in the exact execution and it’s difficult to master.

And of course, in many ways, Blues is the gateway to R and B, rock and roll, and funk.

————

But playing music with an eye towards innovation, architecture, geometry, and ‘pure art’ also has its value.

Almost all of the great music that we celebrate – from Palestrina, Bach, Stravinsky Debussy Bartok Schoenberg, to Mingus, Monk, ‘Trane, Charlie Parker, Tristano, Zappa, Holdsworth, and beyond is in some way rejecting tradition and embracing architecture, form and innovation.

These two opposing elements of music, of art, are always out of balance.

And that’s healthy! 

It keeps music evolving, moving forward, and innovative.

But the roots keep us grounded and keep us together… Dancing, singing, partying, crying and celebrating all the good things in life.

Don’t forget that history is the greatest teacher and you’ll find that the greatest innovators have always understood the roots of their music. So don’t think understanding your roots as losing your innovative spirit and don’t fight innovation in order to be a rootsy musician.

Find your balance, find your roots, AND find your creative innovative spirit without dissing one or the other.

Learn to respect the challenges and difficulties of roots music as much as the challenges and difficulties of that new shit that nobody wants to hear – yet.


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