This past weekend was very musical for me. I played two very different performances, worked on some new tunes for my podcast, and also recorded a funny little punk rock jingle for the Daily Source Code podcast ("The Pissed Off Adam Curry Theme," which you can download in 25 second and 10 second versions).
After my hard-rocking, drumstick-breaking, finger-blistering experience at the Sun Run yesterday, my family went to the expansive house of my kids' piano teacher, Lorraine, whose husband, Kelly (also a pianist), was having a birthday. As you might expect, there were numerous musicians there, and I brought a small bit of my gear to join in on the inevitable jamming.
I am not a jazz musician. I can hardly read any musical notation, play both guitar and drums completely by ear, know next to no music theory, and grew up firmly in the rock-n-roll tradition. Playing with the jazzbos was a bit of a high-wire act for me, in fact more nerve-wracking than rocking out for 50,000 fans earlier in the day. (Stage fright isn't one of my problems.)
I fit in well enough with the swinging renditions of old Kinks tunes ("Sunny Afternoon") and so on—those are well within my expertise—but when Kelly and his long-time cohorts started into their standards and jazz renditions of other classic songs, I found myself straining, thinking where is the beat, where is the damn beat?! as they effortlessly floated through strange chord progressions and stretched the time and meter of tunes.
While I think I pulled it off—sometimes even on my guitar (mostly by finding the key and then just noodling in a blues scale) and more often on my single snare drum, cymbal, and brushes—I gained new respect for what accomplished, seasoned, and knowledgeable musicians can achieve. They delighted in clever juxtapositions of melody and harmony, in the interactions of different instruments, in giving each other space to improvise and explore the song and their instruments.
Certainly I was thinking very differently as I played along, spending more time counting beats in my head while trying to drift away from that thought and feel the music at the same time. When playing in my rock band, I'm concentrating much more on the groove (rather than the swing), on the audience's reaction, on what we'll play next, on how to keep hydrated and how to keep the energy up.
Both our Sun Run show and the birthday party featured improvisation, but of very different kinds—at the Sun Run, the improv was in comedy, and in switching songs and lyrics around in unexpected ways, while staying true to the rock spirit. At the party, the improv was more intimate and more traditional, and more theoretical. And yes, I respect those jazz guys, but I don't think I'll become one. The rock is still the fun for me.