For better or worse, I have become more interested in the ways in which people think and grow than I am in their ability to reproduce subtle variations on a limited personal language, regardless of how successful that language may be.
“Before you take your horn out, there’s something we have to deal with.” This was my hello when Rob Blakeslee opened the door for our first lesson. I had just started college and was navigating a world in which Don Cherry, Dave Douglas, and Wynton Marsalis were given equal status as models for my trumpet playing. Rob was Portland’s legend of the underground, a totally unique free jazz trumpeter who had toiled in relative obscurity outside of a few brilliant records on Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label in the 1990s.
He led me to his dining room table where we leafed through a huge art history book. He stopped first at an early, almost photo-real painting by Renoir. After pointing out how natural and clean the presentation was, Rob flipped forward a few hundred pages to a later work in which a similar figure—a young girl outside in springtime—was represented in a softer, more dream-like fashion. There was no question what Renoir was trying to do pictorially in each, but the way in which he conveyed the idea had changed considerably from the earlier painting to the latter.
“That’s your decision to make,” he said. “You can make something that is clean and accurate or you can find ways to say the same thing by softening the edges, changing the colors, making it less obvious. Either way is fine, but you should be clear with yourself about how you are thinking.” It was a cut and dry statement: A or B. And, with that, we headed down to his studio to begin the lesson.
Sadly, I have lost touch with Rob, but the memory of that short demonstration lingers on. The simplicity of his demand has deconstructed into something else, but I recognize that he provided the germ. His point was that there are different ways to think of the same model: in this case, two paintings of similar scenes. And that I should be clear and honest with myself about which viewpoint I am operating under. While this lesson has served me well, the important offshoot of our trip through the art book was that one person was capable of such different interpretations in their lifetime—and that aesthetic decisions change.
As an 18-year old who had learned everything he knew from jazz records—moments frozen in time made specifically for commercial consumption—I had very little concept of the importance of growth. If anything, I had come up around older musicians who treated change as a disease: “Miles was cool in the 1940s and ’50s, then he changed,” etc. My learning involved periods of a musician’s output with no appreciation of the trajectory of how they thought.
But now, understanding the trajectory has become a major component of my judgment of quality. For better or worse, I have become more interested in the ways in which people think and grow than I am in their ability to reproduce subtle variations on a limited personal language, regardless of how successful that language may be. To that end, my heroes have become makers and thinkers that give weight to research and experimentation over recognizability.
In practice, I’ve made it a priority to follow every musical idea through to its logical end. That may be an hour of thought ending in the realization that the idea is just not feasible (or interesting). Or, it may mean years of performing works based on the fruits of research. To the latter, projects of mine such as Seven Storey Mountain or Syllables, which explore religious ecstatic music and the mechanics of linguistics respectively, resulted in multiple products from single simple ideas—not a reproducible master language.
And that’s the decision I ultimately have made. Not to find a specific “sound” that can be recognized, codified, and repeated, but to have my work be described (and ultimately judged) as a stream of thought and a lifelong picture of research—a snapshot of who I am and what I have accomplished in the little room of my mind before passing on. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I think Rob would be proud of it as well.