May 23, 2024

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Interview with John Pearce: Jazz improvisation can become a purely mathematical exercise: Video

Jazz interview with jazz violinist John Pearce. An interview by email in writing. – When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions?

John Pearce: – There are times when I am improvising that I am able to express musical ideas with greater clarity, developing motifs and building a solo in a logical and coherent way. I am not always aware of the direction that the music will take though and one of the great pleasures in playing jazz is exploring the unknown. The more open we are as musicians, the more reactive we can be and each solo can be a fresh and new investigation. When I am more comfortable and inspired by the players that I am playing with, all I really have to do is listen as ideas will be thrown at me which can spark off spontaneous musical directions. Also, when I play something that I didn’t intend to, it can derail my trajectory but also lead to interesting and unexpected outcomes. Employing a mistake in a motif can be fun. The less settled I am however, the more I play familiar licks and lines over the harmonic template of the tune, superimposing them in a way that leads to less inventive music making.

JBN: – Do you ever get the feeling that music majors and particularly people who are going into jazz are being cranked out like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

JP: – Years ago when jazz education was less formalised, musicians would learn on the job and by listening to albums. This was perhaps, a more organic approach. If the primary focus is on theory and the cerebral processing of mathematical permutations, it can be a problem as the communication of emotion should be the musician’s main concern. It is not about how much language you have but about the emotional content behind what you are actually saying and expressing. Paul Desmond and Louis Armstrong for example can say so much with such simplicity. Knowledge itself is not the issue, the skill is in its application. Good players are certainly coming out of music conservatoires and schools. The approach there may be more structured and formal but as long as each student is encouraged to think for themselves and their love for the music is nurtured, they are not in danger of becoming simply a processed product.

JBN: – What about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects, the agents and clubs?

JP: – Perseverance is key and if your love for the music is there, it will sustain you. Navigating the social media machine whilst preserving your integrity can be a real challenge but one that all musicians wanting to build a career must face. There are some uncomfortable truths that should be recognised and if you objectively think about the job of promoters, selling tickets is their main concern aside from the musical content itself. Without a profile, your options are limited. You must be able to ensure that there will be an audience at your concert. The current day balance between content and image may be all wrong but musicians need to accept some responsibility for the business aspects of their work.

JBN: – How do you prevent disparate influences from colouring what you’re doing?

JP: – Disparate influences can be tremendously enriching, jazz is a synthesis of so many different styles of music. The direction of music today seems less clear than in previous eras but the conglomeration of genres is something that I am seeing a great deal. In Bristol in the UK where I live, musical diversity is a prominent feature. I’ve performed dub reggae, klezmer, classical music and jazz there and when I think about the origins of jazz and its influences (from songs of the cotton fields to Cajun and Creole music in Louisiana), cross-fertilisation has always played an integral part in its formation. Defining jazz itself though is tremendously problematic. Is it simply improvised music or does it require core elements from blues and swing in order to meet its own definition?

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JP: – Ideally, there should be a marriage between the two. If the emphasis is placed too heavily upon the intellect, jazz improvisation can become a purely mathematical exercise but no matter how complex and intricate, if you don’t feel anything when playing or listening to it, what is the point of it all?

JBN: – There’s a two way relationship between artist and audience, are you okay about giving the people what they want? 

JP: – I play music that I love and believe in and hope that the audience connects to it too. The audience aren’t always aware of how much a part of the music they are. You are able to do so many more things musically when performing to an audience that is positive and attentive. There are certainly times when I will sculpt the set in a certain way depending on the nature of the audience but if you are true to yourself first, it will communicate.

JBN: – Any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JP: – There have been so many memorable moments over the years and when you are on stage feeling like a child on the playground again, there is no other feeling like it.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JP: – By breathing new life into those tunes. They are so beautifully crafted and part of the standard repertoire for good reason. There is a timelessness to those compostions and in 1000 years time, as long as the human race endures, we will still be performing works by Gershwin and Ellington.

JBN: – Being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?

JP: – I think that for some, there is a genuine calling to compose but I can’t say that I have ever really explored that part of myself fully or ever felt a desperate need to. To improvise well, you do need to have compositional instincts, the ability to create melodies, develop motifs and have a sense of the music’s architecture but there are so many wonderful compositions out there and I would rather play first-class tunes written by others than fourth-class tunes of my own. But it may just be cowardice on my part.

JBN: – How important is it to you to have an original approach? Can you comment on the bridge between being a musician and being a composer? 

JP: – Not being a composer as such, I am not sure whether I am fully able to comment on the bridge between musician and composer but in terms of originality in performance and improvisation, if you are able to find your own voice rather than imitating somebody else, your approach will inherently be original without trying to be. Thelonious Monk said, “A genius is the one most like himself.”

JBN: – Do you have any idea what it is you’re trying to say or get across? Is it an idea or something that you feel?

JP: – In order to express ourselves fully through language, we communicate ideas and emotions in unity. So it is in music and the intellect and the soul should be expressed in balance as we discussed earlier.

JBN: – What do you see for your extended future?

JP: – For many years, I related to the phrase, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I now find myself returning to the approach that I adopted in my younger years and planning meticulously. As part of my own music curriculum, I will be exploring older jazz tunes in greater depth and visiting New Orleans. A tour of Europe is currently being formed too and a return to New York will also be on the cards.

JBN: – What do you find yourself listening to these days?

JP: – I have been really enjoying listening to Sidney Bechet recently, there is a directness and life to his playing that immediately connects with me. Such personality and warmth as well as a virtuosity that never undermines the purpose and value of each note.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JP: – There isn’t a single specific message that I choose to bring through my music. As musicians, we want to be able to express as wide a spectrum of human emotion as possible. Ultimately, I am in search of as honest and free an expression as I can muster.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, where would you want to go and why?

JP: – If we are entertaining the possibility of listening to my favourite players of the 20th century, I would take a trip to New York in 1947 and listen to Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall. I vividly remember first hearing the live recording of ‘Ko Ko’ from that concert, it made such a huge impact on me and Parker’s music continues to be a constant source of inspiration. Hearing and talking with violinist David Oistrakh would also be a trip in time that I would undoubtedly take and one of my regrets in this life is missing the opportunity to hear Allan Holdsworth play live.

JBN: – So putting that all together…

JP: – Excited to be finally sharing the album, looking forward to continuing the tour and eagerly anticipating what next year has in store!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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