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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Canvas of Creativity

After my last post (Coltrane's Brain . . . ), I had an interesting email exchange with a friend.  He made some points about talent and genius that I would like to expound upon.

The purpose of the last post wasn't purely Coltrane worship, which has been overdone already, to the point of absurdity.  Rather, my point is that his recorded works provide documentation of the transformative power of effective practice.  What makes Trane so special, in my opinion, is that he perfects his technique to the point that he can sometimes execute ideas faster than he can think them up.  One Down, One Up is one of those rare moments when he is able to temporarily equalize the velocity of his technique with the creativity itself.

This is the mark of a mature genius - insight through applied skill.  Take for example the thought experiments of Albert Einstein.  Einstein spends so much time thinking about specific ideas, he must have myelinated circuits that related to deep thought, giving him access to insights that were far outside  commonly accepted ideas.  In 1919, scientists prove what Einstein predicted to be true four years earlier:  gravity bends light.  This changes the way we look at physics forever, and although many scientists found the idea to be impossible, Einstein had already worked it out in his mind.  Unfortunately for us, the birth of an idea is impossible to observe - that moment is experienced by the thinker alone.

Improvised music makes for an ideal look at the speed of creativity because the canvas is time - we listen to the creative act as it unfolds.  The level of creativity varies, depending on the musician, and the style.   The creativity of bebop is different than that of the later works of Coltrane, simply because bop relies more on assembling clichéd constructs to outline chord changes.  While bebop is a difficult and nuanced style of playing, the expressionism of "the new thing" attempts to break free from building with pre-composed chunks of music.  Coltrane gives particular voice to this movement because his technical abilities have been so finely honed.  As much as I love the avant garde playing of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, they rely much more on entropy, simply because they lack the technical circuitry that Coltrane earns throughout the 1950's.  (I'm not judging one music to be better, or worse - just different, on a purely technical level.)

The creative genius of writers, composers, theoretical physicists, and philosophers is much more difficult to examine with proper perspective.  A writer's talent is built up with sketches and drafts that are carefully hidden from the public eye, and creative thought is hidden away in a tangle of white matter.  In most disciplines, it is impossible to observe the precise moments of insight, which is exactly why Live at the Half Note is so special.

Imagine that Coltrane is a supersonic jet, where his technique is the sound of the engine, and his mind is the aircraft.  As his processing speed increases, he starts to catch up with his own sound waves, until they start to pile up at the front of the vehicle.  When his creative velocity breaks the technique barrier, we hear the metaphorical sonic boom of Trane cutting through all that piled up sonic energy.  That sonic boom is common to all genius, but rarely is it captured for posterity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Coltrane's Brain: Live at the Half Note

John Coltrane was a living shrine to the Practice Monster.  Sometimes I wonder if he broke the wild stallion and rode into the horizon, or if it was the beast that conquered the man, completely consuming him.  Perhaps they were twins, somehow equal partners in a furious dance.  Regardless, we can learn a great deal from listening to the recorded documentation of the musical career of one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Listen to the famous recording of the young Trane, stumbling through Hot House with the US Navy Band in 1946.  At 20 years old, he is certainly not anything special, and very comparable to many of the mediocre young saxophonists I hear today.  Fast forward to 1957's Blue Train, and we find a fully formed master.  He certainly would have been able to accomplish the requisite 10,000 hours of practice to get to this point, and from what we know about his practice habits, he probably far surpassed that mark.

To my ears, Coltrane spends the next, and ultimately the final ten years of his life developing at a rate that eclipses all but the greatest masters in the history of humankind, regardless of discipline.  He becomes a walking deep practice machine, honing his ideas and technique whenever he had the horn within reach.  Improvisation and practice become one act.  His solos have a halting sense of phrasing because he is right at the edge of his capabilities, constantly correcting his course, struggling to get it right.  He is a musical Einstein, redefining possibility.

Thanks to a bit of good luck, we have access to one of the most profound documents of myelin in action that I know of.  One Down, One Up, from the posthumously released "Live at the Half Note" allows us to peek into the mind of Coltrane.  We can hear him building circuits, correcting mistakes, repeating complex ideas - all in real time.  Reportedly, this was the only live recording in JC's personal collection that he backed up with a second copy.  Even he was aware that this was an extraordinary performance, and generations of post-Trane tenor players view this tape as a kind of holy grail.

You should listen to the entire track, an astonishing 27 minute excerpt of an even longer performance, but the heavy myelination occurs between 22:00 and 24:40.  It should be obvious to anyone with a reasonably developed ear that he is working through some extremely complex melodic material here, stopping and starting, increasing the speed, and eventually shifting into a gear that most of us will never know.  I believe that we are actually hearing him put the finishing touches on a few pieces of neural circuitry.  At 24:40, he moves on to play some familiar sounding Coltrane clichés, perhaps because he had exhausted himself.  The level of physical intensity here is amazing, but what is happening inside his mind is the improvisation olympics.

In John Coltrane, Practice Monster seemed to have found his master, or at least his equal.  Even if this type of jazz isn't your favorite style, there is a great deal to be learned from this recording.  I strongly encourage everyone to study this performance, at least on a conceptual level.  This is the sound of talent pushing itself beyond all accepted boundaries.  It is the sound of the final moments of a red giant, fusing iron at its core to create the rarest stuff in the universe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Talent Diet?

We know that myelin in the brain is the key to developing new skills, and obtaining mastery.  Myelin is composed mostly of fat, but according to the Franklin Institute, the kind of fat matters.  Oleic acid is what you want, and you can find it in fish, olive oil, almonds, peanuts, and avocados.  Not only is a good diet helpful, but a poor diet is destructive.  If you eat a lot of fast food, those trans fats are going to make their way into your myelin sheaths.  Trans fat inhibits proper performance of the myelin sheath.

It is even possible that early humans surpassed Neanderthals because the diet of the latter was mostly red meat, leaving the Neanderthal brain undernourished.  Early humans had a more balanced diet, and seafood could have helped them to evolve bigger, more powerful brains.

This information is particularly important for college students.  It appears that a balanced diet rich in good fat will actually help you to build skills more quickly by supporting myelin production.  If you starve yourself, or consume trans fats, you are actually slowing your progress.

The next time you sit down to practice, make sure that you have given your body the fuel it needs to make the most of your hard work!