How Michael Got His Groove Back

Thank god for the Yellowjackets. I was just barely hanging on until then.

The APU “A” Big Band played a gig last night for a few thousand people in the events center, and the pianist had a conflict, so I sat in. 30 tunes, all sight reading, with everything from thick-fisted George Shearing voicings to awkward non-pianist attempts at writing quartal stacks, with insane rhythmic jumps. A few standards thrown in for taste.

Fun stuff to play, really fun. Not fun stuff to read through with no rehearsals.

I was really anxious leading up to the gig. I don’t do this kind of playing anymore, and haven’t for quite a while. I’m a pop guy, all about tone and time, the small tasty part in the bridge, that kind of thing. It’s been probably 10 years since I’ve had to sight-read big band charts, and that skill fades very quickly with time. I was talking with Doug about it the night before, and he said, “Oh, you’ll do great – it’s just like riding a bicycle.” It’s not. It’s almost exactly the opposite of that.

I wasn’t anxious about the crowd, or about the director, I was anxious because it was a band full of students, and they are all really, really good. Really good. Missing class to sit in on recording sessions good. Monteray Jazz Festival kind of good. On the regular sub list for Les Brown kind of good. Publishing and playing their own charts kind of good. I was anxious because I felt like I needed to prove something.

For musicians, there is a kind of currency, of legitimacy, that comes from what you can do with your instrument. It’s how you prove you belong in the club. More than arranging, composing, pedagogy, conducting, the thing that defines you as a musician is what you do when you pick up your axe. That carries over to how they view those of us in the faculty as well – the profs who can still swing rank higher in the students’ eyes than those who “just teach.” The Dean of the school has huge credibility because “he plays.”

So, I felt like I had to prove that teaching wasn’t an escape from having to play hard, that I could still handle my business, that I belonged in the club. It some way, I felt like I was proving my right to stand up in front of them and talk about wave physics, binary conversion, software and hardware, studio production techniques, ethics, everything that I teach that is tangential to the act of playing. I needed to back up my credibility, so that when I tell them that being a musicians includes all of these things, I am speaking as a musician, and not just as someone who used to play, and now teaches. For them, that means being able to handle unison be-bop runs at 200 BPM with the trombones hitting ostenato stabs.

I did … well, OK. I handled my business pretty well, hit the hits, played some tasty 8 bar solos that arrangers like to drop in as palate cleansers between horn rips. I missed a few difficult reads, at least one of them really exposed.

Then, we pulled up an arrangement of a Bob Mintzer tune, New Rochelle off “Blue Hats” by the Yellowjackets. Medium fusion shuffle, right in my wheelhouse. There was an extended piano solo in the middle of tune. I killed it, absolutely killed it. It felt great, sounded great, and everybody was into it. Started slowly, built the themes, stacked the voicings, went way outside, twisted the subdivisions up, got bigger and bigger until it just exploded into the horn hits, and then it was done. It felt … fantastic.

So, I’m hanging my hat on that moment. My raging insecurities were quelled, at least for now, and I can go back to teaching about MIDI data bytes and how to build a velocity-switching sample instrument. Only now, I get to do it as “a player”.

3 thoughts on “How Michael Got His Groove Back

  1. corey

    congrats, Mike. I love those moments. I haven’t had a load of them, but the few that I’ve gotten to experience have carried me for long periods of time. Congrats, congrats. (And by the way, it doesn’t surprise me that you killed it. It’s not like you’re on the verge of sucking or anything…)

  2. sharolyn

    Mike, a wise man once told me: you just close your eyes, tilt your head, lean forward… oh, wait… different “bicycle”…

    ‘Glad to hear you still have your street cred! I’m happy for you.

  3. JC

    Michael: You ‘da man! I know exactly how you feel, although I hardly understood any of your lingo. The desire to impress never really goes away if you ever had a taste of it…at any age. I think it is a really good thing and keeps you young. To be honest, I think it is more important to how you feel about yourself, than how your students feel about you, but I’m open to an opposing view on that one. Nicely done!

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