I don’t like to jam.  There, I said it.

Musicians are supposed to enjoy jamming, it seems, but I usually prefer to work on songs with structure and create ‘perfect’ parts for them.  I do love to improvise, however, and I always jump at the opportunity to do so, especially with other musicians who can also improvise well.  I don’t know how to explain the difference between a Jam and an Improvisation, but a jam always seems so much more lame somehow.  It also implies that an actual song will come from it, as opposed to an improvisation, which exists as its own separate entity and then disappears into the ether.

The perfect opportunity came when a guitarist friend of mine used to host a weekly Not-Jam at his place.  It was all a group of professionals from various bands, and whoever wasn’t gigging that night had an open-ended invitation to come down and play.  There were two drum sets, a bunch of guitars, amps, keyboards, saxophones, percussion instruments, a full PA system, and everything.  The idea was to bring your instrument and your drink (or whatever) of choice, and everyone would grab whatever they felt like playing, and we’d all see what happened.  It was very Zen, and I miss those nights.  I’ve considered starting my own improvisational group of acoustic instruments.  I’ll play cello or accordion, and invite other string players and brass players, and anyone else who plays an acoustic instrument.

About five years ago, I was really trying hard to make a living at recording, despite the fact that I just getting started, and wasn’t quite up to that task yet, but that’s neither here nor there.  I try to carefully pick and choose the people I work with, since you end up spending a good deal of time with people when you’re in the studio with them, and I have to really like them and their music in order to want to spend that much time with it.  I would hate to slog through day after day with a black metal band, for example.  Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with black metal—you have to be an amazing musician to play it—it’s just not my thing, and I’d prefer to focus on My Thing.

So anyway, five years ago.  A songwriter friend hooked me up with a friend of his who I’ll call G, not because he’s a gangsta, but because that’s his first initial.  I didn’t find his songs particularly compelling, but I decided to work with him as a favor to my friend.  Plus, I needed the money.  G was (and still is) a guy of a certain age, whose songs were more classic blues-rock than I gravitate towards.  He also has a sort of ‘Earth Mother’ folky side to him that doesn’t quite jive with me, either, but he seemed to like what I did to his songs in pre-production, so we decided to work together a bit.

I told him that my usual way of working was (and still is) to record him doing his thing, and then I usually play most or all of the other instruments around what he had done.  I told him that I play drums and bass and all kinds of other things, and he wanted to hear me do that so he could assess my skills.  Fair enough.  He also had a weekly jam session with his friends, and he invited me to join them at his friend’s beautiful house near Mount Tabor.  They had all the instruments already, so I wouldn’t need to bring anything if I didn’t want to.  It was an offer too good to refuse, so I took him up on it.  I also brought my accordion and five-string Tobias bass, just in case.  I put them in the trunk of my forty-shades-of-purple BMW 2002 and drove over there.

It was quite different from the improvised music night that I’d been attending at my friend’s place, in that A) these guys were amateurs rather than professionals, and B) I suspect that they used their jam session nights as excuses to escape from their families and regular lives, rather than to express themselves musically.  I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I strongly got.   It was also different in that everybody else sat around and got high before we started playing.  I don’t smoke, myself, and I’ve found that when some people are blissed out, they occasionally overestimate their playing abilities.  That started out as one of those nights.

There were five musicians in the band, on guitar, bass, drums, piano, and organ, so whenever there was an instrument that wasn’t being played, I’d jump on it.  Usually that meant piano, but at G’s request, I played the drums a little bit, too, and played the bass a little bit.  Each song would start as a cacophony and then sort of find its way into a key.  We eventually hit our stride, played extremely well, and actually managed to create some beautifully dynamic pieces of improvised music.  After four or five songs, we all felt compelled to slap high-fives and have a group hug, which was interesting and a bit funny.

At that point, we’d been playing for a couple of hours, so we put our instruments down and walked into the kitchen to eat some food and refill our glasses.  We talked about how great playing together felt, and how amazing it was when songs spontaneously come together, almost as a form of emergence.  Suddenly, the pianist got very quiet and told us that he had a confession to make.  He had recently (maybe the week before) been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and he was gradually losing the use of his hands.  As a jazz pianist, this was particularly devastating, as I’m sure you can imagine.  This gave the evening an entirely new focus and gravitas, and Pianist told us how he would hear something in his head and attempt to play it, but his fingers were simply unable to comply.  He made a request that during our next song we go ‘all out’, in order that he could test the limits of his playing and manual dexterity.

I played my bass, and each of the other guys assumed their various roles, with the bassist switching between tambourine and percussion.  The pianist started the song as an atonal jazz ballad, and we all followed suit.  After a few minutes of atonality, my mind started to wander.  The good thing about playing bass is that you can really use it to lead and set the tone for the entire rest of the band, forcing them all to change structure if need be.  They kinda have to follow you if you’re going a certain direction.  I gradually morphed it in a very tonal, almost classical direction, and that, combined with the jazz piano, became really beautiful.  It was as if we all were creating a simultaneous homage to Pianist by weaving a colorful musical tapestry for him.  The song climaxed and wound down with a simple scale in B major, which gave everything a depth, and a certain positive overtone.  It was transcendent.

By then, it was ten o’clock, so we packed up all of the instruments and went our separate ways.  We seemed to be walking on eggshells.  What do you say when someone drops a bombshell like that?  ‘I’m sorry’ seems insulting, or anti-climactic, or insufficient at the very least.  Plus, it was the first (and last) time I ever saw any of those guys, so I was really at a loss.  I’m sure I stammered something tactful like, “Um, nice to meet you guys.  Good luck with the Parkinson’s—?”

As I was backing my ancient BMW out of the driveway, it slipped out of reverse gear, like it did occasionally.  It made a huge, metallic CLUNK sound which stopped the car in the middle of the street.  It sounded and felt as if I’d backed into something in the road, so I got out and looked behind me.  I saw nothing, so I got back in and drove home, albeit a bit nervously.  That was one of the most fun and also one of the strangest nights of music that I’ve ever experienced.

I haven’t done any improvisational nights lately, but I still think of that one.   I hope that Pianist is okay, and still playing.  I just looked up G, and he’s still out there playing.  And his music still doesn’t really do much for me.  He decided to record his album at his house, and spend the money to buy microphones and all that for himself.  I certainly can’t fault him for that, since that’s how I got started, but I do think that he’s the kind of person who could benefit from some editing and some outside influences.

And now I need to grab the cello, pack up the car and head over to tonight’s gig, but I’m glad to have been able to finally tell this story.  I really do hope that Pianist is okay, and that his Parkinson’s is under control.  I also want the best for G, and I hope that his career is going well.  I’ll keep tabs on him from a distance.  Who knows; maybe he’s doing the same for me.