“Positivity”

This week the Veritas Orchestra (my jazz orchestra that is dedicated to exploring truth, reality and meaning in all dimensions and especially with regard to Christian faith) played twice for the first time. It was amazing to see how much progress we made between the two performances. There is one aspect of the second of those two performances that provides the focus for this post.

I had a septet back in the day that no longer runs for many reasons. I had harboured very high hopes for this group, but they were not ever destined to be realised. And I recognise that God knew that this would happen, and allowed it as part of my journey. There was one tune which I wrote for that band called Positivity – which required the four frontline soloists (alto flute, soprano sax, flugelhorn and female vocal) to enagage in collective (but not free) improvisation over a rolling vamp.

When we played it, the level of listening and positive energy created was wonderful. They were such great musicians, and they had the maturity to wait on each other, respond to each other, thus vibing off each other – and that approach made for a wonderfully rich and opening playing experience. They were all very lyrical improvisers as well, and they brought those gifts of melodic invention to the collective vibe.

So I decided to roll back the years and bring the tune to Veritas, hoping that we could still find a way to achieve that same level of intimacy and awareness and – positivity – with eighteen musicians as opposed to seven. A stern challenge, but Veritas has come such a long way – I thought it could work.

But there is a wind trio that joins us sometimes, and they were due to play with us that night. For some reason I decided that they should be in on this as well. I thought I was going to simply add some new parts, but instead, the whole chart got rewritten.

Well, we got to rehearsal, and the fact was that the horn players did not really get it. The rhythms were tricker for them to assimilate than I had imagined, but despite that, they didn’t really ‘get’ what was going on in the music. Result: the vibe of the tune was more ” A hard night’s work’ than ‘positivity’ – the way it sounded. Worse yet, the ‘easy’ bit – collective soloing over a vamp just showed how unprepared many of them were to listen before playing. So that was pretty ruinous in rehearsal.

We headed down to the gig with me wondering how it would fare. The gig in fact had some great moments (as well as a few forgettable ones) and soon it was time for this tune.

It started ok but then things began to unravel a little. But then there was a little break before a sequence of entries for flute, clarinet and bass clarinet. These instruments would provide the wind backing on the vamp over which the jazz horn players would then improvise collectively.

And that is when something amazing happened. The flute entry came, and more than playing what were very simple notes correctly, the flautist actually played them with a real sense of positivity. And I knew that no-one else might notice, but subconsciously that flute entry set the tone for the clarinet entry, which also sat in the right place, followed by the bass clarinet entry.

Three classical players, working with the rhythm section, pointed the way of the tune to the improvising players. We entered the vamp, and suddenly it was a different Veritas than had been the case in the rehearsal. The collective improv still has a LONG way to go, but it was SO much better than the rehearsal had been.

That night, on that tune – less really, really was more.

Sometimes it really is not what you play. It is how you play it.

I wrote that tune before I made the decision four years ago to dedicate my compositional output to the glory of God. Since that time I have had a real dilemma about the music that I wrote before that decision. This tune was part of that. It has been amazing that it has been able to make a re-appearance after all these years and provide me with an object lesson – as well as become part of the Veritas repertoire. Back in the day, it was just the name that I gave to the tune after I wrote it – and it was an apt name. Now that I want my writing to point towards more than the music itself, ‘Positivity’ is no longer just a tune I wrote for my old septet – it is an act of praise towards the One who gave us life, and in having the the tune in unison (even with that many players) I am pointing towards a theological reality – namely, that while ‘harmony’ is a strong paradigm for people in a community, ‘unison’ may be stronger still conceptually in certain ways at certain times. Harmony allows for differences to work together in the same environment and the same goals. But unison has everyone on the same page doing the same thing at the same time.

Here’s what I say when I am training music leaders in church – “which is better? weak harmony or strong unison?” Many church choral and vocal groups are obsessed with harmony for the sake of harmony when they cannot even sing unison in tune (never mind in time), thus putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse.

I think we may find that the same is true for instrumental players…

If you don’t know Psalm 133:1 – go look it up.

That flute player might never really understand the significance of that entry that night. And sometimes that’s the best way. That gig has gone to eternity. And now it is not the notes played that remain – it is the vibe.

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