Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An encounter with a master 
I had the opportunity on Saturday morning to attend a musical workshop with Jens Kruger - a banjo player I had never heard of before, but a bluegrass player friend of mine encouraged me to go, and I'm glad I did!

I have been to workshops and master classes, and seen some terrific players in small, intimate venues. Benjamin Britten, Joe Diorio, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Mark O'Connor, Jerry Douglass. I have never in my life seen a musician who could bring a hush of awe over a room like this guy, just with sheer musicianship.

He spoke very little about technique - although his technical prowess is truly extraordinary.* Mostly he spoke about restraint, about dynamics, about respect for the music. And even the nonmusicians in the audience were just enraptured.

Salient points:

1.) Play music for nonmusicians. They won't care about your technique, so you won't try to impress them and lock in a bunch of bad habits.

2.) A good accompanist or rhythm section lays down a beautiful carpet. And when the carpet's that nice, you won't want to stomp all over it.

3.) If the rhythm section swings, then you swing with it, most of the time. But when the masters play a solo, they'll straighten out the rhythm much closer to a straight eighth note feel against the swung triplet backing. If you swing against a swing backing, then everything you do belongs to the rhythm section. But when you go straight-eighths against swing comping, then the line you're playing will leap right out at the listener, and you don't have to play very loud to be heard.

Technically, what happens is that every other note you play will be synchopated early against the last 8th note in the swung triplet feel in the accompaniment. This creates a nifty microrhythm that extends through the solo. Listen for it in great jazz and bluegrass recordings. It's all there.

4.) If you REALLY want to learn how to play, don't go to a teacher. Go to a performer.

5.) It's better to learn a few tunes extremely well than many tunes half-assed. When you learn a tune really really well, then everything else you play will begin to rise to that standard.

6.) Music is a collaboration between the player and the listener. If you play a well-known melody, for example, the audience will fill in the notes you don't play. You can manipulate that to your audience's advantage. Hold up on a note...give the listener an instant or a moment to fill in the note in his or her imagination -- and THEN help the listener along with a delayed note that leads the ear into the next phrase.

It was easily the best musical workshop I've ever attended - and it changed the way I look at rhythm.

Although I haven't heard any recordings that do justice to the sheer level of musical mastery that Mr. Kruger demonstrated on Saturday, you can hear snippets and purchase a CD here.

Splash, out


*One technical note of interest to acoustic musicians - if you listen carefully to the recordings, you may notice a subtle chorusing effect on the banjo. This isn't processing. It's in his hands. As Jens Kruger plays, he is constantly moving the headstock of the banjo in a circle. With an instrument of light construction like the banjo, this pulls the neck ever so slightly, and brings the strings sharp on the pullback and flat on the out. The effect is simply beautiful, live. He demonstrated exaggerating it a bit, and said "now, I don't need effects! I've got my own tone knob, my own chorus, and my own wah-wah pedal right here on the banjo!" And then he proceeded to play his banjo with the full-throated, warbling sound of a hammond organ!

It's not hard to do technically. But musically it is absolutely moving.

Hello. I never get tired of blogging! Seems there is always something very different to see. Must be the water!

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