Being in the pocket
I’ve been meaning to write this entry for about three weeks now but kept putting it off…
This spring I took advantage of my San Francisco loft and attended a number of the San Francisco Jazz (SFJAZZ) Spring Season shows. Most of the major concert halls in SF are within a 20 minute walk from my home, which makes getting to the concerts quick and easy.
There are two concerts I attended about two weeks apart which really stick in my mind. The most recent concert was June 14, and it was to be a celebration of saxophone with Joe Lovano, Michael Brecker, and Dave Liebman. Each of these guys is an amazing sax player, but in different ways: Lovano has a gigantic Chicago-style tone and eats people alive with his fast, overblown solos; Brecker can play faster than anyone and also be harmonically complex; and Liebman played a lot with Miles Davis so is eccentric in style and still quite quick.
Unfortunately, Brecker was sick this night and so Joshua Redman sat in with the other cats. Josh is a local player, and he is unbelievably good, but he’s clearly a thinker and prefers playing harmonically interesting or rhythmically innovative lines as opposed to just blowing loud and fast. (Which, frankly, is why I like him.)
But you might see where this story is going…
Josh got eaten alive for the first half of the first set. I was embarrassed for him and mad at the other guys… he was playing great, but he was playing in his style, and the two other (older) guys were clearly just tearing him up. They were being menacing physically in their playing style and also just not being particularly friendly personally. It made me sad to see, since I like Josh’s playing a lot, and he’s a hell of a nice guy.
Around the middle of the set Josh cracked and started playing more like Lovano: lots of notes, fast, loud, big tone. The lines weren’t as interesting, not nearly as cunning harmonically, but he was able to hold his own against the other cats for the most part. That’s when I started listening more intently to the rest of the band… the drummer, bass player, piano player… and I realized that really, this wasn’t a band I was listening to, it was six people musically masturbating up on stage. They weren’t listening to each other, they weren’t helping each other out, they weren’t communicating whatsoever. They were each playing by themselves, for themselves, and the resulting sound was dissonant and unorganized since they were each being so selfish. Not music, not really, not to me. I ended up leaving after the first set. I didn’t need any more dissonance at that moment.
Just a few weeks prior, I had seen another show which Josh was playing in, and it was amazing. The drummer in that group, Brian Blade, knew when to lay out and when to push the other players, and he filled in on solos and was able to echo phrases by the soloists. McCoy Tyner was on piano – this guy has been around – and the group had played together quite a bit so it was rock solid and really exciting.
They say that as jazz musicians play together more and more, they become able to practically read each other’s minds. You can hear that in some of Miles Davis’ recordings over the years
The “in the pocket” expression isn’t unique to jazz. Guitarists use it across genres (and I’m guessing it’s true for other instruments). e.g. I first heard it from my guitar teacher talking about Metallica’s playing.