That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water
From For Sydney Bechet by Philip Larkin
Part of the joy of listening to jazz is that no two performances are the same. No one knew how long Sydney Bechet was going to hold that note. Maybe not even him! Beard-stroking audiophiles may argue about what is the best recording of a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart mass. What's the definitive version, the one that beats all the others? It's as if musical performance is all about striving towards some never-reached ideal. But in jazz, with all its improvisational unpredictability, there can be no single definitive version- or perhaps they all are?
Improvisation is at the heart of our life. We learn to act virtuously through a process of repeatedly trying and getting it wrong. Our character is formed not by learning a set of rules and doing them- how easy that would be!- but by conforming ourselves, step by stumbling step, to a vision. Or perhaps a melody.
And then, once we think we have the basic melody, we can try we try out simple variations. What happens if we try a duet here? What happens when life calls us to play this familiar tune in a minor key? Slowly, in jazz terms, we learn to improvise- to riff. We break free of simple repetition, and the beauty we thought we knew already comes to us in a new and unexpected richness.
And yet at the heart of all improvisation, in music and in life, is a set of basic principles- maybe a tune or underlying chord structure, maybe a story that gives meaning to the world and our place in it. Without that, the improv would be empty and lifeless twiddling: a search for self-generated meaning that is liable to descend into cliché or mindlessly adopt the spirit of the age.
On 30 November at 7.30, we'll be hearing a new jazz suite for Christmas by the astonishingly talented Tim Boniface- priest, scholar and sax player. The story he'll tell through his music will be familiar to all of us- an old melody going back to Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But it will also be a literally unique performance. It will never sound the same again. Tim will respond creatively to the acoustic, the atmosphere- maybe even to the Holy Spirit. It will be a brilliant evening of virtuosic music. But I hope it will also portray something of the grace of God, who gave us the melody of our lives- but also challenged us with the freedom to improvise.
The Revd Laurence Price
You can read the whole newsletter here.