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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Labyrinth Project Creators Journal - Matthew White


Musician: Matthew White
New Orleans, Louisiana USA


11/19/19

I am a jazz guitarist living in New Orleans. I have lived here since 2003, when I came to get my master's degree in Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans. I first started taking music lessons at the age of 6 and have played professionally since I was 16.

One of the greatest pleasures I experience as a jazz musician is having the phone ring, being offered a gig, and then showing up to play for three hours with musicians I have never rehearsed with or even met before. Jazz is a musical language that can be played along with anyone who knows it, and this is why we rarely rehearse, if ever. It's not really about the songs -- it's about what the players bring to the songs using the musical language we have in common. A standard as simple as "All the Things You Are" is going to sound very different depending on the combination of players and the choices made. Every song is reduced to a melody and chord changes. Everything after that  -- the tempo, style, how we improvise over it, and general feel of the piece -- is spontaneously chosen. Sometimes these choices don't always work, and sometimes they produce magical results that seem to come out of nowhere. The unpredictability of it is what creates the interest for jazz musicians. We are all constantly in search of the next best version of any of the tunes we play. We try to shape and form the song, and sometimes it forms itself without even having to try. 

There have been so many times I've showed up for a performance where we just had to go through the motions for the money; or the sound wasn't good; or factors beyond our control just wound up producing a lackluster performance. But I've always taken these "dead gigs" in stride. One magical moment can keep you in the game for another year. 

I got the call one day to play happy hour at a club in Metairie with a singer and a bassist, neither of which I had ever met or played with before. After a long miserable crawl through rush hour traffic, I met my band-mates. We set up and began to play out of the singer's book of standards which she had chosen and transposed to her favorite keys, and within a few songs we had more or less figured out how we each responded to music and how to best serve what the others were doing. And then something magic just happened. The singer called "Besame Mucho," a song I never was very fond of, but having no desire to veto playing it, I accepted it as a challenge to try to make something good out of what is a kind of pedestrian and sappy song. We set up a standard bossa nova groove that felt comfortable,  and when Alex began singing, the chatter in the room suddenly stopped, and everyone in attendance suddenly was focused on the stage area. To our surprise, most everyone in the room began singing along. The voices were all in tune, and all singing sotto voce, "under the breath," and they became a ghostly chorus that complimented Alex's voice. "Besame Mucho" suddenly meant something. We had a "moment" shared with everyone in that room, and when the song finished we were all beaming, and now I honestly love that song. It's hard to describe, but the feeling created in moments like these is like having a sudden realization that here on this tiny speck in the universe we are capable of creating moments of great beauty, and we can take pleasure in being part of something larger than our individual selves. But that performance was just a moment that can only happen once, and one we couldn't reconstruct or do over with the same effect it had on everyone. There would be no way to recapture the elements that went into creating this moment and make it happen again upon command. Other moments like that will happen, and that's one reason why musicians stay in the game in spite of the lousy pay, the bad gigs, and other disappointments. 

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