Picking Equals Inner Strength! HIROKI Koichi [Translated by Cathy Fishman]
Masayuki Takayanagi is highly esteemed by musicians and music fans the world over. His sound is unsparing, definite, sublime. People familiar with his music and his rigorous speech and conduct may be surprised to learn that Takayanagi, like many other jazz musicians, had a rich sense of humor. This imposing figure produced unimaginable strings of puns, easing the tension of people around him. Jazz musicians are good at puns and word play. Actually, jazz has always been a genre in which themes and syllables are tweaked and twisted to connect with and give rise to the next phrase. Imitation, twists, irony, anticipation… using these techniques in playing also helps train the language area of the brain, and words begin to flow more freely. Puns tend to come up without warning even in the middle of serious conversations, adding levity and also bringing in important new ideas. Word play is neither meaningless nor idle. And in the end, the tension remains.
Quotes from Takayanagi
Takayanagi always said, “Reading and writing is a fundamental part of being human.” One of the first to know that the creation of sound sequences and the composition of sentences were closely connected in the human brain, he also said, “Great improvisers are interesting conversationalists and excellent writers.” Takayanagi was a proponent of extensive reading and listening. He assigned his students a written paper in every lesson, telling them, “If you can’t write, there’s no way you’ll be able to ad lib.”
“Rhythm is the most important thing of all.” I think people who really listen to Takayanagi’s playing are enthralled by his rhythms. He was a master at choosing exquisite timings to further enhance his refined phrases. By “rhythm” I mean not just timing, but also careful control of the quality, tone and volume of each sound. These are the things that determine the finished product.
“Use accents.” He believed in making clear which sounds in a sequence you want to stress. It’s the same with intonation in speech: this makes it easy for people to understand what you’re trying to say. In Takayanagi’s playing, moreover, there is a highlight in each improvised solo. This is truly cool.
“When you improvise, phrasing is everything.” Particularly in jazz, the quality of your phrasing makes or breaks your reputation. The swing and the persuasive power of your music depend on how you think about and execute the arrangement of sounds and the ordering of high-low/strong-weak, and on whether or not you make use of the positive aspects of tradition. No matter how great your sense of rhythm is, if there isn’t any substance to go with it, there’s no point.
“Rhythm is born inside your head.” Takayanagi said, “Rhythm isn’t just physical repetition; it isn’t movement or the quality of your reflexes. Rhythm is born of a succession of extremely intellectual operations–it comes from the ways in which you select, arrange and organize sounds.” For us, Takayanagi’s successors, this is an invaluable lesson that makes a tremendous difference in our music.
One of the most memorable things that Takayanagi said was “Picking equals inner strength.” This is a decisive phrase, not just for guitarists but for musicians in general. The strength with which you hold a pick and pluck a guitar string is a barometer of your strength as person. In the moment when you hold a pick in your dominant hand and begin to play, you must already have determined the sound, string, position, degree of power, nuance, and most importantly the timing that you want. In other words, it’s all a matter of whether you can see ｗhat’s coming and whether you’ve made up your mind. If you hesitate somewhere, your picking will lose energy. It’s the same with language. If you’ve prepared all of the elements I mentioned and pick strongly, then inevitably the strings will come up unless you press firmly with the left hand. This combination of movements makes for a powerful sound. “If you lack mental fortitude, it isn’t possible to produce a good sound.” This is the truth.
“Be versatile.” Takayanagi exhorted musicians to be multifaceted and flexible. Take rhythm, for example. When you play with great musicians, various messages and questions come flying at you. If you, the receiver, know just one way to join in (like people who say, “I’m good at a swing beat”), you’ll always respond with the same timing. To produce a variety of reverberations and colors, it’s best to have a lot of rhythmic variation. For listeners, too, it’s boring to hear the same rhythmic flavors all the time. In the English-speaking world there are many different types of rhythm–jazz, soul, rock, calypso, reggae, etc. I thought of all of these off the top of my head–that shows how many names there are in just one language. Once you break down a language barrier, your choices suddenly increase. It’s pretty much impossible, and certainly unnecessary, to adopt all of the rhythmic styles in existence, but it’s essential to find several styles that you’re comfortable with and use them to expand your range of interaction.
“Try other instruments” was another of his recommendations. Takayanagi believed that, just as music university students are required to study piano and choose different instruments as minor subjects, musicians need to look at music and their own instrument from another angle. “It’s not enough to dabble,” he said. “You have to master the [other] instrument.” This is a kind of synergy. But he added, “Never forget that this is a means of perfecting your self-expression through your main instrument; it’s a process.” He had harsh criticism for musicians who neglected their principal instrument as a result of this diversification: “They put the cart before the horse and lost their wheels.”
Takayanagi encouraged us, the students in his private school, to be ambitious, saying, “Form your own band–a guitarist should have a guitar trio” and “Establish a standard for your work and give that the highest priority; don’t let anything sidetrack you.” The reason was that he wanted us to experience being a leader, a boss. It’s easy to be a soldier (sideman). You can wait for and follow instructions and profit from being patient–that’s one way of life. But if there’s something you really want to do, how can you do it unless you’re a (band) leader? A bandleader not only sets the direction of the music, but also does a wide range of administrative work–preparing scores, managing the schedule (including bookings), arranging instrument transport, reserving rehearsal studios and so on. This is a road that must be traveled by anyone with a strong will. While gaining these skills, you’ll learn how rugged the road is; you’ll also come to understand how projects originate and how they’re structured. The ’70s and ’80s were prosperous times; the seedy side (the music industry) offered many temptations, and there was a looming danger of being corrupted. Things have changed drastically with the current economic recession, but at that time there was quite a bit of well-paid work–recordings for TV commercials, work in backup bands for famous singers (in the rock and pop world you even got paid for rehearsals), etc. A lot of musicians made the shift, doing less live performing (their original objective) and more industry work. The unswerving Takayanagi took a dim view of musicians who caved in to the mainstream and defected. That tense awareness was a rare quality.
Takayanagi was so dedicated that he even curtailed his sleeping time to work on transcripts. He wasn’t satisfied until he had a fundamental grasp of the structure of the music; he saw through its truths and untruths and nourished himself with it. Takayanagi’s tremendous devotion and uncommon vigor were beyond the scope of the average person. And a great deal of his time was reserved for us, his private students. He taught us about current affairs, history, religion, literature. The depth of this knowledge was incredible. We also had fun hearing band stories from the old days. Once he got going, he could easily talk for three or four hours. And he talked as if he were racing against time and burning up in the atmosphere.
About Cool Jazz
Having seriously, faithfully and unfailingly listened to the sounds of many of the great masters of jazz history, Takayanagi asserted, “Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz have the most enlightened phrasing.” Those words stayed in my mind–and when I belatedly opened that weighty door, it was just as he’d said. When I myself started using cool jazz methods in my playing and composition, I understood for the first time what it was to enjoy jazz in the true sense of the word.
It would be no overstatement to say that the foundation of contemporary jazz phrasing lies in the music of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. First, let’s think about Parker and Tristano, who were near contemporaries. Quite a few younger musicians made a mad dash to imitate Parker’s perfect, lightning phrasing, and in so doing lost sight of themselves. There were a lot of Parker “doubles” as well. That’s the powerful centripetal force of Parker’s music. This music has been passed down to the present day because of its greatness, but the ideas came not only from Parker’s genius, but also in large measure from his transcendent technique and the special qualities of the instrument. The music has posed difficulties and drawbacks for musicians playing certain instruments; and surprisingly, in the decades since these concepts emerged, they have seen no major evolution. Both Parker and Tristano remain fantastic to listen to, but in Parker’s case one often feels that instead of listening to imitators, it’s best to go to the originator (wonderful timbres and all). Now, what about the Tristano school? First, due to the difficulty of his melody lines, Tristano didn’t gain that much popularity. And we can well imagine that musicians who played for a living tended to keep a distance from melodies that they couldn’t sight-read in sessions. But these melodies reflected a valuable methodology by way of Tristano’s original phrasing.
If Parker’s force was centripetal, Tristano’s was centrifugal. His carefully thought out compositions and improvisation lines reveal an aesthetic of rejecting routine. The music never settles down in places where it would normally be expected to reach an arrival point. It’s a highly polished artistic betrayal. But with all its trickiness, the music has integrity, never straying from the fundamentals of jazz, including the placement of accents. Tristano generously provided space for new interpretations, based on the premise of steadily producing jazz beats in keeping with the fundamentals of jazz phrasing. What’s more, his phrasing was determined neither by the nature of the instrument nor by his habitual patterns in playing; it was calculated in an extremely musical way. This is a striking feature of alto sax player Konitz’s music as well. It isn’t music that gives the edge to adaptable instruments like piano, sax and trumpet; it’s music that provides opportunities to musicians who think seriously about the arrangement of sounds. This in particular is evidence of the music’s outward orientation.
Coltrane was a leading figure of the generation after Parker and Tristano. As a way of breaking away from bebop, he changed the whole idea of chord progressions. Even chords taking up four beats (one measure) were dizzyingly changed every two beats, and the intervals were different in degree from those in conventional progressions. The new form was difficult and required mastery of the instrument. The decisive difference between this and any preceding style was that this style changed the form of jazz playing. Coltrane’s groundbreaking technique is still considered one of the most important methodologies in jazz. In contrast, Tristano (of the previous generation) broke new ground not by changing the musical structure, but by placing melody lines that no one would have thought of over chord progressions commonly used in standard numbers (many of which were threechord tunes). While the format had been there all along, Tristano’s method gave musicians a new world of inspiration and ideas. To present a new vision without changing the basic musical structure was, in my opinion, a brilliant achievement. Konitz, who was both a co-performer and a successor of Tristano, injected elements of practicality and accessibility into the music of the scholarly Tristano (who was in fact an educator), thus bringing it closer to audiences. Takayanagi called the cool concept “the peak of the chord-based style.”
Takayanagi never, ever mixed genres in his playing. He kept the different styles clearly separate in order to bring out the distinct rules and qualities of each. The nucleus of Takayanagi’s expression was New Direction Unit. Clearing away all obstructions and using anything labeled sound as potential material, the project’s comprehensive artistic performance gave him the greatest possible freedom. Feeling that he couldn’t express himself fully through the reverberation of wood (and strings and leather) alone, he also required the violent collision and scraping of metal. This was the avant-garde side of the awesome Takayanagi. Even when he hit the guitar with metal, switched on a tape of the sounds of materials, or adjusted the volume by moving the faders on the mixer, his timing and rhythm were superb. This music occupies another dimension from what today is called noise music, because Takayanagi could really swing when he played the guitar. This is true versatility. It’s the definitive difference between a musician who can single-handedly create rhythms out of thin air, and one who relies on equipment, materials and setting. Daring to play the guitar in unconventional ways, Takayanagi created a one-man orchestra by manipulating sound materials that he selected and methods/devices that he invented (a motor that scrapes the guitar strings and produces noise, for example), as well as tools. His ear-splitting volume was the very greatness of the music’s message and energy. Takayanagi regarded this as his first concept. And playing cool jazz in the chord-based, rhythmically consistent jazz band format was what he called his second concept.
I’ve never heard any music stronger than Takayanagi’s.
I’m an unworthy student. I’m certainly not qualified to write a critical essay
about my teacher’s music, and I haven’t even mentioned the album. I hope I’ll be forgiven. But I’m happy to have had a chance to talk a little about my long and rewarding association with Takayanagi. I attended his private school for 17 years, from the time I was 18. Thanks to what he taught me, I’ve navigated the troubled waters of the music scene without losing my way. And now, with this album, I’ve found a new guidepost.Masayuki Takayanagi is always there leading the way.