What a dead mouse reminded me about jazz improvisation

I been listening to (obsessing on) an artist I have only recently discovered. He is a genius at rhythms and the deliberate placement of notes. His music also has a sense of humor to which I relate. I can’t think of much other music to which I occasionally laugh out loud as if I was just told a funny bit of dry sarcasm. He is the EDM superstar whose moniker is Deadmau5, AKA Joel Zimmerman. Say “Dead Mouse”. Or this for some crafty sound design treatment supporting vocals.

Now for those classical or jazz purists who may dismiss Deadmau5 as simply a DJ whose music consists only of a bunch of repetitive sounds over quarter note kicks (bass drum), you’re not listening deeply enough. As I hear it, Joel distinguishes himself with his unique facility to find just the right notes to put in just the right places, taking the listener on a journey of infectious groove through unexpected off ramps of melodic adventure. I should mention that he neither reads music nor plays any major instrument. He is a master at the DAW “piano roll” editor. I got a little insight into his writing style and methodology having recently finished an online masterclass with him.

 I can do that…

To learn more about his unique style, I set about creating this year’s annual Electrik Project Christmas tune (spoiler alter) Hark The Herald over a beat and harmony form one of Joel’s tunes. Much like I might transcribe a jazz solo on order to internalize its technique and musicality. I spent the past two weeks “transcribing” the arrangement’s foundation and laying my trombone and other sounds within.

After countless frustrating hours of putting a square peg into a elliptical hole, I took a step back and admitted that this just wasn’t me. I’ve been struggling because I’m forcing something other than my musical voice into this arrangement. That’s not to discount Joel’s concept or any lesser admiration for the beat in which I immersed myself. But I was putting a Southwestern style house facade onto a lower west side Manhattan penthouse.

Fixing the problem

Keeping the trombone performance elements, I started over, this time returning to my process of listening to where the music wants to go instead of forcing a direction based on outside influences. More organic?

What I’m discovering it that the music finally flows in very cool direction that resonates with me and that brings out the essence of this beautiful song. Most interesting, however, is that Joel’s influence has crept into the writing and sound design, but this time as a congruent musical element that supports the overall integrity of the piece.

How this relates to jazz improvisation

Transcribing jazz solos from your favorite player is an important step in learning to improvise. You can more personally hear and feel the point and purpose of the notes and phrases. But not in order to mimic those phrases in the moment of standing up to solo. Forcing phrases and elements of someone else’s solo into your own lines may create islands of comfort for you, but in the end is it your improvisation? Instead, we learn those solos from favorite players–much like we learn scales– in order to plant them into our subconscious so that they influence our lines and become a supporting element of our own musical voice.

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