Reprinted with permission via Ann Starr
Yes and no. There’s improvisation…and then there’s improvisation.When a jazz ensemble begins a tune, they establish the melody first. Usually it’s a widely recognized standard song from a great composer of the early-to-mid twentieth century, like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, or Jule Styne; songs you know, like “There Will Never Be Another You,” “[Take the] A-Train,” or “Skylark.” Or, it may be a jazz tune derived directly from one of those great, standard songs.
After the tune’s first chorus is set down, the musicians trade improvised solos based on the progression of chords used in the melody. By “improvised,” we mean, generally, that they wing it. Their muscle memory and their ear knowledge allow them spontaneously to invent variations on the tune while adhering to the structures that tie those variations, however bold or soaring, to the melody.
The ideas of improvisation, spontaneity, and uniqueness in jazz intertwine. But if a group has two or three gigs a week, how can those improvised solos continue to be genuinely spontaneous night after night? Isn’t it inevitable that the musicians will develop “licks” or patterns they like, feel comfortable with, or wish to continue exploring? Does spontaneity have to imply uniqueness, the result of continual reinvention? Is non-repetition even a possibility for musical creativity? Wouldn’t that be to invoke a god-like standard of conceptual fertility?
We who follow DeWitt, DiCenzo, and Scott—variously appearing as the ADD Trio, TRio, Aaron Scott Trio, Derek DiCenzo, or Dave DeWitt Trio—can make it our week’s work to attend the two or three gigs that hard-working Scott books for them. We can hear them play “Moon River” many times over. So one might assume that sooner or later, we’d start to pay more attention to our drinks than to repertory we’d presumably heard before.
This emphatically doesn’t happen. Every performance by this trio starts in a galaxy far, far away, from which we witness the emergence of a new star. We in the audience arrive as musical newborns. We struggle even to grasp the tune, for even the musicians aren’t sure, as they set out, where they are headed, let alone in what key. These are jazz improvisers in the radical sense.
The trio is the house band for Becky Ogden’s Jazz Bungalow. On November 4th they opened the first set for a Jazz Brunch with the following set up by Dave DeWitt on the piano. Put yourself in the shoes of the bassist and drummer, preparing yourself for the tune emerging HERE. What is it? I still don’t know. Clearly, the first premises of the music are trust and anticipation.
Making music that coalesces into standard tunes, the trio depends on pianist DeWitt to let his hands and imagination wend their ways through rhythmic thickets and chordal tides for as long as it takes DiCenzo and Scott—and DeWitt himself—to figure out what they are playing. When everything falls together (it can take the audience even longer to figure out what the tune is), the band surges, often beyond the information of the moment. The ambiguous, novel puzzle of DeWitt’s question—the antithesis of the normal “statement”—makes each performance of the same tune a unique event for musicians and listeners alike. Given this device the trio has chosen for setting up each tune, there simply is no possibility of repetition. As you watch as well as listen, you can see these guys literally sweating to pull it off; you can see and hear the hits and misses, the facial telegraphing of the hits and misses, the pleasure, panic, and pains of improvisation. And it is good.
I love this antic, all-out, seven-and-a-half-minute performance of a tune I didn’t identify until several minutes along, the name of which you’ll find with the following YouTube of its simple version. This tune gives ADD at its best: The statement-as-question, the headlong playing, the unity on-the-fly. I’ve decided not to excerpt this or the following tunes. I simply don’t know how to interrupt such driving music, and my will to try is weak. So HERE it is. You can compare it to a simple rendition, the perfect material for a “tune with variations,” copied from YouTube HERE.
The music this ensemble makes is molten, always hot and taking shape, but never solidified into a state of rest, even up to the last second. Only in retrospect can the listener, like the musicians, begin to analyze what happened; only when there’s time to exhale and laugh off the tension can anyone begin sorting through all the musical quotations, key changes, and collective exhibition of forms, styles, and rhythms of Western music.
The gigs that this trio play are divided into sets. Unlike others’, though, the sets are not exactly divided into tunes separated by time during which the crowd applauds and the musicians reset. Usually, there is barely a break between one number and the next. DeWitt is loath to let the energy lapse and keeps his hands on the keyboard, roiling the notes until the next tune unravels itself. In some groups, this would be the means of making a medley of tunes, but that’s never what DeWitt is setting up. For these guys, the performance unit is the set, not the tune, so their energy is wave-like, increasing in pressure throughout the hour. The lack of space between the tunes gives the listener the heady sense of riding a wave that is gaining height and force until it exhausts itself in a crash—as these musicians literally come close to doing by set’s end.
To illustrate the persistence and push of a performance, on this 8-1/2 minute sample is the closing of “On Green Dolphin Street” and the full performance of the Latin classic, “Fungi Mama.” Listen HERE.
How do DeWitt, DiCenzo, and Scott generate music of such size, energy, and originality? For one thing, by being nonpareil musicians. For another, by being playmates. One has a sense of them as being in an eternal clubhouse: At one minute they’re the chess nerds, and the next they are covered in grease, taking apart car engines.
Scott is unstoppable both as drummer and impresario: He will get work for his phenomenal group, and he does, even in tight times. He’s been booking since his twenties, when he returned to town from North Texas State where he went on scholarship. Even then he began booking for himself and for the city’s top jazz musicians with whom he was playing, including his father, pianist Bob Allen. Booking, and playing, Scott was also teaching at Columbus Percussion Center and enrolled at Capital University to complete his degree. He’s a man whose excellence on his instrument is paralleled by his knowledge of talent and determination that it will not go empty-handed. He will also not let talent go without attracting it to his own.
DeWitt and DiCenzo are madmen; naturals, whose music wells up from inner springs. Both are self-taught musical polymaths.
I first knew the mercurial DeWitt as a premier bassist when I came to Columbus ten years ago, and was surprised when I first heard him on the keyboards, making astonishing music. Yet, as it seems, many know him primarily as a drummer. DeWitt explains that he began playing piano at age 3, even before his musician father knew that he could; his parents thought he had been simply pecking at the instrument in the garage. He confesses to a lifelong “love/hate relationship” with piano, the hate side of which led him to give it up in his teens and to take up drums, again on his own.
DeWitt returned to piano for a decade but in his mid-thirties (during the ’80s), he turned to the string bass. “I was seldom happy with the bassists I played with, so I decided I’d do it myself,” he grins. “I really liked it. I like being in the middle of the rhythm section.”
Indeed, the relationship between piano and bass in this trio is arresting, for the two instruments occupy virtually equal positions—DeWitt cites the relationship between pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro as an admirable example. Although the piano “leads” in the sense of insuring that each tune becomes the strand picked from the knot, this is not at all a “piano trio.” Actually, it’s not a trio led by any voice: It’s a three-part conversation. Even the pianist plays all three instruments.
As does the bassist. Derek DiCenzo, too, like his colleagues, has supported himself by his music in Columbus since the ’80s. He, too, is largely self-taught. He reads music, as DeWitt does not, but he makes it clear that he is in another world from the great “technicians” of conservatory and college with whom he often plays in the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and on tours.
I originally identified DiCenzo with guitar and electric bass. Then I heard him on upright bass, as in this group. But these are just the start: He also gigs on piano, Hammond B3 organ, drums, steel drums, and accordion. On special occasions, he can be convinced to bring and play his theremin.
On the occasion of this recording, the second of two sets ended with the musicians literally close to physical collapse, yet in a nervous state of exhausted euphoria. Scott threw down his sticks, laughing to DiCenzo, of the last tune, “All the Things You Are,” “Man! We were swinging by the seat of our pants!” DiCenzo responded incredulously, “Where are the beats? What am I doing up here? This is crazy stuff!” Laughing, “You’d think we’d rehearse or something!”
Yet when I talked with DiCenzo a few minutes later, he assured me that of all the work he does, playing almost daily, this is “what makes me feel like a great musician.” As he explains this, I know exactly what he means, because I’ve heard everything. He says that, “It’s not just filling up the space with notes. It’s crazily fresh,” because the three of them have “a perfect hook-up” that allows “great accidents to happen.” And, best of all, it is the most basic form of improvisation, the complete opposite of playing from scored music. “You don’t practice at home to go play the same notes that you practiced. The music happens. I love it. It’s unlike anything else.” He nails his words with the hammer of his voice.
DiCenzo, Scott, and DeWitt play with love and abandon. They joke about calling themselves the ADD Trio (for Aaron, Derek and Dave) with the implications (“attention deficit disorder”) of frantic, turn-on-a-dime energy. Maybe, given that each member is absolutely crucial to the existence of the music they make, they should try something like The Codependents, or Dave DeWitt and the Enablers.
The intensity of their abandoned playing—the all out, sweaty, no-breaks and no-brakes leap—does indeed make me marvel at the energy they generate for work that leaves them at the end both exhausted and possessed. Coming down from a session like this would seem to be as difficult as playing it; the consequences of returning to earth after such a euphoria of ideas, adrenaline, and fiery creativity could require as much attention, balance, and management as making the music itself.
Those of us on the audience side of jazz enjoy the privilege of sitting at the table, knowing how richly we enjoy the feast. But we are as gourmets to cooks, savoring the dishes without having had to slit any throats. It seems so little to applaud musicians like these, who can take us to heights of joy as we simply listen, while they get there by sweating blood.
Listen HERE to DeWitt, DiCenzo and Scott play “My Funny Valentine.”