Getting past The Myth of Musical Perfection

When Herbie Hancock was asked the difference between how he learned to improvise and the way the younger generations learn it, he said something that surprised me. He answered that the younger generations learn primarily from listening to note-perfect recordings, while he, in the late 1950s, learned primarily by hearing his musical idols play live in clubs, several times per week. People didn’t have access to as many recordings back then, and this was before canned music took over dining establishments and bars.

Yet the part of his answer that surprised me the most was when he pointed out that he was able to hear his musical idols make mistakes and play badly on a regular basis.

Wow! Is this true?

Did Miles Davis ever play badly?

Well… yes, and here’s a recording of “Oleo,” with Herbie on piano, that proves it. It’s from the now-famous recordings at the Plugged Nickel club, and Miles can’t even handle the tune’s melody. Everything falls apart several times during the performance (except Wayne Shorter’s amazing tenor sax solo). The funny thing is that the members of the 1960s Miles Davis Quartet have been saying for years that they would get lost all the time, but I never believed it. I’ve since seen transcriptions where Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter are a full two measures apart, playing in different parts of the chord progression!

Here’s the performance of “Oleo:”

Miles didn’t care. And Herbie didn’t either. They were experimenting, taking chances, and Hancock’s point is that it was accepted that musicians played better on some nights than on others.

No big deal.

Until… we all became so used to note-perfect performances that we started to become brainwashed that we needed to play perfectly all the time, or we weren’t “good enough.”

The attendees at the Plugged Nickel club enjoyed the music, imperfections and all. But we at-home listeners never heard the mistakes, because the recordings sat in a vault at Columbia Records for decades.

So we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to play perfectly every time. Note-perfect but overly-careful, boring solos.

It took me decades to get past this Myth of Musical Perfection, and I hope you’ll get over it too.
Just play. Have fun, listen carefully, and get into the flow of the music.

Sometimes we’ll play great, and sometimes not. Who cares? It’s all part of the journey and the ironic aspect of all this is that if we’d simply “let go” and play, we’ll sound better more often.

Here’s my not-perfect-yet-musically-satisfying performance of the great standard tune “Invitation:”

Invitation: Journey Through The Real Book #186

The quicker we can get past The Myth of Musical Perfection, the quicker we can begin enjoying our music more fully.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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