Monday, December 13, 2010

Bobby Hackett and 'technique'

Most musicians are obsessed with mastering their instruments. Some focus on perfecting their high registers, while others think mostly of the speed of their fingers on the keys. A tasteful few concentrate on developing a beautiful sound. Stride piano master James P. Johnson is reputed to have practiced in the dark with a blanket over the keyboard to increase his strength and accuracy, while others such as Charlie Christian jammed 'til dawn to perfect their ears and invention.

This physical mastery is called 'technique', and the poorer one's technique is, the more it can occupy one's thoughts. A slow-fingered saxophonist is overtly conscious of his plodding, and the trumpeter lacking an effective high-register might spend many practice sessions addressing and readdressing the problem.

Cornetist Bobby Hackett was more concerned with the difficulties of his instrument than most. He was a guitarist who found himself better known for his secondary (though much loved) instrument, and thereafter he embarked upon a regime of lessons, practice and mouthpiece hunting. Through these efforts, he achieved a more consistent mastery of the cornet, and later the trumpet. His recordings from the 50s and 60s show a polish unheard in his earlier playing.

But by focusing on improving his technique, did Bobby Hackett lose something of his original style? Perhaps. His early recordings show a very real delicacy; when he plays a phrase, we listen, hushed, with the understanding that it might all go wrong at any moment. We hold our breath in case we might distract him. We recognise that here is a human being who is just as likely to take a momentary wrong turn in his music as we are in our own relationships, conversations and emotions.

Some misguided musicians have rebelled against the tyranny of technique, and insisted that 'pure' music is untutored and raw. I don't believe that at all. It's just that one's limitations can inspire unique solutions and approaches. My belief is that, while I might marvel at the superhuman feats of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum or Roy Eldridge, I am moved more by a flawed human with a gift for beautiful music.

Here is Bobby Hackett (along with other jazz greats), playing Embraceable You in 1938. It's a love song, and he sounds truly in love - passionate, inspired, yet unsure.

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