Kim and I were lucky enough to be having dinner at the bar at Les Zygomates last night when a unique (to me, at least) trio came on called The Gatsby Trio. They had a guitar player with a super chill hollow-body, a trumpet/flugelhorn player, and most interestingly a singer in a kind of 20s getup who was keeping time with brushes on a music stand. Turns out she is called Gabriela Martina and she also does a bunch of other stuff than the 20s shtik.
As a drummer I was both intrigued and mildly annoyed when I realized this singer was really going to keep time with nothing but a pair of brushes on a music stand. On the one hand, cool idea — brushes are idiomatic for 20s swing, after all, and good drummers know well that you can play anything that makes an interesting noise. On the other hand, given she’s mainly singing, can she possibly be doing a great job of keeping time at the same time? Doubtful.
Well I was very pleasantly surprised. She did in fact keep good time once she got warmed up and truth be told she’s better with brushes than I ever was. Plus she was a very accomplished singer who did a credible job scatting (hard to pull off with a straight face, much less well) and also took a couple solos whistling. Whistling, no less. All this while also keeping decent time with brushes on a flat music stand. We thoroughly enjoyed the music, which was not at all confined to 20s swing thank heavens but ranged through a whole bunch of interesting styles.
When Kim and I were revisiting the experience later, we realized that the great thing about this trio was that they had pulled together a very non-standard configuration — no bass, no drummer, no keyboard — and made us forget about it. That in turn put me in mind of one of the things I like most about jazz, which is that there is no wrong way to play it. In most cases, you have a tune — a melody — with a suggested harmonization. You’re not bound to play the tune as written and you’re not bound to the suggested harmonization, or to any particular combination of instruments. You play the tune at the beginning of the number and then you repeat (usually) the form while various people improvise over it, and then you play the tune again. It is just enough structure to let you play and bring your audience along with you, without limiting you very much at all. All you have to do to succeed is assemble good players, listen to one another, and not let your mind wander.
(Truly great players, of course, can discard even this meager framework. Coltrane’s Live In Seattle for example is one of the all time great jazz recordings ever, but it pays almost no homage to conventional form. But do not deceive yourself into thinking there is no form or structure — there absolutely is, you just have to be really familiar with jazz to know where to look for it.)
The question is, is it possible to live and work according to these same principles? Can a team at work function like a jazz combo — assemble good people, provide the absolute minimum structure, listen to one another, don’t let your mind wander, and success will follow? In some cases I think yes, and it is absolutely the best way to work when it is appropriate. But be careful: because there is no wrong way to do it, there is also no formula for how it’s done. So as a manager, if you want to assemble the best group you can, you’re forced to improvise every time.
This must be why I like being a manager…