Of all the music that I listen to, Jazz is one of the genres that I listen to the least (yes, yes, even in comparison to country and industrial rock). Even my exposure to great bands like Dirty Dozen Brass Band in high school (thanks, Bernie, Brandon, Ian, & Matt) wasn’t enough to develop more than a passing appreciation for it. Something about the improvisation. Actually, if I’m really honest about it, a lot of improvisation I’ve heard has sounded like a lot of noise and overblowing – more gusto than actual musicality – but I chalked it up to my lack of appreciation and knowledgeability and shied away from jazz concerts.
So, when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-2012 schedule came out, selecting the Chris Botti concert as part of my subscription was a bit of a risk. Listening to Botti’s music on Pandora didn’t allay my worry that I might have chosen poorly – not that it would be a bad performance, but that I wouldn’t be able to connect with it… to feel it… to understand it.
On the day of the concert, in the freezing, windy, Chicago-style Atlanta weather, I set forth. It was a great concert. The orchestra was good. Chris Botti’s trumpet was clear and beautiful, the vocalist, who tours with the Rolling Stones, smooth, the Argentinian guitarist creative, the pianist accomplished, and the drummer fascinating. One piece, though, stood out for me: Chris Botti’s rendition of “Flamenco Sketches” by Miles Davis and Bill Evans.
For someone who hasn’t always been a fan of jazz improvisations, it was a revelation. No written melody. All improvisations over 5 modal/tonal chord transitions. And somehow it was beautiful, sometimes almost hauntingly so.
The piece is all improvisations, but still structured, Chris Botti explained. Each musician “structures” the improvisation within a certain number of bars and a certain modal/tonal structure. Within that structure, that box, the musician can sketch… and draw in a straight line… and curve around… and just doodle. And within that box, with the musician’s own style, something beautiful emerges, and it’s new and fresh each time, but also fundamentally similar to other improvisations created this way.
My CPE internship was long enough ago that sometimes I forget what it was like, but I watch each new class of CPE interns come through asking how to handle this scenario or that, and remember the anxiety of walking in and wondering whether I will have any words, whether I have anything that will be good enough for the dying patients and their grieving families. Would you say thus and such? Or do x and y? What about z?
The answer my colleagues and I give is always, “Well, each situation is so different.” Each piece of music we make is so different. Because our styles are different. Because the bars leading up to our parts are different. Because who we are with is different. But what we are trying to be and to do is fundamentally similar to each other time, because what we want, the modal/tonal structures, is for people to connect with God, with their community, and even with themselves.
For me, this has meant being the benediction of God’s presence, and being like water, and for now, it means being the Weaver of Narratives. For friends, it has meant being the Foolish Midwife or the Watchman. For pastoral care theorists, it has meant being the Wise Fool, the Self-Differentiated Samaritan, the Intimate Stranger, or the Agent of Hope.
Within the structure, the modal/tonal structure and the rhythm that emerges, within that very large box, something beautiful emerges as we improvise. And sometimes it is hauntingly beautiful for the tragedy of what has happened. And always it is holy, even when the sketch doesn’t seem quite right. There is freedom in that… freedom in knowing that the box is big enough… to sketch and to doodle, to improvise, and to create what God equips us and calls us to create.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18