Keeping it simple

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Fri Jan 22 3:59pm

One of the more - what's the word, interesting? challenging? - aspects of online school over these past few weeks has been helping our 9-year-old edit her written and oral presentations. She has a tendency, which may sound familiar, to add words - or, when working on an art project, to add elements - just for the sake of making the work longer, or busier...but without actually enhancing the content. As we work through a given assignment, I find myself asking her, "could you say that more simply?" Or, "how does that add to the story/artwork/etc.?" A couple of weeks ago we introduced the idea of KISS, which we made slightly friendlier by explaining as "Keep it simple, sister."

KISS is a well-used adage in jazz - as students we were always told to "leave space," and that "less is more." (My personal favourite is "don't just do something, stand there!", which I thought was attributed to Miles Davis, but apparently not...although he did say “If you don’t know what to play, play nothing,” which also applies.) It's the idea that when we improvise, we're aiming to create melodies - if our playing gets bogged down with extraneous notes, or if we don't give our ideas space to breathe and develop, the results will sound like just notes (or worse - just noise) and not melody.

Several years ago, Maria Schneider was the artist-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music. Maria writes stunning, beautiful, compelling large jazz ensemble music, and as I was sitting in the audience, listening to the excellent performance by one of the U of T big bands, with Maria conducting, I realized that at a certain point in one piece, she was just using triads - essentially, the most basic building blocks of harmony. Nothing fancy. But her masterful use of those triads was effective and moving, as is so often the case in her compositions.

I was further reminded of the idea of "keeping it simple" when recently catching up on some bookmarked videos. As part of their multi-concert tribute to Wayne Shorter, SF Jazz published some fantastic recordings of video calls featuring Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and, in the example I'm about to cite, Branford Marsalis. Needless to say, they shared some interesting perspectives! But the concept of simplicity came up when Terence referenced one of Wayne's solos from a Joni Mitchell album, and what Terence discovered when he figured out what Wayne had played:

Terence says: "It wasn't no big mystery - it was the way you did it and where you decided to put it." It's amazing how often that same notion comes back - an idea needn't be complicated in order to be effective. When done right, a simple concept can be brilliant.

Of course, when done properly, complicated concepts can be equally as effective - I'll happily listen to the crunchy chords of a Thad Jones arrangement any time, any day. But Thad's writing was special because he knew exactly what to do with those dense harmonies - no matter how many #9s or b13s were in a chord, they were somehow always perfectly placed, pleasing to hear, and swinging. But if I think of all of the experiences I've had - artistic or otherwise - that have been dampened by being made unnecessarily convoluted, I tend to believe that simplicity is often the best path.

The concept of "keeping it simple" has all sorts of applications (including grade 4 French Immersion projects on rocks, in case you were wondering). In fact, in many ways, life at the moment feels like the epitome of "keeping it simple". Most of the activities that kept us busy are not on offer. We're staying home most of the time. And while I'd much rather be up to my neck in planning a Festival, as is usually the case at this time of year, at the moment it's simply not realistic to plan for elaborate productions or complicated logistics. Perhaps this forced simplification - while challenging - will serve as a reset of sorts, so that when the time is right, we can use what we know, and what we've learned through this time - whether simple or complicated - in the most effective ways.

Josh