I first realized that I had been a serial monogamist all my life while having a discussion with my wife early in our marriage. While we were dating, I was a jazz pianist who doubled on electric bass for fun and to make money, but it was clear that piano was the true musical passion and “soul mate” in my life. Close to the time of our marriage, my second, I had a life-threatening health scare. During the month or so I was recovering from it, I fell in love with the double bass and decided to take a chance and devote my energies to becoming a jazz bassist, which would mean leaving the piano behind.
Kate knew as I was telling her this that prior to being a pianist I had been a guitarist, and before that had played several other instruments, most notably French horn in the youth orchestra as a teen. She also knew me well enough to know that if I decided to do this, I would buckle down and do it, and she would cease to hear the piano around the house (which she really liked) and would instead hear a lot of deep rumbles from behind a closed music room door for hours on end for the foreseeable future. But she also knew what a person in love looks like, and being a hopeless romantic herself, could not very well advise against letting true love pass by in favor of what had become a musical marriage of convenience. So after listening to my reasoning and considering for a while, she made her own pronouncement, which went something like this: “I’m a little sad and will miss the piano playing, but I know that you are a serial monogamist in all things, and overall I think that kind of devotion and faithfulness is a good thing. I’m OK with this, but with two conditions: that this be your last instrument, and that I be your last wife.”
When I finished laughing, I knew that I had chosen well on both counts.
My intention for the rest of this little missive is not to talk about my history of switching instruments (more information on that can be found here), or about the idea of serial monogamy in romantic relationships between people (I’ll leave that to the experts). Instead, I wanted to focus on the topic serial monogamy in listening to music, which could also be described as obsessing over one album at a time until you have completely absorbed it. My friend and musical collaborator of many years Jason Tiemann once summed this concept up nicely during a master class we were teaching at the university. When asked by a student for tips on what to listen to in order to improve as a musician, he responded that it doesn’t matter so much what you are listening to as long as it inspires you, which I also happen to completely agree with. But then he relayed this little gem, which I immediately earmarked as a pithy way to convey a universal truth: “Don’t listen a little to a lot; instead, listen a lot to a little”.
While at first that may sound like the riddle of the Sphinx, what Jason really meant by that is that in our time we are surrounded by music everywhere we turn. We have access to an almost infinite supply of things to listen to, to the point that there is no way that anyone could possibly listen to it all even once, much less listen enough to really absorb it. Rather than listen superficially to a thousand things, listen deeply to a few. Even better, pick one thing you love and absorb it completely to the point where it becomes a part of your sonic DNA. Again, it doesn’t matter so much what it is as long as it fascinates and inspires you. By listening in this way, you are programming new sounds and ideas deeply into your musical self that will always be a part of your musical experience and voice. You’ll know that you’ve absorbed something when you press the “Play” button in your mind and the music starts playing in full CD quality sound, without holes or skips. Once this happens, you are ready to queue up your next true love and begin that relationship.
I could go on for days here, but in the interest of space I’ll stop expounding on this message and end with a short and very incomplete list of some of the recordings I’ve had this kind of relationship with. I’ll begin with some random older ones and put the more recent ones at the end. Your list will of course be very different, but these are some of the recordings that have influenced my life and musicianship. You may not love them as I do, but hopefully at the very least if you check some of these out you may find something that you like. More important still, if you take the message to heart, you may be inspired to lengthen your own list.
Fred Hersch Trio – Dancing In The Dark
Ray Brown Trio – Live From New York To Tokyo
Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue/Workin/Cookin/Steamin/Relaxin
Hank Mobley – Soul Station
Bernstein/NY Phil – Mahler IX and X
Jessye Norman and Irwin Gage – Schubert/Mahler Lieder
Keith Jarrett – Standards Live
Cannonball Adderley – Something Else
Bill Evans – Riverside Collection
Bonnie Raitt – Luck Of The Draw/Nick Of Time/Longing In Their Hearts
Chick Corea – Three Quartets/Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
David Sancious and Tone – True Stories
Etta James – Mystery Woman
Glenn Gould – Goldberg Variations (1981)
Kenny Barron – Green Chimneys/Wanton Spirit
Lynne Arriale Trio – Melody
Michael Brecker – Don’t Try This At Home
Frank Morgan – It Might As Well Be Spring
Steely Dan – all of it
Adolfo Gutiérrez Arenas – Cello Suites (J.S. Bach)
Avishai Cohen – Gently Disturbed/Continuo
Yo Yo Ma – Goat Rodeo Sessions
Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
Punch Brothers – Phosphorescent Blues