So the way people talk about Charlie Parker, for example, is so reductive and it sort of misses the point a lot of times in terms of what his real discoveries were and how creative he was with the fundamentals of music. People reduce it to a system of licks that get plugged in various places, and it wasn't at all that. It was really a much more spontaneous and inventive and radical enterprise.
And the same is true of Monk. I usually spend a lot of time dealing with Monk with my students, and not just because I want them to sound like that but because I want them to try to study the thought process that goes into something like that, something with that level of originality and that level of detail and specificity. So I find that a lot can be gained by revisiting the so-called classic stuff with fresh ears and eyes.
I learned a lot of that from working with Steve Coleman, because to hear him talk about Bird is to kind of rediscover Bird. He had such a creative way of dealing with the heritage of this music. And it wasn't just for its own sake. He had these deeply informed insights about what's happening that goes far beyond the standard gloss on that material. I think one of the reasons I had the opportunity to work with him for all those years in the '90s was that I had a similar approach. With Monk it was like: "This is the physics of sound — this chord right here." [Laughs.]
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE SPECIFIC WAYS IN WHICH YOUR APPROACH — OR STEVE'S — VARIES FROM THE CLASSIC MUSIC-SCHOOL APPROACH? One of the things that all these people who go through these programs learn about is what's called "chord-scale relationships," which is basically what notes to play over a given chord. So it means you play some notes and you don't play other notes. So then people end up playing in a way that doesn't interact with the harmonies, it just sort of restates and reinforces the harmonies, so everything starts sounding very bland.
If you listen to the way Monk would play with harmony, he's interacting with it. He's not restating it. He's imposing something on it that wasn't there yet. And you read about these famous discoveries [such as with Charlie Parker]: "I was improvising on 'Cherokee' and I found I could resolve to this note instead of that note, and it still worked. They never told me I could do that. Now I see that there are other possibilities that aren't part of standard theory." And that's close to 80 years ago. My point is that the history of this music is a history of ideas and discoveries and individuals who really pushed themselves in spite of what was happening around them. And that's how people need to think if they want to continue in that vein.
That's not to say that there's nothing to learn from the past. But you can be very creative with how you learn from the past.
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