Fall weather makes me reflective. It might have to do with the imminence of winter, the dampness, the start of school, the sweaters. I'm not sure. But in the fall, I tend to learn something about myself that I might not learn in another season. I tend to make decisions. Last fall, I decided I would take piano lessons. It had been something I wanted to do since perhaps the start of high school. In fact, I had done it, twice. But the lessons never went very far; I would lose my motivation and decide it wasn't worth it. I would never learn, I thought. I was too impatient.
In my third go at piano, I decided to take lessons from Devin Roth, a music student at McGill. He was studying jazz piano--was in his last year--and didn't seem offended if I skipped practicing for a week. In the first lesson, we discussed what I wanted to learn. I told him about my love of jazz, that I wanted to learn, if possible, jazz piano, although I wasn't sure if that would be like stepping into rushing water. I didn't want to deal with Bach's minuets, or the best easy piano classics. They didn't interest me in high school, and I figured I should learn from the past. I had a Real Book and hoped we could start using it right away. We did, the next lesson, with "Autumn Leaves." But before I left, we jammed a C blues. (The blues scale in C was all I knew at the time, although that might still apply.) He told me that I played well, that he liked my ideas. Maybe he lied. But if he had, he was nice; if he hadn't, good for me.
I never did fully learn "Autumn Leaves." But it broke me in. I had never seen chord changes before, dominant sevenths or flat fives or sharp nines. Eventually fall passed and I grew tired of humming "Autumn Leaves" as the snow fell. We moved onto "All The Things You Are." This time I learned it. He guided me through useful chord inversions and I went home, sat down at my electric piano and put it all together. I still couldn't solo, and most often in jazz, that comes next. So we moved on. "Blue Bossa" would be easier--about two keys, sixteen bars, simpler melody. I figured it out quickly, the chords and melody, but we spent a few weeks working on the soloing. He showed me some nuances of the song, when I could play the wrong notes. I could finally play a jazz song through--maybe not well, but maybe that's not what I was going for. The lessons ended there. He graduated, I went home for the summer.
When I started studying with Devin, I thought I was doing it to better understand jazz. But that started to seem so conceptual, so technocratic, after a few lessons. When I put my fingers to the keys, there was a lot more going on than I had imagined. I soon realized I wouldn't be a good pianist. It bothered me at first. What was I taking lessons for? But it didn't seem to bother Devin. Sure, I was paying him, but he never treated me as though I didn't deserve to learn jazz, as though I couldn't be good. Maybe that's why I kept on studying with him.
Last weekend, Devin visited Montreal from the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where he is getting his master's degree in composition. I sat down with him to talk about his studies, his goals, his musical interests. He had only been in school for less than a week, had not been to many classes--which happen to include one on Oliver Messiaen, another on composing for film, yet another on Lydian chromatic concepts. He told me he wants to compose for film when he graduates, but for now, he is thinking about forming a band outside of school, about having a life in Boston away from the conservatory.
He acknowledged the downside of what he calls "educational inflation" in jazz. But he's not indignant about it. (Perhaps his hefty scholarship has swayed him.) "You need to go to school," he says, "and you can still experiment." Besides, it's hard to complain when your teachers are some of the best musicians in jazz. At NEC, he will learn from Fred Hersch and Jason Moran, Cecil McBee and John McNeil. I asked him if the prospect of working with such formidable musicians intimidates him. He says no. This summer he studied at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Meeting and talking to and playing with jazz musicians there, including one of his influences, Darcy James Argue (who has a blog), changed his views about jazz as a constellation of artists below which we can only crane our necks and admire from afar.
What I sensed in Devin's comportment was a sobering air of professionalism which might come from years of melding work with creativity. But it also might come from the prospect and reality of spending time with real live professional jazz musicians, people who have decided to be artists and who have become successful artists.
"Talent is hard work," he says, as if to imply they are indistinguishable, which may or may not be true. But that doesn't really matter. If he believes it, why shouldn't it be true? After an hour or so of good conversation, I decided to go. We shook hands, wished each other good luck, and went our separate ways. He seemed brave. It's hard to choose to be an artist. For some reason, though, I'm not too worried about him.
You can find Devin's website and MySpace at the links below: