Influence, Imitation

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Article by Cameron Mizell, a freelance guitarist, producer, and consultant in Brooklyn, NY. He co-founded and writes regularly for MusicianWages.com and has just released Tributary, a new album with his trio. This article was originally posted on 7/12/10.

At some point, every musician finds themselves studying, or perhaps copying, another’s music. This isn’t too different from apprentices studying with the Masters during the Renaissance. Except today, we usually don’t get to be in the same room as the person we’re studying.

It’s often said that imitation is the greatest means of flattery, but for those in the creative business, imitating too well can also be interpreted as plagiarism. Another expression I’ve heard several times is that stealing from one person is plagiarism, stealing from many is influence.

I really like this last expression because it says it’s OK to be studying, copying, and imitating musicians that I admire, and actually encourages me to copy all the musicians I admire. Like any other musician, I’ve been trying to develop my own voice as a guitarist. Tone, feel, phrasing, etc. What makes me sound like me, and nobody else? How does one develop their voice?

Perhaps one answer is to imitate many and imitate often.

Of course, I’ve always had a fear that people were going to recognize that I was ripping off some of my favorite guitarists. I tried to avoid that problem by not listening to them very much, and instead try to learn the styles of other instrumentalists. This is a great exercise, and it definitely broadens my vocabulary as a jazz musician and challenges me as a guitarist. But recently I realized that the avoidance was waste of energy. The guitarists I admire all have their own voice. Even if I try to imitate them, it’s going to come out differently.

Now I approach my playing, composing, and arranging music differently. Instead of creating more problems for myself by trying not to sound like any of these guys, I use them as guides to get through the problems I do face. When I hear recordings of myself, play back an arrangement I just completed, read down a new song I just wrote, or even when I am on stage and not really happy with how I’m playing, I ask myself:

“What would these guys do?”

Grant GreenGrant Green is often called the original groove master. In the later part of his career, he started veering away from the bebop, jazz, and Latin styles he’d been known for and began playing tunes by James Brown, The Meters, and other funk or R&B bands. His ability to dig into one note and just sit in the pocket is amazing, and he plays repetitive phrases to great effect, never sounding forced.

I started listening to Grant Green in high school, after I sat in for a few tunes with a jazz group playing at B.B.’s Jazz, Blues & Soup in St. Louis, MO. As I was leaving the club at the end of the night, a table of guys that had been hanging out all night stopped me to tell me they liked my playing, and it reminded them of Grant Green. I figured that was good, but didn’t know his playing, so I bought a couple albums. I soon realized they were being way too generous with their assessment of my playing. Or they were more likely just drunk.

Grant Green’s music taught me that phrasing and timing is everything. Telling a story through a solo is all about letting each phrase sink in before you play the next, and if you put the notes in the pocket of the groove, people will pay attention.

Bill FrisellBill Frisell is a jazz guitarist with an immediately recognizable sound. He really plays a unique blend of American music I’ve often heard referred to as ‘Neo-Americana’ by applying elements of jazz to country, folk, and what would otherwise just be called Americana music. That sounds a lot more complicated than it is. In fact, the beauty of his music, and the reason I love it so much, is that he makes it sound so simple. He never overplays. His music is always as sincere as it is quirky. He uses space extremely well, and is extremely lyrical and inventive over very basic chord progressions.

I first heard Bill Frisell when I was a freshman in college. The first album I got was Good Dog, Happy Man and I even went to Austin, TX to see him play with that band. That moment changed my definition of jazz. It’s taken almost 10 years for me to finally allow myself to use his playing as a model of my own music. No excuses, I was just scared to sound too much like another guitarist.

Bill Frisell’s music taught me that less is more. I also realized that it’s ok to have a sense of humor in your music and still be sincere. Every tune is supposed to have a personality.

Leo NocentelliLeo Nocentelli was the guitarist for The Meters, a seminal New Orleans funk band in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The band itself is easily makes my top three favorites all time, and by nature of just listening to their music constantly, Nocentelli’s guitar playing was drilled into my head. The Meters played a very loose, syncopated style of funk, with Zigaboo Modeliste on drums, George Porter, Jr. on bass, Art Neville on organ and vocals, and Nocentelli on guitar. Each instrument had a distinct role, and nobody stepped on each others’ toes. The guitar held many roles in that group, from playing melodies to funky comping to percussive effects that deepened the groove.

From listening to The Meters, and Leo Nocentelli specifically, I learned how to interact with a rhythm section. Leaving space is important in a solo, not just to break apart separate ideas, but to allow the drums or other instrument time to react. When I studied arranging, I learned how to write resolutions across different voices. When I studied The Meters, I learned how to finish phrases across voices.

John ScofieldJohn Scofield has always been one of my favorite guitarists. Not just guitarist, but musician. He does everything right, which has made him one of the more influential modern jazz guitarists, along with Pat Metheny, Frisell, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and a few others.

My first Scofield album was A Go Go, which also featured the group Medeski, Martin, & Wood. That album is a very laid back, funky set of tunes that will probably go down as a modern classic jazz recording. It’s been more than ten years since it’s release, give it another ten and I think everyone will agree with that statement. His discography spans the entire spectrum of the jazz genre, and in every situation his guitar playing is uniquely Sco. He can play bebop without playing any actual bebop licks, and he can play groove oriented jazz without ever sounding smooth.

Virtually every lesson I’ve learned about making music is exemplified in Sco’s work, so whenever I’m writing a new tune, I often ask myself, “What would Sco do here?” This is perhaps most relevant right now, considering the music I’m writing and performing with my trio. I want to incorporate funk, R&B, soul, hip hop, and blues into what is essentially jazz music. A lot of people do this, but too often end up sounding too polished and smooth.

Sco is neither of these–he maintains a certain organic quality to his playing. I think he pulls this off with his unique tone, phrasing, and vocabulary. Transcribing a John Scofield solo is less about what notes he plays and more about how he actually plays those notes.

Cameron MizellI don’t necessarily gauge my success with money, or album sales, or the number of people that come to my shows. I’ll feel successful if someday my work is referred to as part of the canon of great music. I’ll feel successful if somebody realizes that not only is my work built upon the shoulders of giants, but that my work can be used as a guide to help a young artist shape his or her voice as a musician.

Article by Cameron Mizell, a freelance guitarist, producer, and consultant in Brooklyn, NY. He co-founded and writes regularly for MusicianWages.com and has just released Tributary, a new album with his trio.

3 thoughts on “Influence, Imitation

  1. Great article…some of my favorites and most influential as well, except most people have no idea who I’m talking about when I get started about these guys…especially Grant Green and Bill Frisell.  My first Frisell album was the Elvin Jones Dave Holland Trio…which immediately appealed to my dark moody love of Angelo Badalamente’s Twin Peaks music.  Grant Green Live At The Lighthouse is a must hear as a blossoming point of “acid jazz”.  I also recommend checking out Sonny Sharrock, for those who may not have heard of him.

  2. Excellent article, Cameron, I like the diversity of the players you chose. I think most all of the great musicians get their inspiration from a wide variety of sources, and sometimes from sources you wouldn’t expect. Prince has often mentioned how much he loves Joni Mitchell, and it’s hard to spot the influence at first, but if you listen to his chord progressions — even in his funk tunes — you can definitely hear it. Jazz guitarist Mike Stern has mentioned that he’ll often buy transcriptions of classical pieces for violin and use those melodies as inspirations for his music. And Miles Davis — one of the greatest, IMHO — loved everything from Aram Khachaturian to Willie Nelson. So much great music out there, might as well embrace as much as you can!

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