There’s nothing like jamming in a jazz trio, especially when the players are good and the band plays tight. There is an immediacy in every moment of every song. Every groove percolates. Every solo is an adventure. Every song is a work of art.
But it’s not easy. First, you need players who really know how to listen. Jazz is, by definition, an art of improvisation. There is a risk, a freshness, a now, to every moment, like walking on a high wire. At any given moment, with any given note, you can fall right off. But when you are with real players who listen—really listen—then you can take chances with your solo, play outside, take risks. You are free to express, to invent, to create. And they will back you up, musically encouraging you and challenging you in the safety of “the band.” The best drummer I ever had the honor of playing with had such great musicality that every solo I took always sounded better, not because of me, but because of him.
There is also great dynamic range when you have players who listen. Songs crescendo and decrescendo, ebbing and flowing from verse to verse, solo to solo, as everyone in the band flies in formation, implicitly feeling the subtleties of intensity.
You also need players who are selfless. When you are with selfless players, everyone can take turns soloing. There is a mutual respect and submission to one another, as each person takes their solo. There is an appreciation for each person as their solo—their personal interpretation of the song—is quietly acknowledged and celebrated with a nod or a smile. There is forgiveness when you make mistakes, and in the immediacy of that moment, there is recovery, reinstatement, grace and then the music goes on. And in the applause that follows a well-played tune, there is the knowledge that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
And you need players who are passionate. Jazz without passion is elevator music. Like the guy in the tuxedo at the Ramada Inn playing sequenced Jobim. I used to play in a Dixieland band in college (one of the skeletons in my closet). I played in it a lot, and actually (believe it or not) enjoyed it. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t like listening to it very much. Dixie music just seemed like so many middle-aged white people playing at Main Street, U.S.A. Until I went to Bourbon Street, New Orleans.
In my previous life as an engineer, I was assigned to a feasibility study on the Space Shuttle, and I found myself on a business trip to Martin Marietta in Michoud. While I was there, I had the opportunity to sight-see at the famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans. After dinner, we went to Preservation Hall, an old, dilapidated building with holes in the planked floor. In this dimly lit venue, a half dozen older black gentlemen sat on stage, playing the most soulful music I had ever heard. It was emotive, mournful, moving. It was as if each person in the band was not just playing the music—they had lived it. That’s when I understood, for the first time, what Dixieland music was really about.
Here is the thing: I haven’t been talking about jazz. To state the obvious, the jazz trio is a metaphor for biblical community. In true biblical community, there are all of these components—selflessness, dialogue, grace, mutual submission, synergy, improvisation and shared passion. It is necessary—even commanded—in order to play the music that is the healthy, functional church. The church, the Bride of Christ, is intended to birth the music that cares for the lost, loves the world, makes disciples and worships the Living God. It is an improvised symphony, alive and breathing, bathed in the mystery and wonder of our shared journey with Him.
The biblical church isn’t a building or an institution. Sure, there are church buildings and there exists the institution of the church, both of which are apparent necessities. But the church is, first and foremost, a community of Christ-following sinners who love God, love people and live under His reign, His Kingdom.
The church, for all of its faults and foibles, is the Bride of Christ. And when it plays its music, it is the hope of the world. It was designed that way. And when it works right, there is nothing more beautiful and compelling.
This is a short excerpt from Chapter 3 of Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist (Moody Publishers).