The Sun through the Trees is PJ Best’s latest jazzy soul album release. In this video I talk a little about the inspiration behind this studio album and in particular the title song, which I then perform live.
To be fluent tonally, to handle harmony and melody with effortless ease, you need to know all your harmonic blocks as unified structures plugged into the whole keyboard map. We tend to focus on the musical surface, often simply the melody, using our “karaoke” sense. Or we try to grasp theoretical objects like chords and intervals. But if we train our innate ability to tune into the wash of harmonic colour that underpins music at every moment, and learn how these harmonic blocks plug into the structure of the keyboard map, we then find it easy to grasp all the possible tonal shapes (melodies and chords) that are woven into this harmonic fabric.
My jazz-soul album under my artist name PJ Best, will be released (available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music etc.) on August 16th 2021. Here’s a sneaky preview of the title track. This song tells the simple truth that music is our source of solace bringing us back to the state of ease that is our birth right.
As a fluent pianist, I work to find a proper grasp of the musical language of any piece I play. This prelude can easily sound dense, noisy and inaccessible, even in a solid technical performance with all the notes played accurately. In order to communicate its glorious, soaring, virtuoso, post-romantic story intelligibly, all intricate harmonies and contrapuntal lines must be clear and logical. Rachmaninov did not write atonally – there are no “wrong notes” in his music – but his very rich tonality (and rhythm too sometimes) can be extremely intricate and involved.
Scales and arpeggios are considered good practice and to question something that is so normal and ubiquitous might seem almost sacrilegious. But the truth is I don’t practise them or teach fluent keyboard musicianship using them because I find that they encourage a linear and mechanical approach that blocks musical fluency.
Why is it difficult to be spontaneous and self-expressive as a musician? It should be easy: it is a simple act of letting go, tuning into yourself and feeling whatever is there: dark passions, love, vulnerability, powerful, deep consciousness that expresses an infinite variety of feelings about what it means to be alive…
Music comes from intelligence that does not calculate or measure but rather flows, simmers, swells, smoulders and bubbles inside us in a place beyond thought. Musical truth is almost self-indulgence, letting the body and soul guide expression without censorship, without any self-conscious checking of its validity. It is to return to the mind of a child, before knowledge, belief, mimicry and the relentless desire for an impressive performance eclipsed pure expression of feeling. It is a kind of innocence – an honesty so personal that it is pure self, alone, unity with everything, without reference. It is unbridled joy and pathos – the exhilaration of being.
Unconscious fear triggers ego control
And this, of course, is exactly why it is so difficult. All this joy and pathos is terrifying to the reasonable, civilised ego that seeks comfort, satisfaction and approval. The unmanaged, primal motivation of fluent music-making triggers shame and horror within the ego mind. So to mask this fear and shame, the head gets to work, taking over the show.
The ego mind generates a myriad thoughts, techniques, comparisons and aspirations to take the music out of us – out of our body and soul – and put it somewhere safe: on a pedestal, in the iconic face of a star performer, in a textbook, in the familiar strains of a hit song, in the rarefied glass case of a concert hall, or wrapped up in cellophane hidden inside a glossy commodity, branded and packaged as cool or clever. It places music anywhere but deep inside us.
But the craving for its magic never subsides and we grope for it, believing it to be always out of reach, feeling inadequate, playing by numbers, attempting lame karaoke, learning theories and techniques to execute musical code, going through the motions, trying to create the best facsimile of music that we can. And the sounds we make are not real music… Music which does not originate in the body and soul is neither original nor musical. Real music is undeniable, raw, part of nature’s rise and fall, shimmering, unfolding like waves or galaxies in constant, magnificent creation.
The courage to feel
It takes enormous courage to acknowledge and reveal our inner musician consciously, to defy the ego’s dishonest claim to musical intelligence and surrender to such an animal force – a creative urge as mysterious as nature itself. The judging, comparing, controlling mind will always try to deny the existence of such deep forces of creativity and intelligence. It will fearfully hold onto the belief that anything that cannot be described in words or numbers – anything that cannot be evaluated or controlled – is simply not real.
But the unfolding meanings of rhythmic and tonal syntax do indeed describe what this profound consciousness perceives, it relates these extraordinary feelings that are beyond the scope of words. When we make music fluently, it comes from and expresses intelligence that words can never contain. And so these words that I write are too mere stumblings in the dark, a futile attempt to clarify infinity, scratching the surface of a thing that has unfathomable depth.
Focus and let go
Only when we master and focus our mind, hold it still and quiet enough for the fear to subside, do we find the courage to truly let go and make music with complete abandon. We can then jump into the abyss, we can achieve escape velocity and fly. We feel fully, the lights come on and this inner world is described by our spontaneous outpouring of music in breathtaking, vivid detail. And the paradox is that singing or playing music then becomes as simple as breathing, pure childsplay, free-flowing, effortless and natural.
This short improvisation has a slightly bleak, but beautiful melancholy feeling. A subtle passionate undercurrent drives its evolution to a sombre resolution.
Music has groove or metre like poetry. It generates musical sense or syntax. Follow the poetic unfolding of this Mozart slow movement and allow its deep meanings to enter your consciousness. Listen with your body and soul to the story it tells. Allow yourself to go deep inside, so that the hypnotic effect of the musical narrative takes you on a journey.
Pianoteq have introduced felted versions of their pianos. These beautiful, atmospheric pianos are incredibly expressive and playable, with all kinds of rich, complex colours possible. To demonstrate this, Phil improvises, exploring the range of sonorities, on the C. Bechstein DG Felt.
When we listen actively to music with a clear groove which slows down gradually, we relax, unwind and feel ease. In this video, I improvise using a pulse that constantly slows down. Notice how it makes you feel!