NOTE 1: Sorry, there is no Epiphany #29 because there were two #23s.
NOTE 2: I am intentionally packing the piece below with an overuse of adverbs; I'm not just going off the adverbial deep end.
I saw an absolutely fantastic guitarist at Jazzfest last weekend. And I thought he sucked.
We walked over to the main stage to see him. We arrived mid-song. During the 4-5 minutes of his performance, he tossed out maybe one line of a lyric, and seemed to have a pretty good voice. Mostly, though, he played the guitar very, very, very well. And oh so badly.
Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers posits that rather than raw talent, rather than child prodigies, rather than the naturally-gifted, people who get really good at something get there because they work hard at it, put in "10,000 hours," if you will. What Gladwell didn't discover or didn't want to acknowledge is that just because someone completely masters techniques, that does not mean that he or she will become a worthy talent.
He might just be highly-skilled. And empty.
Realizing how anti-achievement it is to say that mastery may not always be a good thing, I still believe that mastery without restraint may be the ultimate musical sin. Put differently, skill without soul equals unlistenable (in my book).
The guitarist that I watched and listened to at Jazzfest can play any lick on the guitar that has ever been conceived. I am convinced and confident of that, because in that 4-5 minutes, I saw virtually all of them. He strutted out into the front of the crowd to let them drool over his licks. He put the guitar behind his head and continued soloing frenetically without missing a note. He showed off his Eddie Van Halen finger-tapping prowess. He could play everything with amazing technical proficiency, perhaps even better than the creators had. But I didn't care, and my sense was that, besides being bludgeoned with a blitzkrieg of notes, the rest of the audience was fairly indifferent, too.
"Dude can sure play. Yawn. Wonder what time Trombone Shorty will come on?"
As soon as the song was over, he busted out an impromptu "Star-Spangled Banner" a la Hendrix. But he played it way too fast, lost it in a blaze of pyrotechnics that said not "I am using my guitar and this song to make a political statement and to change your perception of it forever," no, instead he seemed to be saying, "this melody is but a ditty to me and I will play circles around it." But to no end.
Maybe this guitarist will get there. Stevie Ray Vaughn certainly did. But as a young gunslinger, he was packing in every note he could at dazzling speed. It was jaw-dropping, but exhausting to listen to, and not in a good way.
Unfortunately, with the mantle of SRV still unclaimed (as journey as treacherous as Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece), the succeeding generations of blues players keep emulating that younger Vaughn before he realized that notes had meaning beyond just becoming smaller and smaller mathematical fractions of notes.