The notes you don’t play

It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play

-Miles Davis

Yesterday I posted a link to Bill Frisell playing an impromptu version of the American folk classic “Shenandoah” not because it is my favorite performance by him, but because when I ran across it it spoke to me in an unexpected way. The sparse and vivid arrangement – with the delicate melody supported in all the right moments –  reminded me that interpretation is everything.

The masters all know this, and Frisell is a master at his craft.

There are detractors in the jazz world who would say that Bill Frisell isn’t a real “jazz” player because he doesn’t play a million chords/notes a second or he isn’t a purist about the genre, but you know how opinionated woodworkers are about sharpening? That’s how opinionated jazz fans are about everything.

Frisell is a living legend whose genius transcends genre. He knows the value of the right note, in the right place, played with the right feeling. He knows when to drop notes, and bend the rules of time and rhythm to bring something truly unique into the world. The man knows his craft and his vision. I know I will never play like him and part of that is because of practice, but all the practice in the world could not give me the subtle, wavering magic in his hands.

The masters know this too, and this is what enables them to develop their own magic.

You can transcribe them, practice them and learn them, but the notes will only ever be theirs or yours, and it will be the notes you don’t play that will define your own mastery.

Transpose this to woodworking and the parallels are evident.

There is snobbery in our world as well. Devotees of period furniture, vernacular furniture, modern furniture, and all other sorts of furniture sometimes forget that the adjective does not nullify the noun. Those who pay attention can see that genius transcends genre and genius is often only evident in what you cannot see, but it’s hard to develop this level of awareness.

Putting all that aside, there is an even more important lesson here. When I began woodworking I learned most things by asking the question “why did you do it this way”? I wanted to understand the mechanics, but recently I’ve found I learn a great deal more by challenging my own assumptions and asking “why didn’t you do it this way”? “Why did you make this choice instead of that one”? “Why a chisel instead of a shoulder plane”? “Why this joint instead of that?”

Essentially: “What notes did you leave out”?

Those are the notes that matter. The masters know this as well, and if you ask nicely most of them are willing to share.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. donovandak says:

    Thank you so much for linking to that. I’m a huge fan of Frisell and your post spoke to both my jazz and woodworking sides. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure. Big Sur has been on heavy rotation for me this year and I just can’t get enough of his playing.


      1. Daniel says:

        I love “Sing Together Like a Family”. The decisions you enjoyed on Shenandoah are compositional not technical, but the wood working questions you mention are technical (joints, tools etc.) even in the negative (why not “x”). Something to consider.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good point. Now I’m going to be thinking about that question all day.

        Liked by 1 person

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