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Shop Talk

Piano jazz, waning oil pressure, glumly getting on with it, and the art of improvisation

“Play something you’ve never played before,” asked Marian McPartland to jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Williams, without pausing a beat, strode into an improvisation with the surety she displayed on Duke Ellington’s Caravan, a piece she’d played hundreds of times. A stew of imagination, experience, and craft, improvisation should be more than just a legacy of jazz. 


Williams guested on the first-ever episode of Piano Jazz, a long-running (1979-2011) National Public Radio program hosted by Anglo-American McPartland. I was hooked, initially, by McPartland’s curious accent, a mix of uptown proper and downtown hip. The show’s format placed McPartland (a formidable player) at one piano and the guest at another, for music interspersed with conversation about music. At its best, as it was that day in 1979, Piano Jazz was invigorating.      


I lack aptitude for music. It pains me. I can’t hum in tune. My whistling is lame. My mother wanted me to be musical, but even she believed it her duty to warn Mrs. Rose that conscripting me into the church’s junior choir would destroy it. Despite my handicap, I couldn’t get enough Piano Jazz. 

I love shop talk; the clipped shorthand shorn of the fat of workaday conversation that occurs between practitioners of a craft. When McPartland says, to Williams, “I don’t like skinny chords,” I must imagine a fat chord, and that’s good work for the brain. If you’re a careful listener and tolerant of occasional bafflement, shop talk gives insight that expertise clumsily translated to layman’s terms can’t. 


Near the beginning of Piano Jazz episode one, McPartland played a chord on the piano and, referring to the piece Williams had just played, said, “You played this chord.” “No, I didn’t,” said the prickly Williams. “I played this chord.” Williams struck the same keys but the sound was different. McPartland’s chord was matter-of-fact. Williams’s chord was melancholic and hinted at something unresolved.        


McPartland’s gift was making the conversation as improvisational as the music. There was no introduction to her show, it just began. Like life. Like last summer, when I noticed, while warming up the Ducati before a race, that the oil light was glowing. I shut the engine off. I drew a blank. And then I looked up and into the face of Mike Crompton, out for a day at the track. As a builder and tuner his CV includes Freddie Spencer and Miguel Duhamel and Yoshimura Suzuki. Crompton and my wife are pals, so instead of running he rolled his eyes and took charge. Did I have a compressor? Yes. A multimeter? Yes. I removed the oil pressure sensor. Crompton blew pressure into the sensor (to emulate crankcase pressure), grounded one lead of the multimeter against the body of the sensor and put the other lead to the wiring post. The sensor converts pressure to an electrical signal—unless it’s a dud. My worries dissolved in a moment. Crompton knows how to improvise. 


Toni Elias was leading teammate Roger Hayden in a MotoAmerica roadrace. And according to the conventional wisdom of roadracing schools, Elias was doing it all wrong. Many schools preach a single, solitary, perfect racing line for each corner. Enter wide, clip a late apex so near the edge of the track that your head hangs over the grassy knoll, and throttle out to the very edge of the track. Miss the apex by the width of a whisky bottle and give up hope of a quick lap. 


Moody, challenging, and brilliant. Mary Lou Williams thrived in the New York jazz scene of the '50s and '60s. Anthropomorphizing machines has its limitations (jazz is art; motorcycles are not) but it's not entirely untrue to categorize Italian motorcycles as moody, cantankerous, and, when the stars align, 

brilliant. In the photograph below, single wire leads to notoriously temperamental Ducati oil pressure sensor.    

What a disaster Elias was making of his lead in the race. He entered corners from the middle of the track and often missed an apex by a foot or two. But it looked like he was having fun. His body was loose, you could tell. Meanwhile, Hayden soldered on behind him, with perfect lines and a body so rigid he looked like a man running late for divorce court. Hayden closed in on Elias but looked unsure of where, or how, to pass. After riding with the flair of the afternoon Amtrak from Penn Station to Schenectady, how could Hayden suddenly improvise his lines to engineer an overtake? Elias, despite his failings, won the race. (And the year-end title, too.)


Marc Marquez has said he trains by flat tracking because it makes him comfortable in close proximity to other riders. (The way Marquez punts MotoGP riders out of his path hints at his formidable short-track skills.) But what does close mean? It means Marquez is forced to improvise. Flat track is a drunken stampede to the washroom at halftime. You’re pushed, leaned on, and pried out of the way. The line you’d like to take is blocked by another rider or two. You try a new line. It works until you discover a pothole. And dirt is always changing. The best flat trackers constantly move, looking for traction, for any kind of advantage. 


But if freedom to deviate from the script is to be desired, how do we learn how to do it? Mary Lou Williams, on Piano Jazz, gives an answer; practice. And more practice. Fine. But what about the northern Europeans and northern North Americans ripped out of the saddle eight months at a go by winter? How do you practice in January? 


Without an ability to practice as often as we’d like, we’re left to cultivate intellectual awareness as a stand-in for muscle memory. When I’m driving, I watch the habits of motorcyclists. Very few monitor mirrors. In light traffic on a multi-lane road, with the option to find a calm space to themselves, many riders sit in a car’s blind spot. Most motorcyclists are bad. Or lazy. Or both.  


Before you ride a twisty road, picture in your mind a blind corner with gravel. What will you do? Do you have a plan? Or what if you find half-hidden in the shade of a tree a dark green canoe on the road that’s just fallen from a pickup? Or a deer running straight down the middle of the road toward you? Or a turtle the diameter of a trashcan lid in your wheel tracks? Improvisation has, as its root, imagination. For a motorcyclist, imagining the worst may save you from the unimaginable. 

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