The point that I’m making is that it’s not a set of rules. There “is” a certain amount of taste involved. You try to recognize who you are and who you’re playing with. If you know the person who’s doing the writing, “that” can give you a clue as to what you can do. And of course there are times when my only modifications to music are those of touch and phrasing, things that most people don’t notice until someone else tries to do it, and they realize something is missing. The same notes are here in both cases, but it’s not the same. And those are the little things we try to learn to do as performers, which lend personality, and character, and individuality to what we do.
These are aspects of a sublime expression that people just can’t put their finger on without a lot of analysis. They may not know what it is, but they are aware when it’s missing. It’s the way toward, unfortunately, a great deal of anonymity, of people essentially saying, for example, I love the way Anthony Jackson plays, but I’m not sure why. It just works when he does it. So that’s sort of what lies behind all of this. It’s trying to make the music better, hopefully, through my own contribution, and I’ll do that if it’s asked for, and accepted. But even if it’s not, still being able to put your mark there, putting some aspect of individuality that brings more of the music out even when nobody really knows what’s going on is what I strive for.
Jake: Do you feel that door is open most of the time with the artists you’ve been working with? I remember a story from way back when you were recording a record for Chaka Khan, and I believe Arif Mardin was producing, and they granted you the opportunity to go back and re-record your tracks if you so desired.
Anthony: Yes, they gave me three months.
Jake: Is that strictly a luxury of the past, or do you feel that kind of creative door is still open to you or other players under certain circumstances these days?
Anthony: Well, consider this—here’s a good example of what’s going on and what you can find yourself involved in. In the case of this particular record, we put down rough tracks, and I was supposed to do the whole record, but I had conflicts. So I shared the Naughty album, which was Chaka’s second record, with Marcus Miller, Willie Weeks, and Will Lee. I was on most things, but I didn’t do them all. And for the things that I knew I was on, we had acceptable rhythm tracks, in fact everybody loved what they did, except for me. For whatever reason, I knew that there was a lot more that I could be doing, not necessarily more in terms of playing more notes, but simply a more focused and refined approach. It was the first time I was in this position. I asked both Arif and Chaka, who I was very close with, if I could redo my tracks, and they said go ahead, take your time, recompose your parts—-we don’t think you need to, but go ahead. We’ll call you when we’ve done everything else and we’re ready to mix.
And I found something very, very interesting happening. For most of the alterations that I made, not all, but most, I had solved problems, which is the only way I can describe it. I listened to one of the redone parts while I was driving in my car one night and I thought, you know, this is really not what I thought it would be. There’s something else going on there. I realized that I had been confronted with problems. They were problems in my performance, problems in my conception. And what made this album so important to me was it was the first time that I solved musical problems in a way not directly related to anything I had done before. Basically what I’m saying is that I remember sitting in the car thinking, so this is it—this is what a style is. I remember going, wow, that’s really something original. I didn’t borrow that from anybody—it wasn’t like I had heard somebody do that on a record, it was something I tried out, and does it work, yes it does. These were things that I came up with alone, and I think for any player, of any experience, when you realize that you have solved a musical problem, by yourself, that’s when you realize a style is developing. Not necessarily mature, not usable in many instances, perhaps just in this instance, and it was a sign that I was beginning to become more autonomous. I was beginning to take the training wheels off the bicycle.
That was a great lesson, the turning point for me. At that point I realized that I could stand on my own feet and make my own conception fit what the composer, or the artist, or the producer wanted. If you listen to ten performances of let’s say a Beethoven piano sonata…. ten virtuoso pianists’, all world class, performing the same piece, you realize they are all reading the same notes, they’re all faithful to the same notes, and yet they all sound different. It’s difficult to explain to people what’s going on there. Someone may tie you down and say, I want this done exactly as I wrote it, which is not a smart thing to say in my opinion. The written musical alphabet is not capable of more than a certain amount of subtlety… you can get notes, and note values, and some dynamics. It’s difficult to put phrasing together. It’s difficult to put very subtle highly refined expressive instructions in the language of music. It requires something from the heart—a means of synthesizing, and collating, and mixing up and stirring, and then taking a taste and deciding if it needs more balance… a little bit of this, a little bit of that before it tastes right. It’s something that comes from experience and comes from a need to do this, to perfect something. If you listen to what someone has done, and you see exactly what’s on the page, and you listened to exactly what they played on the piano, you begin to hear that, and then immediately a thin haze of gold or silver, something refined and beautiful and wonderful settles around it. You can’t write it down, but its there. It’s the way you hold your instrument, the way you touch it, the way your fingers slide off and skip over and through the strings. It’s a very romantic, very lyrical, very esoteric way of playing.