Note: I prefer not to write about personal issues, but this topic may, I think, have broader appeal. Musicians are athletes (on some level), and those elements of our skill set are eventually destined to fail. I’ve also found that, after 20-30 years of activity in a singular pursuit, many artists struggle with issues of relevance and authenticity. For me, these two issues are intertwined, hence this post.
In 2006, I noticed a bump on the inside of the third finger of my left hand. Eventually, I went to a hand doctor and was diagnosed with Dupuytren’s Disease, (also known as Dupuytren’s Contraction). While troublesome, it was not affecting my ability to perform, so I basically just monitored it and hoped for the best. A few weeks ago it started hurting. My reach in the left hand started to feel awkward and unpredictable. As a result, I cancelled performances for the very first time in my life, and I think that my days as a freelance player are over. To play freelance, you need to be able to shift styles quickly and confidently, and play all styles at a high level. I am not confident I can do that at the level to which I am accustomed.
To be honest though, my interest in playing pickup gigs, fakebook tunes, etc. (which I always enjoyed immensely) had already been waning. I’m sure that this has probably been palpable to my bandmates during the 4-5 years leading up to my diagnosis. As a result, the disease started to feel like a metaphor for my growing disinterest.
The turning point for me was my performance in 2007 with the Grand Rapids Symphony (they commissioned me to arrange three concertos from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for jazz trio with violin soloist). I realized how hungry I was to do more of this kind of playing and writing, and how unsatisfying the pickup work was. Shortly after that, a new group, Ütaké, formed. I was thrilled to be collaborating with an old friend of mine, Rob Foster, and another friend of mine, Ric Troll. At about the same time, I also started performing with the Grand Valley New Music Ensemble. The die was cast–I was moving away from the traditional jazz genre and towards contemporary improvisation. The strange thing was that I found that my ability to play the traditional jazz literature was deteriorating, and it had nothing to do with technique. Perhaps I was suffering from some kind of artistic ADD, but the truth is that I just didn’t care that much anymore, and I couldn’t manufacture an interest that was no longer there.
This whole issue goes deeper, but that’s a bit of a tangent so I’ll stop here. Suffice to say that there are far worse diseases to have, and with improvisatory music one creates within one’s means, which I will continue to do.