The most dreaded question I ever hear (and I hear it often): "Oh, you play music... so what do you sound like?"
And I say, "Well... uh... what night are you gonna hear me?"
I constantly struggle with defining my sound. Most people seem to want a quick, less-than-four-word description that makes it easy to buy or sell. But as a full-time performer in essentially one market, I have to stay diverse and versatile to keep from burning myself (and you the listener!) out on the same old stuff night after night.
Even within a particular venue or with a consistent ensemble, I still try to find a way to keep myself, my fellow players, the venues' staff members that put up with us time after time, and the crowd on its toes. This may cause obvious issues with marketability, but I think the Swiss-army-knife approach has become a definition in itself.
My approach has been to try to find a balance between all the genres and styles that I love. I think of each of those styles as a rubber band that's wrapped around me, and I'm sort of suspended in the middle of a web of rubber bands. It's like my own personal string theory. (C'mon, I'm a musician, not a physicist -- gimme a little creative license here...)
Then sometimes it feels like those rubber bands squawk up, saying "I need to be stretched." Lately, due to a number of circumstances -- listening habits morphing a bit, venues or events needing certain music, or particular instruments that really call out for some playing time -- that squawkiest rubber band has been jazz.
And even within jazz, I see countless very defined avenues to explore. It can be an intimidating and sometimes frustrating genre to work within, where staunch traditionalists expect one thing while the heart of jazz itself, based on improvisation and innovation, demands another. Though my musical abilities have progressed steadily over the last few years, seemingly even the last few months, I find myself bouncing from the learner to teacher role within every set of jazz I play. Always present are those that possess skills far beyond my own, and those that look to me for new ideas and guidance. Even the songs themselves possess this duality. I occasionally lose myself in one chord progression for an hour or more during a practice session. Again, the need for balance is clear, even in the midst of stretching toward one extreme of my musical universe.
This makes me think of another visual system to express my view of music in my psuedo-scientist mind mode: that from any hub (be it stylistic, genre-driven, instrument-family-based, ethnic or nationalistic, et al) if one travels down any spoke, that spoke will lead to another hub, so on and so on in an endless path toward not just refinement, but to ultimate specialization. An infinite regression, if you will. (I tell you -- it's turtles all the way down!) Pretty soon you're playing ONE note on ONE instrument for exactly the same duration in the same club at the same time on the same night every week... OK, maybe that's going a bit too far, but do you see the same dilemma I see in that pattern?
So my path has led me to stay as open to all paths as possible. Learn at least a little bit from all that music has to offer. Hoping that those who DO specialize in a certain genre or style recognize my respect and love for ALL music. And hoping my forays into their chosen realm of expertise aren't viewed as insulting or somehow denigrating to their efforts and art form, but rather as an opportunity to share that expertise with a very willing learner.
Another defining element in my universe: YOU. Yes, you, reader / listener / co-conspirator. Your attendance and attention at a performance defines my sound in that moment as much as any other influence I can think of. That balance between musician and listener never falters -- it's always the highest common participation between the two. It's the old adage: "You get what you give." Lend an ear. Stretch a rubber band. Tune a spoke. Stack a turtle. Define, refine, be fine.