Developing a Musical Palate (from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”)

The great documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” follows the life and work of Jiro Ono, considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef, who runs a restaurant in Japan. At the beginning of the film, he talks about developing a sensitive palate and sense of taste.

“In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?

When I think of someone with a highly acute sense of taste and smell, the first person I think of is the great French chef Joel Robuchon. I wish I were as sensitive as he. I have a very good sense of smell, but he’s on another level. His sensitivity is very high. If I had his tongue and nose, I could probably make even better food.”

Let’s start with his first quote from above and translate it (in my personal interpretation, anyway) to music.

In order to make great music, you must listen to great music. The technical components of your playing are important, but you need to develop your ears–your musical taste–so you’re capable of discerning good from bad (or great from merely adequate). Without good musical taste, you can’t make good music. If your sense of musicality is lower (i.e. less-highly developed) than that of your audience, what kind of impression do you expect to make on them when you play?

Often in lessons, students will come in and play a musical exercise for me, perhaps a solo transcription or a stylistic coordination exercise, or something similar. Everything might sound more or less “correct”, but to me it sounds a bit mechanical, stiff or uninspired. For an example, let’s take jazz coordination. I may have the student isolate their ride cymbal beat for me. I can always tell that if their ride cymbal sounds dull and lifeless, they’re not operating with a musical reference point. They’re just playing “academically”, as if reading the “ding-dinga-ding” out of a book. It’s pretty clear they haven’t done enough listening to the style they’re attempting to learn. I will then prescribe 8 to 10 various jazz recordings, from Count Basie to Miles Davis to John Coltrane for a good primer for jazz time playing, so they learn to play time, strong and driving, as opposed to simply beating on the ride cymbal. There’s a subtle yet massive difference between the two. The difference is listening. Once you’ve developed an aural reference point, it can be conceptualized much more easily. Put another way, you can’t truly play something until you hear it in your head first.

Later on, after some listening and study, they are able to play a nice, swinging ride cymbal beat. However, it might not fit in every musical context. One student in particular had a very hard-swinging approach to playing jazz time. Definitely a Count Basie-type of feel, and he often would acknowledge how much he enjoyed playing in that style. This worked great when that particular approach was called for, but not so well in other contexts, such as in a piano trio playing more modern music. I told him he needed to expand his approach and start listening to certain recordings in that style, such as the Bill Evans Trio with Paul Motian, Chick Corea’s trio with Roy Haynes, and the Keith Jarrett Trio with Jack DeJohnette. The ride cymbal feels (as well as the approaches to brush playing) displayed on those recordings, the phrasing of the comping and the overall approaches of even those three drummers mentioned display a markedly different musical paradigm, even within the realm of “jazz swing”. Checking out recordings from those groups helped the student deepen his musical palate.

As a listening exercise, one could listen to the approaches (especially time/ride cymbal) of Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, “Papa” Jo Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and Bill Stewart (just to name a wide sampling of a few of the greats–no intention of a “complete list” here) and compare and contrast. One would find a world of difference between each and every drummer and discover no two ride cymbal feels to be terribly similar.

The same can be done, of course, with some of the great rock drummers, such as Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Mitch Mitchell, Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Steve Gadd and Jeff Porcaro. They all had amazing time and a unique voice that brought character and color to the music they played. When your listening base becomes more broad and diverse, you will be able to draw from a much deeper understanding of music when you play than ever before.

Now let’s take Jiro’s second point. “When I think of someone with a highly acute sense of taste and smell, the first person I think of is the great French chef Joel Robuchon. I wish I were as sensitive as he. I have a very good sense of smell, but he’s on another level. His sensitivity is very high. If I had his tongue and nose, I could probably make even better food.”

Here is someone who has studied, practiced and created food of the highest quality all his life, and he has the ability to recognize someone who has a sense of taste that is apparently more highly developed than his. At the time the documentary was made, he was 85 years old, and he still aspired to develop his sense more deeply. His sense of taste and smell guides him in his quest to make great food.

On one of the occasions I had the good fortune to hang out with the incomparable drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, we were talking about various things, and Peter Erskine’s name came up in conversation. Vinnie proceeded to tell me he had recently seen Peter performing at a club in Los Angeles, and he shook his head, marveling at Erskine’s greatness. “Just brilliant,” he said. “To me, calling someone ‘brilliant’ carries a heavy stamp, but Peter is one of those few guys that have earned it. There’s so much music coming out of that guy, it’s incredible. It just comes out of his pores.” He offered similar praises for other drummers he admired, such as Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro and Tony Williams. I doubt I need to persuade most readers that Vinnie is widely regarded as one of the greatest drummers of his–or just about any–generation. And he still shakes his head with wide-eyed wonder at the level of taste and musicianship displayed by others. That’s one thing the greats all have in common: they all continue to be inspired by greatness. It’s not something that ever becomes passe or goes out of style.

When we find recordings, performances or musicians that leave a deep impression on us, the effects tend to last a long time and shape our musicianship. I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard certain recordings or saw particular musicians I’d admired perform live. I’ll always remember how I felt and how inspired I was. Those experiences tend to expand our point of view more widely than we had previously thought, and deepen our musical palate.

The most important asset a musician can possess is a deep understanding of music; in other words, a highly-developed musical palate.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend this wonderful documentary.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix:

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on iTunes:

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