Inspiration and exhalation… fresh from Stanford University

Posted on September 16, 2011 by lee

Two weeks ago I embarked on a journey to Stanford University, California, with an open mind and a blank musical canvas.  There, I had the absolute privilege of learning from and working with four of the most inspiring people and musicians I’ve ever come across:  Rebecca Martin, Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens (working together as ‘Tillery’) and Anthony Wilson. These artists are all incredible in their own right (details on each of them below), and to have them all together was a Mecca to which I was a willing pilgrim.   I took the songwriting workshop stream with Tillery, and the composition stream with Anthony Wilson, and both were groundbreaking. Here’s what I learned:

Music is inspiration and exhalation.

The silence is as important as the sound. Like breathing. Like the yin and the yang. One cannot exist without the other.  After decades of musical passion, dedication and practice – this is the simple lesson that keeps returning. Breathe. Inspire.. inhale… expire… exhale.  Space. Sound. Space…. I learned this lesson most of all from Gretchen Parlato. She is a master of space and sound. She waits, she caresses a single note, a single sound, delivers it with purity and intent, and then…. waits.

Authenticity is what matters.

Speaking the truth, from the heart, is the core of human connection in music. This incredible palette of colours, shapes and textures with which to paint pictures from the abstract to the detailed, from the sophisticated to the simple and raw, provides the artist with endless choices. It is the heart that determines what to choose, what to leave in and importantly – what to leave out. Authenticity is not something you can ‘look for’, such as  ‘I’m trying to find my real voice’. Authenticity is not opening your mouth unless you have something real to say in the first place (note to self – all of these are notes to self – having said that it’s not ‘all about me’ which is why I’m sharing!!). Rebecca Martin and her music are about as real as it gets. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is for show. Every note, every word, is devastatingly, searingly and beautifully authentic.  I learned that ‘warts and all’ is the most powerful and beautiful, from Rebecca.

Simplicity is art.

Often it is the simplest of ideas that creates beauty in music. Among his vast repertoire of sometimes complex songs, Sting has talked about ‘Fields of Gold’ being a prime example of how one simple idea is often the thing that moves people.  At Stanford I saw a concert by Bill Frissell, who takes the simplest motifs – be they melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic, and explores them to their absolute fulfillment. Most of all I learned this lesson of simplicity from Anthony Wilson. He played some of the most beautiful music, and asked us as composition students to write, using simple ideas, forms, structures as a jumping off point. And I found myself writing, quickly, prolifically, and most importantly – with meaning.

Difference and Sameness is the richness of music – and life.

At Stanford, I reflected very deeply on the concepts of difference and sameness. I love you because you’re different. I don’t love you because you’re different. I love you because you’re the same. I don’t love you because you’re the same. Difference and sameness cause both tension and release, love and anger, hurt and sadness, joy and fulfillment. In musical composition, we are forever striking a balance between what is the same and what is different. Which ideas will I repeat? Which new ideas will I introduce? How much sameness until it becomes repetitive, how much difference until it becomes obscure and alienating? I learned this lesson in Anthony Wilson’s class, and also very powerfully from the heart, mouth and hands of Becca Stevens. Becca’s music traverses such diverse musical ground, all the while giving us enough ‘sameness’ to connect with it, and enough ‘difference’ to keep exciting and surprising us. At a personal level, exploring difference and sameness among the ‘Tillery’ women – three such different artists – was a beautiful demonstration of this ‘Tapestry’, to steal from Carole King.  Difference and sameness was also such a significant lesson of our songwriting groups and the experience of co-writing, which was both challenging and liberating on so many levels (mostly a liberation of attachment and the ego!) .

I wrote a song about this while at Stanford, called ‘Different’, reflecting on both the pain and joy difference brings us in our human relationships (and in music).  I actually left the week with three new tunes, a full heart, a load of inspiration, some precious new friends… and having finally fulfilled my lifetime dream of being a sorority blonde (JOKE!!!). My dorm was even called Xanadu… (the irony is not lost on me)… “your dreams will come true, for you, in Xa-na-duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” *insert white thigh high rollerskates here, how very jazz*



Rebecca Martin – an industry veteran of eight albums and New York Times Critic’s Choice award for ‘The Growing Season’, Rebecca is a highly respected singer-songwriter and interpreter of songs, working with the best in the biz in the jazz world and also the world outside jazz.

Gretchen Parlato – now a big star in the world of jazz, winner of the 2004 Thelonius Monk Institute Vocal Jazz Competition and an alumni of that institute, the accolades and reviews keep rolling in for this inventive artist that pushes the boundaries of genre. Her third album ‘The Lost and Found’ is making waves around the world, as her previous two unique records did.

Becca Stevens – already known for her outstanding collaborations with prestigious musicians such as Taylor Eigsti and Brad Mehldau, Becca has won the hearts of critics and fans alike in her own right and is in high demand as a writer, performer and educator. Her latest album ‘Weightless’ has received rave reviews for Becca’s sheer talent and the way her music traverses musical and lyrical boundaries so seamlessly and excitingly.

Anthony Wilson – Anthony Wilson is one of the leading jazz musicians of his generation.  Known for his imagination, maturity, and depth, the guitarist/composer/arranger has recorded eight critically-acclaimed solo albums since 1997, including his Grammy-nominated self-titled debut album, 2006’s “Power of Nine,” which was included in The New Yorker’s roundup of the year’s top ten jazz albums, and “Nova,” a widely-lauded collaboration with Brazilian guitarist/composer Chico Pinheiro. A sensitive and gifted accompanist as well as a formidable soloist, Anthony Wilson has been an indispensable member of Diana Krall’s quartet since he joined her in 2001 for a series of performances at Paris’ Olympia Theater that were collected on the Grammy-winning CD/DVD “Live In Paris” (Verve) .