I have often compared serious cooking to the free-form interpretations of jazz musicians. Since at the core of jazz you can always find the foundations of a melody there is a baseline of discipline that allows the improvisation of jazz music to mimic the feelings of the musician. So too there is discipline and improvisation in the kitchen.
“Improvisation is too good to leave to chance.”
I was struck this week by the significance of another great musician who passed away far too early. Walter Becker of Steely Dan was a masterful musician who understood the cadence and the hook necessary to bring a solid song from good to memorable in the same way that an accomplished cook or chef understands how to drive the foundations of solid cooking to another level with cadence and a hook – in this case the cadence is the sequence of steps in cooking and the hook is that splash of unique flavor signature and the sizzle of presentation. Good music becomes great in the hands of a comfortable master, as does a plate of food transition to something that can become a benchmark experience in the hands of an accomplished cook.
Steely Dan created music that was deep and edgy, yet fun and catchy through their dedication to syncopation, tone, perfection and interjection of jazz undertones that gave musicians a chance to contribute in a unique way. Walter Becker with Donald Fagan wrote catchy and edgy lyrics and Walter added those foundations that gave their music longevity. Bringing in a rotating cadre of incredibly accomplished musicians to his team – Walter, just like a chef, was able to create musical experiences and comfortable shuffles that made Steely Dan a musicians band.
So here is the fun part – when you listen to the following sampling of musicians who, like great chefs, have total mastery of their instruments, make sure that you turn up the volume and listen intently for the similarities to a night on the kitchen line when everything is in sync, when everyone plays their station like these musicians play their instruments, and feel what it’s like to be in the zone.
“The rules of improvisation apply beautifully to life. Never say no – you have to be interested to be interesting, and your job is to support your partners.”
First is Bernard Purdie who most people may never have heard of, but real musicians know Bernard to be one of the greatest studio drummers around. He worked with a who’s who list of extraordinary musicians and in this case with Steely Dan on many of their most memorable tunes. He convinced Walter Becker to let him add the Bernard Shuffle to songs on the albums – Gaucho and Aja. Watch and listen how he explains his skill and think of how there are so many connections to the mastery a great line cook displays.
Bernard Purdie – The Bernard Shuffle
Next see how Walter Becker and company brings one of their compositions to life in this live performance on the Letterman Show. I am always inspired by how similar the chemistry of a tight band can parallel how a kitchen line works in total symmetry.
Steely Dan – Josie
Stanley Clarke is, in my mind, one of the top five bass players of all time. He is a serious, professionally trained musician who is able to meld with his instrument as is evident in this live solo on upright bass. Think of how a cook or chef is able to find this same sense of oneness with his or her knives. Watch a butcher handle a boning knife while breaking down a primal section of an animal or a fish butcher fillet an 80 pound tuna with absolute ease, or marvel at a prep cook slicing a 50 pound bag of onions in the blink of an eye or masterfully flute a mushroom for steak garnish. Mastery is mastery and in all cases, musician or cook, understanding process and foundations first is critical. How the chef or the player bends this process to create that unique signature is pure jazz. Listen to Stanley play from his heart and soul.
Stanley Clarke solo
Finally, just as contemporary cooks and chefs continue to experiment with how food might be viewed, handled, manipulated, and presented, so too are there musicians who use the essence of jazz to take their craft in new directions that go beyond what others may think is possible. Jeff Beck is quite possibly the most prolific guitar player around. He has been able to merge blues, rock, jazz, and even classical influences into his playing and in the process become so unique that others shake their heads in wonder. He has been referred to as a master of tone. I look at Beck as the musical equivalent of Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz. Hang on as you listen to this incredible live performance with Tal Wilkenfeld who is considered the best female bass player around.
Jeff Beck and Tal Wilkenfeld
Regardless of the musical genre or the approach towards interpretive cuisine musicians and chefs all work from a pure understanding and appreciation of the foundations of their craft. Their total understanding of their craft and their tools allows them to adapt the jazz formula of improvisation creating a signature that is truly one of a kind.
Walter Becker was a musician who could inspire anyone, in any profession to dedicate themselves – seeking perfection and the comfort that comes from getting close to that goal. Steely Dan’s music was all of that – perfection and comfort. As cooks and chefs we can find inspiration in many things – art, nature, literature, and music are just a few examples of those components of life that can help a cook find his or her niche and unique expression.
I would encourage any cook to refrain from seeking inspiration only from those within the specific field of cooking, but rather align with the vision and dedication of others outside of the kitchen that have made excellence an integral part of their identity.
Rest in Peace Walter Becker and thanks for the inspiration.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
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