Shelly Berg plays the jazz piano as if riding a horse in a competitive race, bobbing up and down on the bench like a jockey, his feet constantly tapping and moving, his torso sometimes hunched as if performing needlework in poor light, other times his head back and rocking as if on the downhill of a rollercoaster, as if in a trance, pulling every last note from the instrument.
He shared visible joy and enthusiasm for his art with a group of 50 students Saturday at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador in Oro Valley, before Berg and "some of the greatest musicians in the world" played the 11th annual Jazz Legends concert that evening.
Berg and his partners explained jazz and its language, and how they can play songs they've never played before, with people they've never played with before, and make it all sound so natural.
After performing "Namely You," trombonist John Allred, labeled by Berg "one of the greatest virtuosos ever to play this instrument," explained that tenor sax man Houston Person was "playing melody," so Allred and trumpeter Scotty Barnhart were "trying to come up with some kind of counterpoint."
"I'd never played the tune before," said Barnhart, the Count Basie Orchestra veteran who teaches at Florida State University.
Barnhart picked up on the tempo, then he and Allred were "trying to play harmony underneath" Person. "It's layers, and it's all together. This music is very difficult to do."
Chuck Berghofer, "the dean of LA bass players," looked at it a little differently. "The b-a-s-s is still the b-a-s-e of the group, the heartbeat and the cement of the group," Berghofer said. He could watch Berg's left hand on the piano to anticipate the next change. "He shows me on the piano," Berghofer said. "If you get too fancy, it screws everything up. If you want to be a real soloist, play something else."
"I always try to stay away from the melody," said drummer Frank Capp, another prime player in Los Angeles. Capp "listens first of all to the bass." His right hand and Berghofer's index finger need to be "right together, or we're not going to groove." And he listens to the horn players "to see if they're really making it or not."
"It's layers that have to fit together to create this tapestry," Berg said. "The more you can relax and hear everything, the more opportunity you have to pick where you go."
Basic harmonic idioms make up all the thousands of jazz tunes, Berg said.
"When you learn these, you can quickly get to a point where you can learn all songs," he said. "You understand the DNA. The Yin is they're all the same. You learn the idioms. The Yang is they're not the same. You learn the language, and you learn what that language means. That's the beautiful Yin and Yang of doing this thing we're doing."
"It's a very spiritual thing, once you get into that zone," bassist Berghofer said. "When you're actually playing, you don't think, it just happens. It's almost like magic." It's important to use the ear. "What you feel, and what your ear tells you to do."
Barnhart tries to remember what people play, and bring it forward himself. He tries to pick out the note of a car horn. "Listening is just as important as practicing," he said. "My goal is just to get better and better."
Might they get bored, playing the same music over and over? No.
"One of the great things, we are required to fall in love with the same things we know over and over again," Berg said. As with his wife, "you fall in love over and over again."
"Sometimes, I don't have any control over what comes out, but I'll try to change it next time," trombonist Allred said.
"You can play a tune in a completely different way, and you have the freedom to make it more interesting," trumpet player Barnhart said. "Change the key, change the tempo, change the musicians."
"Your style is an expression of the rejection or acceptance of influences," Berg said. "Some of it you discard, some of it you accept."
"Listen to a ton of music, and not just jazz," Barnhart said.
Berg, who is dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, remembers his first gig in Los Angeles. He was paid $40, and got a $55 parking ticket. "That's the life of a musician, but I had fun," he said.
"The most important thing is to follow your passion," vocalist Barbara Morrison said.
When the group plays "All the Things You Are," students adjust in their chairs to watch Berg play and move. When the song is finished, the applause is loud and long.
In a room with young sax players afterward, Person broke out the oldest-looking, most worn instrument of the bunch.
"You've got to think in time," he told the young people. "You've got to get on the tempo. Practice your scales, and on time."
He wanted players to move their feet. "You can't play with anybody else if you can't play in time." He put them through their scales.
"I know this is tedious, but it's important," he said. "You're not going to be Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, a great performing artist without that. I understand. I was a kid once too, believe it or not. I wanted to play melodies, I didn't care about scales. You've got to be disciplined."
He gave a "yeah" when the group played scales well.
"We sacrifice a lot, because it's a lonely thing," Person said. "You've got to be in a room and play it. Just work on that, every day."