April 11, 2009

Gifts to Be Appreciated

I don't like the word diversity, at least not the way we typically use it, because it has become a bit hackneyed. I do admire, however, that people are blessed with a wide range of what I can only call spiritual gifts. One of the gifts I appreciate most is the ability to see the world for its elegant mathematical symmetry and beauty. For example, my father-in-law, who worked most of his life as a carpenter, can look at a blueprint of a house and walk through it in his mind. To him, not only are the walls there to touch and see, but so are all the endless possibilities.

My son, Matthew, the physics PhD candidate, has a similar gift that causes me no small amount of envy. He was once invited to represent San Francisco in a math bowl. The invitation was based primarily upon his performance in a written test. After he'd taken it, I asked about the test and he recalled a few of the problems. One apparently gave the various dimensions to a cone and a cylinder and asked what the volume of their intersection would be at a certain location. I asked Matt if he'd been able to answer the question. His reply: That's one I did in my head. I wanted to cry--why wasn't I given that ability?

Another way in which some people see geometry where others don't is music. My youngest boy, Aaron, is studying at the Berklee College of music, where he is the most recent Jimmy Lyon scholar. I hate going to concerts with him, because he will invariably turn to me when I'm thinking the performance is most interesting or inspiring and he'll say something like: "Did you notice the use of the tri-tone substitution over the dominant seventh?" I shake my head, because I don't even understand the question. My point here is that he sees the music in a very computational way that enhances, rather than diminishes, its artistic value. As a jazz trumpet player, he can look at a sheet of chord changes--no notes, just the chords--and understand the endless possibilities that can be drawn out of them. And what he and I appreciate most about jazz is that the best improvisers don't always follow prescribed rules (e.g., only the set of X notes are to be played over Y chord) but will violate them occasionally in ways that are ingenious and add color and character to the music.

Select the following link to hear a performance of Toshiko Akiyoshi's Long Yellow Road. My son solos three minutes into the piece--he's the trumpet player second from the left in back. The performance occurred a year ago when Aaron was still in high school, but I think it holds up.

Happy listening. Try to pick out all the tri-tone substitutions.


Matt's brain said...


your kids are so talented. I bet people are really jealous.

Alan Bahr said...

Yeah, until they realize that my kids are a bunch of smart alecs.

This Player Here said...

Well, you know they say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. And who is that good lookin' dude in that picture? Man, a looker.