Perfection, the greatest enemy of jazz

"Perfection is the enemy of excellence' (...)
"Perfection is always one step away from perfection'(...)
'If I had waited until I was perfect, I would never have written a word' (Margaret Atwood)



Everyone hopes to be perfect one day or another. Playing with perfect intonation, perfect lines, perfect sound... but what if we thought instead that the very idea of perfection is what holds us back? This aspiration for perfection can not only damage our daily practice, it can take away the fun and pleasure of discovery, the whole learning process.

Playing jazz is one of the most individual aspirations we can embark on. Let's think for a moment, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans... each individual is absolutely original, unique.

But often the way jazz is taught is anything but individualistic, as if there is a 'standard' way of playing and thinking jazz, with universally accepted norms of what is 'good' and what is 'bad'. That every chord requires a certain scale, every instrument must play a certain way, and every jazz musician must approach music in a similar way.

But the idea of perfection, is exactly that: an idea, created and supported by those around us, our influences, our teachers, friends, and above all ourselves.

Over time, this idea of perfection in the sense of sound, technique, and even what jazz itself is, tends to direct and limit the way we approach music.


We do not have this innate idea in our minds, at some point we get curious about what perfection might be...

We play jazz for the energy it gives us, because we feel carried away by the music, but as we continue with the study, analysis, and rationalisation, the flame stops burning as before.

It all starts with the first obsession with one of our musical heroes...

Imitating, copying, taking apart piece by piece one of our favourite musicians is essential to the learning process, but we often lose ourselves in the musician himself, elevating him to such a level of greatness that we can never hope to achieve.

Our musical hero then acquires this image of perfection in our minds, and everything we do with our instrument, from the search for timbre to lines, phrases, timing, we have to measure it against him. We have created this idea of the perfect musician, who does everything the only 'right way', and we are far from it.

But the idea of perfection does not stop there. As we study the technique, the sound, the repertoire of the instrument, an image of instrumental perfection comes to light, where we fix in our minds what it is to have 'great technique' or a 'beautiful sound', even though these are part of individual interpretation. For example, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans both have great technique and a beautiful sound, but they are completely different, to the point where they are recognisable by a single note or chord.

We go so far as to construct an idea in our minds of what it means to play jazz in a 'perfect' way. We have this idea of jazz perfection, which commands everything we do, from the songs, to the solos we transcribe, to the general attitude, to the very meaning of 'being a jazz musician' or simply 'being a musician'.

All these ideas of perfection we create - consciously or unconsciously - for a reason: to help us understand what we like and what we don't like, to bring us closer to our ideal, which could theoretically be something useful.

The problem arises when we are so attached to our idea of perfection that we reject our individuality, creativity, satisfaction and pursuit, which leads us to become discouraged and lose interest.

It is this obsession with perfection that sends us straight into a wall, into a cage of limitations and destroying the very engine that should drive us to learn, with enjoyment as a rewarding experience.



So how do we recognise this obsession and how can we overcome it?



Learning from our musical heroes is fantastic, and probably the most direct way of learning the jazz language. By playing over the recordings of the masters, we absorb the details that cannot be communicated verbally or from a written page.

Let us use our heroes to inspire us, to motivate us, to understand the inner workings of jazz improvisation. Let us use them to discover, define, and create our musical personality.

However, if we feel that we are becoming obsessed, if we feel that we want to become like them rather than like ourselves, it is time to look in the mirror.



  1. We are consciously different from our heroes - We make decisions, choosing to play differently from our models. For example, if they play a song in the high register, we play it in the low register. If they play loud, we play slow. If they play fast, we play slow. By moving away from their choices, we can make our own.

  2. Let us strive to create and define our musical ego - Let us get used to learning from our models as if we were learning from ourselves. Let us ask ourselves, for example: What do I prefer about his playing? What do I dislike? What would I change? What can I add? We often take whatever they play as gold, just because their have played it. Rather, we build something on what we like, let go of what we don't like, and make the material we discover our own.

  3. We experiment and are confident - We constantly ask ourselves: how can I take what they are doing and go further?

We use what we learn from the masters to stand on the shoulders of giants, not to stand in their shadow.


We don't have to do things the same way as our models. Their approach shows a single way of doing things, amidst a boundless heath of possibilities. We learn from the models, but we make our own decisions about what kind of musician we want to be, we consciously go against the current.



One of the aspects of jazz improvisation that can easily capture us is an impressive instrumental technique. When we hear a bass player like Niels Pedersen, or a saxophonist like Michael Brecker, we think: "I need to play like that! I need that technique!".

Or sometimes it is a little more subtle.

When I started studying at the conservatory, I was taught that there were a number of skills that you had to achieve to be a good double bass player. For example, clean sound, flawless bow, adherence to the string, perfect intonation... and these are objectively necessary things. Other things, such as constantly vibrating any sound, are not at all and are part of an aesthetic that is in my opinion totally anti-musical, although accepted by most musicians.

Learning to play in tune with a clean sound, knowing scales and arpeggios etc. is a necessary step and gives an idea of what it means to 'have a good instrumental technique'. It is a good starting point.

Often, however, this is not seen as a starting point, but as a set of rules more important than anything else, to be adhered to to the bitter end, and as in the case of studying our models, we can easily become obsessed with achieving this instrumental technical standard. Playing with perfect intonation, playing with perfect technique, playing with perfect sound.

There is a huge difference between spending time in daily study to improve intonation and sound and being obsessed with MUST playing the instrument perfectly.

In jazz, perhaps no one plays perfect in an absolute sense, what a classical musician aspires to do. Often in jazz, intonation is imperfect, the high register is a little shrill, or articulation can be unclear.

Jazz is not perfect music. Our models are not perfect, and they often allow themselves to make mistakes.

Although a jazz musician studies hard every day the technique of his instrument, intonation, sound, etc. in performances these aspects of music take second place to taking risks, telling a story, creating 'musical atmospheres'. These are elements of jazz that serve to communicate with the audience.


Do not fear mistakes, there are none (Miles Davis)

(Don't be afraid of mistakes, they don't exist)


We go beyond the (mistaken) notion that there is only one correct way to play our instrument, or that we are not allowed to make mistakes. We are playing jazz, not auditioning for the La Scala Orchestra....


  1. We stay at our level - Everyone starts as a beginner, that is a fact. We try to be comfortable with our instrumental level, but we try to make continuous progress by improving our instrumental technique. We should not get frustrated if we cannot play as loud, or as fast, or as articulate. Technique and sound are improved day by day, in small steps.

  2. We have the right to make mistakes - Jazz is haunted by so-called 'mistakes'. These are part of what makes this music great. We don't need to play 'safe' all the time. The goal is to improvise and be 'on the tune', so let's learn to 'let go' by focusing on our inner voice, take the risk, and try to play what we feel inside. It's not about playing our instrument with absolute perfection, it's about expressing our inner voice, sending a message, telling a story.

  3. We approach our instrument as a lifelong journey - We have our whole lives ahead of us to improve our technique, it will never be a finished work but something we work on every day and slowly progress on. Let's take our time and make 'sustainable' improvements.

Let's not get stuck with the obsession to play our instrument perfectly, we must learn to play improvised melodies and take solos with self-confidence. Instead, let us integrate technique exercises into our daily practice.



What is jazz? If we ask 100 great musicians we will surely get 100 different answers, but when we are learning to play jazz, it certainly won't seem like that.

Sometimes it seems that we have to think about what jazz is and play it only one way - that we have to study a precise list of musicians, in a precise order, that we have to learn a precise language, play certain pieces, and approach jazz in a precise way, to be a 'real' jazzman...


One must completely abandon the concept of what jazz is or could be.

"For me the word jazz means I DARE YOU' (W. Shorter)

"To me the word jazz means I CHALLENGE YOU" (W. Shorter)

Some may tell us that we have to know how to play funk, rock & roll, and salsa and every aspect of jazz if we want to work, or that we have to know thousands of tunes, or a lot of other possible legends, but the truth is:

  • There is no set of rules that musicians must adhere to in order to play jazz, and there is no one way to play it.
  • There are many different types of gigs, including the option of inventing our own type, and there is no one way to play jazz, or to work as a jazz musician nowadays. It's up to us to decide what we want to do with music, what we like, what direction we want to take.

If we feel burdened by someone else's definitions of jazz, we follow these steps to unbind ourselves:


  1. Resisting jazz dogmas - There is no single definition of jazz. Magazines, history books, teachers, and others try to define what it is, and what it needs to be to be jazz, but that is only their definition. A more suitable definition might be "A musical language built by jazz musicians of the past, continued and expanded in all sorts of directions, each of them unique, and above all a language that can take us anywhere".

  2. We investigate what jazz means to us - What does jazz mean to us? As we get deeper into the music, the answer to this seemingly simple question changes, just as our approach to music changes.

  3. Let's move on to action - Whatever jazz means at this point in our development, we try to act in that direction. We don't ignore the fundamentals, but we try to incorporate our own way of seeing the music. For example, if jazz is mostly about playing interesting melodies, or it's about syncopated rhythms, or polyrhythms, we go in that direction. Whatever it is, let us draw inspiration from it to direct our study. Surely jazz is not a thing: it is not a stale art that we find in history books.



Jazz is made up of more than imperfection than perfection. We must discover imperfection, accept it, include it in our language.

To understand what this phrase means, let us listen to John Coltrane for example: we can tell it is him from the first note he plays, and not because he is perfect, but precisely because he is not. Just as we recognise the timbre of an instrument from the most imperfect and noise-like thing: the attack transient. We recognise John Coltrane by his imperfections, the way he reaches the high register, some notes that are slightly out of tune, his articulation...


Imperfections are what define us and our voice.

This does not mean that we should not study to play in tune, or with a beautiful sound, or with the right articulation, it means that by working to play in tune, with a beautiful sound and well articulated, we do not get stuck on the inevitable imperfections that can be in our playing.

Our musical heroes are not perfect, nobody plays jazz perfectly, and nobody is able to define what exactly jazz is. Perfection in jazz is an illusion, so let's stop punishing ourselves. Let us remember that our voice in jazz lies not in obsessing over perfection, but in including our imperfections through the daily work of curiosity interest, personal discovery, and enjoyment of music.



Of course, there are those who take all the above literally, but that does not mean that it is to their advantage anyway. For a few years now, in certain television formats one hears the same thing repeated over and over again 'you have to be yourself' o 'you have to be spontaneous'. Most of the time, these ideas expressed in the TV programme, and applied to the musical context create irreparable damage. In fact, they often hear singers who are out of tune, or out of time, but their 'coaches' tell them 'you have to be spontaneous'. The result is that dozens of young people who would like to approach the study of music think that in order to become musicians, it is necessary to be spontaneous first and foremost, and this to the detriment of study, knowledge of theory, harmony, research, critical listening, and knowledge of tradition. Moreover, the musicians taken as role models are often very mediocre themselves, and taking a mediocre musician as a role model certainly does not contribute to creating a musical personality.

In addition, the phrase 'it doesn't come to me spontaneously' is used as an alibi to cover the inability to do something, or ignorance of certain improvisation techniques, or certain shortcomings such as poor rhythmic sense, lack of clarity, etc.

Spontaneity is of absolutely no use without knowledge.
Nowadays the amount of information available for free is enormous, even excessive, just type a name, or a music genre on youtube and we find millions of audio and video recordings. It even becomes complicated to choose a title. Here again, the need for a teacher comes into play, who can also guide one in choosing the basics and not waste time on trivial things. Even if wandering randomly can still lead us to discover something new, a targeted choice can help us progress. Whatever kind of music we want to play, there are some things that cannot be ignored. We cannot be good jazz musicians if we do not know A Kind Of Blue, just to give an example. We cannot study the double bass and not know Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Charlie Haden, Oscar Pettiford... but I would add, whatever instrument we play, we cannot ignore great masters such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and many others. Or do we only play classical music? We cannot ignore the historical works of the greatest musicians of the past: Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and a thousand others...

Or rather, we have every right to do so, but we will always be poor and ignorant musicians.

Unfortunately, television formats such as x-factor have created a generation of aspiring musicians who have no idea what it means to study an instrument, but on the contrary are convinced that they know almost everything about music. And they are above all very spontaneous in expressing it.

Don't miss a single article
Sign up for the
Alessandro Fois & Friends

Audio & Music Blog

You will also receive
Discount on audio and music manuals
+ n.3 eBooks

We do not send spam! Read our Privacy Policy for more information.

6 replies
  1. Alessandro Fois
    Alessandro Fois says:

    Hi Massimo.

    In reading your interesting article, which I agree with in its entirety, at one point I thought:

    I who have always 'tried my hand' at jazz without ever having really studied it..... "Today I realised that I am a jazz musician, whereas until yesterday I thought I was just someone who occasionally tries to play it'.

    Joking aside, I provide some additional insights below, if I may.

    On executive perfection:
    - it is obvious that not wanting to pursue perfection cannot be an alibi for inability; one must be in tune, play in time and play cleanly, know harmony, etc.;
    - the ideal of perfect intonation, rhythmic precision, clean sound and so on, like any other ideal, performs its perfect function as an absolute reference (for example, the perfectly mathematical rhythm encoded in the written part, which will never be played exactly like that, is a rigid reference);
    - A performance that is maniacally close to such an absolute ideal may be permissible at certain stages of the study but must be totally forgotten when playing.

    A distinction must then be made between classical music (at least as it is understood academically) and jazz.
    There is a gulf separating the two 'currents'. Indeed:
    - the first is the art of codification, which proceeds from the written part by attempting an almost maniacal adherence to technical and formal perfection, towards a precise performing style that can evoke the era in which it was born;
    - the second (jazz, precisely) is the art of transgressing such a codification, where the theme is almost always reduced or reducible to a melody with sealed harmony and for the rest is (or would be) pure improvisation on a (sometimes even approximate) rhythmic harmonic canvas, when not even outside any pre-established scheme, as in free jazz.

    If I have understood your thinking correctly, you say that a musician's personal 'bring' (who is such a musician) can hopefully be inserted without any particular reservations into a ductile context such as jazz, letting his expressive and improvisational extemporaneous inspiration flow, since according to your vision jazz should remain an open forge aimed at every possibility of contamination, expressive (but also formal) interpretation and, ultimately, evolution.

    In the opinion of many, jazz should instead be reduced to what I would call 'beautiful but dead' music, similarly to classical music which, due to its increasingly binding codifications, has finally become imprisoned in a cliché that, however splendid it may be, does not admit of any new variables and evolution.

    Despite its inalienable 'open' improvisational nature, jazz that is highly codified in style, deportment, phrasing and accents will soon (as it already is to a large extent) in turn be imprisoned in those specific styles that have become canonical.

    Classical music and even jazz, understood in this way, also become self-referential, closing the doors to anyone who does not conform to the dogmas of style and structure defined as acceptable by the conservative caste that in fact runs them with conservative instincts.

    In view of the above, I can only join the chorus you have invoked:
    In other words, the answer must be that:
    So let's make it so!
    That is, allowing a ductile flow of musicality.
    A few years ago, in the interlude of a musical evening, answering a specific question of mine (as you will remember) you told me roughly the following:
    "You can play jazz because you have sufficient technique, good harmonic knowledge and a fair amount of melodic flair, but you don't really know the typical jazz phrasing and poise, so when you play it you come up with something that is not only musically correct, but also enjoyable but definitely off the mark...."

    So, going back to the incipit of this comment and all things considered in light of what you wrote, with mostly joking but also friendly provocative intent, I ask you:
    "Am I therefore also a jazz musician or am I just someone who occasionally tries to play it?"


    • Massimo Tore
      Massimo Tore says:

      CAro Alessandro, thank you for your comment. I can see from what you wrote that I did not explain myself well.
      In fact, I could have left the word 'jazz' out, and left the word 'music' in general. The point of this article, however, is that the quest for perfection (or presumed perfection) becomes an obstacle when it prevents us from progressing, in whatever genre of music we are trying our hand at. I know quite a few classical musicians who do not dare to try their hand at certain pieces, or in certain situations, because they do not consider themselves up to it, and this too is an attitude that hinders individual growth.
      As far as jazz is concerned, you talk about music being extremely codified and immutable, but that is not exactly the case. Let me give you an example: languages are an example of a 'living' culture, i.e. constantly evolving. They change grammar, vocabulary etc. Suppose I want to reinvent the Russian language, but I don't know it well. In your opinion, would I be able to do something convincing?
      Before contributing to the evolution of a musical genre, one needs to know its deep mechanisms, language and tradition, a bit like speaking a foreign language. It takes a long time before a native speaker does not feel that we have a foreign accent.
      To play jazz and above all to have one's own unique and original voice (a goal to have, but one that few unfortunately achieve), one needs to know its language and tradition.
      In short, learn the rules so you can break them consciously (Dalai Lama? Pablo Picasso? Gary Peacock? not really sure who to attribute this phrase to but I like it and it makes a lot of sense).

      • Alessandro Fois
        Alessandro Fois says:

        In principle (not Massimo's) I agree... and in fact it was a benevolent provocation, as you well realised.

        However, one cannot deny the fact that 'contamination' by unusual and partially out-of-context elements (or if you prefer, partially out of language) is also a not insignificant element that has caused the evolution of language itself to take unexpected directions, and there is always some person or some human group behind it that, in this sense, sometimes even unconsciously, gives the Start.

        It should also be noted that sometimes these 'linguistic' deviations, when they do not end up on the street, create a partially distinct expressive subgroup, which almost always takes another name more or less related to the language of origin

        This can be observed both in a verbal language (English-Jamaican, for example, to keep it simple and banal) and in the context of a musical language (ethnopop, neo-classical, nu-jazz, acid-jazz and a thousand others), and likewise in other contexts (I cite, for example, the digressions of certain naïve artists whose style proceeds from impressionism, for example, without coinciding with it).

        I think it is fair to observe that often these digressions that deviate from the musical master language, especially in modern times, sometimes arise from the style of a record released by a new, unknown artist who, having had a small, at least noteworthy success, actually directs other musicians towards the development of a new, nascent sub-style, sometimes even creating a veritable 'current'.

        Then, of course, these expressions may appear more or less talented, more or less tasteful or successful, or they may simply meet with more or less consensus and following, and sometimes become so successful as to create a veritable sub-genre, sometimes even beyond the intrinsic artistic value of the contamination and for a thousand different reasons, among which there is often also the hand of marketing. But the latter is another well-known story.

      • Alessandro Fois
        Alessandro Fois says:

        However, in response to your last sentence above, I tell you that in the preface of my book on mixing, I wrote the following: "Follow no rules, but first know them all". This sentence echoes yours: 'Learn the rules in order to be able to break them consciously'...... We seem to have understood each other, finally.... :-)
        Hi Massimo.

    • Massimo Tore
      Massimo Tore says:

      I forgot: learning the rules is not enough to learn to play jazz, but neither is learning funk or pop or classical music. Knowing the rules (as I said in another post on this blog) is not enough to be a good musician. Knowing the relationship between scales and chords does not tell us how to construct a good melodic line, and so on.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.