How to break the rules and get away with it

I finished work at 10pm and felt like getting away from the solitude of my computer was becoming a matter of life and death. It was too late to bother anyone with a phone call so I headed straight to a place where I knew I’d find something happening.

The space (where you can actually see the stage) is unlikely small. The people off stage barely outnumber the musicians on it. That makes you wonder: no serious performer will waste their time playing here. And yet, this goofy place, called Lámpás, will hit you in the face almost every night with a live performance that would be hard to come by anywhere else.

Three saxophones, a bass guitar, a lead guitar, a keyboard, a drum kit and the boys and girls  manning them occupy the tiny stage as I enter. The only free seat in the audience is most likely being held for someone who popped out for a smoke, but I ask anyway. And get lucky, which is great as there is no space to stand without blocking someone’s view.

The music sounds raw. It feels like these guys haven’t spent a lot of time playing together. I have no idea what genre they are playing, but it’s very much alive. There is a lot of looking at each other as if they are trying to feel what everyone else doing.

Then suddenly the music stops and I think to myself they must be going for a break. But instead, the guy sitting next to me jumps up and replaces the lead guitarist. Two of the sax players go and two female singers come in. Then they announce that a pianist is wanted and a woman, after some thorough persuasion, ‘volunteers’.

This is when the penny drops. It’s a free jam session. Anyone can join in.  

So I take my trumpet out of my pocket and join the group. Just kidding… a trumpet wouldn’t fit in my pocket anyway.

The new ensemble sounds very different. The female voice adds a touch of tenderness. The guitarist, the guy who sat next to me, takes the lead. The drummer adjusts and sustains a steady and vivacious rhythm. They do a round of solos. No one knows who is next or what’s going to happen two beats later. They communicate through music. The lead guitarist goes wild and makes the audience scream. Then he comes up with a new tune, the others follow, the bass guitarist flips the beat, the drummer gets it and we are listening to reggae now.

I keep thinking that I’m seeing a miracle. How else would it be possible for these guys who never played together (as I would later learn from the guitarist) to make up music as they go AND make it sound utterly amazing?

It’s not always amazing though. At times they get out of tune or rhythm. Or simply what they play individually doesn’t add up and sounds crap as a whole. But that’s how I know it’s real. It’s being made right here, right now.

A new singer comes on stage. His self confidence makes him stand out. When he starts singing it becomes clear why. (I was later told, he was András Kállay-Saunders if that rings a bell for you.) The music continues to be incredible at times and clumsy at other times.

You can literally see the flow of creativity on stage as they keep switching genres and break all the rules of music. They play so effortlessly that you feel like anyone could do this.

And yet, I know for a fact, if you were to put a bunch of people on stage who have not spent the last decade or two mastering their instrument, it would sound so bad you’d run away faster than a bullet. Anyone who ever tried to play an instrument will testify to that.

So what’s the secret sauce? These boys and girls are no superhuman. How do they get away with murder then (or at least breaking all the rules of music)?

The only surprising thing about the answer to that question, I guess, is how unsurprising it is: they know their shit.

Or to put it more eloquently, they learnt the rules of the trade. They put in the time it took to master their art. They picked up the pieces of their instruments after breaking them out of frustration, and kept playing. Having learnt to play by the rules masterfully enables them to play with and beyond the rules too.

It’s not like I’d never seen a jam session before. But this one made me think that other walks of life work in much the same way. No matter how much significance you attribute to talent, what all extraordinary abilities and achievements have in common is they are based on knowing the rules of the trade inside out and persevering when others quit.

To break the rules and get away with it, you’ve got to learn to play by them.