“Good tone is good conscience,” Janos Starker once said. Why don’t we pay more attention to tone in music?
In jazz, for instance, it’s common to think of Charlie Parker or Cannonball Adderley when you think of great alto players, because they were innovative and cool. But isn’t Johnny Hodges the greatest of them all, at least if you consider how unspeakably superb his tone was? Every note he plays is professional, inspired, collected; but his tone is transcendent, bespeaking a genuine happiness, a down-to-earth blessedness.
In life it seems like tone is all-important. I myself don’t care overly much if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or atheist; I care about the tone with which you play your position. As Paul Valery immortally put it, “You can’t get drunk with the labels on the bottle.” There are plenty of mediocre Bordeaux; there are stellar wines from South Africa. What matters is their taste.
Instruments that require breath seem particularly able to convey tone. But even the piano, tickled by the right fingers, can sing out an utterly unique tone. I think of one of my favorites, Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli. Here he is playing a magical piece by Debussy, along with Ellington one of the truly great colorists.
Tone really is the thing that all the true greats have. And good tone is what we should aspire to. One of my favorite phrases is from Confucius by way of Ezra Pound: “the tones given off by the heart.”