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Everyone is talking about the Country Music Awards that took place this past week. Trust me. This is true.  Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton (who won both Male Artist and New Artist of the Year) sang a couple of duets. No big deal right? Well, musicians and journalists across the country thought it was a big deal, and so did a lot of people who were watching. (video below).

Timberlake is a great artist, and so is Stapleton. They obviously enjoy the opportunity to collaborate. That is not surprising. Nor is the music itself; it’s a four-chord, verse, chorus, verse standard. At 1:40’ in the song, they incorporate a pretty typical “trading fours” extended call and response section. They rock it up and stretch it out and then at 3:10’ Timberlake does something that made even Keith Urban smile! He gave us something totally unexpected.

“No big deal, you say. They stole that from jazz music.” Yes, actually, they did. Improvisation is a critical element of jazz, pop, rock, country, in fact it’s an element of most types of music. And no artist, especially in this technological age, lives in isolation.

All music and all musicians share a common language. All creative endeavour is a borrowing and reshaping of material that exists for the benefit of everyone. Austin Kleon brilliantly examines this idea in his book Steal Like an Artist, where he encourages us to ‘steal’ stuff that inspires us. Now there are definitely rules for stealing well (as Kleon outlines); honor and credit are two of the most important ones. But the one that makes the difference, the practice that shows that you’re serious is “transform.”

To transform means that you make it your own. To transform means to give something a new, interesting twist. To transform is to shape something existing into something unexpected.

And that’s what happened on Wednesday night. Two artists collaborated to surprise and delight their listeners; they gave us something unexpected.

Bringing something unexpected to the mix makes people smile. Finding the unexpected brings life and joy into the everyday. The unexpected moment is a spark that can light a fire of inspiration.

Our brains need to be surprised in order to grow. Our hearts expand when we’re astonished by something new. Where can you find, and bring, the unexpected this week?

Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton perform at the Country Music Awards, November 4, 2015

The song referenced above is “Drink You Away,” near the bottom of the article.


Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy

Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy are both known for innovation and fabulous musicianship. Lalah begins a solo around 5:37’, and something unexpected happens around 6:12’ that completely stuns all of us (watch the reaction of the other musicians!)


Sibelius Symphony #2

The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell

This is a glorious orchestral work, with an amazing ending. I think the final cadence begins around the 30:00’ mark. At 37:55’ the fun really begins. It gives me goosebumps. And by the 40’ mark, I’m holding my breath. When it resolves (around 40:25’), the joy is palpable. Totally unexpected. Amazing.