Because playing music is such an intimate activity, the skill levels and personalities of those of us who play together get commingled. Perhaps snarled might be a better descriptor. An age old conundrum has recently come to the fore in my career and I don't think I'm the only professional musician who faces this issue on a regular basis. The question is: Would I rather play with mediocre, fair to middlin' level musician who I get along with well personally or is it more satisfying to work with people with high levels of skill even if I find them to be insufferable, boorish or downright awful to be around?
In order to avoid insult I will keep the details vague, but I began to feel rather depressed in the middle of a gig recently because I was playing yet another set with someone who really has to be corralled, both rhythmically and harmonically. It was not fun. It is never fun trying to play under these conditions, as I've discussed in earlier posts. Yet the guy I was wanting to throttle so much during that gig is someone I really like, respect and enjoy hanging with off of the bandstand. He also hires me quite a bit (which is a whole other dimension of this dilemma).
I used to work with a drummer of medium ability whose opinion on this was clear: "Give me an asshole who can play." Sometimes I feel that way. Then I get on a gig with someone who can really play but whose ego or negative vibe sours the experience personally (even if the music is really happening). I'm not even sure the question should be what do I prefer. Maybe more important factors apply here, such as: what is this experience doing for my development as a musician? How is this gig or relationship affecting my career? What is an acceptable stress vs. musical quality level for me?
Ideally I want to play with excellent players who I love. That's a given. I feel fortunate to have been in that desirable position many times over the years. But the truth is that too much of the time I seem to be in with a crowd of people who I really like but who just don't play at the level to which I aspire. This is undoubtedly the result of many decisions I've made during the course of my career. I think the problem stems from the tough choice itself; I don't know how to answer the question so I can't take steps to solve it.
I'd be interested to hear what other folks think about this.