Sometimes music isn’t about music. Sometimes, it’s about a story.
I saw this documentary recently and loved it. There are so many nuggets of musical wisdom throughout that I just can’t resist sharing a few thoughts, albeit in no particular order.
Music is a process that musicians go through – or rather, depending on your perspective, music is a result of that process.
And speaking of processes, it was reassuring to hear that even musicians as great as Keith Jarrett don’t seem to fully understand the process of improvisation. It just happens. As he put it, “You have to be crazy . . . you have to allow yourself to be crazy.” To hear him speak, you start to think talent resides in the subconscious: “My left hand had knowledge that I wasn’t letting it tell me for years and years.”
Likewise, Gary Peacock, a longtime trio partner of Jarrett, said it this way: “The music is telling you what to play . . . you just ride along.” Check out the Standards trio’s work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBnwDTAoAC8
In these concerts, everything is improvised, even the set list and order.
Like Herbie Hancock, Jarrett would never have tried electronic instruments until Miles Davis insisted. He “gave in” to Miles and started experimenting with non-traditional pianos. “We were just looking for the groove,” and found it . . . with incomparable style. But lest we forget: “That’s about all you can do with electronic instruments: you can play with them. Because they’re toys.” This statement makes me happier than I can say. I think I agree.
One last thought:
“The more experience a person has, the more his simplicity is profound.”
Continuing in this New Year sort of vein of Possibilities in jazz, and in all music, and in life, I turn again to a favorite artist of mine, Herbie Hancock. For some time I’ve been wanting to sit down and compare his song “Watermelon Man” between versions, but haven’t gotten around to it for months, and just recently found the time to do so. The first of the takes appeared on his debut album Takin’ Off in 1962:
The first thing I noticed was the incredible steadiness of the underbeat—it’s so grounded. The overall rhythmic structure is unwaveringly steady, and it’s not that I would expect Herbie or any of his sidemen to play out of rhythm, but the particular dedication to the beat, the living inside of it, right on the nose, gives the impression of a particularly rock-solid tempo. It’s easy to hear the musical stamp of Miles Davis, from whose side Herbie had very recently parted, and the dominance of the trumpet in parts seem to recall the echoes of a near past. Whether the effect is conscious or unconscious I couldn’t say, but either way, the influence is undeniable.
This piece also just SWINGS. It’s undeniable. And that too is a trace of Herbie’s past, his work with Miles, his earlier training, which would have placed him close to the hard bop and cool jazz movements.
The second version of “Watermelon Man” is included in Head Hunters, the groundbreaking 1973 hit that marked a vital step for the then-budding new genre of fusion jazz. It was Harvey Mason’s idea to re-record the song, and at first listen it seems like a total departure from the original. But then we listen again:
In fact, the introduction makes the tune seem more foreign than it is. Bill Summers’ beer bottles sound positively exotic, and they add to the African influence heard on the track and throughout the album. Whereas last time I talked about new technologies changing music, here we have mundane objects freshening music and, in fact, playing a role in the forging of an entirely new vein of jazz. Fusion jazz is characterized by the incorporation of funk and native African elements into post-bop, and Herbie himself cites Sly Stone as one of the inspirations for the record.
We have to recognize the fact that the beat is still there, with that same steadiness, though this time it holds a more earthy quality. It’s rooted. The bass elements are heavier. The rhythm doesn’t have the lightness to really swing like its predecessor. And that’s not its goal. While keeping the structure of the beat, it changed its nature, transforming it from a high-class statement to a low-down meditation.
The possibilities of a single tune are endless.
The other day I was watching, for the third time, one of my favorite documentaries, Possibilities. It covers the making of Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album of the same name, and I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t already, especially if you’re not familiar with Herbie and his work. No one album can show all the versatility of his creative talents, but Possibilities can be a good place to start because it shows the way Herbie acts as a catalyst for the exploration of new sounds. The guest artists range from pop stars to young soul singers to relatively unknown instrumentalists who have garnered much less recognition than they deserve.
It was actually while listening to the part of the documentary dedicated to an artist who doesn’t appear on the album that I really started thinking about an issue that’s been bothering me for some time: the role of new technology in music. Brian Eno, like Herbie, has successfully integrated all kinds of cutting edge technology in his work. But why do I so easily use the descriptive “successfully” for these artists while I hesitate to apply it to so many others? Is it because they have been able to master the use of the tools better than some? Or perhaps because they are more creative in their application of such? It occurred to me that for some musicians, and even vocalists, new technologies are toys. For our Possibilities musicians, they are instruments. Even pianos and violins were new “technologies” once, but they have been studied, played and developed into finely tuned tools of sound. Whether digital and other technologies will follow the same pattern, we can’t yet know, of course, but a lot of the importance of instruments has to do with how they are treated.
These reflections gave rise to another question: which quality is more important for musical greatness, mastery or versatility? This is a bigger question than the latter one, and though I might be tempted to lean in the direction of mastery, I can’t discount versatility. Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock are perfect examples of both. Maybe our answer is that we shouldn’t want, or need, to choose.
So this summer while I was in Montreux I had the good fortune to catch the second day of the semifinals in the Sure Jazz Voice Competition, and by the final round it was clear the panel of judges had their work cut out for them. I’ve been hoping to find the performances online for a while now, and just discovered them today. For me, this young lady was the most creative and enchanting, and I honestly thought she deserved to win:
This video can’t capture the fullness of her stage presence, but the sound quality is good. She just has so much fun with the music, and with her musicians, and with the audience.
After the performances, I was surprised to learn that this was the talent that captured the judges’ vote for winner:
Her sound just seems thinner to me during the first song, though she gets better as she goes along, and I would even occasionally question her intonation, but apparently Quincy Jones, head of the panel of judges, didn’t have the same impression. I admit she does have a Diana Krall sort of quality, and clearly that kind of sound has proved artistically and commercially successful. And she gets points for subtlety and choice of classic arrangements. Still, I can’t tell you what I wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall during that decision-making process.
I think this just goes to show opinion and personal preference do count in music, especially at this stage of the game where all artists are fantastically gifted. Here I really don’t think it was a question of deciding who was more talented, but who adhered most closely to the judges’ idea of a great jazz artist. And granted, a panel at Montreux would know. But I just don’t agree with their decision. And why? It’s hard to say. I just wasn’t taken with Sarah Lancman the way I was with Elena Mindru. The latter just had “it” for me, and she did win the audience’s vote for favorite finalist. She took risks, and I admire that a lot. It’s completely possible, however, that the judges thought she was less strong vocally in spite of her great presence and chose Sarah instead for that reason. Or it could be that Elena’s artistic choices are less in line with the heart of the jazz tradition and that’s why she didn’t “win”.
I’ll never be completely sure.
Today’s topic is also the title of a recently published article in The Atlantic – full text here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/the-end-of-jazz/309112/
Now I saw that title and just had to read the article to find out why the author thought this wonderful, vibrant musical genre is dead. Basically, I discovered the unfortunate Atlantic has become the vehicle for Benjamin Schwarz’s claim that jazz has dried up because its source of musical material, the popular standards written in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, has ceased to provide new inspiration. What Mr. Schwarz doesn’t seem to realize is that not only do those songs still manage to find new life in the hands of young artists, but also that jazz has evolved past the songbooks and branched out in many directions. In fact, I would argue what he really means is that the type of jazz personified by the songbook era, including swing, big band and early bop, is no longer the heart of the current jazz scene. But the nature of jazz is to constantly morph and change, and it wouldn’t—and couldn’t—be what it is if it stayed locked into one strain of thought. In declaring the end of songbook jazz’s golden age, Mr. Schwarz has thus presented us with a piece of information that is embarrassingly late. The bop and “classic” jazz era ended in the ‘60’s, and the early ‘70’s heralded the crash landing of fusion jazz, just one strain that has carried the genre from there.
For a nicely biting and highly informative rebuttal, see the following, published in the Washington City Paper:
This article also makes the important point that even though the claim that jazz is over is unfounded, the perception of jazz as such is harmful to the life and enjoyment of the art form.
One thing I did like about “The End of Jazz,” however, was the mention of some lovely recordings I hadn’t yet heard. It’s probably evident by now that I like comparison studies, so I present my dear readers with another, this time on Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Lush Life”:
First, Master Coltrane:
Meditative, mournful and thought-provoking. Emphasis on the “bitter” in bittersweet.
I especially like Stan Getz’s take:
A little more tongue-in-cheek, I think.
Carmen McRae is not a vocalist I would have sought out for this song, but her version is just wonderful:
Not included in the Atlantic lineup, but an unexpected and fabulous recent discovery:
And I couldn’t resist adding this last random jewel from a very classy lady, courtesy of the critical Mr. Schwarz:
I’ve always thought of music as a kind of communication, but jazz is the form that is, to my mind, the most like a human conversation. This week I dropped in on jazz jam night at the local Clarion hotel and heard some good musicians, but was especially struck by one interaction in particular. An experienced percussionist in his sixties was playing the tambourine with a band including a very young drummer who couldn’t have been more than seventeen. At one point in the middle of the song they were playing – I can no longer remember what it was, but that’s beside the point – all the other musicians dropped out and these two went at it. What I heard was a statement from the first, and a response from the other, and I heard the older guiding the younger, and the response back and forth. It’s hard to describe in words, but the effect was magical. I turned to my muse for this blog, who was with me that evening, and told her, “THAT is what jazz is about.”
So what does this sound like? Examples range from the obvious to the near undetectable, especially to an untrained ear. The easiest to pick out are the pieces centered around a drama, and the music is just a vehicle for the words:
More abstract, since there are no voices, but the instruments still “talk” to each other, is the following, “Conversation Piece” by Rex Stewart. Personally, I find the combination of the film and music a little annoying, but you might be inspired to see the music in a new way.
This is a very literal way of interpreting a piece as conversation, but it helps to show how to think of music as a language.
In the spirit of active listening, I want to put up a little challenge: I dare you to actively listen to the following four artists singing the same piece, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and compare them. This is not about playing favorites, but about noticing the beauty, spirit and individualism of each interpretation. Happy listening.
First up, the High Priestess of Soul herself:
Sorry the recording cuts off a little at the end, but it’s the only one available on YouTube. Believe me, I looked. But I couldn’t resist posting because she’s perfectly, well, soulful, without ever being overbearing or gushy.
Next the one-of-a-kind Cassandra Wilson:
Pure honesty. Very earthy, and totally natural. If Tracy Chapman were a jazz artist . . . she might sound something like this.
I had to include the man who, for me, IS the voice of cool jazz:
Understatement can say so much.
And last but certainly not least, Lady Day:
Is this the sound of a heart breaking? She’s so raw. It’s all out there, whether you’re ready to hear it or not.
I’ve been listening to these four versions a lot this week and keep switching between them, noticing different things each time. If you’re really brave, you’ll come back and listen again, and I promise you’ll hear something new.
What does it mean to listen actively? I’m not just talking about your best friend or spouse or mother harping, “You never listen to me!” Although that may be true. No, what I mean is actively listening and absorbing sound. Plain, pure sound, in the case of music, and what is usually a complex, intoxicating sound in the case of good jazz. So often in our day and age I see people continuously listening to music, which is more available now than ever before. People can listen to music any time, any place they choose thanks to iPods, iPhones, iPads and iWhatevers. But I question whether that’s really listening. Maybe it’s just hearing.
To really listen, you have to be fully paying attention to your music. You can’t be driving a car, or having a conversation, or reading a novel, even a trashy one that’s got you only halfway engaged. Now, before I go on, a full confession is in order. I am as guilty of inactive listening as anyone. I may even be worse than the average person, because I’m such a music addict that I have to have it on all the time. And I mean: All. The. Time. Do I like hearing music around me in that context? Yes. But am I fully enjoying it, appreciating it and analyzing it? Not really. I can only do that when I’m focused, and usually the only time you can catch me sitting in one place and doing nothing but listening is at a concert.
And I wish, in some ways, that wasn’t the case. Music deserves our full attention, and while we can’t all stop our lives to continuously devote ourselves to manmade sound, we could perhaps set aside a little time to try to appreciate it more fully, more thoughtfully. Personally I find I can discover layers of texture and detail and meaning when I take the trouble to actively listen to a great piece over and over again. We could probably discover more, and educate ourselves in the process, if we would only take the time to really listen.
As a classically trained musician, I have to say I admire unabashedly the work that goes into jazz performances. What’s more, I’m completely fascinated by the process of jazz. How does it work? What exactly goes on in the minds of the musicians as they’re improvising? How do they know what they’re doing won’t interfere with another musician’s line of melody or improv?
The best answer I have, at least to date, is that no one really knows, or if they do they’re not telling. How’s that for a satisfying response?
In all seriousness, there’s a lot of mystery to both worlds and yet a lot of similarity between them. Classical musicians are trained to know a canon of work, as are jazz artists, and early ear training is invaluable for both genres. But one of the big differences is that jazz musicians can and really are even encouraged to learn exclusively by ear, and will listen to pieces over and over until they can reproduce the exact sounds they hear. Classical artists set more store by the ability to read a piece of music, to see it and then make it come alive aurally. We’re also obsessed with examining every minute detail of original scores. Jazz, by contrast, can easily skip this step and head straight to pure sound.
Why is this? I think it’s because jazz acts more like improv comedy and classical music functions more like a Shakespearean play. Both are stage art forms, and both involve conversations. But while stand-up comedy is off-the-cuff and only partly scripted, Shakespeare is supposed be performed by–the-book. The interpretation of a “classical” art form is by definition more restricted than that of a younger upstart. Relatively speaking, jazz was invented recently and is more closely tied to the culture of our own time. Classical works are prone to becoming fossilized, esconced in a long and distinguished performance tradition. This is not to say, of course, that classical musicians can’t deviate from performance norms, and I have to admit that I in particular am fond of doing so. It just takes less effort to be apart from the norm in classical music than in jazz.
That said, there’s no perfect analogy, and the comedy/theatre one has a minor flaw: improvisation is present in both traditions. A jazz riff is the classical aficionado’s cadenza. The problem—or perhaps, quite simply, the difference—is that nowadays the vast majority of classical artists perform composed cadenzas, and it’s the rare musician who creates his or her own. Even in those cases, the work is prewritten. Jazz lives and breathes spontaneity even while it is contained by the same requirement of absolute technical mastery demanded of classical musicians.
So why am I a classical musician and not a jazz artist? This is a question I may be asking myself for a very, very long time. I don’t know if it’s a personality tic or if it’s simply the way I happen to be most comfortable expressing myself musically. I’ve never felt I could “do” jazz convincingly on the violin. Classical is my thing. But I LOVE jazz. Not that you didn’t know that already. But I just feel like saying it. And I’ve never had quite the same passion for classical music, even though I’ve poured a lot of time and energy and personality into that world. Jazz captures my imagination, and classical music is the expression of the jazz happening inside. How’s that for genre-bending?
And that’s what jazz is all about: defying boundaries.