Strange Fruit

There are precious few, if any, performances nowadays of a certain landmark song in jazz.  Granted, this was a song very much of its time; all the same, it’s important to remember where we’ve been.  It’s not a standard in the classic sense, but marked out jazz as an art form that could be used to protest, to shock listeners into affecting social change.  Until the 1930’s jazz had been subversive without ever directly addressing the culture trying to suppress it.

It was in 1937 that Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher from the Bronx, published his poem “Bitter Fruit” in The New York Teacher.  He had not long before seen a photo of a 1930 double lynching in Indiana and couldn’t rest until he expressed his outrage at the status—or perhaps total lack—of race relations in the U.S.  He soon set the words to music and the piece became known as “Strange Fruit,” a song Billie Holiday embodied from her very first performance of it in 1939.  She would later grow possessive of the song, as though it belonged to her, which, in many ways, it did.  Still does, as a matter of fact, because though Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson, among others, have recorded spectacular interpretations, none can top Holiday.


The Four Kings

There are four kings of the blues: B.B. King, the perennial favorite; Freddie King, a vastly underappreciated guitarist who died far too young; Earl King, and Albert King, who established himself with a fabulous album, Born Under a Bad Sign.

I think everyone knows B.B. King.  Or knows of him anyway.  If you don’t, you are sorely missing out.

Freddie King never gained the fame he deserved.  The first time I heard this song, I went home and listened to it on repeat for about an hour straight.

Albert King is a new discovery for me, one I am looking forward to getting to know better, much better.

Earl King was a landmark artist especially for New Orleans audiences and made his fame as a songwriter as well as a performer.

All hail to the Kings.

Fundamentally American music

 As it is now renowned, respected, performed and taught internationally as an intelligent and incisive art form, it has been easy for me recently to forget the uniquely American origins of jazz.  But in reading the introduction to Jazz: A History of America’s Music, Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns were kind enough to remind me that this genre could not have been born anywhere else.  Wynton Marsalis called jazz “our music,” and to hear Duke Ellington tell it, “‘Jazz is a good barometer of freedom . . . In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.’”  He makes a strong point.

Jazz was born in New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century.  The Crescent City was, at the time, effectively the most peacefully cosmopolitan locale in America, no small feat in a South still heavily segregated.  It was also a city full of sound, from professional musicians in concert halls to parlor pianists in brothels to kids blowing tin horns in the street.  The interaction between ragtime, which had become popular at the end of the nineteenth century, traditional church hymns and gospel music, and, perhaps most importantly, the blues, produced a scandalously provocative sound.  Originally denounced by the white establishment as morally depraved, “jass,” its first name, gained respect within a few short decades and was vetted by European sophisticates during the World Wars as a fascinating new musical form.

Following its inception in New Orleans, jazz grew up in Chicago, moved to New York and spent part of its adulthood split between the East and West coasts.  Its status in Europe is equal to, if not better than, its reception in the U.S.  In fact, I wish jazz were more widespread now than it is.  It used to be very much a part of American consciousness, and while it’s still important and, I think, will always be, it is moving towards a pedestal.  Reaching elite status in just a little over a century of existence is impressive, but it also means jazz is becoming less accessible than it used to be.  When I was at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year, it dawned on me that the changes made there for the 2012 season heralded changes in the entire jazz world.  Access is stratified by the creation of VIP spaces and offering of more (read: expensive) ticket options, which leads to exclusivity and ultimately the disappearance of jazz from the larger popular sphere.  Montreux is at the forefront of jazz trends, so it may take time for its ripple effect to reach to all corners of the jazz world, and in some ways I hope that is the case.  What I hope even more for the genre is that it will be able to boomerang back as a popular art form after a stint in high society.

Keith Jarrett – The Art of Improvisation

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 here.

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.”

Watermelon Man, OR: Possibilities II

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.

Elena Mindru

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 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.

The End of Jazz

Today’s topic is also the title of a recently published article in The Atlantic.

Now I saw the 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”:

Try Coltrane first.  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.

This was not included in the Atlantic lineup, but is an unexpected and fabulous recent discovery.

And I can’t resist adding this last little jewel courtesy of the critical Mr. Schwarz.

Jazz as Conversation

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 at the time, 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.