More Active Listening: Try it for yourself!

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.  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 what heartbreak sounds like?  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.


Active vs. Passive Listening

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.

Relationship between jazz and classical music

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.


I’m glad you’re here.  Feel free to look around, and know that while there’s not much here yet, there will be soon.  Many of my ideas are still trapped inside my head so there’s a lot to come.

In particular, I’m working on creating an interface that will help show the relationships between various jazz artists, and while I’ve done a good bit of writing on it the technology side is coming slowly.  Thanks for your patience as I build that part of the blog behind the scenes.