Friday, October 20, 2006

Freeing Jazz: A YouTube Artist's Tour (or, why I think The Jazz Police have no clothes)

Thinking more about the argument between traditionalists and innovators in any art form, but specifically music. What jumped up in my memory was a Cecil Taylor quote from one of his prickly interviews in the '70s, I think. Interviewers were always asking him about his technique. He'd always say something like "what does it matter?" He elaborated in a quote once by saying something like "anyone with the means can develop technique." I suppose he meant financial means, the resources.

So we have this concept of instrumental mastery, of theoretical mastery, of study and musicianship. The traditionalists more often introduce these terms into their discourse. Here in Santa Fe, especially, "musicianship" is thrown around like mad. (Well, when "playing changes" is still the be all, end all insignia of jazz "musicianship," as well as a very defined timbre, a very refined and gentle aesthetic...) (don't get me wrong, I love Paul desmond, no sarcasm whatsoever, I truly do).

So what makes a musician an artist? Going beyond their instrument, their technique, tone, going beyond being a technician. Individual voice and vision. You don't only instantly recognize their instrumental playing but you also are very glad to be there with them. "Beyond" might be the wrong word. Encompassing more than the physical relationship with the mechanics of producing sound.

But also encompassing more than an imitative or reiterative relationship with the sounds and styles of others. The Braxton stab at Impressions up at YouTube is one kind of example. Compare the melodic, scalar materials he uses, hewing close to the modal tonality, with the immediate departures in phrasing and temporal sense. The Dolphy influence is very clear to me, except that Braxton chooses something midregister without so many intervalic leaps. Taking off around 2:30 and 4 minutes Braxton plays with multiphonic and harmonic shredding, not to my ear from the gospel shout background from which some players' "screaming" seemed to emerge, but from a more abstract place. Fascinating to hear Corea, Vitous and DeJohnette playing very much in "the idiom," laying down a background over which one could imagine many different soloists. (Note that Braxton pulls a traditional jazz rabbit out of a hat by restating the theme at the end of his solo- re-emphasizing the essentially traditional nature of the performance no matter where he might take the solo in between.)

My friend Chris Jonas said once "I hate when Anthony plays those standards," referring more to the "In The Tradition" recordings with Pedersen and Tete Montoliu. Jonas studied with Braxton at Wesleyan and I assume he prefers Braxton unfettered by the tensions of traditional song form. I should ask him.

Then there's Cecil Taylor's One Night with Blue Note Tribute to Alfred Lion solo piano piece. part one,
part two

An interesting contrast is Mr. Taylor's solo performance in Imagine the Sound, captured a short time before. Listen for some of the compositional elements that are identical, in a somehwat pared down milieu.

How much Taylor brought to music by leaving tunes like Things Ain't What They Used to Be behind, by leaving those ensemble and solo ideas in his past (yet there are long sections of his Unit performances that are very much in that tradition as well). By the '80s, when this performance happened, Taylor had made a leap into a sort of 4th dimension that incorporated several melodic and harmonic themes that have yet to be properly analyzed and understood. The alternation between his articulated two-handed immaculately fingered runs and his drumming technique is particularly stunning. I hear the tradition in what he does but in dimensions that are difficult to explicate. As far as technique is concerned, it is beyond reproach, but how ridiculous would it be to hear this and ask "yeah, but can the guy play changes?"

I don't mean to harp on Wynton and Branford Marsalis, but here's CT in his own words on Wynton from an "interview" with Kurt Gottschalk up at allaboutjazz Taylor's take on "the jazz tradition" is very lovingly and acerbically articulated in that interview.

Is it any wonder that Ben Raitliff's "Listening" piece with Branford Marsalis calls Brandford Marsalis "The Jazz Police?" As I mentioned in a comment on the be-jazz blog, I'd gladly forget the Marsalis Factor altogether except that they have left an indelible mark not with their music, but with their revisionist and conservative history of jazz. I loved reading Dave Douglas on the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary: "It made me want to throw a brick through my television." This was exactly my response for many reasons, yet at the time of its airing I was surrounded by people well-versed in "jazz" as well as neophytes who were orgasmic over the program.

George Russell, Robert Palmer and Ornette Coleman free-forming in conversation about intuition and the heart is part of the story. Interesting to hear one of the foremost technical theorists in jazz harmony and improvisation referring to "Third World Technology" (which could easily be misconstrued out of context)as a value represented by what we call jazz.

The remarkable Italian television performance by a kind of transitional Ornette Coleman group from 1974, with James Blood Ulmer, Billy Higgins and Sirone, says more. Theme from a Symphony, The Good Life, School Work, whatever you call it, there's something seemingly perversely primitivist about Ornette's melody, its repeated, cloying scalar simplicity, recalling Albert Ayler's Bells. (And the Art Ensemble's A Jackson in Your House). At this point Coleman is employing rhythm section ideas that are fairly close to traditional jazz strategy. Higgins playing time, Sirone and Ulmer covering some diatonic harmony. As soon as the solo section starts, what happens? I don't know enough about guitar to understand Ulmer's set up, tuning or technique, but his comping is impressionistically impressive. Sirone's walking chromatic bass lines in slightly more than double time are definitely intuitive, but draw from the traditional role of the bass during jazz horn solos. Coleman goes a lot of different places, but he does restate variations of a part of the theme to cue the end of his solo. Higgins' solo is as straight as anyone's playing here, but elegant and melodic and fitting. The return to the theme itself at the end is surprising and strange. An interesting exercise is to hum or sing the tonic of the theme statement throughout Ornette Coleman's solo, or just keep repeating the theme itself...perhaps it's my imagination but architecturally Coleman seems to accomplish a harmolodic miracle, jumping off of various scale tones of the original theme.

Braxton, Taylor and Coleman are perhaps the three artists from earlier extensions of "jazz" strategy who are most often cited as thorny, difficult, "not jazz," or even "charlatans." This seems particularly sad and unnecessary, exaggerated by traditionalists, both critics and musicians themselves. Some give a cursory nod to their work while citing some "lack of musicianship" and explicitly or implicitly, some lack of plain old cred. (Betty Carter on Cecil, paraphrased: "I don't know what Black Music has, but Cecil doesn't have it." Is it any wonder that a half-fond nickname Mr. Taylor uses for Carter is "The Beast"?) A critic of Ornette Coleman who raises the issue of his tone and intonation and unfavorably compares his playing to that of, say, Phil Woods or Branford Marsalis on the basis of sound production alone is stuck somewhere, in my opinion. Technical aspects of sound production go right past something ineffable about musicians who are also artists.

1 comment:

peter breslin said...

a few afterthoughts-- obviously, traditionalist and innovator, and more specifically technician versus artist are artificial distinctions. Looking for some sort of handle for this conversation is a challenge. Obviously, I reveal myself as a category of traditionalist, focusing as I do on Braxton, Taylor and Coleman. This too is just for convenience, as well as clarity.