Tuesday, October 24, 2006

o tempora! o marsalis! (a.k.a. laces out!)

Call me obsessed, call me paranoid, call me misguided, but when The Outpost, formerly a rather adventurous presenting organization, brings first Branford Marsalis and now, Wynton Marsalis to the barren, windswept, cultural badlands of northern New Mexico, I start to freak out. Or at least get downhearted.

To be fair (and to increase a strange sense of the culture wars being played out at my doorstep) The Outpost helped bring Cecil Taylor here about 2 and a half years ago, and has some interesting stuff on the fall schedule, including the great Eddie Marshall.

Recent "jazz" bookings here included Jane Ira Bloom and Sophie Millman. Bloom is up to fascinating stuff, not entirely to my personal taste but independent and unique, fiercely conceived and instantly recognizable as original. Millman was so bad she actually generated letters to the editor protesting just how bad she was. Which surprised me.

There's The Southwest Jazz Orchestra, which just released its first CD. Some talented players and obvious investment in arranging (mostly by Jack Manno) but largely a repertory outfit. Manno's own piece, "Soaring," is his take on Pat Metheny's guitar lines, but doesn't stand up all that well next to Mulligan, Mingus, etc. The strangest cut is the 16 minute version of "A Love Supreme," (really just the opening section of Coltrane's piece) at too fast a tempo and with none of the meditative mystery of the original. In general, this is an excellent document of what passes for jazz in this part of the world, in that the music is unarguably crafted, mostly reverent, mostly familiar and ancient, not original, and encumbered by a stage band/recital mentality. The enthusiasm and love for the music is implied, but doesn't translate into very energetic or memorable performance. The technical facility and polish of the soloists is pervasive, the charts are workmanlike, the results bland, like jazz preserved in amber.

In other words, to my ears, completely and entirely unlike jazz. On the other hand, I suspect attending a live performance by The Southwest Jazz Orchestra would be a lot of fun. In particular it's rather rare to hear music by a large ensemble these days here. Most of the rehashing is in piano trio and sax quartet settings, mostly in dinner music venues. The big band sound remains one of my favorites, dating from my 10 year old obsession with Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Louis Bellson, Count Basie, and later Duke Ellington, David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams and Braxton's amazing Creative Orchestra Music '76. Big band music also has perhaps the highest bombast/treacle/pretense quotient in all of jazz. A recent spotlight on Stan Kenton on KSFR here reminded me just how aesthetically bereft and tasteless some big bands could be. (In particular, a dirgelike and funereal version of All the Things You Are that utterly, completely stripped that lovely standard of every aspect of its worth).
In comparison, The Southwest Jazz Orchestra largely avoids embarrassing pitfalls and turns in steady, studied and staid (but at least inoffensive) performances.

And this would be one way to characterize what's on offer here most often, and what garners the most approval, support and attendance. Steady, studied, staid: familiar, polished, repertory-derived, inoffensive...and bland, a music locked, like an extinct insect, in primordial tree sap.

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