Sunday, September 27, 2009

If Q then not necessarily P

Americans have long had a technique fetish in their Calvinist, superficial attempts at appreciation for the arts.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success caused quite a stir. As soon as I heard Gladwell's glib "10,000 hours" formulation, I knew a couple things. I knew it would become a meme, a viral apothegm. I also knew it was a formulation of no ultimate consequence. This past summer, I was snooping around a friend's bookshelf, found a copy of Outliers and read it in about 45 minutes. How utterly disappointing, to see that the "best minds of my generation" are well-fed, superficial and have decided to reduce their intelligence to Reader's Digest levels of pablum-spewing lack of significance.

I'm sure there is a correlation between time spent engaged in a task/field of endeavor/area of expression and the quality of the results. I'm also sure that switching the "if...then" of the basic proposition reveals, in what should be an obvious way, the glib superficiality of the basic idea. "People who show extraordinary success at X have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice" simply doesn't translate to "People who put in 10,000 hours of practice at something will be extraordinarily successful at it." That this simple logical converse does not seem to shed light on the transparent uselessness of the original correlation for a lot of people speaks to how bereft the arts are (for example) in America.

The American sensibility seems to me often to reduce appreciation for an artist to the admiration one shows for a circus freak. Speed of execution, articulation, ability to manipulate the physical world and one's body, excellence at representing reality, extraordinary agility, flexibility, etc. These are the hallmarks of a "true artist" for the essentially materialistic American "consumer" of the arts. Even in the case of highly technically accomplished artists who also have a great depth and individuality of expression, what many Americans seem to value is merely the technical accomplishment.

Take, for example, the majority opinion on John Coltrane. Check out this bracing video of a transcription of Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps, the version originally released on Atlantic:

This metronome 240 (roughly) foray into linear and arpeggiated statements over functional harmony, an exaltation of both freedom and form, is a landmark performance. But the pathetic Jazz University that would soak such a form in formaldehyde entirely misses the point.

Coltrane's trajectory soon followed entirely new shapes, much to the dismay of many long time fans. The triumph of "be bop" was also its downfall. The form allowed for too much formalization, and very soon the genius practitioners of the form chafed against the "hamster wheel" experience of simply running the changes in 12 or 16 or 32-bar cycles again from the top. What could be said in such a fashion was exhaustively said, by artists of such expressive ability and insightful genius that there was no artistic urgency to revisit the endless chord wheel yet again.

Yet the phase of Coltrane's career most beloved by Americans, and especially most revered in "The Jazz University," is absolutely the phase of greatest traditional display of traditional technique. This is as it always has been here in the great US of A. Even 'Trane's later work with Miles Davis on the so-called "modal" Kind of Blue
pieces begins to attract resistance. "Too many notes," say some. (Possibly even Mr. Davis, who in his famous, possibly apocryphal, rejoinder to Coltrane offered a very simple suggestion for how to end a solo, namely, "Take the @%#$!* horn out of your *#@*&% mouth").

I have had many be-bop lovin' hepcat jazzbo white guys who are still running tired, fleet and technically accomplished solos over even more tired Real Book (tm) tunes say to me "I can't stand that later Coltrane stuff! He must have gone back on smack or something! Or that cat went crazy man! Ya Dig!!" (not really that last part, so much, but you get the idea).

So I'd offer Coltrane as one example (of a very, very many) of an American artist embraced as a master up until that regrettable leap off into madness, marked especially by what is perceived as an abandonment of technical facility. For contrast, and for a renewed sense of just how astonishing 5 years can be in the lifetime of an American innovator, check this transcendent 1965 performance of Naima :

And this is especially telling, as Naima is itself now considered a "jazz classic," and sometimes is subjected to the usual superficial, glib, utterly semantically depleted exsanguination as any other "tune" suffering the general misfortune of being adopted by the jazzbots. (At the same time, also tellingly, Coltrane's Sufi-like ecstacy in his solo is often dismissed as "just too much, " even now, 45 years after the fact).

So where does this version of Naima fit in the Gladwellian formulation? Clearly, Coltrane's utter mastery of the tenor saxophone, of the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, of the great sweeping arcs and jagged jumps of compositional drama in his solo, these aspects of Coltrane's art could (perhaps) be taught. Certainly, if not taught, at least analyzed, more deeply admired through analysis and perhaps employed in part or attempted whole by other artists, other students of the music. One could imagine easily spending 10,000 happy hours learning to play every nook and cranny of a handful of Coltrane recordings from roughly 1962-1967. Indeed, an entire school could be and in fact has been built on Coltrane's work, or Davis's, or Parker's, or what have you. Entire 10,000-hour schools could be built on single solos by these masters, or even some of the methodologies summarized in a few bars. This may sound hyperbolic, but listen to any so-called "JAZZ" recording claiming to be "mainstream" from the past 40 years or so and tune in to how each solo is an homage to an homage to an homage to some masterful statement, several decades old, a palimpsest featuring Sunday cartoon comics sketched over layers of what used to be culturally significant, the bottom-most layer an intricate, fundamentally unreproducible and urgent statement of vital truth.

What Coltrane (and so many others) plumbed (and continue to plumb) at the peak of their self-expression cannot be taught. Cannot be practiced. Only a mistranslation (at best) or a sorry-ass recapitulation is possible. Check the Naima clip from 2:49 to about 3:17, or the amazing interlude of telepathy with Elvin Jones from 4:26 to about 5:05 for but two examples (totaling just over a minute) from Coltrane's improvisation of what 10,000 hours, or 10,000 lifetimes of 10,000 hours each, could never teach.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Comfort Zones

Vijay Iyer, one of an inspiring young(ish) cadre of creative improvisers making inspiring music, posted a link on Facebook to this Wall Street Journal article giving Wynton Marsalis a generous, lotion-soaked tug job.

The article in turn inspired me to read up a little bit on Larry Blumenfeld. I knew I had seen his by line somewhere before, but I'm not (ahem) a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal. Turns out Blumenfeld is also "editor at large" for JazzIz magazine (not sure what editor-at-large means?) as well as a "regular contributor" to The Wall Street Journal. He's self-described as a "cultural journalist specializing in jazz," and as such I wonder how he could possibly have written the WSJ article with a straight face? The piece is thoroughly misguided. It unleashes some real howlers. Calling Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar," (hyphen included), is absurd. Ornette Coleman is an American master, a stone cold American genius, a one-of-a-kind American iconoclast who has been making ridiculously beautiful music for decades. His composition for two improvising quartets called _Free Jazz_ was originally released nearly five decades ago (next year is the 50th anniversary) and has its own Wikipedia page. The term "free jazz" is thoroughly passe. To reduce Coleman to a cipher who still represents a movement that is 50 years old is really very bad music writing.

Blumenfeld also writes: "Mr. Coleman's engagement, which may nonetheless stretch some subscribers' comfort zones, is less aesthetic leap than show of strength." Precisely what sort of stretch for some subscribers' comfort zones will Mr. Coleman's engagement present? This is the sort of delicate writing that one used to (very occasionally) encounter in The New Yorker 35 freaking years ago. In my opinion, Wynton Marsalis is not fit to wash Mr. Coleman's underwear by hand. I realize reasonable people can disagree. It's just my opinion.

More importantly, Blumenfeld denies the importance of the still very much alive aesthetic, political and economic tensions in "jazz" since its entanglements in the culture wars of the late 1980s, yet uses broad distinctions that arose directly out of the exact same conflicts. Why call Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar" and talk about comfort zones at all if "The so-called jazz wars of the 1990s, often focused on Mr. Marsalis's organization, now seem largely irrelevant"? Why use similarly superficial, glib and dismissive language referring to Cecil Taylor and John Zorn ("both avant-garde darlings")?

Quoting Blumenfeld at greater length:

"When saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a free-jazz avatar, opens Jazz at Lincoln Center's sixth season in its own space in the Time Warner Center on Sept. 26, some may interpret the booking as a widening of the mainstream-jazz credo long espoused by Mr. Marsalis ("Having the swing element and the blues at its center," he's often explained, "and heavy on improvisation"). But Mr. Marsalis presented a night of Mr. Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist into the center's Hall of Fame last year. By now, Jazz at Lincoln Center, perhaps out of practicality as much as philosophy, has embraced a range of music that defies the conservative caricature..."

Again, I am left wondering in precisely what way Mr. Blumenfeld "specializes in jazz," if he can so thoroughly miss the very essential point of Ornette Coleman's music. For more than 50 years, Ornette Coleman's music has been entirely dedicated to the jazz credo espoused by Wynton Marsalis (never mind the execrable use of the term "mainstream," again reminding us that maybe the "so-called" jazz wars were actually significant somehow). Ornette Coleman has always made music "having the swing element and the blues at its center and heavy on improvisation." Perhaps this is precisely WHY Marsalis, ever-haughty and ever-condescending and ever-wrong-headed about the significance of jazz in American cultural history since 1959, "presented a night of Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist (composer? innovator? revolutionary? aesthetic paradigm shifter???) into the center's Hall of Fame last year."

And I'd love to know more intimately what Dave Douglas was trying to say when he said:

""Has Jazz at Lincoln Center's promotion of jazz succeeded in assisting music and musicians? Without a doubt, yes," said trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose free-thinking approach has often been contrasted with Mr. Marsalis's in the jazz press, and who has performed at Rose Theater. "Has its strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians? Without a doubt, no. On balance, the influence is overwhelmingly positive.""

This sounds like an abbreviated quotation to me. It also really buries some interesting critique just below the surface. Why hasn't Jazz at Lincoln Center's "strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians"? Is it because the market for creative music and musicians in Europe and Japan remained very strong in spite of America's own abandonment of its own vital, progressive and ever-changing art form? Is it because a ton of dedicated people labored in the trenches at great personal sacrifice to keep the bodies and souls of creative musicians barely knit together? Is it because Jazz at Lincoln Center has been completely and totally irrelevant when the issue has been creative music and musicians? Or are there a host of other reasons that bear very close scrutiny and probably say a lot about the arts in America in general?

I could go on and on about Blumenfeld's fawning materialism (Marsalis in a "Lincoln Navigator," the JALC Orchestra "turning a profit three months a year," etc., etc.). Perhaps this fetishistic focus made the piece able to pass editorial muster at the WSJ, basically Fox News for the college educated?

If, like me, you need a soul-cleansing antidote to all of this, listen to the master himself. "free-jazz avatar" my ass. But watch out! Your comfort zone might get stretched! (check out the dudes in the audience at about 1:45 for some real comfort zone, haha).

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Is this thing on? I've spent so much of the past few months on Facebook that I'm afraid I've completely neglected the "long form." FB is tempting like fast food, like a cheap date. Instant micro-posting of various random thoughts, perspectives, reactions to the news, YouTube links, instant responses, no real dialogue.


-8 months and three days smoke free.
-A return to full time high school math teaching with perhaps the heaviest class/student load I've ever had.
-A possible concert in Santa fe brewing, no definite plans.
-A renewed appreciation for Fishbone.

There's more.

But for now, I'll just post a link to a wonderful Elvin Jones performance with Dave Liebman, Courtney Pine and Palle Danielson. I love the way Elvin has his drums tuned. The floaters are roughly a half step apart, which creates some interesting tonal variations. His opening salvos in 5/8 are some wonderful stacked phrases. His language on the drums is instantly recognizable, of course. There's something about his actual stroke, the looseness and volume of it, the attack, that even with a few single hits it might be possible to say "That's Elvin!"

I like the way Lieb starts his soprano solo. It reminds me of some of the Miles Davis chromaticism from the mid-70s band. And definitely check out Lieb's pitch bending response to Pine at about 6:54. I do wish Courtney Pine would make more of a statement when he solos. His scalar/modal flurries are all right, but just don't seem to say much to me, other than "I have listened to a lot of Coltrane."

Anyway, hope you enjoy.