Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Little Egocentric Fun

I'm sitting in my room listening to a really great set from Maria Schneider's band a couple of weeks ago at the Kennedy Center in DC and perusing the Bad Plus's wonderful blog, "Do the Math." A while back, they sent out questionnaires to different musician friends asking some simple music-related questions. Considering how much I like making lists (see below), how can't I get in on the act.


1. Movie Score. Johnny Greenwood's "There Will be Blood" and Michael Giacchino's "Ratatouille." I'm also a major sucker for Randy Edelman's "Gettysburg" score.

2. TV Theme. "The Simpsons"

3. Melody. Ornette Coleman, "Lonely Woman," Joni Mitchell "Refuge of the Roads"

4. Harmonic Language: "Introitus" from Manuel Cardoso's Requiem, Steve Reich "Music for 18 Musicians"

5. Rhythmic Feel. Brian Blade on anything, Olodun on Paul Simon's "Obvious Child" (and whenever else they play Batucada)

6. Hip-Hop Track. "You Got Me" by the Roots w/Erykah Badu

7. Classical Piece. (This changes by the week) Schoenberg's "Pierot Lunaire," John Cage's "Third Construction"

8. Smash hit. "One Week" by the Barenaked Ladies, "You Get What You Give" by the New Radicals

9. Jazz album. Fred Hersch's "Leaves of Grass," Don Cherry "Symphony for Improvisers"

10. Non-American Folkloric group. The Chieftains. Seriously.

11. Book on Music. The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross and The Joy of Music by Leonard Bernstein

Bonus Questions:

A) Name an surprising album (or albums) you loved when you were developing as a musician: something that really informs your sound but that we would never guess in a million years:

Buddy Rich "Mercy, Mercy"
Ben Folds "Songs for Silverman"

B) Name a practitioner (or a few) who play your instrument that you think is underrated:

Nate Wood, Han Bennink, Bob Moses, Scott Amendola, Gernot Bernroider.

C) Name a rock or pop album that you wish had been a smash commercial hit (but wasn’t, not really)

Ted Leo "Hearts of Oak," so that "Where Have all the Rude Boys Gone" would be played at every high school dance.

D) Name a favorite drummer, and an album to hear why you love that drummer:

Hmm, this changes by the week too: Jack DeJohnette on Pat Metheny's "80/81"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why musicians should be playing close attention to politics right now...

It's the morning after the so-called Republican drubbing last night and political pundits are clamoring about how voters are sending a message to President Obama. Well I don't buy it, at least here in New Jersey; the Democrats suffered from a weak and uninspiring incumbent that I barely had the heart to vote for. The real story is most likely that in an off-year election like this one, it is the bases that come out. The conservative had a lot more reason to vote than the liberal one based on all the town hall shenanigans and what not, which makes Democrat Bill Owens's win in the upstate NY congressional special election more surprising.

So what does any of this have to do with music anyway? Well it should get musicians thinking about how government policy can have a real effect on their lives. For example, now Governor-elect Christie promised to cut "wasteful spending" in the NJ budget instead of raising taxes, but in order to close NJ's massive budget gap, he's going to have to cut a lot of non-wasteful spending too if he is to keep his promise. In NJ under governor Jim McGreevy, the arts was a plump target for the chopping block and probably will be again. Grants that have powered many local arts initiatives, including the Princeton Laptop Orchestra I'm a part of, have gotten grants from the Jersey Council on the Arts. If funding is cut substantially, like under McGreevy, Jersey-based musicians will have to look elsewhere for financial support and will probably gravitate toward New York and Philadelphia. So much for Christie's promise to keep jobs from leaving New Jersey.

But more importantly than this local issue, the potential for national health care reform has very large implications for musicians and artists everywhere. In February 2008, Nate Chinen wrote a great article in the New York Times about the health issues of bassist Dennis Irwin and saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo. Both had tumors, Irwin's spinal and D'Angelo's in the brain, and both were without health insurance. As the article reported the many fund-raising concerts to help pay for D'Angelo's and Irwin's medical bills, some of their musical compatriots, like saxophonist Michael Blake and multi-reedist Chris Speed, reported they had no health insurance either. Speed says his lack of coverage is "idiotic" but is too expensive, as is the case for many of Speed's musician friends. Now, D'Angelo is healthy and playing a lot (I caught him this summer at the Cornelia Street Cafe) but Irwin sadly has been gone for over a year now.

One argument for health reform and a public option in particular that has gone under-utilized is the effect it would have on musicians and artists. With public health insurance, musicians would be able to better pursue whatever musical avenues they found most stimulating. They would not have to make the choice of taking a potentially non-music related job (like Charles Ives the insurance salesman) or going without insurance. An argument like this could help reframe the health reform debate in terms of the duty to provide it for all. This argument puts a face on the uninsured better than the sob stories because almost all Americans let musicians into their homes via the stereo and iPod. Even for popular music, a politician could say that Miley Cyrus certainly can afford health insurance, but what about the drummer or the guitarist on your favorite track of hers?

At this point in the game it seems highly unlikely any Democratic leader would break out this argument for health reform. But who says we musicians can't start stumping for health insurance ourselves?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Methods of a Jazz Evangelist

Since my "Jazz Now" post over a month ago, the project over at NPR's Blog Supreme has amassed quite a mass of comparable lists. It's very exciting to now that there are quite a few jazz evangelists out there. If the music can drive so many to pester friends, family, and unsuspecting blog readers, then the music is far from dead.

Today, Patrick Jarenwattananen gave his final take on the whole project. Much to my surprise, he devoted a section to the setup of my last post--making recommendations based on prior musical tastes:

"This is an interesting thought, and a different tactic than I tried. I like to think that a heartfelt, intense jazz recording defines its own rules in a sense; gifted musicians bend familiar sounds to their own twisted ends. I also credit people with complex musical tastes, and assume that people assess aesthetics based on individual musicianship. So to that extent, I tried to make varied picks based on recordings which I think most listeners could appreciate if they were willing to sit down and engage with the music.

But does that work? Does one enthusiastically-recommended size fit all? Obviously, in "proselytizing" for jazz, you need to keep your audience in mind. (Ideally, you'd be able to answer their feedback too.) At the same time, the mere presentation of musical breadth in modern jazz is, I think, pretty useful. In introducing jazz to a new listener, it's important to remember that many neophytes think that jazz refers to a narrowly specific set of sounds. Directed listening that emphasizes musical diversity: that's as close to an consensus formula as I can get you."

As a sort of response to Patrick's thoughts, I'm going to talk a little bit about why I try to tailor picks based on what my friends already like.

My reasons for personalization come from personal experiences of evangelizing jazz to my family and friends. After giving my brother and his girlfriend a mix of jazz at their request that I thought was accessible, he told me afterward that he thought Pat Metheny sounded too "new-agey," Brian Blade Fellowship "too smooth," and that Kurt Elling's voice was ingratiating, though he did enjoy Brad Mehldau's cover of "Wonderwall" and Maria Schneider's "Green Piece." His tastes are learned and diverse, so I expected, as Patrick writes, his assessments to be based primarily on musicianship.

However, although we would like to think otherwise, any potential jazz listener brings a lifetime of preconceptions and predilections to their music, particularly in terms of timbre (see Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music for a bit on that). Just the fact that potential listeners haven't listened to much jazz and probably in a superficial situation (i.e. restaurant background music) means that they have different expectations of what the music's purpose is and what characteristics make music good. If a jazz tune I show a friend has some sense of familiarity, particularly in terms of timbre or rhythm, then his or her initial judgment of the tune is much more positive, leading to repeated listens.

But do these personalized recommendations cheapen the music and/or pander to the listener? Certainly not. The recommendations that I make aren't just albums to be used as a gateway drug to the "real" stuff, but are great albums in and of themselves that have mounted substantial playcounts in my iTunes library and in my car stereo. These are the albums that got me into modern jazz when the "newest" jazz album I had was Buddy Rich's "Keep the Customer Satisified" from 1970. Most importantly, which Patrick also touches on, we as jazz evangelists must be earnest and enthusiastic in our recommendations and receptive to our audience. It's not like we're trying to force feed this music because it's good for you, rather, we're seeking someone with which to listen to this great music. We are not critics in an ivory tower, but fans and practitioners in the trenches. It's all about building a jazz community from the ground up.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jazz Now

I'm very excited to see the discussion going on at NPR's jazz blog, a blog supreme. This series of different critics' five albums for modern jazz neophytes is timely in the aftermath of Terry Teachout. I've been a modern jazz evangelist over the past few years, whether playing stuff in the car I think my younger sister could get into (so far, it's been Pat Metheny, Kurt Elling, and the Bad Plus) or giving a speech to my high school English class on what's so great about modern jazz (complete with accompanying sound clips). I like to base my recommendations on a person's current predilections, and so the list is broken up accordingly.

If you like Country/Southern Rock: Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band "Season of Changes"

This album is showing up on a lot of lists and for good reason. It's very tuneful, grooves infectiously like a pop album, and has an earthy sound world that feels familiar to country fans. The Fellowship Band brings a modern jazz sensibility to the folky music, especially on "Return of the Prodigal Son," with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's gracefully loping lines and saxophonist Melvin Butler's frenetic blowing propelled along by Brian Blade's polyrhythms and asymmetric accents on the drum kit. An album that goes down easy the first time, yet keeps revealing subtleties in its sonic depths on future listens.

If you like Broadway/Show Tunes: Fred Hersch Ensemble "Leaves of Grass"

Mark this one down for any English majors/teachers as well. Arguably pianist Fred Hersch's magnum opus, this hour-long setting of Walt Whitman's poetry elegantly combines jazz, art song, and a hint Copland-style Americana, yielding an organic fusion of styles and a programmatic scope that would appeal to fans of musical theater. But the real feat of this album is how naturally Hersch's gorgeous music mixes with Whitman's idiosyncratic free verse. The power of Whitman's words are not cheapened by Hersch's music, but are enhanced, shaving off some of Whitman's trademark excesses. "Leaves of Grass" is a truly rewarding and thought-provoking listen.

If you like experimental arty rock: The Claudia Quintet "Claudia Quintet"

Memorable tunes, sheen textures, and consonance aren't for everyone, and so for those who prefer their rock a bit more cool and angular (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes to mind), there is the Claudia Quintet. Led by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, the sound of the Claudia Quintet is informed as much by modern classical music as by jazz, an influence shared with many current indie rockers. Throw in some funky grooves and a strong sense of humor, and you've got music that is somehow both infectious and exploratory. The group's self-titled debut album is still the strongest work they've done so far; highlights include vibraphonist Matt Moran's vibrato-laden, boogaloo-backed solo on the humorously titled "A-B-S-T-I-N-E-N-C-E" and accordionist Ted Reichman's unbelievably raucous run through "No D."

If you like rap/hip-hop: Vijay Iyer "In What Language?"

Like the other albums on this list, pianist Vijay Iyer's "In What Language?" bends traditional genre boundaries, almost to the point of breaking them entirely. Rife with the sounds and rhythms of hip-hop, foreign compositional forms, and eloquent rapping to boot, this album isn't jazz by a purist definition of the genre. However, these definitions choke off jazz from the rest of the musical world, stymieing jazz in a creative holding pattern while many listeners tune out. While Iyer has explored similar musical territory at the intersection of jazz and hip-hop on other albums such as "Reimagining," the mere presence of words in the music make this album a good starting point for those unfamiliar with purely instrumental music. Like "Leaves of Grass," the surprising feature of this album is how naturally the different forms of music mesh, showing how Iyer and his supporting cast are equally fluent in hip-hop as they are in jazz.

For listeners with a softer palate: Maria Schneider Orchestra "Sky Blue"

Few, if any, jazz composers today can execute the grand gesture like Maria Schneider. When many large ensemble writers go big, especially on albums backing up singers, the results are usually bloatedly sentimental. However, Schneider's orchestra, stacked with fabulous soloists in all sections of the band (particularly trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and guitarist Ben Monder), play her bold and imaginative music with uncanny precision and conviction. With singable melodies and diatonic harmony, the music on "Sky Blue" is immediately accessible to any listener, but what ultimately keeps the listener engaged are the dynamic solos. Schneider challenges the soloist bring the music from point to another with static harmonies and sometimes even without a consistent pulse. Exploring these pulseless dreamscapes in "The Pretty Road" and "Cerulean Skies" on repeated listens is truly rewarding, but even on the first listen, one can appreciate the sheer beauty and imagination of Schneider's music.

Other fun albums for modern jazz newbies:

Bill Frisell "Have a Little Faith"--a unique brand of Americana, both familiar and subversive

Joshua Redman "Moodswing"--tuneful, accessible, and hard-swinging

Pat Metheny "Pat Metheny Group"--hypermelodic and texturally rich, the most immediate and organic of all PMG recordings

Brad Mehldau "Day is Done"--modern pop covers abound, from the witty ("Martha My Dear") to the pensive ("Knives Out") to the coolly slick ("Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover")

Kurt Elling "Man in the Air"--no route in modern jazz is left untraveled, from the fusion of Pat Metheny and Weather Report, to the funk of Grover Washington, to the worldbeat of Courtney Pine, to the modal explorations of John Coltrane, all delivered with vocal clarity and conviction

Herbie Hancock "River"--popular song material, smooth-edged textures, but with a surprisingly strong sense of interplay that brings out the best in the guest vocalists

Sex Mob "Solid Sender"--Loud, transparent, grooving, and just plain fun

John Zorn "Masada: Live in Sevilla"--who can resist the infectious "Beeroth"?

Darcy James Argue "Infernal Machines"--dark and dramatic big band music that tends to rock rather than swing; Sebastian Noelle's guitar is a critical ingredient

And of course, really anything by the Bad Plus, but if I had to pick one, it would be "Suspicious Activity"

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

If Jazz is Dying, Who's Killing It?

There has been quite a fallout in the jazz blogosphere (and remaining print media outlets) over Terry Teachout's Wall Street Journal Column about the health of jazz. So I felt I break my own blog silence to drop in my two (or maybe 12) cents. Yes, it is verbose, but give it a read anyway.

By the time Wynton Marsalis’s article “What Jazz Is—and Isn’t” appeared in the New York Times in July 1988, the twenty-six-year-old trumpet player was already one of the few recognizable figures in modern jazz. Beginning in the early 1980s, Marsalis had been a media sensation. Not only was he prodigiously talented, having won eight Grammy awards in both the classical and jazz idioms, but he was an anomaly in the African-American community: a young, talented musician that elected to play jazz over Funk, R&B, and Hip-Hop. In the New York Times article, Marsalis presented his philosophy of jazz. According to Marsalis, Jazz is not a music defined by its historical context and whose innovators were just talented “noble savages,” but is a kind of music that requires a dedication to the study of musical craft and jazz tradition. While Marsalis is certainly correct to claim jazz as a serious art form, as jazz students spend large amounts of time transcribing, analyzing, and practicing solos of previous greats, he took this concept too far and restricted the definition of jazz. For Marsalis, there is only one kind of good jazz—jazz that is explicitly and noticeably rooted in the genre’s traditional aspects of the blues and swing.
This approach, used not only by Marsalis but a host of other musicians and critics, has become known in the jazz community as “Neoclassicism” for its emphasis on earlier styles of jazz and its labeling of jazz as “America’s Classical Music.” This view of jazz has stirred up great debate within the jazz community over the past twenty years between Neoclassicists and modernists, but Neoclassicism has taken a lion’s share of the media spotlight. Jazz musicologist Scott DeVeaux in his 1998 essay “Constructing the Jazz Tradition” theorizes that the media visibility of Wynton Marsalis will yield an increased Neoclassical influence on jazz and the music’s popular perception. If jazz’s popularity has declined in the years since the rise of Neoclassicism, then the proponents of this philosophy, because of their high stature outside the jazz community, may bear much of the responsibility for this trend. While Neoclassicism was a positive development for jazz in the late 1980s, as it reasserted artistic seriousness and spread this jazz to a wide audience, its philosophy has become overly dominant in the public sphere, creating the perception that jazz is an antiquated, high-brow, dead form of historical-museum music, paradoxically causing its decline in popularity in the past decades.

Before it became a destructive force in jazz, Neoclassicism indeed helped spread the music to new listeners, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. In an analysis of National Endowment for the Arts Study of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) from 1992, Scott DeVeaux traces the changes in the jazz audience from 1982 to 1992. During that time, counteracting a larger trend in jazz’s decreasing popularity since the swing era, jazz’s popularity among American adults increased. One third of Americans claimed to like jazz in 1992, up from twenty six percent in 1982, and a quarter of Americans mentioned that they would like to attend more jazz performances than they do now, up from eighteen percent. Much of this increase can be attributed to the expanded media coverage of jazz during that time. Jazz was once again thrust into the national spotlight, with major record companies devoting unprecedented resources to the promotion of young jazz artists. This trend culminated in Wynton Marsalis’s visage gracing the cover of Time Magazine in October 1990. Aware on some level that this privileged time in the spotlight would not last, young Neoclassicists like Marsalis sought to use their newly-found stature to educate the public about jazz and assert the genre’s artistry over the commercialism inherent in the rapidly growing “Smooth Jazz” subgenre, a much watered-down version of the style that took emphasis away from improvisation and musical virtuosity in exchange for pleasant, nonaggressive timbres and accessibility. Such public education and artistic assertion of “true” jazz over the diluted “smooth” kind were vital for jazz in the 1980s and ‘90s if the style was to continue to exist well into the future as a serious art form. As shown by the 1992 SPPA, “Mood/Easy Listening” music (another name for smooth jazz) was consistently more popular than jazz in every education demographic, even in the college graduate and graduate school brackets where jazz typically attracts the most listeners. Smooth Jazz thus became jazz’s principle economic competitor in the music industry. Young serious jazz musicians that did not sacrifice artistic integrity needed to pull in listeners from Smooth Jazz to be successful economically. By a promoting Neoclassicist agenda with its emphasis on music education and a set definition of what jazz is, and is not, serious jazz musicians could help new listeners relate to their music and promote jazz as a serious art form, above the vulgarities of popular music and smooth jazz.

However, though Neoclassicism was successful at simultaneously building the jazz audience in the 1980s and early ‘90s and keeping its artistic integrity, its harsh views on other genres and its self-designation as “America’s Classical Music” alienated some potential listeners. For example, in 1982, according to the SPPA, eighteen to twenty-four year olds made up the second highest percentage of people who liked jazz, at twenty-one and a half percent of the total fans of jazz. However, this percentage dropped to about twelve percent in 1992. So, while Neoclassicism was developing new fans ages twenty-five and up, it did not attract new, young fans. By failing to bring the youngest demographic into the fold, Neoclassicism set itself up for a downfall as the music would not be passed down to new generations. The fervor of the Neoclassicists also created a strong “us vs. them” mentality between traditional jazz and every other form of jazz. While Neoclassicists played “authentic” jazz and hoped to modify the consumers’ tastes toward their serious and tradition-rooted music, most other musicians (except those few who played free jazz) were lumped into the “accessible” category, musicians willing to do anything to satisfy the listeners’ changing preferences. With Neoclassicism, there was no middle ground, making it impossible to create serious and authentic jazz that was also relevant to modern audiences. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the shifting music industry and national media would help accentuate the authentic vs. accessible paradigm, leading to Neoclassicism’s great influence over the public perception of jazz.

Just as Neoclassicism was becoming the dominant philosophy in jazz, the jazz world was going through another transformation from a music centered around live performance to one emphasized recordings, a transformation aided by and supportive of Neoclassicism. In his essay “Musical Analysis and the Social Life of Jazz Recordings,” jazz musicologist Matthew Butterfield explains how the growth of the recording industry has affected the decline of local jazz scenes in different metropolitan areas. Back in the early days of recorded music, jazz records were a mere novelty for listeners, a poor substitute for a live performance. However, with the quality of digital recording technology, the sound quality of jazz recordings was good enough to be a replacement for live jazz performances. As more people bought records and went to fewer concerts, jazz musicians needed to move to cities with extensive recording scenes, New York City in particular, in order to make a living. However, it was not just recording technology that made jazz listeners seek out recordings over live performances. Neoclassicist philosophy places great importance on a jazz’s recorded legacy to show the difference between good and bad jazz. For Neoclassicists, jazz improvisation is not a completely free and fleeting act, but a craft, as the best improvised solos do not disappear into thin air, but are permanent edifices. For this to be true, the solos must be recorded and played back for future listeners. So instead of leading listeners to the nearest jazz club, Neoclassicism leads them to a past jazz recording deemed important in some way. As recordings became the preferred method of hearing jazz from both a practical and philosophical standpoint, people’s conception of jazz came not from local creative musicians, but from the recording industry and popular media.

The increasing power of the popular media in transmitting jazz to Americans helped Neoclassicism cement its place as the dominant philosophy in jazz. Although jazz received much media attention in the early 1990s, media coverage of jazz has decreased substantially into the 2000s. In a 2003 study of arts coverage in large metropolitan newspapers, only 222 of the 2916 articles on music were about jazz, less than eight percent. Most of these stories would have been found in New York papers because of its active jazz scene, meaning most Americans get little coverage of current jazz. Because of the decreased media attention on jazz, the few stories Americans would read about jazz would have an overriding influence on Americans’ perception of the music. And since Neoclassicism is the dominant jazz philosophy and its practitioners like Wynton Marsalis are media-friendly, this conception of jazz would be the only one known by the majority of Americans, causing them to think of jazz only in Neoclassicist terms.

The biggest media coup for the Neoclassicists, however, was the ten-part documentary film series by Ken Burns, Jazz. When it was first aired on PBS in the spring of 2001, PBS’s primetime ratings more than doubled for each episode in forty-eight different media markets. Beyond the original airing, Jazz was a marketing phenomenon, featuring boxed sets of videos, DVDs, CDs, and a slew of best-of compilations from some of the artists featured in the film, many of which topped the Billboard Jazz Charts in 2000 and 2001. Jazz was in the national spotlight once again, as it had been in the late 1980s. And once again, the Neoclassicists were at the center of it all. Two of the major players in the film’s production and presentation were Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch, a Neoclassical critic and ardent supporter of Marsalis. As consultants to Burns and interviewees during the program, Marsalis and Crouch effectively imbue the film with a Neoclassicist slant, spreading this philosophy to a large audience. Because this documentary brought jazz music and history to many viewers for the first time, the slant of the film had a significant impact on the audience’s perception of jazz, causing many to make to form an opinion about jazz for the first time.

So what makes such an untempered spread of Neoclassical philosophy potentially detrimental to the public perception of jazz? Firstly, the Neoclassicist view of jazz is too narrow to reflect the music’s true nature, giving the audience a false sense of homogeneity in the genre. In his article “Songs of the Unsung: The Darby Hicks History of Jazz,” musicologist George Lipsitz criticizes the biases in Jazz. Lipsitz’s first criticism is that the film has a limited temporal and geographic scope, suggesting that jazz could only have happened in 20th Century America, promoting the Neoclassicist idea that jazz is “America’s Classical Music.” In Jazz, the genre is depicted as a pure aesthetic, not permeated by other styles, therefore suggesting a set canon of the best jazz. The film goes so far to tell the audience to consume this canon through the companion books and CDs, and not to support contemporary jazz or jazz education. In Jazz, the genre is portrayed at having reached developmental maturity, with no important innovations happening since the 1960s. This view is made obvious by the fact that the last forty years of jazz were reduced to a single episode, a mere footnote to the real music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In this way, the film shows jazz to be a static, historical form of music, suggesting jazz’s irrelevance in the 21st century. This view is particularly detrimental to the perception of jazz by young people, as jazz becomes the music of their parents and grandparents, making it both boring and severely “uncool.” Casual, potential jazz listeners who went out and bought one of Jazz’s companion albums would be most taken by the poor recording quality of the original takes used, not the musical innovations present. Divorced from its cultural context, the jazz presented in Jazz is merely a memory, a history lesson. While Wynton Marsalis may say in the film that listening to jazz is good for Americans, telling them who they are, listening to jazz becomes the musical equivalent of eating one’s vegetables, and no one has to listen to jazz to be physically healthy. Quite simply, Neoclassicism takes the fun and enjoyment out of the music, alienating many potential listeners and once again relegating jazz to the backwaters of American popular culture, much as it was in the early 1980s.

In the time since the broadcast of Jazz, the genre’s popularity has decreased precipitously. In another SPPA from 2002, jazz’s gains in popularity throughout the 1980s and early ‘90s had largely been erased. In the poll, only twenty-six percent of responders said they liked jazz, down eight percent from 1992. Jazz radio listenership dropped by five percent and the percentage of those who listened to jazz recordings dropped by four percent. Some would argue that this falling popularity is due to factors other than Neoclassicism and the film Jazz. To many, jazz, with its emphasis on complex improvisation, is an inherently cerebral genre, making it hard for the average listener to understand and enjoy. This perception could account for jazz’s low popularity, but not its decrease, which would suggest that jazz today is more cerebral than in previous decades. This is certainly not the case, as the many Neoclassicist jazz musicians play music that sounds much like music from previous decades. Also, some would argue that the rise of new genres like hip-hop has pulled listeners away from jazz. Again, this could account for jazz recordings’ decreased market share, but not for the decline in people’s enjoyment of jazz; liking hip-hop does not stop someone from liking jazz. So, it seems that the pervasiveness and narrowness of Neoclassicist philosophy has played a commanding role in turning many Americans away from jazz, a philosophy emphasized by the Neoclassical music of Wynton Marsalis.

However, a person does not usually become a fan of a particular style of music by accepting an abstract musical philosophy, but by whether they simply enjoy listening to the music. Because of his media status, Wynton Marsalis has a creative platform from which to preach his Neoclassicist philosophy to a wide audience through his music. In this way, simply because of marketing and name recognition, Marsalis’s music is quite possibly the only kind of modern jazz non-jazz fans know. On his last major album, “From the Plantation to the Penitentiary,” Marsalis attempts to keep his music fresh and relevant by using it to offer social criticism. On the final track, “Where Y’all At?” Marsalis does something unexpected: he raps, in addition to playing trumpet. No governmental organization, social group, political event, and cultural icon is left uncriticized in the tune, from Fox News to the War in Iraq to Rap music to the Baby Boom generation. However, Marsalis’s attempt to make his music relevant to modern listeners through social commentary is subverted by the music itself. Instead of embracing a contemporary hip-hop groove, Marsalis raps over an antiquated, New Orleans-second line beat. The horn lines he plays in tandem with the tenor saxophonist hearken back to Dixieland. His muted trumpet fills combine a perfect replica of the intimacy of Miles Davis’s sound with the vocal quality of Louis Armstrong’s. In the end, Marsalis’s music reflects his Neoclassicist artistic philosophy, creating an amalgam of what he considers essential jazz styles. However, this mix does not make the music sound fresh and new, but rather a dated imitation of the old. To any casual listener, “Where Y’all At?” will sound just like an old-time jazz tune and the listener, who has no predilection toward jazz, will therefore dismiss it.

Fortunately, Marsalis’s rapping is not the only strategy out there for jazz musicians to relate to today’s audiences. Another performance practice that has been embraced by many modern jazz musicians is the covering of modern popular tunes. While Wynton Marsalis would decry this technique, as it is used by many smooth jazz musicians to make their music more accessible, this practice has its roots in the jazz tradition: most of the tunes played by Marsalis’s hero, Louis Armstrong, were the popular songs of his day. One musician that has helped reinsert this technique into the jazz community is pianist Brad Mehldau. Mehldau’s covers of modern pop tunes cannot be dismissed by critics like Marsalis as mere muzak because his playing is strongly rooted within the jazz tradition and uses the songs as vehicles for improvisation, not as cheap imitations of popular trash. On his most recent album “Live,” Mehldau plays a particularly stirring version of the 1990s Oasis number one hit song “Wonderwall.” Mehldau plays the tune like he would any other jazz standard. He begins by playing the composed melody, with some slight reharmonizations, common in renditions of jazz standards. He then solos over the form of the tune several times, returning to the main melody at the end. Underneath Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard play a jazzed-up variation of the original rock groove, just as bebop rhythm sections would play around with the swing rhythms of the popular songs they covered. Overall, the song is recognizable to the casual listener, a trait that will draw the listener in, not push him or her away. However, like any great performance of a jazz standard, Mehldau plays with the expectations of his audience during the solo, ratcheting up the intensity with virtuosic runs, but keeping the original groove and form readily apparent. As opposed to turning jazz into a commodity, which neoclassicist critics would accuse, Mehldau is extending the jazz tradition into the twenty-first century, making it relevant to today’s audience, and in particular, young people that know the original version of “Wonderwall” and the other pop tunes Mehldau covers.

Though jazz musicians like Brad Mehldau are playing both serious and accessible music, will potential listeners, turned off by the dated music of Neoclassicists and the more cerebral and complex forms of jazz, ever tune in? Defying the popular notion that jazz is dead, jazz has proven that it can still attract new listeners today, if it reaches the people where they are and is then publicized to a wide audience. A prime example of this is pianist Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album, “River: The Joni Letters.” Hancock’s album shocked the music industry by winning the 2008 Grammy award for album of the year, beating out more popular artists like Amy Winehouse and the Foo Fighters. With this free publicity, the album’s sales jumped almost 1000% from the week before the Grammys to the week after, sending Hancock’s album to the number five spot on the Billboard chart. Although no one, not even Hancock, expected “River” to win such an award, what is even more shocking is that “River” is no mere pop-crossover album (though it does pay tribute to a pop icon) but is rather a very serious jazz album and one of Hancock’s best in recent memory. However, by exploring modern pop tunes with a jazz mindset, Hancock’s album is also very relatable for a novice jazz listener that may not know Hancock’s previous work, but would recognize the tunes he plays. The album’s success shows that Americans will listen to serious jazz, if they know about it and can relate to the material, meaning a jazz artist does not need to dumb down one’s music to sell records. If jazz musicians received the same publicity as their rock and hip-hop counterparts, Hancock’s story would be much less of an anomaly, and jazz would not be discussed as a genre on the verge of collapse.

But even without such a fortunate combination of quality, accessibility, and publicity, jazz can still expand its audience through music education. While Neoclassicists recognized this importance and aggressively promoted jazz education, their narrow vision of jazz subverted any attempt to revitalize the genre with new and young listeners. For example, in a clinic for young student musicians, Wynton Marsalis disparaged rock and funk music after a student asked him about his playing in funk bands as a teenager, saying that “…there’s no way that that music is on the same level [as jazz],” potentially turning off that student to jazz. As music education has become increasingly common in American schools, jazz has the potential to reach many young listeners. While thirty-five percent of adult responders in 2002 SPPA mentioned they had taken a music class in their lifetime, ninety-seven percent of primary schools and ninety-four percent of secondary schools offer musical instruction. If jazz is integrated into the music curriculum, either through a jazz history class, or afterschool groups, the music will be spread to young audiences who are potentially more open to different forms of music than adults. But importantly, this jazz education must promote new music alongside the classics, and creativity alongside tradition, in order for it to be effective at teaching young people to love jazz.

Nowadays, jazz musicians frequently visit high schools to perform clinics, adjudicate competitions, or even just perform. Some musicians, like big band leader Gordon Goodwin, have made a career of catering to this high school audience by publishing their compositions for high school groups to play. His compositions are clever, fun, and in the jazz tradition, making them particularly adept at helping young people learn to like jazz. Goodwin’s recently popularity (his last album hit number six on the Billboard jazz record chart) stems from his devotion to education and reaching out to young audiences in a positive way.

Though jazz’s popularity and commercial prospects are on the decline, it is far from a dead genre. The fact that there is such a heated debate over the tenets of Neoclassicism suggests that there are a lot of people out there that care deeply about the music and its artistic and economic survival. Neoclassicists are well intentioned, trying to keep jazz both artistic and relevant, not sacrificing the music to the whims of listeners and instead trying to introduce Americans to the wonderful possibilities of jazz performance, just as Leonard Bernstein famously did for European classical music in America. Unfortunately, because of Neoclassicism’s narrow mindset of what constitutes good jazz and its omnipresence in the genre, it has unfortunately turned away listeners it wanted to attract, a classic case of trying too hard. In the end, it is not the audience’s knowledge of blues forms and bebop runs that will attract them to the music, but rather if the musicians can use their immense musical prowess in an expressive way, making music that the audience can connect to. Brad Mehldau does it through the playing of modern pop tunes. Guitarists like John Scofield and Bill Frisell do it by integrating the sounds of rock and roll. Pianist Robert Glasper does it by playing over hip-hop grooves. Jazz does not have to just be acoustic and feature swing rhythms. By integrating new sounds, new rhythms, and new material, jazz can remain a relevant force in modern popular music, and not become a dead stuffed elephant in an American history museum.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

PLOrk and Pharoah

Just finished a great weekend of performances. I must admit playing with PLOrk, Matmos, and So Percussion on Saturday was some of the most fun I've had making music in a while. We had a great crowd response and I thank everyone who came for stopping by.

I'm listening to Pharoah Sanders's masterwork "The Creator Has A Master Plan" from his album "Karma." Hearing the richness and variety of his sound, I'm intrigued thinking about what a Pharoah Sanders-PLOrk collaboration would sound like, especially considering how well Riley Lee was able to fit in with some of our pieces. Well, that's for another time. In the mean time, here's a review of Pharoah Sanders's performance at the Iridium in New York from this past December.

Though Pharoah Sanders is still best known as the powerfully anarchic tenor saxophonist that frequently appeared alongside John Coltrane in the mid-1960s, in the years since his stint in Coltrane’s band, Sanders has asserted himself as one of the most creative and original voices on his instrument. Sanders possesses a rich, vibrato-laden sound in addition to a slew of squeaks, squawks, and other distorted timbres. But in addition to having this uniquely recognizable sound, Sanders has always experimented with the sounds behind him. On his 1969 album, Karma, Sanders used a large ensemble featuring a host of exotic percussion instruments and the powerful vocals of Leon Thomas. On his 1980 album Journey to the One, Sanders played over synthesizers and almost hip-hopish dance beats. He has played with African, Indian, and Far Eastern instruments, in addition to more traditional jazz groups. With this track record, Sanders’s performance at the Iridium Jazz Club on December 12, 2008, was anticipated as an eclectic affair.

Instead, Sanders’s set was unexpectedly straight-ahead with a heavy nod to tradition. Instead of pushing forward with new music, Sanders and his band, channeled the music of Sanders’s former boss, John Coltrane, particularly of his early ‘60s, “classic” quartet. The set began with Sanders’s original “Doktor Pitt” from his Journey to the One album. However, the tempo was increased dramatically, turning the lightly funky tune into a ferocious burner, highly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Impressions.” After a few false starts due to a faulty microphone, Sanders launched into his first solo. His playing was a study in extremes, jumping from dense be-bop-like lines, to long tones, to his trademark sound effects, all with plenty of space in between. For all of the contrasts in Sanders’s solo, the rhythm section remained oddly static. Drummer Mark Johnson propelled the band with high-energy insistence, but his lack of dynamic and textural contrast created a strong feeling of monotony by the end of Sanders’s solo. Pianist William Henderson did not help relieve this monotony much, as he remained locked into the same two-chord vamp for much of the tune. Though Henderson filled his solo with some gracefully swinging lines, they were covered up by Johnson’s unyielding beat and the effect of that contrast was lost.

The feel of the second tune was thankfully more subdued, yet still very much in the Coltrane vein. Henderson played a minor modal vamp with classic McCoy Tyner voicings while Johnson and bassist Nat Reeves set up a relaxed, Latin-tinged groove. This helped clear space to put Sanders front and center and he took full advantage. Sanders’s dynamic solo featured the same extremes in sound as in his first, but with the rhythm section in its restrained state, the contrasts became much more apparent and effective. In a particularly stirring moment, Sanders jumped from a low growl all the way up to a high, singing note, then sliding into a lyrical improvised melody. However, even this musical climax revealed shortcomings of the performance. The rhythm section remained passive during Sanders’s solo, not matching his energy level and not creating any interplay. Also, it showed how Sanders is still in top form on his instrument, suggesting that he could be playing much more interesting new music with more capable and dynamic sideman and is not challenging himself, content to play in an old established style.

After the Latin tune faded out, the band jumped right on to the next tune, another modal vamp, but this one was instantly recognizable: Coltrane’s famous version of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is so definitive, bordering on the trite, that most jazz musicians today stay away from it. Although it is certainly a nice tune to play and long overdue for a reinvention, the performance by Sanders and his band was no such reinvention and came off as just a rehash. Though Sanders probably picked the tune as a send-up to his former boss, it ended up sounding more like a cheap imitation. A major reason Coltrane’s version of the song is so effective is that drummer Elvin Jones is able to create a relaxed mood with his loose, behind-the-beat feel. However, drummer Mark Johnson played on front side of the beat, giving the performance an uncomfortable edge. As such, the rhythm section never really gelled, each one with a different conception of where the tune should go. These differences of opinion were reflected in each one’s solo. Pianist Henderson tried to strike a balance between freedom and restraint, building up his solo with increasingly complex melodic lines. At the climax, Henderson played colorful, upper-register chords in his right hand and the tune’s melody in his left, a compromise between reverence and reinvention. Bassist Nat Reeves’s first solo of the night was both subdued and playful. He preferred to play long tones with strong intonation instead of muddled clutters of lines. He also quoted the melody of the tune’s bridge, playing out of time with a relaxed casualness that was lacking from so much of the set. After awkwardly transitioning back into tempo, Johnson turned the entire tune on its head when he began his solo. By playing the hi-hat on only beat three, he displaced the groove, making the tune feel as if in four, not three. His solo was remarkable in its energy and technical proficiency, but it had no relation to the rest of the song. These disparate solos made it readily apparent that Sanders’s group was not a tight, working band.

It seemed that by the fourth tune, the players were finally getting on to the same page. A swinging, medium-up, hard-boppish number, the tune showed potential to lift the set out of its monotony. There was greater interplay and a bit more fun in the mix, but the tune went the way of most of the others with marathon solos and awkward transitions, pulling the life right out of the tune. Sanders’s last tune opened in a rubato fashion, like Coltrane’s “Spiritual” and “Acknowledgement.” This setting again played into Sanders’s strengths, his big sound cutting through the dense piano and cymbal cascades around him. The band transitioned into another Latin feel and Sanders began another trademark solo. However, before he could reach a definitive climax, the group transitioned back into the rubato intro and ended the tune in a less than conclusive fashion, brought about by the fact Sanders’s performance had run over time. Sanders then spoke for the first time all set (a fact that created an air of seriousness, even a wall between performer and audience, all night), as he quickly introduced the band and scampered off stage. For those unfamiliar with Sanders’s work, the set would have been eye-opening, as Sanders’s sound is still intensely deep and powerful. But for those who have heard Sanders previously, the show was underwhelming as Sanders broke no new ground and did not shoot off any creative sparks.

With his long list of accomplishments, Pharoah Sanders certainly does not need to prove his worth as a player to jazz critics. Having already cemented his place among the pantheon of tenor saxophonists, Sanders is free to play in whatever manner he desires. However, because Sanders is blessed with the ability to play so forcefully and expressively at this point in his career, he has the potential to continually expand and reinvent his music, even if he wishes to revisit older styles. Sanders may wish to take a note from saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Unlike Sanders’s group, Shorter’s quartet is made up of younger players who are regarded as great leaders in their own rights. Shorter’s group is based on interplay, allowing his players to assert their own musical voices into the mix and challenge Shorter, not just let him float on top. The group’s repertoire is almost exclusively Shorter’s older tunes, but because of their format, all of the tunes are reinvented in each performance and infrequently stale. If Sanders assembles a group of challenging players to accompany him, his music will not be stale as it was on December 12. Sanders’s music will gain new relevance, ceasing to be a hollow echo of the past.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Upcoming Shows!

I have back to back shows this weekend. They both feature new music, but couldn't be more different.

On Saturday May 16 at 8 PM, I am performing with the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). For those unfamiliar with PLOrk, the name is fairly self-explanatory: we're an orchestra of laptops. However, we do things a bit differently compared to other electronic music ensembles in that each member has a personal, six-channel speaker that replicates how sound radiates from an acoustic instrument, rather than having all sounds come out of the same amplification system. You'll see the members of orchestra play with the trackpad and keyboard, manipulate external hardware, and even move the laptop itself to create sound.

Even better, PLOrk is playing with some special guests! First, Matmos is an electronic music duo originally from San Francisco that has gained notoriety for its creative use of both everyday and obscure sounds to create techno, including noises from surgery (scalpels, liposuction, great stuff!). They have also worked extensively with Bjork. Second, So Percussion is a quartet of classically trained percussionists that have traded in their timpani for cacti, ceramic pots, and a host of other obscure instruments. They like to call their proprietary blend of 20th century classical music and their own forward-thinking, genre-bending compositions "funky contemporary music." Riley Lee is the first shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese bamboo flute) player not from Japan to attain the rank of "Grand Master" and has taught and performed all over the world.

It's going to be a wild night, like nothing you've ever heard before. Check it out. Richardson Auditorium (right off Nassau Street on the Princeton campus), 8 PM. $15 for general admission, $5 for students.

And if that's not enough for you, I'm playing at Richardson the next day at 4 PM with the Tim Keyes Consort. Tim Keyes is a local New Jersey composer whose work is in the tonal and orchestral realm; there will be no laptops in sight. His music is cinematic and majestic, though I think he's at his best when he gets playful and the music takes itself less seriously. Anyway, the concert will feature two of my good friends, Soolean Choy on clarinet and Dan Choi and violin, playing concerti by Tim.

So, whatever your cup of tea is--crazy electronic/percussive freak-outs or grand, sweeping orchestral music--you can have a good time listening to music this weekend in Princeton. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Electric Mr. Davis

I'm only on my second blog post and I'm already writing something that doesn't exactly go along with new music theme. However, Miles Davis is always both hip and controversial. The breadth of his music makes him very hard to pin down--it is hard to say definitively what Miles was all about. The following is my attempt to make sense of the great stylistic shifts in Davis's career, especially from his 1960s quintet to "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," with an emphasis on the latter.

Listening to trumpeter Miles Davis’s seminal album “Bitches Brew” is never an easy or comfortable activity. From the eerily dissonant opening chord on the album’s title track to the churning, fluctuating tempo of the final tune, “Feio,” there are few musical ideas for the listener to hold onto. The music is complex, foreboding, and long-winded (with some tunes stretching into the twenty-minute range). But what gives this music its true shock value is its departure from Davis’s previous music. Davis was as concise a trumpet player as there was in jazz at the time. In his early career in the 1940s and ‘50s, Davis became attracted to the playing of pianist Thelonius Monk, in particular Monk’s use of space. Where some jazz improvisers would play seven or eight notes, Monk would play only two or three, but the placement of those few notes made them just as meaningful as the many of other musicians, particularly bebop improvisers like the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Davis applied this approach to his trumpet-playing and was lauded for his unique style, which combined lyricism with a strong sense of swing. The critics and fans who had supported Davis’s work throughout the 1950s and ‘60s felt betrayed by his use of rock rhythms and electronic instruments on “Bitches Brew.” In their minds, the concision and simple beauty of such albums as “Kind of Blue” were nowhere to be found in “Bitches Brew”.

Even long after its initial release, “Bitches Brew” remained controversial. In the early 1990s, jazz critic Stanley Crouch wrote a scathing analysis of Davis’s jazz-rock fusion music in an article titled “On the Corner: The Sellout of Miles Davis.” In the article, Crouch universally praises Davis’s work through 1969. But for him, “Bitches Brew” bears no resemblance to Davis’s previous work and lacks its strong musical values. Crouch questions why Davis changed his music so radically in 1969 and comes up with a simple conclusion: Miles Davis sold out to rock music by adopting its rhythms and instrumentation to become more popular and sell more records. Certainly, Davis achieved those ends with his fusion recordings; “Bitches Brew” was his first album to receive gold record status and Davis played for enormous crowds around the world, including at rock and roll festivals. While his assessment turns Davis’s life into a dramatic Faustian narrative, Crouch is too quick to dismiss Davis’s fusion and the shared values that “Bitches Brew” holds with the rest of Davis’s music. “Bitches Brew” was not a dumbing down of jazz for rock audiences, but a necessary next step in Davis’s musical development, part of a continuance of innovations Davis had used throughout his career. Because he lacked technical facility on the trumpet, Davis could not just play in the accepted jazz style of his era and compete with his more gifted contemporaries, but had to rewrite the rules of jazz in order to be heard.

Miles Davis’s lack of technical facility on the trumpet could not have been due to a lack of formal training. At the age of 18, Davis arrived in New York City from East St. Louis, Illinois in 1944 to study music at the Juilliard School. However, Davis’s real musical education took place at late-night jam sessions with such players as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. These two musicians were the foremost progenitors of a new style of jazz called bebop, a hard-edged masculine style that placed great emphasis on technical virtuosity and harmonic complexity. In the world of bebop, one’s technical virtuosity was judged by how fast, how loudly, and for how long one could play. A devotee of Parker and Gillespie, Davis shadowed the two players, trying to learn their solo vocabularies and eventually played alongside Parker on several recordings. However, Davis was never truly comfortable or proficient playing in the bebop style. On a recording of “Crazeology” with Charlie Parker, Davis’s solo features many bebop styled licks borrowed from Parker, but it lacks the confidence and clarity of a Gillespie solo. Davis’s solo lines are a mediocre facsimile of Parker’s and his sound is thin and quiet, staying within the trumpet’s middle range—almost the antithesis of what Gillespie would do. Davis could not keep up with the best beboppers and he knew it. But instead of admitting defeat and remaining a second-tier bebop player, Davis decided to rewrite the conventions of jazz to showcase his true strength as a player: his diaphanous and expressive tone.

Davis’s transformations of jazz conventions can be separated into two main categories: alteration of group sound and texture and the simplification of harmonic language. These changes contrasted sharply with bebop, a style that featured many chord changes at breakneck speeds and relatively standard instrumentation (usually one or two horns accompanied by piano, bass, and drums), illustrating Davis’s attempt to break out of the style. As a bandleader, Davis frequently experimented with unusual instrumentation outside the accepted norms for a jazz group. On his first major album as a leader, “Birth of the Cool,” recorded in 1949, Davis used instruments like the baritone sax, tuba, and French horn. By using these instruments, Davis placed less emphasis on his own individual improvisation and more on the unique group sound: the blending of the different instrumental textures with his trumpet tone. This use of texture proved effective in creating different moods, especially on the impressionistic ballad “Moon Dreams,” whose Debussy-influenced harmonies certainly create a scene that reflects the song’s title. By placing such emphasis on texture and mood, Davis was able to create lasting and interesting jazz without needing to satisfy the bebop concept of technical proficiency. This album helped launch Davis’s popularity, as listeners loved his romantic lyricism that was featured so prominently. As such, listeners did not see him as a failed bebopper who was attempting to get noticed, but rather an alternative to the overtly aggressive bebop style. By playing jazz that accentuated his lyrical, expressive tone and not his speed and power, Davis created music that proved just as innovative as bebop, spawning a new jazz style known appropriately as “cool.”

Throughout the 1950s, Davis continued to experiment with different musical textures within his groups. In a series of collaborations with the arranger Gil Evans, Davis was backed by a twenty-piece big band that featured atypical jazz instruments, like flute, and textures derived from European classical music. But as he experimented with instrumentation, Davis also began experimenting with new forms of improvisation that would once again bring out his strengths and cover up his technical deficiencies. First on his album “Milestones” and then on his seminal recording “Kind of Blue,” Davis performed tunes that were not based on complex chord progressions but instead based on modes, different formations of the standard major scale. Instead of chords changing once or twice a measure like in a common jazz standard or bebop tune, these modes would stay in place for as much as eight measures at a time. This slowing of the harmonic motion created more improvisatory freedom as the soloist could concentrate on phrasing, melody, and alterations in sound instead of trying to navigate complex chord progressions. This freedom made modal tunes much easier to play from a technical standpoint, as a soloist did not need a strong vocabulary of learned licks or even a comprehensive knowledge of harmony to produce an interesting solo. In this way, modal improvisation once again played to Davis’s strengths and minimized his weaknesses. The slow harmonic motion allowed Davis to stretch the space between the notes of his solo, making the listener concentrate not on what he was playing in terms of notes and rhythms, but how he was playing it—the volume, tone quality, and inflection.

Davis uses the space allowed him by the modal improvisation approach most effectively on the final track of “Kind of Blue”, called “Flamenco Sketches.” Although the piece lacks a preconceived melody, Davis’s opening solo is so intensely melodic that it comes off as composed and not improvised. As in many ballads he played, Davis uses a Harmon mute in his trumpet, creating a thinner and more fragile sound that begs the audience to listen in more closely. By changing this tone in such a way, Davis puts the audience’s attention on the quality of his sound, rather than the number of notes he is playing. For example, in Davis’s opening solo as the band transitions from the first to the second mode, Davis blurts out a high note, not piercing like a bebop sound, but again fragile, appearing to falter. Later in the third mode, Davis reaches another high note, but instead of hitting it cleanly, he bends up into it, giving the note a more vocal quality. The fact that these single notes are so notable shows how Davis used modal improvisation to distract the audience from his technical defects. Although the subsequent solos of John Coltrane on tenor saxophone and Cannonball Adderly on alto saxophone feature many more notes and greater technical prowess, their solos are not any more interesting or expressive than Davis’s. Because of the simplicity and freedom of modal improvisation and his exquisite melodicism, Davis was able to play at the same level as more virtuosic soloists.

But while “Kind of Blue” marked a new development in improvisational freedom for Davis, the improvisations on it were still restricted by the use of the traditional swing rhythm. On “Flamenco Sketches” drummer Jimmy Cobb simply lays down the rhythm at an even tempo. While Davis is able to place more space between his notes than in bebop, he can only do it in relation to the steady dictated tempo. In the next decade, Davis would expand improvisatory freedom in terms of rhythm with his quintet featuring the young phenom Tony Williams on drums. In the period between 1964 and 1968, Williams blew up the traditional jazz rhythm as it had been known. Instead of playing the standard ride cymbal pattern with the hi-hat cymbal on beats two and four, Williams freed up all of his limbs and merely implied the time, sometimes implying multiple tempos on top of each other. Again, this freedom in rhythm allowed Davis more freedom in his solos—to stretch and shrink the tempo as desired. And once again, this freedom drew attention away from Davis’s lack of technical virtuosity. This improvisatory freedom and Williams’s propulsive drumming even coaxed Davis to play long, almost bebop style runs, convincing many listeners and critics, Stanley Crouch among them, that Davis did indeed have technical mastery of the trumpet. However, these licks are not as virtuosic as they first appear, as they are not used to connect fast-moving chords like in the traditional bebop style, but rather are just flurries of notes that do not imply harmonic motion like bebop runs do, and are therefore less demanding in a music theoretical sense. What Davis’s playing in this period does suggest, though, is a shift to a more aggressive, blues-influenced style. Williams’s drumming certainly played a part in this development. For example, the performance of “Freedom Jazz Dance” on the album “Miles Smiles” features Williams playing a dressed-up R&B/Funk beat, rife with heavy backbeats and active bass drum patterns. While the aggression of Davis’s music suggests he could capably play in the aggressive bebop style, the music is not more technically demanding than previous kinds because it is based in the simple chord progressions of the blues. Because Davis had exhausted the rhythmic vocabulary of traditional jazz, the potential textures achievable with acoustic instruments, and the greatest simplification of traditional jazz harmony, Davis had few musical directions in which to go in 1969 if he wished to continue to make progressive music.

In this way, Davis’s foray into jazz-rock fusion was not only a viable next step in his artistic progression, but his only choice based on his technique. Many younger trumpeters, most notably Freddie Hubbard, were adopting the style of Davis’s late ‘60s quintet and because of their technical mastery, were doing it better than Davis could. In order to stay ahead of the pack, Davis had to once again rewrite the conventions of jazz and he did it in the same way he had throughout his career: by altering texture, improvisation, and rhythm. The title track on his album “Bitches Brew” is a prime example of his new style, as it features all of the new developments in his music. Firstly, from a textural standpoint, Davis’s use of multiple electric keyboards and guitar gave the music a startling new sound, a sound that like on “Birth of the Cool” took the emphasis off Davis’s trumpet playing and onto the individual sounds made by each musician. Davis settled on these electric instruments not to relate to younger rock-savvy audiences, but because they helped him achieve a clarity and fullness in the accompaniment Davis had only previously been able to achieve in the large big bands orchestrated by Gil Evans. Davis also changed his own trumpet sound, adding percussive articulation to mimic the blues guitar of James Brown’s band and electric wa-wa and delay effects to create an eerie, floating mood in the beginning of the “Bitches Brew” title track. Secondly, from an improvisation standpoint, Davis, instead of merely simplifying the harmony, did away with it entirely. The solo sections are not based on a sequence of chords, but are rather based on a repeating bass line ostinato that allowed both the soloist and accompanists to improvise freely. Again, this improvisation placed emphasis on Davis’s sound, not improvised runs and patterns. And on this album, he was even freer to play what he wanted from a rhythmic standpoint. The first section of “Bitches Brew” is out of tempo entirely, with the multiple drummers and percussionists adding textures instead of dictating rhythm. Once again, Davis was able to mask his playing deficiencies and in the end produce intriguing and popular music.

But for some of Davis’s longtime fans and critical supporters, this last musical development was not a next step for jazz, but a giant leap into another genre of music that was far below his previous work in terms of artistic quality. A critic like Stanley Crouch would argue that Davis’s mid to late ‘60s music was already extremely progressive, as Crouch says Davis’s first quintet album with Tony Williams, “E.S.P.,” still sounds fresh today. Davis did not need to use electronic instruments or rock rhythms to stay ahead of the pack, and he only adopted these techniques to gain popularity and increased record sales. However, Davis would not have been able to make more acoustic jazz albums without stagnating, not just from a technical standpoint, but because of Davis’s itinerant musical personality. At the end of the ‘60s, Davis had been playing jazz that was heavily influenced by European classical music for twenty years, be it the instrumental textures of Gil Evans, or the use of European church modes. “Bitches Brew” was also Davis’s attempt to recapture his musical roots in the blues, especially in the vein of James Brown and B.B. King, whose music Davis frequently listened to. This act is not a sellout, as stated by Crouch, but rather an honest reassertion of his African-American musical heritage. Ironically, Crouch himself acknowledges that “…blues should be the foundation of any innovation in jazz,” and Davis’s innovations on “Bitches Brew” are much more blues-based than any of his others. In the end, Crouch’s criticisms are merely based on his predilections against the sound of electronic instruments and free jazz improvisation, which are mere preferences and not grounds on which to make an artistic judgment.

While Miles Davis will never be remembered for the licks he left behind, his stature as a giant in jazz was in effect caused by his less than remarkable technique. Innovation became a necessity for him and over the length of his career he reinvented jazz multiple times, spawning new styles and inspiring a host of imitators and acolytes. Although critics like Stanley Crouch may always see Davis as a sellout, his legacy among and influence on other musicians is not in doubt. For example, trombone player Conrad Herwig has recorded a “Kind of Blue” tribute album with Latin reinterpretations of those Davis tunes. Davis’s embrace of sounds and rhythms outside the jazz tradition is carried on by countless forward-thinking jazz musicians today from Dave Douglas to Robert Glasper to Darcy James Argue. By never settling for being just another trumpet player, Davis helped open up jazz to new influences that traditional jazz players, comfortable in the accepted style, would not have thought of.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Welcome... Here is the News

Here begins my initial plunge/climb into the blogosphere, depending on whether one thinks this proverbial land is above or below sea level. To begin, I feel I should explain why I'm doing this anyway. It's pretty simple. I want a $100 check signed by Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus. Seriously. I may not even want to cash the check because I'd certainly be up for keeping an Ethan Iverson autograph.

Ok, maybe not that simple. But certainly this is incentive enough for me to stop studying for my US History final this week and do something I've thought about doing for a long time. While part of me wants to be the fifth member of So Percussion, another part of me wants to be a hip music critic.

This blog will be a clearinghouse for my various writings on music, especially new music, as implied by my uncreatively goofy title. As a student at Princeton University, I get to share classrooms with some really forward thinking musicians and composers and am a train ride away from arguably the largest musical community in the world. From those that regularly converse with me, I am known to frequently direct discussion toward musical topics and have a lot to say. I hope this blog will be an environment where I can clarify my musical opinions and hone my writing to make my opinions worth hearing. As I am also an active performer, the blog will promote my performances to an unknown number of fans (the number is probably irrational).

We'll see what happens. Especially regarding that Ethan Iverson check.