I just received news that Al Belletto, the great saxophonist from New Orleans, passed away on Friday. Al had been living in Dallas with family for the last few years, but when I first moved to New Orleans, Al was a fixture on the scene. He had a great influence on many young musicians, some of whom aren’t that young any more (myself included). His nickname was Coach, but as the joke goes, that doesn’t make sense, because he was first class all the way.
This recent post on DTM (a great blog by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus) got me thinking again about the baggage that comes with covering well known material. I think it is almost impossible to judge a radical reworking of a very well known song solely on the merits of the new arrangement. There is simply too much baggage for the listener, unless the listener is unfamiliar with the original. In that latter case, the lack of inherent meaning also diminishes the appreciation of the new arrangement.
Ethan’s post mentioned that one of the detrimental comments sometimes laid on Jason Moran’s ALL RISE: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller was that it was too close to smooth jazz at times. I wonder if some of that is about the material. Does the presence of such well known songs as “Ain’t Misbehavin'” or “Honeysuckle Rose” cause us to hear those tracks as more in the smooth jazz/muzak vein than we would if they were originals with similar grooves, arrangements and instrumentations?
Another accusation is that this music is a sellout or commercial grab. I don’t buy that. Jason Moran has enough artist cred that I trust this as a legitimate expression on his part…although the big Fats Waller head does freak me out a little.
One of my go to recordings recently has been Return the Tides by Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP. I have also recently been on a kick to try to expand my listening to and appreciation of music that is more mainstream or popular than what I usually listen to. This has led me to spend some time with the new D’Angelo record and even check out some Iggy Azalea, in efforts to better understand some of the recent discussions on these topics. I have found that there is more musical commonality across those spaces than I might care to admit.
Growing up musically in a space that was largely influenced by jazz culture, I have some completist tendencies. I like to dig deeply into the music of my favorites. I guess that could be more of a me thing than a jazz thing, because I did that as a kid with my favorite rock bands too. Once I decided I really liked a band, I had to get all of their albums. This habit has made it hard for me to “skim” the music of someone who is new to me, but my recent decision to broaden my horizons has forced me to do just that.
What I have discovered is that even cursory exposure to new music is rewarding and offers insight into old favorites as well. Maybe that has always been obvious to most of you. It just hit me in a new way today.