An interesting review of a “public aesthetic ritual.”
There is so much good music out there, that real gems can elude discovery for long periods of time. The high noise floor of well marketed but mediocre stuff available doesn’t always make it any easier to find the gems. Sometimes the hidden gems are musicians or groups that are emerging from, or wallowing in obscurity. These are gems that are hidden from much of the world of music lovers. Other times the gems are simply hidden from individuals, while being well known (or at least known) to the listening public at large.
One of my recently unearthed gems falls into that latter category. I had heard about the early 1960’s Steve Lacy/Rowell Rudd Quartet that performed the music of Thelonious Monk, but I had not heard it until recently. I ordered the hatOLOGY reissue of their 1963 session School Days, while exploring the Cadence website. It is amazing to me that I hadn’t sought out this recording earlier in my life. I have a great affinity for Monk’s music, as well as piano-less quartets fronted by trombone and sax, so this CD is right up my alley.
The back of the CD lists no composer credits, but under the title offers the sub-title “Improvisations on compositions by Thelonious Monk.” This doesn’t feel like repertory treatment of Monk’s material. It feels more like the compositions are the fifth member of a free improvisation. Monk’s tunes have an organic order that creates an inescapable gravity, that both keeps the performers in the spirit of the tunes, and allows them to wander about, knowing that they will be held in orbit around the core of the composition.
The performances are buoyant and animated. I can hear the comfort and confidence that come from regular working relationships amongst the musicians. Lacy and Rudd set each other off in beautiful stylistic distinction. The rhythm section of Henry Grimes and Dennis Charles swings hard, and captures the spirit of the soloists and the tunes.
As soon as I heard the first few notes of this CD, the music grabbed me. I’m glad I found it, or it found me, or however that works. Keep looking for those hidden gems.
For the last few months, I have been trying to lose weight. It has been working. I’ve lost about 25 pounds. Not surprisingly, the most effective weight loss method is to eat less and exercise more. What I eat is also important. If my vegetables are fresh and green, I feel better than if my vegetables come out of a potato chip bag or french fries container. I lose more weight when my afternoon snack is a handful of nuts, instead of a bag of M&M’s. None of this is shocking information.
The recent attention to my physical nourishment has me thinking of my artistic nourishment as well. A healthy diet of food contains all types of food. Proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables are all present in healthy proportions when we feed our bodies properly. What do we need to feed our artistic selves a balanced diet?
Balanced artistic intake is important both as a creator and a patron of art. The Oxford American Dictionaries define art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.” To appreciate art and receive nourishment from it, one must actively participate in the experience. You can’t just see the painting or sculpture; you must look at it. It is not enough to hear the music; you must listen. Simply reading the words does not reveal the poetry; you must be open to the message. These are not skills that come naturally to many modern Americans, nor people of other cultures I would imagine. We must practice these skills and develop them. It is not enough to eat right; we must exercise as well.
My primary artistic outlet is music, but I have found that involvement in other art forms only enhances my musical expression. To that end, and in the general interest of my artistic health, I have come up with this art diet to help me balance my artistic consumption.
-Read literature every day. Most of us read quite a bit daily. (You are reading this now.) While I find Boing Boing, DownBeat, and my local newspaper interesting and informative, they aren’t necessarily artistically nourishing. Read a poem. Read a novel. Re-read that classic piece of literature that you were forced to read in school. They are classics for a reason. Try something new. Buy a book by a living author you have never read.
-Listen to music everyday. We all hear music everyday, in our cars, or at the grocery store, or on the kitchen radio while we cook dinner. How much time do we spend with music as the sole focus of our attention? Sit down and listen to an entire symphony. Don’t read the liner notes, don’t look at the cover, don’t just put it on while you clean the house. Really listen. Let the music be the active focus of your attention. When was the last time you really listened to Kind of Blue? It’s a classic for a reason.
-Hear live music as often as possible. Nothing feels like the vibrations created by a 70-piece orchestra in a great hall. Seeing the musical communication of great improvisers casts the music in a new light. Seeing, feeling and smelling the performance only enhances the hearing of it.
-Go to museums. Looking at art online and in books is cool, but standing in front of the 14 foot tall Dali painting “The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” at the Dali Museum (in St. Petersburg, FL.) is a totally different experience. Take the time to check out every museum in your town, and look for museums when you travel.
-Make your own art. Write a poem, draw a picture, sing a song. Express and apply your creative skill and imagination.
Having a balanced art diet, coupled with healthy artistic exercise will make us better musicians, artists, writers, scientists, engineers, teachers, bus drivers, accountants, or whatever else we might be. And it will make us better people.
There are so many approaches to musical freedom. Some free music is very noisy and cacophonous. I have a marvelous drummer friend who was once told that he “wasn’t playing free enough.” From the context he took that mean that it wasn’t noisy enough. Many music lovers are scared of the noise in free music. Freedom doesn’t have to be noisy, but noise is usually at least one component of the gumbo that makes up good free music.
The free music that usually moves me is the music that keeps everything on the table all the time. Noise, swing, bebop lines, funk grooves, pretty chorales, and pointilistic squeeks and squonks are all available if not all employed. Musical freedom is not complete freedom if any sound is disallowed by stylistic convention or performer’s preconception. In the same way that political freedom is incomplete if the voter’s only choices are democrats or republicans. The green party, libertarians, communists, and the local nut that wants to be on the city council, along with any one else who wishes, must be on the ballot for the voters to have real freedom of choice.
I just picked up a CD called Several Lights by Chicago Luzern Exchange, which is a group made up of Chicago based cornetist Josh Berman, saxophonist Keefe Jackson, drummer Frank Rosaly and Luzern based tubist Marc Unternährer. There are 19 tracks on the CD, several under 3 minutes. It is noisy in spots, but more often it is subtly melodic. It is sonically dense in places, and quite sparse in others. It is the kind of free that I find rewarding as a listener. Check it out, it is a Delmark release.
Tonight my family had dinner at a Chinese buffet. Next to us were two tables occupied by a pair of families. One table was populated by the adults, and the other by four teenage offspring. Not children anymore, but not adults yet either. There was one young man at that table that seemed to be going out of his way to be different. He was a bit dorky and seemed like the type of guy that ten years from now would either be the manager of his local Radio Shack, or selling his software company for $35 mil.
At one point I looked over and he was eating his ice cream with the handle end of his spoon. It seemed apparent that he was doing this in the hope that someone would tell him he couldn’t. No one did. The parents were at the other table. When nearly all of the ice cream was gone, he flipped the spoon around and used the standard end, because otherwise he would have had to leave those last few precious drops of melted chocolate ice cream at the bottom of the bowl.
My first reaction to all of this was, “He can’t do that!” Then I asked myself why he couldn’t do that. There is etiquette that tells us we must use the proper end of the spoon to eat our ice cream. I also had a college composition teacher tell me I couldn’t put the #11 in the bass line, especially on beat three. I changed it for my senior recital, but I changed it back 12 years later when the tune was dug up and recorded. I was told I couldn’t do that, but I did, and no one got hurt, and people have even told me they like it! If they only knew about the #11 in the bass line. What would they think then?
The rules of society are there to guide us to behave in a way that will elicit the desired response. Those rules change to some extent depending on one’s target audience, and one’s desired response. Painting your fingernails black is not the best way to get invited to the church choir potluck, but in the ’80’s I knew people that would hardly speak to anyone that didn’t have at least one black fingernail.
Most great art breaks the rules, or at least breaks the rules of the preceding generation. Charlie Parker was all about playing great melodies through lots of changes. Ornette Coleman is all about playing great melodies over no set changes. They both broke rules and upset people, but now kids are being taught rules for how to play like Bird. If we follow the bebop rules, we will get a certain response from a certain audience. Someone out there right now is breaking those rules, and being told that they are wrong. 30 years from now kids will be taught the rules for how to play like that someone, and the next someone will break those rules.
It’s funny that I am a greater stickler for societal rules than musical rules. I keep telling my stepson to put on socks and tie his shoes, but I keep telling my improvisation students to forget what I say and play what they hear, and it’s ok.
Being a professional musician has many benefits and a few drawbacks as well. One drawback is that it is hard to listen to music simply as a music lover. I am often analyzing music as I listen, or making judgments about aspects of what I am hearing that I want to incorporate or avoid in my own music. It is rare that I hear something that really hits me in a visceral way, and makes me want to listen just for fun, but when I do hear that music, it reminds me why I play music.
The first time I remember hearing (actually reading) about Ken Vandermark was shortly after he was awarded the Macarthur Grant. Downbeat did a story about a Brotzmann Chicago Tentet tour. A year or more later, I downloaded a couple of Vandermark 5 albums from eMusic. Sometime after that I heard Jeb Bishop’s trio, with Kent Kessler and Tim Mulveena, at the Blue Nile in New Orleans. They were playing Jeb’s music, not Vandermark 5 material, but it was 3/5 of that band, and hearing people make music live usually connects better than recordings.
One of my initial reasons for wanting to explore the music of the V5 was the presence of trombone. After hearing Jeb in New Orleans, I began to search out recordings that featured him. (Full Disclosure: Jeb has since become a friend and he has been invited to contribute to Scratch My Brain. So if you are thinking that I am just writing nice stuff about my friends, you are right, but I was digging the music before we met.) This led me to a number of V5 albums, and the music hit me in that way that makes me want to just listen and enjoy.
Much of what moves me about the V5 is the variety. At times it swings really hard, and at other times it can be funky or noisy, or sound like a punk band in 7. I like having any style or vibe available at any time. As a listener, I love not knowing what will come next.
There are a couple of recent releases by the Vandermark 5 that I am really enjoying these days. Their new studio CD is called Color of Memory. There is another recent release called Alchemia that is a 12 disc limited edition box set of a week’s worth of live performances in Krakow. These two releases are great companions. There are several tunes on Color of Memory that were written during the week in Krakow, and on Alchemia we get a chance to hear these tunes develop.
Ken Vandermark has been very outspoken about that fact that the best way to experience the music of his bands is through regular live performances. Hearing the band a number of times in close proximity allows the listener to hear developments that would be missed in any single performance. That is hard to do unless one lives in Chicago, because even in major cities it is rare that the band would play more than one or two nights consecutively. Alchemia gives us all a chance to hear every note the band played over the course of 5 consecutive nights. The V5 staples, the new tunes, a jazz standard or two, and the free jams with local guests are all there. It is a musical listening experience that is unheard of via recorded music.
I think that tradition is an oft-misunderstood concept in jazz. Too often, sounding like the past is mistaken for respecting the tradition. I believe the spirit of the music is the most important part of the jazz tradition, and that spirit is exciting and honest and probing, and musically inclusive. These new Vandermark 5 recordings have that spirit.
Both Color of Memory and Alchemia are available from the Atavistic website.
What makes a scene? Is it the people, the places, the GPS coordinates?
This question has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Before Hurricane Katrina, there was a lively and growing free jazz/improvisational/out/whatever-you-want-to-call-it scene in New Orleans. I have been wondering if that scene will return, which has made me question the real essence of that scene.
There are, of course, some strong personalities on that scene. Musicians are a big part of it, but there are also some listeners that are ever present, and they seem to be as integral a part of the scene as the musicians. There are also a couple of business people (producers, club managers and the like) that really help the scene to exist and thrive. All of these people are essential for the scene’s well being.
Scenes are often defined, or at least described, by the places they inhabit. Often it is a particular club, or a neighborhood, or an area of the city. The pre-Katrina New Orleans progressive jazz scene centered around Frenchmen Street, although it was not the only scene to live in that neighborhood. A few clubs played host to the scene. Can the scene return if those clubs don’t? Can those clubs return if the scene doesn’t?
How much did New Orleans itself have to do with the music and art that happened there? (Don’t be put off by me speaking of New Orleans in the past tense, because I believe that music and art will happen there again, but they aren’t happening there right now.) There is a vibe in New Orleans that can permeate a scene, and usually does. There is an emotional space that can only be reached by a good afternoon run in with a meter maid, and likewise a great shrimp poboy.
The people of that scene are now scattered. I think many will return, just as some won’t. A few of the cats are in Lafayette, and they may have transplanted a mini-scene. Others have been spotted in California, Chicago, and even Wyoming. If (or when, as I prefer to think) we all get back in the same place, will our scene still be there? It is possible that our experiences will have made us all better artists and listeners, and it is also possible that the momentum of the scene will be gone, and we’ll have to start over like everything else in the city.
I know this is all questions and no answers, but we can’t find the answers until we have identified the questions. What do we have to do to make sure our city, and our scene, survive?
I’ve been thinking about the common characteristics of my favorite music venues. The venues that I like to play, and the ones that I like to go to for listening, all have a great vibe, but what is it specifically that makes the vibe great?
One might think that, for a listener, things like good sight lines and comfortable space to sit or stand would contribute to a good venue, and many of my favorite listening venues have these characteristics. But I have at least one favorite that has really terrible sight lines to the stage, and it isn’t particularly comfortable, especially in the New Orleans summer with the a/c out. Why do I like to listen to music there?
The main reason is that they program good music. (duh) I always know when I walk in the door that I will hear something interesting. It won’t always be from a bag that I necessarily dig, but it will always be spirited and honest. The place makes the musicians feel free to do what they need to do, and go where the moment moves them. You know the performers aren’t “behaving” because of the venue. Great performers can do their thing in any venue, but the artistic comfort a performer gets from a performance space can really contribute to magical performances.
As a performer, I love the places that are comfortable. Physically comfortable is good, but socially comfortable is what I really mean. There are some places where I feel welcome, even when I don’t know the people. Of course the clubs that I play frequently have bartenders and other staff that I know by name, and that know me. The places where the bartender/staff treat me with respect and make me feel welcome, even for my first gig at the club, are usually good venues because the vibe makes me want to play. You can tell if a place is really about the music by the way they treat the musicians.
What makes you enjoy a music venue? Please leave a comment and let us know. If we can identify the good venues, and the characteristics of good venues, we can enrich the music scenes where we listen and play.
I love the chain of events that can lead to discovering new music.
A few weeks ago NPR did a story about a trombonist named Jay Keyser. I’m not exactly sure what the story was about. I didn’t hear it. The story was discussed on the trombone-l mailing list, but I didn’t really read the discussions. Dave Gibson did, and he ended up in contact with Jay Keyser. Jay sent Dave a couple of CDs by the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, which is one of the groups Jay plays with. Dave was telling me about these CDs, and the fact that they were nothing like what he expected. They were way farther out. That made my ears perk up. It also made me go to iTunes and buy an Aardvark Jazz Orchestra album. I chose a 1997 release called Psalms & Elegies.
One of the cools things about buying music on iTunes is that you have to deal with the music almost solely in terms of the music. There are no liner notes, no personnel list. No clue to the performers’ intentions other than the sounds they made. Listening on those terms is a great way to remove prejudice and preconception.
Throughout Psalms & Elegies the AJO makes great use of variations of space and color. It is a large ensemble, but they often pare down to small combinations and very effectively add and remove voices so the listener gets very organic transitions from spacious open sonic landscapes to densely intense ones. The large dense sections are also very powerful because of their comparative scarcity in relation to the more sonically spacious sections.
The various colors of the orchestra are also used successfully. Contrasts between brass and woodwind choirs, and the presence or absence of overt groove are common devices on this album. On the almost 30 minute “Psalms” the singer does very modern classical sounds and then later goes bluesy. There is wandering free stuff and fairly straight ahead swinging, and pointillistic squeak and squonk both with and without backbeat.
Even on the parts of the album that don’t have overt grooves being played, I find myself moving my body. There is a sense of pulse that moves throughout the music, even when it isn’t directly articulated. I think that is one of the things that draw me to this. I have a hunch that some of their other albums may be very different from this one. I’ll have to check a few out and confirm that hunch.