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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Solo Piano

No ranting. No wordy pronouncements. This time some actual music. In response to some people who have asked me to post something on composition I decided that I could leak something from one of my own practice tapes. Lately I've recorded myself practicing just to try to get a better look at my technique.

This is an excerpt of a piece entitled "Separation" which is part of a solo piano song cycle. In this piece a basic ostinato rhythm is played between the two hands while a simple melody is kept in the upper voice. One of the challenges playing the piano is to balance the dynamics of different melodies simultaneously almost like your hands become a live real-time mixer. J.S. Bach didn't think it was possible. Some days I agree with him! I know the video sucks a bit. I'll try to use a higher resolution next time. But anyway enjoy....

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Cultural Significance of jazz

Last summer before my performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival a journalist asked me a series of "get-in-your-head" questions. One of them was "what gives you the chills?". My answer at the time was snakes but I'd like to officially change that now to "Discussing the cultural significance of jazz". Don't you just wish you could get in my head?

I think I should say out-right that I find this topic both pertinent and stimulating. I also find it completely irrelevant to my own processes artistically. And this is what gives me the chills I guess. It is difficult for me to reconcile what seems to be an important discussion with an undeniably intense desire to eschew it. But then again I didn't grow up poor or black in a society that is still trying to cope with social injustice. However neither did any of the bloggers I've read who have weighed-in on this topic. In fact I've found the discussion to take a particularly "ivory-towered" and academic twist. Chills again. In light of the recent posts in blog-o-land I thought I'd give my two cents here

Recently the prolific blogger Jason Parker wrote"
"As jazz musicians, this is a central issue that we have to struggle with." 
"... I do think it’s imperative that we try to connect our music to our own culture, our own experience of the world, our own lives. This is what makes the music of the 50’s and 60’s so powerful, that it was speaking directly to the issues of the day. But when we play that music now, however skillfully we may play it, isn’t it still referencing a bygone era? It’s the reason Miles Davis stopped playing the music that made him famous. It’s the reason Coltrane experimented with different song forms and extended group improvisations. And it’s the reason that cats like Dave HollandEsperanza Spalding,Christian Scott and Aaron Parks are trying to fuse the music of our time with various jazz aesthetics."
To be fair to Jason he quickly distances himself from the notion that we need to completely separate from the musical language of the past (bebop for example) in order for us to achieve that "fusion of the music of our time with various jazz aesthetics". However Jason neither references his explanation of Miles' and Coltranes' artistic decisions nor does he try to articulate what specifically are those "jazz aesthetics" that are somehow nearly inextricably linked to the past, implying that whatever those aesthetics are they are have lost relevance to our modern age unless they become fused to something new.

I find this to be a very popularly espoused sentiment that the great jazz music of the past was knowingly created to reflect the social, political etc issues of it's day.  In our mind's eye it is a quaint image to equate the movement in the 40's and 50's to legitimize jazz music as an art form by young, well-dressed black men with the social rights movements. In the case of Miles he made it clear in many instances that social rights were on his mind. In his autobiography he talks about listening to white bands as a youth and trying to figure out what he could play that would go over well with white audiences (Yes he was a self-professed sell-out!). Several of Miles' recordings are direct references to black figures such as his soundtrack for the documentary on Jack Johnson or of the black community on On the Corner. However Miles was also very concerned with fashion, fast cars, and women. In fact Miles was greatly influenced by a lot of things in society. To speak specifically to his music part of his concept (not that he ever admitted this) was to play mind-games with his band. It was his way of keeping everyone guessing, keeping the music moving forward at any cost even if it meant sometimes a train wreck of form (check out how lost everyone is at times on the album Nefertiti). His artistic intentions always had tangible results if not always pleasant ones. Miles could never sit still musically and needed to reinvent himself every decade. Could we really say that these kinds of artistic decisions were a result of society changing around Miles? Or perhaps did Miles play a role in affecting that change in society? If he did base his musical decisions on notions of social relevance what does that actually mean in musical terms? The thing is that Miles had so many influences, both politically and artistically that it is almost banal to try and make a connection between his deconstruction of the melodic line until he left painful amounts of space with the social rights movement. Yes it's fun but there is no evidence for it.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make (with some difficulty) is that at a certain point the argument breaks down. It breaks down because as we get closer to the actual brass tacks of how a musician expresses themselves the more it makes sense to use the vocabulary of music and aesthetics. It becomes almost insulting to a great musician such as Coltrane or Miles that the reason they reinvented themselves was for external reasons rather than as a result of their own internal processes. And in the broader context of history I believe that the great artists are social leaders and not followers. The proof is that their social relevance usually waxes and wanes even within their own lifetime. For example J.S. Bach although employed throughout his lifetime was ultimately rejected as being too erudite, too dissonant for public consumption. It wasn't until the 19th Century that his influence didn't start to creep back into the music of composers such as Berlioz.

Another artist whose work is inextricably linked to society is Picasso. In his painting Guernica his goal was to explicitly affect social change by drawing the public's attention to the bombing of the city Guerninca by the Germans and Italians during the Spanish civil war. Picasso's pain is felt as mankind's suffering throughout the ages. But the pain we feel is the result of the internal artistic processes of Picasso and not his political motivations. His pain is communicated to us not by a political desire but rather as a result of his skills as a painter and the depth of his artistry. We are moved in other words by the art and not Picasso's intentions as a man, noble as they were. As men Picasso and Miles Davis did some ignoble things too and these in no way have ever become a detriment to my enjoyment of their art. 

This begs the question: why are we bloggers, musicians,....just about everyone so concerned with the social relevance of jazz? Are we really just trying to bybass the tired old discussions of aesthetics? I think we are sometimes struggling to intelligently address the merit of jazz music on it's own terms, using the vocabulary of music. For example if a piece is original or derivative, melodic, rhythmic etc...Then we could talk about jazz that is and isn't accessible to a wide audience. It could all just be a part of a spectrum, one that we can acknowledge will change as the decades pass. To me it is all very pretentious when I hear a musician go into the social significance of their music. Perhaps you don't agree with me but let me ask you this: Do the extended liner note essays on theWynton Marsalis album covers discussing the cultural significance of the "blues" really make the music mean more? When Christian Scott goes on about how he's trying to bring jazz to "the people" in comparison with Bob Dylan are we supposed to take that to mean we should listen to his music any differently than we would someone who isn't trying to bring jazz to the people using idiomatically obscure influences? Actually I'm not sure if his aesthetic appreciation of Bob Dylan's music doesn't have more to do with the album covers than the music.

Hmmm....It seems to me that music which makes it a goal to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible has existed for quite some time. Why is Christian Scott so excited about that?

Ok so let me bow-out as gracefully as possible. Jazz musicians are basically lamenting the sad fact that ours is an art form largely ignored by the public. On the surface it seems plausible that this is because Jazz has lost its connection to society, its greater cultural significance. It seems that all of the goodies Jazz has to offer in terms of melody, harmony, swing feel, and personality pretty much goes over like a lead balloon. But I don't feel that this fact burdens me with the responsibility of trying to make jazz appeal to my culture. We live in a society that is helplessly inarticulate and aesthetically confused and we need to address that without becoming harsh or judgemental. I believe that art is one of the best ways to affect social change. We live in a time and place when a talented and accomplished person is no longer considered very entertaining performing music on an instrument. Wynton Marsalis (despite what I said above about his pretentious album covers) is actually a great ambassador for jazz because of the time he spends with young people demonstrating the music on his instrument. Granted, public performance is an artform and one that jazz musicians cannot disregard. But to say that we should try to fuse jazz aesthetics with the music of our time (does that mean popular music?) in order for us to make jazz popular again is to pay a great disservice to the process of creating art. A process that involves a deep personal commitment to oneself to listen to that "voice" inside at all costs. It is just as disingenuous for a pianist to decide to play Bjork tunes in a jazz piano trio context because they think it will have an audience as it is for that pianist to perform Bill Evans transcriptions in public. If our career aspirations become a hinderance to the creation of our art then we don't stand a chance of making a contribution.