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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Friday, December 3, 2010

Perspectives on Time

What bigger topic in jazz is there but "time"? In many ways it's a prevalent theme in everyone's life because it has such deep implications for our consciousness both in the sense that we experience time passing at different rates of speed depending on the number of years we've been alive and also we experience variances of the quality of time that has passed and that we anticipate to pass in the future. We may, for example, look back on our experience in high school and remember how it seemed it would never end and that we'd always be trapped in an awkward sophomoric existence. And yet now, after years have passed, it really seems that those days actually came and went quite quickly and perhaps we might even have developed a longing to recapture some of the simplicity of that youthful life (although in my own case I believe I had a penchant to create complexity for myself as a youth by confounding with my behavior those who had taken on the chore of raising me!)

"The Persistence of Memory"... Time feels malleable
In jazz music time refers usually to the style of articulation given to the pulse in the music. Usually we discuss a time "feel" because time determines how the music creates the illusory sense of "pulse". It's the spirit and energy that is behind the notes, that make them seem to dance. This is the stuff of dialects and accents and other linguistic conventions that can't be notated but must be experienced. In a sense to "know" the German culture one must inevitably converse with a German and study the language to understand the mind of a German. In the very same way to "know" a swing feel one must study the language of "swing" and converse (or transcribe the masters) with other musicians.  My favorite musicians to study have been Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I can't think of a better example of what it means to swing than listening to those guys. And the thing about it is that after having studied them a bit I hear that same swing feel in other more modern groups and musicians. It's like we all experience a strong connection to the past through the "time".

Sure this is a misplaced (and yet very poetic don't you think?) metaphor. That somehow time feel in jazz is linked to the passing of time in external life. Somehow to me what makes sense about it is that I feel close to those musicians who've come before and who exist today and (excuse me while I take another toke...) those who will come after. What is timeless about music links us all. Studying music is a way into the past, present, and future. And in the same way what is timeless about living and being alive also links us together as well. Our families, our ancestors, our children, eating well, living well, being happy, mourning loss...these are all things that have existed since the beginning of our species and perhaps even beyond.

Think back to the era when there was barely any language, everyone was called "Grog" and we basically groped through the forest looking for food, fucking, then sleeping. One day this guy named "Grog" picked up a stick and hit a rotted out old log on the forest floor. It made him feel something different that he had never felt before so he hit it again. And then again. Pretty soon other "Grogs" came over and asked "What you do that, Grog?" So his response what to hit the log again, and again. There was nothing he could say to explain that feeling.  The sound and the pulse generated from repeatedly hitting this low pitched log said everything he couldn't and in that moment music was born.  It has recently become more evident through the archeological discoveries of painting, jewelry, and crafted stone carving that 100,000 years ago we had artists. My guess is that what captivated the evolutionarily young homo sapien's minds and hearts would be exactly the same as what draws us to art today.

All this is to say that "time" as it applies to music and life, for me, is a powerful metaphor, weaving together both of those things. It might even be the source of the "religious epiphany". When I think of my connection to the past through my ancestors it gives me the same heavy feeling as when I hear a group swing like the Wynton Kelly trio or when I hear Mehldau's trio. I don't want to downplay the exceptional nuances that distinguish these great groups from each other but rather I'd like to suggest that the depth of the music we create, just as the depth of life we live has a lot to do with how we see, feel, and hear ourselves in time.

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