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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hooked on jazz?

I recently had the pleasure of attending the new season launch for my record label here in Montreal, Effendi Records. I am releasing a new CD next month which entitled me to a couple of free drinks and some face time with the media. Or should I say whoever showed up claiming to be a reporter of any kind. Since the free drinks were also flowing for the media representatives I was a little dubious of some of the characters I was rubbing shoulders with. There was even a person who showed obviously intoxicated who got served. But isn't that what's great about a Montreal jazz community shindig: "All are invited" and in Quebec it doesn't undermine anyone's credibility to be drunk at the beginning of the show.

All kidding aside I had an interesting conversation with a radio host who gave me his perspective on releasing a CD in today's over-saturated market of recordings and what made him want to listen to something new. As we chatted on the patio of Upstairs I enjoyed his frankness while at the same time feeling disappointed by the message: Novelty! He was tired of seeing a barrage of white-faced jazz pianists putting out boutique recordings that all sound the same to him. He wanted to feel a story behind the artist, something that he could think about while listening to the music. And the cd needed to have a concept. It couldn't just be a bunch of tunes (like mine will be when it comes out next month!). A cd now needs to have a theme. As an example he offered Marsalis' partnering with Eric Clapton. Or Bill Frisel's new record of the music of John Lenon. Basically there needed to be a marketing angle, or if you will a hook.

Apparently without these things nothing will stand out on it's own. As disappointed as I was I had to agree with him. Distinguishing characteristics aside, the race card is really important to the white middle-class because it does tell a story. A very interesting one. It's a story about humans overcoming inequity, rising up in a system that is angled against the poorer classes. It's a story that includes flavours from different cultures. White people in this situation want to cheer for the underdog while at the same time enjoying the contrast of cultures. When I attend ticketed events at jazz festivals it is this white middle class I see in the overwhelming majority. I can't help but feel that part of the charm of watching a non-white musician from a poor country (all playing aside) is the good feeling that it generates while diminishing a smidgen of guilt.

But to address the music itself, the message from not just the media but club owners and promoters at large festivals is that you need to have a hook. And this is where the novelty of innovation plays a prominent role. People want to hear something they have never heard before. It can be forgettable, it can be bad, but it must be new!  It must be immediately accessible and digestible apparently to those who are pondering the "story" of the musicians themselves while they listen to the music. On this subject I came across a great quote from one of my favorite pianists Mulgrew Miller from a downbeat interview:

Pictured: Mulgrew Miller NOT performing
Bjork's "All Neon Like"
"A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls "interview music," [Miller said]. You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I've observed it to be heavily critiqued who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don't include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé."

I can't think of a musician more respected by other musicians (I mean count the records that Mulgrew plays on as a sideman!) and more overlooked by the media, promoters of festivals etc. But knowing that his playing is so great makes me wonder if the media should play a different role in the music industry. While my conversation with the radio host exemplifies only one viewpoint it still evokes questions in my mind about the buffer zone of media and information content that we wrap ourselves in. Is it really working out for us if it prevents musicians like Mulgrew Miller from being heard? I mean I know none of my students at McGill have heard of him (I've asked) and yet he is so disproportionally represented on the jazz recordings of the last 20 years. The pianists that my students have heard about are extremely young and have barely appeared on a handful of records but exemplify today's earth shattering new sounds in jazz. I guess it begs the question: what will happen to them when they grow up and play better and more maturely than they do today? Will we get a chance to hear them in the future once they've changed the game?

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