Monday, August 17, 2009

The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music

Between December, 2004 and March, 2007, Ben Ratliff, the New York Times’ jazz critic, held a series of conversations with prominent jazz musicians. The rule for these was simple: they would listen to music, and they would discuss what they heard. Ratliff stipulated one condition: the music could be any that the interviewees selected, but they could not choose their own recordings. The results were almost always informative and stimulating, and frequently enlightening. Musicians, after all, listen from inside the music; they hear things that are inaudible to the rest of us; they know what recordings, even parts of recordings, deflected the course of music history, and they know why.

Ratliff begins with Wayne Shorter, a famously difficult interview. Shorter is a kind and gentle man but – how to say this – his prose can be somewhat oblique. They heard two selections from a box set of Sir Adrian Boult conducting the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams. (It is a striking feature of this book that these jazz musicians so often chose classical works.) Shorter loves movie similes: of a particularly noble scherzo from the Fourth Symphony he remarked, “It’s like something from a movie…It could be astronauts: ‘we need a large vehicle to get beyond this gravity and away from our decadent thinking.’’’ As a Nicheron Buddhist, Wayne shades his interview with mystic conceptions: “when you say, ‘what is life’ – well, life is the one time you have an eternal adventure. Sounds like a contradiction… I like that! It rubs against itself; it makes sparks. To me those sparks are fuel.”

The guitarist Pat Metheney’s first choice was Sonny Meets Hawk, a 1963 recording of two of the seminal giants of the tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins. He played a standard of the jazz repertoire, All The Things You Are. Metheney observed, “Hawk was kind of like his father. And it’s like Sonny saying, ‘yeah, but.’ “ But the performance that Pat wanted to discuss was the solo by Paul Bley. “The shot heard ‘round the world because of how it influenced pianists coming up like Keith Jarrett.” I was aware of Bley’s influence on jazz pianists, but I never before knew that it was this particular solo that broke the mold.

Particularly noteworthy was Metheney’s response to Miles Davis’ 1964 recording, Seven Steps To Heaven. He makes two interesting, related observations in his commentary on this performance: “If we go down to the New School [one of the most accomplished of today’s jazz training programs] we’re going to find fifty guys who can eat this tune alive in the way that the jazz education movement has evolved toward. But there’s not one second in what Miles plays that has anything to do with any of that.” Metheney, like many, if not most of the generation that grew up learning jazz improvisation through a combination of autodidacticism and informal master – apprentice relationships, believes that the academic bourgeoisification of the music has drained it of much of its soul, its “street sense”, as he puts it.

His second observation: “it has this whole thing of glue – the way ideas are connected to each other on a phrase by phrase basis.” He calls this “glue” the essence of swing. a fascinating metaphor, as one ordinarily would think of glue as a device of stasis, a substance that holds things still, but Methaney projects a dynamism into it, as swing to him is the element that unites propulsive sound. He hates that jazz pedagogues want to quantify it.

Much of the conversation in The Jazz Ear concerns the desire for greater freedom either from or within the traditional organizing devices of jazz music: time and prescribed harmonic sequences. Sonny Rollins: “jazz means freedom. I don’t think you always have to play in time. But there’s two different ways of playing. There’s a way of playing where you can play with no time. Or you can have a fixed time and play against it. That’s what I feel is heaven, being able to be that free, spiritual, musical.” Or there’s Andrew Hill’s elaboration of Charlie Parker’s dictum that “melody is rhythm.” “If everything is rhythm, then you have these rhythms on top of each other. But they’re not polyrhythms or pyramids of rhythm, they’re crossing rhythms.” Ornette Coleman: “I’m at the point now where modulation is the closest thing to pure improvisation. No key, no rhythm, no time. Just the idea itself.”

Coleman’s first choice of music to listen to and discuss was a recording of the early 20th century cantor, Josef Rosenblatt. He said of the first recording that he heard of Rosenblatt’s, “I started crying like a baby.” Rosenblatt was “crying, singing, and praying all in the same breath…I said, ‘wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. They are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.”

The orchestral composers who are included are unified in their determination to have done with the traditional jazz format. As Maria Schneider put it, “I had this template in my head of bass line, chord, comping, melody, tune, sendoff [release of the improvising soloist], like you were buying a modular unit….Then I started questioning.” To keep their minds expansive, Schneider and the other interviewees often go to classical music. In the 1960s she was so taken with adagio of the Ravel G Minor Piano Concerto that she had to force herself to stop listening to it. (There’s an interesting circle of art closing here, for this was the Ravel who hung out, soaking up the jazz, at the right bank jazz club that Cocteau started, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit -The Oxen On The Roof. Yes, I know, this was also the title of a surrealist ballet by Cocteau & Darius Milhaud And here’s Ravel paying jazz back with his elaboration of the blues.) She loves that blues feeling in it, used with such originality, “He creates a sense of motion with harmony, the slightest tension between the melody and the harmony, and it’s like, if you bring two elements & they pull apart – that creates motion…[I}n life, sometimes, boy, time goes by really fast, and it’s just a ride. And sometimes, every minute is just excruciating because you’re being forced through issues. He has this way of forcing you through little issues.”

Similarly, Bob Brookmeyer, whom Maria Schneider consulted on issues of writing for large bands, declared the jazz theme-solo-theme format dead. He advised her not to write provisions for solos “until you’ve completely exhausted what you have to say.” Brookmeyer admires John Coltrane, but abhors the over-blowing of Coltrane’s acolytes. During his conversation with Reisner he acknowledged two major influences, Count Basie and Witold Lutoslawski. Basie not only brought Brookmeyer into music, he showed him the way out of a miserable adolescence. When he attended a concert of the Basie band in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo. in 1941, “I melted….It was the first… body chill I ever had. I just said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.’”

He played for Ratliff Basie’s 1941 recording of the 9:20 Special. Basie “had supernatural powers…He didn’t evince a lot of effort, whereas other people seemed to take music and pound it off the earth - Basie came from under the crust of the earth and through your feet.”

In the early 1980s, Brookmeyer bought all of Ludoslawski’s recordings and scores. Listening to a section of Mstislav Rostropovich’s recording the Cello Concerto in which the woodwinds and harps ascend and descend in 3rds he said, “It’s so lovely, and so subtle…It’s like a rainbow shooting up.” Brookmeyer contacted Lutoslawsyi through a third party to enquire about the possibility of studying with him and received a favorable reply, but he chickened out. (Is it just me, or has Lutoslawski pretty much disappeared from concert programs these days?)

An aside: I find the comments and listening habits of the composers and bandleaders to be particularly interesting (and let’s count Wayne Shorter, Andrew Hill, Bebo Valdes and Guillermo Klein with Schneider and Brookmeyer as composers) as a lot of us have been waiting for the Next Big Thing in jazz to emerge from this conservatory-bred generation of musicians. Never before has the music had this many practitioners with so much technique, theory and history, yet this is the longest that jazz has been without a defining genius or a radical new movement. I have been wondering if this might become a composers’ era.

Bebo Valdes is a historic figure in Afro-Cuban jazz, yet he is better known as the father of the brilliant pianist, Chucho Valdes. His interview is a brief survey of Cuban music history; his discussions of two of the great composers of Cuban music, Ignacio Cervantes and the seminal Ernesto Lecuono, are valuable. Like all pianists, even the classical pianists who know his work, Valdes is in awe of Art Tatum. (Vladimir Horowitz was a fan, as is Phillippe Entremont). On listening to the solo version of Without A Song, recorded in 1955, a year before Tatum’s death, Valdes remarked, “It’s virtuosic in technique – totally classical, with modern harmony. He was the first pianist I ever heard playing modern harmony with heart.”

“When you know classical music”, said Bebo, “you can do what you want to…’Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola de un tibaron. It’s better to be in the head of a dog than the tail of a shark’.” You figure it out.

The soloists’ voices are equally strong. Branford Marsalis bemoans a certain absence of soul in today’s young jazz musicians. His surprising opening selections were of Louis Armstrong in collaboration, first with Bing Crosby and then with Jack Teagarten.. Contemporary musicians “are completely devoid of personality,” he said, while Louis was so visual. “The idea that the music that they’re [playing] is supergenius is completely secondary.” As do others in this collection, he complains of the mechanical approach of his students; he employs the recordings of Bessie Smith to teach his instrumentalists how to phrase. While illustrating his point with her Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl, he stated, “Man, you gotta growl, you gotta bend those notes.” Conversely, Marsalis thinks that jazz musicians should more often avail themselves to the resources of classical music, citing how Charlie Parker once quoted in a solo the opening bassoon line from The Rite Of Spring and his own use of the fate motif from Gotterdammerung in his Braggtown recording.

Joshua Redmond was seduced into music by Sonny Rollins’ famous solo on St. Thomas. “[W]hat Sonny showed me was that you could be completely spontaneous and at the same time have this unerring sense of logic and structure.” But it’s Redmonds’ comments on John Coltrane that are worth the price of the book, for he identifies in ‘Trane the sublime, the highest, the Platonic state of art. (This is gratifying to me personally as I have waxed on this theme so often that I have forbidden myself to write any more poems about it.) Those who can allow themselves to submit to the wide open John Coltrane utter gushing phrases of absolute praise. Redmond chose Transition, a late recording of Coltrane’s, when he had become, I believe, an ecstatic dervish after his studies of Sufism and other mystic systems. Redmond said, “as far as a single piece of Coltrane with the classic quartet, it has perhaps the greatest force, impact, feeling of surrender, you know, abandon, devotion…[T]here’s no intro. It’s just, like, bam: here we are. You can’t go any higher. Yet, they keep climbing, and then they come down a little bit, and then they climb again….” He continues with a useful combination of figurative description and musical analysis and then states that, though he is not religious, “[a]t certain times in my life this music has kind of swept me up & transported me to a place where I can sense that there is something greater than the material existence of things. And a fabric that holds the material world together and offers an escape from that world.”*

That, my friends, is what is meant by the sublime, a state of art that is so extremely rare that I doubt that there are ever more than two or three musicians alive at any one time who reach it. Sebastian Bach lived there, the late Beethoven, Coltrane; I can’t think of any today who can claim it, but that just might be my personal limitation.

Altogether, The Jazz Ear is a good and revelatory read. I appreciate the skill with which Ratliff has rendered these conversations; some of these musicians are difficult interviews, either reticent or prone to lapse into unfathomable flights of homemade ontology or epistemology. Others talk with literary precision, so lucid that one feels that every word must be transcribed. Ben Ratliff has made the best of all of them, though some, of course, are better than others. His introductory and contextual remarks are insightful and learned. The result is that The Jazz Ear doesn’t read like a series of newspaper interviews. Well done.

The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music

Ben Ratliff

Times Books

Henry Holt & Co.

235 pps, ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8146-6

Reviewed by A. B. Spellman