Friday, September 14, 2007

Repertory reputation

Dave Douglas, as usual, has posted a thought-provoking blog on the role of repertoire in the pedagogy and history of improvised music. I agree with him that freedom, in musicmaking, is the freedom to pursue a given musical direction at any given time. And while I also hasten to give one methodology be-all and end-all status, I think the idea of "learning tunes" can be broadened. It boils down to figuring out why music works the way it does. One fellow jazz camper many years ago once said that if a certain harmonic progression doesn't appear in the Great American Songbook or the respected jazz canon that follows (Wayne, Herbie, Mingus, Wheeler, etc. etc. etc.) then it doesn't work, and the reason it doesn't work is because it's not there. It's an immature and circular argument, but it leads to analyzing the craft of composition: why/how do certain harmonic combinations work, and why/how do others lead to dead ends?

I don't think it's necessary to be a walking fakebook, either, though having thousands of tunes at recall is useful for some gigs, I'm sure. I do think it's necessary to have spent time with the material - be it the jazz canon, or classical repertoire, or pop music - and check out its elements. That can be done through careful listening or score-reading. What is the Motown sound? Why does Berg sound different than Schoenberg and Webern? I find I often learn more from picking out certain elements from records and pieces than I do from intensive instrumental practice. And whether or not certain musicians know tunes, they've put in the time learning the nuts and bolts of the musical vocabulary. It's very difficult to have a long and creative artistic career without really knowing, even on an intuitive level, what you're doing.

Pat Donaher provides an intriguing tangent, reminiscent of something Greg Osby said at Banff - the idea that music should be a communicative practice, and that there's something alienating in the machismo of inserting the Countdown matrix or chromatic 2-5s everywhere. Osby used the example of Duke Ellington - if he sat down and played one of his ballads, he could attract women. But "Lush Life" and "Sophisticated Lady" are not simple tunes. Sexist framing aside, this hinges on the balance of accessibility manifest in some musical form, and fulfilling, satisfying artistic practice. On a local level, there's a vast audience for someone like Patrick Watson or a band like Karkwa, and the fact that the songs can be in 7 or 15 doesn't put the audience off. Because the songs aren't about being in 7 or 15.

Pat and Kris Tiner thus lead to the identity of an improvising musician. Some practitioners shun the term "jazz" because they find it limiting. I'm not going to argue with Duke or Mingus. Myself, I embrace the term "jazz" and proudly call myself a "jazz musician." Even though I play other genres and do approach them on their terms, I still view everything through the lens of my jazz training. The way I hear harmony is coming from a jazz background, and is different than if I had spent more time playing in rock bands. The way I feel a groove comes out of my jazz rhythmic practice and training. I don't intuitively structure music the way a house producer like Osunlade does; I still like to hear song form, or at least two distinct sections of verse and chorus.

Tiner mentions the crossover word, and I think the best "crossover" projects arise out of a true respect for all the stylistic elements involved. With Indigone Trio + Strings, for example, I dove into the Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Beethoven string quartets, as well as some of Arvo Part's music, the Mark Feldman/Sylvie Courvoisier duo recording of Masada Book Two, and the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster on the early Elton John recordings. I wasn't trying to write strictly classical music; I wasn't trying to get the strings to swing, either. the goal was to write music that embraced the strengths of our trio and the strings, individually and as separate ensembles, and then pushed our collective comfort levels. It's not so much an act of crossing over as it is trying to locate the common ground.

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