Friday, October 09, 2009

He's fair and he's true and he's boring as hell

Via Lucas Gillan, here is a guest post on Casa Valdez from Manhattan School of Music student Aaron Johnson, adding some contrarian commentary to the "Jazz Now" discussion. The "jazz problem" as Johnson calls it, or the state of jazz as it exists at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, is a topic that seems to come up frequently.

Johnson seems to take issue with every kind of jazz that isn't spang-a-langin'. I guess someone didn't tell him that the Jazz Wars are over. Fine. But both sides of the modern jazz coin that Johnson presents - suit-wearing, tradition-honouring, standards-learning young lions vs. skinny-jeans-clad, odd-meter obsessed Brooklynites - can exhibit all the same promise and all the same falsehoods. I love listening to tunes that swing hard delivered by a band that understands their history and that really gets inside the song - Amy Cervini's quartet was the most recent example of this, for me. On Cole Porter's "No Moon at All," Amy sang the song with her own interpretation of the story, spurred on and supported by a swinging and empathetic crew. By the same token, I love so many other kinds of music, and I truly appreciate artists that seamlessly integrate external influences into jazz. Musicians that have such a deep rhythmic understanding of hip-hop, for example, that it informs their phrasing throughout their entire repertoire, without having to resort to inviting freestyling MCs or having a boom-bap drum beat. Lionel Loueke fascinates me, for having integrated various African musics so seamlessly into his own work that it doesn't sound like forced, hybridized "world-jazz."

A lot of students and musicians become disenchanted with standards because we've played them, and heard them played, so many times without any underlying meaning attached to them. In essence, it's about playing the song - any tune, whether it's a standard, a pop tune, or a through-composed modern piece, has its own atmosphere and its own world that it occupies. To reduce it to a series of chord changes is to ignore the entirety of the music, and to invalidate its performance. Falsehoods can permeate all kinds of jazz - odd-metered tunes that are self-consciously "hipper-than-thou"; standards played by rote; or feeling obligated to transmogrify a standard with all sorts of metric and harmonic modulations because playing the tune straight-up might damage some ill-conceived notion of "modern jazz cred." Peter Hum sums up my sentiment quite well: "I'm not saying that it's all good, but it all can be good -- if it's personal, fully realized, and real."

I'm a totalist; an omnivore. That doesn't mean I've listened to everything, or listened to certain things as much as I probably should have, as Ethan Iverson's in-depth profiles of James P. Johnson, Keith Jarrett and Lester Young have reminded me. But when Jason Moran mentioned at the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Jazz Piano panel that he has some students that haven't ever listened to Monk, I was shocked. There's certain major figures in music that necessarily have to be addressed and absorbed, whether they're integral to one's personal playing or not. I think some musicians tend to only listen to what they like or what they plan on emulating, and not checking out either a) the lineage of where that player comes from, something easy enough to glean from interviews, liner notes and track lists; or b) music totally outside their realm. I can't play stride to save my life - I admit it, I accept it, and I deal with it. But I've still checked out some Fats Waller, James P. as well as the boogie-woogie greats Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. I even used to be able to play a passable "Bluebird Boogie Woogie" when I was younger. I truly appreciate a lot of music that comes out of the AACM; it doesn't necessarily manifest itself in my playing or writing, and it doesn't really matter. But I think we owe it to ourselves, as eternal students, to search out music, past and present, related directly, tangentially or perhaps not at all, to what we do. If we are educators, we owe it to our own students to pass on as much history as we can, and be open to the new variations on it that they present to us. As Don Byron said, "There is a lesson in everything. It's our job to find that lesson."


Jason Parker said...


Joe Merlino said...

I played at a jam session with a tenor player who rarely called anything that wasn't Wayne Shorter or Coltrane, and certainly never called anything written before 1960. A bassist called "Struttin' With Some Barbeque" and it was a really refreshing change from the usual stuff. When it was done, I said, "That was really cool!" and tenor player said, "I don't know if I'd call it 'cool'". Someone else said, "It's just a song, man. It's your job to figure out what's cool about it." Which, I guess is just a short way of saying I agree.

Josh Rager said...

Well if you're the type of musician who goes to a jam session to play all your "shit" rather than jam with other musicians then of course you'll be disappointed when they call a tune you didn't plan to play. Also with respect to listening to music that doesn't obviously manifest in your own playing I think this is a great thing. How weird would it be if we all went around being watered-down versions of all the piano genres. Personally when I'm inspired by something it kind of keeps it special if I don't try to "own" it and let it just exist for me in the world to enjoy.