Friday, October 04, 2013

Historicity and deep songs

I've stayed out of the fray of this Vijay Iyer/Kurt Rosenwinkel/Macarthur brouhaha, but Rosenwinkel's most recent backtracking-of-his-backtracking has got me riled up enough to write about it. If you have no idea to what I am referring to, clearly you do not follow jazz musicians and writers on Twitter - Peter Hum encapsulates it nicely here.

Rosenwinkel just posted this on Facebook:
The fact that everything is relative doesnt mean that everything is arbitrary. There is such a thing as good touch. as a musician improves, their touch and sound improves and one can hear it. When guitarists audition at my school it takes me about 15 seconds to hear where they are at in their development. I have the ABILITY to judge- not just a "right" to judge- because of my experience, knowledge and expertise. An inexperienced person will argue that all music is completely personal and thus impossible to judge, or to think that everyones opinion is just as relevant as anothers.
This appears to be a backhanded revisiting of his original criticism of Iyer, who lacks in Rosenwinkel's estimation "no touch, no tone." Like Peter, I am a fan of both Rosenwinkel and Iyer. I've had the privilege of meeting and interviewing both of them numerous times, and think they are both phenomenal artists in their own rights. Kurt's music is probably more influential on my own work than Vijay's, although I admire the scope of what Vijay is doing as well. Frankly, I'd like to cut through the vitriol and the bottomless can of worms that having opinions and judgements on someone's playing can engender, and lay out some (relatively more) objective statements.

I can understand why Kurt dislikes Vijay's playing, or more politely, why it may not resonate with him. Rosenwinkel's preference for pianists include Brad Mehldau and Aaron Parks. whose touch and tone are more rounded, softer, and match Rosenwinkel's guitar sound. Iyer does not play that way - he is clearly out of the Monk/Nichols/Hill/Abrams lineage, and his touch and tone reflect that. Iyer can get to that more romantic sound - I would suggest Kurt check out "Human Nature" from Solo or "Entropy and Time" from Tirtha. To say he has "no touch and no tone" denigrates the subset of the tradition from which Vijay descends.

There's also been reaction from some quarters that Iyer is not a jazz musician or has little to do with the jazz tradition, which is completely and utterly false. His reverence for the Black American Music legacy is not only evident in his repertoire choice (ranging from Duke Ellington to Flying Lotus, Herbie Nichols to Henry Threadgill) but in his freely available discourse on the subject in magazines, blogs, and on Twitter. I count Iyer and Ethan Iverson as the two foremost jazz pianist/scholars active today, and I'm grateful that the Internet allows their scholarship to be published on an extensive and regular basis. The only significant criticism I've read that holds any water is that artists such as Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill have not received similar honours, while their protégés Iyer, Jason Moran, and Dafnis Prieto have all been awarded. (Darcy Argue wrote eloquently about this situation back in 2008, around the time of Miguel Zenón's Macarthur.)

And regardless of whether one likes Iyer's music or not - like Peter Hum, it took me a longer time to wrap my head around Vijay's work and for it to affect me emotionally - I don't think it can be disputed that he is deserving of the grant and even the dubious and overused tag of "genius." His interdisciplinary work, from his dissertations on music cognition to his cogent analysis of multicultural life during wartime with Mike Ladd, his recent work with director Prashant Bhargava and his forthcoming collaboration with Teju Cole this weekend, are significantly broader than a run-of-the-mill "jazz musician." While I love Kurt's playing and writing, I am unaware that he has undertaken any single project of such grandeur, let alone multiple intensive collaborations, commissions, and stagings simultaneously. If anyone can do justice to the "genius" moniker and do fantastic things with the $625,000 Macarthur has given him, it's Iyer. I look forward to what's to come from both men.