I just received a copy of the book Coltrane on Coltrane, edited by Chris DeVito. There are a number of interviews here-especially European and Japanese-that I'd never seen. Also, some good candids that I don't think had been published. Chris included an interview I did with Isadore Granoff, who ran the Granoff Studios in Philadelphia, where Trane got early musical training. Aside from an ego stake, I don't have a piece of the action and have no trouble shilling for it. The book is worth picking up.
In this post, I'll put "Coltrane On Coltrane" in the context of a previous posting about Jazz Neurosis.
Like many people-not just musicians-I have always felt as though I had an intense emotional bond with Trane. It might sound trite, but when I heard "A Love Supreme" at age 15, I had the first inkling of why someone-anyone-might understand the reason they've been put on the planet. I know many of you have similar stories.
"A Love Supreme" certainly presented a heightened version of the person John Coltrane, but it seemed to me, as I learned more about Trane's life, that it was not a trumped up public-image-conscious package. It was representative of who the man actually was. Interview after interview in "Coltrane On Coltrane" reaffirms that.
Music was obviously the core and driver of Trane's life, but despite romantic projections, that does not mean that his life was any less fraught than yours or mine. Apart from all the concerns of running a band, responsibility for recordings, touring and dealing with a family, he had to deal with an incessant barrage of often inane questions by the media. Throughout all of that, Trane's grace and humanity reassert themselves over and over. One simply marvels at Coltrane's patience and humility. Long after I know I would have thrown a mic stand at one of these interlocutors, Trane continues to find a way to respond that rescues them from the embarrassment of realizing how idiotic they are.
So, referring back to my post on neurosis and jazz-Yes, Coltrane was afflicted in a similar fashion. At the beginning of his career he emulated others, Bird and Lester especially, but by the mid-late 1950's, he'd begun the task of trying to clarify and externalize a sound inside his own head. And, wherever that sound moved, he had the courage to follow.
The miraculous aspect is that Coltrane was able to undertake this titanic psychic struggle seemingly without projecting any crap onto those around him-even after the deification process had begun. As history and many clay-footed gurus have shown us, that ain't easy.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Remember your initial excitement when you heard about "Round Midnight," and about "Bird"? Remember your disappointment after you saw them? Why didn't they let Dexter play anything up tempo!! Why did they make Bird a man-child!! Is every black man a tragic figure and every white man a dolt?
Possibly the most exasperating example of the genre is "Jung Man With a Horn." Sorry-Young Man. The insane ilk of psycho-babble that floats through this movie like celluloid arteriosclerosis is unmatched. Kirk Douglas/Bix Beiderbecke has "one wing" then falls for the broken pseudo-shrink Bacall who has a pet macaw? She smashes your 78's? I hate to see that; even if they're just Caruso on VIctor. You're right, Kirk/Bix, she is "dirty and twisted inside," while you-were-born-to-play-the-trumpet-and-can-only-communicate-through-that-damn-horn. Why, oh why do they try and foist off that juvenile premise: "I want to play the note that no one else has ever played?" Bejasus.
Don't ask me if the same 4th-class Freudianisms befoul the "Dorothy Baker novel of the same name." I can only deal with psychic effluvia in one genre at a time.
"Based on the life of Bix Beiderbecke"? My moldy toenail. Harry James, a fine player, is the film's "music adviser" and dubs the trumpet parts. Kirk Douglas pushes the trumpet valves convincingly and has the appropriate unyielding embouchure and convincing semi-ecstatic gleam in his eye. Unfortunately, Harry James' style bears as much resemblance to Bix's as, well-you finish the analogy. I don't want to sound churlish. Happily, the movie is quite informative for all you trumpet players out there, as there are at least 4 mentions of the loathsome "roll" in this movie. You know, where the mouthpiece gets too low on your lower lip? You better correct it pronto, or I will strap you in this comfy chair and force you to listen to cinematic dialogue about trumpet rolls until your chops fall off. There are good documentaries about jazz. Why is this music such an lousy fit in feature films?
A "Bad" Embouchure
Sunday, August 22, 2010
Props to @JoshSinton for asking the question: "When did jazz musicians stop emulating singers and begin to emulate other instrumentalists?" It calls for more than a 140 character response...
The short answer is that they never stopped. It's an admixture and always has been.
Look at the popular music strains in America as they led to 20th century jazz. First, the vocal lineage. You're talking about minstrelsy, formal spiritual choruses with solos, theatre music, indigenous 'ethnic' folks songs, blues, shouts and 'parlor' singing, a la Stephen Foster. On the instrumental end, you had the banjo, guitar and piano accompaniment for that music. Then you had brass bands, pit bands, concert bands, plus the whole line of virtuoso pre-rag and ragtime pianists, as well as other instrumentalists whose enduring reputations bespeak a technical ability that clearly surpassed the norm.
For the sake of having to start somewhere, let's choose Buddy Bolden as the first (non pianistic) jazz exemplar of our premise. If I try to imagine myself back in that uncharted musical territory, standing in Bolden's shoes. it seems to me that the variations I played would be based on what I'd heard vocalists do, what I'd heard cornet or other (single-line) instrumentalists do and what the trumpet in my hands wanted me to do-what its technical parameters were.
From descriptions of his playing-and listening to the style of those who learned from him-Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard-what Bolden played was clearly elaborations on the blues and you know what? To this day, that's what horn players starting out continue to do.
The world ain't the same as it was then. The resources for anyone who would learn to improvise are like the difference between hitchhiking and climbing on the Space Shuttle. But were the decisions that Buddy Bolden had to make really that much different than the decisions anyone picking up the horn has to make right now-100 years later? We hear singers, we hear virtuoso instrumentalists. The instruments we play imprint themselves and create tendencies of interaction.
The human voice, for most of us, still has a compelling quality-and jazz pays homage to that through the truism that you can't play a ballad if you don't know the words.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Hey! You with the dirty mind: I'm not talking about sex. I'm talking self-torture here-masochism, not sadism. In this jazz life, we are plagued by a foundational neurosis-to be revealed below-but let's start off with the happy thought that we have found-albeit unconsciously-healthy ways to try and de-fuse or re-articulate this neurosis. Here's what we say to ourselves: "No one gives a shit about this music. This society sucks." Then, if we do get a few people to care, the whole thing shifts a bit and we think: "I should be making a living out of this. No one really understands my genius, the sweat I've given. This society really sucks." But, swearing under the breath and bemoaning the rock-headedness of your fellow sapiens is good. It's solid sublimation; a healthy way to deal with what's underneath it all, the crux, the root neurosis: "Why can't I play like Clifford (Brown)? Why should I have to play like Clifford? I don't have to play like him. I can play like myself. Self-expression-yea, that's where it's at....Why can't I play like Clifford? Why should I have to play like Clifford? I don't have to play like him. I can play like myself. Self-expression-yea, that's where it's at...." Unending, unto eternity-the masochistic need to spend your days, your years, in pursuit of the chimera of creative resolution when there will never be a resolution. My observation is that-in or out of music-most jazz musicians aren't happy doing anything they can easily do. Ours is a personality type that must be wrestling with something just beyond our grasp. Any job we can do without a struggle is a job not worth bothering with. Any club that will let us join ain't worth the time. We work for years to make the high G and as soon as we get it, we gotta have a high Bflat. It's good that our partners force us to do things we can actually do-like hanging curtains, or figuring out on the bank checks which is the account number and which is the, you know, the other number. Of course these paltry victories inflate our egos to abominable dimensions, to the point that the distaff side tells us to just go away and get back to our damn practicing. The usual self-medications-scotch, pills, dope-have unpredictable side-effects. But fear not, friends and fellow sufferers. Even as you read this, Brilliant Corners jazz neurologists are sequestered in our gleaming lab, synthesizing a fool-proof 12-step plan, guaranteed to turn that bed of nails into a bed of roses---and 100,000 $.99 downloads of your latest masterpiece.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
I've been a real intellectual yente for the last several posts. I hope those posts have not been without emotional weight, but the death of Abbey Lincoln makes me want to write a piece where emotion leads and analysis creeps along far behind. In the late 1960's, I went to the old WGBH studios to see her then-husband Max Roach record a TV show. I didn't think twice about the fact that she was also performing. I was dazzled initially by her looks, but her voice was much more charismatic than I expected, given the recordings I'd heard. The voice was cloudy, but not smoky; carrying some vibratto, but not a heavy load. Sometimes the edges were sharp, sometimes rounded. She gave songs character and obviously chose material that could handle that investment. Soon after, she went into a period of seclusion, and re-emerged in the 1990's. Then, in 1995, she released the lp "Turtles' Dream." On that album was a song called "Throw It Away" which caught me completely off guard and which remains sui generis in my life. You've heard me say that concerts have made me scream. Movies can sometimes bring a tear, but I never cry to music; except for that damn song. Incredibly, 15 years later, it still has the power to evoke the same intense reaction. Most of the time, I actually try to avoid it, because if I hear it, the rest of the day becomes mere prelude or postlude. On the other hand, when something intense is happening in my life, and I can't get to the emotional root, I seek it out. It burns away the bullshit. You can find the song here and the lyrics here.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
Meanwhile, back in Boston, I was sitting in on trumpet with a friend's rock band. I only knew one song we played: The Weight, by The Band. The others were songs that I'd either heard once or not at all. I was "the horn section," which is how trumpet or sax is thought of in that context. In each song, the band made a few bars space for me to solo- I liked being forced to think in bite-sized chunks. Otherwise, I just played little back-up riffs. It was Rock, people danced to it. I loved the response.
This is Your Brain on MusicThe brass band I play with has been talking about the Asphalt Orchestra. In their videos, they seem to be having a great time, engaging the crowd, playing interesting, offbeat music (apart from New Orleans stuff, arrangements of Zappa, Bjork...). On the other hand, a band-mate saw them on the plaza at Lincoln Ctr. over the weekend and described them as "appealing more to the intellect than wanting to make you dance."
So, Rock and the Asphalt Orchestra; music leaning toward the body or the mind, with one organ still waiting to be put in the scenario. Right. The heart. Where does that little muscle fit? What's the delicate balance between the cortex and the booty that needs to be achieved so that each gets the orgasm it deserves?
Probably the moment of most intense musical mind/body fusion for me was a show I heard in the 19?'s with Pharoah Sanders at the Village Vanguard. After a while, you just stopped listening and surrendered, as Pharoah pulled you at 90 miles an hour down a sandpaper highway. The more you released, the more joyous the trip. The energy of the audience was raised to the point where the only thing we could do was start pounding on the tables, howling like banshees.
I know that some construct of "mind" must have been present or my body would not have responded-I'm too hard-headed (or too "schooled")-but it's the response of my body that remains vivid.
Why is that unity so elusive? In the pursuit of complexity in harmony and form, what, if anything, has jazz sacrificed in terms of its appeal to the body? Is "swing" just another word for the right balance?
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Hindus break up history into extremely long time spans. We're nearing the culmination of the Kali Yuga, an era of dissolution and breakdown that sets the stage for the next cycle of rebirth. It's always easy to believe you're living in a period of dissolution-it's part of a golden age/nostalgia spiral that's very appealing to the homo sapiens. But even if you don't buy the Hindu cycle concept, it seems reasonable to assume there are larger forces at work. "A divinity that shapes our ends"? Maybe. I think of it as an accretion of cultural/political/biological/cosmological details that dwarf us and our hair-brained diversions. This concept, at the least, offers another way into questions such as why jazz tools, like McCoy's particular use of harmony, pentatonics, etc. no longer seem, for lack of a better word, applicable.
The old saw is that an artist has to be "of his time." This is particularly an active principle in the world of painting, which puts "newness" near the top of the value scale. For me, a better idea is "rootedness;" the illusory quality that makes art seem both of its time and timeless.
How do you know what has or lacks this quality of rootedness? Maybe start by noting when you don't see, hear or feel it. Watching great young musicians who have worked thousands of hours mastering this incredibly complex harmonic and rhythmic music jazz (yes, I left out melodic-that's a different post)), I marvel, even wallow vicariously, in their technique, but I say to myself: poor bastards. This is not their time. It's not, as some of my friends say, an issue of education or exposure and it's certainly not to insult the honest effort of jazz musicians. I'm simply saying that the tools they draw on-such as those developed by Tyner-appear to be impotent in the face of the power, energy and momentum of this epoch-whether or not you call it the Kali Yuga. Like all of us, these musicians are suspended in a magnetic field; one that seems to consign their music to the margins, but which is simply dancing its way through destruction to re-emergence. I know a piece as ambiguous as this will be subject to wide misinterpretation. Some will say: "is he telling us jazz musicians should sell out? No. Frankenstinian attempts to graft on the kind of music that many people do like are ludicrous. Or: "are you saying the Jazz Blog Industry should shut down?" Shoot no-I'd be out of a non-job. And if you say to me: "Alright, smart guy, what resources and tools are you then asking musicians to draw on," I can only say: self-awareness, which is no kind of answer at all. Then again, I'm just the guy who's standing in a dark room, with enough insight to know he's in there, but who is too stupid or riven by habit to know how to do anything except continue to confuse a rope for a snake.
Monday, August 2, 2010
It may be the most ubiquitous scale in the world and arguably the oldest. Anywhere in the world, when someone carves a flute, plucks a string or twangs a piece of metal they inevitably stumble into some variation of a 5-note-pentatonic-scale. It sounds good. It offers simplicity, yet potential for tension and relaxation. You can use it to create chants, melodies and twist it to suit your fancy. The blues, early jazz, then rock, are all about the pentatonic, with a few altered notes for good effect. But kids, in the early 1960's, something happened to pentatonic and its name was McCoy Tyner. The change was rooted in necessity-an uneasy adaptation to 'free' jazz, as I'll describe below. But 45 years later, reverberations from the changes wrought by the gifted Tyner are still ringing and for me, a re-evaluation, fresh ears and new adaptations are called for. Back in the 1960's, the question McCoy had to ask himself was: What do you do if you're playing a fixed-pitch instrument with someone(Coltrane) who has left the diatonic and chromatic restrictions of Western music behind; who has essentially bid adieu to the harmony that underlay jazz for the last-say-50 years. The answer, of course, is to find a way to fit in. McCoy's approach, his strategy, his solution, was to alter his playing so that the harmony he played was based on "perfect" intervals-4ths and 5ths-and yes, in this most sophisticated of musics, the musical scale this most accommodated was our old friend, the 'primitive' pentatonic scale. In McCoy's"open" harmony, almost anything could happen. Notes "not on the horn," as they say, could be at least partly accommodated. There was a transitional period when it seemed to work for Coltrane and other times when he asked McCoy to lay out. As the texture of Trane's music grew even denser, just changing the harmony wasn't enough and McCoy used another creative approach: shift the weight of the piano from melody and harmony to percussion. Pedal tones were one good way to do that-you could really land on those suckers-but it meant harmony was still in the mix. McCoy pushed percussiveness as far as he was comfortable, but he was not Cecil Taylor. Eventually, the fabric of Trane's music grew so dense that accompaniment as usually understood became superfluous. Ok-I've strayed. Pushing the piano's percussive envelope is a question for another time. It's the widespread leakage of McCoy's harmonic approach into the general language of jazz that feels off; like the kid who's too old, but shows up at the playground anyway and doesn't fit in the swing; kinda like Jelly Roll Morton's "Spanish Tinge" run amok. Come to think of it, let's play a Latin tune; Blue Bossa, maybe.