Top 50 JAzz Blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding the "Voice" in Jazz by Steve Provizer

'Voice' has always been seen as the sine qua non of jazz-the quality that separates it from other genres and either marks a musician as worthy of attention or consigns him to mediocrity. Someone with very sharp ears might be able to tell the difference between Maurice Andre and Wynton Marsalis playing the Haydn Trumpet concerto, but it's damned hard. In any case, we evaluate the composer, the orchestra and the performer as a unit.

But, when you listen to Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge battling it out at the JATP, it's all about the soloist. And no one much cares who wrote the tune.

For me, the fundamental parts of Voice in jazz are tone, note choice, dynamics, approach to solo construction and the relative amount of space/silence. Choice of material, sidemen, and size of group can also play a part.

Radical departures from the norm, things like playing in the Taj Mahal, offbeat instruments, playing more than one horn at a time-can help mark someone as having a "voice." But none of these elements is definitive in itself. They all interact.

Tone-the note itself-is arguably the fundamental element.

The deep history of the music makes building a "Voice-tone" a challenge. Looking just at sax and trumpet playing, we can see the territory has been well staked out. In alto sax, for example-Hodges, Bird, Konitz, Buster Smith, Jimmy Dorsey, Earl Bostic, Julius Hemphill, Jackie McLean, John Zorn-these people represent the exploration of an enormous tonal range.

On the trumpet, look at Armstrong, Bix, Eldridge, Shavers, Cootie Williams, Miles, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy, Sweets Edison, Harry James, Clifford, Woody Shaw, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Freddie Hubbard, Marsalis/Blanchard. Of course, you can slice it real thin, take percentages of one or the other, mix and match-find the cracks between other people's Voice-Tones. Use recombinant Voice-genetics to try and derive something new.

The extent to which this is a conscious process is completely individual. For some, it's a question of natural seepage. Others go to great lengths to see if they can re-create certain people's sound.

There are a lot of equipment parameters that can be changed: mouthpieces, reeds, mutes, lead pipes, bore size, bracing techniques, metal alloys, use of microphones, electronic manipulation and recording techniques...But technology doesn't have all the answers. Many tenor players have copied his equipment down to the last detail, but never managed to sound like Stan Getz.

And, of course, if you do manage to carve out a distinctive tone, you still gotta say something.

I don't want this thesis length, so will pick up that issue in a later post (or ignore it, as per my "manifesto").

I definitely won't tackle the proposition that if you find a voice, an audience will find you.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Matthew's Back in Town.

Image courtesy of Lena Adasheva.

While a debate over the pros and cons of mercantilism as applied to jazz rages below, I got an e mail from Mr Shipp last night to let me know he's back from a fabulous September that began in Brazil, took him through  another fat swath of former Soviet enclaves, saw him do a Poland jaunt with Mr. Morris and topped it off with a date in Amsterdam. He gets to relax for a bit before heading out to some dates in the US that are still less spectacular due to suckiness we've all come to expect and then it's back overseas.

Mr. Shipp is a bit of an anomaly in regards to all the earnest mercantile advice proffered in the comment stream, the remnants of Jazz Inc still go out of their way to pretend he barely exists cause he's so uppity. But they are choking to a point where an endorsement from the Apple Cart is about as useful as a Tea Party endorsement in his home state of Delaware.

The Apple Cart is filled with scribblers with biz models that began with Gutenberg. I'm talking about print advertising, the most backward shit out there and its premises and rationales still dominate jazz media. Howard probably still has his aol e mail account. It's like that. The world of jazz described or reviewed is still mainly ink stained wretches and pompous english majors moonlighting when it needs real musicologists or at least people who can play one on TV.

I see near zero evidence that most understand the web and how it works so they all lean on other dying things like EMI for ad money to prop up Joe Lovano. The brand hijack done by the pathetic New York "All About Jazz" is a case in point. The proprietor is a print idiot and he gulled provincial New York jazz biz rubes into wasting money on a paper that gets dumped in clubs, a few dying record stores and a scattering of restaurants where around a third of the heap is read by someone and the other two thirds land in the trash, month after month. But hey, the inflated circulation numbers do look good 'on paper'. 

There are a few radio biz people in the apple cart but that is semi obsolete too and doesn't deliver much more value than print. The best radio is exemplified by WFMU  and they aren't trying to control anything.Their costs are lower so they can run on a comparative shoestring. 

Mr. Shipp antagonizes these people so they diss him. He had a successful summer too with a Newport date that was all but ignored in the rush to prop up the carcass of old Brubeck and other failing business decisions. He's busting out despite that because the rest of the world doesn't give a rats ass about what media wheezebags in New York think. It's pretty funny.

I just bring it up because of how it undermines the mercantile assumptions which depend on some imagined fairness. No, it's not enough to make an appealing 'product'. It is also important to keep those feathers well preened and ruffling them makes the chickens squawk before heading off to roost as far away from the ruffler as possible.

All in all it's a great time of year. Coltrane's birthday just passed and Justin has it covered in his usual magical way. Roy Campbell Jr's birthday is tomorrow. Bud Powell's birthday was a few days ago. Mr Albertson reflects on the passing of Bessie Smith 73 years ago when he was a toddler in Iceland still innocent of a destiny that would weave her life with his.

And good old Brew has the crew here honored by his accolades.

And the real All About Jazz, the one I'm delighted to help for free so we can polish off the apple cart, just rolled out a critical and valuable site makeover that will put it in great shape to run with the newly exploding mobile wireless web as apple cart clods wonder if it's time to finally ditch their old AOL e mail accounts or maybe figure out what SEO means.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Confessions of an Esoteric Blogger" by Steve Provizer

Attend the fate of Mad Sweeney, as delineated by author Flann O'Brien in "At-Swim-Two-Birds:"

"Neck high sticks he must pass by leaping.
Knee high sticks by bending."

There are those who say that I apply that injunction to my unwitting readership. And, though it be mercantile suicide and savagely highfallutin', that may be so.  Scores plead that I lower my stringent standards in order to lure the elusive "crossover" audience ("Just one click can lead to instant wealth"), but this boy cannot be bought.*

In an effort to further muddy the waters, I present my current posting guidelines:
  • First names will be used at the whim of the Author. A full name such as 'Charlie Parker' may be used to differentiate from, for example, Leo or Maceo. However, if the Author believes the Reader should be able to tell which Parker it is by context, the nickname "Bird" will be used. For example: "While relaxing at Camarillo, Bird took up the practice of origami, etc..." 
  • The primacy of blown instruments over electronic ones will be continually touted. Ditto, wax and vinyl (pops and scratches) over other audio media (the hidden logarithmic theft of an mp3 file).
  • The Author will continue to utilize technical musical terms (c.f. the "turnaround") and provide oversimplified explanations of same ("a way to get back to the beginning").
  • All trends, fads, waves of fashion and transient cultural phenomena will continue to be disparaged (The double-cup mouthpiece is still under investigation).
  • Inre the Savory recordings: No Mas (unless my friend Jonathan invites me to a private listening session).
  • The use of "Part One" to describe any piece analyzing a facet of jazz history (say, 'sweet', vs 'hot') should be seen as a 1-dimensional oscillating line (i.e. local manifestation of "string theory") and therefore not implying Parts 2, 3, etc..

All this science and self-analysis has worn me out. Readers are invited to engage in the infamous interactive potential of Web 2 (or 3 or whatever it is now) and suggest other criteria. We aim to please.

*Write c/o this blog for hourly Provizer rental fees.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Professor Provizer's Bad Jazz Art Gallery

Welcome-and abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

We'll stop the bleeding and let this stand as a representative sample. Clearly, some of this stuff was knocked off quickly. Some of it seems painfully pre-civil rights, some of it falls squarely in the tchotchke category (thanks, E. Doberman, whose comment inspired this post), some of it is carefully done yet still inept and some of it is just weird.

On a larger scale, the culture as a whole occasionally turns its resources to commissioning public jazz statuary. Here are Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

The results do not inspire confidence for the aesthetic future.

Why is there so little good jazz art-aside from album covers, the loss of which was a definite blow to the visual side of jazz. Is this just a jazz issue or is art not a good subject for art?

Maybe the problem begins when people start believing that someone is "larger than life." This is the road to romantic tripe and cultural ruin.

Is it really impossible for us to have music as a beautiful pursuit, relief, even escape, in our lives and not bleed the humanity out of our artists? As the mortician replaces blood with formaldehyde, we want to replace actual character, in all its contradictory, petty, wretchedly excessive glory, with a misty, fusty mythology.

I think there is a alternative choice: let's face the music and dance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Jazz Entrepreneur-Threat or Menace" by Steve Provizer

Blogmeister Chris R. bemoans the lack of entrepreneurial spirit among local jazzers. I more or less demur.

There are musicians out there exercising the old entrepreneurial spirit and bestirring themselves to various exotic gig locales and this is surely a better strategy than bemoaning one's fate while passively waiting to be discovered. But does it mean that all or even most jazz musicians should scurry from their caves and try to sell their wares to the unwilling masses?

Let's acknowledge that there will forever be a gap, nay an incipient conflict, between the dispositions of the Player of the music and the Seller of the music. God bless the child that's got both sides, but that's Halley's comet rare.  I mean, look at the ultimate fruition of the entrepreneurial spirit: our friend Wynton M. His skills in both are high, but the psychological result and cultural impact are, well, mixed. Maybe success doesn't inevitably turns anyone into a-god help us-"spokesman," but once cast in that role, it takes someone with the singular spirit of Coltrane not to fall into the divisive ego trap laid by jazz flackery and the media.  

I myself wandered for years in the Twilight Zone inhabited by so many jazz musicians. In a scenario that may be familiar to many of you, every half-assed musical money-making scheme ended in semi-disaster and narrowed the already small distance between me and the guys with the butterfly nets from the local loony bin. Now, I am predisposed to pontificate against the middle path.  Either go ahead and hustle your ass off, or spend your time getting real good at what you do and trust that your audience-or maybe a Seller-will find you. No bemoaning of fates allowed.

Explicatus Addendum:
In "Unions and the Fame Myth"  I wrote about the need for musicians to take matters into their own hands. But that's energy put to a different end. Unionizing has a different upside. It doesn't mean you get to eliminate the middle man, but it may mean that you'll be able to weed out the pimps. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fear and Confidence-The Jazz Tight Rope by Steve Provizer

If you're an improviser who completely lacks confidence, you'll never get out of the practice room, but if you have no fear, you won't find The Edge. Most of us struggle to find a balance between the two.

Some people have no fear in a studio, but freeze up in front of audiences. More commonly, people fear the trappings of the recording studio (much more true before technology allowed infinite edits). In both cases, the caution that seeps in can make you retreat into your bag of creaky riffs.

On the other hand, a complete dearth of fear can cause problems. A photographic memory and all the technique in the world can induce complacency and drain the life out of a performance.

I'm sure we've all heard this, or felt it. It's a phenomenon that often comes wrapped in a bundle of 32nd notes, in a long visit to stratospheric registers, or as rapid virtuosic register shifts. Despite all this musical artillery, something seems to be missing. The example that sticks out for me-because it was the biggest disappointment-was a Freddie Hubbard gig I heard at Boston's Jazz Workshop in the 70's. Freddie could play the crap out of the trumpet, but as I listened to a cascade of notes, played by a man whose early recordings I'd worn out, I was unmoved. He just didn't seem to be giving anything up, emotionally. Despite the financial sacrifice I'd made to get in, I didn't stay for the second set.

God knows it's tempting say you'd sell your soul for more chops. But, as in the Myth of Fame I talked about, the point is that we have to find our own points of calibration. This personal excavation is damned hard to do-and if there's any reason why artists should occasionally be cut some slack for selfishness and other loathsome behavior, this might be it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Comfort-Food Jazz by Steve Provizer

As Flann O'Brien once wrote, in "At-Swim-Two-Birds":

"When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life seems black as the hour of night,
A pint of plain is your only man."

Well, the man was an alcoholic, so his RX for the blues was a little narrow.

Jazz may not be the magic elixir. It may not make the lame strap on roller blades. It may not even make ugly people look better at closing time, but still we turn to it for succor.

In this needy state, you may find your choices are less adventurous than usual. If it was food you chose to fill the hole in your soul, you might pass on the escargots and go for the beef stew. It's it's music, you might opt for cozy over adventurous-at least I do. What do I want for my "comfort jazz"? Allowing myself the obligatory ten choices:

Mulligan, Getz and Brookmeyer together.
Late Billie Holiday
Early Ellington
Coltrane's Crescent
Miles on Prestige
Dizzy singing
Clifford's "Ghost of a Chance"
King Pleasure
Ella doing ballads during the 50's
Eldridge-"After You've Gone"

What's your jazz for solace?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Unions and the Fame Myth-by Steve Provizer

Seattle Negro Musicians Union-1925

Music is a collaborative art, but the sketchy history of unionism in American music seems to say that the spirit of collaboration has too often ended at the edge of a bandstand.

Believe it or not, there actually is something called the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), under the aegis of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The union has forged many collective bargaining agreements that benefited musicians, but it seems there was always an uneasy relationship between union leadership and rank and file. In jazz especially, racial problems were ongoing, with union chapters in every American city segregated through most of the 20th century (The desegregation of Boston's unions only happened in 1970). I understand the AFM using its website to try and put a positive spin on the union's history, but racially, it's a complete whitewash and at this point, it seems depleted as a cultural force.

But you know, we musicians have been all too ready to cut each others throats and not to act collectively.

Well, damn. Who doesn't want someone else to look out for their own personal interests-Get me on a label that can plug my efforts. Get me an agent who gets me the good gigs. Get me a manager who looks out for my interests.

You Know Who

Of course, this makes us no different from any other group of people who must divide up a pie that's increasingly too small-noblesse oblige only comes with a surplus of money. But this attitude has made the vast majority of musician's lives way too wracked with dues-paying.

Musicians have been opting for what is essentially an elitist approach to the business of music, buying into The Fame Myth and aggravating the economic disparity between those few who have Made It and the much larger group which is serious about the music, but must constantly scuffle.

The internet has opened up entrepreneurial possibilities for many musicians-largely for the younger, tech-savvy ones. But what we really need is an attitude adjustment. Or, when it comes to getting our collective due, maybe we simply need more attitude.

Wildman Fischer

Many of us aren't cut out for a lot of confrontation, but if we stand together, a representative of our union, guild, association, or collective could bring the bargaining skills we need.

The Fame Myth is a shaky foundation to base your life and art on, so, just let it go... My 12-part cassette series will help. Available now for 4 easy payments of just $19.99.

Ronco Presents

Just kidding.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Jazz Lexicon of Expressive Grunts by Steve Provizer

So-Maybe our sexually permissive culture has cleared the way for greater freedom of The Gutteral Utterance. At least, women tennis players now feel free to let it rip. But jazz musicians have long had a lot to say that has nothing to do with lyrics or, for that matter, with any known language. Because it's hard to vocalize with a mouthpiece on your chops or a reed in your mouth, letting loose with vocal ejaculations has been pretty much limited to piano and guitar players. Today we'll stick to pianists. Monk has kind of a squeeky, small parallel inner voice; Jaki Byard intones a kind of sprechstimme; Bud provides simultaneous commentary in a different tempo; Keith Jarrett sounds like someone keeps moving tacks around on his piano bench; Cecil Taylor actually sometimes stops playing to make sure his hearty vocalisms have room to breathe. John Lewis is a lip purser and looks like he's working hard to control a slow leak. Lennie Tristano sounds like he's working on a degree in Esperanto. As far as the striders go: well-piano rolls could never tell the story about Lucky, Willie The Lion, James P., Eubie, because they only told half their story on the keyboard. The other half came out of their mouths; more or less garbled, depending on whether there was a stogie stuck in their mouth... It would be interesting to strip off the music and see if you could tell who was uncorking what. I'm liking the little band of miscreants who make this website hum...Who else ya got for me, boys?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Belabored Day.

"Because americans are concerned with market share and sales.  conflict
leads to sales.  I met these guys from their late 30's,
like, in their 18th year of university or some shit like that--and
getting paid to go.  they played all day long, did some teaching,
and that was set up for them...I remember they said something like
"well, you know, you have to be well fed and live a decent life to
make good music, and the Finnish government pays us a good wage to go
to college" or some kind of crazy shit like what the fuck
do they care about debates and hyper neurotic
differentiation---there's enough cheese for everyone's sandwich."
A gift from Stanley Jason Zappa.

We find ourselves on a lip service day mainly used to mark the closing side of summer at a time when the entire vast mess of what passes for labor is reeling from a protracted contraction. The chart above is most instructive. It covers income distribution between 1913 and 2003. If we compare it with what we know of the flow of Jazz through that time stream it is interesting to note that the long and great legacy period of the idiom between the onset of the depression and the imposition of Reaganomics would generally be considered to be fairly healthy even though hardly anyone made huge money and Miles could still demand to be paid in cash.

The rise of idiot huge compensations seems to follow the reduction of the top marginal tax rates from the days of that noted flaming liberal, Dwight David Eisenhower. Back then you were whacked for 90 percent or something. But what it really did was discourage pathetic mis-allocations of capitol such as we see now with asinine bloat fantasy money heaped on entertainers and grown ups who play children's games in weird outfits. 

It also discouraged and prevented individuals like the billionaire Koch brothers from exercising undue and menacing influence on the workings of government for the common good.

Looting and mis-allocation are the main features of our landscape and any real address of what is systemic unemployment would want to align economic potential with an environment of unprecedented and continual contraction and de-leveraging. Everyone got suckered into holding too much debt and then financial engineers leveraged it up exponentially with exotic financial products built of flimsy assumptions.

This grotesque explosion of indebtedness had a horrific impact on higher ed by encouraging tuition cost inflation because financing would cover anything. It made a fairly large and now disgruntled demographic cohort in debt to its eyeballs out of the gate before it even had time to tell which way was up.

If that wasn't bad enough, the jobs of the post Rubin era so touted by Clinton shills were largely fluffy jobs, Dilbert jobs... dreaded and despised gray cubicle jobs that were in themselves grotesque mis- allocations. We threw away the jobs that involved actually making or growing something, that most of our people could do without going into hock to Fawk U.

There are now a whole huge heap of these no longer significant fluff jobs on the line and in a cruel twist, the main recipients of this disaster are the older employees now in their 40s and on to the edge of retirement.

This would have been dumb in the older period where a manufacturing model obtained because the older employees were repositories of valuable institutional lore and memory. The IT economy sector mainly turned that upside down. Entity lore is of less value in a constantly fluid management structure and proficiency with churning emerging platform and tech change is the hallmark of employee value.

It is as if a bloated service sector is finally seeing the same permanent contraction that manufacturing already met. Thousand of older fluffy sector employees, maybe millions, will become nearly unemployable. An equal number of debt choked graduates from Fawk U. will discover that those 4 years spent on a fluffy major learned to master a craft that is losing efficacy will impose harrowing makeovers on them as they try and decide what to do about the debt.

When Microsoft decided to finally make a sturdy operating system and just call it 'Windows 7' instead of 'Panorama' or some such ridiculous shit, that is a signal that Marketing laid it's last egg. It's now ripe for severe contraction of an entire sprawled sector.

Some of this can be addressed by regulation. The hordes of laid off building trades people at least have tools and useful skills. The fed and states can generate work by merely requiring LEED compliance for all landlord beneficiaries of Section 8 housing vouchers while softening the hit by offsetting tax deductions. It needs to be done. The nations stock of crappy inefficient slum rental housing could keep a lot of people busy for several years and it coheres with the tug of contraction. Fix the old stuff so it drains less money.

Some of the laid off marketing and call center people could probably figure out how to work a caulking gun. Decentralizing a lopsided and menacing national food production system could also keep a lot of people busy.

As to how it all impacts Jazz, refer again to that income distribution graphic. That spike that begins with Reagan is hogging momentum. The hogs got all the money, (see Marty Khan). It is now unsustainable.

I  noticed some comedic stuff over at Blue Note. They have begun dropping all of their more valuable legacy recordings down to a 9 dollar price point while still expecting nearly 18 for Joe Lovano. 

That is a sign of a cliff dive. They are trying to redeem a catastrophic A&R failure by marketing a simulacra of their original work. It's like selling a bottle of hand made trappist ale for 2 bucks while expecting to get 10 bucks for PBR with a funny hat on the label.

This may explain why they have been on the edge of receivership to Citi for the past few years and why Citi is the most likely candidate for failure if and when the next big spasm of contraction hits.

This also explains the saturation bombing from equally moribund old media of Lovano tail wags to the edge of the tail falling off. Jazz Inc denizens are all in the leaky boat together and can't seem to bail very well. The SS Bluenote has kept them afloat for several years with lots of ad and marketing money. It almost resembles the bank bail out.

They desperately need to pretend that nothing else exists on any notable level. David S. Ware and Charles Gayle must continue to be locked in the pariah jail. Unfortunately, the web has gummed up the works as curious young jazz fan clicks on a Jazz Inc site... "What!... another fawking article about that hat guy ...what the fuck?!?...hmmm, I wonder if Stef has a new piece to check out..."

The same thing happens in the live festival side. A huge potlatch ensures that stupid A & R decisions will be redeemed by sponsor bail out.  If these idiots had to risk their own money you'd see all the gas fly out of the system and the inept anachronism of a thing like Newport could finally undergo its long awaited contraction. 

We might see a robust mosaic of little things spread all around the land with honest compensation for the many instead of demented confiscation for the few. They could be covered with a sponsorship from Depenz for one massive annual geeze stock in one place then beamed live so the spuds can watch it from their Lazy Boys. Make it a pre game day lead in to the Stupor Bowl and call it good.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Coltrane and the Jazz Fracture-by Steve Provizer

Tom, one of our commentors, speculates about Coltrane's contribution to the fracturing of the jazz audience and the concomitant loss of jazz audience in the early 1960's. This fracturing was certainly underway before the early 60's; chiefly through Ornette and somewhat via Cecil Taylor and Dolphy, but for several reasons-and for better or worse- Coltrane was most responsible for this process. I would lay a few shekels on the notion that this era gave birth to the jazz expression: "You gotta be able to go inside the house before you can go outside." If the adage did exist, I'd say it alluded to being able to play the blues-not to the bop/free dichotomy. But whether or not the phrase was newly coined, it was in the air. And, of all those playing "free jazz" or "the New Thing," if you will, Coltrane was the only one who had obviously negotiated that transition (for the moment, let's suspend the large discussion that could be devoted to Dolphy and chord changes). Another factor is that, while he was pressing on the "outside," Coltrane continued to make "inside" melodic music: the Johnny Hartman and Ellington records, recording "Someday My Prince Will Come" with Miles; even as late as 1964's "Crescent." It's reasonable to think that listeners who loved 'old' Trane would be willing to expend some energy trying to follow and find the musical value in his new directions. This may have led some to a kind of limbo; possibly the place where our friend Tom found himself. The point I tried to make in Coltrane on Coltrane is that he basically just went about his (extraordinary) business. He talked about trying to be in tune with the Creator, but never proselytized; never tried to elevate his status as a "spiritual" person. Others, however, took him up for their cause; ridiculous in the case of people with political agendas (c.f. the Frank Kofsky interview); understandable in the case of people with a spiritual bent. Secular music-jazz-always had a bit of a shaky spiritual relationship with the culture at large. Coltrane changed that. His highly credible musical history, his nearly universal acceptance by other musicians, the widespread perception of him as an exemplary character and his early death, made him the exemplar of this change. In 1965, some thought you couldn't successfully pull the spiritual thread out of the jazz skein any more than you could the rhythm thread or the harmony thread. Others thought the most important thread was being given the primacy it deserves. This difference in perception continues.