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Friday, December 25, 2009

Thanks and Happy New Year!

So, I reach the end of the first calendar year in which I've been doing this blog. I started it because I wanted to add to the rather slim ranks of musicians who write blogs, and write about the music in terms of the inner workings of the music as well as the social landscape in which it finds itself these days. This social aspect of the music is covered very well also by many non-musician bloggers - the NPR's "A Blog Supreme" is a particular favourite of mine in this respect - but I still think there's room for a bit more in-depth writing about the technical aspects of playing this music. I know I particularly enjoy reading musician's thoughts on all aspects of their profession, and I hope others will enjoy this blog for the same reason.

It's been an instructive seven months or so, some posts got amazing reaction in terms of comments, and others didn't - and I rarely know which subjects are going to provoke the most reaction - the massive response to the bass solos post was a case in point...........

I'd like to thank all who read the blog in 2009 and especially to those who took the time to write and respond - it's been a really interesting and stimulating experience for me and one I hope to continue into 2010. I'm off to Syria next week, where for reasons best known to themselves, the Government have banned Blogger, so my impressions of that trip, (I know it's not strictly music related, but the blog is call Mostly Music - my get-out clause for writing about other interests occasionally), will have to wait till I get back.

In the meantime I wish all of you a very Happy Christmas and peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Art and Craft

How important is craft to the art of jazz improvisation? In a music that developed out of many different approaches and solutions to technical, theoretical and aesthetic problems, can any one benchmark of craft be placed front and centre of the music as an identifier as to whether a performer is sufficiently proficient to be taken seriously in the music? How important is craft to the art? Is craft in itself something worthy of respect?

These thoughts were prompted by two things – something I read recently and something I watched. What I read was a post from the Groove Notes blog (thanks to the always interesting NPR 'A Blog Supreme' for this), ‘A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein’, in which he told a story about how a less than proficient clarinettist was publicly humiliated by Jaki Byard
at a club in New York. The second thing that prompted the post was watching a Youtube clip of Hamiet Bluiett playing ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ with the Charles Mingus group in 1972 (Posted below).

In the Byard story, he (Byard) not only heckles the clarinet player who is playing during the intermission in a duo with a drummer, but decides to prove that the clarinet player is a faker by going to the bandstand and challenging the guy to a trial by blues – accompanying him on the piano and punctuating the resultant performance with a profane ongoing critique, as a result of which a) the crowd are made to realise that the clarinet guy can’t play, b) they turn ugly, and c) clarinet guy turns tail and runs out into the night. At least that’s how the story is told – with no little relish – by Dick Stein.

This kind of story divides jazz readers into two camps — one camp would enjoy the story very much and see it as being a classic example of an interloper getting his comeuppance, someone who hasn’t done the necessary groundwork trying to put one over on the jazz public, and being found out, unmasked, and driven out by a crusader for the real jazz. This is definitely the view that would be taken by traditionalist defenders of the faith. On the other hand, there are doubtless readers of this story who would be outraged by it, and would see it as a typical piece of jazz fascism in which a very narrow view of what constitutes “correct” musicianship is foisted on all-comers, irrespective of their artistic leanings. I think this is definitely the view that would be taken by the post- free guys, who both argue for a broader definition of what constitutes jazz, and also question whether proficiency in playing over form, and over changes, constitutes any kind of litmus test of ability.

So which view is the correct one? Of course it’s impossible to tell from that story whether the clarinettist was as bad as was claimed or not. But should he have been given the opportunity to play his music unfettered by the views of Jaki Byard as to his abilities? In short, was Byard’s definition of craft — and insistence on the lack of it being shown here — too narrow, or did he have a point?

Again, it’s impossible to tell at this distance and at this remove from the incident itself whether the guy could play or not, but as far as my opinion is concerned, if the guy was as bad as suggested, then I have to have a certain sympathy with Byard’s views. I do think a certain element of craft is necessary in anybody who pertains to be a professional musician of any stripe, and in particular a professional jazz musician. I think anyone who demands money from the public to listen to their music, has a certain responsibility to that public to be a valid practitioner of a certain level — a musician that is of a high enough level to charge for his or her services. But what is the yardstick by which one can tell whether said musician is of a professional level?

Sound? This is a VERY subjective call, especially in jazz where you can hear such a huge divergence in sound – listen to Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane for an example of two acknowledged giants who could almost be playing different instruments, so great is the difference in their respective sounds. Classical music has a much narrower definition of what constitutes a ‘good’ sound – in jazz it’s a moveable feast, depending on era, style, approach and many other factors.

Intonation? Again, this is a grey area in jazz – less grey than it used to be, but grey nevertheless. While it’s true to say that there is more uniformity of opinion of what it means to be ‘in tune’ these days, there have been many examples of great jazz players whose approach to intonation would have raised many an eyebrow in other music, and often did even in jazz itself. And again the response to these different intonation approaches can be very subjective. In my own case I love the acerbic sound that Jackie McLean achieved largely by dint of his wayward intonation, yet I can barely listen to Eric Dolphy’s flute playing for the same reason. Go figure, as they say.

Speed? Technique is often defined by velocity, unfortunately. The speed somebody can play at is often taken as a measure of how good they are – i.e the faster you are, the better you are. Which is of course a very shallow way to listen to music and to judge music – but it appeals to certain types, especially young male jazz musicians! But leaving aside what the speed is used for, for the moment, there is no doubt that the ability to play fast and in time, (and this is a crucial distinction between those who are simply moving their fingers quickly and those who are relating what they’re playing to the underlying pulse), is definitely evidence of craft. The ability to play fast and in time is something that can only be achieved through years of dedicated practice and hard work. If somebody can do that well, they are definitely exhibiting a high level of craft. Whether they apply that craft in the service of art is a whole other question........

Ability to play on changes? Definitely a high craft factor here too – playing well over changes is HARD! Again it’s something that can only be done if you’ve spent long hours in the practice room, and it’s something that involves the ear, instrumental technique and rhythmic strength. There’s no doubt in my mind that anyone who can play well over changes, and negotiate them with good voice leading, and good time and feel is demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship.

But of course it's too easy to get into a narrow definition of what defines craft, and this is often done in jazz. There's a story about Thelonious Monk that describes how much he loved Bud Powell's playing and how in private he (Monk) would demonstrate his love for Bud by playing exactly like him. I've heard this story several times and have always hated it, since its agenda is really clear. This story sets out out to apologise for Monk's playing and 'validate' him by showing that he could play the way the piano should really be played if he chose to. I'm pretty sure that a) Monk couldn't play in the Powell style, (any more than Powell could have played in Monk's), and b) wouldn't have wanted to either. Because, like Powell, Monk's technique was of the highest level in that it was perfectly fashioned to express what it was he wanted to express.

And this seems to me to be the definition of craft serving art - a situation where the player has worked hard to reach a level of instrumental (or vocal) skill where he or she is perfectly equipped to express the musical ideas they have. Which is why the Monk/Powell story outlined above is so screwed up, since it implies that Monk’s craft or technique was less than Powell’s. This feeds into the idea that craft can be defined by very narrow parameters such as speed and dexterity. Speed and dexterity, assuming they’re aligned with a strong rhythmic sense, ARE signs of high levels of craft, but they’re not the only ones by any means.

When I was younger I must admit to being as bad as anybody in confusing speed with technique, or defining an ability to play by how well someone displayed a conventional technique on an instrument. For example in my early days as a player I just didn’t get Charlie Haden – I saw him as a primitive in comparison to say Paul Chambers or Scott LaFaro. It took several years for the penny to drop and for me to see the extraordinary levels of craft involved in what Haden did and to recognise that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, technique-wise.

But I have to say that I also believe there are measurable levels of craft on display when listening to a musician perform – i.e not everybody is of the same level of technique and craft in music. For me it comes down to being able to adequately deal with the technical challenges of the music you choose to play. There’s a very cruel, though funny, aphorism attributed to the great guitarist and pedagogue Mick Goodrick in which he will say to somebody struggling through something - ‘Yeah man, I hear what you’re trying to say......’ Which kind of sums it up for me – is the player technically equipped to deal with the musical challenges of a given piece of music? If so, this is a real demonstration of craft. But if a musician is struggling through something and clearly trying to play something that is beyond them technically, then there's definitely a craft problem.

Which brings me back to the Hamiet Bluiett video mentioned earlier. Bluiett is well known, and highly regarded as a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, and is a player from the freer end of the spectrum of jazz. But here he’s playing ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ with Charles Mingus, a piece with both form and changes, and when it comes to the playing over the changes, his level of craft in this area is just not high enough to make his playing sound convincing. He opens his solo with a sonic barrage, which is very impressive, and you can clearly see that this is an area in which he’s very comfortable, and there’s no doubting the raw excitement it generates, with both audience and drummer Roy Books responding to it. But throughout the solo he alternates these frenzied passages with playing lines over the changes, and whenever he does the latter the rhythm is poor, the voice leading is poor - in short the craft is poor. And he’s clearly trying to play conventional lines in these sections, but he just hasn’t put in the man-hours on this particular facet of improvising to be convincing in it. This to me is a demonstrable lack of craft, and prevents me from enjoying the solo since there are so many flaws in the technique that it gets in then way of the music. The craft doesn’t support the art.

Opinion in the jazz world seems to be divided on the issue of craft. On the one hand you have the people who revere a very narrow definition of instrumental technique and equate that with musical greatness. This is clearly a very myopic and shallow way to think about music – craft does not automatically equal art, nor is there only one kind of craft.

On the opposing side you have the people who dismiss musicians who do have high levels of technical craft in their armoury, for just that reason – implying that the playing of changes with ease, (for example), automatically makes the musician a hollow vessel, incapable of real feeling, emotion and creativity. This attitude not only disrespects the work that’s been undertaken by the musician to achieve a high level of craft, it also denies craft in itself as being something worthy of respect.

Both of these attitudes are seriously flawed – a plague on both their houses just about sums it up. As someone who has spent the majority of his life, playing, thinking and talking about jazz, I do believe there’s far too much high craft put to poor use these days – far too much technical skill used for far too little result. But as a musician, I will always respect the craft of good musicians. Someone who can play at a high technical level has spent years getting to that level, which means they must be serious about what they do. Whether we like the result or not, the effort, skill and sheer hard work that’s gone into the music should be respected. Sometimes the art and the craft are in perfect harmony, sometimes they’re not, but though great art may be the ultimate goal for all creative musicians, great craft should equally be something that’s respected and recognised.

Art and Craft - like so many things in jazz, and in life, it's not simply an either/or issue.....................