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Monday, March 19, 2012

What is Your Music For?

In an interview I saw with him, the great Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, when asked how important the audience was, replied (and I’m paraphrasing here), that since he (Nusrat) needed people to share his music with, the audience was important. But, he added, he principally sang to ‘the singer inside myself – because if I feel he can hear me, then ultimately the listeners will too’

I thought of this wonderfully insightful comment recently when once again the whole question of who we’re playing for – the audience or ourselves – came up via an interview with Greg Osby where Greg was making the point that we need to stop playing for ourselves, (or for other musicians), and play for the audience. In the current economical and musical climate, and when we see Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding doing so well, it’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions would rise to the surface again. Should we be playing for an elite few aficionados, or should we be tailoring our music in order for it to connect with more people?

For me, it depends on what you see your music as being for. If you see your music as functional – i.e. being used for a specific purpose which is not necessarily connected to the music itself – for example a wedding, or providing background music for a corporate event – then clearly you must tailor your music to suit the public. In all of these cases your music has a functional role, a predetermined slot into which it must be fitted. And as a musician you are being paid to fulfil that role, so the contract is clear: successfully fulfil the role and receive X amount of money in return.

The vast majority of the music played in the world is functional – and always has been. Down through the ages, the musician has played a functional role – Troubador, accompanist to rights of passage, dance music provider, herald of sporting events etc.If you see your music as functional, and your role as primarily functional, then you must tailor your music to suit the event and the audience.

There is however another reason to play music – to express an idea, or to express an aspect of the personality or emotions of the performer. This is a very different musical philosophy to that required of the functional musician. In this, the performer (or composer), rather than fulfilling a preordained role, is trying to express something of him or herself through the medium of music. In order to do this you need ultimately to play for yourself first and the audience second. Not through any selfishness or self-indulgence, but because it’s only by being honest with and to yourself, that you can truly be honest to and with the audience. If you don’t believe in your own music – and believe in it absolutely – then how can you expect anyone else to? You’ve got to absolutely believe in your music and do everything you can to express that belief in your music (such as developing the tools for expression through practice and technique), before presenting it to a listening public. If you’re not getting off on it, then why should anyone else?

Greg seems to suggest that from now on he will be tailoring his music to suit what he believes the audience will enjoy. But will he still believe in the music as deeply as he did before effecting this change? If so, fair enough. But again, if so, then why wouldn’t his own artistic instinct have taken him in this direction before now? My own feeling on Greg’s music is that he is a real individual, a distinctive voice, who has made a fantastic contribution to creative music over the past 25 years. I can’t help feeling that if, when he was starting out, and he’d thought of audience first, and his own instincts second, that we wouldn’t have heard the musical riches that he has given us. His expression of his own unique personality through music is what makes his contribution so valuable – not whether huge numbers of people liked it or not.

In the end, with this argument, we are dealing with the difference between putting art and creativity first, or functionality and accessibility first. And this is not about art = good and functionality = bad, it is just a recognition of the difference between the two. Each has their role to play in music. All I’m saying is that if your primary goal is to express yourself through music, then you’ve got to be honest about it. If what you love and do well is play funk or hip hop, then this is what you should be presenting to an audience. If what you love and do well is play contemporary improvised music, then this is what you should be presenting. Any deviation from honesty will never be as effective. Jazz musicians often think they’re such good players that they can play anything well – which is simply not true. There have been so many dreadful attempts by jazz musicians to play what they see as more commercial music, they think they can intellectually and technically reproduce what others do by instinct, but this approach is always doomed. The music is never good since it’s not really played with any conviction. The players don’t believe in the music itself, they just believe that audience will like it. Which is very insulting to the audience, since the players are playing down to them.

And if you’re playing creative music, but your concerns are primarily for the audience and what they might like, what do you really know about them? How can you go into a room and know what the expectations, history, demeanour, and attitude of 200 strangers is? How can you know what kind of day they’ve had? Whether they like your music, or hate your music? Whether they're there because they read about you in the paper, because their friends dragged them along, or because they know every recording you’ve ever made? You can’t know any of that stuff. All you can do is be honest – play the music YOU believe in to the best of your ability and try and share something with the audience.

I believe that if you’re a creative musician, and you start to tinker with your music to fulfil what you believe are the expectations of others, then there is no way of avoiding producing worse music than if you simply played what you believed in. If you want to be more popular then play functional music, but it’s misguided to think you can have one eye on your creativity and be counting the house with the other.......

Here’s Nusrat, doing what Parker did, what Armstrong did, what Coltrane did, what Miles did – singing to the singer inside himself

Addendum: Thinking about this again, there’s one other type of musician whose role is almost a genre of its own – being a classical musician. Interpreting the music of great composers, developing the huge technical skills required for this, and presenting it to a listening audience is a unique role for a musician. It’s not creative in the way that say Monk was creative, but at times the level of interpretation involved (on the part of soloists and conductors), does require a creative mind and approach, and musicians such as Gould, Horowitz, Menuhin, Richter and Perlman are among the greatest musicians in any genre.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Collective Consciousness - a true jazz virtue

The responses to my recent post about the lauding by critics of Robert Glasper’s recent music as a great leap forward, (both artistically and commercially), and in particular my questioning of whether what Glasper was doing was jazz at all, has got a discussion going on the hoary old question of ‘what is jazz’? While I’m reluctant to get into such a complex and ultimately unanswerable question, I have been thinking about one aspect in particular that I think is indispensible to what I would consider to be jazz – collective improvisation by the whole band.

This concept where the accompanist has an active rather than passive, or static role is one of the most unique features of jazz and is something I miss in the Glasper music under discussion, and also in Esperanza Spalding’s music. In general once you have a strong backbeat in action, it usually comes with a musical modus operandi where the soloist is in one area and the rhythm section is in another. The soloist solos over the groove, but the interchange between the soloist and accompanists is very limited – the collective improvisation and true interchange of ideas between soloist and rhythm section is missing. The clear 2 and 4 bar structures of much Hip Hop and Pop music also mitigates against fluidity and blurring of the lines of soloist and accompanist – each section being marked off with the drummer’s crash cymbal, the cymbal performing the role of cookie cutter in marking out the sections. The fluidity and improvised collective consciousness is missing.

This collective improvisation is very clear even in the earliest jazz recordings. The groups typical of those times involved themselves in what can best be described as multi-voiced counterpoint, each player weaving in and out and taking their turn in both soloing and accompaniment. Have a listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five from 1927 – and in particular have a listen to Armstrong’s use of what later became known as metric modulation, at around 1.39.

In the 30s the concept of the rhythm section came into being and while the first traditional rhythm section line-ups (piano, bass, drums) were sometimes stiff and provided a rhythmic and harmonic cushion for the soloist rather than interacting with him (and in those days it nearly always was a him), jazz’s collective instinct soon reasserted itself and pianists and drummers found ways to both respond to and provide inspiration to the soloists. The soloists in turn could interact with the rhythm section, influencing how they performed and being involved in a true interchange between soloist and accompanist.

This became very well developed during the bebop period of the 1940s and early 50s – have a listen to Bird with Max Roach and Al Haig, at how both Roach and Haig are both responding to Parker, spurring him on, and how he in turn sparks responses in them. For example listen how at 1.53 the phrase Parker plays makes both Haig and Roach hit a strong and held accent on the second beat of that bar – true improvised interaction.

In the 50s and 60s this interchange between soloist and rhythm section developed in leaps and bounds – the Bill Evans trio defined a new way for the traditional piano trio to interact, Miles’ various quintets ramped up the interplay quotient until we reach arguably the apogee of this interconnected improvising concept – the quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This group blurred the lines between accompanist and those being accompanied in a way that had never been seen before. The interaction between all five members of the group was of an extraordinarily high level, and they operated on a kind of philosophical telepathy. It wasn’t the kind of telepathy where everyone could predict what everyone else was going to do – that would have been very dull – but a telepathy in the way they seemed to understand what was required for the music at any given time, and that could include playing something really unexpected or something the diverged from the path the music was on at that time. Here they are in 1964 tearing through that old warhorse ‘Walkin’

To listen to the extraordinary creative organism that was that rhythm section is to hear something unique to jazz – the way they both respond to and drive the soloists is a wonder, it’s right at the top of the creative tree and this kind of interchange between the soloists and rhythm section is something you can only hear in jazz. And they weren’t the only ones doing this in the 60s – Coltrane’s group, in an albeit very different way – also played in a way in which the rhythm section were as important as the soloist at all times. McCoy, Garrison and Elvin were as indispensible to Coltrane’s music as Herbie, Ron and Tony were to Miles’. They don’t interact in the same way as Miles’ rhythm section but they are driving and shaping the music and it’s impossible to imagine this music without McCoy and Elvin in particular (I was never as big a fan as some people of the few recordings Roy Haynes made with the group) being as much a part of the identity of the band as Coltrane himself. Here they are (with Eric Dolphy and Reggie Workman on bass) in 1961 playing ‘Impressions’

What Miles, and Coltrane, and Evans, and Ornette and the members of their bands, and the members of many others, did was create a way of playing, a collective impulse in which each member had not only a role, but also a responsibility to add to the creative life of the band. And this way of thinking, of playing, of hearing, has stretched out to influence most of what became the mainstream of the music. It is unique to jazz – both soloist and accompanists have the freedom to lead and the willingness to be led, it is creative democracy at work, played in a spirit of equality and of parity.

For me, if you dispense with this interaction between rhythm section and soloist, the equality between accompanied and accompanist, you dispense with one of the vital jazz virtues. And as soon as you bring a backbeat into the equation, you’re immediately locking down the rhythm section, and removing the possibilities of interchange between front and back line. 10 years ago everyone was raving about Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvaer and saying this was the new way forward. But once again, like the Glasper music being lauded now, the preponderance of the backbeat robs the music of all of this organic interchange, eschews the collective improvisation tradition, and puts everyone in the band into clearly defined roles – soloist or accompanist, with little or no exchange between them.

Fortunately there are still great examples of the more collective way of playing out there, and for my money one of the greatest exponents of this way of playing, not just now, but of all time, is the current Wayne Shorter Quartet. Watch this stunning rendition of Joy Rider, and how it morphs, ebbs, flows, twists and turns under the collective guidance of the band, everyone taking responsibility, ready to move into the spotlight and back into the background as the music demands. This is JAZZ, with a capital J and several dozen Z’s after it. For me, apart from a few piano voicings, there’s really no similarity between what Glasper played on Letterman and what Wayne’s band do here. It’s not just the music that’s different, the whole improvising philosophy is different. In one you have the monolith of the backbeat, with some piano improvisations on top, with the other you have four musicians actively engaged in spontaneous creation (during which the backbeat makes an occasional appearance), using the medium of the composition as a launchpad. (I make no apologies for posting this clip twice in a short space of time - it's that good!)

One may argue about whether what Glasper is playing is jazz or not, but one thing’s for sure, what Wayne and Co are playing here is very definitely jazz!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Filesharing - The Reality

My recent diatribe against filesharing drew a mixed response, with some people, (nearly all musicians), being sympathetic to my stance, and others (nearly all not musicians), not. But for those who still think illegal filesharing is cool have a read of Ethan Iverson's post relating how Billy Hart's new album on ECM, which hasn't even been released yet, is already up on filesharing sites. What chance do we musicians have when we're faced with this kind of thing?

People might argue that the selling of music is finished, and a new way to distribute music must and will be found, but until such time as we the musicians agree to give our music away for free,the guys who upload this stuff are thieves and fences, and the people who download it are thieves.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thank Heavens We're Saved! (Again)

How come every each time jazz is reputedly saved, it’s always saved by music that is very far removed from jazz?

So, if the pundits are to be believed, it looks like jazz is being saved - again... This time by Robert Glasper. The outpouring of critical acclaim and ‘this is the way forward’ type of verbiage around his ‘Black Radio' album, shows that yet again we’re at the point where a particular musician or particular approach is being hailed as a panacea for jazz’s commercial woes. Glasper’s appearance on Letterman and Esperanza Spalding’s stratospheric success are being seen as harbingers of a new popularity for jazz, and light at the end of a particularly dark commercial tunnel for the music. Whenever this kind of things happens – some figure in jazz music gains some kind of success in the mainstream arena, and everyone starts to get very excited – I’m always sceptical. And I’m sceptical for one reason alone – inevitably the reason why whatever newly hailed ‘breakthrough’ is so popular, is precisely because it doesn’t sound like jazz at all. In fact the less it sounds like the mainstream of the music, the more likely it is to be popular.

Now of course this brings us into the endless ‘what is jazz?’ debate, and this is not some thing I want to rehash here – I’ve given my two cents worth on that previously. I’m a believer in jazz being a very broad church that can contain many different congregations. I don’t believe you have to be playing blues and/or swing in order to be playing jazz, though these are undoubtedly the roots of the music, and the area which still houses the vast bulk of the music’s greatest achievements. But there are many ways to skin a cat, and over the years cats have been skinned in an incredible variety of ways. I’m not conservative at all when it comes to what does or doesn’t constitute jazz, but this performance by Glasper on Letterman is to my ears much too far away from the improvisational cut and thrust of what I would consider to be jazz:

It’s Hip Hop with some jazz piano interweaved here and there. And there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re into – and lots of people ARE into that. Which is precisely the point – to see Robert Glasper’s appearance on Letterman as some kind of harbinger of better things to come for jazz as a whole is na├»ve to put it mildly. There is no way that Robert Glasper’s more mainstream piano trio would ever have been invited onto Letterman. It is precisely because the music he plays with his Experiment band is NOT jazz that it can have mainstream appeal.

The same would go for Esperanza Spalding’s success – she has serious mainstream appeal, and the more she moves into the area shown in this video, the more mainstream appeal she will have:

I have no problem with any of this music – it’s well made, well thought-out, well played, and I think both Glasper and Spalding are great talents, and great jazz musicians. But it really bothers me when the music evidenced by these videos is held up as an example of a way forward for jazz, both in terms of direction and popularity. Musically there’s nothing particularly original about Glasper’s Letterman piece – Herbie Hancock did very similar things back in the 70s and in the 1998 ‘Return of the Headhunters’ album his ’Watch Your Back' is absolutely in the same neck of the woods. As for the claim that this music (and Spalding’s) shows a pathway to a new acceptance of jazz by the mainstream public, this doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

I should say that it’s not Glasper or Spalding who are making the claims for their music being a giant leap forward in recognition terms for jazz, it’s the world of jazz punditry who once again seem to be besotted by the idea of a major breakthrough for the music being achieved through the rejection of many of the core values of jazz. I don’t believe for a moment that Robert Glasper’s success will have any impact on the careers of other jazz musicians, and the person who will benefit most from Esperanza Spalding’s success is Esperanza Spalding. Both of these musicians have something to offer mainstream audiences, and they’re playing in a commercial genre that mainstream audiences understand. But somebody who watches Robert Glasper on Letterman is not going to be any more sympathetic to say Tim Berne than they were before they saw the Letterman performance. Someone who watches Spalding’s video is unlikely going to be inspired to check out even as mainstream a figure as say Kurt Rosenwinkel. Someone who may be prepared to watch Glasper play a few fills on a Hip Hop tune are unlikely to follow him into the world of his trio and the extended solos that he would play in that context.

We have to accept that what most of us think of as being jazz will never be popular in a mainstream way. The vast majority of the generation who are currently growing up on iPhones, Lady Ga Ga and X-Box are unlikely to have any interest in the kind of music that demands full attention from the listener and an ability to engage with sometimes challenging music for lengthy periods of time. It’s just not going to happen – at least not in the kind of numbers suggested by an appearance on Letterman. What jazz has to do is increase the awareness of its core values, its variety, the rich rewards that are there waiting for those who are prepared to lend it a curious ear. While I’m convinced that jazz will never again be truly mainstream, I also believe it could do much better than it currently does in public awareness. There is lots there in jazz for an interested and sizeable minority of listeners to grab onto and enjoy. We just have to figure out how better to reach them. For me, the work done by Jason Moran is far more encouraging in this way than Glasper’s Hip Hop project. Glasper is selling Hip Hop with a jazz flavour. Moran has managed to engage with many different musics and eras yet retained a jazz centre to his music in which the traditional virtue of collective improvisation within the ensemble is always paramount. Without musically moving outside the jazz world, he has managed to broaden his audience and bring them along with him. It can be done.

Robert Glasper playing Hip Hop, or Esperanza Spalding’s recent music is not the future of jazz, either musically or financially. It is too far removed from the core values of jazz where the narrative of the music is created by improvising soloists. Jazz cannot be saved by making mainstream commercial music and labeling it jazz. If you take an orange and call it an apple, it’s still an orange. So instead of pretending that an orange is an apple and trying to sell it as one, let’s just forget the subterfuge, try and make a better apple, present it more successfully to the people, and let them decide for themselves.