Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pushing Hands

Brief Note: In between this post and my previous post, Carol Sloane celebrated a birthday. Happy Birthday, and thank you for the exquisite music you've given the world.

The New Post:

It’s getting worse. In an earlier post I mentioned the day I heard Billboard would no longer track Jazz as a distinct category, mixing it into R&B. Yesterday I tried to get some figures on Jazz CD sales, and it’s hard to find. In fact, I couldn’t find any information. Then I went to Billboard, and jazz is no longer grouped with R&B. Now it’s grouped with Classical. And if that doesn’t say it all, then you just can’t hear.

Used to be, Jazz was the polar opposite of classical music, the latter being rehearsed and theorized to a point where if there was spontaneity it was as fleeting as a lightning bug’s light, as elusive as mercury, and more than likely it was a mistake. Jazz was always about spontaneity. That was the whole point of the music, that and blues, that and swing.

In the early recordings the great Louis Armstrong took liberties never before heard, and probably never before imagined. The Big Band Era solidified the base of swing, but still the musicians felt constrained. And then came the post-WWII small groups that marked both a rise is musicianship and recording quality. The recordings were done for various labels, usually in one studio, VanGelder’s in New Jersey. In each of these legendary recordings there was a feeling that the music wasn’t quite complete, the musicians didn’t fully know their roles. There was a roughness in each recording, there was a space that held uncertainty and suspense. The songs were both old and new, but they followed the template of Gershwin, Berlin, Ellington, and the blues, and the listener could join with the musicians, anticipate the drummer yet still be surprised and excited when Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, or Louis Hayes exceeded expectations, breaking your—you, the listener, the buyer of the album, breaking your expectations of what was humanly possible. You heard Kenny Burrell’s beautiful tone but also his mistakes—and it added to the music, it made it more suspenseful, it put you right there in what felt like the living room where they were playing. You heard Sonny Rollins plant a seed and grow the tree right in front of your ears. And these records, turned into CDs, continue to sell quite well.

And then very slowly, in the name of spontaneity, the bass line disconnected from the listener’s heart, the drums didn’t just kick at the perfect moment, but rather the style felt more like flailing—and the opportunity for hitting just the right cymbal at just the right moment, like Jimmy Cobb on So What, that moment disappeared in a tangle of percussion freely expressed. In the name of spontaneity, all notes became right notes, and the suspense was gone because there could be no wrong notes. The songs broke the template, they broke the form that somehow tapped into our deepest selves, and the listener could no longer go along with the musician on the ride through the solo. It became impossible to know when the musician was reaching his or her limit, when they were exceeding even what they themselves thought they were capable of playing.

The music sounded like risk, but there was no risk, the newer jazz ended up creating a huge safety net for the player, all the while disconnecting from the audience. And then the music moved from the clubs, from players learning by themselves or being taken under the wing of a wiser player, to the classroom and tests and one size fits all. And the practice patterns, the way musicians practiced changed—rather than practicing the act of improvising, they practiced what they were going to play over certain passages, and the spontaneity was then gone.

Sales dropped, it became harder to get gigs, rock jumped right into the void created by the shift in Jazz, and the Jazz musicians did what most folks do in times of crisis. They denied it was happening, they rationalized. They said, they thought, that what they were playing was so hip it was beyond the minds of the public—so that even when you went to hear them, instead of you being invited along for the ride, you are seen with some contempt—just enough to make sales drop even more, to make gigs even tougher to get. The musicians, being people too, became more frightened, angrier at the public, and they played this anger. It came through the music, just enough to make sales drop some more and make gigs tougher to get.

It does have that sound of a death spiral—

But it’s not dead yet. There are moments, there are still seeds. If the great guitarist Paul Bollenback plays a chord melody, are the seeds in his voice leading, or are the seeds the sound of his laughter as he surprises himself? The same kind of laughter we would hear in the background coming from Wes Montgomery, or the monotone hum that Oscar Peterson knew and proved to be an intricate melody. In the album notes to Kind of Blue, the quintessence of spontaneous playing, a moment when the musicians didn't even see the music until the tape was already recording, Bill Evans describes a type of Asian art--drawing and painting on a tight canvas, so tight that any hesitation will puncture and destroy the work. The act of the drawing must be immediate and complete.

And what can be more spontaneous than a good round of the Tai Chi exercise of Pushing Hands? And so Asian culture, on the outside, seems quite classical, and yet on the inside, there is a tradition of spontaneity, of practicing the act of improvising. Across the Pacific, some beautiful jazz is being played.

Once before, in the history of the world, Asian technology pulled the western world out of the Dark Ages, perhaps they can do it again.