Monday, December 31, 2007

Oscar Peterson: In Memoriam V

When I discovered and immediately came to love jazz while I was in high school, I had a friend who felt quite the opposite. He hated jazz. He was a good musician, already had quite a stable of students, and managed to save for a new Camaro with musical horns as an added feature. And he hated jazz. This is all jazz is, he would say, and then play a C major chord, play some C major scale in a random manner, and claim with certainty that he had just played jazz—and there’s really nothing to it. Now classical, he would continue…

That’s wrong, that’s not jazz, I would say. Then what is jazz, according to you, because according to the dictionary—and this was always his trump card, rightly or wrongly, things always came down to the dictionary—he had technically just played jazz. So I have to argue with Webster, I nodded. And we dropped the subject for another day.

He didn’t know it, and neither did I, but the question of what is jazz hasn’t been answered. When everyone knew what jazz was, no one asked, and when folks started asking, there were so many types of jazz and so many ways of playing jazz that it couldn’t be answered. Combine that with the rise of jazz programs, and ye abandon all hope. When Fred Astaire sang an Irving Berlin tune, is that jazz? To me, no. When he started dancing, then yes, that was jazz. The reason was because he had brought the tune to life. And that is jazz, its essence, bringing some song to life, not just playing it, not just varying a theme—actually bringing the tune to life. Here’s where Webster’s hits a wall, here’s where biology hits a wall, here’s where our whole culture hits a wall—there is no definition of life other than by using the Unofficial English Composition 101 technique of “Bullshitting”. “Bullshitting” is using a bushel more words than needed in order to cover up that you really have no idea. The writers of Webster’s, the Professors of Biology all dress up the definition—Life is when something is alive—the cornerstone tautology, with bushels of barnyard glitter.

The tautology is clearer; the need for bullshit is considerably lessened when defining ‘dead’—when something is no longer alive. Clear enough—you get to walk three steps before running into the wall.

Songs die. They still get played, played too much, and they die. And there is a graveyard for dead songs. It’s called the wedding band. “Take the ‘A’ Train, Satin Doll, Misty, all staples for wedding bands, all dead. The band, essentially rock players, rehearse it, play the kind of rhythm you find as a setting on a cheap organ, and they will play the same solo every time, with a little bit of guitar distortion because as we all know, in the guitar world, distortion is emotion.

The first time I began to understand the true greatness of Oscar Peterson was hearing him play ‘A’ Train—as if it had never been played before, as if the lead sheet would still smudge if you accidentally leaned on it too hard. And he didn’t play four choruses and out, he played it for 15 minutes, each chorus more exciting than the next. He did the same with Satin Doll, nearly 9 minutes of quiet beauty, building beauty, enhancing it until it was ready for Mt. Olympus. All the Things You Are—he was raising the dead. He was putting his force of life into these tunes, he was showing us, bypassing English Comp Barnyard, that life is indeed a force, like gravity, like the stuff that holds atoms together, and the stuff that makes the television flicker pictures. Through his music, he was showing all of us, if we care to pay attention, what western civilization has been missing. He was showing us life. He will be missed, More Than You Know.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Oscar Peterson: In Memoriam IV

So if you had to guess which pianist Oscar Peterson felt the most affection, Count Basie wouldn’t be near the top, unless you do your due-diligence and read. But if all you had to go by was style, what you heard on recordings, then not Basie. Certainly, Art Tatum, perhaps Tommy Flanagan, Bud Powell, even Duke Ellington for the richness of his harmonies, but Basie? Count Two-Note? No way.

Way. You can see it in their duets. I’d like to try to get inside Oscar’s mind, pure speculation here, and see if we can find something to explain this affinity and high admiration.

We know that Oscar Peterson, from all accounts was a humble man, meaning he didn’t think of himself as the Greatest Jazz Pianist or Greatest Pianist Period, he didn’t get up in the morning, donning his cape and grabbing his dress cane to majestically walk to the bathroom. His first person pronoun was truly lower case, not pretentious lower case like a certain poet who will remain Nameless. “i wonder how Ray’s doing? How’s Herb? Call home? i need to take another look at tonight’s songs.” He didn’t do a very typical artist’s internal syntax, mentioning his name as an appositive—I, Pablo Picasso, feel the need for some strong coffee and sex with a young woman, yes that is what I, Pablo Picasso, feel. Nor did he do the professional athlete third person—I’ll tell you what Jim Kelly thinks, Jim Kelly doesn’t care what the press writes about Jim Kelly because Jim Kelly knows in his heart that Jim Kelly left it all on the field today, and you guys can just go back out with your flashlights back on to the field and find little bits of Jim Kelly to know that Jim Kelly is telling the truth right now.

Perhaps it was the quietness of Basie’s playing that appealed to, when away from the piano, a very quiet man. Or perhaps it was the majestic Basie conception. Those few notes that could take up four to eight bars, in Basie’s mind, were not surrounded by rests, were not simply whole notes tied. Basie heard his notes in context of that rhythm section, he heard big chords played by his horns, resting on that rhythm section, each note he played was surrounded by that that band, that had more swing, played tighter, that had the most precise sense of time, than any other band. In that way, Basie and Peterson were musical twins.

There was a time when jazz was the American music, before Rock, before the British invasion, before Hip Hop. It has since dropped off of the charts, literally. I remember driving in the car, listening to some AM news program in LA and hearing the news that Billboard would no longer keep track of jazz. As a musical category, it was gone. There was still the top of the Country Charts, top of the Rock Charts, top of the Pop Charts, top of the R&B Charts, but no more Jazz Charts, jazz sales were too low. It wasn’t worth the time, and it would be an embarrassment to jazz musicians. It was over. People were listening to George Winston, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock’s electric music--that generation. And as that generation aged, they seemed to want to tackle the standards, the Great American Songbook. Their albums were, Blank Blank Plays Standards, Standards by So and So. And something was missing. Still is.

I think it’s the interplay, that musicians now hear only their part, want to play only their part, and figure that it will somehow come together if they play correctly—mind you so many musicians have been graded, literally, like taking math and grammar tests, so their Skinnerian conditioned idea of correct has little to do with swing or even of improvising, responding to the moment. I knew a guitarist who told me, and he graduated from a prestigious music school (of course), that he literally wrote out his solos in advance, and would literally write out his transitions between chords. So the professors can talk all day about interplay, but it doesn’t come through since each individual is receiving a grade. The words getting kicked in ass by the need for accreditation.

Which brings us to genuine interplay, which Basie understood, which Oscar Peterson understood. Herb Ellis played guitar, but in essence played the drums; Freddie Greene played guitar, but doubled rhythmically, enhanced really, the high hat. With Basie, the bassist teamed with the ride cymbal and snare, with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown teamed with the ride cymbal and snare, also known as Oscar’s left hand—but unlike the Basie band, the smallness of the trio, and sometimes trio and guest, allowed for the moment, allowed for each musician to play beyond himself. I suspect if I had any sense, general as well as historical, when I met Herb Ellis, and asked him how he kept up with Oscar, he might very well have said, ‘to tell you the truth, I don’t know’.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Oscar Peterson: In Memoriam III

My most embarrassing jazz moment was when Herb Ellis was playing St. Louis, when my understanding of jazz was shallow(er), when Joe Pass was the newest and hottest guitarist around, playing his remarkable Virtuoso and playing duets with Herb Ellis. And during the break, in the two minutes I had with Herb, all I could do was ask about Joe Pass.

I just didn’t understand. And I still didn’t for thirty years when it occurred to me that after Herb Ellis left the Trio and Oscar replaced Herb with magnificent drummers, something was missing. Oscar’s full powers, I have heard and read comments, were in the 1950s. Not really. Oscar’s best trio was in the fifties—because of Herb Ellis. Herb held and played the guitar, but he was really playing very subtle drums—a drumming so minimalist and perfect that a drum set, no matter who played it, would be too much. And Herb’s fine-spun rhythm gave Oscar all of the room needed to create swing and pace no humans have been able to match. Herb Ellis and Ray Brown were the Lub to Oscar Peterson’s Dub—they were one heart.

There is an interesting book entitled “The Heart’s Code”, which, in a minor illustration of its major theme, mentions that the heart generates something like 10 times the energy as the brain, and somehow (another minor theme) it is also able to process and create information in a way that surpasses the brain. To any musician, this isn’t surprising, and thank you biologists for saying it 70 years after Louis Armstrong clearly demonstrated it and Oscar Peterson refined it into its purest form.

Our problem, and it is indeed a problem, is to keep Oscar’s passing from being not only the day the music was fully diminished, but to prevent our inner music, the power of the heart, from dying along with him.

Oscar Peterson: in Memoriam, part II

Bebop was born the way two spies take their half-torn piece of papers and join them in a dark alley. Dizzy Gillespie worked out the harmony, a new harmony that appeared complex but in actuality it made the flow of soloing much easier. The problem was the phrasing, and Charlie Parker had that. Together the code made sense, and new songs, previously inconceivable songs were born. Old songs became much better, had more energy, flowed like a steep mountain stream. Underneath this movement, Oscar Peterson was doing similar and marvelous things with swing, indescribable things that would never lead to tunes entitled Locrianitude. That is, what Peterson was doing could not be taught. For Oscar Peterson, jazz time, swing was the real time--that thing the clock does, just an illusion. Time is emotion and soul, time comes from this well of music within us, and time was something you feel, not count. Time had more qualities than quantity, and if you strike time just right, the way a diamond cutter strikes that dull rock, you get something priceless. Oscar Peterson knew just how to treat time, and as most other musicians could only produce a static shock, Peterson produced another kind of static shock--lightning. He knew when to play quickly, slowly, when to turn to chords. When trumps what. Here's another 9, and if you are a musician, when Oscar says when, then when is when. It's how to play.

Oscar Peterson, in Memoriam

Only one musician of any stature criticized Oscar Peterson, and that was Billie Holiday. It's not surprising since they were polar opposites, Holiday almost crying a forlornness only her flawed voice could express, and Peterson expressing a joy so profound and powerful only his incredible technique and planet and soul rocking swing could hold its message. Few musicians could keep up with his power, as we see in this set of 9 videos. Holiday's frailty became the template for artists because it was comprehensible, the hatred and barriers of the world crushing her spirit, with each compression creating more beautiful music. For Peterson his joy was an irresistible force, blowing away any barriers like so many poorly designed straw walls. In his joy there were no obstacles too strong or too heavy. Yet what he was saying I believe to be more profound, and still, for so many of us, to be incomprehensible.

The Beginning

Unfortunately this blog was sparked by a sad moment in the history of music, the passing of Oscar Peterson. I found that my Youtube site could not hold all of the words that I wished to convey, and so, as one very close to the top of the hill, two steps more and I will be over the hill, I followed the advice of a friend and created this blog. I would like it to be confined to jazz, which I love deeply, fell so deeply as soon as I heard Percy Heath walk a bass line that I went home and put all my rock and roll into a drawer and never opened it again. It's love, the real thing, packed with fidelity too. It wasn't long before I discovered Oscar Peterson, which, musically, if Percy Heath is serious dating, listening to Oscar Peterson was the wedding night.

The problem is that although I want to talk about Jazz exclusively, I have a big mouth, and frequently have my own foot for dinner. So if I were a betting man, I'd bet I'm going to make a few mistakes in the realm of tact and manners. I'll just apologize right off. And let's make it a standing apology that you can pull out at any time.

I am also liable to talk about literature, philosophy, politics in the most cynical way, and science. But as we start, I think jazz is the place to begin, and we'll see where that leads. It could lead to science, physics, time, swing, heart, soul. I do plan to write and think across disciplines--which I believe to be modern mythology, as if science and history have no relation, music and language have no relation. They are related, and if you don't have to take a test on a subject, your mind is relatively free to cross from one to the other.

I would like all of this to have a freeing effect on the mind, and greatly increase tolerance of bad jokes--another staple here, like bread sticks at a restaurant chain. Anyone who reads this, thank you in advance. We will make that a standing proposition along with the apologies. Soon to come, essays on Oscar Peterson.

And one last thing. This blog is written in conjunction with my posts on Youtube. This is where the references to videos belong. My Youtube account is entitled Naftali2. It is a collection of great jazz video gleaned from places around Youtube, set up in one location, under the umbrella of some really bad puns. But, I loves dem.