Friday, July 06, 2007

house fight starting

Roughly a year ago, there was a stir around the topic of jazz education (a recap: an initial gathering of several posts revolving around the topic, Nalbandian and Crouch, Djll on Bill Evans, Ryshpan on Ryshpan). The subject was revived by Nate Chinen's IAJE article and a bunch of bloggers.

Now, Casa Valdez has a rant on the state of jazz and then has a talk with Bob Mover that has proven controversial. The former is more on the futility of it all, considering the state of the "jazz market." The second is the more controversial one, about how young players just aren't taught to swing any more, but rather left to their own Josh Redman-, Chris Potter-, Mark Turner- and Seamus Blake-derived devices (Valdez later throws Chris Speed into this group, along with Donny McCaslin and others, under the heading "George Garzone students," but I don't see how Speed can be lumped together with the other guys, stylistically speaking). Mover concludes "the inmates are running the asylum!" Both posts have attracted a lot of comments.

One comment links to a similar article by George Duke, of all people. It's hard to read it without feeling that the pot is calling the kettle black. Some of what Duke says strikes me as contradictory:

I realize that trends in jazz will change - that’s the essence of what jazz is, and change and inclusion are what a creative musician uses to create an environment. But why the move away from traditional African American musical values?

Now at times I’ve heard some of these players play the blues, and it’s quite apparent that they don’t have a clue how to do it. The blues is a feeling and attitude. In my playing it is at the core of everything I do, so when young players abandon that, it’s almost like they are abandoning a large part of what I love about jazz.
Leaving aside the question of what the traditional African American musical values are (specific styles or more broadly-defined attitudes?), I wonder what the average Afro-American teenager knows about the Blues: indirectly through the story-telling lineage that extends into hip hop, slightly more directly in songs such as Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and in whatever remains of it in r'n'b. Maybe more for those who search back through their parents' record collection or listen to Gospel. So, how can you "abandon" something that isn't part of your life? Duke himself captures my sentiment:
You know maybe that’s it. Even though I didn’t experience slavery, my mom and dad did, so I had that direct connection to the gut feeling of the blues and its’ musical predecessors – in reality it is a direct connection to the past through a musical tradition. For me, that feeling tells the story and displays the soul of my people.
So if "some of these players" don't have a connection to the Blues, why should they play it? Conversely, to me, hearing Bojan Z play on Balkan rhythms and melodies is exactly like hearing a jazz musician from Mississippi include Blues inflections in his playing and is "expressing the soul of [his] people."

On the other side of the fence, Brian Olewnick has been criticising the Vision Festival for being too stuck in outdated ways:
The odd (sad?) thing was that the better music from each evening almost inevitably referred directly to earlier great music. So you get pastiches of Handy, the Art Ensemble, Ellington etc., which are enjoyable enough but hardly possessing any "vision". Not surprising, of course, but still. Worse, as always, for something describing itself as "free music", countless strictures were constantly in place. There was rarely a moment where you got the idea that a given musician could do anything that came to mind. Solo order tended to follow the standard routes (horns to piano to bass to drums). Hell, the whole "solo" thing was sometimes laughable. During Dickey's set, bassist Todd Nicholson was soloing and Dickey's accompaniment (not as a joke) was tapping the ride cymbal in a "ching-chinka-ching" pattern. It's 2007 and people who are purportedly experimental, avant and free musicians are still doing "ching-chinka-ching". Jesus.
And later:
But if you've chosen to push things, if you're out there advertising your work as "free", well dammit, it should be free. And forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding "free" to mean exactly what it says. It doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians, a hierarchy of solo order (it doesn't mean solos being obligatory at all!). It doesn't mean constructing a situation where you can't do this and you can't do that, no matter how much musical sense it makes at the time. It doesn't mean you can't stop playing when you have nothing to add. It doesn't mean that when the bassist starts soloing, the drummer automatically reverts to cymbal tapping mode while the horn players look on (they can't play of course! that's against the rules!) and the pianist dutifully punches out a handful of appropriate chords.
the great majority of music being performed at Viz ain't free and, for my bucks, shouldn't in good conscience mislead people into thinking that it is. Insisting on that aura, imho, weakens the music. For the most part, it's every bit as essentially conservative as what's being presented uptown at Wynton's place. Different veneer, very similar core.
I can only wonder if we're all living in the same world: on the one hand, youngsters are criticised for being too heavily invested in the mainstream of contemporary saxophone (on this point, take a look at this very pertinent comment: "sometimes it takes a while to sink in," it being the historical recommendations teachers make to their students), on the other, the purported avant-garde isn't avant-garde enough. It's like we're caught in a Bermuda Triangle of immobilism on one side, cultural loss on the second and ignorance on the third, into which all hope and joy disappears.

While too much of Brian's argument rests on the terminology associated to the Vision Festival (I say this as someone who loves musical taxonomy), I do recognise some of the limitations he cites, limitations which come to seem arbitrary because innovative musicians have already rendered them obsolete. At the same time, I think a lot more people are continuing to break away from, or at least significantly loosen, those solo/accompaniment, improvised/composed, free/not-free binaries than Brian is giving credit for. And those very same limitations can give immense satisfaction, still. Of course, for Jazz Corner veterans, Brian's complaints themselves are old hat.

Dan Melnick asks the question of the importance of change in "free, experimental, or avant-garde music." I don't really agree with his conclusions (for one, I'd say that he believes in the timeliness of creative expression rather than prizes novelty over all else), though I do believe that the heated moments of great performances that really touch us totally eclipse the questions of innovation, tradition, styles and eras we ask ourselves in the cold light of day.

I would like to flip Dan's interrogations around (forgive me if the following sounds wishy-washy): listeners cannot ask of musicians more than they ask of themselves. Instead of demanding that musicians push boundaries, for example, we can only ask that we challenge our own listening habits and comfort zones. It's a risky entreprise, one I find difficult and don't do often enough: it takes time and perhaps money, our current opinions may be proven wrong or misguided, we might somehow stumble. But hopefully, in some way, we learn and broaden our perspective. Only by doing this, I think, can the listener get a taste of what it means for the musician to undertake a similar endeavour.