Saturday, August 11, 2007

listening notes: bill evans/jim hall, undercurrent

The most intriguing thing about this album, for me, is the relationship between the packaging and the music. For many, this is a minor concern, maybe even a superficial one: the music towers above whatever thing (or, in the mp3 age, non-thing) it happens to be wrapped in. Still, ill-advised fonts, corny photographs and dreary layouts are painful, while amazing visual art can only enhance (and, in some cases, redeem) the music. And so-bad-it's-great cover art is an inexhaustible source of fun.

Joanna Newsom's Ys probably goes overboard, but the cover painting, embossed outer sleeve and gold-trimmed booklet create a rich context for the music to unfold in. It's not just about the size of the budget, either: Erstwhile's covers are regularly fantastic, especially Keith Rowe's paintings.

If this context provided by packaging was unimportant, musicians wouldn't title their compositions, give their group names, decide to wear expensive suits rather than combat pants, etc. And there wouldn't be this trend, that I'm really tired of, of record companies imposing a really strict look in order to create a "label identity." A part of the music's individuality is erased in favour of factory-line streamlining. Hat Hut, ECM, Ayler and De Werf are examples from different levels in the food chain.

Undercurrent's beautiful cover is tragic, dramatic, oneiric and mysterious. Barry J. Titus's original liner notes read like extremely bad William Burroughs ("Blue, yellow tinged, Mars capillaried, eye, blue crystal, white slash, 'I know what I want! Why is it such a struggle for you? I feel revolutions.'" And so on.). What do either the cover or the liners have to do with the music?

The duets are neither orgiastic gibberish nor haunted ruminations. Even Jim Hall's "Romain," which starts and ends somberly, lightens as guitar and piano give in to the sensual pleasure of intricate dialogue. There's an implicit lightness running through the album (made explicit in John Lewis's "Skating In Central Park") that's at odds with the cover's dramatic weight and a swinging drive on an unusually fast "My Funny Valentine" that's the opposite of Titus's pretension. I suppose music can (and sometimes, must) stand apart from the visual art that is inflicted upon it, but a successful union of the two leads to a more satisfying experience.

An aside: every time I see a picture of Jim Hall, I can only wonder: has he ever looked young?