Wednesday, September 19, 2007

this versus that

Two threads currently circling the jazzblogosphere seem linked: Dave Douglas's discussion of repertoire vs. originality and "are the Bad Plus ironic?" Both could be boiled down to the age-old structure vs. agency debate, and its eternal attendant question: "Where to start?"

Ambivalence is crucial: the first art music to appear in the era of recording (Charles Delaunay, co-founder of the French magazine Jazz Hot, invented discography), jazz actively resists being defined by it ("you should have heard them on the nights the microphones weren't there"); relentlessly modern in its embrace of rationalism, abstraction, universality and progress, but always in thrall to nostalgia and cultural particularism; empirical learning and grubby basements fascinate (the streets, paying dues), while access to rationalised curriculae and gilded concert halls are sought; what is the difference between composition and improvisation, anyway?; communal demands for conformity (standard repertoire, techniques and modes of interaction) confront individual yearnings for... something else (visionsong puts this simply as tradition vs. expression).

These tensions, a few among many other possibilities, are not only irresolvable (except in the music itself, at its best), they are constitutive of what jazz is and therefore crucial to its existence. I don't think anyone who truly cares about this music can choose any one side of the oppositions listed above without adding a caveat or feeling dispossessed of something. Dave Douglas's indecision is indicative of precisely this:

An argument put forth by a certain member of the Collective says that you have to learn tunes because all great jazz improvisers learned by playing tunes. All the vocabulary is there. If you want to learn vocabulary and what to do when the page falls off the music stand you have to go through the great repertoire of song form.

I've always rebelled against that idea because I feel that one method should not have hegemony against all others. I was lucky enough to grow up learning tunes, but I have played with and admired so many great musicians who don't know and don't play tunes. You ought to be able to learn the nuts and bolts and simply make your own music.

But I was swayed by a truth in the argument. If you choose to study music and improvisation: from other musicians, from books, scores, recordings, and other texts, well, then, that's what there is, repertoire. This is not to say that you can't learn to make music with other kinds of materials and with other kinds of forms. But maybe there is a basic instinct in learning to play songs. I am not resolved about this, but I am shifting.
In passing, Settled In Shipping's take on this issue yields a great encapsulation of how the improviser works, and why he encroaches on the composer's territory much more readily than the interpreter might:
I think the idea of "learning tunes" can be broadened. It boils down to figuring out why music works the way it does.
The results of bludgeoning the contradictions out of the music are quite apparent. Jazz "died" not when some of its practitioners went "too far," but when "Avant-Garde" became its own category at some point in the '60s and was relegated to lofts in the '70s, facilitating the excision of the idea of Progress from the Tradition.

Where Tradition intersects with Authority, another dynamic is created. Take Anthony Braxton's standard-playing, as presented by Destination: Out, for example. I pretty much agree with Peter Breslin's assessment: these renditions are particularly unsatisfactory. Thinking back to when I saw Braxton play standards with an Italian pick-up rhythm section, I can only compare that with, say, Quintet Basel (1977) and dream about how mind-blowing four nights of Braxton's own music would have been. I am left with the question, "Why bother with standards when one's own music is so amazing?" Fittingly, this leaves us right where we started.