Sunday, June 19, 2011


It's probably all of the Goehr/Subotnik/Adorno-type reading I've been doing lately, but I've been hearing music kinda differently lately....

Also, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (M.I.J.F.) was on recently, and allowed to me ponder what I was hearing and why I did/didn't enjoy it.

This is not the time (I haven't understood enough yet) to plunge the depths of Adorno's philosophy of music. One thing I have gleamed, however, is that he thinks music/art should reflect the individual's relationship with society. For example, Adorno is often quick to point out what he identifies as the totalitarian philosophies of some music practice; something he sees as troublesome if that society is striving for democracy.

So, we live in a world were practically everything is available to us. Post-modernism seems so much a part of the norm today; anything is available and able to be used, with or without irony.

Here I think about Gary Peters' description of the modern improviser as a "junk-yard inventor." The scrapheap of history lies behind us, and we assemble parts of this, parts of that, in our own way, heading into the future. If this is the case, and I think it is, surely improvisers should make music that reflects how they perceive themselves as part of the world.

At the M.I.J.F., I felt Jason Moran's set did this very thing. Sure I could talk about the evolving sound of the piano trio, the lineage from Jaki Byard, Monk, Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill, the harmony, his left hand, the sound etc. etc., but one of the main reasons I enjoyed this set so much was that, in the end, all of the music was presented as coming from Moran's life. The use of sampling as integral to the gig, for example, whether it be Africa Bombaata, Bille Holiday singing or Monk tap-dancing, reflects his identifying with hip-hop sample culture. His manner on stage, detached from the quiet reserve normally adopted by jazz musicians in the concert hall, was, to my mind, part of Moran's efforts to free jazz from the stifling that usually occurs in such venues.

The other set that did this was Chiri. Scott Tinkler, Simon Barker and Bae Il Dong's collaboration has already received attention, but no one seems to talk about the nature in which these men play together. Listening to this gig I felt that, while there is obviously overlap between each one's interest, (Simon's interest in Pansori and his connection with Scott have both been documented, while Scott and Il Dong's crossing over point relates to gesture and power of tone) each musician was free to realise their personal vision of music making while simultaneously contributing to the collective, greater, whole.

I felt that the collaboration between Barker, Tinkler and Moran did something similar, but less successfully.

So when I say I'm hearing music differently, more and more this is what I am listening for, in my own as well as in others music.

The other thing I'm listening for is virtuosity. Now, "hang on just one minute, you can't expect everyone to be a virtuoso" some of you might say. Well, I certainly have high expectations, I expect people who are presenting at an international festival to have their stuff down, so to speak. For anyone working seriously on music, though, I imagine this is not such a daunting idea: you already spend hours a day on your instrument, you're listening to plenty of music and working hard on whatever it is you are into. I suppose my point here is really that, whatever you do, you better have a solid command of it.

I'm not thinking of anyone in particular, nor am I wanting to define what 'virtuoso' means (please don't bring up that stupid Miles Davis argument). All I'm saying is, mediocrity is not an option.

Somebody, talking to me about a lesson they had with New York pianist Aaron Goldberg concluded a discussion regarding differences in aesthetics with something along the lines of:
" . . . but he's just really into playing the instrument well." This is can get into. Mainstream improvisers such as Goldberg (this is by no means a slight) pride themselves on their technical prowess. I see nothing wrong with this. Where my thoughts on music making seem to move off on a slight tangent is that I don't see why, in order to be a great player (whatever that means) one must adhere to that style of straight ahead jazz playing. Sure, there are certain things (strength of tone, time, basic knowledge of rhythm and harmony) that this schooling will give you, but I truly see this as a means, not an end. As an end this ends up being music that resembles a routine, rather than reassembling and represting the 'junkyard materials' in a novel way. Putting a jazz standard in an odd time, or series of odd times, doesn't cut it, to my mind, even when done well.

So the trick, as far as I am concerned at the moment, is to take the good parts from 'learning to tradition' and combine them with an approach that more reflects Adorno's concern of art and it's place in society.

We'll see how that goes...

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