Sunday, May 24, 2009

What is Reality, Jazz Edition

I saw Nicholas Payton's quintet last night at Birdland, and it led me to think about jazz, a music I love (and think about a lot in any case).

There's been a lot of press in recent years about a conflict over a definition--the perennial question, What is jazz? The latest resurgence of this sort of inquiry was inspired by comments by Wynton Marsalis (whose playing I love) that were critical of avant-garde jazz (which I also love) for allegedly abandoning the traditional, core features of jazz as it had been performed and composed through much of the 20th century. The primary target of Marsalis’ criticisms was widely understood to be the music of people such as Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and various other practitioners from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), other centers of avant-garde music like the BAG group, and the Third Stream movement started in Boston by Gunther Schuller. These alleged apostates have incorporated, among other things, elements of 20th century European composed musics, such as 12-tone music and minimalism, into a mix containing ingredients more commonly associated with traditional jazz, such as blues, polyrhythms, modal structures, walking bass lines, superimposed harmonies, chord scales and emphasis on melodic tensions. The results, argued Marsalis, alienated listeners, shrinking the audience base (already small, as it has been since the end of the swing era and rise of The Beatles), thus threatening the future of jazz as a viable artistic entity. Marsalis’ critique was thus both aesthetic and economic.

I’ve always been troubled by Marsalis’ critique, not only because accepting it meant accepting him (or anyone else) as arbiter of cultural definitions, but also because of what I’ve always perceived as a circularity in the economic logic of music programming and promotion in the U.S. Regarding the former, I am (solely with respect to culture—definitely not in terms of politics) a libertarian. In other words, when it comes to making art of any kind, if it feels good, do it. To my mind, the more people are willing to experiment with various ingredients, mixing and reorienting existing ingredients or inventing new ones, the result will be a broader tonal palette—a more colorful, interesting and imaginative cultural life for everyone willing to experience it.

Regarding the economic logic of Marsalis’ argument, there is, I think, an inherent tautology in the conventional wisdom of the idea of What the Public Wants. Music industry executives (who now are typically MBAs, lawyers, financiers, etc.—not music aficionados, as was originally the case) use the supposed expectations of the public as justification for their investment decisions. On one level, this is quite understandable. The music business is by no means predictable (and has been really hurting in recent years, largely, but not exclusively due to digitalization and all that entails) and businesses, particularly those beholden to shareholders, crave predictability, since their stock prices depend on it. Yet because there is no real way to predict what the public will want from one year (or even one quarter) to the next, there is a tendency among music business executives (many of whom, having been quite successful at business, allow themselves to believe that their acumen in one area—business—translates to equal perspicacity in others—such as music and popular tastes). The result is that industry executives generally opt for whatever they’re used to, on the theory that the public will do the same. And here’s where the circularity comes in. Having rationalized perpetuation of a given musical style, the music business implements their conclusion via investments in music that sounds familiar. The public continues to hear music that is familiar to them, and is thus socialized into expecting to hear music that is similar to whatever they’ve already heard. The familiar, in other words, becomes accepted as normal as a result of conscious investment decisions. And having accepted that definition of ‘normal,’ the majority continues to expect it and responds to whatever stands outside that definition as being ‘weird.’

Imagine, for the sake of discussion, that there were no corporate-dominated music ‘business’ as such. (Given the way things have been going for the industry lately, that may not be such a leap of imagination.) Prior to Woodstock (ironically), the music business, while containing a number of corporate entities, and certainly not ideal (the payola scandals and blatantly racist programming and promotion come to mind), was not dominated by corporate conglomerates the way it is now. Popular music was not homogenized—i.e., one could travel to different parts of the country and hear distinctly different styles of jazz, country, blues, rock, etc. (By contrast, my father and I took a road trip across the country in 1990 or 1991 and could access nothing on the car radio but corporate country music or corporate rock all the way from LA to eastern PA, with the exception of St. Louis, which had a great jazz station.) Imagine digital distribution in the absence of a corporate nanny defining what is “normal” in music for us. Imagine a resurgence of all those regional/local styles that have been for so long stuff into a corporate cookie cutter to maximize ROI instead of to simply promote what people create. If we were once again to become socialized into the expectation that music is a bunch of different things, each of which, like human emotions, is as changeable as the weather, what would “normal” be then? What would people be willing to experience given the chance to hear it? This is potentially the promise of digitalization in re music; it is also a measure of the extent to which the current system has, under the guise of promoting a cultural activity, stifled its growth and, by extension, our imagination.

So what does this all have to do with Nicholas Payton?

As I listened to Nicholas Payton’s performance last night, a few associations immediately came to mind. Unlike typical trumpeters, Payton is a reductionist. Rather than engage in pyrotechnic displays of virtuosity (although he’s clearly capable of such things), Payton takes a motif, repeats it (he uses repetition a lot to create tension, quite successfully), turns it around, displaces it rhythmically, and uses it to build to emotional climaxes and valleys. In that sense, Payton reminded me of Wayne Shorter—a thinking, meditative improviser. Whereas Shorter writes pieces with multivalent melodic, harmonic and rhythmic implications, and develops cubist improvisations reflecting that multiplicity, Payton is more stylistically conservative. His harmonic and melodic materials are much more rooted in traditional jazz, R&B and blues. And unlike Miles Davis, who also came to mind due to his own minimalist approach, Payton’s phrases don’t tend to include the kinds of melodic feints that Davis used to throw the listener off balance. This is not to say, by the way, that Payton is predictable—because in a lot of ways, he isn’t—but rather to try to convey the flavor of his approach. Payton reminded me most of Terrance Blanchard. Both are cinematic in their conception (Blanchard writes a lot of film scores, actually; I don’t know if the same is true of Payton), focusing their composition, arranging and improvisations on conveying a mood, being very attentive to the tonal color of a piece.

Payton’s band, which included Johnaye Kendrick (vocals), Robert Glasper (piano), Vincente Archer (bass), Daniel Sadownick (percussion), and Marcus Gilmore (drums), was excellent. Glasper opened the set with an extensive solo intro which reflected multiple stylistic influences. His soloing used many of the same devices as Payton—repetitions, rhythmic displacements, etc., and, like Payton, he was very lyrical. Gilmore played an extended drum solo toward the end of the set that illustrated just how thoroughly Payton’s musical conception has been absorbed by all members of the band. He began very quietly, using a simple motif which he repeated, expanded and displaced before inverting it and launching into extrapolations of increasing intensity. Johnaya Kendrick sang a long, complex melody in unison with Payton’s trumpet, then engaged in impressive scat singing. Her soloing was melodic and inventive.Vicente Archer was solid on bass, creating patterns that contrasted interestingly with the melody in a number of places. And Daniel Sadownick was sensitive but intense on percussion. The band performed like an organism, reflecting clear familiarity with every aspect of the compositions. And the pieces performed were compositions—not just the familiar head-solos-head frameworks for improvisation that had been commonplace in jazz for a long time. Like Terrance Blanchard, Payton is formally ambitious in that sense.

In terms of the formal elements of their compositions, however, neither Payton nor Blanchard is interested in storming the ramparts. Henry Threadgill, for one, is doing that. His pieces thrive on displacement of listener (and player) expectations. Essentially, Threadgill pieces move like 2-dimensional chess, where the melodic materials move in what seems a somewhat familiar direction (although the intervals are often unexpected) while the bass and inner voices shift continually, recontextualizing the melodies above them. The effect is like watching the motion of a mobile made of pieces of glass of a certain color as another mobile (or perhaps more than one) is brought within the ambit of the first, causing the light reflected in the glass to change color as the differently colored pieces overlap in the path of the light. Threadgill’s music is harder to listen to than Payton’s or Blanchards. However, if you’re willing to explore, you’ll find ideas bubbling up in your mind while you listen.

A similar effect is achieved with somewhat different materials and formal relationships in Liberty Ellman’s Ophiuchus Butterfly, released in 2006. Ellman, who plays with Threadgill, has said he’s interested in combining ideas of people like Anthony Braxton with those of more conventional jazz artists. The CD features edgy, off-kilter pieces, some of which are reminiscent of Threadgill’s, along with electronic tone poems and various other musical forms. The compositions are unlike any others I’ve heard, but simultaneously familiar; the playing, by saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim, tuba player Jose Davila and bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, universally tight and empathetic.

Last summer, I heard Ellman perform many of the pieces from Ophiuchus Butterfly (along with others from previous albums) with a trio at Bar Sepia. It was a revelation. Showcasing the guitar in a trio setting brought out aspects of Ellman’s playing that I’d never heard before, clarifying the extent of his stylistic connection to the main body of jazz guitar history as well as the innovative use of intervals and melodic ideas that is unique to Liberty’s style. I’ve always marveled at Liberty’s note choices—I could never figure out where they were coming from, but they always made sense—and I still do. But hearing him in a trio setting recontextualized his work for me. His rhythm section, by the way, was amazingly dextrous and basically, telepathic. This was one amazing event, held for a tiny audience in a small neighborhood bar. Who says Brooklyn isn’t the best?

Neither Ellman nor Threadgill has reached an audience on the scale of say, Pat Metheny or Miles Davis, although both have gotten a bit of press attention. Such is life for those who venture beyond the expected. Yet Henry Threadgill has related a story in which one may see signs of hope. A number of years ago (this may have been in the 1980s, I’m not sure), he took his band on the road. They performed in little, out of the way places where people generally don’t get to hear jazz. Threadgill reported that the responses they got were much more enthusiastic than they’d expected, and they apparently drew fairly large crowds. Maybe if people get a chance to hear the music that’s being made—not just the stuff music company executives are used to—they’ll like what they hear. Maybe we need to spend less time defining music and just let it happen. 

1 comment:

Michael said...

Jazz is:

"Your turn.

Ok. Your turn.

Ok, now your turn.

Ok, now drum solo.

Ok, your turn..."