Tag Archives: Ornette Coleman

Musical (un)talent

I’ve previously touched the topic of musical talent in my discussion about the young Jacob Collier. I recently came across a sort of opposite case in terms of musical talent. H. Jon Benjamin is an American voice actor and comedian who’s got into the music world from the “wrong end”, so to say. He has a record deal and brought out his first album before he actually learned to play [Junkee].

As always I’d urge you to listen for yourself before reading on to make up your own mind about Benjamin’s undertaking.

First, let me say that I haven’t heard the whole record, just the clips available online, which I’ve included here as well. Frankly, I’m not sure if I could endure listening to the whole album 😉 But I do think these clips give a pretty good idea of the nature of Benjamin’s project.

Benjamin’s Jazz Daredevil raises many questions and thoughts of the nature of jazz as a musical genre but in a more general level also about what the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has called “cultural capital”. More specifically, it challenges the notions of skills and talent required to perform music we call jazz and raises questions as to where lies the value of artistic enterprises in general and in jazz in particular.

Music as language

I’d like to here approach these questions through the common comparison between music and language. I’ll leave a more thorough discussion of this comparison for later and pick out a few themes from the music-as-language discourse that apply to the present discussion.

As discussed here before, jazz can – at least be attempted to – be defined by naming some essential characteristics such as specific rhythmic (swing) and melodic (blues) “vocabulary”, if you will. To be able to play jazz, then, would entail a command of these vocabularies in a way that others familiar with this musical language understand “what you’re saying”.

The comments in the clip above by some of the musicians involved in Benjamin’s project suggest that they didn’t feel like they were exactly “speaking the same language” musically. In the clip it’s also suggested that Benjamin’s album is what jazz sounds like to the uninitiated. Some online commentators [NPR] also share this view.

Cultural capital

The narrator of the clip has a view in between the above two hearing Benjamin’s efforts as “fresh” approach to jazz. This, in my view, speaks of one of the biggest problems with some avant-garde art, it’s view of artistic novelty as cultural capital; trying to do something “new”, something nobody has done before as the main value of their art.

The underlying ideal of this aspiration to constantly reinvent the western musical tradition comes from one of the backbones of modernism, progressivism; the idea that the human condition is on a linear, constantly improving path (for the history of this line of thinking see here [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]).

In musical avant-garde this first took the forms of expanding the conventional parameters of music, mainly harmony, in musical impressionism and eventually attempting to do away with them entirely in expressionism. The latter also began experimenting with instrumentation such as the Italian musical Futurism of the early 20th century.

The group Performa discussing and performing parts of Luigi Rulloso’s Art of Noises.

While Benjamin undoubtedly was not particularly inspired by the pioneers of “Art of Noises”, the musical programme of the Futurists did include avoiding conventional musical training in favour of auto-didactic learning. However, both share the aim of creating something “new” and unconventional by setting themselves consciously apart from the “mainstream”.

loopool reading Russolo’s manifesto and providing some context to it 100 years after.

Unorthodox musicians are of course not a new phenomenon in jazz. Already in 1950s Ornette Coleman stirred the scene with his plastic saxophone and was told “You can’t play that” (Charlie Haden in the BBC documentary). However, Coleman found other musicians who shared his musical vision – or they found him – such as Charlie Haden and went on to “rewrite the language of jazz” with his playing that was rhythmically and harmonically “out of the box”.

Blues Connotation is one of Coleman’s classics revealing his rootedness in the Black American musical tradition and showing how he springs from it.

A quick listening experiment, however, reveals – even to the uninitiated, I believe – how Coleman is in fact very well at home in the musical language of jazz – or black music in general – and chooses to make his own version of it. Benjamin, on the other hand, seems to have a very rudimentary idea of how to “speak the jazz language”. Some of his rhythms and melodic shapes suggest that he’s not completely at loss in his musical environment, but in absence of any technical command of his instrument of choice or any knowledge of the “grammar” of the language he’s trying to convers in, his playing does sound quite as random as it actually is.

To say that this is how jazz sounds like to people who don’t know it says more about how people listen to music than about anything else. You don’t need to know a language to be able to tell when someone’s faking it. You just need to listen a bit more carefully and compare to something you know to be the “real thing”. In Benjamin’s case it’s actually quite easy if you listen to the exchanges – or dialogue, if you will – between the saxophonist and Benjamin.

In terms of cultural capital, I think the value of Benjamin’s project lies elsewhere than in its musical merits. As one of the online commentators mentioned this could be an “Andy Kauffman/Borat kind of ‘meta-gag’”. Benjamin himself is not admitting it, but then again that would spoil the gag, wouldn’t it?

It’ll be, however, interesting to see what comes of this if Benjamin actually pursues with his musical career as he says in the interview. Although jazz is no longer in the centre of Black American culture like it was in Coleman’s early days – or it’s even considered “dead” by some – high jacking it for such a “meta-gag” could be seen as controversial in perhaps a broader sense than Benjamin thought of. Him actually learning the language and then finding his way to speak it would bridge that gap. But whether that’s his end game with this project we’ll have to wait and see what his “untapped un-talent” brings us.

Black music – Part IIb

Next I’d like to discuss a specific moment in the history of jazz, which has been interpreted in different ways. The moment in question is 1959 and I think it provides a good example of the differences in views around the debate of jazz as Black music I’ve discussed earlier. Whereas a recent BBC documentary presents the year 1959 as “year that changed jazz”, Nicholas Payton is of the opinion that “Jazz died in 1959”.

Although these views of 1959 as marking a “change” or “death” of jazz might seem contradictory, in the present context, however, it could be argued that they refer to the same phenomenon: Jazz stops being Black music.

Payton is quite clearly of this opinion as he views jazz as

a brand. Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that”. For him the biggest mistake was that “Jazz separated itself from American popular music… The music never recovered. Ornette [Coleman] tried to save Jazz from itself by taking the music back to its New Orleanian roots, but his efforts were too esoteric… Jazz died in 1959, that’s why Ornette tried to ‘Free Jazz’ in 1960… The very fact that so many people are holding on to this idea of what Jazz is supposed to be is exactly what makes it not cool. People are holding on to an idea that died long ago.

I think part of the problem Payton talks about is that the term “jazz” continues to carry racial connotations, references to racial stereotypes such as spontaneity (improvisation) and “naturality” going back to the primitivism I discussed before. Also e.g. jazz scholar Ingrid Monson has talked about these and other persisting, often romanticising, notions about jazz and jazz musicians. And these notions get marketed with the music – albeit often implicitly – which makes it indeed bad marketing in many ways.

One point of which Payton and the documentary makers agree is what marks 1959 as a turning point in the development of jazz; why “1959 was the coolest year in Jazz” [Payton]. Four records came out that year signalling a change in their own way: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, David Brubeck’s Time Out, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, although Payton only mentions the first two.

Live performance of “So what”, the opening track of Kind of Blue – but without the intro.

In his Autobiography, Miles Davis also speaks of the changes, musical and political, around this time. Along the lines of Payton’s view, Davis also came to the conclusion that

success in this industry always depends upon how many records you sell, how much money you make for the people who control the industry

and while

Columbia Records served the mainstream of this country[,] Prestige [the label he was previously signed up with] didn’t; it was making great records, outside the mainstream. (195)

“Take Five” from Dave Brubeck’s Time out became the best selling jazz single.

The notions of “mainstream” and “American popular music” Payton and Davis discuss in the current context, raise questions of the nature of culture, especially in ethnic terms. Humanities scholars have since a while ago already recognised that cultures are not homogeneous entities, especially not in ethnic terms, i.e. there’s no singular “Black culture” that would be applicable throughout time and space. The US Black society, such as any other society, consists of many groups, divided by e.g. social status and geographical location, sharing only some aspects of the “social aesthetics” Payton referred to.

Music in cultural spaces

In his book Power of black music Samuel A. Floyd has defined a Black “core culture” as the

portion of the black population that has remained closest to its mythic and ritual roots, whose primary cultural values and interests lie within that community. (10)

These “mythic ritual roots” for Floyd are the “ring values” of “Dance, Drum and Song” dating back, most famously, to Congo Square in New Orleans and further to the African cultural origins of black Americans.

On the other hand, “mainstream” and “American popular music” obviously refer to something more inclusive. In his book Davis is clear that

[a]s a musician and an artist, I have always wanted to reach as any people as I could through my music. And I have never been ashamed of that. Because I never thought that the music called ‘jazz’ was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all other dead things that were once considered artistic. (195)

Davis seems to be rather indifferent about what the music is called and throughout his book prefers to talk about “my music”. He does, however, recognise that a term such as jazz enables critics to talk about the music and the record industry to package and sell it, which again brings some cents to the musicians as well.

Ornette Colemans’ “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come touched base for e.g. Louis Reed as he mentions in the BBC documentary.

In the time of change in the early 1960s, in Davis’ view, the

white critics started supporting the free thing, pushing that over what most everybody else was doing. Jazz started to lose its broad appeal around this time.

And

[w]hen those critics had pushed the way-out thing and people started to turn off, the critics dropped it like a hot potato”.

The BBC documentary 1959 – A year that changed jazz tells a story of a specific period through the four above-mentioned albums and their creators. Different aspects of the narrative quite neatly match the philosopher of history Hayden White’s “plots” of historical narratives; the artists are portrayed has heroic geniuses, in Mingus’ case a tragic one. The ancient Greek hero triumphing against the odds is mixed with a 19th century Romantic genius with a touch of the above-discussed primitivism as the artist gets his inspiration from a sublime source and through his ability to translate his emotions and human experience into artistic expression. To ensure the full attention of contemporary audiences the narratives are presented by a voice that could be used in a Hollywood action film trailer.

The bottom line of the document is summarised by the jazz critic and author Stanley Crouch towards the end of the film:

1959 was a really important year in jazz because you had some of the greatest musicians in the world playing a response to what had been played but what was also a response to what could be played. The art was advanced in 1959. Another set of choices were offered to everybody.

It’s not too difficult to place these four albums in an evolutionary continuum of jazz with Davis introducing, or at least popularising, “modal jazz”, Brubeck mixing exotic Eastern European rhythms into his music, Mingus finding ever new ways of creating music deeply rooted in what Floyd called the Black “core culture” and finally Coleman attempting to “free” jazz of its formal boundaries of harmonic and melodic conventions. They can also be quite neatly categorised as the beginnings of stylistic periods, as discussed before.

On “Fables of Faubus” on Mingus Ah Um Mingus commented on the recent developments in racial politics. The lyrics are omitted in the released version.

For Payton these musical developments, although artistically laudable, meant the loss of jazz’s status as American popular music. Around this time rock was growing in popularity and attracting the attention of the public as well as the music industry. It could be argued, as I interpret Payton, that the term “jazz” from there on was lacking the coherent meaning as a music deeply rooted in the Black culture. Although it had always been “hybrid”, a mix of many musical cultures, it was now coming to a point were these roots were becoming somewhat less obvious – affecting also the music’s popularity within the black American society.

Music as identity

But, as Crouch mentioned, these developments were “a response” to their contemporary socio-cultural-political conditions. American society was going through significant changes and music, musical tastes and cultural predilections were changing as well. As Americans were searching for their identities in these turbulent times, music was part of the process.

The musicologist Simon Frith has talked about identity

com[ing] from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.

For Frith, music is identity as

[m]usic, like identity… describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social.

This “aesthetic identity” (my term) also has an ethical dimension; if engagement with music – whether listening or creating – is “trying on” an identity, then sharing musical tastes is sharing some ethics as well: “Good people” like “good music”.

While this line of thinking can – and has been – easily expanded to universalistic ideas of music as an agency of various kinds of good for humanity, it is not without risks. Ideas of universality – a bit like music industry, as discussed above – may flatten everything to same level and erase difference. As the power relations in the world are never equal, this risks the kinds of exploitations discussed above when the white mainstream exploits the music of the black margins.

But now I’m veering into areas that require more thorough discussion. My point is that Payton may well have arguments to say that jazz, as Black music, died in 1959 and that continuing to use the term for music thereafter is to linger on ideas of the past. The rest of the world, however, doesn’t seem to agree with him.

What I’ve tried to point out here is that we need categories (names) for things to understand, think of and discuss them as parts of the human experience. We do, however, need to be responsible and critical in our usage of such categories, to recognise them as the historical constructs that they are with sometimes far reaching implications.

For me jazz, of whatever era, will always be essentially Black music, especially in terms of performance practices. The way in which jazz musicians (meaning musicians knowledgeable of the jazz tradition) communicate with each other through their music – regardless of where the musical material is derived from – and the kind of energy this process generates, is for me the most distinguishing thing about jazz, whether I’m listening to or playing it. Such musical experiences seem to me to afford a way to witness, or take part in, a living tradition, which I also find the best tribute to the past, present and future contributors to this great form of performing art.

Charlie Haden – Part 2

When I first began writing this piece about Charlie Haden I could only think of the above-discussed duo album with Pat Metheny that I really know of Charlie Haden. But while browsing YouTube for his music I was reminded of three other albums on my shelf he plays on. These are from somewhat different eras and bring out different sides of Haden’s bass playing and career and worth a few more word, in my opinion. Again I leave the more extensive biographical commentary to others and discuss here my experience with Haden’s work as sideman on these albums.

The first one is a trio recording Somewhere before with the pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Paul Motian, recorded live in 1968 at the Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. The second is 80/81 (1980) with Pat Metheny and third Michael Brecker from Michael Brecker. None of these albums have had so profound effect on me and my playing as the first discussed duo album with Metheny, but there are certainly remarkable albums on their own account. I also find it interesting to see the connections between musicians and how their careers evolve and cross each other. A long career such as Haden’s provides a great opportunity to retrospectively “witness” a slice of jazz history being made.

Somewhere before (Keith Jarrett Trio)

As mentioned, different sides of Haden’s playing can be heard on these albums. The trio album with Jarrett and Motian is a very free flowing one. Jarrett and Haden make a good match musically as they both like to keep things open to work freely on their melodic ideas without too many structural boundaries set by the composition. Haden always wanted to break out of the confines of bass playing and play melodies and counter melodies rather than just keep time and mark the harmonies. With Jarrett he’s able to do that and you can hear how they’re both “just ears”, playing off of each other.

The record itself is producer George Avakian’s selection of performances recorded during the groups stay at the Manne-hole. Here’s a performance of the same group a few years later which, I think, illustrates my point pretty well. In this one Haden also, rather atypically, play very high on the bass – but for a very clear musical reason.

80/81 (Pat Metheny)

According to Haden in the liner notes to Beyond the Missouri Sky, he first met Pat Metheny in 1973 when Metheny, age of 18 at the time, came up to introduce himself after Haden’s concert with Ornette Coleman (with whom they were collaborating a decade later on the Song X album). It was, however, during the extensive touring with the 80/81 project that they became friends. In addition to them, this group consisted of the saxophonists Dewey Redman, with Haden had played in an Ornette Colean project in the  above-mentioned Jarrett group in the early 1970s, Michael Brecker, with whom Metheny had played at least in the Joni Mitchell group of the late end of 1970s, and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

80/81 is also a rather free oriented album. The opening track Two Folk Songs is a 20 minute long elaboration of two folk song like melodies, one from Metheny and the other by Haden, tribute to both artists’ Mid-Western routes. Ornette Coleman is also tributed in the form of his blues Turnaround. This features a hard-swinging Haden demonstrating the power of walking bass line, not only in providing the rhythmic and harmonic foundation, but also as creatively and interactively participating in the musical conversation between the musicians.

When I was still learning the basics of jazz bass playing I was picking up a lot of stuff from bassists I heard. The “walking” motion in a walking bass line is a result of regular, on the beat, rhythm and continuous scalar melodic movement. While Haden indeed swings like no other, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear him repeating some notes in his lines occasionally. But then again, this is not a conventional bebop context and Haden’s lines contribute rhythmically as well as melodically to what’s happening in the music; he’s taking part in the conversation, in a language, one might say, that is not strictly bebop.

Michael Brecker (Michael Brecker)

Michael Brecker’s album Michael Brecker is in a way continuation of the collaboration we saw/heard on 80/81; but now Brecker as the leader. Apart from Kenny Kirkland on piano and the absence of Dewey Redman, this is the same group. By this time Brecker was already a very established jazz musician with e.g. a discography dating back two decades. He was perhaps best known of his fusion jazz groups Brecker Brothers and Steps Ahead.

Considering the rather prominent fusion sound on this album the choice of Haden as a bass player might seem a peculiar one. Together with the music production technology/philosophy of the 1980s, it’s often hard to hear the “rainforest” in Haden’s sound (see Part 1). On the other hand, it’s one more example of Haden’s versatility as a bass player and musician. Nothing Personal is a good example of this. It’s a minor blues featuring a bit fusion-like bass figure on the first part of the form and walking bass on the second part and under the solos. Haden’s walking bass lines are in the highly chromatic style he played on 80/81 as well; adding a sort of Coleman-style free jazz element to the fusion. The repeating notes in his lines can be heard here as well.

In Cost of Living we get Haden really in his element again with his familiar “wooden” sound as well as a beautiful solo. With Metheny on acoustic guitar on this track there’s something of flashback (or flashforward, really) to the duo album I discussed in the previous post.

Coda

This concludes my ruminations on Charlie Haden. Much could also be said of his philosophy of life and music, but I’ll leave that for others at this point. As you see here my musical acquaintance with Haden hasn’t been the most extensive one, but I’ve been able draw quite a few lessons from his music. I think we should all consider ourselves lucky to have had such a remarkable person and musician amongst us leaving his legacy for us to enjoy, study and learn from. So hats off and hands down to Mr. Haden!