I'm happy to announce that the Pulse blog is now officially up and running (more or less). Content is admittledly a little thin on the ground at the moment, as we are busily preparing for our gig at the Old Stone House on January 24, but if you stop by, you can learn a little about the composer culprits (including yrs trly) and hear excerpts from our previous concert, The Eloquent Light, featuring John Abercrombie and John McNeil. More postings are definitely coming over the next few days, as the members of Pulse stop by to introduce themselves to the blog.
As Nate Chinen hints at, Gold Sounds -- the new record of Pavement covers by James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut, Reginald Veal, and Ali Jackson -- is a producer-driven project. The boys behind Brown Brothers Recordings came up with the concept and brought the musicians -- who by their own admission, didn't know Pavement from Melt Banana -- into the studio to execute it.
A brief blurb in Now (Toronto) gives us the origin story:
Ever wondered what Pavement songs would sound like if interpreted by the best of the new suit jazz crew? Neither have I, but Alan Suback and some fellow Pavement fans went to a benefit concert and thought, "What if Wynton Marsalis 's kick-ass band - Cyrus Chestnut , Reginald Veal , Ali Jackson and James Carter - lent their serious chops to Summer Babe, Cut Your Hair, Trigger Cut, etc?"
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with producer-driven jazz projects. [I've only heard one track off of Gold Sounds so I can't really comment on this particular record one way or the other -- but if you wanna check 'em out live, Carter et al. are at the Iridium this week.] But it's an odd lede for an article that is mostly about jazz musicians who do actually listen to indie rock (broadly construed -- Radiohead and Wilco count as "indie" here) and incorporate those influences into their music in a significant way. The remainder of Chinen's article artfully traces those paths.
Now, everybody knows about Brad Mehldau's several Radiohead covers, but it's also not hard to hear echoes of the band's oblique harmonies and cinematic song structure in Mehldau's own writing, and even his approach to standards. And, on Largo, Brad collaborated with golden boy producer Jon Brion (whose star is rising thanks to his work on Kanye West's Late Registration and the rejected-but-widely-circulated original version of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine). The rock/pop inflections in Brad's playing and trio concept would be just as obvious even if he never played any tune written after 1955.
The Bad Plus are infamous for their wry covers of "Heart of Glass," "Chariots of Fire," etc, but their real strength is in their brilliantly constructed originals. (Last Saturday, opening for Ornette Coleman, the only cover was Ornette's "Street Woman.") There's a widely-held misconception that indie rock fans only like the Bad Plus because they play "Iron Man," but it's actually the opposite -- I know a lot of indie rock snobs who hated The Bad Plus until they heard originals like "Frog and Toad" and discovered that TBP weren't the jazz equivalent of Dread Zeppelin or Hayseed Dixie.
Chinen goes on to briefly touch on the long established noise-rock/avant-jazz axis (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nels Cline, etc) before discussing some of the younger indie-influenced jazzers like Kneebody (also in town this week) and other Shane Endsley projects, Todd Sickafoose, my friend and fellow NEC alum Mike Gamble, and Eivind Opsvik -- all great players who embrace the indie-rock DIY spirit.
The point here is that the musical values of the people who read Pitchfork -- and the people who mock the people who read Pitchfork -- communication, integrity, sincerity, intensity, freshness, broad-mindedness, relevance -- are all exactly the same as what our musical values should be as creative jazz musicians. And if you, as a jazz musician, are serious about reaching the "indie rock crowd" -- which seems to be shorthand here for "intelligent music fan, age 21-35, always looking for new bands but doesn't normally go to jazz clubs" -- you have to prove that you can communicate those shared musical values to someone whose record collection is wildly different from yours. There are no shortcuts for this. You don't establish your indie-rock cred by, say, coming out with a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah cover record. You do it by taking whatever you value in that music and making it yours.
If you saw Walk The Line this weekend, as I did, you may want to check out Sarah Vowell's segment in this episode of This American Life. I'm not usually much of a Sarah Vowell fan, but her piece on Johnny Cash and June Carter is perceptive and heartfelt.
[Click the little Real Audio icon at left to listen. Vowell's piece begins at the 47:30 mark.]
Thanks everyone for indulging my long absence -- we began rehearsing on Thursday and the band is really sounding great. I hope you can all come out to the Bowery Poetry Club tomorrow night at 10. If you can't make that, however, we will return to the CB's lounge on November 2nd at 10 PM -- again, details coming soon.
Blogstar Amanda Marcotte has started a very entertaining ongoing series, "Ask An Insufferable Music Snob" -- entries so far: part 1; part 2. Unlike The Onion's long-running "Ask A… " series (my favorite was always Ask A Former Touring Drummer For The Pointer Sisters), Amanda's is based on actual reader questions, such as:
A friend of mine listens to Linkin Park with astonishing regularity, and fills almost universally the rest of her time with other teen-angsty crap. And she's 21. Just how disdainful am I allowed to be of her musical taste on a scale of one to ten? one being a surrputitious eye roll whenever she brings it up, and ten being "knock knock, who's there? me, having sex with your mom."--karpad
There is actually no reason to be constrained by manners when dissing crappy popular music. In fact, this is pretty much your moment to shine. Passion is, as a general rule, quite uncool and messes up your hair, particularly the kind that involves dancing at shows and sex that gets sweaty as opposed to the kind where you get performed for while wondering if you look like a porn star yet. But when it comes to getting mad that people like the crap on MTV, go crazy. Take your friends' CDs and piss all over them. Point them out at parties and whisper loudly, "They listen to Linkin Park" and watch as their ability to even get someone to point out where the plastic cups are tanks.
Beware though that Linkin Park may in fact be eligible for a kitschy revival in 20 years.
How can I tell if I'm enjoying something ironically, or if my music taste just sucks?—TravisG
Only teenagers still think they can get away with having bad taste by pretending it's "ironic" anymore, Travis.
Well, them and Gen Xers who voted for Bush.
Go ahead, ask Amanda a question -- especially if you're trying to absorb enough indie rock trivia to pass for a regular at the next Todd P. show.
Via Dave Douglas, I see the New York Public Library has taken video excerpts from archival interviews with a number of jazz greats -- Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Chico Hamilton, Randy Weston, Yusef Lateef1 and many others -- and made them available on their website. These clips are part of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project, and they are definitely worth your while. Check out Chico Hamilton talking about Louis Armstrong's quarter note feel, for starters. (I know you've seen [ahem] other people do this, but Chico's got it down.)
1. Don't miss Yusef's kidding-on-the-square disclaimer.
In other blogospheric news, Kyle Gann has a terrific post on George Rochberg (a composer I should really listen to more often) that touches on one of my pet issues: the tendency of an awful lot of music schools -- and, let's face it, an awful lot of musicians both inside and outside of academia -- to define themselves more by what they reject than by what they embrace:
The other thing I find attractive is Rochberg’s characterization of history. As he scopes it out, the history of music was always inclusive and cumulative, each era receiving what was valuable from the previous one and building on it - until the mid-20th century, which decided to exclude and prohibit aspects of the musical practice that preceded it. Rochberg felt that this negative new attitude was a sure road map to oblivion, that a prohibitionary approach to composing would inevitably become a dessicated practice that would blow away with the first wind. For me, this is why bebop harmony is a more sane continuation of the theoretical tradition than the sterile pitch-set analysis I learned in school, because it folds in, retains, and elaborates what came before. And I do find something weirdly schizophrenic in the fact that I spend my afternoons teaching students how to use a certain harmonic vocabulary, and that some composers tell those students that, having learned that vocabulary, they’re not allowed to use it. Old, Eurocentric curmudgeon Rochberg may have been, but like me he believed in a Post-Prohibitive Age, and he was elaborating that belief before I was old enough to know what the issues were.
I would only add that I don't find pitch-set wonkery inherently sterile -- perhaps because coming from the jazzy side of things, my natural tendency has always been to try to integrate all those austere pitch-set techniques into my native language, bebop and post-bop harmony -- or, these days, a more stripped-down rock-oriented sensibility. And again, if we're embracing a "post-prohibative age," there's no reason why pitch-set manipulation can't be just another tool in the toolbox. Just so long as you're not trying to build a house using only a set of needlenose pliers…
It pains me to admit I missed the NYC show at Irving Plaza on Friday -- I had another gig to catch. But Linda Laban of the Boston Herald has a brief review of their kickoff show at the Somerville Theatre Thursday night.
Apparently, Lanois didn't do much singing -- which is fine by me, honestly. He mostly just played guitar, which makes the gig seem less like Daniel Lanois using Tortoise as a backup band and more like him sitting in with the group, a much more interesting prospect. I wonder if there's an album in the works?
At any rate, collaboration seems to be the order of the day for all my favorite cinematic postrockers. In addition to their ongoing tour with Lanois, Tortoise are about to release a record fronted by Will Oldham, AKA Bonnie Prince Billy. Pitchfork Media have the tune list -- all covers:
* Thunder Road (Bruce Sprinsgsteen)
* Daniel (Elton John)
* The Calvary Cross (Richard Thompson)
* That's Pep! (Devo)
* It's Expected I'm Gone (the Minutemen)
* Cravo e Canela (Milton Nascimento)
* Some Say (I Got Devil) (Melanie)
* Pancho (Dan Williams)
* Love Is Love (Lungfish)
* On My Own (Quix*o*tic)
Probably more of a "for completists only" release, but I'll admit to being a least a little bit intrigued at the prospect of Tortoise covering Richard Thompson and Milton Nascimento.
Meanwhile, Calexico have recently released a collaborative EP with Sam Beam of Iron and Wine. I haven't had the chance to check it out yet, but word of mouth is very positive so far, so I'll report back after I've given it a spin.
Also, I have to admit I hadn't noticed or heard about this collaboration until just now. I'm honestly not sure what to think.
Since our own philosophical operative linked to this study in the British Journal of Psychiatry -- Forty lives in the bebop business: mental health in a group of eminent jazz musicians -- I'm pretty much obliged to comment. Lindsay linked for amusement purposes only, but there's really quite a lot of amusement to be had: from the table of musicians studied (where poor John Lewis doesn't make the cut as a pianist, and is relegated to the dreaded "arranger" section) to the description of the study's rigorous methodology ("Biographical material relating to 40 eminent American modern jazz musicians was reviewed and an attempt was made to formulate diagnoses using DSM–IV") to the breathlessly gossipy tone throughout -- "Charlie Parker consumed enormous quantities of food, used heroin in increasing amounts, was known to drink 16 double whiskies in a 2-hour period and entered into hundreds of affairs with women."
Bill Frist was roundly criticized for his diagnosis-by-videotape of Terri Schiavo, but the author of this study, Dr. Goeffrey I. Willis, PhD, does Frist one better -- Willis offers a clinical diagnosis of forty jazz musicians, all deceased, based only on the biographical details gleaned from three 40-year old jazz encyclopedias. His startling conclusions? Many of the musicians of the bebop era -- brace yourselves for the awful truth, gentle readers -- used drugs. A couple of prominent players were infamously admitted to psychiatric hospitals and diagnosed with mental disorders (by psychiatrists who sometimes even personally examined their patients). Many led self-destructive lives. Also, the sky, at last check, is still blue.
Willis's unique insights don't stop there. You may have thought that John Coltrane was exceptionally devoted to his art, but it turns out that his obsessive practicing, spiritual searching, and even his quest for the perfect mouthpiece were all manifestations of an anxiety disorder. Willis has apparently found proof of the elusive causal connection between drug use and mental disorders -- "It was felt that from the age of 54 years Thelonious Monk had a dementing process caused by excessive drug usage" -- and I'm sure the evidence for this feeling will be forthcoming in Dr. Willis's next paper. And then there's this (under the heading "Late-life deteriorations and suicides"):
At the age of 52 years Frank Rosolino shot his two sons (killing one and seriously wounding the other) and then killed himself. J. J. Johnson, having been ill for a number of months, died by suicide at the age of 77 years.
J.J. Johnson had one of the longest and most exceptional careers in jazz, establishing a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest trombonists, composers, and arrangers of all time. He was also, by all reports, a loving father and husband -- he cut short his comeback in the mid-1980's so he could care for his longtime wife, Vivian, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, and did not return to recording until two years after her death in 1991. At the age of 77, J.J. learned that treatment for his prostate cancer had failed, and that the disease would claim his life. He chose instead to bow out early, before the cancer could take its toll.
Implying that, under these conditions, J.J.'s suicide is evidence of mental illness, and to juxtapose it with that of Frank Rosolino, is one of the classier moves Willis makes in this paper.
My only regret is that Willis apparently did not consult the pioneering work of Dr. Edmund Pollock, PhD, Charles's Mingus's personal therapist, who, at Mingus's behest, wrote the gloriously overwrought liner notes to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady:
In all three tracks of Side I there are recurrent themes of loneliness, separateness, and tearful depression. One feels deeply for the tears of Mr. Mingus that fall for himself and man. There can be no question that he is the Black Saint who suffers for his sins and those of mankind as he reflects his deeply religious philosophy.
The music then changes into a mood of what I would call mounting restless agitation and anguish as if there is a tremendous conflict between love and hate. This is climaxed by the piercing cries of the trombone and answering saxophones as if saying the "I" of personal identity must be achieved and accepted.
It must be emphasized that Mr. Mingus is not yet complete. He is still in a process of change and personal development. Hopefully the integration in society will keep pace with his.
I don't know about you, but I've always felt that West Side Story was… well… missing something, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. I mean, obviously it's got great songs, a great book, great choreography, etc. But I always felt that there was some elusive, intangible element that the show needed to really put it over the top, and I could never quite figure out what it was.
Many U.S. operating rooms have sound systems, so playing music during surgery has become commonplace. Some doctors say it relieves the tension; studies have shown it can also benefit patients, even reducing the need for anesthesia somewhat during surgery.
Look, when I worked in a music engraving shop in Boston, we were not allowed to listen to tunes while we worked -- it was considered too distracting. And, you know, that was music engraving, not open-heart surgery.
But now I learn that not only are many surgeons rocking out while they nip and tuck, some of them even have playlists synchronized to the various phases of the operation, including one doctor who "always closes to J-Lo."
Apparently, the anesthesiologist usually picks the playlist, although one of the gas passers quoted in the article says that patients' tastes must be considered when surgery involves only a local anesthetic: "We're not going to play rap when there's a 90-year-old lady in there -- it would scare them to death."
That's sweet. How about a patient whose taste runs towards medical professionals devoting their full attention to the actual surgery? For the record, if I go under the knife, I'm claiming this as my favorite song and I want it played on infinite loop until I'm all stitched up, okay?
And if the pilot who landed this plane had "Danger Zone" coming over his headset when he did it, I don't want to know.
Michael Anton Parker, of Bagatellen, has a great post about underground rock gigs written from the perspective of an avant-jazz fan. Some of his on-point observations:
Basically, I go to these vaguely post-punk marginal rock gigs and sometimes it seems like half the people in the room would be happy to spend the whole night chatting about Xenakis, Bailey, Braxton, Kelley, Frith and similar worthy topics of avant-garde music. Rock music is often dismissed as a kind of mindless pleasure by avant-garde listeners who feel protective of their seriousness and resort to rickety fences like "art vs entertainment". The fact is that there is an incredible level of sophistication among the people I routinely encounter at rock gigs revealing their aesthetic home turf in the world of raucous guitars and pounding rhythms. I'm not talking about one or two eccentrics here; I've encountered dozens of people who fit this demographic, both musicians and listeners.
I personally believe jazz is a flourishing and vital art form—look no further than the last Vinny Golia Quintet release for some of the greatest jazz music ever made—but when compared to rock music the filler/gem ratio is about the same and at their best there's no difference in artistic sophistication. In other words, there's really no reason for a creative young person to pursue jazz if they can find equal creative satisfaction from the music that's closer to their hearts and cultural roots. Further, in practice the level of creativity in rock culture is vastly higher than jazz culture. Rock is a profoundly malleable form and a moist vat for homebrew aesthetics.
So, yeah, go to rock gigs. It can be great. I used to avoid them at all costs because of my passionate objections to loud volumes. Nowadays I just compromise more often and usually it's a low-budget, grass-roots situation where the volume is entirely reasonable due to the limitations of available equipment. These are the best gigs. I think Henry Flynt was on-the-money when he said: "Rock-pop became uniformly loud in a way which was vulgar, mechanical, and bloated". My great fantasy is that every rock band in the world would just turn way down and stop amplifying drumkits. One of the most inspiring live music experiences I've ever had is seeing Eugene Chadbourne and Paul Lovens do a cover of The Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" at a volume so miraculously faint it could've been leaking from a house across the street. Playing loud all the time is like playing a C note all the time instead of using other pitches. This continues to be a major issue for me as I dabble in the rock scene more and more. I've seen performances (e.g. Melt-Banana) turn to utter worthless shit because of over-amplification, and it's business-as-usual for rock culture. Nobody questions it. Nobody takes a stance. Then (admittedly musically fantastic) dumbasses like Lightning Bolt fetishize their sado-masochistic excesses. In the end, my allegiance is first and foremost to non-idiomatic free improv on acoustic instruments, especially in a lowercase vein. When I recommend going to rock gigs, I don't mean everyday. And bring earplugs. And complain when you have to use them.