Tuesday, May 22, 2007

thoughts from a jazz recital

Still crazy here at TIG & MLM central, so the blog posts will be erratic at best for the time being…. Anyway, I was listening in on a student recital in the jazz division (not my class you understand—I was just an audience member), and a few things caught my ear.

complex heads, simple heads

I admired the group’s courage in tacking some pretty tricky material (a Joshua Redman piece which I wasn’t familiar with). A bit of a gamble by the performers since the head was pretty intricate, and, as I suspected, their solos didn’t quite live up to that level of complexity. It did get me wondering about some of the harmonically elaborate compositions of Coltrane and (earlier) Shorter, say, and how the melodies of those were often quite simple.
Take ‘Giant Steps’ or ‘Countdown’: were the simple ‘melodies’ (which, given their simplicity, almost seems like the wrong word for it) engineered to subdue expectations about the solo? Given the difficulty and, as Evan Parker calls it, ‘problem solving’ nature of the changes, did Coltrane create low-key melodies so that the solo would be a shock of energy? Did he fear that writing complex melodies would make the soloist’s job, given the experimental nature of the changes, untenable?

(Later, most notably in jazz-rock and fusion, you’d start getting intricate ‘melodies’ (and considering their complexity, that also seems like the wrong word for it) over similar changes, but with the promise of solos that were of an even greater bravado of virtuosity, but that’s another story….)

(Another solution might be, admittedly from a rock sensibility, Zappa’s in which the solo only tangentially had anything to do with the ‘head’. The rhythmic and harmonic riot of ‘Approximate’ followed by a riotous guitar solo over a relatively straightforward r’n’b groove, for example. That’s, however, definitely another story….)

jazz: year zero

Listening to the bass player walking in a pre-Carter, pre-Holland manner, the question that came to my mind was why does so much of jazz pedagogy take its year zero as 1945 (±10 years)?
Okay, we all learned jazz guitar from, say, Freddie Green onwards, but does that make sense in terms of careers—in terms of developing an individual sound—in this latter-day jazz context? We could take the model of Tal Farlow as the starting point, or Wes Montgomery. But there’s also a certain logic to taking, perhaps, John Abercrombie as a starting point. As far as I can hear (and I know I’m on very slippery ground saying this), we are living in an after-Abercrombie jazz guitar environment.

(Hey, I might be tempted to start with Nix or Sharrock, but that probably disqualifies me as a jazz guitarist ;-)

There’s an argument that goes, well, the earlier traditions—their methodologies, their practices—shaped what followed, and to understand the latter entails first learning the former (e.g. Abercrombie’s sound was informed by his models). Well, fine, however, although we could arbitrarily turn the pedagogical clock as far back as the historical record enables, we don’t do that in practice for pragmatic reasons: life, at school and after, is too short. Neither Charlie Christian nor Django Reinhardt feature much in orthodox teaching literature, for example, for, I imagine, this reason. (Tangentially, I’m not sure that learning to ape Palestrina, as interesting in itself as it may be, is going to help a budding West European composer find their place in an after-Lachenmann sensibility.) We all learn by choosing some arbitrary (historical) starting point, and shift and skip (forwards/backwards) as the learning experience takes us.
Additionally, we (mainstream jazz audiences) don’t generally expect young(er) jazz musicians to sound like old-timers. We expect them to come from an after-Shorter, after-Jarrett, after-Carter, after-DeJohnette common practice. Very few young(er) jazz musicians are asked to perform in the ‘older-style’ unless as some kind of post-modern pantomime act, or as a house band for visiting elder luminaries (and, as that generation departs to that great club in the sky, I’ve heard less and less of these over the years). Certainly very, very, very few of the jazz musicians I know play ’bop anymore (but maybe I just have weird friends).

Even the neo-classicists take (and now I’m on extremely slippery ground) The Jazz Messengers (c. 1960) as their year zero.

Furthermore, a vibrant local scene gains international recognition, not through its ability to pastiche, but through its display of some distinct take on this common practice (e.g. the recent rise in visibility of many Scandinavian jazz musicians).
So why is so much of formal jazz education still stuck in the Aebersold time-line?

(BTW, I’m talking about ‘mainstream’ jazz here, sidestepping the question of how, as Bailey asks, Ayler’s music could be distilled into a ‘method’. Also, I’ve only witnessed formal jazz education at three institutions (admittedly in three different countries), so this might not be representative.)

it’s electric, dummy!

The notion that an electric guitar is just an amplified version of an acoustic has done no good whatsoever to the teaching of that instrument. Come on, man, turn up the amp, and pick lighter!


peter breslin said...

Hi S- Jazz pedagogy is a thing of wonder to me, no matter what is selected as year zero. Perhaps the issue is what can be taught, at least from the perspective of institutionalized learning. 1945 is a great starting place for materials the mind can use. Functional harmony, chord tone scales, rhythm, etc. These are measurables, to greater or lesser degrees. So-called "modal jazz methods" also provide plenty of materials. The problem isn't one of materials or historicism but philosophy. Jazz studies are so hell bent on the articulation of technique that the entire question of what's central to improvisational music isn't even posed. That poor son of a bitch bass player has yet to find a voice. It's not the materials that are chosen for teaching but the pedagogical worldview and philosophy that's the problem.

By the way- did you get the sad news that Rod Poole was murdered in Los Angeles?


the improvising guitarist said...

PB, you’re really making a point about the formalist/technocratic aspects of teaching jazz. I broadly agree that “entire question of what’s central to improvisational music isn't even posed”—that’s a fair point—but I was making a more modest observation.
For the moment—for the sake of argument—let’s say that we subscribed to the ‘method’ method of Jazz Studies™. Why are the methods not starting with some other (arbitrary historical) practice? I don’t believe that extracting a method from the Shorter-Jarrett-Carter-DeJohnette common practice would necessarily be any harder than extracting it from an earlier one (of course, such a method would not capture the actual, say, Shorter sound, but the current system does not capture Parker’s either).
I am, for better or worse, a systems freak, and (I’ll probably anger the improv gods by saying this) I don’t believe that deriving a ‘method’ from Ayler is out of the question. Whether you’d want to, is entirely another question.
And that’s the point: current pedagogy sets its year zero, despite claims to the contrary, not for ‘methodological’ reasons, but because they desire that particular starting line. So my question: why that particular year zero?

By the way- did you get the sad news that Rod Poole was murdered in Los Angeles?

I heard. Curious thing, considering that I had thought I was pretty familiar with the LA experimental/improv scene and that he was a guitarist, was that I’d never heard of Poole until now….

Thanks for reading.

S, tig.

peter breslin said...

Hey S- maybe it's the way the academy works. Guys teaching jazz, especially tenured and department chair guys, let's say they're now about 60. So they were born in about 1947 and by the time *jazz died* (according to Darius B) roughly 1969, they were just finding their vocabulary and voice. Naturally in 9 cases out of 10 that would have been bop. So to them, bop is the one true grail and holy language of jazz, because it's revivial and preservation in the academy means *jazz didn't die after all* and so it goes.

I asked a young bass player the other day who his favorite bassist was. It floored me when he said Ray Brown! Ray Brown, a giant of the instrument, yes. But whatever happened since then meant nothing to this kid, who had a *collij jass deegree*