Monday, June 25, 2007

games of strategy

Briefly, there is a fair bit of buzz this week online about critical sniping aimed at the NYC "downtown scene", namely this piece by David Hajdu parsing John Zorn, and this one complaining about the Vision Festival. (Of course, he left before the Melford set, the one I most wanted to hear myself) Darcy's reviews of the first two nights of Vision are here and here.

But back to Zorn. First, Hajdu is no slouch; he wrote the very well regarded bio of Strayhorn Lush Life. That doesn't make him a avant expert, but it tells me he know something about music, and jazz, and... I respectfully, emphatically disagree with Ted Riechman's take. I don't think Hajdu is saying Zorn is a fraud at all. In fact, I agree with many of the points he makes; Zorn's success is due as much to his grander vision, marketing savvy and breathtaking ability to assemble great units of musicians as it is his abilities as a saxophonist and/or composer. (Shades of Miles Davis, or the arguments about Miles, though frankly I think Miles was a much better, more expressive trumpeter than Zorn an alto player- see below)

Full disclosure: I have little to no knowledge of Zorn's large scale compositions, so I can't really comment on them, or his place on either the current scene or in the larger historical picture. I can comment on the many times I got to see Zorn in New York- with Masada and the Masada String Group, running Cobra, solo and in exceedingly strange duos with various artists including Marc Ribot and Ravi Coltrane. As a player, I think Hajdu's descriptorof Zorn is often apt:

"To the uninitiated, the sounds that Zorn produces may sometimes seem like assaultive noise blurted out arbitrarily. In fact, they are assaultive noise crafted with meticulous care"
I would say it this way: Zorn's range as a player is tremendous, unique, interesting, and often frustratingly monochromatic.

Later in the article, Hajdu hits what I think is the more important, and wider point:

"Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizes and seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he is exceptionally good at his art. What he is good at--so very good as to suggest a kind of genius--is being exceptional. Unfortunately, uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term of classification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainly is, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and, more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thin and gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt. "

I think the last sentence is FAR too harsh, (and there's a lot of Zorn I don't like). But there is an inherent self contradiction in the music and figure of John Zorn, much of the music going on this week at Vision Fest, and the avant-garde in general. It is very susceptible, in the mind of its artists and its audience, to the fallacy that suffering in the name of art, especially obscure art, is noble and worthy for suffering's own sake. That somehow the art is justifiable specifically because it's obscure, or difficult. (And as Hajdu notes, in Zorn's case this becomes increasingly paradoxical as he wins more and larger grants, commissions and acclaims.) To me, this is almost as silly as measuring music's value by it's place on the Billboard chart.

In reading about and listening to folks who I consider visionaries of the avant-jazz scene- Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, and Roscoe Mitchell offhand- I see and hear none of the exceptionalism that Zorn revels in. Marvel at Ornette's recent elliptical Grammy acceptance speech. Quite a ways from "Eat Shit Jazz Snob", now, isn't it? In Roscoe's recent talk at NEC in Boston he mentioned how much of the AACM's early work in Chicago was audience building- finding or inventing venues, concerts and programs for the music they were creating, meeting the audience halfway without diluting the music or its mission. (As Soundslope reports regularly, this work goes on to this day) In many ways, with his label, his club, and his concert and record series, I suppose Zorn does this too. He's just so damn insufferable about it.

The last time I was at the Vision Festival was in '01, when it was still on St. Mark's Place. I don't remember too much, good or bad. I do remember Kidd Jordan was playing, and for someone to be playing so much horn, with such a huge sound at his age and (apparent) frailty was amazing all by itself. (Brian O. shows the same wonder towards some of this year's older musicians; good news indeed) But too often I felt that the music was (as Zorn often is) strange for the sake of being strange, following templates more obscure, but not that far from, a re-bop group muscling its way through "Countdown". (More on this on some forthcoming posts about aesthetics, listening and interaction)

Finally, I am firmly of the opinion that when it comes to discussion and criticism of music, there are no sacred cows. I don't want the above to be read as "hating on" Zorn or Vision; I admire John Zorn greatly, like a lot of his music, and was delighted to hear that the got the MacArthur grant. (And equally delighted by Stephen Colbert's skewering of it) I don't think Hajdu is knocking him down for the sake of knocking him down; this is a serious person taking him seriously, and coming to some harsh conclusions. And at a time when left of center music in many genres is hurting in New York and all over the country, the breadth, scope and apparent box office success of this years Vision Festival is cause for celebration. Serious music deserves serious discussion, even when it's cantankerous.

That wasn't so brief now, was it? But I did get to use the word cantankerous. More later...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bill Frisell Trio @ the Regattabar, 6/22/07, 10pm

The first review I remember reading of Bill Frisell, probably in 1990 or so, described him as a "mad scientist", mishmahing loopy feedback, disemboweled pop tunes and folky licks. Time and success have certainly mellowed the reaction to Bill's music, but if last night was any indication, it hasn't made it any less accurate. After awkwardly introducing his longtime trio of bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson (his attempts at joke-telling before the encore were even more awkward), Frisell set up a series of feedback loops that sounded like crickets tripping on X. Over the course of the evening Frisell came back to variations on these loops, and while this technique is certainly one of his trademarks, they sounded very fresh- he was continually mixing in sounds I'd never heard from him before- not licks, sounds. I'm not enough of a gearhead to know what he was doing, but some of the sounds almost sounded borrowed from analog synths, and mixed with the more "traditional" guitar sounds the effect was delightfully jarring.

After the others joined him in flirting with a free-time version of "When You Wish Upon a Star", Bill thought better of it and ripped into Monk's familiar "Misterioso". The tune set the tone for the evening- the feel was loose, the interaction tight; most of the time it seemed like Tony and Bill were improvising in unison. I guess seven plus years as a band will do that to you. At times the tune had the "equal improvisers" feel of the 60's Bill Evans trio, at others the grunginess of a dive bar rockabilly band. All the tempos- on "Misterioso", a fairly striaghtforward readind of the Delfonics' "La La La Says I Love You" and some of Bill's originals were faster than I expeceted, giving them a slightly manic edge. (By contrast, he played Lee Konitz's "Sub-Conscious-Lee" and its notoriously twisty head right down the middle, and Bill laid out some of the most interesting linear playing I've ever heard from him.) Most of the tunes probably could've ended about three choruses earlier than they did- some of the endings bordered on tasteless- but the band was having so much fun no one seemed to mind.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Visitor from Somewhere

I just bumped into my friend Wes Matthews, who recently graduated from NEC with a masters in composition. (Wes was a Brookmeyer guy when I was there.) As I mentioned last month, Wayne Shorter was on hand at the graduation itself to receive an honorary doctorate. According to Wes, Wayne did not speak, but his pianist and NEC faculty member Danilo Perez did to introduce him. In describing rehearsing with Wayne, Danilo talked about grappling with the instruction "Play that chord with more water."

It reminded me of an anecdote I got third-hand about someone who got to be a fly on the wall for a rehearsal of the Miles quintet of the 60's (Herbie/Wayne/Ron/Tony). The storyteller remembered that, well, the music was amazing, and that all the instructions and conversations about the tunes used only words about color. "It needs more red right there." "Tony, more blue, cmon!" That's the kind of band I want.

Speaking of Wayne, this video has been making the rounds (via rifftides). No date, but I'm guessing early 80's? Wayne, er, showing Scott Hamilton a couple of things in a jam session blues. I have to ask myself, though, who dreamed up a "tenor battle" with Scott Hamilton, Lew Tabakin (so far okay) and Wayne? I can just imagine Miles saying "somebody should take a sign and picket the festival..."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

And here we test our powers...

I'm late to the party, but make sure you check out Ethan Iverson's recent 90s blindfold test and commentary over at The Bad Plus blog. Ethan the critic is almost as valuable an asset to the musical community as Ethan the pianist/composer/lovable weirdo. Well, not almost, but he's a damn good critic. I share Ethan's inner schizophrenia on Paul Bley- I keep telling myself I'm going to get to know "Footloose" better, because every time I hear it it blows my head off. But I bought his more recent duo with Kenny Wheeler, which was crap. It was so bad, from such masters, that I was angry for a couple of days. More of my two cents soon... stay tuned.

Right below this post it is a reminder about Guillermo Klein's two week jazz odyssey at the Vanguard. I have to ration my NYC trips this summer, so I think Myra Melford's hit at the Vision Fest will win out. But that's no excuse for you...

Meet me in the Twilight

This month, Jennifer Kimball plays one of her occasional residencies at the Toad in Porter Square Cambridge every Wednesday night this month. I've raved about her in the past, and will probably do so again in the future, so if you're in the general vicinity, get yourself there and see it for yourself. She is the last person in my life to make me cry when it didn't involve someone dying. (That's a good thing.) Even if singer/songwriters are not normally your thing, I can't recommend her highly enough.

The Toad
is at 1912 Mass Ave, right near the Porter Square T stop. (Their tap selection is small but excellent) If past experience is any indicator, there will be two sets starting 7:30-ish, but get there early. It's a small place, and gets beyond SRO pretty quickly. I'm going to try to make it tomorrow, but definitely next week.

(FYI, I am slowly starting to recover from the feeling that the whole world landed on my head at my new gig, and will resume fuller blogging very soon.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Inhale, pause, exhale, pause... pause

I have accepted a promotion at my yoga job, which so far has been a little more than I bargained for. So blogging will slow dramatically until I get my feet under me here. I have a stack of CDs I've picked up in the past month and want to blog about, so maybe some capsule reviews will tide me through.

Oh, the verdict is in on the MySpace contest, and Larrylove wins with the title "Hopscotch". I like it, and it's the only one that came in. So Larry, please send an address and I'll send a copy of the CD to your lovely wife. And thanks to all who listen