Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Abstract and the Sensual in Jazz

One of those very forgettable movies that I have never been able to forget is The Turning Point. I remember it for personal reasons (my wife of more than 25 years and I talked about it back when we were dating), and for a scene where Anne Bancroft, playing an aging ballet dancer, is taking directions from a young, arrogant choreographer. She wants to express emotions in her dance. He scolds her for this. He wants just the geometrical form of her body. Or at least that is how I remember it.

But there is something like this going on in avant garde jazz. Thelonious Monk, the greatest composer of Bop jazz, was famous for breaking music up into its constituent parts, and then recasting it in novel ways. But Monk's genius was to keep the full emotional content, along with the juke joint echoes, in each of the parts. Avant garde tends to abstract from the emotional content of musical forms, to concentrate on the weight of the forms alone. Something is gained from that, in terms of focus. I am reminded of an artist who carved ordinary objects (a pair of old boots, a mailing envelope) out of wood. This revealed the form with extraordinary clarity. But something is lost as well.

Compare the following: "Reflections," from Thelonious Monk The Complete Blue Note Recordings, with the same beautiful tune by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. Monks early version is alive with passion, perspiration, and place. Lacy and Waldron have left all the wood shavings behind. Theirs is an abstract, geometrical chart by comparison. Again, something is gained and something is lost. You can compare the two at
But don't let me deliver it. Get the music for yourself.

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