Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Big Question at the heart of this blog ...

is: have I gone nuts?  My masthead informs the reader that the blog is "largely devoted to hard bop."  But I keep posting on avant garde music.  I have always thought that the melody was the thing in music, but I keep listening to music that wants to transcend the melody.  What gives?

Intrepid reader Dan isn't too shy to say that the emperor has no clothes.  He didn't like Archie Shepp's interpretation, or maybe anti-interpretation, of 'The Girl from Ipanema'.  I did like it.  Maybe all this edgy jazz has damaged my brain.  

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a fellow grad student on the dark road back from a California desert, decades ago.  Wes said that jazz was destructive music, as it tried to undermine all coherent forms in music.  I argued to the contrary that jazz was of all musical genres most devoted to the forms of music precisely because it dug into, rearranged, and constantly explored all the myriad dimensions of melody.  

Of course all that experimentation is bound to produce a lot of false positives.  I am on recorded as having no time for Trane's Ascension.  But one thing I notice: when avant garde masters present more conventional, straight ahead jazz, they bring lots of new juice to the table.  

Case in point: Anthony Braxton's Six Monk's Compositions.  Braxton is one of the more extreme page five musicians.  His album Eugene is listed as one of the Penguin Guide's core collection.  I bought it on that recommendation years ago, and I still can't figure out what it is about.  But today I acquired the former recording, and it is marvelous.  Here is a sample:
Anthony Braxton/Brilliant Corners
Give this one a listen, Dan, and let me know what you think.  


  1. Ken -
    1 - great blog. I newly discovered this from one of Ken Laster's shows.
    2 - Anthony Braxton is a great topic to encounter here. I am a Connecticut resident and at one time lived close to Wesleyan University where he teaches. I had a chance meeting with him once when I was at the campus practicing my horn and he does come at you at first impression as an intensely artful man - maybe a bit crazed in appearance at that moment as he came running down a stairwell. Anyways - I just traded hellos and that was the whole of the encounter. On the more impressing side to me is the product of his teaching at Wesleyan. Having performed with his students, he has pushed on a creative legacy to the avant jazz community. You should probably check out the works of Steve Lehman and Matt Steckler (Dead Cat Bounce is his main project). Their work now (and then)is amazing.

    Again thanks

    Marc Ursin -
    saxophonist - Farmington, CT

  2. Thanks, Marc. I would be disappointed if Anthony Braxton was not "a little crazed in appearance." As I said, I still can't get much out of most of his countless compositions. But that Monk album is priceless.

    I will look up the artists you mention. Thanks for the comment. I owe Laster another beer, if ever I get up there.


  3. Sorry if I was a bit rough in the last post.
    Just so happens Shepp is my favorite living player and I have been following him for years. If you think Ipanema was good, try his "French Ballads". You are so right about guys like him, Braxton, Vandermark, Ware....etc. blowing up a real storm on more traditional material, as long as they have the room (in control of the context-playing with their musical peers)to do it. These guys never play down to an audience, and the fantastic job they do on trad stuff is the best argument anyone could want against the bs charge that avant garde musicians really can't play.
    The line about jazz being destructive is nonsense, same for the line that avant garde jazz is noise (there is actually another so-called musical genre called "noise"!) The truth is that jazz is just not for people from Lalaland and the avant garde is not for people on tranqs. The thing about the avant garde is that it is a breakaway from music that expresses a limited emotional range ("happy music"). The true function of music it to express emotion (in a way language never can) and as such it should avail itself of any means imaginable to capture all the nuances of human experience (sad music, angry music, depressed music, furious music, disoriented music...happy music-you name it). It always struck me that people who can't get into that are those with a limited capacity. I've been listening to this stuff since the early '50s and I can see how my own ability to relate to a wider bandwidth of the music has shadowed my ability to relate to a wider and wider expanse of people and experience. Don't be surprised if that happens to you with the passage of time.


    PS My two favorite dead musicians are Eric Dolphy and Lester Bowie.

  4. Maybe you should change your masthead, sounds like you're moving on.


  5. Ken B. I intend on collecting on those beers someday. Also, perhaps Dan is right; you should consider changing that masthead, as your musical tastes have expanded considerably since we first began to communicate. You have also expanded MY musical experience considerably with this blog. I guess I owe you a brew or two for that as well.

  6. On the subject of melody, one of the great landmark performances in the history of the avant garde is Eric Dolphy's God Bless The Child. Dolphy took the Billie Holiday tune and did an a capella tour de force that lasted for about nine minutes. What really sets this apart in its historic perspective is that Dolphy played an introduction to the tune, and then stopped! He never played the melody! He didn't need to! I doubt that he was trying to make any sort of a historic statement. It just happened that way. But when you listen to this piece-if you have any sort of an ear for jazz at all, you know that the melody wasn't necessary-Dolphy had created a masterpiece with no melody. Dolphy could play both inside and out, and more often than not, it was his exotic brand of inside that was so captivating...mesmerizing. Bottom line: great musicians create great music...melody, chord structures, rhythm none of these are essential...nice sometimes, but not essential.


  7. Anyone who would really like to get a good grasp on the avant garde should check out these posts on the Amazon jazz forum:

    It's a goldmine or reference material along with a lot of astute observations that can widen anyone's perspective.


  8. Wow. What a great series of posts! My readers have increased in numbers dramatically over the last year, but comments... not so much. This is gratifying.

    Ken: I will trust you to keep count of the tab. Whatever the number, we are going to need a designated driver when I finally make it up there.

    Dan: I took no offense at all at your recent post on Shepp. It made me think which I count as a blessing.

    We are too much in agreement, I fear, to have a good argument. Archie Shepp isn't my favorite, but he is certainly one of my favorites. We also agree in our admiration for Eric Dolphy.

    Ken Laster is right that my tastes have greatly expanded since I started doing this blog. A lot of jazz that wouldn't have made sense to me a few years back (William Parker comes to mind) is now part of my regular pleasure.

    But I haven't yet lost my original bearing. My preference for Braxton's Monk recording over his Eugene is evidence of that.

    I am not quite sure I agree with you about the substance of avant garde. I agree that expressing the various dimensions of emotion is what music is all about, but avant garde frequently seems to want to reduce the music to abstract signal and then use the bits to reconstitute new music. The aim is not to express exiting emotion but to discover new dimensions of creativity beyond existing emotions. Maybe.

    I also agree that the genius of Dolphy and other edgy jazz men lay in suggesting rather than stating melodic ideas. Why is it that the suggestion is so often more powerful than the statement? That lies at the heart of all poetry and song.

    I will give more thought to your reflections. You have my profound gratitude for your attention.

  9. ps. to all: I have, finally, changed the masthead.

  10. If you found these comments on the avant garde interesting, you should definitely check out the Amazon link I posted above. At the beginning of that thread it references a second older thread and between the two there are several days worth of extensive explorations of the avant garde. I liked your blog because it was so similar to the discussions on Amazon that I participated in for several years.