When less is
Assuming that music has as many permutations as a dividing cell, how then is a jazz fan to
make any kind of decision about tastefulness? It's a mighty great mystery, but anyone who
surrounds himself with music of any kind will admit that, at least part of the time, the
mystery is the quality that keeps him coming back. That is, very often a fan will give a
recording a second, third or fourth chance if he didn't like it the first time around.
I have a notion that this quality is what distinguishes a music lover from someone who
merely wants some background noise to accompany whatever main task is before him at the
time. It's hard nowadays to find music consumers who listen hard and deep to the exclusion
of driving down the highway or painting the living room.
And maybe that's what went wrong with jazz somewhere along the line. The creative
intimacies of trying and failing and experimenting in a night club before a small, but
engaged, audience gave way to larger venues, ever more raucous dancing, more noise from
the crowd, cell phones and pagers going off, crashing ashtrays and broken glassware.
And, perhaps, to accommodate the social functions of concert-going, the music changed.
That's not necessarily a bad thing and the latter doesn't necessarily follow from the
former. But it happened as jazz scurried in some ways to catch up with rock 'n' roll. We
now have fusion and funk and techno jazz, acid jazz, New Age sleepytime jazz and a variety
of others that don't invite deep listening.
Maybe I'm all wet, but it seems to me that a knowledge of the tradition and some attention
to its component parts is required before one can innovate.
A couple of years ago, I gave my nephew one of my old acoustic guitars because he wanted
to start learning to play. But after a few weeks of bleeding fingers, he'd had enough of
that and decided to trade up to an electric guitar with lower action, lots of bells and
whistles on the amplification and, of course, that most important of ingredients, volume.
Throw in a couple of special-effects pedals with a lot of fuzz and you have a head-banger
in the making. And, I must say, the music he plays is pretty rudimentary.
But as I keep telling him in his occasional frustrations, even with the electric, one has
to understand the basics of, say, the internal combustion engine on the family station
wagon before one can customize it for the street rod.
And there we lie with jazz.
I take the blues as my jazz model and don't find any outgrowth of that form intrinsically
objectionable. Having followed Miles Davis' march from bop to cool to amplification, I was
as stunned as the next guy when "Bitches Brew" came out in 1970 with its blend
of rock rhythms and, at times, almost indeterminate key signatures. But I studied the
recording that opened the door to fusion. It hasn't held up well for me over the years.
But what it has done is influence a generation of musicians to pursue that particular
heading on the jazz compass. My ear tells me a saturation point has been reached beyond
which the music is no longer jazz. It's more like stadium rock -- OK for a minute, but
hardly worth standing out in the rain for.
Wynton Marsalis has done a great service in his efforts to educate up-and-coming musicians
about the blues and he has many models from which to choose. But his point is basic and
ought to be tattooed on the back of every musical hand that takes up an instrument:
sometimes less is more.
The great Duke Ellington and Count Basie could cook with the best of them, but if
listeners will pay attention to their piano accompaniments, even on up-tempo tunes,
simplicity will be revealed.
Miles Davis, not in any sense a technical trumpet wizard such as Cat Anderson was, is
given a lot of credit for playing the silence as well as the notes in many of his fine
recordings, particularly the essential 1959 album, "Kind Of Blue." And he
deserves that credit. His contributions to the later, louder fusion and funk categories
are a historical irony lost on many younger jazz fans who only know his work from
"Bitches Brew" onward. His approach was a spare one and blues-based, even in the
bebop days when he shared a bandstand with Charlie Parker.
And for spare accompaniment, there has never been a more egoless pianist that John Lewis.
The Modern Jazz Quartet set a standard of taste that is lost on the partisans of
Chet Baker, anyone? His trumpet work with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and their
experiments with pianoless groups helped along the West Coast notion of "cool"
And what about Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro on the bass end of a
tune? All have shown technical flash in their recordings. But, at the same time, all have
exhibited the wisdom of restraint.
The blues as a form is so open that it accommodates both simplicity and complexity. But
the simple must come first. The foundation of a building is not nearly so beautiful as the
gingerbread on its upper reaches, but it is much more important to the structure. The
curlicues, like my nephew's fuzz tones and wah wahs, are only the surface, not the center,
of the thing itself.
Jazz history is shot through with example after example of roughriding musical cowboys who
knew from experience when to hold their horses. And, as simmering will concentrate the
flavors of a good gumbo, a similar approach on the bandstand -- and in the process of
musical instruction -- will bring us a crop of more concentrated musicians and fans, who
will feed each other till dawn and come home nourished.