Finding the lost chord -- as a listener 

Just as there are music lovers who like to claim the jazz moniker for music that really isn't jazz, there are others who feel vaguely guilty because they haven't developed a faculty for appreciating jazz.

That's a tough one.

Recently I was watching an old film that featured a live performance by Ravi Shankar, the great Indian musician who enjoyed a surge of popularity in rock music during the sonic experiments of the 1960s. My mother, who sat beside beside me on the sofa, watched along and, finally, she'd had enough and got up to leave the room.

"That's not music," she said, rather capriciously, I thought. We've had these disagreements all my life, so I didn't put up a defense and quite enjoyed the performance.

But I thought later that the key to the enjoyment of Shankar's music had been, for me, a matter of exploration that required me to turn loose my preconceptions about Western music and take his music on its own terms.

And that, I thought, was the opening of the gate for me to enjoy all types of jazz, which has featured many experimental artists who have taken a dollop of this culture, a pinch of that and fashioned something which is traceable to its roots but which also stands quite apart from them.
That's not merely progress; that's a basic characteristic of art.

So I decided to test myself in a bit more methodical way and to tackle a couple of musicians for whom I have harbored both a healthy respect and a healthy skepticism.

Guitarist Sonny Sharrock found his way into my music collection years before he died in in 1994, but I'm not sure why. I kept giving him more chances to satisfy me, but somehow the effort came to naught, even though I tried very hard to understand his approach to an instrument I play myself.

Then I stumbled across "Ask The Ages" [Axiom, 1991] and began to get an inkling of what he was about. The recording features Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone and Elvin Jones on drums. This spare trio ripped off my ears. Sanders has spent years pushing boundaries and is right at home on this date, and Elvin Jones never has been daunted by anything musical that I've ever heard.

Sharrock employs many of the techniques beloved of rock guitarists, makes swoops and dives that defy the imagination, distorts his tone and rakes his strings and controls his feedback in refreshingly original ways. And he does this in ways perfectly consistent in the musical context within which the trio works.
In short, I hadn't been listening to what was there in the grooves, but had defied Sharrock's attempts to bend the outlines of conventional composition, even as he improvised.

This is rather like trying to saw a board with a hammer, and then cursing the hammer because it is not a saw. It won't get a house framed, and the application of that line of thinking won't lead to much musical discovery or enjoyment, either.

Pianist Cecil Taylor has been more problematic for me. I have a few fugitive pieces of his in my collection, all of them solo performances. There has never been any doubt for me that he is a very talented man. But for years I've carried the notion that he's squandered that talent in the service of merely shocking his audiences, or has allowed militant politics to get too mixed up with his art.

Be that as it may, the icebreaker for me was "One Night At Blue Note Preserved, Vol. 2" [Blue Note, 1985, and a Taylor-penned piece entitled "Pontos Cantados," a 12:34 workout that, were it not classified as "jazz," would be quite as at home on a classical concert stage as in a juke joint. It is a sometimes-dissonant, sometimes-lilting piece that runs the gamut from extremely percussive fingering to a lightness of touch one is not accustomed to hearing from Taylor.

His work is mostly available on independent labels and is worth a listen for anyone ready for challenge.
But, again, I offer this caution: the listener must prepared to accept the music on its own terms.
I have preached, largely as a result of my experience in playing in various bands, a philosophy of "serving the tune," i.e., the architecture of any composition will guide a musician as to how the composition wants to be played. It doesn't have to be played in the same fashion each time, and can be re-arranged in any numbers of ways, but there are certain approaches that are out of bounds.

For example, Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" or Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," two of my favorite melodies in all of music -- never mind confining them to the jazz category -- wouldn't have the same emotional appeal if they were played on, for example, a theremin or a Jew's harp. Who wants to hear Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" played on an accordion? That won't get the crowd up and dancing. Or the lovely air that begins the second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony performed on a conch shell?

For listeners, as well as for musicians, there is much to consider: texture, timbre, tempo, intervals, voicings, tone clusters, tone centers, and the list goes on. Some are appropriate for tinkering; some are not.

But the key element in broadening one's taste for challenging music is this: it isn't so much a matter of finding the lost chord as it is listening to what is already present in the music. You've probably been hearing the chord out of context. But, in great musical art, it's there, my friends; it's there.