Music in the present tense 

I was watching a sports program on ESPN last week when the network did an interesting segment on the similarities between basketball and music.

A group of athletes and musicians offered opinions on the matter, and it was a fascinating exercise in drawing connections between two apparently disparate disciplines.

Included in the segment was the redoubtable saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who offered what I thought the pithiest observation: that jazz and basketball, depending as they do upon improvisation and making variations in set plans as the circumstances warrant, require both nimble minds and bodies.

Basketball is as fast-moving a game as jazz is an art form. And jazz, declared Marsalis, is "music in the present tense."

Consider the implications of that statement for the makers and the consumers of music.

And let us begin by taking it as given that improvisation is the single defining quality of jazz, without which there would be no such genre. Improvisation is not ruled out of more traditionally set forms, but its absence does not interfere with the definition of, for example, neo-classicism. However, without improvisation there would be no jazz.

Having set that boundary in our minds, let us then consider the very language in which we talk about jazz. We talk about "swinging," that indefinable quality that, neverthess, we instantly identify when we hear it.

Dave Brubeck, for all his mathematical preoccupations and the almost algebraic nature of some of his compositions, is most often concerned about whether his performance was "swinging" after he comes off the bandstand. When Brubeck soars at the piano, his internal equations enable flights of fancy that would degenerate into mush in less masterful hands.

Open forms in jazz -- the blues or modal constructions -- are most able to accommodate the improvisation and swinging impulses of the musician. And a practiced and canny listener will appreciate the nuances nearly as well.

Miles Davis knew this, perhaps better than anybody. When he recorded the landmark "Kind Of Blue" [Columbia, 1959], he brought to the studio only the barest of sketches for his sidemen, and he encouraged them to blow, to feed their heads, to exercise their imaginations and to be bold. The concept of fearlessness is etched in every groove of that remarkable date and it is, perhaps, a testimonial to its being music in the present tense that encourages repeated listenings. For me, it is a recording that never grows old, and I have been listening to it at least weekly for more than 25 years now. I never tire of it.

I can say the same of Paul Gonsalves' remarkable 20-plus improvisational tenor sax choruses on "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. "At Newport 1956" [Columbia, 1957], is worth the price for that single cut alone, because Gonsalves not only swings, he swings as fearlessly and immediately as an Olympic athlete on a luge run.

And what about interpretation? Many of the tunes we regard as evergreens are freshened rather than dulled by the passage time as new generations of musicians find their own improvisational themes, most previously unsuspected by their musical ancestors.

For example, I must have at least a dozen performances of Thelonious Monk's lovely "'Round Midnight" in my music library, none of them remotely similar except for the statement of the theme. But there is no mistaking the differences in style that each artist brings to the ballad along with his interpretation. The "swingingness" of any particular performance depends on the musician's internal clock. And appreciation depends on the openness of the listener's ears.

One of these versions of Monk's tune is a solo turn by guitarist Stanley Jordan, who takes the familiar melody into terra incognita, but who never loses sight of the path back to familiarity. The recording enables a more traditional listener to dip his musical toes into less-than-comforting waters, but to emerge refreshed nevertheless.

All this a rather long way from the basketball/jazz discussion on ESPN. But the parallels for the musician and the athlete are unmistakable.

And it all ends up in a three-point goal if the musician is fearless, the listener tolerant and the spirit of communion strong. It's music in the present tense, all right, and the clock never runs out.