Tag: jazz

Chamber Music America Announces 2013 Commissioning Grant Recipients

Chamber Music America (CMA) has announced the recipients of its 2013 commissioning grants, supporting the creation of new works for small ensembles. CMA will distribute $421,950 to 19 ensembles through two of its major grant programs: New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Classical Commissioning, supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grantees in each program were selected by independent peer panels this spring.
A total of $208,500 has been awarded to nine jazz ensembles through the New Jazz Works program, which provides support for the creation and performance of new works in the jazz idiom, as well as funding for activities that extend the life of the work, and allow the ensemble leader to acquire or cultivate career-related business skills.

The 2013 New Jazz Works grantees are:

World Time Zone (led by Michael Blake)
Sheldon Brown Group
Robin Verheyen NY Quartet
Ben Kono Group
Manuel Valera and New Cuban Express
Dapp Theory (led by Andy Milne)
Alan Ferber Nonet
Jacob Garchik Trio (joined in its commission by the Caravel String Trio)
Sicilian Defense (led by Jonathan Finlayson)

Ten ensembles have also been awarded a total of $213,450 through the Classical Commissioning program, which provides support for U.S.-based professional classical and world music ensembles and presenters for the creation and performance of new chamber works by American composers.

The 2013 Classical Commissioning grantees are:

Duo Scorpio / Nico Muhly
Kontras Quartet / Jens Kruger
Melody of China / Yuanlin Chen
Michael Winograd Ensemble / Michael Winograd
Music from China / Chen Yi
Mivos Quartet / Eric Wubbels
PRISM Quartet / Julia Wolfe
Talea Ensemble / Oscar Bettison
ZOFO / William Bolcom
Ensemble N_JP / Gene Coleman

(—from the press release)

More Media Matters (Part 2)

Last week I suggested that an idealized “nine-to-five” lifestyle of an idealized “middle-class” American left an idealized “him” about one-third of “his” time to do anything other than work, commute to and from work, sleep, and eat. Actually “he” would have 1.5 more hours per week to dedicate to “leisure” time. But we all know that the state of the economy in the last 12 years has shrunk the “nine-to-five” demographic quite a bit. Some see this as a good thing as people diversify their talents and take up “freelance” vocations that allow them to “self-actualize” their lives through various creative outlets, like a hobby. In reality, these people are mostly using their creative talents to generate more income to make up for lost wages, more like a second job. Another argument against the idealized three-way “work-sleep-play” split is that seldom does work end when one leaves his or her idealized workplace. Often, time spent eating and time spent playing combine elements of work, thus becoming time spent working. (How many high-level business decisions are made at the golf course or at lunch?) So the idea that one has an equal chance to experience artistic expression from a “normal” work environment is a fallacy; one with a demonstrable downside.

Learning music has been shown to be important to the development of our minds and bodies. This is common enough knowledge that Barack Obama addressed it during his first presidential campaign. But to learn music one has to spend time—a lot of time—playing music. For instance: to play in my junior high school orchestra, one had to attend the 45-minute class five days per week, and one was expected to practice on weekends. Students who later became proficient usually played at least twice that much. Those of us who wanted to improvise to play jazz or rock had to learn it on our own and, thus, we had to practice even more. So, as I said last week, mastering jazz takes more time and effort than learning to play an instrument well enough to play classical repertoire, which in turn takes much more dedication and study than what is needed to play most pop music. (I’m not trying to say that there aren’t brilliant and dedicated pop musicians, but if one compares average representatives of these genres I’m sure that there would be no disagreement with the thesis.)

On the other hand, pop musicians can make a lot more money than classical or jazz musicians. I have no doubt that part of the reason for this is that pop musicians travel a tighter orbit around the Great American Culture Machine (GACM). They often look at the business of music as integral a part of music making as the creative part, and even more important than mastery of a particular instrument. And the seven-, eight-, and even nine-figure salaries that are flaunted in tabloids, newspapers, and business journals must hold some degree of allure to one who is interested in pursuing music as a vocation. But, these are proverbial carrots-on-a-stick held out by the GACM to pull in anyone who believes themselves worthy of a place on stage or, as an interviewer I was talking with earlier this week put it by way of referencing the baseball movie Bull Durham, “the Show.”
One of the subtexts of Bull Durham (for those not familiar with the classic) is the control of the individual by the GACM at the expense of talent and expression. In the movie, an aging but viable catcher is downgraded to an obscure triple-A team to coach a young pitcher with star potential into a Major League commodity. Although the mechanics of baseball are much more organized and pervasive than those of the arts, there are aspects of the music industry that resemble the world of Bull Durham. Besides the obvious aspects of physicality in music and athletics (the phylum that baseball is a species of), with its regimen of training, specialized exercise, and repetitive motion injuries, the concept of loyalty towards one’s group bordering on fealty is common to both. I’m sure that readers who are, or have been, involved in music as professional performers can relate to the catcher’s disdain at his association with a substandard team, but still taking pride and finding joy from his own performance. (It’s like the principle flutist of a community concert band delivering perfect cadenzas in Scheherazade while every instrument section’s tutti sounds like a major-second cluster, or the once-famous jazz saxophonist who plays in the same group to “stay in shape.”) And I remember showing up to a rehearsal of my beloved Boys Club Jazz Band to find the director-conductor-composer-arranger-baritone saxophonist Don Ontiveros sitting at his desk with the same expression that the team manager in Bull Durham had on his face when passing the news to a player that the front office was firing him, only Don was reading a letter informing him that funding for the band had been pulled (right after we won our division at the Reno Jazz Festival’s jazz band competition).

That was the first time I experienced the utter sense of disbelief I would have felt when reading the New York Times article that appeared on its front page, had I not become acclimated to such things during my brilliant career. However, I was surprised to see this particular arm of the GACM champion the inequity of the artist-to-industry relationship so diligently. That is, until I saw the part about “certain types of music, like classical or jazz,” being condemned to poverty if streaming on the Internet is “the only way people consume music.” I had already been reading Frank J. Oteri’s reportage from the MIDEM convention in Cannes. In his third installment, “Ephemeral Playback,” Oteri outlines a discussion on “how to revitalize classical and jazz” in the digital era. It seems that the question posed at Cannes is undermined by the NYT’s piece. By insisting that classical and jazz are fodder for unscrupulous corporate exploitation, interest in pursuing them, either as vocation or avocation, is diminished. If one were prone to conspiracy theory, an indication of the GACM being engaged in the practice of contraindicating the highest standards of cultural performance to the culture being created to foster consumer-only tiers could be perceived.

A possible better way to address the issue under discussion at MIDEM might be to reintroduce classical and/or jazz music into the core curricula of public education on a par with other subjects, such as math or English. The aforementioned research shows this will boost a student’s ability to master those other subjects and perform in society when schooling is done as well. And the explanation can be coupled with recent press showing a growing dissatisfaction with the current approaches to core curricula. Granted, the single attempt by documentarian Ken Burns to broaden the reception of jazz by American television viewers was greeted by an avalanche of invective from the jazz community (who thought its scope to be too narrow) and the jazz academy (who saw flaws in its timeline); but this shouldn’t make jazz, or any form of music, anathema to the Great American Culture Machine. Indeed, Burns should be, and is, credited with taking on the challenge of educating the GACM consumer class. But trying to encapsulate a genre is often to declare it complete, finished, over…in a word, dead.

This is possibly the biggest problem one confronts when involved in the practice of creating new music, like an 800-pound gorilla in the room. But it is also one that can, and hopefully will, be effectively addressed as a media matter. The relationship between the media and the arts is reflexive. The most obvious facet of that reflexivity is reportage and prose (as well as poetry). Music is generally removed by genre and style, as well as by issue and time. Hip-hop primarily addresses issues of class-differentiation by skin color and poverty, which were previously addressed by folk music and post-modern jazz (but folk music still speaks to a plethora of class-differentiated issues); but what music is addressing issues of culture deprived curricula in education?
To be continued…

Matana Roberts: Creative Defiance


Conducted at the artist’s home in New York City
January 4, 2013—2 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Poster image by B. Abrams
Transcribed by Julia Lu

If there is any way to distill the wide-ranging artistry of Matana Roberts, it might be to focus on the ways in which she eludes definitions. Where the weight of other people’s expectations—of her instrument, her genre, even her race and her gender—might have fenced her in, she has instead pushed off these bounding walls into new areas of exploration, both sonic and narrative. The Chicago-raised composer, improviser, and alto saxophonist offers a friendly yet confidant smile as she explains, “Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.”

For Roberts, that kind of self-definition seems to flow hand-in-hand with a certain creative restlessness. While the influence of jazz in her music is apparent, she has expanded her creative palette to encompass a broader world of improvisation, experimentalism, and theatrical storytelling. This drive is perhaps most clearly showcased under the heading of her work Coin Coin, which she began developing in 2006. Divided into 12 “chapters,” the project includes multiple ensemble configurations, graphic notation, and explorations both compositional and historical. It is a work that is intensely personal and yet strikingly universal, incorporating her general interests in ritual, spirits, and genealogy alongside a more exacting trace of her own bloodlines and the stories of her ancestors. Like much family history, the path is circuitous and the narrative open to interpretation. Whether she and her flexible band are whispering intimate secrets into the ears in the audience, cajoling them into joining in, or screaming at their side, however, the result is a piece of transfixing emotional power.

In her artist statement, Roberts includes a line which has inspired the title of this profile, “Through my life’s work, I stand creatively in defiance.” In the course of our talk, she celebrated what sets her apart and the vital role art can play when taken outside of its usual hallways. And while certainly there are outside forces that can try to hamper her artistry, she has also come to realize that sometimes the most forbidding barriers are the ones that can build up inside. “I have all these things that I want to try creatively,” she acknowledged, “and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way.”

***

Molly Sheridan: It’s maybe too easy to label a saxophonist a jazz artist even if the genre relationship is not particularly strong. I know you often find yourself pushed in this direction, but is that where you feel most rooted or where you have been placed by others?
Matana Roberts: I try to push myself away from that word, though I will always have a love for that music and for a lot of those people. But for what I’m trying to do, I find it really confining on so many different levels—not just musical, but also in terms of the culture and certain types of generalizations that come with that word that I don’t like. I was a clarinet player first, playing classical music, but in terms of really dealing with the saxophone, it came from dealing with jazz music. There is an influence of jazz in my music, and there’s always going to be, but I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. Real jazz musicians to me are people who are deeply dealing with the traditional aspects of that music. I’m considering those aspects, but I’m not dealing with them in the way that they are. It partly has a little bit to do with gender, a little bit to do with race, and just at my core there’s a certain sense of punk aesthetic that I will always ascribe to. Basically, I don’t like being told what to do, or who I am, or what I am by other people. I prefer to make those statements myself.
MS: So there’s both a social and an aesthetic tension there?
MR: Yeah. African American jazz musicians have to deal with certain sorts of generalizations that I find really uncomfortable, and I get to feel a little bit of that when I travel, especially outside of the United States. I’ve learned a lot about how global my bloodline really is, and I want to live in a way where I’m not ignoring all those different segments. Then, I try to not really jump in on the gender thing, but I’m tired of having my work and my music or any sort of artistic output judged by men. The jazz world is still is a very male world. In order to be a part of that world—when I was really thickly a part of that world—I had to ignore certain aspects of my gender that made me, in the end, really uncomfortable. So I’m trying to chart something that takes in my love of old American traditions—not just jazz, but jazz is one of them.
MS: You made a move from Chicago to New York in 2002, and the way I’ve heard you speak about The Chicago Project, the album you released in 2008, and the artists you worked with while making that recording, it sounds like it represented a kind of graduation in a sense. Is that an accurate impression?
MR: When I was asked by Barry Adamson to make a record where I could pay the musicians well and bring on a producer that I trusted, I just felt that I needed to use that first recording as a way to honor the people who had really helped me. I was already living in New York at that time, and I could have used that opportunity to solidify one of my New York bands, but all those guys on that record—especially Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker, and Fred Anderson—they brothered and uncled and fathered me through this music when I first starting playing in Chicago. So I don’t know if it was a graduation, but that record is a document of things. I don’t think I’ve ever told them that, but I hope they understand. That record and the music on that record is my thank you to them.
MS: We’ve spoken some about what you do take from jazz, but even in an “end of genre” age, you have integrated various streams of influence in a particularly rich and personal way—and not just multigenre but multidisciplinary. What experiences or instincts pushed that side of your work? Who was influential to you in that regard?
MR: I’m highly influenced by visual art, more than sound. I’m influenced by those people and traditions that are not considered high art, that wouldn’t be let into some places because they come from more of an emotional place rather than an intellectual place. They come from more of a folk place, more a place of the heart, than some other traditions. I’m attracted to ghosts and spirits and spooks and these things. The graphic notation comes from my love of visual art. But also I have a learning disorder and the way I understand music or just understand logic is sometimes a lot different than other people. It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t stupid, that it’s a different kind of intelligence that I have. I still don’t understand how it’s worked out the way that it has, but luckily, I’ve been able to use a lot of those things in the way that I deal with music.
I’ve always been interested in theater. When I was kid, I wanted to be a playwright, and I grew up going to the opera. We were one of the few black families with season tickets. My grandmother would save up for that and drag us. I hated it at the time, and now I feel really privileged that I got to experience that. Growing up in a classic Chicago African-American neighborhood, where you are constantly exposed to ideas of signification, to ideas of ritual—even going to black churches and seeing how black American people deal with that—used to really rub my punk side the wrong way. But now I’m able to look back at that and see how culture deals with the idea of spectacle. I really want to use my work as a way to explore those different themes that are not necessarily just related to the African American experience, but related to just the experience of peoples. There are common themes that run through all cultures in terms of ritual and presentation—ideas of pain, joy, sadness, gladness, and these traditions that get passed down, that don’t necessarily get documented, or commercialized, or valued. I’m interested in placing my own value on those things.
MS: Your piece Coin Coin, which is kind of a poster child for this type of exploration and multidisciplinary artistic integration, is obviously a huge project, so there’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start by speaking just about some of the big concepts and the structure of the work, and then we’ll dig into the details.
MR: Coin Coin is my interest in history and folklore. Some parts of it have to do with research that I’ve been doing on my own ancestry, and I use some of that information to dig deeper into ideas of narrative. Right now, Coin Coin is very much about the African American experience in America in some ways, but the whole overarching thing is about just exploring these human universals. My mother used to call it the musical monument to the human experience, and that’s how I pretty much like to explain it. It’s a multimedia sound project about my love of history. There was never enough time in the day to be a hobbyist in that and also deal with the music. When I realized I could put them together, that’s kind of the whole overarching theme.
I wanted to create a project that would allow me to challenge myself as a composer in terms of dealing with different ensemble configurations. I had so much narrative that I could break down into so many segments that I realized I could also apply that to different ensemble configurations. Each segment deals with the same kind of graphic framework and some similar ideas so that when I’m finally done with it, perhaps I can link them all together.
There are ten ensemble chapters and two solo chapters that bookend the project in my head. It’s all formulated, but the solo chapters are still under development. I just came off tour working on those. Five of the ensemble segments have been performed, and now what I’ve been doing is having these Coin Coin experiments where they’re not full chapters, but they’re ideas that I’m trying to consider in the work. I don’t have the kind of money where I can just have a lab ensemble. I have to plug them into a performance to fund them. But each chapter is structured and written out and there’s a narrative for each one. I just have to get to them.


MS: Considering the financial challenges that might hamper work of this scope, can you tell me more about how the development and composition process for these pieces has worked?
MR: Before I started the project, it was very rare that I could sit down and write a song. The one thing that I’ve always loved about jazz is melody and that will always be a hallmark of all of my work. But I also grew up during some of the best eras of hip hop and also was really heavily influenced by riot grrrl and punk, and so I would try and write and I could never finish a song. Every now and then a song would come out from beginning to end, but usually they would come in snippets, and I’d have just these pieces. For a while I felt like a real failure. Then I started weaving the snippets together and understanding that maybe they are all part of the same thing or, if they aren’t, I can make them part of the same thing. I also became more and more interested in graphic notation and the ways in which musicians see sound.
So I just started weaving things together in that way. I remember the first score I put together. I thought I was going to get laughed out of New York City. But we did it and it was like magic. I was like, wow, this kind of composition is possible if you make sure you do it from your heart. Every piece of graphic notation that you have on a piece of paper, you should be able to really break down and really minutely explain, so that it’s honest. When I went in that direction, it all started to make sense.
MS: What made you question that initially? You mentioned that you thought you were going to be laughed out of New York City.
MR: I went to jazz schools and had some really negative experiences. Those places sometimes will make you feel like anything that you have to offer is not good enough—not just jazz schools, any institution can do that to you. So I really let that undermine me. I had a professor in college that told me the only way that I was ever going to get a gig was to marry a musician. And at the time, I believed him because he was the professional and I was the student. So, I still had all these little scars from that. It almost seemed too playful and too imaginary for anyone else to understand. I found out later that that was not true, but I needed to go through that process.
MS: Can you describe the graphic score/notation system that you are using in the work?
MR: To be honest with you, I’m not sure I can really break it down because it’s work that I’m still trying to develop. Things have changed. That has been the interesting thing about it, and what has slowed it down somewhat, too. I thought I would be done with all 12 chapters by 2011. Ha! No.
To start, I had a really deep interest in sacred geometry and symbolism. I was using some Native American and African symbolism. Then, looking at these different locales that I’m dealing with—Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi by way of Africa, Ireland, England, France, Scotland—and looking at how these different places throughout their history have dealt with symbolism, and what symbols have remained. Oftentimes, I would pull symbols from that, that I could draw. I think partly this is also because I wish I could draw. So I would look at a shape or scribble and imagine how I could interpret that in sound: what someone could ask of me in terms of how to interpret that and, most importantly, how I could use it to not really create melody but how it could create texture. So that is the direction that I’ve always taken the graphic scoring. Also, people always accuse me of having a really personal sound, or a really personal approach, which is a nice accusation, but I also wanted to figure out a way that I could create but still have the performers’ own personalities come through. The first chapter of Coin Coin I actually put together partly because I wanted to play music with my friends who couldn’t read music—a lot of Canadian folk that I really loved who are amazing improvisers, but weren’t readers. Then sometimes I would do some of this work with people who were amazing readers, but not good improvisers, and there’s a definite difference in that. So, I just wanted to figure out a way to create the scores where I could find these little textures that I was interested in. Now, even with re-renderings of chapters that have already been recorded or that I’m still performing, there are still new textures that I’m looking for that I haven’t heard yet. So I’m trying to push that into the next segment of scores.

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin

Courtesy Constellation Records

MS: It seems like you would need to be both particular about who you involved in performing the project, and then also decide how much control you wanted to have over the sounds they eventually produce. How have you picked those people, and then how much do you try to control them?
MR: Well, one day I sat down and made a list of all the musicians I knew in New York by instrument—so overwhelming!—and all the musicians that I really like to play with that I just could never pull into my regular quartet or trio. It was a way that I could experiment with the graphic notation that I still needed to formulate and understand, but could do it repeated times with different groups of people. That’s one of the reasons I’ve taken the score to different cities—to play with different musicians in different places. Now there are some core people that I always call on any chance that I get. One of them I would say is the drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who has played on pretty much every incarnation of the project since I started it. But I look for a certain kind of person. Their heart matters to me more than some sort of technical execution. I’ve not always been successful in that—sometimes you just don’t know what you’re about to step into and some musicians are just not comfortable in the directives.
There is an incredible amount of control that goes on though, still, because I do utilize different systems of conduction and conducting improvisers. It’s something that I learned from watching Butch Morris and from the days that I used to be in this band called Burnt Sugar that also uses Butch’s conduction system. Then, going back and hearing old Sun Ra recordings—Sun Ra also used conduction. So even in recorded material that people hear, I’m trying to sculpt the sound within the framework of the score. There is some open improvisation in there, but I never liked open improvisation for the sake of open improvisation. It’s always bothered me. So within the Coin Coin scores, I try to dissect things and put them back together and cut them down and push them back up. Just trying all sorts of things.
MS: I love how the first chapter you recorded, Gens de Couler Libres, is such a completely enveloping piece and I was interested to read how many other commenters felt motivated to point out that your work here was “not alienating.” And yet you’re not afraid to seriously scream in the course of things. In a sense, it feels like you’re both embracing and emotionally punching the listener within the same work. It’s just a pretty aggressive thing. So I’m curious about your decision to do that. Did you hesitate at all? How has this felt to you in performance?
MR: First off, I highly recommend it! It’s incredibly therapeutic, though it’s not something I can really do on the regular and I don’t—that chapter does not get regular performances for that reason. It really wears the body down. When I first started doing that chapter in New York, after it was over, I felt like I needed to be carried off on a stretcher.
My whole thing about dealing with this history and dealing with these ideas and themes is I want some sort of experiential feeling of it. I wanted to know what it felt like to do that. Most of the things that I’m into are things that are experiential in nature. I want to know what pain feels like, I want to know what the depths of misery feel like, and that’s a hard way to live. But within those scream-sings, there’s a lot of joy there, too. There’s a level of life and living and experience. Those screams on that record were incredibly difficult for me because my mother had just passed away maybe ten days before that was recorded, so those screams were therapeutic in a different kind of way. But there’s a welcoming to them, too: We’re here. I’m alive. Let’s celebrate what we do have.
The other thing about the Coin Coin work is there are things that the work has told me I had to do that I did not want to do. That has been the speaking. That has been the singing. That has been the screaming. Those are the things that when I was putting that first chapter together, it was like, “Ahhh, I don’t really want to deal with that! Why do I have to do that? Why can’t I put an ensemble together and make them do that?” But I felt that I needed to have an understanding and experience of those ideas.
MS: Screaming in pieces usually only elicits a kind of nails on chalkboard reaction in me, but I didn’t get that sense from this piece so it intrigued me. There’s an intimacy to it.
MR: There’s an intimacy, but that’s the other thing where gender jumps in. As an African American female performer, there’s a certain sort of fetishization that goes on that has been around since the beginning. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit in ways that have been surprising to me. Sometimes people will still take it to a base level—oh, she’s just trying to get attention by putting that in there. Or they’ll define what that scream is. They’ll listen to the narrative and assume exactly what it is that’s being screamed about. There’s a power to those scream-sings. That’s why I think more people should do it.
MS: Do they mistakenly ascribe it to a certain “character” or something in the narrative?
MR: They ascribe it to a character. They ascribe it to violence. It’s automatically ascribed to a certain kind of violence. And yes, there was a certain amount of violence in slave history, but there’s also so much more than that. Why can’t those screams be screams of joy and perseverance? Why do the screams have to be whittled down? This one person I was dealing with last year was whittling it down to sexual violence. And okay, well sure. But have you been listening? It’s something that I just have to remember that I can’t care about. You do it. You put it out there. Whatever people want to do with it, they do with it. You move on to the next thing that you’re doing.
MS: As a woman journalist who often finds herself interviewing other women in a field that still has serious parity issues, I feel a constant tension as to whether or not to include the subject in interviews. But here it seems particularly relevant, considering the context of Coin Coin and the experience of hearing women’s voices and stories, to make sure that’s fostered and presented.
MR: I used to avoid these questions. There was a time when I used to try to talk about them, and then, maybe about ten years ago, I just stopped because I felt like it was pulling me down instead of pushing me up. As a black musician, I’m already focusing on a certain kind of difference. My parents were black radicals. So, growing up in this environment, it was constantly pounded into you: difference and what you have to do because of this difference. Then having to deal with the gender things was a whole other deal. Now, I feel a bit more open to talking about it because even though I try not to get on the soap box, I think it’s important to just talk about the importance of women’s voices. That’s one of the reasons, when putting that first chapter of Coin Coin together, that speaking was demanded, that singing and that screaming was demanded—it was a certain kind of statement of womanhood, too.
I’m at a point now ten years later or so where I’m a bit troubled by the way in which women musicians and women composers still are not heard of or still not supported. I’m tired of having to deal with “business and industry issues” that are highly male. I’ve loosened up a little bit, but on my website, there are no pictures of myself. That is purposeful, that was a feminist statement to me to say, you know, my body is not for sale. My person is not for sale. The sound is what I deal with. Now, I’m about to change it a little bit because I feel more comfortable in the statement of who I am, and I think it’s obvious. But there was a period there where I just felt like I was really being boxed around by men. I’ve made some changes also in the past couple of years to ground myself a little bit more in the difference that I have and that I represent, but not allowed it to close me off or create new ideas of hatred of men, who I love. I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of really wonderful men.
The question of women in this music has a lot also to do with just the question of women in society and what is expected of us and what is not expected of us. A lot of the male composers and male musicians I know who are working, and working steadily, are oftentimes able to do that because they have a wife or a girlfriend who is a breadwinner. They’re able to have families and to do these things because they have a partner who’s willing to take on those things. Most female musicians and composers that I know don’t have that. It doesn’t really happen in quite the same way, though I’m not convinced that it has to be that way. The issues that exist within this music have a lot to do, as always, with the issues that still exist in our society, which is highly patriarchal no matter how many different ways we want to slice it. I’ve talked to women musicians from other generations, and what has been crazy to me is the repeated stories. We can sit there and just compare stories by theme and just be like, “What? I thought the man of this generation was more enlightened than the man of that generation.” No. It’s just like this commonality, which can kind of bring you down. At the same time, my difference has also helped me, I think, and I feel a lot of gratitude for that—that I stand out in a sea of men. One of the reasons I moved to New York was because there were so many women saxophonists here who were amazing musicians and had very specific goals for themselves. I wanted to be in a city where that was going on. Now I’m not really as attracted to that as I used to be, but that was one of the impetuses for coming here rather than going back to Chicago or going somewhere else.
MS: I was going to say, how do you keep yourself motivated to fight that tide? It sounds like you came to New York for that kind of community, but now?
MR: I feel strong enough because I’ve also realized how multi-rich my own creative path is, and how it’s not just portioned off to music. I’ve been able to bring in all these other things that inspire me. My community is a community of not just musicians, but of artists of all kinds. I also really see my work as a form of community work. There’s a social conscience to the work that I’m trying to do, but in terms of the contribution that I really want to make on a social level, it’s not quite there yet.
MS: In what ways? Can you talk a little more about that?
MR: I just feel this music has allowed me to have a bit of a platform that I can use for positive influence and positive things for other people. If you’re being given a lot—I’m paraphrasing—it means that you need to give even more. Living this life, there have been some real difficulties, but I’ve been fairly lucky. My most satisfying work of service has been working with people for whom the arts can act as a kind of refuge and form of personal expression to deal with pain and societal pressures. Having more of an activism strain moving through my work is what I hope to do. I’m the product of a public school education. All that free arts stuff that I got—if that wasn’t there, there’s no way I’d be sitting here right now. I grew up in neighborhoods where I got to see what happened to people who didn’t have access to those things. So I hope to use the work more as a platform for bringing focus back to some of those ideas. But I still haven’t touched it quite yet.
MS: You were also up in Montreal doing a project with kids.
MR: Yeah. It was with at-risk native Canadian youth. I helped set up a music program at a drop-in center there. I did a few zine workshops with them. I’ve done a lot of community outreach over the years. I am not the type of person that could ever be a traditional educator or someone that people see every day, but I like infusing myself into these environments. I’ve done work at homeless shelters, and it’s the people that are really going through things, those are the people who can really be helped by art, more so than anybody that’s walking into MoMA or the Whitney. It’s those Chicago neighborhoods where there’s not quite that sense of hope, those are the places that really need art. I think about that a lot. But I come from a family of people who did a lot of community service, so I think that’s what that’s about as well. I feel I have to step up and be a part of that. Because what I’m doing being an artist, or being a musician, that is not a high enough vibration for my family line. There’s more I’m supposed to do.
MS: Do you feel like you take that onstage with you, too—that desire for connection and active community support and development?
MR: Yeah, that’s an aspect of my personality that has always kind of disturbed me a little bit. I have this intense desire to connect. Always. And oftentimes, the only way that I know how to do that is to come from a really personal place in terms of how I put the music together. I want my musical output to be an experience for all involved, not just the musicians but for everyone. I want us to be able to create sort of a womb together of possibility, which doesn’t necessarily transfer to always being positive. I don’t mind it if people come and don’t like it; that’s cool, too. It’s just creating kind of this moving organism together. This spontaneous way of connecting to strangers who are not really strangers because we’re really all in this together. That has always been really important to me, and it’s sometimes made me think I’m in the wrong profession. I need to go do something else where that is more immediate. But somehow, so far, I’ve been able to feel that a little bit in performance and the feedback that I get from people. I get really detailed feedback from people, and that used to scare me a little bit, too. [laughs] I’m okay with that now, because that is at the level that I want people to really engage.
MS: That makes me think specifically about some of the reactions to the first chapter of Coin Coin, because for everything that piece covers, it very clearly and very powerfully digs into racial issues and the history of slavery. How has working on and performing the piece impacted your own thinking when it comes to the issues you’re addressing in the work?
MR: It’s jumped through many different forms and there are many different ways in which it’s come back to me. On this last solo tour that I did, at every show I made each crowd sing with me the slave auction from the first chapter, and I forget how intense that is for some people. Mid-verse, I always have to stop and say, “Listen. This is a happy song. And I want you to understand that without the bidding of these people, I wouldn’t be here right now enjoying my life.” So that’s how I like to look at those things. I know from what I’ve experienced so far with the work that for reasons I don’t completely understand—but it makes me incredibly happy—that people are able to go into a deeper part of themselves and connect the story I’m telling to some story of their own. Oftentimes after shows, people will come up and share the most harrowing stories with me to let me know that they were able to connect even though the history is different for them. But I will say, the first time I started doing that sing-along with people, especially because there are rarely people of color in the audience, it took a moment. I’m like, “All right, I just sang a slave auction with a group of white people. I hope they understand.” Am I damning these people? No, I’m not damning anyone. But I want to share this. I think it’s really important to pay attention to history because it is constantly repeating itself. And there are so many beautiful stories within it that can teach us so much, so I will just continue to go in that direction.
MS: Not that we don’t all have our dark histories, but does audience reaction differ between Europe and America?
MR: The European audiences I’d say are a bit more political than the American audiences in some respects. I mean, singing this with a crowd of French, it’s interesting the spirit that comes through. The French were just on fire, because they have a particular understanding of the pain of that history because of the African influence in their own country. Singing this with a crowd of anarchists in Leipzig? Awesome. It’s about a spirit of survival more than it’s about race, class, or gender. Traveling through Germany recently and going through cities that were completely destroyed during the war and talking to people, hearing them recount stories in a way that they could attach to my own. I was in Poland telling some of these ancestral stories and feeling the pain in the room of people who couldn’t go back before 1945 because there was nothing left. There’s no record—there’s no anything!—just these stories. It just brings it full circle for me about the importance of sharing history and, most importantly, sharing the most painful parts, because that’s what people can plug into. Then, it allows you to deal with more avant-garde sounds that they might not be able to plug into otherwise. That’s another reason why there is narrative in the work.
MS: We actually have been very philosophical in our discussion about this piece, but we haven’t gotten into very much detail when it comes to its musical underpinnings. So let’s take a focused look at that.
MR: I’m heavily influenced by a lot of musicians that have come out of Chicago. Not just the avant people, but the more traditional people, too, because there’s a common theme running through that city—I don’t understand why it happened there—where it was always about original sound, and original voice, and original approach. That combined with the certain brand of black radicalism that I grew up in there. It was expected that you understood that you could do anything you wanted to do, and that you should always hold in suspicion anybody that tells you that you can’t. You should always hold in suspicion anyone that claims that your idea is not valid, no matter what color they are or what their gender is. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an important organization in fostering that for a lot of people—myself and for other young musicians. So by the time I got here, I just always felt that my possibilities in terms of dealing with sound were pretty endless. Sometimes that’s actually really overwhelming, but that’s fine.
MS: I’ve heard you equate your composition process with quilting.
MR: When I started saying that, the feminist in me was like, “Why are you talking about quilting?” I don’t quilt, but that’s a tradition that is on my Mississippi side, and my grandmother, her mother, and her father, they used to quilt together. It was like a family thing, and it made me realize that the way that I was putting the scores together, with these segments intertwined with graphic notation, was a form of quilting. I think I actually wanted to create music in a way that my family might understand as well. I grew up around a lot of avant-garde music. My dad was a vinyl collector and into Sun Ra and Art Ensemble and Albert Ayler and all these people, and there’d be music on all the time. I remember having a really hard time trying to understand that music. The only way that I know how to understand these things is by dealing with narrative and story and how I can hoist my imagination onto the sound. So oftentimes I’m looking for sounds that evoke certain kinds of emotion. That’s really kind of the underpinning of a lot of the graphic notation, and this approach to texture.
MS: I think you can hear that as a listener, but it’s a very non-linear experience. More like a fever dream—you’re one place and then something else starts creeping out and all of a sudden you’re turned towards a whole new area.
MR: That’s so wonderful. I like that idea of the fever dream.
MS: What’s your relationship to the saxophone at this point in your career, then, now that you’re doing more composition?
MR: The saxophone is always going to be at the core of everything that I do because the saxophone taught me a lot about feeling and emotion and connection. The saxophone, the alto in particular, connects to people in a way that the other saxophones don’t sometimes. I remember Henry Threadgill talking about how he switched from tenor to alto. He was playing in church revivals and realized that the alto brought the Holy Ghost to people. I need the saxophone as an anchor. When I’ve tried to unanchor it, my life has gone insane. It is my tool to work through things, and when things get too overwhelming, I’m also able to shave down, and go right back to the alto, and it’s like, okay, this is the heart of everything. It’s the heart of everything that I do.
MS: Do you think there’s a point that will come when you’ll say Coin Coin is finished, or is it one of those works that will always be part of your life, that will go on, growing and changing, like a living thing?
MR: You know, originally there was a start, and there was an end. I had it broken down by years, by months. But then I would get through one segment of it and be like, okay, that was interesting, but what is it like if I do it like this? Or I could do it like that. And so now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a living thing. And I will complete the chapters, but the idea—the work as a construct—will continue even beyond that. It feels like legacy work. I had no plans for that when I started, but that’s what it feels like now.


MS: Is there room left in your head for anything else?
MR: It’s difficult, but I refuse to just focus on Coin Coin. The history that I am dealing with is so heavy sometimes that I actually feel drowned by it. It’s important for me to have some other ways of opening. I have a new New York quartet, and my focus with them is to keep all the graphic notation out of that and just to deal with my love of themes and songs. And I still explore solo saxophone work that is just in the tradition of solo saxophone. No extra anything. I have all these things that I want to try creatively, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that there was nothing standing in my way. You can do anything you want to do.

More Media Matters (Part 1)

I had planned to attend the benefit concert for percussionist-composer Warren Smith last Sunday (January 20) but ran into a snag when my car was rear-ended Saturday night while I was on my way to work. Instead of playing a short set at the Yale Club with pianist Dave Lopato, I wound up laying on a gurney at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital all night. After being X-rayed and CAT scanned and poked and wheeled around, they let me go home at 1:00 a.m. with a few prescriptions and directions to stay at home resting for a few days. I tried to ignore the doctors’ advice, but my body persuaded me to sleep through the whole thing.
Smith is a percussionist whose career cuts across stylistic boundaries like a hot knife through soft butter. He is a classically trained percussionist (he earned a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1958) as well as an accomplished jazz player. In 1970, he and drummer Max Roach co-founded the group M’Boom, a percussion ensemble that included Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Ray Mantilla, and Freddie Waits and other guest percussionists. They switched off playing on drum sets, timbales, orchestra bells, steel drums, congas, marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, tympani, and smaller instruments (maracas, claves, whistles, vibraslap, etc.), but Smith was the principle timpanist for the group (the first piece in this clip, which features Smith on timpani, is mislabeled as a Max Roach composition, “Glorious Monster” (really), but is actually “Epistrophy” by Thelonious Monk. Joe Chambers takes the vibraphone solo and Roach is playing drums). Smith kept all of his gear in a room in the basement of the WestBeth government subsidized artist housing, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Needless to say, he lost everything, so I hope that the concert was a success and he’ll be able to replace his instruments.

It probably isn’t news that a lot of people lost a lot during Hurricane Sandy. The boardwalks of the Jersey Shore and Long Island, meccas of teenage social life for generations past, are now a thing of the past…like beard trimmings and soap suds, washed away to sea. Over the years, I spent a lot of time in the basement studios at WestBeth. Guitarist Bruce Arnold and drummer Tony Moreno shared a space they turned into a mixed-use teaching and practice studio with a beautiful grand piano that could also make high-quality non-commercial recordings. Gone. Guitarist Steve Berger ran a well-respected repair shop in WestBeth’s basement. Also gone [1]. Flutist-composer Jamie Baum, saxophonist Chris Hunter, and drummer Nasheet Waits (who shared space with Smith) all had studio spaces there. All gone. There were more studios belonging to people whose names I don’t know; their rooms and, thus, their lives were also devastated by the flooding of lower Manhattan. Elsewhere, musicians who had managed to achieve enough of a modicum of success that they could raise families while pursuing music that satisfied their artistic integrity have been returned to something like “square one.” Drummer Art Lillard, possibly the king of the “two-figure gig” lost not only his car when his house was flooded, but most of the sheet music for his jazz combos as well as for his big band. I know I can’t mention them all and I hope that readers will add the names of musicians they know who are dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. It’s no secret that as the clock’s tick moves us ever farther away from the event (and ever closer to the next one), so also the relief that many are counting on moves farther away from them. Fortunately there are organizations which are helping musicians. The one that I’ve mentioned before is the Jazz Foundation of America. Another is MusiCares. If you want to include others, please feel free to add them in the comments section.

Of course, the GACM (Great American Culture Machine) doesn’t mention these organizations much, or the special plight of musicians. Many good musicians don’t earn incomes that meet the official poverty line, or do so sporadically. Many rely on the incomes and benefits of their spouses or remittances from their families to make ends meet. I recently received an email with the following quote:

Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life—the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment—to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.

The sentiment is attributed to “David Ackert of the Los Angeles Times,” but, as of yet, I haven’t seen the quote in that publication with my own eyes. Still, the issue is important to examine, especially as times of austerity and economic disparity loom in inverse proportion to those of the hurricane relief mentioned previously.

Many are the gifted musical minds that have resigned themselves to the tenet that financial success follows a formula of inverted proportion to artistic integrity. And it would seem that the aesthetic of a successful wedding-band musician is somewhat jaded when compared to that of the avant-garde virtuoso plying his or her trade in a pass-the-hat venue. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been told, “You sounded wonderful!” followed by, “And what do you do for a living?” It happens to this day, despite my wrinkles and grey hair (which I consider signs of success). What isn’t said is that fiscal responsibility swings independently of the artistic vision it’s attached to. There are plenty of brilliant musicians who refuse to change any of their “weird” notes who make plenty of money doing so. Miles Davis is an example. Ornette Coleman another. Joe Lovano and Fred Hersch come to mind. Conversely, there are plenty of lousy musicians who aren’t making a proverbial dime—but I’m not mentioning any names for this category.

In the final analysis, I believe that the guiding factor for these distinctions is the whim of reception. The rule of thumb for many entrepreneurial-minded music moguls is, “You want ’em walkin’ out the door singing the music you just played.” Which can be translated into, “Play something your audience will remember.” Considering the amount of time that one’s “audience” will spend listening to one’s music (not very much), the challenge becomes to present something that is so simple that it can be easily memorized after one or two repetitions, but still so original that it doesn’t invite accusations of plagiarism. Why is this? It’s because so few people spend as much time playing music as they do listening to it (or, for far more people than I like to think about, merely attending a musical event). If a person spends ten hours a day (counting average commute time) at work, eight hours sleeping, and two-and-a-half hours eating, that leaves 41.5 hours per week for doing anything else. Very few people will dedicate the amount of time and attention needed to master an instrument or their voice beyond the easiest of musical challenges. So it’s no wonder that “Karma Chameleon” became a “classic hit” in 1983 while Miles Davis’s Decoy went largely unnoticed. It also becomes clear why the GACM can so easily push music that falls into the category “dreck” to an over-worked and culturally deprived American reception class.

In the New York Times Magazine of January 11, Steve Almond wrote about how a similar situation occurs in literature. His article, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’,” describes how he was inspired to finally see the movie Momento by the papers his creative writing students were handing in that lacked formal and temporal coherency. It turns out that these students were trying to imitate the way that the movie unfolded (the story follows a man with amnesia who uses photographs and tattoos to remind himself of who he is and what he’s done). Almond considers this a trend towards the demise of a narrator in contemporary storytelling that is a result of television replacing a “concerted quest for meaning with a frantic pursuit of wonder.” I think that he could replace the word “wonder” with “intensity” without sacrificing any truth of the matter. The “wonder” of Lady Gaga is actually a reaction to her “intense” visual messaging, much like the case of Boy George twenty years earlier, and the intensity of Beethoven’s four-note adumbration harkens back to Haydn’s symphonic “surprise,” only Beethoven didn’t let them get to sleep first.

There is a chasm between the work-a-day world of the so-called “nine-to-fiver,” with a 41.5 hour-per-week allowance for exploring culture, and the world of the freelance, part-time, and unemployed work forces that have more time to listen to, or play—which translates into more time to learn—music. So, the question asked by the nine-to-fiver—What do you do for a living?—becomes a profound statement about class and status. But music didn’t start out as reliant on class distinction. It was something to be done in order to get results. We sang for rain, for peace, for success in battle, to cure disease. Tradition, rather than demographic analysis, determined what we sang. Jazz started out as a results-oriented music, but inside a caste-stratified society that couldn’t imagine life without servants. Now jazz, a music that the GAMC initially exploited as quaint and a novelty, is considered an essential part of that society’s national identity. And the GAMC is starting to acknowledge that jazz, which requires a high degree of creativity, isn’t as easy to master as the popular music it sells to the musically ignorant.
To be continued…

P.S. I apologize to anyone who might have misunderstood my feeble attempt at being glib last week. I believe that both counterpoint and harmony are pretty much exclusive to Western art music and the various styles that it heavily influences. My statement, “Pushing the practice of harmony—and ‘thus’ counterpoint…” might have appeared as if I was declaring the two as synonymous practices. My intent was to underscore how the article I was referring to had tacitly suggested that the development of harmony led to the development of counterpoint when, in fact, the situation is quite the opposite.

***


1. A post in his website titled “A message from John,” guitar virtuoso John Scofield says of Berger: “Guitar Heads…I’d like to alert you to the formidable talents of guitar repair/mod man Steve Berger. I’ve been looking for a 50’s Gibson 175, like Jim Hall used to play, to use with acoustic bands/solo etc. Steve showed me his modified Howard Roberts model and in short, I had to have it. Only a few times have I fallen for an instrument so completely (but this love for the new guitar does not in any way diminish my commitment to my steady companion Ibanez AS200). You may know that 70’s Gibsons are not thought highly of but Steve works magic on guitars! He’s in NYC. His phone is 646.529.1128, email: steveberger @ nyc.rr.com. And he can really play too!” — JS

Open Minds Take on the Closed Door

It was as a devoted (if occasionally disillusioned) member of the blogosphere that I first took note of a new program called the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute (JCOI), whose first “Phase II” orchestral readings were recapped for NPR’s A Blog Supreme by Lara Pellegrinelli last summer. The idea of granting jazz composers greater access to the orchestra stuck me as a potentially fruitful one, and the audio clips seemed to back up that assessment. By sheer luck, my impending relocation from Minneapolis to Southern California was to put me within a short commute of this year’s JCOI Phase I, a week-long, nuts-and-bolts workshop through which selected composers become eligible to apply for next year’s Phase II readings with orchestras across the country. After being selected for Phase I, I was asked and agreed to share some thoughts on the overall experience. (Detailed, day-by-day accounts of the week’s events were also written by composer-participants Samantha Boshnack and Michael Dessen and can be found on the American Composers Orchestra’s Sound Advice blog.)

A joint venture of the American Composers Orchestra and the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, the current JCOI cycle marks the second iteration of the program. Phase I took place August 7-11, 2012, hosted for the first time by the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. Applicants submitted one score, an audio recording, a resume, a letter of recommendation, and a personal statement speaking to their interest, accomplishment, and potential as jazz and orchestral composers. From the pool of applicants, a panel of JCOI faculty selected 37 composers with a wide variety of aesthetic orientations and backgrounds. Composers who attend a Phase I intensive remain eligible to apply for future Phase II readings if they have not previously been selected.

Brian Walsh of wild Up

Bass clarinet performance resource session with wild Up member Brian Walsh. Photo courtesy of ACO.

Phase I is labeled “intensive” for a reason: most days featured close to 12 hours of tightly packed presentations of faculty and participant work, instrumental lecture-demos by members of resident ensemble wild Up, and lectures on a variety of both artistic and pragmatic topics. Animated discussions often extended well into scheduled breaks and continued throughout their truncated durations, with many faculty members becoming eager students as well. Sleep was at a premium, and much sugar and caffeine was consumed during the breaks despite the ever-shrinking timeframe in which to do so. As both a commuter and a brass player, I felt the sleep crunch particularly acutely, waking around dawn most days to beat the worst of the LA traffic and arrive at UCLA in time for at least a cursory maintenance session. (It could have been worse: participant Randall Reyman was preparing to play first trumpet on Mahler’s Sixth!)

To be blunt, the proximity of the event, the line on my resume, the potential networking opportunities, a sense that my work was particularly well-suited to the application criteria, and—most of all—a desire to become eligible for Phase II readings going forward, all played greater roles in my initial decision to apply than did any particular Phase I offering. I was an orchestral composer before I was a jazz composer, and while that is certainly not to say that I’ve had an ideal or even adequate amount of experience writing for and working with orchestras, I did have a certain amount of trepidation about fighting for a spot in a competitively selected pool under those circumstances. Would it be worth my time and money? Would I be taking a spot away from a composer who might benefit more from the experience? And did I really want to have to practice at 8:00 a.m. all week just to stay in shape?

Those fears were quickly allayed, though not in any of the ways I had anticipated they might be. For one thing, the contact list we received shortly beforehand was chock full of recognizable names and far-flung addresses, indicating to me that there were highly accomplished musicians willing to travel great distances in order to attend; and for another, the “UnCutting” sessions, where participants presented short bits of their own music, revealed a staggeringly high degree of accomplishment and sophistication in big band, concert band, and orchestral writing. Clearly, the bulk of these musicians would be refining substantial existing skills more so than developing new ones from scratch, and while much useful information on instrumental capabilities, notation, and engraving was indeed shared, this was clearly to be first and foremost a week of moral uplift, finding common cause, and yes, good old networking. (Funny, I think, how many business cards were exchanged despite the prior distribution of the aforementioned contact list!) Suddenly, just being there was not merely inspiring but also truly an honor.

Percussion Performance Resource

Percussion performance resource session. Photo courtesy of ACO.

The JCOI Phase I application guidelines state that “any instrumentation, aesthetic, or style” is acceptable for submitted scores—in my experience a rather unusual tack for such an event, not to mention one with the j-word as part of its name. When asked by a participant what it was that set the selected composers apart, George Lewis offered simply that we were all “open-minded” and left it at that. If one might legitimately assume there to be slightly more to it than that, there’s certainly no question that the panel achieved this objective nonetheless. And as for the faculty themselves, from James Newton’s atonal piano music to Paul Chihara’s Ellington transcriptions to Derek Bermel’s odd-meter rapping, there certainly was no shortage of eclecticism on display in the composition seminars either, and more importantly, never any question that these musicians “own” these styles rather than merely dabbling in them, a lesson of paramount importance for any budding eclecticist.

Paul Chihara and James Newton

Composition seminar with Paul Chihara and James Newton. Photo courtesy of ACO.

In my eyes, the most remarkable and fruitful consequence of this unusually pluralistic orientation was the time and care devoted to teasing out streams of influence between jazz and classical music, two musical cultures whose staunchest traditionalists remain more eager to take credit for each other’s contributions than to acknowledge their shared history. As the week progressed, it became clear that JCOI is not merely about “jazz composers tak[ing] on the classical orchestra,” as has become the program’s slogan, but in fact about finding justification, perhaps even necessity, for this task in the two musics’ inextricable bonds with each other. Even as a firm devotee of this aesthetic from long before I understood the depth of its implications, I would never hope to live in a world where such eclecticism itself is enforced as dogma in the manner of dodecaphonic or post-bop orthodoxies of the recent past; and yet it is hard to understate how refreshing it was for someone with my background and predilections to experience a conscientious exploration of the subject that never once threatened to descend into cultural land-prospecting or style wars.

In closing, therefore, and perhaps at the risk of belaboring the point, I want to momentarily take this particular issue as a microcosm of larger questions about musico-stylistic and musico-cultural change, and propose two divergent but not necessarily contradictory conclusions one might draw from events like JCOI. On one hand, it was hard to experience the week without developing a newfound sense of optimism regarding the resolution of many frustrations that new musicians from minimalists to microtonalists to metalheads have dealt with vis-à-vis the institution that is the orchestra, not for years, but for decades. Being utterly surrounded for five days not only by like-minded composers but also performers, conductors, and even…administrators (!) is enough to give one new hope. On the other hand, when a good many of these people are your parents’ age and older, this optimism becomes harder to maintain, for if the efforts of such an esteemed group over that period of time have not yet succeeded in prying open more than a few orchestral minds, one must wonder if more powerful forces are not at work.

For me, it was Stephen Biagini, a music librarian for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who (inadvertently, I suspect) crystallized this point in his talk when he pointed out that orchestral musicians become so notoriously picky about style, notation, and engraving because they see so much of the same music on their stands for so long, and that when it costs upwards of $300 a minute to rehearse an ensemble, efficiency rather predictably comes to trump process. The consequences of such an unfortunate condition remain much clearer than the solutions. There is a well-documented void in our musical infrastructure which JCOI now ably fills a very tiny part of, and for that we can all be thankful. From where I sit, however, in spite of the overwhelmingly positive and uplifting experience I’ve just emerged from, it would be disingenuous for me as someone who holds a de facto orchestral performance degree myself and has spent years working with orchestral and orchestrally minded musicians (and even taken a few auditions) to proclaim the existence of a bold new world based on five days of meticulously planned activities with a cherry-picked cast of fantastic like-minded musicians.

So, at the risk of ending an amazing week on a downer, I’ll just say that an exceedingly tempered optimism is the most my experiences will allow me to muster for the moment, which is less than might be hoped for but more than I entered the week with. At the very least, I can say as a veteran of a few too many -JFs and -TECs (if you don’t recognize the acronyms, thank your lucky stars*) that an explosion of -COIs would in fact be a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t necessarily count on a concurrent explosion of open-mindedness, though it would certainly be nice if it happened.

* But if you have to know, the acronyms stand for “jazz festival” and “tuba-euphonium conference.” Some jazz festivals are actually really cool. Tuba-euphonium conferences are never cool.

***
Kac

Stefan Kac is a tuba player and composer of jazz, classical, and improvised music. Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, he recently relocated to the greater Los Angeles area to pursue a
performer-xomposer M.F.A. at the California Institute of the Arts. He
blogs irregularly, though often at great length, at here.

Listen!

First off, my apologies for the title of this week’s post are offered in all due respect to the great saxophonist-educator-composer Mel Martin, who led a band of that name in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

Last week, I attempted to open a line of discussion about how we filter what we hear according to the music we create (I’m assuming, correctly or not, that everyone reading this creates, or has created, music as a part of their daily activities). The question was inspired by a rather lengthy argument I was having with one of my Facebook “friends” (and I hope we still are) about the socio-political messaging of rap music. After more than thirty years, the music still finds detractors who look at it as devoid of significance and/or, believe it or not, social commentary. The post received no comments, but I did get a lot of emails sent to me privately. The most scathing of them stated that “hip hop fits into American music roughly where MacDonald’s fits into American cuisine,” comparing it favorably to “only elevator music and Muzak Xmas carols.” While I think that elevator music (at least the stuff that’s piped into elevators, not the actual sounds that elevators themselves make) is Muzak, I was heartened to read that the person found General George Owen Squire’s invention less palatable than the street beat from the Bronx (actually the most scathing emailer called me all sorts of things, but I’m not goin’ there!).

The only comment (again, privately transmitted) that addressed the “listening with a personal filter” issue was from a singer who mentioned that the way she listened to music changed after she decided to make a go of singing in public. She found that her experience performing to an audience made her start to listen to individual instruments and their synergistic relationships to each other. This is probably the same for all of us who read NewMusicBox.org; I know it was for me when I began working on performing seriously. But two articles from this week investigated aspects of the subject. While I’m not sure if I agree that an ability to reproduce what someone else plays directly relates to how one filters what is heard (though I do agree wholeheartedly that originality stems from an inability to be satisfied with recreating what others have already done), the concept of aesthetic neutrality alerted me to an important facet of my listening that bears directly on rap music.

I have yet to master listening through an aesthetically neutral filter. I still get pretty bored when listening to certain artists (mostly pop artists from the past, such as Paul Whiteman, Annunzio Mantovani, and Lawrence Welk) and Muzak rarely interests me, although I do listen to it when confronted with it. I can remember walking home from work with my bass in one arm and amplifier in the other, hurrying because I had a melodic fragment in my head that I wanted to write down as soon as I got into my apartment on the 14th floor. When I got into the building’s Muzak-equipped elevator, there was a lush string arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” being piped in that, by the time I reached the 14th floor, had wiped the melody I was hoping to compose right out of the picture! (I pieced it back together a few years later and had the honor of recording it when I was on tour in Italy in 2004.) But I find that, for the most part, there is not much music I “don’t like.” There might be some (actually, a lot, and mostly my own) that doesn’t make me want to listen to it again and again, but very little that I reject aesthetically.

What I do find, though, is that there is quite a bit of ideological filtering that goes on in my listening now. When I realized that Glenn Miller had little interest in music as an expressive act, I lost my interest. To be sure, I find his music fairly boring anyway, but the socio-political apathy I understood to be part of his message really turned me off for good. So, when I hear jazz, I hear a music that’s about socio-political issues; e.g. Billie Holiday singing about lynched bodies in “Strange Fruit” or about drug addiction in “Goodmorning Heartache.”
I also admire the messaging of Sly Stone’s “Running Away” or “Family Affair,” although they’re not strictly jazz. These songs discuss aspects of our culture that the American Culture Machine would rather we not pay too much attention to, much like they’d rather we don’t understand just who Machiavelli was writing about in The Prince.

While I was reading through the articles from last week, I stumbled upon a link in the “You might also enjoy…” portion of one of them that took me to an article I resonate with on two specific levels. One is ideological—that is, it discussed the kind of political messaging in music performance/composition that informs my aesthetic filtering. The author, Laura Kaminsky, wrote about performing the first live music concert in Croatia after the cessation of hostilities in 1997 as “an offering of hope.” She invoked the names of Olivier Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time), Luciano Berio (O King), Igor Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK), George Crumb (Black Angels), and John Corigliano (Symphony No. 1), as well as many others, as examples of composers who include socio-political messaging in their music. The other level of resonance is personal—in 1998, I had the experience of being in what might have been the first jazz group to tour in Bosnia and Croatia after the fighting had stopped. We drove through towns that included the same sights described by Kaminsky. I can still see “the worn faces of the people … the huge craters and pockmarks from bombs and bullets scarring the walls … the homes without rooftops” as if it were yesterday. I also remember the bombed-out bridge that forced us to take a wooden raft as a ferry across a river, and then having to purchase “travel insurance” from a man with a machine gun at the largest open-air black market I’ll probably ever see in my life.

When I read that Kaminsky had dedicated the score of her piano trio “to the victims of ethnic cleansing,” I began to see, in my mind’s eyes, the bodies of African Americans from “Strange Fruit,” hanging from trees by their necks while large groups of white Southerners posed for photographers who would produce postcards of the carnage’s aftermath. I also saw Asian Americans being interred in concentration camps in the Western states. I imagined the Trail of Tears. And then I heard “When Thugs Cry,” by Tupac Shakur, and “[email protected] Da Police,” by N.W.A, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Also “Fables of Faubus” (Charles Mingus), “Song for Che” (Charlie Haden), “Free New Afrika! Boogaloo” (Fred Ho), and even “Witchi Tai To” (Jim Pepper).* These are all examples of American music that address the theme of Kaminsky’s dedication. The musical elements of these examples have a drive and intensity that I find lacking in Miller, Mantovani, Whiteman, and Welk. It’s music that is meant to open one’s eyes to what is going on every day in America, not to lull one to sleep!

I’ve said before that jazz is America’s music. It’s the case whether anyone likes it or not because in 1998 it was legislated by an act of Congress! I’ve also said that in a little less than five years jazz will be officially a century old. What jazz—musicologically, sociologically, aesthetically, or commercially—is, and always has been, up for grabs. Certainly there is a core music that is “undeniably jazz,” like most of the works of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or John Coltrane (all of whom recorded politically themed music), but quite a bit of the music that modern jazz players consider essential to learning the music is ignored in the “real world.” Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Lennie Tristano, and Bob Brookmeyer are all important to this music and all had distinct socio-political messaging attached to what they played (or play, in the case of Coleman). There are established artists who are successful, but relatively unknown: Joanne Brackeen, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Werner, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman, Carla Bley, Arturo O’Farrill, Roseanna Vitro, and so many more. They point to directions in their music that aren’t well understood or explored, but are “undeniable” and include philosophical and socio-political messaging that is subtle, but clear. The new breed(s) include many artists who have been working at their craft for years but are still just getting off the ground. Fay Victor, Judy Silvano, Bruce Arnold, Melissa Hamilton, Hilly Greene, Andrea Wolper, Jamie Affoumado, Eric Lewis, Tom Rainey, and Victor Jones, as well as real new faces like Stacy Dillard, Spencer Murphy, Carlos Abadie, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, and Josh Evans (again, that’s just a very, very few).

Some of these artists may not even be considered jazz musicians, now or in the future, by the American Culture Machine—but that’s what they’re playing. The controversy seems to center around how much their music is diluted by non-jazz influences, such as classical (Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser), non-European (Iyer, Hafez Modirzadeh, Toshiko Akiyoshi), Latin American (Jay Rodriguez, Chucho Valdez, Claudio Roditi), or even country music (Mark Feldman, Charlie Haden, Les Paul).** But the non-jazz influence is just that, an influence, not a separate style. Many new and established jazz performers, especially African American performers, have grown up with hip hop and rap, an influence that informs their music making. It also informs musicians who work and listen to them as well as audiences who attend their performances, but who were not raised listening to hip hop or rap. The messaging of rap is not lost on any of them and, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be listened to by all of us—closely and thoughtfully.

—————–

* All of these titles can be heard on YouTube.

** I know some of these names belong to very established musicians and at least one non-living one (Les Paul at the time of this writing), but all of them have been labeled as both authentic and not authentic jazz musicians at some point in their careers, even though they consider themselves to be jazz players.

What the Herd Heard

I was recently engaged in a discussion on a popular social networking message board that focused on whether or not rap music is primarily inclusive of messages of socio-political dissent. For obvious reasons, I won’t link to the board or reveal the identities of those who I debated, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it was I who argued that the socio-political messaging is there. I even went as far as to suggest that this messaging is similar to that found in the music of Woody Guthrie. I tried to invoke the research of Michael Eric Dyson on the subject, but he was pooh-poohed as “a member of a ‘non-underclass culture’” (a term I introduced earlier in the debate) who “may not be the best authority” on the subject. The debate, which is several days old now, has slowed considerably; not the least of the reasons being that I’m currently involved in the commendable (so I’m told) process of jury duty. One of the things that the debate confirmed for me, though, is that there exists a group of very creative musicians who believe that rap music is devoid not only of melody and chord changes, but of socio-political messaging as well.

I don’t think I can agree less with either thesis. Rap music and most hip-hop-based music uses bass lines, background riffs (often sampled from old jazz recordings), and melodic “hooks” that are inclusive of chord progressions as well as melodies. While I’m not very experienced in hip-hop culture, I’ve noticed that the bulk of the music is poetry backed by drum beats (often vocalized) and non-pitch specific “scratching” on vinyl LPs, and I keep hearing overarching tonal movement and structure that gives each song a subtly unique sonic identity. There are introductions that set up pitch centers (that might include microtonal relationships between sampled materials) and present non-textually inclusive melodic themes that recur, like Baroque ritornelli throughout a single work. The music is also loaded with culturally-specific coded messaging of socio-political dissent that incorporates anti-social themes, such as: gun-related violence, misogyny, irresponsible and perverse sexual behavior, and the overly conspicuous display of material goods or “bling.” Make no mistake, I do not condone the use of guns, murder, beating and/or humiliating woman, child pornography, or making the display of expensive items more important than feeding the hungry. But these themes are not specific to rap music. They are, however, traditionally part of the American Culture Machine’s output in movies, books, and television that has been shaping the minds and mores of generations.

Be that as it may, I have come to the conclusion that the difference in opinion between myself and “them” is that I listen to rap music differently than they do. Maybe it’s because, as a bass player—and, since the bass, along with drums, is the instrument primarily used to carry the identity of genre and subgenre in American music—I’m constantly analyzing the structure of music from cultures other than the one I grew up in (mostly classical, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz). So I find myself paying attention to bass parts, and how they interact within a “rhythm section,” with an analytical ear long before I pay attention to textual messaging. This indicates to me that act of listening is related much more to one’s personal agenda than I had heretofore believed. The point was underlined for me by another essay that appeared earlier this week on NewMusicBox. While the essay’s author focused on the problem of music that is inappropriately (or even dangerously) loud, I was struck by his concept of “listening as an act of [non-selfless] submission,” by intentionally suspending the personal critiquing of what is heard. This is what improvising musicians strive to do when they interact in their performances; with as little critical listening done as possible, instead trusting in their ability to play what must be played. One of my debaters is a saxophonist, an instrument that is traditionally used to play melodies and melodic improvisation. Not many saxophonists are involved in “the groove” (although notable exceptions are found, principally in baritone and bass saxophone playing), and find themselves misidentified as the identity of the music being played. (Even though the sound of swing is absolutely reliant on what the bass and drums play for its identity, the name Lester Young is more known than Walter Page—and the word “bebop” usually conjures the name of Charlie Parker, but if Bird were playing with Bootsy Collins, the music would no longer bebop, no matter what Parker played.) Maybe that’s why I’ve found many saxophonists to be critical, or even hypercritical, of what is played by “their” rhythm sections; their musical voices are actually defined by their accompaniment.

So, this has me wondering to what degree music listening is “agenda-ized” by the players of different instruments. I know that when I go out to hear music with other bass players, we tend to react to the same things. It’s not that we only listen to the bass—we don’t, but I think we might hear what the other instruments are playing with a different “filter” than what might be employed by different instrumentalists, vocalists, and/or composers. I’d be curious to know what you think of that. I’d also be curious to know how rap music fits into your understanding of American music.

Out In the Woods

Summer camp is a great way to get the kids out of the house so that mom and dad can have a little quality time together. It’s also a great way for the little ones to see the world from a different perspective than the one they’d get if they went camping with mom and dad, something that could prove helpful in future forays in the “real” world.

My own experience with summer camp took two forms: (1) a one-week excursion as a boy scout at Camp Royeneh (pronounced “roy-en-ay”) and (2) five one-month long stays at the University of the Pacific’s music camp held on their Stockton, California, campus. While the music camp, with its orchestra, concert band, choir, jazz band, and composition classes, stimulated my interest in what I knew was going to be my life-long passion and career, its institutional setting in the auditoriums, class rooms, and dormitories of the university was slightly at odds with the idea of “camp.” I found myself wondering why something like UOP’s music camp couldn’t occur in the great outdoors. Of course, there were examples of music camps taking place in bucolic settings (Tanglewood, Lexington School of Jazz in the Berkshires), but I wasn’t yet aware of them.

I first heard about the Cazadero Music Camp in 1969 through a high school friend, bassist and composer Joey Holiday, but was never able to attend any of its sessions. The camp, a part of the Cazadero Family Camp network, is held in the redwoods in Northern California, not far from Camp Royeneh. The camp offers instruction in orchestral, concert band, and jazz band performance, conducting, composition, and theory training, as well as piano and guitar instruction. At one time adult and children divisions were available during the last week of its month-long session, but these fell by the wayside due to attrition (although the children’s program has been reinstated as part of a public school outreach effort). Holiday was exuberant in his description of the camp and how it had a jazz, as well as a traditional classical, component—like UOP, only out in the woods. I spent the rest of my time in high-school wondering about whether I should try to switch my music camp affiliation to Cazadero or continue with UOP, which offered me work scholarships every year. But I never did the switch, so, when I was asked to teach at the 29th session of Jazz Camp West, I jumped at the prospect. Imagine my surprise when I found out that JCW rose from the embers of the defunct Cazadero adult/children’s camp!

Dancer, visual artist, psychologist, and arts organizer Stacy Hoffman was an adult Cazadero camper who went there for jazz dance classes and, after hearing the music, became a jazz aficionado. When the adult program at Cazadero bellied up, she took action and, together with pianist/composer/educator Ellen Hoffman (no relation) and drummer Eddie Marshall and his wife, Sue Trupin, founded JCW near Santa Cruz, California. Marshall (who passed away last year) was well respected in the jazz community and was able to enlist stellar jazz artists and educators to join JCW’s rotating faculty. This year the roster has 50 instructors, which includes Stacy Hoffman, who teaches a class on performance anxiety, and JCW’s co-director, vocalist Madeline Eastman. Hoffman and Eastman have been working together on the current version of JCW for at least 18 years and have put together a fine curriculum to serve their campers. Each instructor is autonomous but well monitored by the camp’s directorship and its artist-in-residence. (This year’s is guitarist Bruce Forman.) The campers also assess their experience with instructors in end-of-camp evaluation forms. Beyond that, it’s up to the instructor to bring in something to show the campers, many of whom have been attending the camp for several years.

Because all of the camp instructors are also performers, or have performing experience, there are nightly concerts for the first four nights and student presentations for the last two. On the day between the last faculty concert and the first student presentation, there is an all-camp outing to a natural amphitheater called “Indian Bowl.” A special event is held there that includes a consecration of the site (this year by a representative of the Blackfoot nation), followed by music, theatrical presentations, and dancing. The emcee for the event, Brazilian-born pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto, has been teaching at JCW for well over a decade. All of the music he introduced and performed at this event was programmatically, but sincerely, dedicated to the connection of humanity with the Earth. Even the comical “Trombonia,” a theatrical piece that has been evolving over the life of the camp, was based on the idea. I had requested a shot at presenting a bass trio comprised of myself and the other two bass instructors, Todd Sickafoos and Saúl Sierra, at one of the faculty concerts. I was told that all of the slots were filled, but that a bass trio performed at the Indian Bowl at JCW-28 and many of the campers and staff hoped it would become a tradition, so we performed “Witchi Tai To” by the Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper. It turned out that most of the people there knew the piece and we had a rather nice sing-along. At first I thought it was a little hokey, but something clicked the next day when one of the camp staging crew, who are also musicians and perform regularly at camp events, began to tell me about some of the history of the camp from a “hippie-dippy” humanist perspective. The gentleman is an excellent electric guitarist, playing mostly in the rock-n-roll idiom, but has been coming to JCW for the last ten years. He is currently earning his Ph.D. in physics, but intends to keep playing music as an integral part of his life after he receives the degree. He pointed out what has been staring me in the face since I arrived here; that this particular camp has a core group of campers that look at jazz, mambo, samba, funk, and spoken word music to be synonymous with living. Some of the campers I’ve spoken with are first-timers who want to learn how to perform better by taking classes with the skilled faculty. Some of them return to continue their studies, but some—the core groups—include this week as part of their reason to live. There are a few baby carriages going from class-to-class on the camp trails and at least one family has children who have spent 1/52nd of their lives at JCW. (And they play really good!)

Certainly, not all of the campers are proficient improvisers and performers. Some really need to take the classes offered, but some are very good performers who are here to gain a deeper understanding of what music, especially jazz, means to our species and how to best go about keeping the meaning of music in line with a good life. This part of JCW seems to be infectious and keeps the faculty coming back. Last year’s artist-in-residence, Allison Miller, has returned as a regular faculty member. Like Miller, many of the faculty and crew are from the East Coast and, for them, the air fare eats up far more than half of their stipend. Some of the faculty based on the West Coast, such as pianist Art Lande, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and percussionist John Santos, have been here since the camp’s inception. Others have taught at JCW a few times before, while others, like pianist Peggy Stern, guitarist Bruce Forman, bassist Todd Sickafoos, and myself, are here for the first time and hope to return as part of the camp’s rotating core faculty.

The guitarist from the crew I spoke with explained that the camp’s non-institutional environment and the lack of age limitations are what make the camp unique in this way. I would add that the lack of emphasis on jazz vs. funk vs. mambo vs. samba vs. hip-hop is a contributing factor. But probably the single most important factor in fostering this sense of community among the campers and faculty is the lack of cell phone service and difficulty in accessing the internet. We’re living in a world that, technologically speaking, lacks the most ubiquitous advances in communications in the last 25 years. If one wants to make a phone call, there are two pay phones one can walk to. I can’t even say what the stroke of luck is that allowed me an opportunity to send this entry, but I can’t send any photos or clips until I get back to “civilization,” which I enquote not to express myself as a Luddite, but to admit that I’ve found that talking to someone without having a cell phone to respond to is a bit more civil than the constant checking for messages and emails that typifies my social interactions at home.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been teaching three courses and they’re going swimmingly well, although I was a little surprised to find myself with 10 students ranging in ages from 17 to 68! I was also surprised to see these students disappear from the class after a day or two and be replaced by new students. At first I was a little concerned, but have found out that this is the norm here. Students find what resonates with their interests and adjust their schedules accordingly. It is worth noting that the administrative staff takes special care to make sure that the course offerings are scheduled to optimize the campers’ chances.

I’m not trying to lessen the experience of summer camps like UOP or Cazadero. Their 28-day goal-oriented immersion programs centered around a schedule of rehearsal, practice, and study that could take up ten or more hours of the camper’s day (except on Sundays, when concerts took place). I wouldn’t trade a single day of my UOP experience and recommend the camp highly to anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 who has an aptitude for and an interest in pursuing the discipline of music. But Jazz Camp West has come upon a way of running a music camp that caters to learning jazz by listening to and playing jazz rather than taking classes. Jam sessions are held in two official camp locations every night and there are several “private” sessions held by campers around the site. I can’t go into too much detail about these sessions, except to say that music is made until well into the wee hours of the morning, which is what time it is now. My slot for sending this off is going to close soon, so until next week…

United We Fly!

As I sat, a captive of (for some reason) the highly prized window seat on a flight to San Francisco that had been delayed by two-and-a-half hours, I decided to read some of the seemingly random PDFs I’ve downloaded from various online journals in the hopes that they’ll help me kick my increasingly troublesome internet scrabble and backgammon habits. (While I’m not too proud to admit that I’m good at neither, I fervently deny this fact while I’m playing.) What I choose to read was a PDF of Scottish Church Music: Its Composers and Sources by James Love, originally published by William Blackburn and Sons of Edinburgh in 1891. It’s Love’s noble attempt to catalogue through indexes the “source and history” of over 1,300 psalm and hymn tunes, chants, doxologies, and anthems “published by the authority of the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church…the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland…[and] the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland” for “all who are interested in Church music.”

To be sure, I didn’t get far in reading the book as the drama of the delayed plane was not to be outdone by any attempt on my part to read or sleep. The part where it was revealed to the passengers that American Airlines never stocks enough food to feed everyone who buys a seat on their planes was particularly absorbing. The service staff unabashedly informed me that for our flight, which was known to be over booked at least three days before its departure, they only had twelve meals for sale. It made me think about how there was a time, and not that long ago, that airline passengers were given a free meal with their flight, served with real silverware, that had an appetizer, salad, main course (meat and side dish), desert, and coffee. Today, you’re lucky if you get peanuts with your free soda or coffee. I imagined a time when the soda and coffee would cost extra, payable by credit card only, and my lack of pride in my gaming abilities was overshadowed by what I saw as a lack of pride in customer satisfaction from the travel industry that is a hallmark of our national identity. I make this point because at the same time that this was happening, American Airlines was celebrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Pride with a concert at JFK airport by “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” (I’m not proud to say that I had to research the name to find out that Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a Broadway show and not a person or band.) I do, however, take pride in the cultural diversity that is the basis of American music, even when that diversity is given short shrift. In Love’s book, the first name in the index of “Biographical Sketches” is A. T. A., a “student who attended Dr. [George F.] Root’s Normal Musical Institute, at New York, in 1855, and who composed ‘Kedron, No. 86 S.P. [Scottish Psalter]. It was published the following year in Dr. Root’s ‘Sabbath Bell’ under the name of “Carolina.” It is wrongly assigned to Dr. Root in the S.P. As the great fire at Chicago in 1871 destroyed the Doctor’s record-book of dates and memoranda, the full name of this composer cannot now be ascertained. From the name he gave to his tune Dr. Root thinks he was probably a Southerner’” (p. 57). While I couldn’t ascertain who Love was citing in this sketch, I have a feeling that Root used the term as a euphemism for “negro”—long before Dvořák came to New York, George Root moved his school to North Reading, Massachusetts, a town close to Boston.

I had to stop reading Scottish Church Music after a while. Not because of its content, which I find fascinating, but because the service staff and the fellow sitting next to me were making remarks about my reading something that included musical notation. So I switched to American Airlines’ in-flight publication, American Way, which included an article about the music scene in Nashville, Tennessee. Although I was born in the Midwest, I never have been to Nashville. My knowledge of the city, which is a strong candidate for being the true heartbeat of American music, is, at best, second-hand and largely romanticized. But, while I might have been jumping to an unwarranted conclusion in my assessment of Love’s work, the article’s description of how “long before the…Victrola…the city…and the sound of music were inextricably linked.” Never mind that the Sound of Music is actually linked to the city of Aigen, it is the next sentence that struck me: “Arriving in the late 1700s along the Cumberland River, the city’s first permanent settlers—two groups of European descent—celebrated their landing by buck dancing to fiddle reels.” I’m guessing that the stomp dances of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, and Cherokee Indians are disincluded because of a quasi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle, while the very settling Mississippian Indians are because they didn’t have a record industry—maybe. Not that I have anything against modern Nashville music, I just wish that American reportage on the subject could attend a little more to this aspect of its historical component.

But I’m probably going to be as guilty of the same charges when I start teaching at Jazz Camp West tomorrow (Saturday, June 23). My three courses cover the fundamental concepts of improvisational bass playing, effective soloing, and extended techniques in mainstream jazz. I’m sure that I’m going to miss a lot of detail regarding these subjects. I’m hoping that I’ll be forgiven for leaving out so much of the European influence on jazz double-bass performance, but I might include a brief look at hymnal bass lines. Maybe a swinging version of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Sounds Heard: Mary Halvorson Quintet—Bending Bridges

One of the most excellent things about the music of guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson is that every composition percolates with a charming sense of unpredictability. Bending Bridges is the second release from Halvorson’s quintet, which features members of her original trio—John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums (plus, of course, Halvorson on guitar)—and adds to the ensemble Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone. Although there are plenty of groups comprised of this instrumentation, Halvorson’s preference for a very dry, close recording style lends a hand in giving this album a unusual sound, and in bringing to light instrument balances that serve to highlight her quirky (in a good way) melodic and harmonic sense.

Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22) begins as a relaxed, even lounge-worthy chorale scored for the whole quintet, giving way to solos for guitar and bass. Before you know it, Halvorson has quietly flipped the distortion switch on her guitar, and busts out a series of fat, grunge-laden power chords propelling trumpet and saxophone through an altered version of that initial chorale, which transforms before our ears into full-tilt improvised chaos.

Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25) has a catchy opening groove, with rhythmic guitar and a repeating melodic series for sax and trumpet. The energy continues with a sax solo, and then another for trumpet, placed in front of tinkling guitar and percussion textures. The improvisation sections are contrasted with the initial musical material in a verse/chorus format. Ches Smith contributes interesting and tasteful drum set performances throughout the disc.

Four of the nine tracks on Bending Bridges set aside the brass instruments and feature the original trio of Halvorson, Smith, and Hébert. Stepping-stone style bass and drums in Forgotten Men In Silver (No. 24) follow an impressionistic opening guitar solo, and later a background wash of guitar serves as a blanket for an energetic bass and drum improvisation, rife with extended techniques on both instruments. The next trio work, The Periphery of Scandal (No. 23) features a wacky guitar melody that becomes increasingly intense and distorted throughout the course of the track. The aptly titled That Old Sound (No. 27) does indeed open with an ever so slight Western twang—I kept visualizing a dusty corral and cacti during this mellow track, which sports an elastic sensibility, with instrumental lines expanding and contracting in turn. Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28) is an energetic back and forth between a spunky guitar and drum figure, and noisy, frenzied improvisation.

Returning to the quintet format, Love In Eight Colors (No. 21) is one of the more traditionally “jazz” sounding composition on the disc, and there might even be some quotes lifted from other tracks to discover in this one (I will leave that part to you!). All The Clocks (No. 29) also seems to fit well within the realm of guitar-based jazz, featuring lead guitar with spinning melodic material that is complemented by the ensemble performing driving, rhythmic music.

Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26) strikes my ear as especially thoughtfully composed, and showcases the most successful brass writing of the entire disc. A winding guitar line is offset by shifting repeated-note riffs in the brass that develop gradually and are later joined by a funky, almost Latin beat. The established groove is then again transformed into a rollickingly fast drum and sax duet, and winds up in a bending, spindly solo guitar line.

Halvorson has cited in interviews how large a role the simple element of time—spent playing and performing together—plays in her compositions for the quintet. She is gaining confidence in writing for the entire group, and they are all playing together increasingly well. Although I think the trio sounds more musically integrated (and indeed it should, since they have been together longer), the addition of saxophone and trumpet as she treats them in her compositions brings a wonderfully offbeat sound world into the music. It will be very interesting to hear how her writing for the quintet evolves in the future. Whatever form it takes, I have no doubt that there will be plenty of surprises in store.