About Jazz

"Portrait of John Coltrane" by Paolo Steffen ©Paolo Steffen

“Portrait of John Coltrane” by Paolo Steffen ©Paolo Steffen

My jazz reviews are about as popular as M. Hollande is in France or M. Obama is in the USA, but somehow I can’t let go of my desire to make a tiny contribution to the noble effort to transform modern music fans into jazz aficionados. I knew from the moment I started this blog that I simply had to review the two artists who comprise Miles Davis’ famous statement that the history of jazz can be written in four words: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker. For those two jazz titans, I’ll be reviewing compilations: for Louis Armstrong, The Best of the Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings; for Bird, The Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings. I’ll also review one of my favorite records from Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz.

I have been listening to more and more jazz over the past year, and there are two hypotheses for this increased interest:

  1. I moved to France in the last year, where jazz is more popular than in the United States.
  2. Modern rock, whatever the genre, has become so impotent that I have had to look for musical satisfaction elsewhere.

I’m going with #2. I’ve never been particularly sensitive to cultural conformity pressures, particularly when it comes to music. Or sex. Or partnering. Or smoking.

Let me be clear: I do not like all forms of jazz. I really dislike “pop swing” like Glenn Miller and faux jazz like Kenny G. Early New Orleans is too cluttered to float my boat. Except for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday and a handful of others, I don’t really care for much jazz until be-bop. The period from Charlie Parker to A Love Supreme is the era I find most compelling, but I do find cool jazz rather dull. I would love to spend more time studying Ellington and Monk, and I haven’t paid much attention to the current scene, so I have a great deal to learn about jazz (and music in general, for that matter).

That said, there’s one quality of jazz that leaps out at me every time I listen to it, a quality that is in serious decline in modern rock.

Musicianship.

Real jazz musicians have to know how to play their instruments, how to collaborate and how to improvise. Today’s rock musicians rely more on software and effects than craftsmanship, and as far back as Abbey Road it became common for rock musicians to record their parts separately and avoid the typically shitty group dynamics altogether. Even a simple program like Garage Band lets a musician record as many takes as they want to get it right, and if they never get it right they can use auto tune and various patches to correct the fuck-ups that they were too lazy to correct themselves. I am not opposed to recording software and I appreciate its democratizing influence; I have also given several positive reviews to heavily-electronic records. Too often, though, recording software serves as the wizard’s curtain, and behind it you find people who haven’t bothered to make the effort learn how to play.

And there’s nothing like real people playing real instruments really, really well.

Jazz is often more complex than rock, even when you’re comparing it to rock’s progressive variations. I don’t see that as an advantage or disadvantage; a lot of the best rock ‘n’ roll, like the blues, is musically and rhythmically simple. Rock is as much about energy as it is about music, as The Ramones and Rancid proved time and time again and as The Connection and Sugar Stems have proven recently. Rock has surprisingly conservative tendencies: every time someone tries to expand its range, along come The Sex Pistols, Pixies, Oasis and Nirvana to bring it back to rough and raucous. Jazz evolved to greater complexity because the musicians at its forefront felt compelled to explore musical possibilities, and pursuing those possibilities meant more to them than commercial acceptance or sticking to time-honored traditions.

The development of both genres is a fascinating story, but one thing both genres share is that they are in commercial decline. Charlie Parker may have advanced the art of jazz by light years but he killed it as a commercial powerhouse. Though there was certainly richness, originality and depth before be-bop, postwar jazz demanded a lot from its listeners, and most of the listening public of the era just wanted to dance. Rock’s commercial decline is due to many reasons: it has become institutionalized with its own hall of fame and celebrity hoo-hah; the indie movement has no way of thinning out the no-talent wannabes; and excessive genre classification has led both musicians and fans to limit artistic growth by essentially force-fitting musicians into a categories that also define expectations.

The real growth areas in music today are rap, heavily-produced pop, hip-hop and modern country: genres that cause me to start sneezing and breaking out into hives when I hear snatches in passing. In Europe, electronic dance music is huge, another genre that has all the satisfaction of a one-night stand secured in a moment of desperation.

Oh well, I guess I can add my passions for rock and jazz to my list of examples of cultural conformity resistance . . . along with cigarettes, cigars, female dominance, excessive use of the word “fuck” and my almost religious belief in the game of baseball.

Here are the jazz albums I’ve reviewed:

The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

Lady Day: The Best of Billie Holiday

The Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings by Charlie Parker

Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

Giant Steps by John Coltrane

Portrait in Jazz by the Bill Evans Trio

Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis

Monk’s Dream by the Thelonious Monk Quartet

Swiss Movement by Les McCann and Eddie Harris

 

 

 

 

 

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