Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Return of the son of Industrial Jazz Group

[Editor's note: Ah, yes. Here is the post I would have published last week at about this time, if only I hadn't started developing what initially seemed like an innocent-enough headcold. The sequel to this post -- you know, the usual apres-tour "here's what actually happened in excruciating detail" post -- will be forthcoming later this week. But for those of you interested in the bottom line: this trip to SoCal was well worth it.]

So I'll be heading down to Los Angeles next week for more band-related madness: a pair of gigs in the San Diego area on March 28 (one at Mesa College, and one at Dizzy's -- the latter has historically been one of our favorite places to play), and then a more-and-more-illicit-sounding engagement at 2nd Street Jazz in downtown LA (it appears we'll be hitting at 1 AM on the morning of March 30). It will be my first time back in southern California since mid-Fall of '06, and I'm very curious to see what (if anything) has changed, either about the place itself, or about my perception of it.

If nothing else, it will be a rush to reconnect with some of the beloved IJG veterans, as Jill and I will be joined by key players from the east coast tour: Dan Schnelle (drums), Oliver Newell (bass), Dan Rosenboom (trumpet), Damon Zick (bari), Brian Walsh (tenor), Evan Francis (alto), and Ben Wendel (tenor) [editor's note: as it turned out, Wendel couldn't make these gigs]. Other long-lost personnel with whom we will be joyously reunited: Ryan Perez-Daple (soprano) and Ron Christian (bone) [editor's note: as it turned out, Christian couldn't make these gigs either -- thankfully, we were able to enlist the help of SD bonist Brandon Jagow for Dizzy's]. Of course, it wouldn't be an IJG tour without a few new faces as well, and so we welcome trumpeters Stephanie Richards and Clinton Patterson stepping in for Phil Rodriguez and Kris Tiner, respectively (Phil is now based in Brooklyn, and Kris will soon be based in new-daddy-land -- a country I know well), soprano saxophonist Gavin Templeton (sitting in for Cory Wright), trombonist Ian Carroll (sitting in for any one of our last several trombonists), and baritone saxophonist Gabriel Sundy (sitting in for Damon at Mesa only [editor's note: as it turned out, the very versatile Sundy played 2nd tenor at the Dizzy's gig as well]).

(Do you ever get the feeling that I use these gig-announcement posts to rehearse the names of the players?)

It will be an IJG-packed four days for me. Aside from the shows, I have set aside ample chunks of time to continue working on the new album(s) (why the plural? ...well, it looks like there is enough material for two releases... more on that later), which have already been in progress for almost a year now. Maybe it's because of this preoccupation with getting the record(s) done that I have been particularly interested to see the little blogospheric flurry of musings on the question of recording and jazz. For me it started with KT's sharing of Nate Dorward's Signal to Noise review of two of his quartet's releases. Check it out for yourself. The thing that sort of jumped out at me was Dorward's apparent discomfort with the quality of the recording of the live Hello the Damage discs (as if somehow "poor audio quality" isn't a factor in some of the best jazz records you will ever hear (Hello, Birth of the Cool)). The always-thorough DJA picked up on this too, and nicely folded it into a response to one of Daniel Melnick's posts over at Soundslope (with me so far?). That Soundslope post is rather sophistimacated (as most of them seem to be), but let me try and do it justice: after three paragraphs on microlending, Daniel jumps into the subject of recording, helpfully pointing toward two relevant essays from the OkkaDisk site: Kevin Whitehead's "Why many records are very bad -- and a few are good," and Stu Vandermark's "Recording Jazz: A Questionable Practice? (or, a Call for Re-examination)."

When you take all this stuff together (or at least when I did), it seems there are two bottom-line issues here. I'll try and address 'em one at a time, while simultaneously remembering my desire to lose self-importance:

1. Issue the first: the idea that, when it comes to jazz, "live" is better than "recorded" (a view articulated in the Vandermark piece). Honestly, I almost choked on my coffee when I read that. Why don't we try and prop up old saws like "east coast jazz is better than west coast jazz" or "it can only be jazz if it swings" while we're at it?

Look, I love live jazz. I love live music, period. But I love good records too, and I refuse to see them as pale reflections of some pure, authentic experience. That's a little too churchy for me. Hell, I'll admit it: there are times (like when one of the exceedingly uncomfortable chairs that tend to populate most venues wreaks havoc on my arthritic back) that I would much prefer to be listening with headphones at home.

Maybe the thing that is so frustrating about the Vandermark piece is that some of his observations are actually pretty right-on. F'r'instance: of course jazz is "an ongoing process" -- all art is, really, regardless of the myths we tell ourselves about "finished" works -- and that's why folks like Ellington, Mingus, and Monk were constantly re-recording their pieces (in addition to re-performing them live).

But a lot of SV's statements can be turned inside-out and still ring true in an entirely different way, for an entirely different audience. For every listener who finds that recordings don't live up to the "magic" of a performer's live vibe, there are others who could safely argue that live (or other recorded) renditions of a given tune inevitably fail to match up with the je ne sais quoi of a certain recording. It is hard to imagine a version of "Lotus Blossom" as powerful as the almost casual solo piano one that appears on ...And His Mother Called Him Bill. And for all the great instances of "Mood Indigo," none comes close to the Okeh version, which, incidentally, actually derives some of its beautiful creepiness from the recording technology itself (it's the same phenomenon in black and white films; a technological "limitation" becomes a part of the aesthetic). Of course, there are more (and more famous) examples from the world of rock: "Like a Rolling Stone" is one of those tunes that only seemed to work at one specific moment in the context of its original recording session (as Greil Marcus has argued).

2. Issue the second: the idea that the "lo-fi" aesthetic is verboten amongst those of the jazz persuasion. This is actually true, at least in my experience, but I want to bemoan it with all of the sense of tragedy I can muster.

I don't see lo-fi so much as a question of cost -- strictly in terms of "man hours," a competent jazz quartet recorded by an expensive engineer with all of the best gear in a nice room can probably get their record over and done with long before (and thus at a lower price than) their endlessly-fiddling post-rock "home studio" comrades. The "fi" in "lo fi," of course, refers to "fidelity" (aka "authenticity") and this is where I start to ponder the situation. It should be obvious by now that I adore the sound of acoustic instruments, and the possibilities you get when you assemble a lot of them together in a room -- clearly, if I didn't, I could do what I'm doing with the IJG much more cheaply with some sort of elaborate keyboard/guitar setup. But I have never understood why jazz records are held up to the standard of verisimilitude above all else -- why they strive to create the impression that somehow there is no studio, and why they altogether miss the artistic potential recording technology has to offer.

The studio is just another creative device, like a key, or a time signature, or a horn. But it's as if we jazzers see it as purely an inscription tool, and aren't the least bit curious about what all of those freakin' buttons and dials can do for us.

9 comments:

nd said...

Thanks for the comments. I guess I should say that I treasure a lot of my dodgily recorded Charlie Parker sessions & Coltrane boots & godawful tapes of Ayler & whatnot: the lo-fi is part of the charm, even. That said, I think that there's a big difference between such recordings & what I was reviewing (a contemporary free jazz recording). There are the obvious points of course (that the Empty Cage isn't at the exalted level of those greats & that the technology to do a decent concert recording is far more plentiful now) but that's not really what's my concern. It's that certain styles of music are affected a LOT more by recording quality than others. With bebop, for instance, it's easy to "fill in the blanks" if you're an experienced listener--you're not bugged by badly-recorded bass & drums because you know more or less what they're playing even if it's not perfectly audible, & for off-mike moments it's not so hard to form a mental image of what the line "should" have sounded like if you're familiar with the harmonic language. But with music that is extensively predicated on SOUND--on the interplay of abstract textures, on often very quiet audio levels, on subtleties of expression. It's not that such things are irrelevant to other styles of music--of course they are--but in the case of a lot of free playing, sound IS the music: it's foregrounded as its main organizing feature, rather than other aspects (rhythm, harmony).

Hm..... I take it you've heard the Empty Cage disc in question? Do you agree that the recording quality does the music a disservice? It's not a case of minor problems--the sound quality really is very poor.

nd said...

Incomplete sentence there: for "But with music that is" read "But some styles of free jazz and free improvisation are..."

& I should say that Hello the Damage does have many different styles on it, & the sound-quality is much less of an issue in, for example, the freebop sections. But there are also extensive of passages of in-between abstract interplay which is the stuff that's really, uh, damaged by inaudibility or distortion.

Kris Tiner said...

Wow - sorry this little thing has become such a big thing... that's probably my fault for bringing it up. But it's topical, I guess.

I also don't know if the comparisons to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker are warranted, but (as I said on my original post) we felt that in this case the music was such a successful statement of our live work that we chose to document the concert, despite whatever concerns there were about the quality of the stereo recording (which, as far as stereo recordings go, is pretty good by me, and I'm usually very critical on such things myself).

So let me just interject that Nate is one of the more understanding and enthusiastic writers who've ever tackled our music, and above all else, we appreciate the tremendous support he's demonstrated in the other 95% of that review.

I'm off to the hospital...

Andrew said...

Thanks to you both for the comments. Didn't mean to put anyone on the defensive, and please know that all of your points are well-taken.

Nate: I want to be clear that I didn't single out your review (which I thought was very well-written) specifically because I was on a crusade “set the record straight” about the HTD disc… though I do like that one and (as it happens) remain unbothered by its sound quality issues. The fact that KT posted the review was merely fortuitous, because it gave me an excuse to make broader statements on jazz and technology.

I know I’m an apostate, but for the record (ba-da-boom), here’s my current take on recording (in case it wasn’t already clear from the post):

I try not to overemphasize the question of whether recording technique and production values accurately represent what the players played (I’m not sure if truly “accurate representation” is even possible, if you consider how sound moves around in space). Similarly, I try to avoid the question of whether recording technique and production values fit the genre of music at hand. Instead, I listen for evidence that the artist is aware of the studio’s capacity as a creative tool (or is at least interested in disrupting prevailing notions of how recordings should sound).

"High quality" recording -- if we can agree on what that means -- is all well and good, and, as you say, may serve some kinds of music better than others. It’s nice to have it there as an option. But within the jazz world it seems to me that things have become fetishized to the point where nowadays the majority of recordings have a pristine sameness to their sound -- same EQ, same mic placement, same reverb, and so on. It occurs to me that the studio's potential as a sound-making machine has largely been overlooked (there are, as always, a few exceptions). So I have to ask: why should the rock guys get all the fun?

Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that it’s no longer possible to make a great jazz record the old-fashioned way. That would be ridiculous. On the other hand it’s a shame that there isn’t more openness to the idea of making something as technically creative as, say, Uncle Meat or Pet Sounds. As if jazz isn’t already overburdened with pieties.

Again, not much of this is directly relevant to your review, except that whenever someone mentions “sound quality” these days I tend to use it as an opportunity to launch into my various theories on this particular failing of post-modern jazz. So thanks for that.

Andrew said...

P.S. I guess I should have referred to HTD in the plural where it fit grammatically (e.g., "the HTD discs," etc).

nd said...

I'm waiting for the next post on Stop the Play..., Kris! Big news, I hope.

Andrew: yeah, I find conventionally "good" sound quality a bit boring. (A while ago I was assembling a blindfold test for the Organissimo board using contemporary recordings, & eventually found the sound of the recordings so uniform that I started to include some more rough-edged ones in order to give some variety.) I suppose that the problem with asking for a highly artificial aesthetic a la Pet Sounds to be applied to jazz is that it's just such a different method of creating music than jazz musicians usually do (or than listeners expect). That said, there are some interesting attempts out there: give a try to Simon Fell's two-CD Compilation III for instance, which uses some really nifty studio editing. (For instance, there are several "virtual" jazz pieces on there, which are collaged together from separate performances--or use interesting games: e.g. have musicians A and B separately record improvisations in response to a track recorded by musician C--then replace track C with track D on the final recording.) In connection with studio-constructed free jazz I'm also fond of Rudiger Carl's Virtual COWWS, which is a verbal score performed solo by 5 different musicians to very precise time-markings, then overdubbed--the results often sound like they're really interacting with each other!

Andrew said...

Thanks for the good discussion, Nate. I will definitely check out those recommendations. More straightforward versions of overdubbed jazz have been around for some time, of course -- Bill Evans's Conversations With Myself discs are perhaps the best-known examples (and Sidney Bechet was experimenting with the one man band concept as far back as 1941). And in the eighties Zappa developed a technique called "xenochrony," in which he would take (for instance) a recorded guitar solo from one tune and lay it over the backing tracks for another, just to see what happened (often what happened was the creation of an uncanny sense of in-the-moment interplay when in fact there had never been such a thing).

I personally don't accept the notion that studio creations are "artificial" -- asynchronous, maybe. But I think the jazzer's resistance to studio fiddling has a lot to do with the notion of virtuosity, and the sense that a jazz musician might spend his or her entire life honing a specific sound and technical facility, and learning how to consistently demonstrate that artistry in a live situation. Given all the work involved to get to that level, why would anyone want their playing under- or mis-represented in a given recording?

That's one way of looking at it. Still, if virtuosity (or technical excellence) is one of the features of jazz, another is (or has been and should be again) "collaboration." At least this is what in part draws me to the genre: the sense that even when we're ostensibly using some more authoritarian, top-down model of art (i.e., the composer - conductor - musician hierarchy that has informed western music for however long), when it's jazz what we're really getting is more of an interactive, organic, collectively-authored sort of thing. I don't see why that collaboration should stop with (say) the horn players, just because they're operating pneumatic machines as opposed to the electronic ones wielded by a good engineer.

Dan said...

Just found my way over here...great discussion. Love the Lotus Blossom and Mood Indigo examples. I actually compared many versions of Mood Indigo at some point and that Okeh recording really is magical. I think I'd have something more to add right now if I wasn't so damn tired (as evidenced by my multiple attempts to get the word verification below right)...maybe I'll pick up on the thread over at Soundslope.

All best,

Dan

Andrew said...

Thanks, Dan! Really digging your blog.