Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eau de music criticism

I've been re-reading Nicolas Slonimsky's infamous text, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, and was tickled when I came across this passage in the droll but perceptive Peter Schickele foreword that graces the edition I own:

As a serious composer and also as the sole discoverer of the putative music of PDQ Bach, I have been on the receiving end of both pans and raves, and, everything else being equal, I prefer raves. Any highly flattering review I get is, of course, humbly accepted and appreciated, but one stands out, head and shoulders above the rest. It appeared in a respected magazine, and it can only be described as an artist's wet dream: 'Having banished Mr. Schickele some time ago from my conscious mental life as being a fellow whose spoofs of Baroque music, both on records and television, struck me as labored, clumsy, and utterly sophomoric, it was not with alacrity that I reached for the latest sample of his wares. Mr. Schickele, I recant! I grovel before your genius, an abject idolater. Obtuse and inattentive, I have grossly misunderstood your methods and your motives. You are the most.'

Now that's what I call music criticism.

Hell yeah!

Here's to 2010. May we all suddenly and inexplicably graduate from "labored, clumsy, and utterly sophomoric" to "the most."

[photo credit: "The Future of Rock 'n Roll," by fmgbain]

The reproducer

If you've never seen or heard a reproducing piano, mentioned in that last post, here's a useful vid. (Holy crap, is there anything that can't be found on YouTube?)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lumpy Monday morning

I have no good reason for posting this video, other than the fact that it has a criminally teeny number of YouTube views.

Just doing my part.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A list you can actually abuse

Since I've been throwing darts at the idea of the best-of list, why not a best-of list you can throw darts at?

Here, according to the elves that run google analytics, are my top ten blog posts from the past year, measured strictly in terms of page views. (Obviously, there are all sorts of problems with this list as a metric of "quality." But as a general introduction to JTMoU, or as a reminder of some things you may have missed, it ain't half bad.)

10. What Passes for Scholarship These Days: Introduction, part one (The first installment in my seemingly endless dissertation-posting series.)

9. We are the world, and we suck (Commentary on the death of Michael Jackson.)

8. The Impossibility of the Avant-Garde (On the pointlessness of trying to be "subversive" in art.)

7. Jazz: the Music of Un-enjoyment (Actually that's an older post, but it was popular this year because of a twitter hashtag. A catalog of shite gigs I have experienced.)

6. No One Dances in New York (My response to Nate Chinen's NYT review of the IJG's Bell House show this past October.)

5. The Funmaker (Lots of pictures of a vintage organ I acquired over the summer.)

4. The Watts Ensemble (The only interview I have done so far: composer/drummer Brian Watson.)

3. Jazz Populi (A response to the Jazz Now project initiated by a consortium of youngish jazz bloggers this past year.)

2. Research & Development (A focus group on the Jazz Now project.)

And the number one JTMoU post of 2009:

1. RIAA breaks guitars, and music in general (An essay on the Joel Tenenbaum case, and the copyright fight as it stands in 2009.)

Many thanks, everyone, for reading, commenting, linking, tweeting, and referencing this year. It's been fun.

[photo credit: Alex Ford]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Speaking of English literature

I know it may seem curious for "Dr. Frank C. Baxter, Professor of English, University of Southern California" to be introducing a film as lovably kooky as 1956's The Mole People. (By the way, you know that a film is "lovably kooky" when it never inspires a remake.)

But he was a real guy, and a real professor, with real experience in the entertainment biz!

And here's a real sun, and a real moon, and then a rather shadowy and formless mass of electric potentiality with little bright sparks in it, and they give us the sense of our stars.

You may in fact remember Professor Baxter from such edutainment classics as "Hemo the Magnificent," directed by Frank Capra. (I sure do. Third grade science class, if I recall correctly.)

Unfortunately, the good doctor passed on long before my tenure at USC -- but I'd like to think that something of his goofy irreverent academic spirit lived on in those hallowed halls, and eventually made its way into an IJG tune or two.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now you know why I was an English major

Via Big Think, Lea Carpenter's writeup of a writeup on Peter Ackroyd's particularly bawdy translation of Canterbury Tales. What can I say? Carpenter had me at the title ("Fucking up Chaucer").

It's easy to avoid Chaucer. Or rather, easy to attempt avoiding him even when electing English as a major, or as a passion. Nothing about the academic marketing of Chaucer would lead one to believe he is sexy, or current. Yet he was both.

Actually, when I was first exposed to Chaucer, in the early nineties, it was under the tutelage of a flaxen-haired, husky-voiced associate professor on whom I had a ridiculous, intense, and fleeting crush. And when she read the Tales, aloud, and in the original Middle English (which even on the page always seemed beautifully eerie to me)... well... it left no doubt that this was a poetry that spoke to the soul through the body.

I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me
What thing it is that wommen most desiren;
Be war and keep thy nekke boon from iren.

(from the Wife of Bath's Tale)

Anyway, Carpenter goes on to quote Joan Acocella, author of the New Yorker essay on Ackroyd's text:

When Chaucer has the Wife of Bath saying, in defense of love, "For what purpose was a body made?," Ackroyd translates, "Cunts are not made for nothing, are they?" She also cites King Solomon, with his many wives. "On his wedding nights," she says (in Chaucer's original) "he had many a merry bout with each of them, so lively a man was he." Ackroyd translates, "What about all those wedding nights? I bet that he did you-know-what as hard as a hammer with a nail. I bet he gave them a right pounding." When, in the Miller's Tale, Alison says to her swain, "Love me at once or I will die," Ackroyd gives us "Fuck me or I am finished."

And glosses it accordingly:

This is literary history: a loving "fucking up" of English Literature. Wouldn't we rather spend afternoons reading lines like "fuck me or I am finished" than deconstructing the latest evolution of the Kindle's hegemonic rise?

Yes! Or the latest essay on "The Stasis of Language: Social realism in the works of Smith"? (That's a random title spewed out by the delightfully spot-on Postmodernism Generator. But it's not unlike much of the stuff written about literature in the last twenty years.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Too small to fail

A few weeks ago I came across a very smart comment appended by Alex Rodriguez to a post that appeared on NPR's excellent in-house jazz blog. The issue was NPR's "The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings" list, and the relevance or irrelevance of jazz to same. Alex wrote:

I'll go ahead and say it: jazz doesn't belong on the "50 most important albums" list. Sorry, jazz fans, but we're too small and culturally irrelevant to be taking spots from the real musical trends in modern music. I suppose there's a case to be made if "important" doesn't measure overall cultural impact, but more along the lines of "artistic merit" or some equally-vague concept, but a few jazz fans typing around on the internet about their favorite records does not equal relevance.

It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, but it made me wonder: in 2009, does anything really belong on a hypothetical "most important albums" list? Or have we finally passed the moment in which one could sustain the fiction of the macrocosmically relevant (which of course is the assumption behind such lists)?

Most musicians I know are pretty ambivalent about the ritual of listmaking, and are simultaneously inclined to complain about and participate in it.

For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find a musician who was unhappy to have their work featured as one of the year-end critical picks in a given rag, or who would go so far as to punch the hierarchical gift horse in the mouth. And in terms of creating such lists, what true music fan is going to be shy about sharing his or her opinions? Especially when asked?

But does anyone really believe that these lists are not prone to at least some degree of silliness, and particularly the silliness of the self-serving? Almost invisibly, the (self-appointed) right to bestow a label like "important" confers upon its giver an aura of... importance. Talk about a conflict of interest!

Of course, the potential for silliness is directly proportional to the grandness of the claims being made. (The 50 most important albums of 2000-2009? Really? You can actually see, from the future, their historical and "game-changing" impact?) So the best such lists are always the ones that go out of their way to qualify themselves:

It’s customary at the end of any period of time like this for people to put together their lists of greatest/best/most significant/blah-blah-blah music of the decade. Most such lists end up being fairly cynical ploys to bait readers into agreeing/disagreeing, and the hagiographic consensus that gets built up around so much banal, tedious music always leaves me baffled.

So I shan’t attempt to speak for anyone else, or to put a stamp of importance or significance on the following list. Instead, I’ll just list the albums that meant most to me that were released during the last ten years. For a whole mess of reasons. Some trivial, some far deeper.

It's a cliche by now, but the last 10-15 years have provided copious evidence that the old (top-down) music business is dying, and being replaced by something less centralized, more dispersed, more DIY, and more directly controlled by musicians themselves. And this (slow, incomplete, but ineluctable) democratization of the music business, which puts more music into the world than ever before, consequently undercuts unselfconscious and uncritical notions of macrocosmic relevance.

Set aside the issue of aesthetic justice (the usual response to any "best of" list is to point to all the deserving artists who were overlooked). This is actually a practical question. It has to do with the fact that the unimaginably huge cultural bounty that is the Internet has become impossible to track accurately. (Does anyone even know how many recordings were released last year?) And because of the limits of the human capacity for cultural consumption, ultimately there will be a time (and maybe it's already here) when the "best" art produced in any period, by any criteria whatsoever, will surpass the listening audience's capacity to perceive it. Your desire to support the arts, your passion for good music, will be beside the point. There will be more good music than you can reasonably expect to be able to enjoy in a single lifetime, let alone in a single year or decade.

Powerful media entities like NPR will, understandably, but out of habit, continue to assert the notion of a broad-yet-manageable view of the entire field. But we can't have it both ways, can we? Unless we consciously and collectively choose to go backwards, to undo the zeitgeist of DIY, the technological shape of the new music business is pushing us hard towards a hopelessly complex and detailed ecology of musical microcosms. And assuming we cannot surgically expand the perceptual capabilities of the human mind, going forward we will each have to be satisfied with a tinier fragment of the overall musical pie.

And that's fine with me.

* * * * *


I suppose the deeper question is whether the impulse to pursue and propound macrocosmic relevance fulfills some psychological need. Is it just a habit? Or does it serve a more religious purpose by giving music fans a sense of plugging into something bigger than themselves?

[photo credit: ...Tim and 27147]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This one goes out to Senator Joe Lieberman

What a disgrace.

How saving a farming village from bandits in feudal Japan is like being in a big band circa 2009

Because good musicians playing in a big band are like samurai deigning to fight without hope of glory, of course. They have to really love what they do, and they have to be willing to be paid in rice if need be.

Kambei Shimada, pondering the prospect:

First of all, it's not easy to find trustworthy samurai. What's more, all you have to offer is food. Only those out to fight for the hell of it will agree. Besides, I'm sick of fighting. Age, I suppose.

Kambei Shimada, attempting to convince another samurai to join the cause:

Kambei Shimada: It pains me to tell you, but we're fighting for farmers.

Potential comrade: Farmers?

Kambei Shimada: That's right. This job offers no stipend and no reward. But we can eat our fill as long as we fight.

Potential comrade: This is absurd! My ambitions are greater than that.

Kambei Shimada: That's a shame. Won't you reconsider?

Potential comrade: I will not.

KatsushirĊ Okamoto: Sir, we lost a good man there. Such a fine swordsman.

The few and the proud.

[photo credit: jetalone]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A list you can actually use

I feel some commentary on "end of the year lists" coming on, though I suspect I can't really improve upon the words that are found here or here.

In the meantime, how about this: "10 of the Dumbest Inventions of the 20th Century"?

Now that's a list I can truly enjoy!

Why? Well, if necessity is the mother of invention, failure is its father. In some twisted way, without the "phone answering robot" (pictured above), modern-day voicemail systems would have beeen just a little less possible. Not impossible, mind you. Just a little farther away on the horizon by... oh, I don't know, a few miles?

Particularly hilarious are the gadgets designed to help you care for your kids. E.g.:

Humans in the 1930s had a much higher infant mortality rate than the one we experience today, and we think we’ve found the reason: inventions like this insane baby cage that suspends your precious bundle of joy out of the window, high above the very hard pavement below.


And this is equally precious:

The cigarette holder for two: for when you really want to share your lung cancer with the one you love.

Go read / view!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Good cheer

As the year winds down, and the decade winds down, and the "best of" lists appear, and the Grammy lists appear, and the momentous political issues of our day acquire a screaming white-hot intensity, and I embark upon my forty-first year on this planet, and the first frost arrives, and my kid really hits her stride with the whole kindergarten thing, and the scent of grand fir fills the house, and I madly plan for the next phase of my "career," and another stack of B-movies arrives in the mail, and...

And, and, and. As all this is going on, here I am, just trying to relax and savor the experience of being alive. It's a struggle sometimes.

Other times, it's not. Last night, as I was goofing off at the piano, Thandie brought over a book of Christmas carols (donated by one of the well-meaning grandparents, no doubt, because neither of her parents are huge fans of Christmas carols) and demanded I play. Before I knew it, all three of us were singing "Silent Night" and other such dreck. It was like a friggin' Irving Berlin musical come to life -- except that it was real, and my usual defenses against sentimentality were all but annihilated. I just went with the energy.

And it was remarkable. And then... it was wonderful.

It's interesting that we were singing, though, because the incident reminded me one of my favorite lines in the history of songwriting, c/o Paul Simon:

Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.

Yes. I hear that as a nod toward the "music is everything / music is nothing" idea, but it's also another way of saying art only attains its "importance" experientially. Making art is itself an experience, of course, but so are a lot of other things. And only making art never makes for good art. In my own case, I know that sometimes I forget to put my own obsessive creativity in the context of, you know, the rest of the cosmos. Over the last five years I have discovered that that sort of narrow-mindedness is particularly irrelevant when you have a kid. It's a discovery for which I am grateful.

* * * * *

The public perception of the modern musician-Dad has generally been negative. Male musicians, according to this general view, just aren't involved in their kids' lives, because of the demands of touring, or for worse reasons. Historically, this perception is probably grounded in a certain amount of truth.

I won't say we've fixed whatever the underlying problem is, but I have noticed that, in this era of digital communication and the technologies of DIY music production, and undoubtedly because of the hard work of generations of feminists, there is now a noticeable contingent of dude musicians who, if the internets are to be believed, are downright wrapped up in raising their own offspring, while simultaneously continuing to define themselves as musicians. Off the top of my head, that list would include folks like Chris Schlarb, Kris Tiner, Chris Kelsey, Ward Baxter, Tim DuRoche, Rob Mader, Josh Sinton, Nate Trier, Gary Lawrence Murphy. And so on.

That too, seems remarkable.

I am not offering a New Age-y paean to fatherhood here. Raising kids in general is not for everyone, and if you're opposed to or offended by it, you'll never have to sit through a boostery lecture from the likes of me. To each his or her own, I say. But whatever your feelings on the subject, "dude musicians who are downright wrapped up in the lives of their offspring" seems to bode well, in some small way, for art and life now, and art and life in the future.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Contest mania

(This image has nothing to do with this post. I just liked it.)

A friendly reminder that we currently have two Industrial Jazz Group contests running, both of which feature a cash prize:

1. The Howl Remix Contest. $50 prize. Deadline: January 31, 2010.

2. The Job Song Video Contest. $250 prize. Deadline: January 31, 2010.

All details are at the links above. Contestants, start yer engines!

And speaking of contests, check out this awesome "name that genre" contest (H/T: Tom D'Antoni). It concerns some of my very favorite Portland-area bands, including 3 Leg Torso, March Fourth Marching Band, and the Portland Cello Project. Prize: a night for two in a Chinook Winds Casino ocean-view suite and dinner! Well, hot damn!

And speaking of my very favorite Portland-area bands... hmmm, actually, I'm going to hold off on that bit of news for a few days. Suffice it to say I have a very exciting project in the works.

(I know, I know, I'm always saying that.)

[Photo credit: Lamerie]

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

You could be president someday

For a long time, my personal criteria for evaluating a president was to ask the question: could I do the job better than this schmuck is doing it?

With every president I can remember -- Republican and Democrat, going all the way back to Reagan -- I always (bombastically) answered that question in the affirmative.

That's right! I could easily have been a better president than Reagan. You could have too! Intellectually, the bar was set pretty low (it would of course be set much lower at a later date). It was persistence, timing, money, marketing, and ideology -- not excellence -- that got the Gipper into the oval office.

Nowadays, my question just doesn't seem relevant anymore. Could I do a better job than Obama is doing? Hell, I have no idea. I still know what I believe, politically, and I know where I disagree with the man. But personally, I would never want to experience what it's like to be president in 2009 -- and I bet you wouldn't either. The job now seems like a special flavor of hell.

Consider this comment from "Cat Lady" over at Balloon Juice (in a discussion about the Afghanistan speech):

All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to be Obama for even one minute. On top of the ever increasing complexity of the problems he’s facing, the constant barrage of attacks from all sides, the shifting information, the ridiculous demands on his attention and time, he’s trying to be a good father and husband.

Just typing that makes me want to hide.

Honestly, what's the payoff? You've got access to the button and a personal plane. Big deal. Where does the job satisfaction come in?

Do you remember how American parents used to posit "being president someday" as the ultimate aspiration for their kids? "You're smart enough to be president someday, kid," they'd say. It was held out as the ultimate achievement.

Nowadays "you could be president someday" seems more like an insult or a threat than anything else. It's like saying "you could grow a goiter someday," or "someday you'll end up in jail." And that's just sad.

[Photo credit: Beverly & Pack]

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

AM paradox

I love how art can simultaneously seem like both the most important thing in the world, and the least important thing in the world. So of course I took note (and had to share) when I came across this comment by Marcel Duchamp (a hero of mine, yes):

I've decided that art is a habit-forming drug. That's all it is, for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People always speak of it with this great, religious reverence, but why should it be so revered? It's a drug, that's all. The more I go on, the more I'm convinced of it. The onlooker is as important as the artist. In spite of what the artist thinks he is doing, something stays on that is completely independent of what he intended, and that something is grabbed by society -- if he's lucky. The artist himself doesn't count. Society just takes what it wants. The work of art is always based on these two poles of the maker and the onlooker, and the spark that comes from this bi-polar action gives birth to something, like electricity. But the artist shouldn't concern himself with this because it has nothing to do with him -- it's the onlooker who has the last word. Fifty years later there will be another generation and another critical language, an entirely different approach. No, the thing to do is try to make a painting that will be alive in your own lifetime.


I'm afraid I'm an agnostic in art. I just don't believe in it with all the mystical trimmings. As a drug it's probably very useful for a number of people, very sedative, but as religion it's not even as good as God.

(From The Bride and the Bachelors, by Calvin Tomkins.)

[photo credit: Arenamontanus]

Monday, November 30, 2009

Who will save your filthy, filthy soul?

"Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan's engine: yet, believe't,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privatest thoughts,
Will come to light."

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

One of the ongoing challenges with the Industrial Jazz Group is walking the line between a.) appealing to the wholesomeness of the mainstream jazz community, and b.) staying true to our more raucous, obscene natures. It's a bit of a balancing act, trying to read an audience before a performance, and adapting our presentation accordingly, all while trying to comport ourselves in a way that feels genuine.

E.g.: sometimes, in the middle of "Big Ass Truck," we shout "What the fuck?" At other times, we shout "Fiddlesticks." It all depends on the scenario. (And we don't always guess right.)

You may know that in its early days, this band was driven by a much more innocent aesthetic. Sometimes I worry that maybe, by going over to the dark side, we've screwed ourselves out of mainstream success at some point in the future (not that I crave mainstream success, but it is a good way to get the band paid). The internet never forgets, and, like a beauty queen trying to outrun a sex tape, perhaps our chastened future selves (ha!) will discover that we're shit out of luck the next time (er, the first time) we want to play a high-class, upscale jazz venue. (I'm reminded of something David Ocker once said about Frank Zappa: "Can you imagine what the Board of Directors of your average symphony would say when confronted with a piece for full orchestra called PENIS DIMENSION?")

Or perhaps not.

I just came across Save the Linoleum, an incredible (I mean that literally) early promo recording by that monster of folk-pop (I mean that affectionately), Jewel. The first track, "God's Gift to Women," is remarkable. The lyrics are not quite safe for work, so if you're at work, well, then, for goodness sake, don't read the quoted section below!

Would you like to ram your tongue down my throat?
Would you like to grab my thighs
Yes, I have got nice tits
They are the perfect grab-me size

I'm just a nice girl
Thought I had everything
Until you flashed me
And I saw what I've been missing

I've been saving myself my whole life
For some slimeball like you to come along
I am so desperate
I'll do you and your mom.


I was just thinking
That it'd really turn me on
If some guy would drive by
And show me his tongue
I was just thinking that it'd really make my day
If he offered me a place to stay with pay


I've been saving myself my whole life
for some sketcher like you to come along
I am so desparate
I'll do you on the front lawn.


I was just thinking that it'd be really cool
If I got hit upside of the head with a manly tool
That way he could have nothing left to say
And have his way with me all day


I've been saving myself my whole life
for some motherfucker like you to come along

Which is actually not so dirty compared with, say, Lil' Kim. Clearly, the song is a satire of creepy men and weak women, and on that level it's very successful. (Of course, record company executives are never very good at divining non-literal meanings, and so I'm sure somewhere along the line someone got to the young singer-songwriter and said: "This is way too freaky for us. Let's tone it down and clean it up." And the rest, of course, is history.)

I guess the real question, though, is why should this be surprising? Propriety is always a veneer. To pretend that it isn't is a form of hypocrisy.

And how much hypocrisy can art (and culture in general) really take?

I for one wish Jewel would make another album like this.

[Photo credit: jenniferlstoddart]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creative marketing

Assuming you know I'm a fan of unusual promotional techniques, and especially unusual promotional techniques involving film, you probably won't be surprised at how great I think this is:

Maybe it's just Portland. We do things differently here.

Anyway. Ben Darwish Group / Sam Howard Band, at Jimmy Mak's, December 4. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We have a visual

The first (and possibly only) video from the Rocktober tour. Mildly unsafe for work. Composition by Andrew Durkin, performance by the Industrial Jazz Group.

Footage shot in Pittsfield, MA (Berkshire Museum); Coxsackie [sic], NY (rest stop); Philadelphia, PA (Green Line Cafe); Staten Island, NY (Galerie St. George); Brooklyn, NY (The Bell House); Washington, DC (Twins Jazz); Jersey City, NJ (Automata Chino); Montpelier, VT (the Black Door). Camera work c/o Tany Ling and Matt Lichtenwalner (camera c/o Tany Ling).

The audio is still a rough work-in-progress (not yet fully mixed), derived from a few spring 2009 recording sessions. It features Dan Rosenboom, Josh Aguiar, Aaron Smith (trumpets); Mike Richardson, Ian Carrol (bones); Gavin Templeton, Cory Wright, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Damon Zick, Gabriel Sundy (saxes); Tany Ling (vox); Oliver Newell, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section); Andrew Durkin (composition, conducting); Jill Knapp (as-of-yet unrecorded vox).

All images are of the October 2009 touring band: Dan Rosenboom, Phil Rodriguez, Steph Richards, Dylan Canterbury, Joe Herrera (trumpets); Mike Richardson, Ian Carrol (bones); Gavin Templeton, Beth Schenck, Robbyn Tongue, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Dave Crowell, Tony Gairo, Gabriel Sundy (saxes); Tany Ling, Jill Knapp (vox); Oliver Newell, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section); Andrew Durkin (composition, conducting).

"Et Tu, Tutu?" began life as a piece for the Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble. A few months later, I adapted it for the IJG.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

So my little girl came home from kindergarten yesterday with two paper doll pilgrims she had made in honor of Thanksgiving.

Interestingly, she had given them both brown skin. And though I'm usually a stickler for historical accuracy, I thought that was pretty fucking cool.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before one of my conservative friends (1.) becomes offended by this, and (2.) blames it on Obama.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bricolage, baby

These days, the term "indie" seems to connote a particular style of music, as much as (or maybe more) than a particular approach to (or strategy for) making music. But when I hear the word "indie," my first association is with filmmaker Roger Corman, who, as you may have heard, was just given an Academy Award.

Why that association? Well, Corman set the independent template, not so much by growing (or not growing) a beard, but by displaying a knack for cutting through the bullshit that attends corporatized art production. (And is there any artform more prone to corporatization than film?)

John Sayles:

When you're starting out, most screenwriters write a dozen things and two maybe get made. The important thing about Roger is that he makes movies -- he doesn't fuck around a lot. He just decides, "I'm going to pay somebody to write this movie and that means we are making it once the script is as good a shape as we can for the money and time I've set aside for it." I wrote three screenplays for Roger and all three got made into movies. That's why he is really so incredible. You get the learning, the writing, the story conferencing, and all that. But you also see the whole thing translated into a movie.

Because of the smallness and directness -- I mean, there was one boss, which was Roger -- you didn't go through a dozen subproducers to get to the guy who was going to say yes or no to a screenplay. With the studios, you're always campaigning for one guy so he'll hand it off to the next guy, and the other guy might actually respond very differently. So you never really know who your audience is. Five or six people will filter your script through, whereas at New World there was Roger and there was Frances and that was it. So right away you got to talk to the people who were responsible for making your movie.

I did so many fewer drafts working for Roger than for other places, and as far as I'm concerned the extra drafts didn't make for a better movie. It was just that other functionaries in the major studio process were getting to lift their leg up on your work along the way.

It's funny that I recently succumbed to the notion that sometimes you have to spend money to make money, because for so long I have assumed that my own meager attempts at excellence would have to be done on the cheap. I'm not sure Corman has ever been interested in excellence, per se (not that that has stopped me from loving his work), but he is notorious for not spending money (because you can't spend money you don't have), and getting stuff (a lot of stuff, in fact) done anyway. Which I suppose is why he has been one of my heroes.

Of course, everything is relative, as the man explains in his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime (from which all the quotes in this post are taken):

Part of why Hollywood studio features average $20 million [this was written in 1998] is the justifiable cost of making big pictures combined with supply and demand for huge box-office stars who command gigantic fees. But another part is simply inefficient or indulgent filmmaking. I can look at a movie with an ostensible $1 million budget and say whether the money was well spent or not. With a $30 million or $50 million picture, I have no frame of reference. Who can tell you what a $50 million picture is supposed to look like? Lucas's Star Wars money was brilliantly spent. It was on the screen. The fortunes spent on Heaven's Gate or Ishtar, for example, clearly were not.


Let's consider this a slightly different way. It seems like there are two approaches to making art (and maybe the healthiest thing any artist can do is to figure out how to navigate between them as the situation demands). One can start any given project with a clear but unyielding concept of what the end result should be, laying down the law in advance, and then finding, come hell or high water, the means to execute that vision to a "T."

Or, one can start with a rough idea of what the end result should be, and then adapt to the resources at hand (not to mention the inevitable things that will go wrong) with all the suppleness and aplomb and quick-thinking intelligence of the best jazz improvisors.

You probably know where my sympathies lie. Corman, again:

I remember shooting Atlas in Greece almost thirty years ago when I was staging the climactic battle in which Atlas leads the troops of Praximedes against the walled city of Thenis. I'd promised a contribution to the Greek Army Charity Fund in return for its providing five hundred soldiers for the battle. On the appointed day only fifty appeared. Possibly someone had misplaced a decimal point. The script called for Praximedes to overwhelm the outnumbered defenders with the size of his army. The only thing I could think of was to abandon my plans for large-scale panoramic shots and shoot the battle in a series of close action shots to hide the size of the army with a flurry of action on the screen. Before shooting I quickly wrote some new dialogue in which Atlas asked Praximedes how he hoped to conquer the city with such a small number of soldiers. Praximedes replied that in his theory of warfare a small band of efficient, dedicated, highly trained warriors could defeat any number of rabble.

That's my theory of filmmaking.

Again, yes, to both the example of on-the-fly adaptation and the lesson Corman drew from it.

(And though I'm going to be trying out some different approaches soon, deep down, that's also my theory of music-making. Bricolage, baby.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

The top ten things I learned from the Rocktober tour

Okay, I promise this will be the last post spent processing October's tour. I realize this stuff must get tiring to folks on the outside.

(Though if I were to justify all the navel-gazing, I'd say that when you're a professional musician with an original concept that you're trying to get out into the world in an economically viable way, you have to constantly analyze, evaluate, and adapt. There is no template for a 21st century not-really-jazz (but not-really-anything-else) big band. There are lots of places around the web to get good advice, lots of good books you can read, and lots of good people who are helping build a new music economy, one note at a time. But there is still, inevitably, a lot of trial and error. And that's fine; I, for one, never expected anything else. But I'm also trying to understand every step (and mis-step) as fully as I can. It's partly why I started this blog in the first place, don't'cha know.)

Anyway: what did I learn this time out? Well, how about I try to distill it all into a single handy-dandy list?

(I realize some of this may be obvious, but it's helpful for me to repeat it, even if only for myself.)

1. The old music business is currently a little like the Terminator at the end of the original movie.

We're at the point where the polyurethane skin and flesh have been burned off, and the silver robotic skeleton has been exposed. But the damned thing still shows no signs of dying, and the hydraulic press is not yet a foregone conclusion.

Which just means that, though this is an exciting time, full of musicians who are creatively taking charge of their careers, in some cases the smartest approach is to go about your business the old-fashioned way. For me, that means recognizing that the IJG is not really as DIY of a proposition as I first thought, and that, at long last, I am going to have to assemble a team to help me run it.

2. Sometimes trying to save money can be costly in other ways.

Logistically speaking, probably the biggest challenge with Rocktober was the fact that I tried to do it as inexpensively as possible (naturally enough, since it was our most ambitious outing). That ultimately ended up making life much harder than it had to be.

For instance, it's mercifully cheap to have bandmembers stay with friends at various homes scattered throughout a given city, but that also means that the next morning, when we're trying to get to whatever the next event is, everyone is not conveniently in the same place (i.e., a single hotel), and the ability to depart for that evening's gig is completely dependent on people's ability to get to a designated pick-up spot at a given time. With a quartet, that is possibly a manageable task. With a 16-piece group, that is practically an invitation to disaster, unless you have one person whose job it is to be a professional asshole, ensuring that everyone is where they need to be at the right time.

3. Hire a professional asshole.

Otherwise known as a "tour manager," this is the person who would, for instance, proactively motivate any individuals who seem poised to make everyone else late. Alternately, he or she would be a veritable information kiosk for any and all questions about the itinerary, would anticipate occasional unforeseen logistical problems, and so on. (Oh, yeah! He or she would also allow a bandleader to focus on other things -- like, well, you know, the music.)

4. Leave a 3 hour buffer for everything.

Is the call time 6 PM? Aim to get the whole band there by 3.

(Not least because of the absurd phenomenon known as traffic. I escaped traffic as a concept three years ago when I left LA for Portland. But Rocktober quickly reintroduced me to this strange, absurd, and ultimately evil phenomenon. Trust me: you don’t know how hellish traffic actually is until you are able to live somewhere where traffic is relatively scarce. Getting to know traffic again, sitting in the back seat of a small red car and waiting waiting waiting until whatever the fuck was slowing us all down could be moved, I was reminded of a thought that often crossed my mind during the few minutes of my life when I could actually tolerate a “real job”: human beings are not meant to live like this.)

5. Hold regular band meetings, even when there doesn't seem to be a reason for them.

Before this tour, the only "band meetings" the IJG ever had were during the few minutes at the end of a rehearsal.

On this tour, I learned that, when you have 16 people on the road for an extended period of time, it is crucial to provide a regular opportunity for them to express whatever concerns, issues, complaints, or observations they might have. Ideally this sort of thing should function like the steam valve on a pressure cooker.

6. Don't count on your GPS.

GPS is a crutch. Even the best ones seem unreliable for a long-term itinerary in which you're trying to figure out a route on the fly. (Being right nine times out of ten counts as "unreliable" in my book.)

If you're undertaking a tour with a lot of driving, research your route ahead of time: start with mapquest or google maps, and print all the results out (I actually used to do that, but for this tour it was one more task I didn't have time to get to). Bring along a GPS, sure, but also arm yourself with an old-fashioned hardcopy map. Hell: contact your destination ahead of time to confirm that you are taking the best path from point A to point B.

When you're on a long tour, everything depends on your ability to get to a given location in a comfortable, timely manner. Nobody plays well when they have to crawl out of the back seat of a crowded van a few minutes before a gig. Triangulate the shit out of your directions.

7. 12-seater vans are awesome, convenient, and easier to drive than you might think.

If I had known this ahead of time (I only discovered it by accident toward the end of the tour, because of a mishap with a credit card), I would have rented one of these babies for the entire tour, instead of the two smaller vans we ended up using for most of it.

8. Unless absolutely necessary, tour in the spring and summer only.

Touring during the onset of a novel flu season is a big, big mistake.

9. It is much better to play a single 60-minute set on a double or triple bill than it is to play two or more sets when you're the only band on the bill.

Truthfully, this is something I've been aware of for a long time. It's actually my preferred performance scenario, at least at this stage of the band. But when you're not a professional booking agent, and you're putting together something like Rocktober, there's only so much you can do before you hit a wall (e.g., bands you like who are unavailable to gig with you, venues who demand that you go it alone, etc.).

Which makes me think that this item should actually be "find yourself a professional booking agent" -- someone who knows how to get over the aforementioned wall. (See also number one, above.)

10. Admit when you're wrong, take responsibility for any shit that happens, and learn from your mistakes.

I have spoken before about the role that I believe the ego plays in all the arts. We artist-types are driven by a deep desire for self-expression, and every time we get up to perform we're exposing what feels like an extension of ourselves -- our psyche, or soul, or moral fiber, or whatever you want to call it. (Which may be why the arts can be home to such vitriolic, passionate arguments over craft, process, meaning, etc. It also may be why some of the most beautiful collaborative relationships have gone so sour.)

In any case, a good bandleader, I think, has to know how to set all that ego-baggage aside, and fully own up to (and apologize for) any of his or her mistakes. But more than that, I believe that a good bandleader has to learn how to productively take responsibility for anything that goes wrong with the band -- not always in a literal sense, but (like the captain of a ship, or the president of a country) figuratively, symbolically, and as a way of defusing any tension. As I used to say during our gigs, while gesturing toward the ensemble: "This is my fault." I think people appreciate when you are able to recognize that you put them in a given situation, even when you did not necessarily cause a specific aspect of that situation to go south.

Hope that list helps you. It certainly helped me.

And now: onward and upward. (Or, as John Lennon used to say: "To the toppermost of the poppermost!")

[photo credit (top only): Mike Licht]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Things we said today

Now that I'm returning to post-tour sanity, I'm actually starting to read the blogs again. That's right, baby: blogs! They're the wave of the future.

I suppose it's a little lazy of me to simply share what I've been commenting in my travels, and act like that's a bona fide post. (Is it? Sometimes I feel like I've lost all sense of decorum.)

Anyway, I chimed in at Eric Benson's fantastic post on Pandora and iTunes's Genius service. The original post is well worth your time, so go read. And here is what I said about it:

This is a very interesting piece. I'd be curious to know about the constituency of music listeners that Pandora is attempting to serve (I haven't had a chance to listen to the interview, so I don't know if this was covered there). But I think they are assuming that most people are pretty happy hearing "more of the same." Why else would they tout their service as "stations that play only music you like"? You can't really be adventurous in your listening without the risk of failure, and if they're counting on you liking everything they come up with, well, where's the risk?

That in fact is why I have always been suspicious of services like Pandora, Genius, the Amazon recommendations system, etc. I do use them from time to time, but I kind of resent the way they seem designed to make the process of discovering music easier. That seems like a pitfall to me, because personally I have always enjoyed the hard work involved in the process of discovering new music through my own active research: methodically triangulating numerous sources (friends, libraries, reviews, DJs, etc.) and coming across some real gems in the process. While it's true that that approach is more time-consuming, involves a greater degree of risk, and a can occasionally yield a dud, it still feels like when I am actively participating in the my own music search, instead of having possibilities handed to me by an algorithm, the end result is a feeling of greater connection with the music I end up loving.

Of course, on the other hand, I understand the motivation behind services like Pandora, which I think would not be springing up if there was not exponentially more music in the world these days. It's a response to what Alvin Toffler called "overchoice" -- the dizzying array of new releases in any given week, month, year. So I get it, but I still avoid it.

Earlier, I waxed ponderous at Peter Hum's terrific post on semantics and music criticism. Again, well worth your time. Again, go read. Again, here's what I said:

Thanks for this great discussion, Peter.

Personally, though I try to choose my words carefully (and at times obsessively), I confess I'm less concerned with finding the perfect word to describe music x, or automatically avoiding certain words for the same reason. Language has always been a much more fluid phenomenon than most of us realize when we're caught up in it at any given moment. But the truth is that fifty or a hundred years from now, what seems like perfect or imperfect terminology today may have changed its meaning in ways we can't foresee.

What is far more important, and what your article reminds us of, I think, is that writers need to *define their terms up front*, either explicitly, or by placing a given word in a context that is impossible to miss. And failure to do that is really where the problem comes in.

The other thing you've reminded me of is the Orwellian idea that the words a writer chooses (though if he or she is being lazy, "choice" may not be the best description of what is happening) can influence the thoughts he or she is having. As Orwell says in Politics and the English Language, sloppy writing produces sloppy thinking. And whatever else is going on with the music biz these days, we could sure do with a lot less sloppy thinking.


* * * * *

Incidentally, a very good friend of mine is diving into the blogosphere. His stuff is here. Take it for a spin if you like.

[Photo credit: Mike Licht]

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thank you, thank you, thank you

One thing to keep in mind about this whole Rocktober business, and one thing that I haven't made nearly clear enough, is that it would have been impossible without the help of numerous volunteers and kindhearted souls. Aside from the obvious role played by the bandmembers, who gave so freely of their time and talents; the typical helpfulness of Mr. Lichtenwalner, who came to as many shows as he could and helped make things run more smoothly than they would have otherwise; the unexpected generosity of the people who contributed to the fundraiser (we ended up raising around $800 -- not bad for a period of economic downturn); the incredible support of people who came to our shows, sometimes at great personal expense (e.g., driving half an hour, or staying out way past their bedtime on a school night); aside from all that, there were many people who gave of their time and resources in various and sundry other ways, all of which turned out to be essential.

First were the people who opened their doors to the group, ultimately saving me the huge expense of putting everyone up in a hotel every night. Many of those who helped out with lodging were friends of the band, and a few were in the band (Stephanie Richards and Jill Knapp both took on house guests). But some were -- get this -- more or less total strangers. Specifically, Jill's friends Jeremy and Mark housed and fed two thirds of the group when we ventured south of Philly. And Joe and Kristen Phillips, who I only knew through blogo-spheric and social media interactions, invited the whole group to stay in their beautiful Hudson NY home, accompanied by plenty of wine and delicious home-cooked meals, without ever having met any of us personally. (The above photo depicts all of us posing on the Phillips's porch on the morning we left.) If you're not already aware of Joe's music, or his blog, you should be. Really, do yourself a favor.

The second group of kindly-souls-without-which-the-tour-would-have-been-impossible are those who made generous loans of gear. Given that our rhythm section was traveling light (sans bass amp, drum kit, keyboard), we had to figure out how to obtain that bulky stuff for many of our gigs (because, as it turned out, some of the venues were gear-less). To the rescue came Joe Trainor and his trio (who helped us out in Philly); Stephanie's boyfriend Andrew (who let us use his drum kit multiple times on this tour); my childhood buddy (now a children's entertainment guru) Randy Rossilli (who didn't even hesitate when I asked him if we could borrow his PA); various members of the Bjorkestra and Secret Society (who generously helped us out with all of our gear needs at the Bell House); various members of the Skamatix (who generously helped us out with drum and keyboard needs at the Space), and Adam and Sarah Rabin (who made sure we had access to a bass amp and drums for our show in Montpelier). Adam, if you don't already know, is the mastermind behind the influential band Mailbox. But all of the projects namechecked here, it should go without saying, are deserving of your attention.

I have probably forgot someone, and if I have, please alert me to the omission in the comments.

And in any case, many thanks to everyone who helped us make the tour happen. You are all beautiful and we are forever in debt.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

"You guys are crazy!"

That was probably the most consistent comment I received during our Rocktober tour.

Some people liked our show, some people loved our show (really, they did!), and a few people hated our show, or at least didn't get it. In general our audience responses ran the gamut. But for the most part they were tied together by this notion that we were, um, insane.

And I can't deny that there was something quite close to the brink about this particular outing, moreso than with any previous IJG tour. Part of it was the music, which at times became a little relentless in its skittery refusal to sit still. Part of it was the performance frame, which (both intentionally and spontaneously) veered into areas that no other self-respecting "jazz band" would be willing to toy with, for better or worse. And part of it (well, maybe most of it) was the logistical challenge that goes along with trying to do an independently-funded 10-day tour on the cheap, without, it turned out, enough of a consistent material payoff or audience presence (not that that was intentional).

I don't want to get melodramatic about the whole thing, but holy cow if it didn't feel at times like we had unleashed forces that, on a good night, could coalesce in really fascinating and powerful ways, and leave people with an experience they would not soon forget, but on a bad night, seemed to (forgive the cliche) tear at the very fabric of the band, onstage and off, threatening to irrevocably rip it asunder. This was the first tour where I actually found myself worrying partway through whether we would even be able to complete the whole damned thing, or whether we'd break up on the road, and head back to our separate corners of the country in a huff. This was also the first tour where a gig (our Montpelier show, the last of the trip, and our best, by all accounts) was compared (by several bandmembers) to "make-up sex."

"Make-up sex"! Turbulent, baby, turbulent. But I'm glad things ended that way.

More than once I found myself thinking about an early article on the group, written by Andrew Gilbert for the San Diego Union Tribune way back in 2002 (shortly after our second album, City of Angles, came out). At that point we had expanded from a trio to a quintet to a septet to a nine-piece group, and though I had no clear plans to create a big band, the pattern of personnel expansion had been set in motion, so I suppose 16 pieces was already our destiny. Anyway, Gilbert closed that piece by quoting an off-hand comment I had made about where I thought the impulse to keep adding players would ultimately lead:

It's really a balancing act, to keep adding people and to be able to afford to keep the group together [...] I think what's going to happen is it's going to continue to grow until it explodes.

Let me tell you, it very nearly exploded this time out.

Of course, there was at least a little bit of method to the madness. I didn't know the tour would get quite as crazy as it did, but I did know it wouldn't be a walk in the park. And from the beginning I felt that there was an aesthetic justification for pushing things to that particular limit. I believe I referred to it as "performance art."

I mean, if we can agree that this is an absurd world (and we can, can't we?), then we have to be circumspect about what an artist's relationship to absurdity ought to be. Should musicians and composers pretend it (absurdity) doesn't exist, by generally adhering to expectations and common-sense, and building logical, sophisticated, tightly-controlled, artificial soundscapes where listeners can safely insulate themselves from the horror of how the real world conducts its business? Should we all be pushing "pizza and fairytales"?

Well, maybe not always, but sometimes we definitely should. There is great value in creating an alternate, saner "way of being" through aesthetics. Not to mention the fact that it's also probably good for one's mental health. Much of the music I love is not absurd at all, and doesn't bear any direct relation to anything I would describe as "reality." And that suits me just fine.

But that, to me, is a different sort of beauty from the "beauty is truth, and truth beauty" formulation. And the latter is where my head is at as a composer these days. While the IJG embraces the celebratory, physical, motion-oriented aspects of music (and is thus "upbeat" in that sense), our work is also heavily informed by specific, undeniable social dynamics and practices -- war, for instance, or power -- that have long since ceased making any sense whatsoever, and that are in fact fundamentally arbitrary, irrational, and problematic. Our challenge is that we attempt to mirror that absurdity in a way that transmogrifies it into art, but doesn't lose sight of its basic (disturbing) nature.

I don't know if we're successful at that, of course. It's not exactly an easy thing to do. But I can say that one very good way to "mirror absurdity" is to go on an independently-funded, tour-manager-less, on-the-cheap 10 day tour with 16 people, during a bad flu year, a scary recession, and a time of great political tension. In fact, given the philosophical framework I just laid out, such an undertaking can make the line between life and art very blurry indeed. And while I'm very glad we're all home safe and sound now, I'm also very glad we did it.

Anyway. More thoughts to follow.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Please, whatever you do...

...don't drink the toilet water.

(Photo snapped somewhere in Vermont, during the big tour.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

No one dances in New York

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

So I’ve had numerous requests to respond in some way to Nate Chinen’s NYT review of our much-ballyhooed Bell House hit, which occurred a week ago last Monday. Initially, I wasn’t sure there was anything I wanted to say about it at all. And besides, it’s not like I didn’t have a million other things to obsess about while we were still on the road.

Since returning to civilian life, of course, all that has changed. I have discovered that, surprisingly, I do have some thoughts on the review after all. Unfortunately, they are not the sort of revenge-fantasy thoughts that some seem to be expecting from me. I merely feel like a few things need to be clarified, is all.

Let me say up front that I don't expect everyone to like our music. But if someone is going to dislike it, I want them to at least dislike it for the right reasons. I do not particularly want them to dislike it by ascribing intentions to it that are not actually there.

And that's really the only part of this that irks me a little. Someone who hadn't attended the "Big Band Bonanza" could come away from Mr. Chinen's review with the impression that we were there solely for the purpose of shitting on what was otherwise a beautiful evening. And that strikes me as wildly unfair, and a gross misreading of what actually went down.

So, for what it's worth: my corrective.

* * * * *

As you probably already know, there was a glaring error in the original piece. The second of two paragraphs that were devoted to the IJG (neither of which actually addressed our music, BTW) asserted that we were somehow responsible for the baritone sax attack that occurred at the end of the show. Here’s the bit:

Naturally the band had to have the last word. After an encore by the Secret Society, a handful of players from the Industrial Jazz Group sprang an ambush, maniacally braying and honking their way through the crowd. They soon spilled out onto the street, filling the night air with their noise: a symphony of self-satisfaction.

In reality, I was as surprised by the “ambush” as everyone else, and so you can bet I was even more surprised to read this description of what happened. A day or so later, the paper ran a correction:

A music review on Wednesday about the Brooklyn Big Band Bonanza, at the Bell House, misidentified the group of musicians who “sprang an ambush, manically braying and honking their way through the crowd” after an encore by the Secret Society. It was Stefan Zeniuk’s Baritone Army, not some of the players from the Industrial Jazz Group.

Which was at least closer to the truth. For the record: out of the six or seven baritone sax players who participated in the army, one was Secret Society member Josh Sinton (who was onstage with Darcy as the Zeniuk sweep began, and joined the melee in full view of the audience), and another was Gabriel Sundy, a member of the IJG, who had been recruited by Zeniuk’s crew sometime after our set. The others were unknown to me, but presumably they were all New York-based baritone saxophonists.

Incidentally, if you've never seen or heard the Baritone Army, here's a little taste:

Anyway, I of course appreciated the NYT's willingness to run the correction, but what I still don't get is how the gaffe occurred in the first place, unless Mr. Chinen was so extremely irritated at our show that he wasn't even considering the logistical headache it would have been for us to dream up and execute the Baritone Army event all on our own. To wit: there is only one baritone sax chair in my group, which means that in order to create a baritone saxophone flashmob of the requisite dimensions, the rest of the IJG sax section (plus one player from elsewhere in the band?) would had to have brought their own baritone saxophones on the tour. In addition to their regular horns. All for about four minutes of music.

May I respectfully suggest how improbable and impractical that would have been, especially for those traveling from the west coast? And even more especially for those who didn't even own a baritone saxophone?

* * * * *

Sadly, the unexamined annoyance that prompted the IJG-as-Baritone-Army mixup seemed to inform the rest of the IJG portion of the review as well:

By contrast, the Industrial Jazz Group, based in Portland, Ore., and led by the composer Andrew Durkin, injects novelty into every corner of its aesthetic. Performing with a pair of shrill, scenery-chewing singers, Tany Ling and Jill Knapp, the band pursued an archly absurdist ideal, cribbing a move or two from Charles Mingus and quite a few others from Frank Zappa. Ultimately it was a showy mess, rendered sour by a slick of smugness. (There was a shirtless dancing bassist in a Roman centurion helmet, and a trombonist in a pair of skimpy briefs. It was understood that you were supposed to find this subversive and hilarious.)

The one thing I will grant here is that the show was a bit sloppier than I would have liked -- certainly in juxtaposition with the carefully-aligned tightness of the Bjorkestra and Secret Society. I of course accept full responsibility for that. Still -- I don’t want to make excuses, but it’s possible that we were already a little road-weary. I’ll have more to say about the extreme stressors that beset this tour -- which included but were not limited to the swine flu -- in another post, but for now suffice it to say that it would have been nice to have Mr. Chinen at least recognize that we were in the middle of a pretty insane 10-day feat, and that the unusual, triathalon-like demands of said insane 10-day feat at least ran the risk of influencing our performance from time to time. (Sadly, there was no masseuse on our tour bus. In fact, there wasn't even a tour bus.)

In any case, I’ll admit again that it was an off night for us. But “smug”? Really?

Whatever you think of the IJG’s music, our whole aesthetic flies in the face of the heroic, individual-driven, Romantic ideal of most jazz precisely because we are the exact opposite of smug. (Please understand that I don’t have a problem with the aforementioned ideal -- it’s just not what we do.)

I don’t even know how it is possible to be "smug" while you are making fun of yourself. And I don’t even know how someone could fail to discern that we are making fun of ourselves. Sample lyric:

He’s a jazz-pop jerkoff
She’s a jazz-pop jerkoff
We’re all jazz-pop jerkoffs
Jerkoff, jerkoff, jerkoff, jerkoff!

This sort of thing permeates the show. Whatever fun we’re poking at the sacred cows of jazz culture, we’re also highlighting our own ridiculousness. Our whole goddamned introductory tune is devoted to establishing a context of self-deprecation. (Do I really have to go over this again?)

Oh crap, here we go
It’s another IJG show
I’ve heard this band, they blow
You never really know how low they will go

These were the opening words of our set. The very first sounds we made. I honestly don’t know how to make our self-critique any clearer than that, short of giving people their money back and gently suggesting that they may as well go home.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

It’s also a big leap to posit that the purpose of all of this was to help the audience perceive us as “subversive.” I certainly don’t expect Mr. Chinen to be a regular reader of my blog, but if he had taken the time to poke around even a few of the more recent posts, he would probably have noticed something I wrote called “The Impossibility of the Avant Garde,” in which I posited that

[Artists] have that impulse toward innovation still, but what's the upshot? It doesn't even matter whether "everything has been done before" (the big complaint of young artists). When the raw power of anything can be instantly appropriated by the people who have the budgets, and the products to sell […] there has to be some other reason to make art. 

As artists, we may find this or that aesthetic approach tiresome, and we may go after something different in the process of escaping what we already know (that's part of the fun) -- but nowadays, that's ultimately a personal journey, never a broadly groundbreaking act of artistic rebellion.

Which is maybe how it should be -- and maybe how it's always been, under the surface of our mass media economy. There really is no "mainstream" or "avant-garde." No "in" or "out." Art wants to be de-centered, despite all our attempts to organize and rank it. Art wants to be local (and not strictly in a geographical sense). And critical categories ("hip" / "square," "cutting edge" / "predictable") may make sense in the context of a particular microcosm, but beyond that, who really knows? Or cares?

So: “subversive”? Give me a break. I don’t even think it’s possible. If I was really trying to be subversive with this band, do you think I’d be as willing to indulge my proclivity for melody, when “texture” is supposed to be where all the cool kids are hanging out these days? I may be crazy, but I’m not an idiot. I know what is likely to be considered hip and what isn’t. Let me tell ya, nothing about the IJG is likely to be considered hip. We don't play that game. We’re just trying to make good music.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

The near-nudity that Mr. Chinen highlights was supposed to be hilarious, I'll give him that. But, if I may get philosophical about this for a moment, that near-nudity, as well as the costumes, the gyrations, the choreography, the references to biological processes, etc., were also there because our music attempts to foreground the body in a way that has not been typical in jazz for a long time.

You know the gist of this argument, right? Jazz, some say, gestated in the rathskellers, the burlesque joints, the bars, the streets, the basements -- as music for dancing, marching, celebrating, cavorting, pitching woo, and so on. Which is not the same thing as saying it was (or should be) an anti-intellectual music. I'm not interested in essentializing it one way or the other. But it's clear that the body -- the sweaty physicality of performance; the vocalized sound of a horn; the grunts, groans, shouts, claps that happen during an inspired passage; and, above all, the expressive movement of dance, either of a performer or of an audience -- is currently (at best) circumscribed and (at worst) denied in this music by all sorts of performance conventions derived from the western concert tradition. We all know what that's about: it's a method to help distill the rarefied, intellectual, or spiritual qualities of the music.

Which is great for music that is explicitly designed to work that way. But what about music that is explicitly designed to work both ways?

* * * * *


Shortly before the show, I was chatting with Adam Schatz, from Search and Restore, the great organization that promoted the evening's festivities. Gazing across the huge open Bell House floor that stretched out before the stage, I remarked that it was cool that there would be room for dancing. Adam told me that "No one dances in New York." I don't believe that's really true (and I don't think Adam meant it literally), but man, I found it to be a depressing sentiment in any case. And now perhaps even moreso.

Photo: Lindsay Beyerstein

I will of course have much more to say about the tour very soon. Just had to get that off my chest first.

For two other, more generous takes on the Bell House show, see composer Kelly Fenton, and Tim Wilkins.

[Big thanks to Lindsay Beyerstein for the fantastic photos that graced this post.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009