Monday, June 29, 2009

The song that dare not speak its name

It's been a while since I've thrown together one of my infamous little videos, eh?

Here's the latest, assembled absent-mindedly this weekend:

It's actually a portion of one of the longer tunes on our last album. A part two will be forthcoming. (Note that part one and two of the video do not exactly correlate with part one and two of the song.)

Most of the live footage comes from our 2008 California tour, and was shot in LA, San Diego, and Sacramento, by Tany's boyfriend, Tristan.

Can you identify the other source material? As usual, it's all culled from the never-ending smorgasbord of fun that is the Internet archive. (Any self-respecting fan of vintage melodramatic cheese should be able to recognize at least one of the black and white clips that appears here.)

The tune does have a name, but just in case your boss is looking over your shoulder reading this, and just in case you're afraid that dirty words will burn holes in his or her eyeballs, let's just call it "Darn the Dirt."

Oh wait, never mind, there's the actual title right there in the YouTube frame. Ah, well.

Enjoy! Er, I mean: "Enjoy?"

Friday, June 26, 2009

We are the world, and we suck

I won't be breaking any news if I start off by saying what you know already: this week (and Thursday, in particular) the world lost two super-famous people, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. Three, if you count Ed McMahon. (By pure coincidence, I spent much of yesterday practicing the music I need to play for a funeral today.)

Insert here the usual caveat about how there is more pressing stuff going on in the world. Still, all three departures were pretty fucking dramatic and sad. And Michael Jackson, as the lone musician in the group, is probably the one I should try to say something artistically insightful about.

Instead, I find myself wondering what really killed him.

I'm not talking about what the autopsy will reveal (thanks anyway, Dr. Gupta). I'm talking about the music business in particular, and the mass consumption of art in general. I'm talking about the media machine and its peculiar bloodlusts. And I'm talking about me and you: music fans who buy into and prop up stupid ideas like "the king of pop."

There's complicity enough to go around. Jackson himself made a number of really bad choices. But it's not enough to simply write him off as a crazy dude who is alone responsible for his fate. He was also a product of a system that we all (any of us who ever bought a record or watched MTV, anyway) participated in.

To you Jackson haters: can you, in your heart of hearts, guarantee that you would not eventually go off the deep end if one of your parental units brutally forced you into a professional entertainment career before you knew the first goddamn thing about the world? Can you guarantee your continued sanity if you turned out to be so famous that meaningful personal relationships became problematic, or even impossible? Are you that strong and imperturbable? Really?

To you Jackson fans: can you, in your heart of hearts, guarantee that you would love Jackson's music nearly as much if he had never sold millions, or billions, or however-the-fuck-many records? Did your love of his music (or him) depend on (or at least correlate with) his fame? No? Well, he evidently thought it did. Where did he get that idea?

I know it's important to focus on the music, but dig: the way the music was loved ultimately helped ensure that there wasn't more of it. So the fame problem became a musical problem.

There has been talk about how Jackson, in his bizarre later life, was the victim of enablers who infiltrated his inner circle. But we were all enablers. I mean, shit: even in death everyone wants a piece of this man. It was fascinating (and a little disturbing) to watch the explosion of furtive status updates across Facebook and Twitter as the news emerged yesterday: and the frenzy that obtained as people tried to confirm the initial TMZ report occasionally gave way to a sense of, well, petulant entitlement. Some people actually seemed pissed off that they were not immediately informed as soon as Jackson was gone. As if the news was really about them, or someone close to them.

So it's the culture, stupid. Andrew Sullivan has what seems to me to be the best obit so far, because he makes precisely this point:

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell. [...]

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours' and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

Yes, it chewed him up and spat him out. That's it exactly. Except that we're still chewing. Now I see people smiling, laughing, dancing outside the hospital. Now I see the smug broadcasters playing their part like predictable actors in some sick, tired play. Jackson was preparing for a "comeback tour," but in a way, this is the "greatest" comeback he could have devised, according to the rules of the game. In premature death, his fate is now sealed.

One of the hallmarks of the digital age has (supposedly) been the gradual erosion of the music industry star system. That was the world Jackson inhabited. Is it going to finally die with him? Cuz in the long run, it isn't doing anybody any good.

Anyway, RIP.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I blame Guitar Hero

Kidding, of course. Still, it turns out this may not be the best time to plan an unprecedentedly long, 3000-miles-from-home tour for a band that is, to put it kindly, financially unwieldy.

I mean, financial unwieldiness is bad enough. But financially unwieldiness in the middle of a massive economic downturn? Oy.

Anyway, consider:

"There are persistent patterns of decline in participation for most art forms."

"Between 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, jazz, opera, ballet, musical theater, and dramatic plays has seen double-digit rates of decline."

"Audiences for jazz and classical music are substantially older than before....Since 1982, young adult (18-24) attendance rates for jazz and classical music have declined the most, compared with other art forms."

I give you my word that I'm not turning to popular music as a reference point for the IJG out of some kind of crass desire for superficial, material success. But with stats like that, could you blame me if I was?

The Greg Sandow piece cited above is well worth reading in its entirety, as is the NEA report it riffs on.

[Photo credit: "The Smile of a Man with a Wild Fan Base," by notsogoodphotography on Flickr.]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ice cream and other stuff

Wow, the very excellent Chris Schlarb has an awesome project here.

Throw him a buck or two, damnit.

Speaking of ice cream vendors, here's one from our first east coast tour, back in 2005*. (What's that, you say? 2005 was only four years ago? Hard for me to believe.)

Speaking of east coast tours, we have another one coming up in October. (What's that you say? We're crazy? Yes, I know.)

Speaking of that upcoming tour, here are the outlines of our itinerary. I expect to start filling in the other dates very soon. Let us know if you'd like us to come to your (east coast) town.

I also expect to get back to the regular blogging thing soon. (Like maybe even tonight. Booking a tour can be a little time-consuming, is all.)

I also expect to get a mad rush from the fact that PJCE is doing another one of my silly tunes for their July concert.

More on everything soon.

(Whoops, there I go running my mouth again. Gotta focus, Durkin! Tour booking first, aesthetic debates later!)

*Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Of course I would love to write a song called "Mr. Ding-a-ling," but a better musician beat me to a better variation on that title:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Having a thing

Speaking of rituals of validation, Google Reader just handed me this interesting post by east-coast trumpeter Jason Palmer. It touches on the time-honored critical use of the word "voice" (usually paired with the word "original") as a way of praising (or conferring worth on) a given work.

The (or my) question is: nowadays, how does one recognize such a thing?

I frequently read album reviews of artists that are in my generation (25-35). Many of the writers proclaim that the artist doesn’t quite have their own “voice” or that the artist is still in the process of finding his/her own “voice”. Whenever I read a statement like this I can’t help but wonder if the writer were to put the record on repeat and listen to it all day, day in and day out (no one I know has time for this, but you know what I mean), would that artist then have their own “voice” in the view of the writer’s mind’s ear?

Good question. Is the ability to recognize a musical voice (particularly a "new" and / or "original" voice) akin to the process of learning a new language? Does it involve, you know, hard work?

That "no one I know has time for this" is actually pretty important. I strongly suspect that if you factor in whatever gets counted as "indie" (and maybe even if you don't), there is much more recorded music being produced today than, say, forty years ago. Who has time to listen to it all? And yet, if you can't listen to it all, how do you know what an original voice is? ("Original voice" would have to be defined in the context of "all recorded music," no?)

For me, it is all related to definitions of "listening." I have read about critics dismissing a disc after two or three spins in the car. Huh? Have they really heard the thing? I realize, of course, that this is a strategy for making the review glut more manageable -- as the review copies start to pile up, one reaches for any excuse to cross an item off the list, and thus get closer to a feeling of "critical mastery" (a pretty elusive feeling in this day and age). But come on! Some of my current favorite recordings have taken weeks (or even months) for me to warm up to -- time that involved listening in different contexts, and usually (at some point) setting aside an evening for deep listening with headphones.

(Which is not to say that there isn't some music that I pretty much know on first listen is never really gonna resonate with me.)

In the long run we want to be remembered for having our own “thing”. I’ve heard some say that the age of obtaining a personal unique style of improvising [or composing?] in jazz is gone. I don’t really agree with that assessment [...]

Me neither. But I do wonder if it is getting harder to recognize "a thing" when we hear it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

You wonder why I love this town?

Because a high school music program fundraiser can get away with programming a group called Starfucker. Call me crazy, but that seems pretty hip.

I should be careful what I wish for

Go Trent.

(Maybe it ain't so bad being obscure and mysterious.)

The anxiety of influence

Just read an interesting interview with one Mr. William Joel -- who, for better or worse, was a key influence during my senior year in high school.

Don't roll your eyes -- I've written about this before.

(I'm convinced that my girlfriend at the time was only interested in me because I could play the piano in a style somewhat similar to that of Mr. Joel. I still find it oddly fitting that our relationship fizzled right around the time he stopped making albums regularly. But for a while there, Billy Joel helped me to get laid, and for that alone, I am grateful.)

Anyway, kudos to Marc Myers for posting such a thing on a jazz blog, of all places. (Apparently, the Joel interview stemmed from a previous interview with Phil Woods, who played the various solos that would be smushed together by Phil Ramone into a single Frankenstein solo for Joel's iconic "Just the Way You Are.")

If I'm hesitant to admit that I was once obsessed with Joel's work (please note that better pianists than I have no such compunctions), it may have something to do with commentary like this (excerpted from the JazzWax interview):

Billy Joel's relationship with jazz fans has always been a bit tenuous. Much of the rancor dates back to Billy's 1978 album 52nd Street. With jazz on the ropes in the late 1970s, Billy's followup album to The Stranger featured the young singer-songwriter standing on the cover holding a trumpet and posing in a New York City alley. Though Freddie Hubbard played on one of the album's tracks, 52nd Street's cover sent an unintentional and chilling message: Rock's dominance of the music business was so complete that one of its stars felt comfortable enough posing as a jazz legend. In effect, the rocker was perceived by jazz fans as using their art form as a kitschy prop, which only rubbed salt in a festering wound.

Woah. I'll admit it: I wasn't exactly hip to these issues the first time I heard this record (in the mid-80s, years after it actually came out).

Of course, now I can see how a photo of a rock musician posing with a horn he couldn't actually play, on a famous bebop street, on the cover of a Grammy-winning hit album, might be read as a subtle but gratuitous dig at jazz, especially during what may have seemed (to some) like a low period for the latter genre. And as a musician who has tried to "pass" on both sides of the jazz / rock divide (I have described myself as both a "songwriter" and a "composer"), I get it. The jazzer in me thinks it is patently unfair that the rockers get the lion's share of the money and the fame. (And the rocker in me thinks it is patently unfair that the jazzers get the lion's share of "serious" critical consideration -- but that's an issue for another post.)

But "rancor"? Wow! I mean, if Joel really wanted to put down jazz, one wonders why Freddie Hubbard appears on 52nd Street at all. (Why not, say, Herb Alpert?) Hell, shouldn't Joel have been stepping on the trumpet instead of merely holding it?

More importantly, I have to ask: was it Billy Joel's fault that rock "dominated" the music business in the 70s? If he was just making the music he wanted to make, was he to blame if it happened to sell? And is it his fault if, today, one large subset of his fans seem to be people who, as a general rule, don't really care about music at all? (Cuz, ya know, I see a lot of those same people at the jazz festivals, too.)

One other thing struck me about this interview:

JW: Thinking about recording a jazz album?
BJ: No. I’m not good enough.

JW: Oh give me a break...
BJ: No I’m not. I’m really not that good a piano player.

Huh? What's the subtext here? That it would be supercool if Joel ultimately put his time, effort, and talent into... jazz? (Really, Billy? You don't think you could play jazz well? As talented as you are? I find that hard to believe!)

I guess I can't blame Myers for pursuing this line of questioning, JW being a jazz blog and all. I'm sure it was a completely innocent gesture. But at the same time, it just seemed a little strange to me.

I mean, I like it when artists try to cross over or hybridize. Like, for instance, when a nascent singer-songwriter does his best heavy metal impression! That's my aesthetic schtick too, right? But at the same time I guess I'm not terribly interested whether the rockers I like (or the R&B/soul artists, or whoever) can play jazz. I have never cared whether they harbored secret bona fide "jazz chops." And, by the way, not to get off on a tangent, but I have never thought of using the possibility (or fact) that they did as a legitimization for my admiration of their work.

Maybe I'm funny that way!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Timing is everything

Slowly pushing my way (a few years late) through Alex Ross's book (slowly, because I am simultaneously planning a tour / prepping a record for a full-on mix). As you probably already knew, it is a phenomenal work.

As with that other tome in my current reading rotation, I will be sure to fold in more detailed book-related observations on this blog at some point. But for the time being, this:

Ives wisely waited until 1920 before trying seriously to publicize his modern Transcendentalist style. Ten years earlier, his work would have made little sense to listeners reared on the courtly values of the Gilded Age. But in the period of the Roaring Twenties there emerged what the scholar Carol Oja has called a "marketplace for modernism," an audience more receptive to disruptive sounds.

Cawing trombone glissandos defined the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 1917 track "Livery Stable Blues," the first jazz record to capture national attention. Around the same time, audiences were cheering the immigrant Ukrainian pianist-composer Leo Ornsteing, a.k.a. "Ornstein the Keyboard Terror," who offered up savage discords and slam-bang virtuosity. Ornstein's most startling effect, co-invented with the California experimentalist Henry Cowell, was the "cluster chord," in which three or more adjacent notes are struck with the hand, the fist, or the forearm. Somehow, Ornstein succeeded in generating an early form of the mass hysteria that would later greet Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. One crowd was said to have "mobbed the lobbies, marched at intervals to the stage, and long clung there to walls, to organ-pipes, pedal-base, stairs, or any niche offering a view." (p. 147)

All in good time, my fellow thong-wearing, noisy, dancing big bands. Our marketplace will come.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

All I have are questions

For some reason, I'm still chewing on this MOPDtK review. Kind of funny, because I don't even know the group all that well. They do seem like kindred spirits of a sort, but I haven't yet absorbed much of their music (er, "moosic").

It doesn't really matter for what follows, though. I don't want to harp on the Peter Hum piece (honestly, I have no beef with Mr. Hum -- in fact, I think he's a terrific writer), but the arguments it contains seem to me to be representative of a broader view in the jazz critical cognoscenti. Which is not to deny Hum's point that MOPDtK have achieved "critical darling" status. It's just that I have heard the same complaints about "schtick" and lack-of-substance coming from the Bagatellens and One Final Notes of the world -- the sort of publications that bestowed that same critical darling status Hum is resisting. This suggests that there is a more broadly-held critical perspective at work here, one that informs both "progressive" and "conservative" jazz fans.

Maybe this is the bit to address:

[...] I have to thank [MOPDTK] for making me realize that my appetite for musical deconstruction and exaggerated playing, heavy on effect and yuks, is definitely more limited than it once was. Too frequently on This Is Our Moosic, so many solos go to the same place. A horn overblows. The drums skitter and clatter. The band presses the schtick button. I may be too much caught up in "value" and "quality" lacking a sense of "fun," but I find these moves to be easy ways out, substitutes for more surprising and substantial musical developments. MOPDTK has its concept, rooted in music that most likely doesn't do much for me either, but the group, beyond its funhouse esthetic, seems to me to be accessing musical cliches of its own, as much as any well-worn tri-tone substitution or earnestly intended Art Blakey shuffle might be for jazz musicians who aspire to more mainstream, and dare I say serious, beauties.

And so, I'll address it:

How exactly does one identify a musical "yuk"?

What is "overblowing" in the context of MOPDtK, and why is it bad, exactly? What is "skittering and clattering" in the context of MOPDtK, and why are they bad, exactly? (I sometimes wish critics were forced to provide sound clips to accompany every statement.)

Does the suggestion that "the schtick button" is an "easy way out" mean that art is always supposed to be hard? And what does it mean to suggest that art can either be "easy" or "hard"? Mozart seemed to be able to fart out great music -- how does that square with the concept of taking the "easy way out"?

What if the word "schtick" is like the word "queer" -- used to denigrate an aesthetic approach or lifestyle one disagrees with, but ultimately reclaim-able as a positive value by the practitioners of that approach or lifestyle? Or, in the context of this review, is it an irredeemable term, meant to convey the idea that MOPDtK literally want to swindle audiences?

Are "value" and "quality" mutually exclusive from the concept of "fun"?

Is it the critic's job to express things with certainty? Is it the critic's job to persuade? What's the difference between a critic and a publicist?

How many times must something be repeated (and for whom?) before it becomes a cliche?

Is it wrong to love something without understanding why? Is it (ever?) enough to love something without understanding why? When?

Rhetorical questions, perhaps. Still, I'll try to unpack 'em in the days ahead. Or maybe you can do it for me.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Winging it

Much jazz-oriented criticism seems to rely on the notion of "spontaneity" (and determines value based on who has it and who doesn't). But lately I've been wondering what that means, exactly, and whether there isn't a certain amount of semantic prestidigitation going on whenever someone invokes the term as a means of praising some artist or other. (Okay, "whether there isn't" is maybe a little coy of me -- I should've written "of course there is a certain amount of semantic prestidigitation going on whenever someone invokes the term as a means of praising some artist or other.")

Let me try that again: I've been getting the feeling lately that "spontaneity" is one of the more unexamined concepts in the jazz lexicon.

Consider, for instance, this less-than-enthusiastic review of the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, by Peter Hum.

Hum is an observant, articulate writer. I can't begrudge him his taste (though I may have more to say about this piece at some point, because some of the problems he has with MOPDtK are criticisms that people have leveled at the IJG as well). But I seem to have a deeper resistance to comments like these:

To my ears, many post-Coltrane and European improvisers, consumed by finding new and even unconventional sounds as improvisors, rejoice in tossing structure, tonality and rhythm out the window. They might contend that they have enlarged our definition of "beautiful," burying outdated sounds and social significances in the process. And yet, some of the tropes of their music, say piano pummeling or saxophonic overblowing, I would contend, have since become codified, making free jazz that is nonetheless dependent on a set of fall-back musical moves. Meanwhile, musicians such as Keith Jarrett have played utterly spontaneous music -- free, right? -- even as they adhered to song forms and all the conventional beauties of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It's hard for me to imagine that anything played by a professional musician, particularly one as experienced as Keith Jarrett or Ornette Coleman, could ever be "utterly spontaneous." I mean, think about that phrase for a second. It suggests that years of performance and listening history, years of artistic backstory, years of being engaged and in the world, can somehow be abandoned, at even a subconscious level. As if environmental factors can be made completely irrelevant when it comes to expression.

Which is not to say that it is not worth pursuing "utter spontaneity," or employing it as a metaphor, or even that sometimes things might sound utterly spontaneous -- but that's exactly the problem. The old platitude is based in truth: what sounds "spontaneous" to me might not sound "spontaneous" to you. And if we assume that something that sounds "utterly spontaneous" is utterly spontaneous -- just because the artist (or his / her marketing materials) tell us it is so -- we are probably being duped. Cuz y'know: every utterance is inevitably informed to some extent by external factors.

(I don't have a solution to this problem, of couse; I'm just content with pointing it out.)

Speaking of Jarrett, by the way, no one is more flabbergasted than me that "Incident at Umbria" is the IJG's most-viewed video (by far) on YouTube. Like, we've passed 8,000 views. For us, that's pretty freaking amazing -- and kind of exasperating, too, cuz, you know, I have written plenty better things than that. Anyway, check out the comments if you have the time. There has been a bit of an "exchange."