Thursday, June 11, 2009

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!


Ryshpan said...

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!)

In most interviews I've read, Billy Joel always downplays his playing. For his classical pieces, he worked (works?) extensively with virtuoso pianists like Richard Joo to turn his seedlings into fully developed pieces. If he were to turn to jazz, it might happen in the same vein: Billy writes a bunch of tunes and then gets some musicians more proficient in jazz to perform them.

I still can't play that break in "Stiletto" properly, though, after all these years of trying!

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey David, thanks much for your comment!

I haven't heard the "classical" album -- is it any good?

Yeah, I think maybe I lost the thread a little in the latter part of this essay. The interview raised so many questions for me -- and maybe I was overreacting to the suggestion (however slight or unintentional) that a pop songwriter could never really be "good enough" until he or she had written jazz. Which is not to say I wouldn't pay attention if Joel suddenly wanted to write jazz. Just that the question of whether he would or wouldn't seems to be freighted with an ever-so-slight load of baggage packed at the jazz train station.

I could be totally wrong, but here's a test: imagine a rock blogger interviewing Phil Woods and asking him if he is going to make a rock album. When Woods protests that rock isn't his thing, the rock blogger expresses astonishment...

mrG said...

I always thought the 52nd Street cover was a kind of "Thank you" tip of the hat to the bop era, like hip-hop samples of Miles. It never occurred to me Billy couldn't actually play the thing.

And while he does play the humility thing a bit hard on himself, it's also a pet peeve of mine the skiffle rockers out there who do think they can play jazz by "throwing in some random licks and adding some 7ths to my songs" (actual conversation with a gigging new-jazz'er) -- I could never be so bold as to paint my face white and put up a poster to announce myself as an authentic Kabuki Artist, no matter how many Yôjirô Takita movies I'd watched, and I'd feel really embarrassed if I ever came face to face with a real Kabuki star, like I'd be caught committing a terrible racial slur, thinking it fine to do because there's none of 'those people' around to hear it.

Which is not to say BJ couldn't or even shouldn't play with a Jazz band; his melodies are brilliant, and if he collaborates to turn those bits of rare earth into the killer jems, I think that's just fine; if it was all Richard Joo, there's be a different dude on the cover.

As for Phil playing Rock, well, I actually have heard that question asked and answered of others over the years, especially during the electric 70's; Oliver Lake probably paid his mortgage with Jump Up, and I heard a rumour (unconfirmed) that Ornette added Bern Nix to tap the rock market, even Sun Ra primed his band on Donna Summer and added the Disco Kid to Lanquidity -- after a few years on rice and beans, there could be a lot of pressure on a lot of players to fall in with the Dark Side ;)

Anonymous said...

Well, I do recall back in the hair band era reading an interview with Scott Henderson for one of those magazines that appealed to aspiring metal guitarists, in which the interviewer asked "Do you have a metal bone in your body?" When Henderson answered that he didn't think he really played fast enough for metal, the interview responded incredulously (or so it seems to me), "But your blazing bebop blows me away!"

Sometimes I wish I had a little more control over the things that get lodged in my memory.

Ryshpan said...

I haven't heard the "classical" album -- is it any good?

I think so, yeah, on its own terms. Some of the pieces are really beautiful and well-constructed. The last piece actually sounds like it could have come out of The Koln Concert, believe it or not. I could do without the faux-Bach invention, but it sounds like a good faux-Bach invention. I think it was smart of him to stick to what he knows - piano music - instead of jumping in head-first to overblown symphonic music.

I don't know what it is about assuming piano-playing songwriters have some allegiance and capability in jazz, but it happens - I've read things on various fansites claiming Billy, Elton, Joe Jackson and Bruce Hornsby, could/should/would do jazz records. Hornsby actually did come out with a really damn good jazz album, Camp Meeting, which got negligible press, unfortunately. It's actually pretty killing in places - with Christian McBride and Jack as a rhythm section, it has to be. They open with a previously-unrecorded Ornette tune, damn it! And Joe Jackson has winked and nodded at jazz many times - his Jumpin' Jive covered a bunch of jump blues and swing tunes 15 years before the neo-swing revival hit, and Body & Soul looks like an old Blue Note record with JJ posing like Sonny. Is that a slight to jazz, too?

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, all. I appreciate the jazz-to-rock counterexamples.

I think there are weird rituals of validation going on here -- which may partially explain the "humility thing." I.e., once you've sold millions of records, what else can you do to "prove yourself"? Why, try to get the thumbs up from Art, of course!

I'm just guessing, of course. I can't speak from the perspective of someone who has sold millions of records. But Joel has always been a little sensitive about his lack of critical approval... looking for that approval in areas more self-consciously artistic is logical, I guess. And the motivations may work in reverse from the other side: a jazz critic or artist may be aware that he or she is "lower down" on the commercial food chain, but may be simultaneously aware that he or she can help to bestow artistic legitimacy.

I haven't heard that Hornsby record, but I always thought he was one of the better piano players from the group of folks who typically get defined as "pop." Tori Amos is pretty fantastic too, actually.