Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bye Bye Blues

A few weeks ago I had to play a funeral (it's part of my "day gig"), and was struck when one of the featured speakers described that event as a "cause for celebration." Then I realized: the deceased had made it into her 90s, and seemingly lived her life exactly as she pleased. What was there not to celebrate? We should all be so lucky.

Can you blame me for feeling the same way about the passing of the great Les Paul? Sweet mother of pearl -- what a life this dude lived.

When it comes to the "great man theory of history," I'm skeptical. I believe instead that developments in the world of art, or science, or other areas of culture are generally incremental, with many people contributing small things toward a pattern of overall progress. Every once in a while some talented-but-lucky schmuck comes along at just the right moment (more or less accidentally) to reap the rewards of all that less-than-thrilling behind-the-scenes preparatory work.

Here's evidence of Les Paul's impact -- it almost made me wonder if my skepticism was misplaced.

I do play guitar, but I'm not a guitarist (if you catch my drift), so I don't want to discuss all the wonderful things Paul did for that instrument (except to say that as a composer I benefit from them too). I also don't want to get into Paul's musicianship here, though I consider it to be above reproach. I remember hearing him perform at Fat Tuesday's in NYC, back in the 90s, just as I was beginning my own long, slow, downward spiral into jazz. My friends and I had a great time at that show, and I was thrilled that I got to shake the man's hand -- but I think I sensed even then that his music was not for all tastes, not even among guitar players. In the years since, I came across many other admirers of his, and noticed that more than a few of them faulted him for being capable of some pretty "corny" music. But for me, even Paul at his poppiest (e.g., the Mary Ford stuff, which I confess I love) always walked a delicious line between pablum-for-the-masses, on the one hand, and some kind of weird avant-garde mutant shit, on the other.

No, really. It seems commonplace now, but it's fundamentally bizarre (in a good way) to be able to play along with yourself on a recording, or to create an ensemble piece with musicians you have never actually met. So just as people were getting over the unease-with-the-uncanny that accompanied the first half-century or so of recorded sound, Paul comes along and gives them a reason to fret again. Cuz if music is all about being "in the moment," what happens when you split that moment over multiple tracks? When music becomes asynchronous? With one fell swoop, Paul (and the zeitgeist he rode) opened up a new avenue of musical art, one that was -- hallelujah! -- anything but "authentic." (To paraphrase Frank Zappa -- himself a pioneer of multitracking and other studio techniques -- with studio recording you could suddenly do things that had no analogue in nature.)

Ironically (to the extent that Paul is considered a jazz musician), jazz has always had a complicated relationship with recording technology, and specifically with the advances that Paul wrought. Though some jazz musicians were keenly aware of the possibilities, and sought to use that information to the most musical ends possible (Ellington was apparently a real stickler about recording), the infamous original resistance of a Freddie Keppard (say) seemed to inform the broader view: if you play jazz, record it only because you have to. And when you have to, aim for a good representation of the "live event," but don't ever think that that representation is going to compete with "the real thing." Making albums, in other words, is just a byproduct of the fact that we're in the music business -- not a viable practice unto itself. And so the experiments of a Bill Evans or a Bob Ostertag remained just that: experiments.

And yet we jazz musicians live in the present, too, and are affected by technological advances that we may not see fit to embrace explicitly. I have always wondered, for instance, about the extent to which a tune like Mingus's "Moanin'" (from Blues & Roots) would have been possible without the concept of multitrack recording hanging around in the cultural background. On the liner notes to that album, Mingus writes that he wanted "to use a larger group to play in a big band form I'd like to hear that has as many lines going as there are musicians." Here's a live version:

Is this really that dissimilar to the dense tier-ing that characterized some of Paul's recordings (or his demonstrations of same)? Set up the basic skeleton of a form -- whether it's a blues or something else -- and then just layer the shit out of it. You know, because you can. It seems like a model plucked right out of the multitrack world, where the temptations to think vertically can be pretty strong -- those of you who have ever owned or futzed around with a four-track, or a DAW, or a copy of Garageband, probably know the temptations I'm talking about.

I dunno, maybe that's a stretch. Or maybe I'm just realizing that this "multitrack mindset" has a lot to do with how I write the music for my own big band -- which, incidentally, now feels more indebted to Les Paul than ever.

Anyway, RIP.


Dan said...

Wow, Andrew. I loved this piece. The mainstream media echo chamber has been abuzz, but not with anything this insightful. One of my favorite pieces on this news item so far. Thank you.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks, Dan!

I just read David Adler's appreciation (actually a repost of an article from a few years back) -- well worth reading, as it touches on Paul's humor and bawdiness (subjects near and dear to my heart!).

This collection of Les Paul quotes is also priceless -- especially the one about Count Basie and the "one note."

Thanks for reading!