Friday, December 17, 2010

RIP Don Van Vliet

The first Captain Beefheart song I ever heard was "I Love You, You Big Dummy," when I was about 16 or 17. Fred Frith was filling in as a guest DJ on WFMU one night, and I happened to record most of his broadcast to cassette (I did that sort of thing frequently -- it was one of the main ways I learned about new music). I got the sense that Frith really didn't want to play the track, except that he was getting a lot of requests for Beefheart, and wanted to get it out of the way. He accidentally started "Dummy" at the wrong speed (too slow), and I remember thinking that the music sounded even weirder after he corrected the problem halfway through.

I would eventually wear out that particular cassette, but I hardly remember any of the other artists Frith played that night.

Of course Trout Mask Replica is the classic Beefheart album. For me it preceded my Zappa infatuation. But I have always particularly adored Shiny Beast, especially "Tropical Hot Dog Night" (which kicks in at about 3:50 on the above clip). That song, for whatever reason, saved me from madness when I moved to LA in 1995. Coincidentally I played it for my elementary school band this year, and for a few minutes they seemed to understand what it meant to be overjoyed at the possibility of being utterly unique.

Beefheart seemed to have a Monk-like trust in the worthiness of the most basic aesthetic gesture. It's a cliche to cite the "child-like sensibility" of some artists, but with Beefheart it really was a key part of his appeal.

Did I say Monk? I could also have said Ornette Coleman. But I'd be better off citing Lester Bangs making that same comparison, more eloquently than I ever could (Bangs' review of Lick My Decals Off, Baby may still be the definitive essay on Beefheart, though it gets a little bombastic toward the end):

The comparison with Coleman is apt on more than one level: both ushered in new decades with conceptions of ensemble improvisation so unheard of as to raise wide controversy; both have concerned their music with the rising spirit of man, the unforced compassion and insight that led Coleman to write songs like "Lonely Woman" and "Beauty is a Rare Thing," Beefheart to "Frownland" and "I Love You, You Big Dummy"; and most significantly, no matter how far out both have gotten, the primitive American blues heritage has always been implicit in everything they've done.

All good points, though the "unforced compassion" is worth underscoring, particularly in relation to the basic sullen contrivance that seems to drive some of the indie-est rock (or jazz) today. People love Beefheart's music because it is affectionate, and it feels good, no matter how dark it gets:

. . . in an age of pervasive artistic negativism, we have in Cap a new-old man refusing to discard the heart and humanity and essential innocence that Western culture has at least pretended to cultivate for three thousand years and which our electrified, relativistic generation seems all too willing to scrap as irrelevant sentimental bullshit. When Cap beams: "My smile is stuck/I cannot go back to your frownland/My spirit's made up of the ocean/And the sky/And the sun and the moon/And all my eyes can see...Take my hand/And come with me/It is not too late for you/It is not too late for me...." he stands at a point of pristine enlightenment that acid can't confer.

I was going to say something about it being hard to imagine any of Beefheart's many imitators being able to convincingly deliver an opening line like "My smile is stuck / I cannot go back to your frownland" . . . and then I realized that Beefheart doesn't really have many imitators. Or, actually, any.

QED and RIP.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Those who can't do, teach, and then their students secure their legacy

This section of a Christoph Wolff essay on Bach--and particularly the bit about "scores of students and their pupils' students" working to "organize and eventually consolidate Bach's lasting influence"--made me laugh out loud:

It seems worth noting at this point that Bach’s most important musical contemporaries, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, and Rameau, who all wrote music that had a broader appeal, and was more widely disseminated than Bach’s, were completely remote from the discussion and the scene in which the eighteenth-century concept of original genius emerged. Two explanations offer themselves. First, their compositional art, whether applied to opera, oratorio, concerto, or any other vocal and instrumental genre, was widely recognized and acknowledged as superior. There is no question about the quality, beauty, appeal, technical make-up, or poetic and expressive character of their music. Yet none of their compositional achievements brought about any fundamental and long-lasting changes by way of discovery and new inventions. Second, Bach lived and worked for twenty-seven years in an academically challenging environment, and his main activities consisted of teaching. Hence, scores of students and their pupils’ students helped organize and eventually consolidate Bach’s lasting influence, a phenomenon that none of his musical colleagues sustained.

You could literally spend decades pondering the extent to which everything you think about the art that you like (or don't like) is socially-constructed. No wonder most of us don't.

(By the way, I adore the music of Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, and Rameau.)

[Photo credit: nathanrussell]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

That's my life's work, thanks for listening

Just saw the documentary on Harry Nilsson. Highly recommended.

At one point, songwriter Jimmy Webb describes a scene toward the end of Harry's life. The story just stuck with me. Maybe it will stick with you, too:

I remember one night, about a month before he died, we went out on the street, and we walked about half a block and there's Harry's car. We got in, and he said, "I just want you to listen to this with me." And he had two or three tapes, and he took 'em out, and he put 'em in the sound system, and we started listening to Harry's songs. And we must've listened for a couple hours. And he played one after the other. New ones, old ones, some that I had heard before, some I knew he had written and hadn't gotten recorded, some that he wanted to record, some that weren't finished, but they were all wry and tender and funny and vulnerable and sweet and sour at the same time. We got to the end and the last song played and the tape player clicked and it was silent in the car and he looked around and Santa Monica was quiet, just me and Harry in the car. And he said, "Well," he said, "that's my life's work." He said, "Thanks for listening." And that's the last time I saw him.

Is there really any point in trying to imagine a more touching, elegant, dignified way to go than that?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Talking about the no-talking blues

Still, consensually, critics showed their frustration. They didn't understand what the group was trying to do. The rhythm section was more or less given a pass, but it was the saxophone soloing that challenged credulity, its length and perhaps its unwillingness to tell a traditional story.

For what it's worth, in all the existing recordings of Coltrane's group in Europe from those years (1962 and '63), Coltrane gave a spoken introduction exactly three times. If there's one thing the facile critic needs to do his job, it is some verbal personality from the bandstand, some words to transcribe into the review--anything to make a thoroughly musical endeavor more literary or conversational. Coltrane would not provide it.

[. . .]

At this time Coltrane was as much of a culture hero within jazz as Charles Mingus, but, unlike Mingus, he didn't worry out loud about the place of jazz in American society. He was curiously uncompelled to publicly condemn uncomprehending listeners, whether for reasons of aesthetics, philosophy, culture, or race; he seemed to believe in his music implicitly.

(Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, pp. 77-82)

"Curiously," indeed. Unless you understand that Coltrane was simply behaving, vis a vis his own music, in the way that he had to behave, because it felt most natural given the sound he was making in his groups.

I'm no Coltrane, but I often ask myself (sometimes even from the bandstand, moments before I'm supposed to announce a tune) whether there is anything left to say once you put everything you have, every last bit of whatever creative well you are drawing from, into a given piece of music.

If a critic, or audience, or passerby, needs more than the music somehow, well, that's fine. They certainly have that right. But, by the same token, life isn't always fair, and you can't always get what you want.

[Photo credit: "talk talk (FSOD)" by PinkMoose]

Monday, October 25, 2010

Take care of yourselves, and each other

Q: There seems to be more and more obtrusive music and noise in public in our everyday lives. Would you say this is bad?

A: Yes, unequivocally. Our systems were not designed to withstand this onslaught every minute of our lives. We need to adopt the more advanced European standard of an alert-action sound level of 80 decibels, instead of the 85 we have now. In Sweden, I saw kindergartens with a wall of lights working as sound monitors: Green lights came on when voices were quiet and moderate, and yellow ones flashed when the noise increased. At 80 dB, red ones lit up. Visually, the children could see when they were being too noisy in the classroom. They could self-monitor.

Q: What about MP3 players?

A: The use of things such as iPods, which are forcing sound right down into the ear canal with the newer, tighter ear buds, is going to produce hearing loss and other auditory issues at far younger ages than we’ve seen in the past. This is going to be an epidemic of great proportions in our world. We also must educate ourselves and our children that making music that is too loud is not a well-thought-out activity. Children in bands or orchestras should wear ear protection in the form of musician’s plugs, which come with filters of 9, 15, or 25 decibels. We know there is a relationship between tinnitus, hyperacusis, and noise exposure, so let’s work harder to prevent those cases when we are easily able.

(From an interview with Dr. Marsha Johnson.)

A few weeks ago I had a brief, scary, and, for me, new experience with something that I now suspect could have been a bout of tinnitus. (I dunno, does tinnitus come in "bouts"?) To wit: it was a weird, faint ringing in my right ear, and it lasted for a few days. It has since disappeared, but I'm loathe to follow up with an audiologist, because, well, I'm freaked out by the possibility of bad news about my ears. Cuz I kind of need my ears to keep working.

Then again, why should I be even a little surprised if my hearing is indeed deteriorating noticeably? I shudder to think of the number of hours I have spent wearing a set of headphones (always my favorite way to experience music), or playing keyboards in a bad (read: overly-loud) bar band, or standing in front of any given IJG horn section. I have always craved total immersion in music, and considered it the price of any claim to legitimacy as a composer ("what do you mean, you've never heard of such-and-such a band?!"). But I wonder if the human ear is able to withstand the influx of sonic information that corresponds with such a desire / compulsion? Particularly in the context of a world that is already filled to the brim with sound? (When was the last time you really experienced "silence," anyway?)

I also wonder how many of us in this profession (i.e., the "music business," or its extension, the "music criticism business") truly know how good or bad our hearing actually is -- beyond the impression of authority that is the inevitable byproduct of having a point of view? Are we musical omnivores of the early twenty-first century already part of an "epidemic of great proportions," without even knowing it?

[photo credit: "Warning!" by Roger B.]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's all been done before

Commentary from Kiel Bryant, from a terrific essay by Michael Heilemann, on the origins of Chewbacca:

I’m dismayed by the cult of originality — it sets up impossible, false expectations which fail to grasp what art is. Innovation is good, exploration is to be encouraged — they build on what’s gone before — but more often than not it’s enjoyable to simply experience an idea well-conceived, regardless of that idea’s source or its “originality.” And in the final analysis, were Star Wars [or Raiders of the Lost Ark] ever intended to be wildly original? No, they’re pastiche — valentines to the swashbuckling genres of yore. Kids, especially millennials, make a simple and honest mistake borne out of youth: they see Star Wars before they’ve seen its inspirations and assume it came that way fully assembled, direct from Lucas’ head. They witness result, not process. Then, growing as artists or cinephiles, their awareness gradually enlarges, the supporting armature begins to show — and because the film wasn’t what they’d originally dreamt (a total creation, which is an impossibility), they decide George Lucas isn’t worth the praise they originally foisted on him. Absolutely circular, and absolutely pointless.

The idea that people could "fail to grasp what art is" -- this is one of my concerns, too. It seems vaguely unhealthy to me. In fact, it's one of the things that drove me to revise the book that is giving me grief as I ready it for consumption by a general audience. (Hence this brief period of infrequent blog posts.)

I don't know why it bothers me so much that people would fail to see art in all of its exploded, humble glory... but it does. Many artists want you to ignore the trajectories of influence behind their work, but I think these things are vitally important. Because when it comes to our own self-importance as "creators," we're all faking it, to some extent.

[Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar]

Thursday, October 07, 2010


Charles Peterson, in the film Hype, describing the Seattle music scene in the 1990s:

We were all so fucking bored out of our heads that it was get drunk, fall down, and, uh, you know, throw your body around, and all the bands that came through Seattle at that time [...] said that Seattle had the most exciting, potent scene going on in the US. They all loved to play here because everyone would just, like, go nuts, and drink themselves into a frenzy, and throw themselves onstage, and it was very flattering for these bands, you know, whereas, you go to Los Angeles or New York, and people stood there and went "hmmm... [rubbing chin] I don't know, he missed a note, there."

I was never a big fan of grunge, but do people genuinely "go nuts" over any kind of music any more? Loving music seems so... polite, these days.

[photo credit: Philo Nordlund]

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The usefulness of quiet

Sorry for the long silence... I will follow up on all unattended conversations soon, I promise.

In the meantime, speaking of silence:

I have written about Maya Deren before. Last night I finally had an opportunity to finish the anthology of her short experimental films that has been sitting in my Netflix queue for months. I do recommend it.

Most of these films were produced in the forties, if I remember correctly, and what is kind of interesting about that is that many of them are silent. Not "silent" as in "no sound was recorded with the film, but producers added it later, for a modern audience" (as is the case with most so-called "silent" cinema). These films were truly silent. Which is a hard enough feat when your film is driven by some sort of narrative, but probably harder when you're dealing with abstractions, surrealism, kinetic studies, and image for its own sake, as I think Deren was.

I can imagine the strong motivation to find a way to add sound to early film, at least to the extent that early film was an extension of theater. And I can imagine the great excitement that must have obtained when someone finally figured out a way to do it. In that context, the deliberate choice to be silent seems fairly radical. In any case, I like it because it demonstrates an important principle that I sometimes lose sight of: the fact that a tool or technique exists is not a good reason to use it.

[photo credit: fradaveccs]

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who died and made you Dean?

Silly critics. So often, they write beautifully, but when you scratch the surface, you discover that they really have no idea what the fuck they're talking about.

I was recently reminded of Robert Christgau's infamous rating system (an adaption of which is currently in use by at least one other critic I like) when it was helpfully quoted by 43 Folders:

An A+ record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays prolonged listening with new excitement and insight. It is unlikely to be marred by more than one merely ordinary cut.

An A is a great record both of whose sides offer enduring pleasure and surprise. You should own it.

An A- is a very good record. If one of its sides doesn’t provide intense and consistent satisfaction, then both include several cuts that do.

[… further explanations, then …]

A D+ is an appalling piece of pimpwork or a thoroughly botched token of sincerity.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would release a D- record.

It is impossible to understand why anyone would cut an E+ record.

E records are frequently cited as proof that there is no God.

An E- record is an organically conceived masterpiece that repays repeated listening with a sense of horror in the face of the void. It is unlikely to be marred by one listenable cut.

And as I re-read this, I wondered: what does this system really tell us, except for the fact that Christgau has a robust sense of humor and a knack for a memorable turn of phrase?

Robert Christgau's infamous rating system, boiled down to its essence:

An A+ record is a record I love the most.

An A is a record I love a little less than an A+.

An A- is a record I love a little less than an A.

[… further explanations, then …]

A D+ is a record I don't like.

A D is a record I like even less than that.

A D- is a record I like even less than that.

An E+ is a record I like even less than that.

An E is a record I like even less than that.

An E- is a record I like least of all.

I don't know, I guess I desire deeper explanations.

Also, one other question: why stop at E-, Bob? You've got the entire freakin' alphabet to work with.

[photo credit: Hillary the mammal]

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Christian Scott (who I like), quoted here, and seeming to channel Emperor Joseph II:

“I think the trumpeters who play the fewest notes have the most distinctive voices. Maybe that’s why those other guys play so many notes—because they haven’t found their voice yet.”

Too many notes? Too few notes? Who cares! Just play the right notes.

[Photo credit: misocrazy]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Go Beth Go

Hey you! It's Beth Schenck on the Jazz Session, talking about her fantastic new record with the always excellent Jason Crane.

If you don't know who Beth is, you should. (Hint: she has played a lot with the IJG.)

Here's an excerpt from a press release I wrote for her a few months ago:

Brooklyn-based saxophonist and composer Beth Schenck is proud to present the release of her debut album, What Shock Heard. An introspective, plaintive, and quietly bold recording, Shock documents a set of compositions written during what Schenck calls “an incredibly turbulent time in my life.” In addition to the leader on alto and soprano saxophone, the disc showcases the talents of guitarist Matt Wrobel, tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, drummer Jeff Davis, and bassist Eivind Opsvik; it was recorded live to tape by Andy Tomasi.

The word “shock” in the album title is simultaneously apropos and misleading. The music contained within can indeed be surprising; the melodic contours are sometimes jagged, and the performances are raw. Schenck has stated that she did not want to create a “slick” recording (Shock was recorded without a single overdub or edit) and the resulting sound is that of unprocessed emotion. But it is this same emotional content, effectively conveyed despite the absence of a specific context or back-story, which also makes this music frank, beautiful, and, in the end, strangely peaceful. There is a repetitive, hypnotic intensity to many of the compositions. Many are also constructed episodically (somewhat rare for a small group recording), adding to the sense of an underlying narrative. One might argue that the result is the sound of a soul in crisis and, ultimately, redemption.

Go listen to the music.

[photo credit: Steve Noreyko]

Friday, September 10, 2010

Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)

I've written about Devo before, so some of you may know that though I came to them sort of late (something that is also true about Zappa), they have since become one of my favorite bands.

Still, I was little scared to check out the new album, because, as Marc Masters put it in his Pitchfork review, "there are a few bad omens hovering around Something For Everybody. It's been two decades since Devo last attempted a full album of new music--and 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps wasn't memorable." These seemed to me to be reasonable fears. In any case it has taken me a few months to get around to actually listening to SFE.

Turns out I disagree with much of the rest of Masters' assessment. (That's not surprising when it comes to me and Pitchfork reviewers, alas.) To my ear, most of the good songs on this album are stacked toward the beginning, and the clunkers ("Human Rocket," "Sumthin'," "Step Up," and "Cameo") kick in after track five, not before.

More importantly, I'm not prepared to dismiss the album as "self-parody" or overly "self-conscious," as Masters comes close to doing. (I'm not even sure I understand what "self-parody" would be, if the self in question is a parodist in the first place. How does one parody the act of parody?)

To me, a more productive way to look at this album is to consider what happens when parody effectively becomes the thing it is parodying. Parody on its own implies an omniscient narrator, commenting on something from a perhaps loving, but also superior, critical, and ultimately safe distance. But when parody is taken to its logical extreme, the power relationship is reversed. We're left with failure, because the thing being parodied has proven to be impervious.

I can't help feeling that SFE is chock full of the sound of this dynamic, the sound of Devo being absorbed into the very commercial monster it once mocked from a distance. (What else could explain the presence of autotune on the album?) It's actually kind of scary to listen to, as the parodist's autonomy seems to disappear in a pit of consummate self-abnegation (perfectly symbolized in this case by the very Freudian cover image of a Devo power dome being eaten by a beautiful woman).

If we should all just disappear
The skies and waters will clear in a world without us

The lucky ones are gonna be the first to go.

That is art as a mirror, alright, but it's a mirror that is unafraid to show us the very ugliest part of ourselves (which, the album seems to suggest, is the idea that our society has become parody-proof). And there is almost no sense of a protected vantage point outside the whole mess.

Is it aesthetically "beautiful"? Probably not. Is it effective, or compelling, or powerful? Definitely.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Things to see and hear

Please excuse the shameless self-promo for a second. First, a new song over at the other blog.

Next, these:

It's all pretty raw, I guess. As they say, it takes a little time to turn an ocean liner around.

Video c/o Tany Ling and Matt Lichtenwalner.

Featuring Damon Zick, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Mary-Sue Tobin, Cory Wright (reeds), Dan Rosenboom, Kris Tiner, Josh Aguiar, Mike Richardson, Ian Carroll (brass), Damian Erskine, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section), Jill Knapp, Tany Ling (vox), me (piano, conducting, compositions).

Monday, September 06, 2010

Music as a mirror, or not

Some of you know that I drag my agnostic ass to church every Sunday in order to play for a congregation of very tolerant Lutherans ("tolerant" because they know I'm a godless bum, and yet they keep asking me back). The truth is that I actually enjoy this gig, at least in terms of the musical challenges it presents.

Anyway, I was leafing through the introduction to one of my organ books this past Sunday, and I came across this commentary:

... because the prelude, if it is well written and well played, reflects the order and design present in the entire universe and also the Holy Spirit's continuing creative gifts to man, it proclaims God's presence. A prelude is therefore not meant to create a mood.

I have heard this idea before, but never so boldly stated. Music meant to reflect "the order and design present in the entire universe"? That's a lot to ask. (Also: what order?)

I have toyed in the past with the idea of trying to create music that was an idealized version of what the world could be. Some kind of perfect utopian expression (which was, incidentally, what I thought the classical composers were really after, too). In a sense, this is the idea of music as a balm, what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion." It's escapist -- not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that.

I have long since abandoned that project in favor of writing music that was reflective -- not reflective of some kind of mythical "order," but rather reflective of the deeper truth of a vast and compulsory chaos.

Sorry, that's just how I see things.

[Photo credit: LollyKnit]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"How are book previews limited?"

Well, I'll tell ya. What they say here is this:

Many of the books you can preview on Google Books are still in copyright, and are displayed with the permission of publishers and authors. You can browse these "limited preview" titles just as you would in a bookstore, but you won't be able to see more pages than the copyright holder has made available.

But wait. "Just as I would in a bookstore?" That's actually not true. I could read the whole damned book in the bookstore if I wanted.

[photo credit: Valeriana Solaris]

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Madness for texture

Somehow my recent Internet activity led me to this:

As I watched this video for the first time, I found myself re-enacting what has become a familiar pattern for me. For the first 10-20 seconds, as I came to grasp the conceit, I was very, very entertained. I may even have laughed out loud. The whole thing seemed terribly clever, and I settled down in preparation for a fully enjoyable three minutes or so.

And yet my enjoyment dropped precipitously as I realized that my understanding of the conceit was really all I needed to know about this particular piece. Everything else was just an expression of that conceit, and the resulting work was something I could just as easily have daydreamed, with the same level of enjoyment. Of course Gomer Pyle was going to be voiced by Mickey Mouse. I understood that instantly, and in the wake of that understanding, actually viewing it was a disappointment.

I'm not presenting this experience as evidence that I am some sort of uber-sophisticated audience member. I'm not proud of what I have just written, actually. I was a bit frustrated with myself for not being more willing to enjoy the craft of the piece for its own sake, for not marveling at the technical execution that made it possible. (It's easy to forget that this sort of creative dubbing exercise is in fact marvelous, at least compared with what was possible for amateur filmmakers, say, twenty years ago.)

But, FSM help me, this is where I'm at with art these days. I'm always looking for the underlying idea, with the hope that it is not only good enough to grab my interest, but good enough to sustain some sort of development. The textures that are layered on top of that idea are almost irrelevant to me. They are just the vehicle by which the idea is presented. (Thus, in terms of writing for a big band, I consider my own tunes "successful" only if they can survive translation to a substantially reduced ensemble, or even a single piano rendition. If they can, I know the underlying ideas are sound.)

On the other hand, most of digital culture seems driven by a madness for texture. And sometimes I wish I could just get with that particular program.

[Photo credit: dog ma]

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't be a fool, dummy

Haven't posted on politics here in a while. In fact, tonight was the first night I have peeked in on cable news in a few weeks, motivated mostly by a vague nausea over this weekend's Nurembergy spectacle.

For what it's worth, I think the guy in this interview said some smart things. So I'm employing the lazy blogger's favorite device, and linking the video here, with a few quotable excerpts below:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

You have to understand that their perspective is that they want us to tear each other apart. They want this country to tear itself apart with racial and religious prejudice and conflict. And we are falling right into that trap. It's disastrous. It's a terrible mistake.

It is American servicemen out in the field who are trying to negotiate with our Muslim allies, and are trying to win our Muslim allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, who are facing this problem first-hand. [...] We can't just talk about the Constitution or talk about the Bill of Rights. We have to live up to it. We have to show an example that other people can respect us rather than fear us.

Seems so simple, doesn't it?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Boozey McBombalot," circa 2010

A glimpse into our show at the Hammer last week:

Unfortunately, we were unable to do the requested encore, because we had run out of tunes.

Thanks to the usual suspects -- Matt Lichtenwalner and Tany Ling -- for making the video happen.

Incidentally, I've also started posting our sets from this mini-tour.

More follow-up to come.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I don't get it

Um, okay.

Presented in a replica of Miles' own trumpet case, a collectible objet d'art in and of itself, each package will include a number of extras: an exact replica of Miles' custom-made ‘Gustat' Heim model 2 trumpet mouthpiece, a previously unseen and unavailable fine art lithograph by Miles, and a boutique quality t-shirt designed and manufactured exclusively by Trunk Ltd. for this package.

What exactly is it that motivates people to buy stuff like this? Is having a "replica of Miles' own trumpet case" really that thrilling? What does the author of this copy think an "object d'art" actually is?

Honestly, I can't be sure that owning such a gaudily produced collection wouldn't have the end result of making me hate Miles Davis. And that thought is very scary indeed. Is being a music fan really about owning everything ever produced, touched, or contemplated by the object of your fanhood? Is this not fetishism run amok?

A related question: do human beings really deserve to rule this planet? (Sorry, it has been a long day.)

UPDATE: Apparently Angry Keith Jarrett has been thinking along similar lines. (H/T: Josh Rutner.)

[photo credit: istolethetv]

Monday, August 23, 2010

What is "influence"?

In response to this article, and the invocation of "Musicians who ignore Armstrong" (a convenient fiction, methinks, if there is any truth to the notion that most contemporary jazz musicians are the products of history-laden jazz education programs), I tossed off this tweet today:

"I don't get this idea that musicians have to emulate all the music they love / are influenced by. It's more complex than that."

What do I mean by that?

Look. I love bluegrass music. I have listened to a lot of bluegrass music in my time. If I were charged with assembling a bluegrass band, I would know what to look for as I was auditioning and hiring the musicians. I would understand what sort of repertoire to have them perform. And knowing what distinguishes "good" bluegrass from "bad" bluegrass, I would understand how to guide such a project. Furthermore, god-dammit, I would probably enjoy the entire process.

I'm certain that my experience with bluegrass informs my writing to some extent. Yet most people would probably say my own music sounds nothing like bluegrass.

Am I influenced by bluegrass or not?

[photo credit: Tony the Misfit]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Last night we got hammered, tonight we get dizzy

Hi! If you're wondering why I haven't been posting this week, it's because of this. Our first tour in nearly a year.

It was also ten summers ago, in this very city (LA), that I started the IJG. Wow: a lot has happened in that period.

We've gone from quintet, to septet, to nonet, to tentet, to crazy-tet. We've traveled to the east coast (three times), played two shows in the Netherlands, gotten some nice grants, enjoyed some really nice critical accolades, provoked a handful of critical complaints, been invited to perform in Italy (we'll be there next March!), made some funny videos, released five official albums (and one fan club album), pulled in a few special guests (hello Wolter Wierbos! hello Bruce Fowler!), made a lot of friends, made a lot of people dance (to jazz! in odd time!), made a few people walk away, worn a lot of strange clothes, laughed at ourselves, and, most importantly, played a lot of music, ranging from the mundane to the sublime (sometimes in the same song).

And now we enter a new phase. You can't have music without movement, can you?

I'll have more to say about this when I get back next week. But in the meantime, if you're in San Diego tonight, come check out the 2010 edition of the band.

Friday, August 13, 2010

No surprises

I've been in the process of re-reading This is Your Brain on Music, and I found myself wanting to underline this sentence when I came to it again:

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations.

That seems to me to be essentially true, at least in my own experience. I'm not sure I'd always call it an emotional "communication," per se (with something as vague as music, that metaphor can be taken too literally, I think), but whatever intense engagement I have with organized sound, much of it has to do with creative subversions of my preconceptions. I love the sense of disorientation that obtains when I don't understand what's going on in a new piece. And I love working to become more at ease with the weirdness, and making it my "new norm."

I'm sure other people -- maybe you're one of them -- listen in the same way. And yet, with each passing year, I become less and less convinced that this manner of listening is typical, even when it comes to die-hard music fans. On the contrary, I think most listeners, even serious listeners, are on a quest for more (and better instances) of the stuff that most accommodates their auditory comfort zone.

What else could explain the great care being taken not to challenge the listener in the following commentary? This is Anthony Dean-Harris, talking about his experience as a radio DJ, and specifically, a quandary over programming the new Nels Cline album into his show:

...anyone who truly thinks about a wide audience would think, “Would a person who is not completely invested in discovering every nook and cranny of this song or this entire album suffer through hearing this complicated, intellectually-challenging music for five or so minutes?”

If the "emotional communication" that we all supposedly prize in music really happens through the "systematic violation of expectations," I suspect that the listeners of this program (and, indeed, most radio) are not after emotional communication at all (since their DJs are not willing to violate their expectations for even five minutes).

I'm not trying to single out KRTU (Dean-Harris's station). This scenario is much more pervasive than that, and is a basic aspect of the "if you like... then you'll like" mentality of Music 2.0. (What is a music service like Pandora if not a systematic confirmation of expectations?) And the point is that Dean-Harris is probably right to be cautious, if the goal, first and foremost, is to build an audience.

The real question is this: what are audiences getting out of this relationship with familiarity? Validation? A sense of belonging?

I came across a Daniel Cavicchi essay recently that I think really nailed what music does for most listeners. Fans, Cavicchi argues, use their detailed knowledge of specific songs, artists, and genres

to shape their personal histories, to initiate friendships, to maintain family relations, to get through the day, to heal emotional wounds, and to create tangible community and fellowship.

When you look at it that way, whether music violates expectations or not is really beside the point. The important thing is how music is used.

EDIT: Jeff Albert has a great response to this discussion; you should read it. To me, this says it all:

“It is not our job as musicians to guess what people want to hear, it is our job to make the music that we hear, and do it honestly.”

Bingo. I need to remind myself of that more often.

[Photo credit: Vimages]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Everyone's doing it

So a few weeks ago I asked "Why no blues wars?" And in the interim I've been maybe a little hard on the "jazz scene" and its denizens for falling prey to self-absorption, and for wondering about the music's place / significance with a special kind of eloquent anxiety and grandeur.

(Of course these are not bad things to wonder, per se, as long as the parlor game they are part of doesn't take over and become your whole reason for existing.)

Part of my theory has been that this turn of events is a trait of post-modern (post-post-modern?) jazz. Since the stuff is generally an intellectual music (not to the exclusion of other things, but still), it tends to produce musicians and fans who are highly self-aware, both of the music's history and their own place in it. Smart people are usually self-aware, so that's nothing shocking.

Anyway, I had been assuming such things were peculiar and endemic to jazz, and then I come across this:

For the last year or so, I've been receiving issues of Rolling Stone Magazine in the mail. Keep in mind, I never ordered a subscription, and I've never paid for an issue, but they still keep sending them. It's such an asinine and irrelevant magazine these days, that I suppose this is the only way they can get people to read. Anyways, the latest issue showed up while I was away this weekend, and as you can see by the magnificent cover, Rolling Stone really has their shit together. First of all, The State of Rock is the title of your issue, but you feature the fucking Black Eyed Peas on the cover? Way to go, retards. And the subtitle of the very same issue is "40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music starring The Black Eyed Peas." Really? REALLY?

Aside from everything else going on in this commentary, it occurred to me that "40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music" could just as easily have been the title of an issue of Jazz Times. The very idea of an institution like Rolling Stone deeming it necessary to take on an advocacy role -- as opposed to merely providing a literary context for popular music -- was kind of surprising to me.

So maybe this whole anxiety thing is not restricted to jazz at all. Maybe we're all worried about the future of whatever kind of music we happen to be making.

Must do more research.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Death by competence

If we improvise with an instrument, tool, or idea that we know well, we have the solid technique for expressing ourselves. But the technique can get too solid -- we can become so used to knowing how it should be done that we become distanced from the freshness of today's situation. This is the danger that inheres in the very competence that we acquire in practice. Competence that loses a sense of its roots in the playful spirit becomes ensconced in rigid forms of professionalism.

--Stephen Nachmanovitch

The worst possible outcome, in my humble opinion.

[Photo credit: SashaW]

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Size doesn't matter

So one distracted morning last week I decided to jump back into the jazz blogosphere by offering a comment on NPR's A Blog Supreme, specifically in response to an interesting post called "Oh, The Kids These Days." The always alert and thoughtful Patrick Jarenwattananon decided to turn that comment into a full-blown post of his own, and here we are.

It was a weird comment to write, though not unrelated to things I have said on JTMoU before. As a bandleader, I am exceedingly frustrated by the idea that art might do better (qua art) -- that it might be more interesting and vibrant and vital -- in a microcosm, because the bottom line of that scenario is most likely less work and less bread for me and my (large and unwieldy) band. And that too is essentially the POV articulated by all of the "con" commenters who responded to PJ's question. (In my original remarks I should probably have made a distinction between "smallness" and "viability." I definitely was not suggesting that it would be better for jazz to lack viability.)

But I am also, as I said, a music fan. And as a fan, I am always tempted by the impulse to run screaming in the opposite direction whenever I know I am being actively sought out as a consumer. And that's probably the point that I should have magnified. Call it the observer-expectancy effect, or late industrial capitalism-induced paranoia, or what you will.

Of course, this point too is kind of ridiculous, if you think about it. The intentions of the boosters are certainly pure. Alas, my fanhood habits were developed as an adolescent, and in some ways I never grew out of the way it felt to love music in that insubordinate context. Unlike most of my friends, whose parents listened to classic rock and roll, and were thus at least tolerant of subsequent forms of youth-oriented popular music, I grew up in a household in which "The Windmills of Your Mind" was unironically considered to be good stuff. The first rock and roll album I heard from beginning to end -- Hey Jude, by the Beatles -- was a true shock in that environment. And from that point on, underneath all the other layers through which I learned to enjoy music, I have always valued it first as an expression of rebellion. (Silly, I know.) Being openly analyzed as a hypothetical customer tends to ruin that effect.

There is an extent to which the debates over jazz's future -- whether of the "jazz is dead!" or "jazz is making a comeback!" variety -- depend and even thrive on one another, and are really just two sides of the same coin. The problem that I was carelessly lashing out over, I now realize, was the sin of excessive self-consciousness, the sort of interminable navel-gazing that is usually symptomatic of decadence and the effete. It is the inevitable byproduct of jazz finding a home in institutions, and on the blogs -- if not in the hearts of a wider audience. (Don't get me wrong -- as a frequenter of both institutions and blogs, I am as much to blame for the problem as anyone else.)

I guess what I was positing was that being satisfied with being "small" (whatever that means) -- or better yet, letting go of (or at least dialing back on) the "whither jazz?" meme altogether -- is a way for musicians and fans alike to escape the oppressiveness of self-reflection run amok. What about the novel idea that we could attract "the kids" (or any neophytes, actually) simply by being hopelessly caught up in the process of unselfconsciously (insofar as that is possible in 2010) creating and adoring great music? Would that not be better than having to talk said kids/neophytes into their attraction? (And is it not ironic that I am articulating this idea so very self-consciously?)

Maybe I'm being uncharacteristically purist here, but isn't it better to have someone love you for who you are, rather than for how well you sell yourself, how well you know yourself, or how much pity you make them feel?

[Photo credit: Niffty]

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Betty you know it's true

Next time I get down on the interpersonal challenges of playing music, remind me to re-view this film. It documents a pretty relentless stream of bad luck / bad decisions in the career of a decent band that came ever-so-close to "making it." (Whatever that means.)

Betty Blowtorch's "failure" is even more bittersweet if you consider Bianca Halstead's history of childhood abuse. And how hard everyone in the band seemed to work.

Anyway, here's the rundown:

PHASE ONE: Fire the guy who formed the band you joined. Wait for him to sue you (by serving you papers onstage).

PHASE TWO: Watch as the guy who joined the band as the original guy's replacement quits publicly, trash-talking your (major) record label in the process.

PHASE THREE: Hire Vanilla Ice as a guest artist on your next record. No, it's worse than that: hire Vanilla Ice to rap about his penis.

PHASE FOUR: Watch as two members of your band quit (without warning) in the middle of a tour, taking the van and all the equipment. Literally: wake up the morning after some show to discover that half the band and the aforementioned van and gear are GONE.

PHASE FIVE: Die in a car accident shortly after replacing the AWOL band members, and after things finally seem to start going your way.

Perspective. It's all about perspective.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

John you know it's true

It was the biggest statement he could possibly make. There are no compromises in it. You know, there are some beautiful things, but they're not the result of wanting to make something pretty.

That's journalist Richard Williams offering a succinct assessment of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band record.

Beauty without prettiness. I knew there was a reason Lennon was my favorite Beatle.

[photo credit: "raw sugar mountain," by qmnonic]


Monday, July 26, 2010

Girl you know it's true

This probably expresses the argument in the "recorded authenticity" section of my dissertation better than what I actually wrote:

At our best, audiophiles are the selfless and generous custodians of a thousand small libraries, keeping alive not only music's greatest recorded moments but the art of listening itself. At our worst, we are self-absorbed, superannuated rich kids, locked in an endless turd-hurl over who has the best toys.

With maybe a little more of an emphasis on the latter half.

Speaking of my dissertation, you may be wondering why I paused blog publication of said tome way back in March.

Well, as it turns out, the internet is not a totally useless phenomenon. Among the three or four people who actually read what I did publish was a (very kind) professional literary agent, who contacted me with an offer to help get the thing published in book form.

And though I was, I guess, part of that dying breed of grad students who wrote a dissertation because I thought it was fun, I quickly discovered in the wake of this inquiry that the idea of trying to find a wider audience through traditional publishing channels (ironic though that may seem in today's digital world) appealed to me greatly.

So I am currently in the throes of editing and revising the thing in the hopes of making it into less of a dissertation, and more of a book. (And if, in the end, it turns out we can't get it published as a book, I will eventually finish what I started via the blog.)

Add to that all the work I'm doing to prepare the next edition of the IJG, to be unveiled on August 19, and this is turning out to be a busy summer indeed.

[photo credit: pescatello]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why any of us get into it

When he was first interviewed by the author, [Skip] James claimed that blues singing had served as a form of inner expression, acting as a salve for unspecified sorrows. But this was a veil he had thrown over himself to avoid detailing the actual attraction blues-singing originally held for him. Eventually, he was to reveal that he had been drawn to blues singing on a professional level because he wanted to become a pimp. Becoming a blues singer was, in his immediate environment, almost an initiation rite for budding pimps.

(Stephen Calt, I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues)

You can sublimate it all you want. As for me, it's futile to pretend that music is unconnected, on some deep and inexorable level, to sex.

[Photo credit: lucyfrench123]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Portrait of the artist as a young techno fodder provider

Based on a tune from an older era ("Building a Fire," something I originally wrote for my early 90s band, the Evelyn Situation), this remix was recently forwarded to me by Ms. Knapp, who is a friend of the DJ in question. Though still only a draft, I hope you will be as impressed as I am at the metamorphosis, from this (the Evelyn version of the tune) to this:

Make and Destroy (Remix of "Building a Fire" by The Evelyn Situation) [draft] by Wonder Nexus

Again, I wrote the song in another (simpler, more maudlin) era. If you don't believe me, here's the lyric:

We went away for a weekend together
High in the mountains and high in the heather
I brought my anger and you brought your fear
We boarded the bus that took us out of here
We stayed awake all night gathering fuel
For building a fire for lovers and fools
We lay it all down in a clearing that dawn
And slept as it dried out all day in the hot sun
Setting the wood took three or four hours
But slowly and carefully we built a tower
We worked much harder than we'd ever known
And when we were done I could swear it looked like home
Then we stood there watching as we burned away
This beautiful thing we had labored to make
I shut my eyes and I thought of our joy:
It's something we make and it's something we destroy
It's something we make and it's something we destroy

What still gets me about this one: the notion of working hard to build something, only to tear it down (or calmly watch its demise) later. At the time, I was writing about a relationship (some of them do indeed work out that way) -- but as it turned out, the song was also about the Evelyn Situation itself (it wasn't long after this was recorded that the band broke up). With a little interpretive liberty, there are other applications too (via):

During the 1930s and 1940s, Hovhaness famously destroyed many of his early works. He later claimed that he had burned at least 1000 different pieces, a process that took at least two weeks; elsewhere he claimed that he had destroyed approximately 500 works, up to 1000 pages in total. In an interview with Richard Howard, he stated that the decision was based primarily on Roger Sessions' criticism of his works of that period, and that he wished to have a new start in his composing.

There is an impulse in art to invest in projects with an eye toward keeping them going forever. I understand that, of course, and there is something to be said, when it comes to bands in particular, for the longevity of a specific configuration of people, or the persistent pursuit of a specific aesthetic goal. I take a special pride in the fact that the IJG has been making music for ten years so far; each additional year I count as a gift.

On the flip side, it's also nice to know when to let something go, or when to allow it to self-destruct in order to work on something new. Otherwise you end up, maybe, with something like this.

[Photo credit: a portrait of the Evelyn Situation by Tom Crofton]

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Welcome to my world

The blog-tastic team at Brilliant Corners (if I actually had the time to read blogs these days, this one would be a regular stop for me) recently published a nice rumination on the subject of humor and schtick in jazz. Kudos to you, Steve Provizer, for using that evil word! (The evil word is "schtick," not "jazz.")

The subject is Mostly Other People Do the Killing:

In the video, deadpan all the while, [drummer] Shea sticks an odd-shaped piece of paper on his nose and proceeds to straddle the drums, hump them, bump them, milk them, tangle with them, move them, disassemble them, pratfall over them and use them as a staging area for a finger puppet show. At one point, it looks like Laurel and Hardy moving a piano, but with the bass drum standing in for Ollie. The audience seems too intimidated by the 'seriousness' of the context to respond as I did-laugh out loud. It's just not done. Mr. Wooster.

After all this, Shea moves the band into a fiery "Night In Tunisia." His is a gutsy, funny and focused performance. I know, performance art, yadda-yadda, but this is essentially shtick and a little shtick never hurt anyone.

This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, not only because I posted something about it at the very outset of my own damned blog, and not only because it's a critical aspect of my own aesthetic, but also because the IJG has gotten into trouble -- right here in River City! -- at the hands of this very same phenomenon. Damn you, schtick!

But this is an old story by now and there's no point in going into it any further.

Incidentally, I once wrote something about MOPDTK here.

[Photo credit: crazytales562]

No accounting for taste

The Germans are the only people who currently make use of the word "aesthetic" in order to signify what others call the critique of taste. This usage originated in the abortive attempt made by [Alexander] Baumgarten, that admirable analytic thinker, to bring the critical treatment of the beautiful under rational principles, and so to raise its rules to the rank of a science. But such endeavors are fruitless. The said rules or criteria are, as regards their chief sources, merely empirical, and consequently can never serve as determinate a priori laws by which our judgment of taste must be directed.

-- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

I would like to pair the above quote with the following observation (they may or may not be related): the thing that irritates me most about professional critics is that they are often very good at explaining what there is to like or dislike about a given piece, and often not very good at considering why they like or dislike the thing they have categorized as likable or not likable.

What these folks do, essentially, is provide lists of descriptive qualities. Very rarely do they follow through and turn the critical lens back upon themselves, like so: Okay, this album has these characteristics. Why do I care about these characteristics? Or not?

As I say, I find this irritating. But perhaps I've got a bad reflexivity habit.

[photo credit: ibm4381]

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

In defense of that effeminate Asian bass dude

I don't want to turn this blog into an explication of "things I've seen on Facebook," but like that damned drummer video, this movie of a transvestite bassist is something that a number of my Facebook friends have seen fit to post recently.

Why now? Beats me. The thing has been out there for a while. I guess sometimes viral video goes in fits and starts.

Anyway. The responsive commentary generally adheres to the expected script. (You know the one: "My eyes! They burn!" and "I'll never be able to unsee that!" and on and on, blah blah blah.)

I'm not even sure whether this video qualifies as "safe for work" or not. Guess that shows how far out of the loop I am.

Anyway, I get it. You're grossed out. (And perhaps a little homophobic too?)

But what about the music? Many years ago I attended a film scoring seminar in which one of the other attendees (I forget who) described how he had been challenged by a teacher to compose while other music was playing in the background. It was an exercise, not a recommended technique, but the point was clear: musicians need to have a high degree of concentration.

And yet, even among some of the best musicians on the planet (as I can say without a doubt some of my Facebook friends are), it is hard to get away from the steamroller of visuality. Sometimes it seems that the image crushes everything, even for people whose auditory senses are pretty freakin' fine-tuned.

Maybe I'm an idealist, but, all things being equal, I'd assume that committed musicians could completely tune out visuality when the moment called for it. If we're interested in the music, great: let's talk about the music. And if the music's no good, well, then, fine: move on.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Music as a process, gradual or otherwise

In 1968 Reich spelled out his new aesthetic in a terse essay titled "Music as a Gradual Process." "I am interested in perceptible processes," he wrote. "I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music."

This philosophy differs starkly from the thinking inherent in Boulez's total serialism and Cage's I Ching pieces, where process works behind the scenes, like a spy network employing front organizations. Reich's music transpires in the open air, every move audible to the naked ear. Recognizable in it are multiple traces of the creator's world: modal jazz, psychedelic trance, the lyrical rage of African-American protest, the sexy bounce of rock 'n roll. But there's no pretense of authenticity, no longing for the "real." Instead, sounds from a variety of sources are mediated by the composer's personal voice.

The above is from Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which I am finally getting around to finishing. (If you're familiar with it, you may understand my reading strategy, which has been to savor the text over an extended period, rather than wolfing it down in a weekend or two.)

The quote got me thinking. Much of the material I write for the IJG is designed to be transparent, too. I hadn't thought of that in terms of audible processes, per se -- for me it's more about constructing things in such a way that the listener is thinking about the mechanisms that propel the music, and there's no sleight of hand. It's a bit different from, and even antithetical to, the idea of washing over your listener with a "narrative," or a seamless flow of polished and refined sound, in which the things that are going on under the hood are somehow less compelling than the ride you are taking. I've spoken of it before in terms of using art not merely to tell stories, but to tell how books are made.

Not sure if that is a comprehensible distinction at this level of abstraction, but that is basically how I think about it.

In any case, the really interesting question for me is whether this quality is, in part, dependent upon familiarity. Now that Reich's music is so much a part of the "art music" landscape, I wonder if anyone actually does still hear it in terms of "perceptible processes"? Does broad familiarity undercut the power of a completely open compositional strategy, to the point where however much the composer is trying to lay bare, all we hear is the surface sound?

[Photo credit: Al Pavangkanan]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What it's like

Tonight my good friend Jeff redirected me toward the the wonder that is Amanda Palmer's blog. Specifically:

so anyway, to summarize….the tour was hard. but fucking wonderful.

so many people took care of us, shared their homes and beds, cooked for us, loved us. i slept in so many different bedrooms and beds and lost track of where i was half the time.


business-wise….we were (or i was) really cavalier about how we booked this tour, i gotta say.

i expected everyone would make the jump from the dresden dolls to amanda palmer to evelyn evelyn and that selling tickets wouldn’t be too difficult.

i was wrong. the general touring climate blows…it’s BAD out there, ticket prices are getting slashed and a lot of artists are playing to half-empty rooms due to the economy and the overgutted market since EVERY band and their moms are hitting the road to make up for the shortfall in record sales. and the weirdness of the show billing dented us…the shows were about half sold-out, which was actually pretty respectable…but it did teach me a damn fine lesson in marketing. we billed the show wrong; it should have been billed as an amanda palmer & jason webley extravaganza, with the twins as a support act, not the other way around. those who knew about the twins would have gotten what they expected, those only familiar with me & jason would have been strangely surprised by our weirdo stunts.

by the end of the tour, i was constantly kicking myself.

Which just about sums it up, as far as I'm concerned.

One corollary to the fact that digital technology has made a career in music more accessible than ever, which in turn seems to be dovetailing with a pretty wretched economic period: many who seem to be "making it," on the surface anyway, are actually struggling like mad. Much more than you might expect. There is often a lot of spin to obscure this perception (because who wants to be seen to be struggling?), but in all honesty the situation is pretty damned scary.

[Photo credit: Amanda M Hatfield]

Friday, June 25, 2010

A bomb made of cute

Apologies to those of you with a low tolerance for treacle, but I'm posting these as an addendum to this.

The new critter's name is Claudette (c/o my wife, who got the name from George of the Jungle). Get it?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why no blues wars?

I recently came across an interesting Jim Fusilli piece on the state of 21st century blues, and specifically on the dearth of new blues styles. A sample:

In early May, I traveled to Memphis to attend the Blues Foundation's 31st annual two-day gala, which included its Hall of Fame induction ceremony and awards banquet. Buddy Guy received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Pinetop Perkins, now 96 years old, turned up, as did 80-year-old Bobby "Blue" Bland and 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin. I heard folk blues, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, fast blues, slow blues, good blues and bad blues. What I didn't hear was new blues, and I flew back home no less relieved of my own blues over the genre's troubling future.

Today's blues music isn't only steeped in the past; it's anchored to it. During the performances before and during the banquet, I could trace to almost every song, instrumental solo or vocal style I heard its originator or its most celebrated proponent—and I'm far from an expert on the history of the blues. These tales of heartache, oppression and fleeting joy sounded all too familar.

According to Jay Sieleman, the Blues Foundation's executive director, most blues fans aren't looking for something new. "We all don't want the blues to be the same ol', same ol'," he said, "but it'd better be close."


In 2004, Skip McDonald, who works under the name Little Axe, released "Champagne and Grits," which mixed traditional blues with spoken word, drum loops, Indian percussion and a dab of reggae. It was the kind of album that could bring young listeners to the blues: Give it to a Citizen Cope or a Massive Attack fan and they'd feel at home. It wasn't well received by the blues community.

"I upset a lot of people," Mr. McDonald told me. "People are so traditional in their approach. It was a hybrid amalgamation, but the blues was my first stop."

The blues establishment seems to have little interest in reaching out to other musical communities. No rock, hip-hop or jazz artists with a musical debt to the blues were part of the activities in Memphis. Perhaps in turn, blues musicians aren't invited to participate in most major rock festivals: There were no traditional blues artists at this year's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, nor will there be any at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain later this month. At this weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., only Trombone Shorty and Big Sam's Funky Nation, both from New Orleans, and the string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, adhere to blues traditions.

Sound familiar? It probably does if you're a jazz fan, as we in the so-called "jazz community" seem to have this same debate every few months (here's the latest outburst). Some folks argue that the music should stay close to its "roots." Some argue that it should embrace newness of various sorts. Heated debate ensues. We call it the "jazz wars."

Jazz did not introduce this sort of internecine aesthetic conflict. Often couched in terms of the frustratingly arbitrary notion of "authenticity," similar debates have been flirted with by proponents of most genres. But jazz critics, fans, and musicians have raised such debates to the level of an art form (not to mention a brilliant form of marketing). And therein lies the reason for this post.

You see, I'm confused. Why does the notion of an all-out "blues war" lack the sort of staying-power that seems to drive the recurring "jazz war" meme? Why, for instance, did Fusilli's piece not prompt the firestorm of outrage that greeted a similar (now-infamous) piece by Terry Teachout last summer?

I'm tempted to say it has something to do with the blues' time-honored fatalism, the sense conveyed (by most exemplars of the genre) that nothing lasts forever, and that death is, in fact, an important part of life.

But that can't be the only reason.

[photo credit: kevindooley]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Confuse me

Thanks to the evil geniuses at TCM, I was introduced to an amazing little film this weekend:

I won't even go into it. Words are horribly inadequate.

Of course, that didn't deter me from doing a little online research, which led to an interesting write-up over at Cinema du Merde, which in turn had the collateral benefit of reminding me of why I pursue weird cinema (or, for that matter, weird music) in the first place. This reminder was, in fact, highlighted as a "manifesto":

It's less about whether the movie is good, and more about whether it's enjoyable to watch.

We will never let a movie's cheesiness interfere with our engagement with its ideas.

Both of which seem noble aspirations to me. I'm particularly interested in the distinction between the "good" and the "enjoyable"; the former presumably refers to received notions of artistic value (i.e., what I'm supposed to think is "good"), while the latter suggests something more personal (i.e., art I actually enjoy, regardless of social sanctions for or against).

And yet it's more than that, too. In a world that reveres artistic mastery and critical omniscience, it can sometimes be refreshing and pleasurable to be drawn into something for no good, rational, compelling reason you can discern. Which is kind of where the reviewer at CdM takes his writeup on Darktown Strutters:

There is only one word that can describe this film: INEXPLICABLE. This is just one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen, making me wonder who made it—and WHY—and who they thought they were making it for. This is a film that will make you say wtf? And then WTF?? And then W??? T??? F???

In this day and age, when most of us are a little careless with our "WTF?"s, it's nice to come across something that genuinely inspires that acronym. Because sometimes, being in a position where all you can do is genuinely wonder "what the fuck?" can be a healthy experience.

Why? Well, you'll never catch me promoting ignorance as a aesthetic framework, but by the same token, sometimes I think our mania for analyzing and understanding art can actually inhibit our experience of it. As Josh Sinton recently said of his Steve Lacy tribute band, Ideal Bread:

I’m playing these songs because I don’t understand the songs.

Honestly, who among us truly understands anything about the art we love?

Beginner's mind, baby.