Thursday, May 13, 2010

The purity test

And then I would, like, maybe come out, and they couldn’t calm down, and somebody would say something. And I’d say, “What?” And I’d turn, sit facing the audience, I’d say, “Okay, let’s hear it. What are we all talking about?” So somebody had asked for something, and I said, “No, I can’t do that right now.” Somebody said, “Play something long.” And I started to play these concerti. Like the Grieg, “Dah, da da dah, da da dah,” and then said, “No, no, no, that’s too long.” So it was like almost a comedy routine that they created. And then someone asked for Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, and I said, “That’s a good idea, but I usually have to play the 1st first.” So it was like they lost their inhibitions, and I did too, and you can’t hear that on the tape. But that’s what I like audiences to do.

-- Keith Jarrett (from an interview with Ethan Iverson)

Just noticed that our infamous "Incident at Umbria" video, which is about two years old now, has passed the 12,000 view mark on YouTube. Not a lot compared to, say, the Jonas Brothers, but a respectable number for an independent, hopelessly idiosyncratic ensemble like mine. In any case, it is by far our most popular video overall, which is maybe a little frustrating, given that I have written plenty of other tunes, and many of them are, um, much better.

Some of the commentary is entertaining. Consider:

This is just not funny.

Jarrett may have his personal flaws but that is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT when you hear the music he makes. The makers of this vid just show they have missed the point and lack any understanding of the process of a true artist.

Perhaps the next thing this lot creates could be something to move the spirit rather than titilate the less worthy aspects of one's nature...

And then this one:

next time i witness vultures feeding on carrion i'll remember this...embarassment.

gulliver and kj have something in common: they've been attacked by very little people.

Which is all well and good.

Or maybe not. Honestly, I don't get how "Umbria" could be imagined by anybody as an "attack." I mean, I could've written a song called "Keith Jarrett Is a Fucking Asshole" if I wanted to attack the guy. (After all, I did write something sort of along those lines with our John McCain song.)

I don't think Jarrett is an asshole at all, and I certainly don't have anything negative to say about his music. In fact, I actually love a lot of it.

To take the words that Jarrett spoke, and to place them in a musical context -- maybe not the most amazing musical context in the world, but one that did take effort, and that has a certain merit (and that stands out from pretty much anything else you're likely to hear at a "jazz" concert) -- how exactly does it titillate "the less worthy aspects of one's nature"?

What if I was trying to savor the weirdness of that particular situation? Weirdness too makes for good art. Personally, I have no idea what demons compel KJ to act out in his patented way. But the dynamic is very interesting to me. If one is self-assured enough to be able to talk shit to a enormous live audience, and yet fragile enough to be creatively threatened by the petty (and indeed typical) distractions of live performance -- that's a fertile tension, is it not?

Well, I thought so, anyway.

Every once in a while, I'm reminded of the fact that the old jazz purism never really dies. Like anything else, it goes through a heyday, laying down a set of rules about what subjects are "safe" to write about, what chords are appropriate to play, and all the rest. It becomes institutionalized, and loses the ability to think reflexively about itself. But even when it (eventually) falls out of favor and becomes eclipsed by healthier approaches, it never really goes away. There will be no "final victory" over it. It will always be lurking in a corner somewhere, hardly able to contain its enthusiasm for the next big chance to put the brakes on cultural progress and fullness.

And that's kind of sad.

[photo credit: exquisitur]

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