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]