Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Speed matters

Music is presence itself. Playing or listening, each note exists in its own bit of time, and until a note is appreciated and felt, it can't go on to the next note. But link the notes together, and presence may or may not survive the transitions.

I learned a little more about that from Joe Lovano's sheets of sound the other night at SFJazz, where Lovano played tenor with Jack DeJohnette's Spring Quartet. "Sheets of sound" was journalist Ira Gitler's term for John Coltrane's cascading eruptions of hundreds of blistery notes. Coltrane's wails started as harmonic inventions -- overlaying three different chord progressions in a single, dense arpeggio flurry -- and were reinforced by his belief that speed would enhance his quest for God.

For many years I didn't get it. Coltrane sounded cold to me, analytic and cerebral. Where was the heart and soul? Virtuosity for the sake of human accomplishment? I dropped him down the same hole I dug for Pink Floyd. Engineered music. Music for me was an escape from super-rationality, the hell I lived in. Music was a place to feel overt emotion, right?

But I noticed something as Lovano reprised Coltrane's effects. I imagined for once that I was inside the soloist, playing fast and using the heavily rehearsed structures of chords, harmonics, scales, and arpeggios as vehicles for freedom. By playing so much so fast, I felt, Lovano was forced to surrender to the moment completely. He never had breathing space to take control himself. He had to trust that God would fill his horn with breath and move his fingers with music. Surrender.

I can't find any video of the Spring Quartet. Too bad, because the soul resonance that emerged from Lovano and DeJohnette was palpable all night. I'm sure DeJohnette was playing figures at times, but I didn't once notice them. It was as if he was in every note with curiosity and energetic creativity that seemed to float above his drum kit. The two kids in the group, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Leo Genovese on piano, comped and supported the older men as they soared. It was a kick to see Spalding in awe of the music; the one time I saw her fronting her own group it seemed like so much ego and not much else.

Here's Coltrane flying through A Love Supreme:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

On the shoulders of giants

When genius arises, it seems to eclipse its own past. Beethoven lays down the mature musical structures of his time and superimposes a seemingly indeterminate stream of consciousness. Duke Ellington opens the locked-in unison of the swing band to soloists who are as personal and idiosyncratic as a coyote howl cutting through the winds sweeping the pines. The New Grass Revival lifts the tight-ass virtuosity of bluegrass into frantic hymns of psychedelic joy.

In his fourth year traveling the chitlin' circuit with R&B acts -- the Isleys, Little Richard, Curtis Knight -- Jimi Hendrix would not have been mistaken for a musical genius. Here's a serviceable blues of his from 1965.

A little more than a year later he turned rock and roll upside down with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, bending time, adding feedback and other noises unheard in prior notes, and like the geniuses before him stretching forms and boundaries. Here he is in 1970:

One approach to genius says it requires honesty, character and courage. I heard this model from one of my kids, who was studying Wittgenstein. There's the tripartite soul: mind (honesty), body (character), and heart (courage).  Or truth (honesty), joy (character), and love (courage).

I'm struck by how much we demand innovation. Genius seems to require standing on the shoulders of others, and adding something new. Picasso was an ordinary juvenile painter, the Beatles an everyday rave-up band in Germany, and Hendrix a typical journeyman r&b guy. Until. While they were all still in their 20s when they broke free, all had spent years intensively studying the traditions of their day. Freedom seems to come to the young more easily than the middle-aged. Mozart, Ornette Coleman, Monk, Dizzy and Bird -- all barely out of their teens when each of them first elaborated their new sound. But Coltrane was 30 before he found his sheets-of-sound way. 

And why did they break free and others don't? They had honesty. Beatles vs. Stones? Easy. The Beatles were extraordinarily honest, and the Stones posed. John and Paul had a nose for bullshit, and George and Ringo were humble as the day is long. Character? Hendrix was a man's man, releasing a libidinous creativity from his body whenever he played. Courage? Picasso, the Beatles and Hendrix were inveterate explorers, in their prime refusing to retreat to what was easy for them. 

Who will stand on the shoulders of past geniuses next? It's so hard to predict. In writing, arranging and playing, Mick Ronson was the equal of his two great partners, David Bowie and Ian Hunter. But when he was freed to play his own music, like with the New York Yaquis, the sound reduced to sentimentality. Similarly, the extraordinary fiddler Jason Crosby, who plays frequently with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh and others in the jamband scene, is locked in a less-revelatory sweetness when left to his own devices. Ronson was always worth seeing, and I catch Crosby frequently. But while they can break down what others have to say, they have more trouble finding a personal truth that transmits as genius. Here's Jason Crosby playing Bertha with Lesh and friends. What you can't tell from one song is how deeply Crosby tunes into the aesthetic and band he is playing with. He plays his solos from the inside of the song:

I have my hopes still for Derek Trucks. Burdened by the Allman Brothers legacy -- nephew of an original Allman and inheritor of the Duane Allman slide guitar seat -- most of his music is exceptionally well played Southern rock, jazz, r&b and blues. But he also has a more-contemplative (and to my way of thinking, more honest) sound that is unusual and inspiring. Listen to him blend his slide guitar with traditional Indian music:

So far, Trucks is weighed down by two traditional mentors -- the Allman Brothers and Ali Akbar Khan. He plays rock too close to the Allman Brothers for me, and eastern music too close to classical Indian for me. But one day, when he chooses to be himself, he may find a way to synthesize the two. Like how Carlos Santana blended Cuban, Mexican and psychedelic music. Or how Duane and Gregg mixed jazz, hard rock and blues to create Southern jamband music in the first place.