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.