Thursday, December 7, 2006

Jazzosphere: The Dave Douglas Quintet at the Jazz Standard

It all started, I guess, with Ken Burns and his famous (but unseen by me) jazz history documentary. In that show, Branford Marsalis apparently made the comment, quoted on Wednesday by Nate Chinen in the New York Times, that "jazz just kind of died" in the seventies. Next in the chain of events, as Chinen relates it, would be a book by Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. (The title is enough to tell me this goes high on my reading list for the short term. Which means it is only behind 25 other books.) More pertinent, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas read the book and commented on his blog that it might help explain the view Marsalis put forth. Then there was apparently a lot of listmaking and other unsavory activities in the jazzosphere, culminating in a comprehensive list of favorite or influential jazz albums from the 70's and 80's, or thereabout. ("Thereabout" means some of the albums actually date from the early 1990's.) So the Times, which has quite the ear to the Net these days (recall that they tracked down guitar whiz JerryC of Youtube/Pachelbel Canon fame, among other things) puts the story of this blog brouhaha in print, whereupon yours truly reads it, and finds that the very same Dave Douglas who started this thread was performing at the Jazz Standard last week and decided to go see them (partly for the benefit of my own audience - which I guess will remain pretty small if I keep taking a week to post a story.) From there it is but a short step to the present blog, with the additional link that the entire Douglas show, starting last Tuesday, was recorded and put on the band's blog by yesterday morning. ($7 for the full set; but the sound samples are free...). It wasn't there when I started writing this, and if could learn to write posts shorter than James Michener novels it might not have been when I finished... but it's there now.

I think I have some claim to expertise in classical, rock and folk music, having performed and written in all those styles. I make no such claim about jazz, where I figure as a mere listener. Nevertheless, when you say "seventies" and "jazz" things start to click for me as much as with any other musical connection in my life. For in 1971 I began my (rather extended) undergraduate career, at Northwestern University, just north of Chicago. It was in my freshman year, I believe, that I saw what I think was my first jazz concert, with a group of my fellow students. And my first direct experience of this music was no trifle: I was sitting within spitting distance of Pharoah Sanders, whose cut "The Creator Has a Master Plan" was already legendary even in a young, white, middle class, Midwestern college crowd. This was like the definition of "alive and kicking", if you know what I mean; the concept that jazz "died" here would have been incoherent to me at that time. Later on, at Northwestern, I saw Weather Report, who blew me away (I know some of you must appreciate puns), and even more of a mind trip, an outdoor concert featuring a guy who I was told was the greatest guitar player in the world, which I frankly did not believe since I knew that that was Eric Clapton and he wasn't coming to Northwestern. So I've been wrong once or twice in my life: Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House played a gig I'll never forget, totally changing my conception of what could be done with a guitar - and possibly a trap set too, courtesy of Alfonse Mouzon and the largest array of skins I had ever seen. I believe it was that concert where one or both of the Brecker brothers joined Coryell as well. "Just kind of died"? Not for me.

I was also in the school orchestra, and though we did not play jazz (or even Gershwin), there was even a connection there. While I was sawing away at the violin parts in orchestral scores from Dvorak to Lutoslawski, the bass lines were partly being held down by Steve Rodby - later to join the Pat Metheny group and record
Offramp and other fine albums. The music school at Northwestern was also one of the few in the country that offered a major in classical saxophone, thanks primarily to the presence of Fred Hemke. (You can Wikipedia him for more info.) To my frequent chagrin, I would barricade myself in one of the practice rooms in the little building we called the Beehive, rosin up my bow, start tickling the strings with some passage from Bach or Mozart, when suddenly a baritone sax would explode through the wall like a foghorn, rattling my music stand and everything else. Okay, so they were playing Glazounov not Gillespie. But you don't get a school full of classical horn players, right outside Chicago, in1973, without being bombarded with recordings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, not to mention the Modern Jazz Quartet and plenty of classic stuff. Northwestern had its own saxophone ensemble too; in fact, I heard them perform John Cage's 4'33" (imagine a smiley face here; but it's true, and Cage was there for the performance). One of my theory teachers was a jazz trombone player. These connections are only meant to say that I was not just learning to love Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington and Django Rheinhardt records then, I was pretty much surrounded by jazz culture.

So to put it mildly, I just ain't open to the idea that jazz "kind of died" in the seventies. Yes, AEC could be strong medicine at times. So there was John McLaughlin, or Chick Corea, or McCoy Tyner. Or Keith Jarrett, whose Bremen-Lausanne disks were not a heck of a lot less well known among my college friends than the latest Pink Floyd or Moody Blues album. (I saw Jarrett at the Village Vanguard a few years later, and was disappointed that he played for only about 25 minutes of a short 45-minute set. Nothing like the continuous improvisations of the Koln or Bremen-Lausanne concerts.) If you wanted something really accessible there was Ramsey Lewis. Accessible, I say, not "dead". Joni Mitchell was touring and recording with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express; college-oriented groups like Soft Machine were making jazz a central component; and Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and even Chicago were increasingly incorporating jazz influences. Jazz was starting to inhabit rock as much as the other way around, and my generation was sucking up this music. For me, it was the Jazz Age.

I won't say too much about the above-mentioned superlist, especially after I just did a superlong piece on a rock superlist. This one is very curious in certain ways: neither Coryell nor Lewis are mentioned even once, but Joni is, along with Frank Zappa and Alan Holdsworth. However, Joni's best jazz-infused album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, is mysteriously left out. Ditto McLaughlin: several good albums listed, but no mention of Inner Mounting Flame, hello? Somehow Santana got on the list, but not, say, Michael Urbaniak, or - yikes - Gil Scott-Heron! And if we are going to fast forward as far as people like John Zorn and Bill Frisell, who have just about as little to do with the 1970's as Nirvana or the World Wide Web, I think there's a lot more that could get included. Ditto on the rewind: some older artists who were still working in the 1970's are mentioned here, but not Stephane Grapelli, who was joining contemporaries like Gary Burton (Paris Encounter, 1972), or Dave Brubeck, who according to one discography I saw had 15 major label releases in the 70's. Speaking of Burton, how did all these jazz buffs miss Crystal Silence, his collaboration with Chick Corea? Another direction that gets a Page Not Found on this list is basically anything with a "world" influence. There isn't a jalapeno's worth of Latin jazz on the list, even Gato Barbieri doesn't exist, not to mention Milton Nascimento or Willie Colon or anything that spicy. All that said, for people like me whose knowledge of jazz is far from comprehensive (I've never even heard of some of the artists on the list, and there are plenty of others whose music I am not familiar with), this is at least an opportunity to explore.

In fact, it makes me wish I still knew Jake. I wonder if some of the people in the jazzosphere knew Jake. From the time I was ten years old until I moved back to Brooklyn in my late 20's, I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There was a gaunt, middle-aged Black man around the neighborhood, and one could have been forgiven for mistaking him for a tramp. He walked the local streets in tattered clothes and shabby boots, with a bucket of sudsy water, a sponge, a brush, some towels and a lot of car keys. These implements were employed as you might guess, in washing cars, which was Jake's main source of income. He would wash, wax, sometimes park and do other car-related chores for a modest amount of cash. Not much of a life, you would think, but it's better than starving, and at times better than sitting behind a desk pushing papers. Jake lived in the basement apartment of a building across the street. So what? Apparently, Jake the carwasher had one of the largest private jazz record collections in the U.S. I heard people say second or third largest, but I don't think anyone knew. It was large enough, I suspect, that I could have found most if not all of the jazz albums on this list in Jake's basement apartment. Or maybe not; maybe he just had an exceptionally large collection of earlier jazz. So who knows more about Jake and his collection? Send me a comment please.

I did start to write about Dave Douglas, didn't I? I hear only a few jazz concerts a year, so I like to be rewarded when I go. I was not particularly rewarded recently when I decided to do my birthday dinner at Cleopatra's Needle, a restaurant and jazz joint on the Upper West Side. There I heard the Jun Miyake Quartet. Miyake's recordings, to the extent I could find samples on the web, sounded intriguing enough. But in this venue practically everything I heard was so traditional I kept waiting for them to stop messing around and start playing. The Dave Douglas Quintet, on the other hand, came out swinging (not quite literally) and didn't quit until they had explored some post-Trane, Miles-inspired territory that for me rings as true now as it did in the late 60's and 70's. There's been plenty of recidivism in jazz since then, plenty of "light" and "smooth" and "retro" and "pop", so I'm still thinking of what Douglas does as progressive, even if it is shy of what Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman or the AEC were doing a while ago. There was the requisite bit of atonal improv occasionally, and some of what Village Voice jazz critic Francis Davis referred to last week as "free meter" in a review of David S. Ware's new album. (I make reference to this review partly because it is one of those rarities in Village Voice culture, a piece that prefers to be informative rather than relying on wry, self-indulgent references to artists and recordings that only a handful of people in the world besides the reviewer will ever recognize. And partly because I caught a Ware concert at the Knitting Factory before it moved downtown and became a rock club, and much of what Davis says brings to mind something I had been thinking about that concert. And yeah, he should also be on the list, since it goes clean through the 1980's.)

If Ware does the unthinkable with standards, Douglas did the thought-provoking with originals (club name notwithstanding). Without overtaxing his cornet he led his band through harmonic and rhythmic ideas that provided a wide range of choices for development. And they responded accordingly, from fairly straight modal riffing and crosstalk between instruments to sequences that could have come out of a piece by Luciano Berio or Pierre Boulez. For one example that doesn't require a financial commitment, check out the sound samples of "Twombly Infinites" from the studio recording and then the live set, where keyboardist Uri Caine creates a canvas that is much closer to postwar expressionism than than the melody from which it emerges, without radically altering from the spirit of the piece. But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the musical development in these performances is the staccato soloing of Donny McCaslin. While I'm not sure this style is the Next Big Thing in jazz improvisation, McCaslin is very effective in raising the these numbers to a climax, in addition to contributing plenty of appealing melodic variations.

Okay, that's it for the review; check out the concerts yourself if you want, the MP3's are all online by now. I said I was going to focus on art and public life in this blog, and
someone might be asking what this has to do with that. Whereas I'm thinking, how can I even get into the social and cultural issues that get raised by all this. And the truth is, I can't since I'm already five days later publishing this than I was hoping to be. So let me just allude to them, with a promissory note to keep them on as leitmotifs in future posts.

First, what is the impact of the fact that the input of so many isolated but knowledgeable people can coalesce in a space open to everyone, in a matter of hours or over the course of months, on a chime-in-when-you're-available basis, on an issue like the quality of jazz recordings in the 1970's? I mean, the fact that they can is apparently a very positive thing, but on the other hand, does it create a kind of de facto canon of respectable sounds in a genre that would have been happier waddling in an uncharted bog of opinion? Or does it provide a useful reality check on the lingering impression that jazz "kind of died"
in the 70's?

Funny thing is, the list doesn't really answer what is probably the main component of that perception. For it is surely not that nothing new was happening in jazz in the 1970's. Fusion, atonality, world influence, electronic manipulation were all more or less new, but the list embraces all this (except Latin and other third world music, which just seems like an oversight). The objection really is that jazz got all mixed up with rock, and that this sapped the energy from it. But of course the list hardly rejects fusion, even if it leaves out some of its major exponents. So in fact, these blogs do not answer the critics, but kind of absorb the criticism. Besides, most people know that while people like Chick Corea were doing the fusion thing with Return to Forever they were doing other things on the side, possibly deeper and certainly more personal and experimental, stuff that is available on minor labels and bootlegs.

The other side of the criticism is that
no one of quite the stature of a Coltrane or a Miles Davis emerged in that decade. But this is not addressed by a list of favorites; I don't think that the entries for Charlie Haden or Dewey Redman or Joe Henderson mean that these folds were comparable to Bird or Miles or Coltrane in creativity or influence. (One blogger did make that claim for the "American Quartet" of Keith Jarrett et al; I'm not going to judge that, though I'll say that the Koln Concert disk doesn't quite do that for me.) I'm not sure this has any significance anyway. Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollings both turned 40 in 1970; Cecil Taylor was 41. Sanders had just released Karma the previous year. Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan were 43. Etc. Okay, granted the start date of the list was supposed to be 1975, got pushed back to 1973, and I'm talking about 1970. But the point is, none of these artists turned to fusion, and I find it hard to believe that every one of them was over the hill as an artist. Only rock stars and hippies thought that anything "died" at the age of 40, and at least the rock stars quickly learned the error of that as they quickly rounded that corner and continued to develop. What I'm getting at is that nothing about these blog lists of favorites really threatens to establish a canon in the negative and unhelpful way that some conservative academics try to foist on us whitewashed lists of Great Books and the like. So, maybe for all the power of communication, there is neither artificial canon construction nor emergent consensus here.

Second, what about this: if someone can post a professional quality recording of his concerts for sale in less than 24 hours, using relatively widely available technology for both recording and distribution (a process that would once have taken months and all the financial and technical resources of Atlantic Records or EMI), why do we still live in a world where 90 minutes after a tsunami hits some islands north of Sumatra, people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere don't know that they are in danger? This is a rhetorical question, obviously, but I think it leads to a lot of more serious questions about the uses of technology, the distribution of wealth, and our priorities in this age of constant technological revolution. If a mere blog could conceivably have saved a few hundred thousand children from drowning, then even our genuine concerns about the effects of war, AIDS and other social disasters may not be the best ordering of priorities. The utilitarian moral philosophy counts quantities of happiness and misfortune in making moral evaluation; and though I think this is not always the best measure, there is something about tens of thousands of bodies washing ashore that says to me that the same technology that put Dave Douglas's concerts on the Internet the next day could make this a heck of a lot better world than it is. What do you think?

Plenty more directions this could go in, but I do want to publish it some day. Like today. And I promise, for those who find my lengthy spiels the least bit interesting, to try to do more frequent posts with less material.

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