Tag Archives: jazz

Jazz died in 1959, and I can prove it (or Nicholas Payton can)

My good friend and bandmate John Venter just shared this with me.

On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore

Read it. Read it all.

It sums up a lot of the feeling that I have had, and shared, for a long time. Sure I love the sound of a good jazz band. But the real deal is that when, in conversation, I have compared it to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, or to Civil War reenactments,  Those statements bought me plenty of hairy eyeballs, but that is what I feel. As much as I love the music I could never throw myself into the act of learning jazz standards. Lord knows I have tried. I don’t have a problem with other people doing it, but I am not the man for the job. I want to act on my musical impulses, whether they are informed by jazz or not.

There have been many efforts to adjectivize the art form. The New Thing. Electric Jazz. Hard Bop. Smooth Jazz. Euro-Jazz. Afro-Jazz… For more than 60 years the focus has been on  “modern jazz”, and I think there is a case to be made that “modern jazz” is/was a label to keep the form from truly advancing, or was instantly an extinct idea. Maybe both. I still use “jazz” and “free jazz” when tagging my music when I publish on sites like Bandcamp. I use the label cautiously, but I use it because it is a known concept and can be helpful for listeners. But when you listen to one of my tracks, brother, it ain’t jazz, free or otherwise. I am informed by Jazz, and educated by jazz. But the music is hopefully a music of the present.

My exposure to Jazz goes back to infancy, if not the womb, and much of that early exposure was crossover jazz, like Bird with Strings, or Jamal at the Penthouse. Name players in front of a string section. It was a lot safer for suburban whites to consume than something like Monk or Art Tatum. When I started to check out “jazz” I immediately gravitated to the harder-edged, bluesy, emotional music of the early 60’s. The Hard Bop scene, especially Mingus and his circle of players and composers, has been a huge influence on me. Much of that was recorded from 1960 onward, and that is at least an anecdotal support for Payton’s premise. These musicians were taking jazz forward by bringing it back to the roots of blues. Moving the forms away from the conceit of advanced european harmonic concepts (i.e. “birth of the cool”) and toward the I-IV-V, the funky cousin of the ii-V-I. This pushed open the doors for modal approaches, and other less restrictive platforms on which to improvise. Jazz was dead, but there was no stomach for a new genre or label. They would be marketed as jazz, then as now as forever.

There is an even darker side to that exposure. The more I learned about Charles Mingus, and how he was “angry” and “volcanic”… the more I was convinced that the roots of his mania were planted in being shut out of being a classical cellist as a youth. He could have been one of the greats in American classical music. Why wasn’t he? There was no place for a black classical cellist in 1940’s Los Angeles (and there was no other venue for cello, truly). He switched to bass, and focused on Jazz, because it was accepted. While he had an amazing career full of powerful music, I can’t help thinking that his stature as a “third stream” artist is a way to put a happy face on the racism that pushed him into “jazz”. Jazz may have been dead much earlier than 1959. It could have been dead in 1941 if you want to push the concept.

The argument about what, and who, is “jazz” stretches into the Jazz-purity quest of Wynton Marsalis, and the sneering of Stanley Crouch. They want the body kept alive by any means necessary. They have the right, and they have the platform, and even the funding, to pursue that goal. But the story as seen in an objective light might accurately be that they were performing CPR on a corpse. Crouch lambasting Miles for not making more Kind of Blue is an apex example. Miles was not an observer, he was a participant, and had been present at the funeral. He knew it was dead. Crouch was looking to preserve his domain at the expense of an artist. “Sell Out”, he hissed.

The deal is that the 20th century is chock full of artists who have tried to use jazz as a launchpad and not a crashpad, and they have been routinely marginalized and misunderstood on purpose. Monk. Ornette. Sun Ra. Cecil. Pharaoh,  Roland. They were all held up to the light of Pops, or the Hawk, or even Bird (who was punk to the core, trying to blast jazz free by brute force). They were never allowed to occupy the next plateau, the next “jazz”. They were tethered to a pyre no less real than Jean D’Arc. And all the while jazz has been dead.

Name the most successful “jazz” artist today. Where can you hear their music? Where can you see them play? Is it truly the fault of an entire society that jazz has lost its relevance? Can it be, in an age where music and information are more available than ever, that this American art form from the cusp of the 20th century could be so roundly ignored and unprofitable? Or is it like trying to sell crystal radios to the iPhone generation? An anachronism, as beautiful as a tintype and about as relevant.

Enjoy jazz. It isn’t going away. I spent some time digging Angelo Debarre playing gypsy jazz in his hard-hitting and direct style just last night. It was beautiful. It still is today. It still will be forever. But it isn’t new. It is a photo of a corpse. A beautiful, romantic, hard-won, photo of a corpse.

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A little background on Fuchsprellen, wrapped in a Rochefort Recap!

There is an origin story for my band Fuchsprellen, but there is a longer, weirder story behind the work that went into building the band concept.

I’ll link back to those earlier posts, but I blogged a bit about my experiences at Rochefort en Accords 2011. I was asked to play this gig on short notice, as a sub for an artist who could not make the date. Seems simple. Go to France, they said. Play Beefheart in France! They said… We have an airline ticket and accomodations for you. They said. No question, I am going.

Fine Print (not read): You might be the only person to ever be the only electric bass player at a festival in France. What are the odds of that? Ever. Zero. Like Brave Sir Robin I was figuring I was in for a bit of spanking and well, “Robert, il est ton oncle”.

Job 1: Bassist du jour for Napoleon Murphy Brock. I understand that some Bongo Fury material might be played. I have no other real data except Chris Garcia passing me the code phrase “beef heart”. Chris Garcia is a no-BS cat, so what could possibly go wrong?!?! Verdict: Napoleon is one of my favorite people in a musical context, and the non-musical contexts as well. He runs the show the way I would run it: Work hard, get good, kick ass at the show. No friction, even when I blissed out through a motif change and added about 16 bars to the evening. You are welcome, Rochefort. (The members of Peach Noise took me in and treated me like a lost puppy. In the good way. The best hosts a lost bass player could hope to have)

First side job: Blues guitarist Innes Sibun, influenced by an old influence (Rory Gallagher records at times in heavy rotation) and we play two sets of originals and Hendrix tunes. EASY. I have put in the hours at open mic nights and my initial learning tool was learning every track on the Blues Brothers record… erg… Verdict: Great rhythm section, on the spot feel, great ears…

Addendum: while other folks were snacking and chatting, he was putting in the work, rounding up a band, and if he had told me that the fact that the only bass I brought to the gig was a fretless 5 is means for disqualification, I would have understood. With Bruno Bertrand and Or Solomon we had a killer backing section. Thanks for not holding my choice in basses against me.

Second Side Job: Bassist for Jeff Morris Tepper, of the last and not in any way least version of the Magic Band. Great, Great Band. As soon as I had agreed to take the gig He contacted me, I was in, but honest that I felt that his parts relied on my weakest skill set as a player. We met somewhere in the middle, and I gained a respect for and knowledge of his music.

Recap:

Anything out of place? Like “Where is the Beef?”

Oh yeah, Nicolas Mingot had a list of Beefheart tunes, and it was not a small list. Like, er… “if that is a setlist we are going to have words” kind of not small. But peace was made! A truly fitting Finalé was executed, and in good form. Only in France would you get a festival finalé consisting entirely of Beefheart. Wow.

The Payoff:

About that clam / brainfart in the final performance. Through days of rehearsal Napoleon kept giving me this odd vibe, like a question in vibe form. And when he told me what the problem was, it was a blunt: “Pete, do you see how these other guys have notes?” (See Footnote 1). … Point taken. I can play it and rehearse it, and keep my parts together, and not need notes, charts or cheatsheets… However carrying that information back to the stage, in my head, without losing a piece or two along the way, while dealing with multiple jobs and arrangement changes is not in my skill set. I lost a small piece of the arrangement to The Torture Never Stops on the way to the stage. It was not a train wreck, but my no-notes approach failed me and my bandmates. Not the end of the world, but unacceptable nonetheless.

As much as I love the music of Zappa and Hendrix, and Beefheart for that matter, it was apparent to me that I needed to be “playing in clean sand” for a while. Playing where there were no established lines, no expectations. With his simple statement/question Napi kicked off a line leading from playing hard-ass arranged music with no “net”, to the free approach of my band Fuchsprellen. We don’t really do the “notes” thing. While I could stand to be more organized, I decided to let my music flow from my process instead of flowing my process around some other music.

Post Mortem:

My partially successful and wholly unintended attempt to bring a free music approach to a festival setting was complete and I ran back to the States like a scalded dog. The finalé was truly final. The dancing harmonica solo, selfie-free. My restraint in savaging the local huitre population, regrettable. The cognac! Mon dieu! The Pineau! (No. The other, other, Pinot), transcendant. I saw the Eiffel from the back of a car driven by my new favorite French trumpeter (which means my favorite trumpeter) Nicolas Genest, on the way into Montreuil. It was awful.

Footnote – 1 Er, no. It never occured to me. At heart I am an improviser with some basic reading and arranging skills. I will chart pieces if I am recording, and even then it is rare. So yeah, I was making a hard job harder. But almost all of my playing has been in improvised or some kind of modal concept. And I was suddenly aware that yeah, everyone else had these killer notes. I talked drummer Charlie Doll into letting me have one of his. He creates these brilliant sets of arrangement-notes with cues, bar counts, rhythms charted-ish… Genius.

Fox Tossing, and other musical concepts

Over the past two years I have been pursuing my musical goals with more focus, specifically on my commitment to “free music” and improvisation. I caught the free jazz bug early in life and it has continued to be a fundamental force in my musical life. One of the things that has become more clear as I continue to perform music is the gradation within any artistic medium or genre.

An example is “painter”. You meet someone, it turns out that they are a painter. Once you determine that it is “artistic” painting, not house painting or interior painting (an art in itself), what do you really know? Do they work in oils, watercolors, acrylics, natural pigments…? Do they paint people, landscapes, futurist fantasy, naturalist tableau…? Are they working in an established tradition, or school? Otherwise all you know is that they apply paint to a substrate and consider it to be their art.

Music is the same, and might be even harder to pin down. When people hear that I play music they first ask if I am in a “band”. At any time that answer could be “no”, “several”, “yes, kinda”, or “I am a band”. Either way, it is almost never the kind of band they are thinking of, rocking out Mustang Sally to beer-soaked Hartford fratboys. Even if they have a broader conception, they might not get that my band does not have “songs”. In many ways each artist can be considered their own genre. Even if I have been highly influenced by Zappa, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Last Exit, and Charles Mingus? Those artists have produced an incredibly broad variety of musical art (OK, maybe not Last Exit 🙂

I have made this statement as a idee-fixee regarding musical influence: “I love what Mingus was doing in 1964, but he never had to worry about being influenced by Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix”. And he didn’t. I do. All the time.

As a result I spent most of my life playing improvised music and avoiding those influences. Starting in the late 90’s I began to examine and embrace those influences, and act out on them in live performance. I took advantage of an opportunity to play the music of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and that led to opportunities to delve into the music of Frank Zappa from the performance end of the operation. In there was the opportunity to play “indie rock” with The Sawtelles, and get exposed to a huge array of “indie rock” music that was incredibly diverse. All through that period I was digging deeper into my early influences. The huge array of “unreleased” and “re-issued” Sun Ra recordings continues to be a wonderland of freaky jazz. Getting my ears around the music of Kawabata Makoto and his various Acid Mothers Temple projects was equally revelatory. Stuck in the middle of this period was a seven year string where New Haven Improvisors Collective was my primary outlet for improvisation and structured chaos in music.

I also found out that I have certain skills and priorities that can conflict with musicians at the more “laconic” end of the spectrum. One way in which I have found myself separated from my peers is in my insistence on urgency and timelines. I will literally lay out rehearsals in terms of “we have X rehearsals, totaling Y hours, until date Z to prepare this band”. I believe that results do not happen accidentally, especially when learning to play the work of other composers. Nailing a version of a Frank Zappa composition is not done by accident. Jamming and getting “close” will not suffice. It is my inner Project Manager reaching into my artistic life and getting all pragmatic on the process.

As well, I am aware that each musician I have met and worked with has a very personal set of motivating concepts. Some want to be “the guy”, in the spotlight performing technically difficult material with seeming ease. Some want to validate their love for the party lifestyle. Some want to control others’ actions and occupy the head chair of their personal musical fantasy land. Those motivations are always underlain by other needs, experiences, compensations… And, for better and worse, exposure to those people has allowed me to better understand my own desires and motivations.

That decade of self-education was the densest and most exciting I have experienced. It allowed me to expand my performance opportunities and abilities, and develop a small but exciting network of like-minded muso nutjobs. It allowed me to do something I have done on a regular basis since I was a boy: throw it away and start over.

Not unlike the abstract painter, I feel like there are plenty of other people to participate in the music equivalents of hyper-realism, landscape, portraiture, pop-themes, etc… I have the desire to make music “on the spot” and leave the world of highly structured compositions to other musicians. Following this approach is not easier, at least not in my experience. Just as a Motown band needs a bass player versed in Jamerson, a free music ensemble needs to have members who are versed in the confidence of their ears and reflexes. That is much easier said than done. It is definitely not “easier”.

My current attempt at this musical pathway performs under the name “Fuchsprellen“, an old German word for “Fox Tossing”. You can look it up, or take my word for it that it was a blood sport of 16-17th Century royalty in which small woodland creatures were introduced to a walled compound where royalty would use cloth straps to launch them into the air. This was typically fatal for the animal. But the sheer absurdity of it struck me in a way to use it as a name for my band. It also sounds bad-ass.

HEBBY ROTAYSHUM!!!

fuchsprellen update:

Fuchsprellen Fever! Catch It!  Our friend Ernst shot a video at the January 3, 2013 Best Video show and it is currently experiencing “hebby rotayshum” on New Haven Cable Access…

Two videos up, and a few more in the pipeline:

https://www.youtube.com/user/fuchsprellen3000

Audio from 3 January, 2013 at Best Video now free, or best offer at:

http://fuchsprellen.bandcamp.com/

And one track from best Video, plus some archival stuff, free for the streaming at:

Coming soon: bandcamp album from 13 January at the Outer Space, Comp of the first two fuchsprellen recordings, reboot of some material from early 2012 “proto-fuchsprellen”, and perhaps a new studio/ambient piece.

Fuchsprellen follow-up and thoughts on 2012

As luck wold have it we were jumped by a snow storm on December 26, resulting in a cancellation of the Fuchsprellen gig at Best Video in Hamden. The forecast called for aout an inch, maybe, and mostly rain, and we got half a foot of snow instead. That is typical of southern New England, where the rain/snow line can be fickle and turn a drizzle into a whiteout in short order. Good call by BV to shut the tig down. The roads were a complete mess.

The rescheduled gig went down on January 3, but I am counting it as a 2012 event. Because I can. The folks at Best Video have done a super job of retooling one of the best video rental shops in the state into a video/cafe/performance venue, and the kicker is that their performance area sounds great. That has a lot to do with the baffle effect of the video racks and the false beams in the ceiling. Anyhow, thanks to Hank Hoffman for making it happen.

The whole event provided a symmetrical closing to the year-that-was. The project that was to become Fuchsprellen kicked off in January with Peter Riccio and Me playing a duo set on a snowy night, when the gig should have been canceled, at Never Ending Books. We followed that up with a short run of gigs based on my sample/synth/guitar setup and Peter’s drum kit. That led to a run of shows and workshops with New Haven Improvisers Collective, which gave me some time to think about my own projects while still playing and performing. And that led to expanding the instrumentation, which allowed me to cut back on the scope of my live rig, and created space for additional voices. The culmination was was having Richard Brown sit in on sax, alongside Stephen Chillemi on various reeds and percussion (including vibraphone). My live rig? Animoog for iPad, with Moog Filtatron for iPhone, run though a Mackie mixer to the house PA. Delightfully minimalist. The results were beyond my expectations and I believe that the stage has been set for a noisy and productive 2013. I like it like that 🙂

Coming Soon: Fuchsprellen clips on Soundcloud, and a Fuchsprellen EP on Bandcamp.

Music Update!

Exclamation points aside, there is nothing really shocking going on with my tenuous grasp on vibrating air molecules.  Tonight I get to play another set with my “fuchsprellen” project.  That alone is good news.  If it is nothing else it is my way of saying that “music” is like “wine” or “food” in that the noun covers such a huge swath of material and experience that it becomes almost meaningless.  Do I like “music”?  Sure, except when I am hating it, or ambivalent about it, or using a lot of mental energy to filter out some sonic wallpaper.  Do I like “Jazz”? Uh, yeah, except that I find most of what passes for Jazz to be repulsive, or worse, boring.  And that isn’t just me… I think that model describes most people.  I might reflect on it more because I like engaging in the performance of music.

I tend to categorize music by its level of organization.  In general, the greater the number of independent voices in a piece of music, the greater the level of organization.  On the maximum end of the organizational-axis: A symphony orchestra must work like a machine in order to produce a coherent “music”.  That requires a hierarchy of control from the composer, through the conductor, via music notation, backed up by a high degree of training by the individual musicians.   In between is a spectrum that merges varying elements of structure and freedom, though I feel that a Motown hit single requires no less perfect execution than Bach, or Mahler, or Ives for that matter.  On the minimal end we might find Cecil Taylor on a solo piano excursion… his own composer, his own conductor, his own orchestra, and existing in a universe of his own abilities.  Depending on your personal sensibilities you might see the first as a militaristic display of goose-stepping emotional dominance, and the latter as a solipsistic dancer in a field of flowers.  You might not.

I have a greater affinity for the latter end of the spectrum, the freedom to create on the spot, and explore, and discover the music world anew with each performance.  That is not to say that I dismiss organization in music, or that I don’t want organization in free music.  The best free music has strong organization without strong preconception, open to surprise and invention.  In free music the surprise is a transitional element, like a fortune in a fortune cookie, but you build the fortune and the cookie in plain view, on the spot.  The analogies are all around us: The Novel vs. Free Verse; Shakespeare vs. Improv Comedy; and so on.

Speaking of… I read the recent NYTimes piece on Jerry Seinfeld, and while it is not groundbreaking, I was struck by one passage in particular:

When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

And it made reading that massive and bloated piece of NYT celebrity fellatio worth the effort (for once).  Actually, fellatio is a bad analogy because the NYT piece goes on for eight pages and much of it is trivial and boring.  Maybe a romance novel for NYC social voyeurs…

Once you get that pathway opened up it becomes necessary to feed and nurture it.  When that pathway begins to close it can be akin to withdrawal… you want to, need to, feed your habit.  You can make that bad feeling go away, and in most cases nobody gets their TV stolen and the chances of accidental OD are virtually nil.  Yet another reason I prefer music to drugs.

So the plan for this evening is to engage in some “Lancer de Renard“, or maybe to”Lancer le Renard” and see where it lands.  There is a three-word directive behind this project: “Listen and Play”, and if it were a word graphic it would have LISTEN in 60 point type, and Play in lower case 8 point italics, well below.  I’ll be sure to report back, and there will be some audio links forthcoming.

RIP Dave Brubeck

brubeck_timeout

News just in that Dave Brubeck passed away at 91

My first exposure to the music I came to know as “jazz” was listening to my dad’s Dave Brubeck records.  I listened to them side-by-side with the soundtrack to South Pacific, Bill Cosby, Bluegrass, 60’s folkies, Bird with Strings, Jimmy Smith, etc… basically rummaging through my parent’s vinyl collection and taking it all in without much idea that it was all different.  And far from schlocky white-boy jazz, that Brubeck band with Joe Morello, Paul Desmond and Eugene Wright was fantastic.  Their work still holds up extremely well today.  I later learned that Dave Brubeck was pushing his idea that there was a frontier of modern music to be approached via rhythmic devices, as opposed to purely melodic/harmonic routes.  So you have all these Brubeck records with textbook examples of “odd meter” jazz, the most famous of which is Take Five.  Extra Credit: Most folks forget that Take Five has a killer drum sola in addition to that stunningly beautiful melody.  In a large way it was Dave Brubeck that set me up to be not the least bit disturbed by the rhythmic gymnastics of Frank Zappa, and his guiding light Edgard Varese, and Monk, and Cage, and Mingus, and Charles Ives, and a seemingly endless list of rhythmically interesting musicians and composers.  He truly did succeed at putting the time signature into the toolbox of modern 20th century music.  Listen to something as seemingly unrelated as Sting’s album “Mercury Falling” for a modern example.

Dave Brubeck continued to make new and interesting music, often with his sons, and for no less reason than his failure to engage in faddish behavior, was often disregarded by modern jazz listeners.  I could say that it wasn’t fair, but that isn’t true.  The important part is knowing who you are and what you want to do, and to my knowledge Brubeck never wavered in his direction.  He was nobody but Dave Brubeck, ever.  RIP, Man.  You Rocked The Place.

Brubeck-Def-Cov