Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

I Often Feel Like I'm Writing About Birdsong
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 6 2007 4:02 PM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Alex,

When you talk about musical auteurism, it reminds me that in your book I keep coming across passages that provide various people's reactions to initial performances of new compositions. All these great stories, each one with a specific point. And this makes me think about the conditions under which we try to understand our music.

You know, I mean really understand. I went to a restaurant last night with my wife, and the system was playing jazz compositions as performed by their authors, 1950s and early '60s stuff, things like Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" from Blues and the Abstract Truth, something by Horace Silver, something by Coltrane, everything under five minutes long. They were all sturdy and beautiful, probably some of the best examples of the art that I write about, but they didn't have much to do with what I experience when I go to hear jazz in a club. The difference is like two distant and vastly different countries that share the same language.

I'm not talking about the styles of an era—the music of that time versus the music of this time. I'm just talking about music that's meant to be understood as a self-contained, sellable thing, versus music that's a long, ongoing process.

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To generalize, the jazz-club gig is based on promise or possibility. It doesn't give you anything concrete up front—a program, a set order. The idea of the premiere doesn't cut much ice here: When the bandleader says, "We're going to play a tune tonight that we actually haven't ever performed before," you groan; you might as well leave and come back a few nights later. It can be well-rehearsed, but it usually isn't.

Or maybe it's the same stuff that a band has been playing for the last couple of years, fully rehearsed through gigs, but the music doesn't necessarily have a planned route. It's always strolling somewhere and hoping it will run into someone it likes. Sometimes it becomes really killer, and you might even be able to figure out why, but you can't really know in advance.

You adjust your hearing and your expectations. Everyone plays so differently, and you figure out ways to appreciate frailty and bossiness or some sort of temperate middle state. It would be easy to say that Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, in the late '50s, taught us all about radically adjusting our hearing and expectations in jazz—since they got millions of listeners accustomed to long, exploratory improvisations—but history is never so neat. One hears stories about Sidney Bechet playing 20 blues choruses some early morning in the early '40s. (King Oliver's band apparently played 40-minute versions of "High Society" in the 1920s.)

So you become patient, and the visual aspect becomes important: You're looking for clues as well as listening for them, feeling your way through it just like the musicians are. When something truly clicks, you're in ecstasy. And despite the fact that most of the time it's a band that's called the someone-or-other quartet, or whatever, it is very much the work of a band. You get through the set and you feel like you've taken the temporary measure of a collective project that's going to keep on going when you're not there. Nothing's ever perfect, nothing's ever truly representative; you accept that going in. It seems like the terms of normal life.

Anyway, this is what I'm used to. I'm not as good at understanding albums anymore; jazz has warped me. In some way, records promise perfection, don't they? They're thought through. There's preproduction and postproduction, and you don't see any of it. Same with premieres. They promise completeness. There's a certain way of writing about a premiere, and a certain way that a newspaper or a magazine sets up the reader for it. By comparison (and I'm talking only about jazz here), I often feel like I'm writing about birdsong or something. I can never really know it. But I accept the terms. Whereas with records, I can really know it, by listening over and over, but the terms somehow don't feel right.

People often ask me the same question you mentioned: Who's the next major figure? I usually talk about the last musician I saw whom I really liked. The other thing they ask is, where should I go hear music? I tell them to focus on certain rhythm-section people and just go see them, whoever they're playing with—because that way they won't know what to expect, and by focusing on a bass player or a drummer, say, they have a broader way into the music. They can see beyond the person in front, and they immediately start thinking about band-ness.

What about you? Do you direct people to certain musicians, even if they're not the main draw?

B

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at the New York Times since 1996. His new book is Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.