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Thursday, 31 October 2019

Is Dave Brubeck overrated?

I’m reading Such Sweet Thunder: Benny Green on Jazz—Benny Green the British saxophonist (1927- 1998), not Bennie Green the American trombonist (1923- 1977) and not Benny Green the American pianist (1963), all in jazz, confusingly.  
This Benny Green is very critical of Dave Brubeck. He writes in “Jazz Goes to College”: 
“Brubeck was a new phenomenon in jazz, a perennial student who had never worked in anybody’s group but his own. This in itself was no disqualification, although it was silly to pretend it was much help. It seemed to me that he played the piano so clumsily, and with such consistent clumsiness, that from the day I first attended one of his performances, my impatience was tempered by a touch of that compassion which one usually feels at the spectacle of a fellow musician flung by circumstances into a hopelessly false position. For either Brubeck chose to accept the myth of his own infallibility, or he did not, each of the options being worse than the other, either to accept the reality of a genius he did not in fact possess, or be obliged to strive hopelessly for it every time he confronted a keyboard. At first I was surprised that such footling juvenilia should be taken even halfway seriously by those who knew of Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Slowly my surprise was replaced by wry acceptance of the fact that possibly those who knew of Tatum and Powell and still took Brubeck seriously did not know of Tatum and Powell after all.” 
That is harsh. 
The essay was written in 1973. Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, for example, came out in 1959, and is now still called one of the best jazz albums of the year. 
Benny Green goes on to say: 
“Attendance at Brubeck concerts for me became a nightmare which I would not have missed for worlds. The images were too rich to pass over, of Brubeck falling deeper and deeper into the rut of some wretched cross-rhythm, digging a pit for himself with such relentless determination that soon he falls into it and disappears from view; Brubeck climbing out again and arriving at the same juncture of a song for 6 or 7 successive choruses, ‘improvising’ the same phrase each time; Brubeck shyly telling us that what he is now about to play is more or less impossible but that he is going to be very gallant and play it anyway.” 
Wow. 
In 1964, Benny Green wrote another essay, named “Dave Brubeck”, talking more about the deficiencies and shortcomings of Brubeck and the quartet. The essay, or review, ended with: 
“Audiences continue to be duped by Brubeck’s subtle flattery. When they applaud the trick of playing 4 beats a bar against a background of only 3, they are applauding not only Brubeck’s cleverness but their own percipience in noticing it. They enjoy being offered titles like ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’, because the implication is there that they understand blues, rondos and even Turks. Brubeck appeals to the culture vulture that resides in us all, the beast in the attic of so many jazz fanciers. His quartet produces the warm glow which comes with the assurance that the better artistic things in life are after all within our scope. But to judge Brubeck’s music by the highest jazz standards is to marvel at the comparative neglect of so many more musical groups.” 
Erm… 
In both of these essays, Benny Green attacked Dave Brubeck together with John Lewis (the jazz pianist, not the UK department store) and Modern Jazz Quartet. He mentioned both together, again, in a 1973 essay called “Cult and Culture”. These names seem like his obsessions.  
I don’t know enough about music theory and techniques to evaluate his criticisms, but Benny Green is no Philip Larkin. Whilst I don’t agree with everything he says, he has high opinion of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and my favourite jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington (not sure about his view on Charles Mingus and Clifford Brown). When I don’t agree with him, as it’s hard to agree with his mockery of jazz singers in general except for Billy Holiday, and except for people like Louis Armstrong, “whose methods of vocal expression are so clearly extensions of their instrumental personalities”, I can see his point. 
What do you think? Is Dave Brubeck overrated, or does Benny Green fail to recognise his talent?

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Listening to Clifford Brown

These days I’ve been listening to Clifford Brown and Max Roach, thanks to David H. Rosenthal’s Hard Bop: Jazz & Black Music 1955- 1965. Look at these lines about Brown:
“… Clifford was far and away the best trumpeter of his generation. Taking Fats Navarro’s style as his point of departure, he breathed new life into bebop, making it sound as fresh as if it had just been invented. Like Navarro, Brown had a fat, ‘buttery’ sound and played long melodic lines that lent his solos a sense of effortless, flowing ease. […]
Brownie extended Navarro’s style. He played with more vibrato, especially on ballads; and at faster tempos he employed half-valve effects, slurs, and grace notes that gave his solos a wryly puckish quality.”
Clifford Brown & Max Roach:


Study in Brown:


I thought I’d never like trumpets half as much as saxophones, then I listened to Clifford Brown. These albums are fantastic. 
Then I listened to him playing ballads:
Clifford Brown with Strings:


I was amazed. His sound was soaring.
Here is Rosenthal again:
“‘Ebullient’, ‘effervescent’, ‘elated’, and ‘exultant’ were words applied to his improvisational style. His ballads were soaringly romantic rather than somber. […] The trumpet statement crackles with fire and swing. Tuneful phrases and shouts of pleasure fill every chorus. Rarely as modern jazz radiated so much sweetness, light, and sheer elan.”
It’s such a pity that Clifford Brown died so young.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Kể chuyện đi dịch ở Anh

Di Nguyen (Viết tháng 5, 2019) 

Ở Leeds, ngoài giờ đi học, tôi đi làm thêm bằng cách làm thông dịch viên—thường ở phòng khám, bệnh viện, đôi khi tới nhà dịch giữa midwife và phụ nữ mang thai. 
Là thông dịch viên, tôi tất nhiên không có quyền kể chi tiết và tiết lộ thông tin của người mình dịch cho, nhưng từ lúc đi dịch, tôi biết được nhiều chi tiết thú vị. 
1/ Phần lớn người Việt tôi gặp ở Anh là từ miền Bắc hoặc miền Trung, đặc biệt từ Nghệ An. 
Thống kê cho thấy, ở Anh, 65% người Việt là từ miền Bắc . 
2/ Người Việt ở phía bắc nước Anh thường không mở nhà hàng. Riêng ở Leeds, chỉ có 2 tiệm là nhà hàng Viet Guy ở khu vực trung tâm và The Viet Baker ở Headingley; và một quầy bánh mì và đồ ăn vặt tên Banh& Mee trong chợ Kirkgate. Cả ba đều của chủ người Bắc. 
Ngoài ra ở Trinity có tiệm Pho, nhưng đây là một tiệm của chủ người Anh, đầu bếp cũng không phải người Việt, và thức ăn không thực sự theo kiểu Việt Nam. 
3/ Người Việt ở Anh, hay ít nhất ở phía bắc, thường làm nail. 
Ở miền bắc nước Anh, không hiểu vì lý do gì, công nghệ làm đẹp rất phát triển, như thể trên đường cứ 2 cửa hàng lại có một beauty salon—nếu không cắt tóc thì làm móng, hoặc làm lông mày, hoặc chăm sóc da, hoặc spa, hoặc waxing… Rất nhiều tiệm, đặc biệt làm móng, là của người Việt, hay ít nhất trong khu vực trung tâm của Leeds, đa phần các tiệm nail tôi biết là của người Việt (trong khi đó các tiệm làm lông mày thường là của dân gốc Nam Á).  
Tuy nhiên, chỉ gần google một chút là dễ dàng thấy rất nhiều bài báo nói về tình trạng ngược đãi lao động trong cộng đồng người Việt ở Anh, đặc biệt trong tiệm nail: 
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/6400848/viatnamese-nail-salons-britain-organised-crime-map/
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/05/nail-bars-modern-slavery-discount-salons-booming-exploitation
https://travellingjezebel.com/vietnamese-nail-bars-human-trafficking/
https://www.theweek.co.uk/93911/nail-salons-used-as-a-front-for-modern-slavery
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5780551/Is-high-street-nail-bar-organised-crime.html
Các bài báo nhắc tới điều kiện làm việc, tình trạng ngược đãi lao động, tình trạng buôn người, nô lệ thời hiện đại, chuyện dùng tiệm nail làm nơi rửa tiền, sử dụng nhân viên không có giấy tờ để ở lại Anh, v.v… 
Một lần đi dịch, tôi gặp một nữ hộ sinh. Bà ấy bảo cũng từng đi làm móng, nhưng từ khi đọc về tình trạng nô lệ và buôn người của người Việt ở tiệm nail, cách nhìn của bà ấy về các tiệm nail hoàn toàn khác. 
4/ Trong khi đó, nhiều người Việt khác bị buôn bán vào Anh để đi “trồng cỏ” (trồng cần sa). 
5/ Bản thân tôi, khi đi thông dịch, đã từng gặp người là nạn nhân của nạn buôn người. 
Người này từng bị hành hạ, đánh đập đến chấn thương đầu và nhiều nơi khác. 
6/ Tôi cũng đã gặp người Việt sống ở Anh không có giấy tờ. 
Hãy tưởng tượng sống một thân một mình ở nước ngoài, người thân không có, ngôn ngữ không biết, luật pháp không rành, không có giấy phép ở lại, và ở trong vị trí phải phụ thuộc vào người khác, dễ dàng bị lợi dụng và lừa gạt. Giả sử bạn sống ở Anh, một chữ cắn đôi cũng không biết, làm sao bạn biết bạn có quyền lợi gì và được luật pháp bảo vệ? Tôi là thông dịch viên, đó là công việc của tôi nên tôi phải dịch đàng hoàng chính xác, nhưng nếu trong hoàn cảnh khác bạn không hiểu gì đó và nhờ ai đó giải thích, làm sao biết được người đó có dịch đúng và bảo vệ quyền lợi của bạn hay không? 
Có một lần tôi đi dịch cho một chị còn khá trẻ, không có giấy tờ, ở Anh gần như một mình, chỉ có bạn, bây giờ sinh con đầu lòng, gia đình không có bên cạnh, bạn trai cũng không giúp đỡ, còn ngôn ngữ thì không biết, ở trong vị trí rất dễ tổn thương nên cái gì cũng sợ, thấy con khóc cũng sợ, rồi chỉ chuyện vỗ cho con ợ sau khi bú cũng hỏi đi hỏi lại vì không có mẹ ở bên để hỏi. 
7/ Khá nhiều người Việt tôi gặp mang thai sau khi sống ở Anh chỉ một thời gian ngắn, điều kiện không rõ ràng, thậm chí ngay cả khi chưa có giấy tờ chính thức. 
Khác Mỹ, Anh không có luật birthright citizenship—sinh ở Anh không có nghĩa là sẽ tự động có quốc tịch Anh, ít nhất cha hoặc mẹ phải là công dân hoặc có thẻ xanh . Ở Na Uy cũng vậy. 
8/ Người không có giấy tờ và không có quyền chính thức ở lại Anh vẫn được nhận y tế miễn phí khi mang thai. 
Như đã nói trước kia, người ta thường ca ngợi hệ thống y tế ở Bắc Âu nhưng ở Na Uy, đi bác sỹ vẫn phải trả tiền, chỉ khi vào bệnh viện với miễn phí, trong khi ở Anh, đi bác sỹ không phải tốn xu nào, dù tôi không phải là công dân, chỉ phải trả tiền thuốc. 
Với người không giấy tờ, tôi biết là thông thường healthcare chỉ miễn phí nếu có số NHS (National Health Service—dịch vụ y tế quốc gia), nhưng theo tôi thấy, phụ nữ mang thai, dù không có giấy tờ ở lại, vẫn có nữ hộ sinh tới thăm và theo dõi sức khỏe thai nhi, vẫn có support worker, vẫn được tham gia các lớp học cho cha mẹ, và vẫn có thể tới bệnh viện sinh con và không trả phí. 
Luật pháp Anh cũng cho phép NHS không cần cung cấp thông tin cá nhân của bệnh nhân với Home Office (bộ phận của chính phủ Anh lo về nhập cư và an ninh) . 
9/ Không phải ai cần thông dịch viên cũng là người Việt mới qua. 
Tôi thường đi dịch ở bệnh viện và phòng khám, và nhân viên thường hỏi sống ở Anh được bao lâu. Vài lần, câu trả lời là trên 30 năm. 
Ít nhất một lần, một y tá từng nói với tôi, lạ thật, ở đây trên 30 năm mà vẫn không nói được tiếng Anh. Tôi không biết nói gì, câu này tôi không dịch. 
10/ Khi tôi đi dịch và bảo tôi là sinh viên, người Việt thường có 2 câu hỏi cửa miệng là “có giấy tờ chưa?” và “học xong có ở lại không?”. 
Có lần một chị hỏi “thế bạn trai em làm gì? Có giấy tờ chưa?”. Tôi thấy buồn cười, một lúc rồi mới nói bạn trai tôi người Anh. Nhưng thế mới thấy nỗi ám ảnh của người Việt ở Anh—có giấy tờ chưa và sau này có ở lại không. 
Đi làm thông dịch, tôi học được nhiều thứ, cảm thấy mình may mắn, và chỉ thấy buồn vì nhiều người phải bỏ nước mà đi, dễ dàng bị kẻ khác lợi dụng và ngược đãi. 

Di Nguyen




1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnamese_people_in_the_United_Kingdom 
2: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/26443575/victims-trafficked-from-vietnam-to-work-on-illegal-uk-cannabis-farms 
3: https://www.gov.uk/check-british-citizenship/your-parents-immigration-status-when-you-were-born 
4: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/09/government-to-stop-forcing-nhs-to-share-patients-data-with-home-office 


Monday, 21 October 2019

My favourite comedies

To make it simpler, I’m going to mention only 1 film per director, and group series together. 
I’m also not going to mention comedies I saw only once and it was more than a year ago, even if I remember laughing a lot, such as The Big Lebowski or The Nice Guys
Here’s my list of 10 favourite comedies: 
Modern Times (1936, dir. Charlie Chaplin) 
Bringing Up Baby (1938, dir. Howard Hawks) 
Some Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder) 
The Phantom of Liberty (1974, dir. Luis Bunuel) 
Love and Death (1975, dir. Woody Allen) 
The Gods Must Be Crazy 1 and 2 (1980 and 1989, dir. Jamie Uys) 
The Naked Gun (all 3: 1988 and 1991, dir. David Zucker, and 1994, dir. Peter Segal)
A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton) 
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir. Wes Anderson) 


___________________________________________________________

I’ve just got back from a short trip to Edinburgh, but I’ve been thinking about this: do comedies get worse over time? I hate most of today’s comedies (based on trailers and clips mostly but sometimes a whole film)—they’re just crude and painfully unfunny. Rom-com stuff is even worse. 
Meanwhile I’m reading P. G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves. He’s probably the best of humourists.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

On Charles Mingus

1/ As How to Listen to Jazz and now, The Language of Jazz, barely talk about Charles Mingus, I have to look other places for writings about his music.
This is a good article: https://www.thenation.com/article/argument-instruments-charles-mingus/
“For sheer range of expression, his work has few equals in postwar American music: furious and tender, joyous and melancholy, grave and mischievous, ecstatic and introspective. It moves from the rapture of the church to the euphoria of the ballroom, from accusation to seduction, from a whisper to a growl, often by way of startling jump cuts and sudden changes in tempo. Vocal metaphors are irresistible when discussing Mingus. As Whitney Balliett remarked, music for him was “another way of talking.””
This is why Mingus Ah Um is a good place to start—it is diverse and shows his different styles and different moods.
“That fire, that irrepressible energy, made Mingus somewhat unfashionable in an era of cool. So did his unabashed maximalism as a composer. The limpid impressionism of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), the funky vamps of hard bop and soul jazz, and the honky-tonk expressiveness of Ornette Coleman had little in common, but all were attempts at achieving a simpler, more immediate style than bebop with its bewildering velocity and jarring dissonances.”
Is this why Charles Mingus seems to be overlooked? I like both the impressionism of Kind of Blue and Mingus’s “unabashed maximalism”. I love his raw, bold music, full of life, energy, and rage. 
“Ornette and his followers, Mingus complained to Goodman, were like surgeons who couldn’t retrace their steps: “if I’m a surgeon, am I going to cut you open ‘by heart,’ just free-form it, you know?… I’m not avant-garde, no. I don’t throw rocks and stones, I don’t throw my paint.” […]
Mingus wasn’t afraid of the new, but he didn’t see why it should come at the expense of the past, as the slogans of the avant-garde seemed to imply. He was a rebel in defense of tradition. […] In 1959, the year Coleman announced The Shape of Jazz to Come, Mingus called one of his records Blues & Roots: black music, as he saw it, was a continuum, a bottomless source of renewal; you couldn’t move into the future without a thorough knowledge of the past. “Those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland,” he told Goodman, “are the same and as important as classical music styles are.” Gospel and blues, the New Orleans polyphony of Jelly Roll Morton and the urbane sophistication of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the stride piano of James P. Johnson and the dazzling harmonizations of Art Tatum: all went into the Mingus cauldron, seasoned with dashes of circus music, obscure pop tunes, B-movie scores, flamenco, scraps of Mozart and Richard Strauss. To listen to Mingus is to hear the black American musical tradition talking to itself.”
Blues & Roots was released in 1960 but recorded in 1959, before The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s particularly interesting in context—after the period of cool jazz (itself a reaction to bebop) and modal jazz, some musicians were going back to their roots and incorporating blues and gospel music in jazz, with hard bop, whilst others were “going forward” with avant-garde jazz and free jazz around the same time.
I won’t quote more from the article, as it should be read in whole. Quite long but a good piece. Adam Shatz writes about the music as well as the man behind the music—early ambitions (classical music), influences, developments in his career, personality, racial identity, and all the things that shaped Mingus’s music. 

2/ Ted Gioia writes about Charles Mingus in his The History of Jazz—the chapter is published on the Jazz Profiles blog:
http://jazzprofiles.blogspot.com/2018/10/ted-gioia-on-charles-mingus-history-of.html
“Like many jazz bandleaders who came to prominence in the 1950s, Charles Mingus drew inspiration from the hard-bop style, albeit transforming it into his own image. He drew heavily on the same ingredients that had proven successful for Blakey and Silver: an appreciation for African American roots music such as gospel and blues; a zest for hard-swinging, often funky playing; a rigorous schooling in the bebop idiom; a renewed emphasis on formalism and the possibilities of jazz composition; and a determination to exploit the full expressive range of the traditional horns-plus-rhythm jazz combo. Despite these similarities, few critics of the period saw Mingus as part of the hard-bop school. Yet his mature musical explorations rarely ventured far afield from this ethos. Had Mingus recorded for Blue Note and drawn on the services of other musicians affiliated with that label, these links would have been more evident. As it stands, he is typically seen as a musician who defies category—more a gadfly, skilled at disrupting hegemonies rather than supporting the current trends in play. Mingus is remembered as a progressive who never really embraced the freedom principle and a traditionalist who constantly tinkered with and subverted the legacies of the past.”
I’m helpless when trying to write about music, so click the link and read Ted Gioia’s chapter.

3/ Here are my favourite albums:
Mingus Ah Um:


Oh Yeah:


The Clown:


The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady:


I’ve also listened to Blues & Roots and Tijuana Moods (did I check out Mingus Dynasty?)—The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is different from everything else.
Go listen.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Ted Gioia and the need to approach artists on their own terms

In chapter 6 of How to Listen to Jazz, “A Closer Look at some Jazz Innovators”, Ted Gioia writes about: 
- Louis Armstrong 
- Coleman Hawkins 
- Duke Ellington 
- Billie Holiday 
- Charlie Parker 
- Thelonious Monk 
- Miles Davis 
- John Coltrane 
- Ornette Coleman 
With each musician, he not only writes about their style and contribution to jazz but also suggests how to approach them, and what to look for in their music, so to speak. For example, approach Billie Holiday’s music through its emotional valence instead of analysing the technical aspects; see John Coltrane’s music as a quest; look for the unity and core values in Miles Davis despite all the different styles; listen and take in Ornette Coleman without thinking about theory, jargon, or what other people have said, etc. 
Then he says: 
“What other takeaways should you bring from this exploration of these jazz innovators? I hope that 1 lesson stands out: namely, the need to approach artists and styles on their own terms. As you have seen, the listening strategy can’t be the same for every musician. I try to start each listening session with an open mind, and as the performance unfolds, I ask myself: What is this artist attempt to do? Some musicians are cerebral, others are passionate; some want to swing like crazy, while others are seeking a poetic romanticism; some are plunging into the future, while others want to preserve our legacy from the past. You can’t judge all of these with the same rubric, and this is more than just a matter of fairness to the performers. More to the point, you will severely constrain your own listening pleasure if you fault New Orleans trad players for not sounding like beboppers or avant-gardists, or gripe that some introspective ECM ensemble doesn’t swing like the Count Basie band.”  
This is like the way I try to approach a writer or a literary work—on their own terms. It is, for example, silly to read a Charles Dickens novel and dismiss for not being like a Jane Austen. 
With literature, I can put aside my personal taste, make a cool judgment, and recognise the literary merit. With music, I’m too much of a pleb at the moment to do the same. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. So now I just listen, and my responses are personal, emotional responses. 
I suppose it is good that Ted Gioia has an open mind and embraces everything in jazz—everything. The problem with jazz today, he says, is not that there are no heroes, but that there are too many of them and people don’t know where to start or whom to listen to—there is too much diversity in the jazz world. He also argues that jazz musicians today are better technically because of formal training. 
I’m not so open-minded. Maybe some day. Certain things in jazz just don’t appeal at all to me. Meanwhile I’m just going to focus on the 1950s-60s.

Monday, 7 October 2019

On Ted Gioia on the origins and evolution of jazz

1/ Here is Ted Gioia on the origins of jazz (from How to Listen to Jazz): 
“[Buddy Bolden] and the others who participated in this revolutionary movement drew on the full range of music available to them, but especially the blues. They married this blues sensibility to the rhythmic vitality of ragtime, and adapted both these idioms to the horns and other instruments available to them in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. And all of this was infused with an irreverence and willingness to break the rules that ensured that this new style wouldn’t stand still, but continue to morph and change and advance. Even today, more than a century later, we can hear all of these elements in jazz music. All of us involved in the jazz enterprise are still, unmistakably, the progeny of Buddy Bolden and his Crescent City cohorts.” 
2/ Gioia talks about the correlation between world-changing artistic revolutions and plagues, and then uses that to explain New Orleans as the birthplace for jazz. I’m not so sure about that. 
3/ The book has a chapter about the evolution of jazz styles, in which Gioia spends several pages for each subgenre explaining its context, development, characteristics, and major musicians and albums associated with it. He talks about: 
- New Orleans jazz 
- Chicago jazz 
- Harlem stride 
- Kansas city jazz 
- Big bands and the swing era 
- Bebop/ modern jazz 
- Cool jazz 
- Hard bop 
- Avant-garde/ free jazz 
- Jazz/ rock fusion 
- Classical/ world music/ jazz fusion 
- Postmodernism and neoclassical jazz 
It is fascinating to learn about the history of jazz, its development and changes over time. Gioia explains in detail and offers lots of insight.
My complaint is that he talks about cool jazz but doesn’t mention modal jazz, and talks about Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue without discussing John Coltrane. I know the jazz world is vast—some musicians I’m interested in such as Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk are not mentioned on these pages, but John Coltrane’s among the most influential figures in jazz. It’s good that Gioia writes about him in the following chapter, “A Closer Look at Some Jazz Innovators”, but I think he deserves a bit more mention in the chapter about the evolution of jazz. Gioia doesn’t talk about Giant Steps or A Love Supreme either. 
Or maybe I’m just being a petty fangirl.  
4/ Lest it appears that I’m not happy with How to Listen to Jazz, I do like it a lot. A very good book.  
I also like that for several times in the book, Gioia attacks the banal and stupid idea that it’s all subjective. Every single debate about the arts has at least 1 philistine mindlessly repeating the platitude that nothing is better than anything and it’s all about personal taste (see the nonsense people say about Martin Scorsese’s Marvel comment?). Regarding jazz, Gioia says: 
“… this kind of deep critical listening and judgment is built on more than just personal taste, but draws on clear standards inherent in the music itself and how it has evolved. The music itself makes certain demands on the listeners, and the critic who articulates these demands has left subjectivity behind, at least to some degree”.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Jazz and tone production

In How to Listen to Jazz, Ted Gioia tells the story of jazz broadcaster Richard Hadlock arranging to take a saxophone lesson from New Orleans pioneer Sidney Bechet. This was Bechet’s lesson:  
“I’m going to give you 1 note today. See how many ways you can play that note—growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.” 
That is jazz. Numerous times I listened to a jazz composition and heard cries, shrieks, moans… 
Gioia goes on to say, “a whole universe of significations could be contained in that single note, and the masters of the idiom were expected to find a seemingly infinite number of ways of expressing them.” 
“It’s hardly a coincidence that this ‘tune and tone’ revolution was spurred by American musicians of African ancestry. The African tradition conceptualizes music-making as the creation of sounds. You may think that music-making is obviously the creation of sounds, but that’s not really the case. The Western performance tradition of the last 2 millennia has been shaped by practitioners who conceptualized music as a system of notes—of discrete tones, tuned in scales with 12 subdivisions. […] But African musicians never got enlightened (or is corrupted the better word?) by Pythagorean thinking. They followed the other path—creating a music that drew on infinite gradations of sound, and not just 12 notes in a scale. […] The African sensibility clashed with the Western systems of music, and both were forced to give ground. Yet how much richer we are for this give-and-take!”  
I’d say that part of the freedom comes from the instruments—with the piano, violin, or viola, you can’t bend notes, distort sounds, or mimic noises the way you can do with the saxophone or trumpet (30-Second Jazz says that “the sound of the saxophone bears an uncanny resemblance to the human voice, and as with the human voice, no 2 players’ tones are exactly alike”). However, it’s fascinating to look at tone production in jazz and go back to its roots and see jazz as a happy marriage between Western music system of notes and African tradition of sound production (especially in the case of Duke Ellington’s orchestra). 



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Here is Ted Gioia taking a dig at today’s pop music: 
“By the way, this tells you why Auto-Tuned vocals on many contemporary records sound so shallow and lifeless, It’s almost as if everything we learned from African American music during the 20th century was thrown out the window by technologists of the 21st century. The goal should not be to sing every note dead center in the middle of the pitch—we escaped from that musical prison a hundred years ago. Why go back?” 

Reading about jazz

1/ After John Coltrane, I listened to Charles Mingus, and particularly loved Mingus Ah Um and Oh Yeah. Bold, raw, exciting. Very different from the musicians I’m used to.
His best composition is “Moanin’”—the version in Nostalgia in Times Square (not the one in Blues& Roots, which sounds more hesitant and has less life).
Listen:



2/ I have been listening to jazz for several years, but in an unsystematic and superficial way. I am a literature and cinema person, not a music person—my musical knowledge is minimal, I don’t even have a good ear.
A few weeks ago I asked a few friends for jazz reading recommendations. 1 of them raised the question on fb, and half a dozen helpful people stepped in to recommend musicians/tracks I could listen to. I mean, thanks, but that wasn’t the question?
I enjoy listening to jazz, and my responses are mostly emotional—some knowledge and guidance would help the listening and understanding. Anyone can enjoy a film, for example, but knowledge about composition, lighting, acting, editing, sound design, production design, and so on, would help you have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the film as a work of art; and sometimes, you might have even more respect and admiration for a film and the filmmakers if you have been involved in filmmaking and know what goes behind the scenes and how difficult it is to get a certain shot or create a certain scene. It is similar with music, and jazz (unlike, say, pop music) makes demands of the listener.

3/ I’ve just read 30-Second Jazz: The 50 Crucial Concepts, Styles and Performers, Each Explained in Half a Minute, edited by Dave Gelly.
It’s a helpful book, introducing some core concepts such as front line (instruments at the front of a band: brass, saxophones…), back line/ rhythm section (instruments at the back, which create the rhythm: drums and bass), jump band, big band, jam session, polyrhythm, cross-rhythm, third stream (synthesis of jazz and classical music), ensemble, reed section (the saxophone section of a big band, whose members play additional reed instruments such as clarinets), mute, gypsy jazz, Latin jazz, fusion music, bossa nova, scatting, close harmony, acoustic, stride piano, and so on.
Of course, as you can tell from the title, the book explains everything in a very basic way—it is good as a general introduction to jazz, but doesn’t explain anything in depth. I still don’t know, for example, the difference between bebop and hard bop, or I know the definition but my ears can’t recognise modal jazz.

4/ 50-Second Jazz makes me realise, though, that jazz is extremely vast and diverse, and I don’t know shit about jazz.

5/ Yesterday I listened to Django Reinhardt, one of the most significant figures in jazz, especially for starting gypsy jazz. 
He’s good, especially considering that he lost feeling in 2 fingers on his left hand. But gypsy jazz is quite different from the kind of jazz I’m used to, and it’s strange to hear the instruments—I have always associated jazz with only saxophones, trumpets, double basses, drums, and pianos.

6/ 30-Second Jazz has a very liberal, open, and welcoming stance on jazz, its various subgenres, and development. 
I don’t want to ditch anything, but I have no interest in fusion (jazz mixed with rock, funk, and R&B) nor nu jazz (mixture of jazz and electronic music).

7/ At the moment I’m reading How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Gioia.