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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Killing it - The Virtue of Virtuosity

Killing it. Burning. Carving it up. Playing the shit out of it - all jazz euphemisms for one of the most enduring jazz values - virtuosity.

Jazz has been a virtuoso music since its inception. From the earliest times jazz has admired, and even demanded virtuosity. Although we have no way of verifying it, Buddy Bolden was considered a virtuoso, but we have clear examples of the virtuosity of those who followed him - King Oliver, Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, and this man - Jabbo Smith. This was recorded in 1929, when Smith was only 21. Recorded 86 years ago, the brilliance of the playing remains undimmed

So from its earliest years, virtuosity was a virtue and has been a true jazz tradition. Jazz is a music studded with extraordinary virtuosos - Hawkins, Tatum, Parker, Mingus, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, Miles, Shorter, Tyner, LaFaro, McLaughlin, Corea etc. and which continues to this day with the likes of Mehldau, Rosenwinkel, Ambrose Akinmusire etc.

Here is Mehldau, upholding the virtuoso tradition seventy one years after the Jabbo Smith recording

The reason this is on my mind is because recently I've seen a lot of young bands, allegedly playing jazz, who apart from the fact that their music and their approach to it would make me question their connection to the jazz tradition under any musical heading, show no signs of being able to play their instruments beyond a very ordinary level of competence. The ability to play your instrument at the highest level has always been a sine qua non for jazz players, and as far as I'm concerned, remains so.

I do believe jazz to be a broad church, but not to the point where absolutely anything can be termed jazz regardless of content or approach. For me, two essentials for any music which could be considered as being part of the jazz tradition are group improvisation, and a connection to the African-American rhythmic tradition. A third one would be virtuosity.

What is virtuosity? Often it's glibly thought of as being the ability to play fast, but it's much more nuanced than that. There are different kinds of virtuosity - rhythmic, harmonic, improvisatory, timbral. There is much more to virtuosity than mere velocity, just like there is much more to intelligence than the ability to pass an IQ test. The narrow classical music definition of virtuosity is too limiting for jazz, since jazz is a music which depends on individuality in a way that is much broader than anything found in classical music performers.

In jazz, just as there are many kinds of intelligence, there are many ways in which a player can be a virtuoso. Tatum would be considered as the supreme instrumental virtuoso, and he terrorised even such brilliant classical instrumentalists as Vladimir Horowitz in his time, but Thelonious Monk is also a virtuoso, a virtuoso of rhythm and timbre. John Mclaughlin judged by any criteria, is a guitar virtuoso, but so is Jim Hall. Hall doesn't play at the dazzling speed of McLaughlin, but his timbral variety, rhythmic creativity and ability to juggle motifs is an example of high virtuosity placed at the service of the music. Scott LaFaro did things on the bass in his all too short career that are still physically impossible for most bassists, but Ron Carter, on the face of it a much simpler player, has an ability to control the direction of any band he's in by manipulation of his rhythmic position in relation to the beat, and his note choices over changes. This too is a form of virtuosity.

Tatum, Monk, McLaughlin, Hall, LaFaro, Carter - all of them are musicians of the very highest level and all of them are virtuosos in their own way. And if you want to operate at any kind of high level of jazz you have to be a virtuoso too. You need a total command of your instrument, of rhythm, of pitch. You need the kind of knowledge of your instrument that allows you to turn on a dime creatively, that allows you to instantly, instrumentally respond to your every creative impulse, and the creative impulses of others.

These days there seems to be a suggestion that bands are the be-all and end-all of what's needed in the jazz world. It's all about the bands apparently. But, although the history of jazz is illuminated by great bands - Hot 5's, Ellington, Basie, Miles, Trane, Weather Report, Mahavishnu etc. - every one of those bands were also populated by great virtuosos. There has never, in the history of jazz, been a great band that had members who didn't play the shit out of their instruments.

And the same is true today - if you want to be part of the jazz tradition, or make any claims to be a part of it, band or no band, then you need to be a great player. As an example of how this is still true today, two bands that are highly rated in the jazz world would be Snarky Puppy and Kneebody. They're very different to each other and Snarky Puppy could also be considered more of a funk band than a jazz one, but all the members are great players of their instruments, and in Corey Henry they have a true virtuoso. As are all of Kneebody. Kneebody have created a true band identity, but it couldn't be created unless all the players were at the very highest instrumental level.

I recently saw a concert by the Bad Plus, another highly rated band, with the addition of Tim Berne, Sam Newsome, and Ron Miles, playing the music of Ornette Coleman. It was a brilliant evening of music, illuminated by the absolutely top of the line virtuosity of every musician on the stage.

If you have aspirations to be a jazz musician there are no shortcuts - you will need to put in the kind of hours and years necessary to be a true virtuoso.  Here's an example of Kneebody in action - very contemporary, a true band identity, but all encased in that indispensable jazz virtue - virtuosity.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Charlie Parker - 'Kansas City Lightning'

I just finished Stanley Crouch's 'Kansas City Lightning', a biography of Charlie Parker. Crouch of course is best known as part of a double-act with Wynton Marsalis in putting forward a particular view of jazz and its history, and is generally seen as being a conservative commentator on the music. Initially Crouch's views used to annoy, and sometimes enrage me - his comment that Scott LaFaro's playing conception would have been fine if jazz had been invented in Europe, I found particularly inaccurate, with the implication that LaFaro doesn't swing, and is less profound in consequence. I could go into all the reasons why I think that is completely wrong, but that's not really the point of this post. His part in the lopsided Ken Burns Jazz series where the last 40 years of jazz is contained in one episode, while earlier decades get one episode each, confirmed his conservative bona fides.

But later I read an interview with him on Ethan Iverson's blog, and enjoyed it quite a lot, and had a lot more respect for him as a thinker and jazz scholar. While I would still disagree with his view of the overall history of jazz, there's no doubt that when he's writing about what he loves, he's an astute commentator and writer, and there's also no doubting his love and passion for jazz.

So, probably to the surprise of my earlier self, I bought his Parker biography and gave it a go, and I must say I really enjoyed it. It's a very unusual biography, and indeed I've seen criticism of it along the lines that a huge amount of the biography is not about Parker at all, but about the Kansas City of the 30s, about various peripheral characters, and even about the esthetic approach to the music itself taken by those who made their living playing it, and lived the life of the itinerant jazz musician of that time.

For my taste however, these seeming diversions work very well. Rather than create a linear biography in the conventional manner, Crouch's method of flitting from topic to topic, person to person, builds up a fascinating composite picture of a time and place, and more importantly, of a people. What Crouch does brilliantly is to bring to life the jazz scene of the 1930s, both in Kansas and New York, and the people who created that scene. It is primarily, and properly, focused on the African-American musical community and Crouch reveals a multi-layered society, with hierarchies, successes and failures, night people, principled people, unprincipled people, innovators and imitators, leaders and hangers on.

In general I found his ability to bring the African-American society of the time to life to be the most fascinating part of the book. He really gets inside the lives of people, and examines their motives, and their coping techniques in dealing with the reality that being black in America at that time meant. He also explores the drive to play this music, and what playing this music meant to the people who played it. Throughout the book Crouch uses the now discarded term 'negro' when referring to African-Americans, and though this is not a term one would normally see used in contemporary times, it would have been very prevalent at that time, and Crouch's decision to use it does help in giving a period feel to the descriptions of life as lived by African-Americans in that era.

It's also quite a literary book, Crouch colours his narrative using a particular style of writing that combines his own stylistic quirks with the slang of the time and the speech patterns of the people he is writing about. For example, in describing the young Parker's reaction to losing his closest boyhood friend, Robert Simpson, to TB, Crouch describes it as follows: 'For Charlie Parker, confronting Simpson's death was like drinking a cup of blues made from razor blades'. There is quite a lot of this kind of writing in the book, and in the early stages of reading it I wondered whether it would start to become an irritant. But I ended up enjoying it and the connection to Crouch the writer that it gave, but I could also imagine that it might it irritate others or put them off.

The music scene as described in the book, really emphasises the survival of the fittest nature of the jazz world of that time, and the weight given to being able to play opponents off the stage or humiliate them in musical battle. The players, and bands, were like gladiators, taking to the stage in front of different factions and being proclaimed winners or losers by popular vote - this vote was based on the acclaim either of the musicians themselves, or the dancers they primarily played for. This ferocious competitiveness had a practical application - work. The better a player or band you were, the more work you got. In this take no prisoners world, visiting soloists to Kansas would take on all-comers, and local virtuosos would be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night to take on some interloper who thought he had what it took to put the locals in their place. A wonderful quote from the great Harry 'Sweets' Edison, describing the Count Basie band's ability to defeat all comers on the bandstand gives a flavour of the prevailing attitude, and the book, as it discusses this aspect of the musical scene: "....(we) went out there and sliced up so much ass with that Kansas City swing there was ass waist-deep all over the floor'

(Buster Smith)

The young Parker doesn't come out of this book very well as a person. Self-absorbed, spoiled by his doting mother, incredibly selfish and often unfeeling to his young wife and child, showing all the callousness of a junkie, combined with the immaturity of the teen he was when he both married and became addicted to drugs. It's clear that his genius didn't appear immediately he started to play, there were many humiliations along the way including the infamous Papa Jo Jones cymbal-throwing incident. But alongside his selfishness and narcotics addiction, there existed the kind of obsession with music that drove him forward, (along with his innate talent of course), into the thousands of hours of practice it takes to be a musician at the highest level. The debt he owed to the influence of the saxophonist and composer Buster Smith is clearly outlined, as is the influence on his developing musical language of the sessions he undertook with the guitarist Biddy Fleet. This latter association was one I was only vaguely aware of and it was very interesting to read about the extent and nature of the practice these two did together.

Although the book opens with Parker's triumphant entry into New York on his second visit, with Jay McShann's band, it primarily deals with Parker's early years in KC, and his first visit to New York before he became well known. I believe Crouch will write, or has written, a second volume of this biography which will presumably deal with the the better-known part of his life and eventual death. With this book he has done a service to people interested in Parker by fleshing out his early life in Kansas, and in particular by outlining the environment in which such a talent could emerge. What shines through clearly in the book is the immense pride and seriousness that jazz was held in by the people who played, developed and created it. That a people who were dealt such a terrible hand by history could produce such an incredible music that then went out from its homeland and changed the whole musical world, and the lives of millions of people, is really a triumph of the human spirit.

Here is the subject of this book, in full flight with some of his greatest colleagues, showing how 'Kansas City Lightning' is a very apt title......