Sunday, July 07, 2013
JAZZ AS IT IS – SOME SPARE THOUGHTS OF MINE
By Claudio Botelho
Let me say something about jazz. Let me tease the spirit of those who cherish the way a song is presented, besides enjoying the song itself.
For us, jazz lovers, a song is nothing more than a structure to be shaped according to the feelings and beliefs of each player. (Well, almost…)
When we set to buy a new album, we don’t search much for songs. Of course, they matter, but I’ve heard many otherwise excellent albums which, unfortunately, were marred by mediocre compositions. Is it possible to make it worthwhile? Yes, it is, but the musicians will have a double work trying to turn mud into gold. If the work is well done, the epitome of jazzism has been reached, as the improvisations turned out as plentiful as to overcome the original limitations of the songs. Here, the jazzmen, the improvisers, took the main chair that has led the project to success. These are the heroes to be revered.
Contrastingly, I’ve also heard albums filled with premium songs being a complete failure and, sometimes, by high caliber artists. An album comes to my mind: Denny Zeitlin’s “Wherever You Are”. I don’t know where you were, but I know Zeitlin was at home when he recorded this album, probably wearing his pajamas and very, very sleepy… I’m not sure if the whole work is a complete bore: I simply couldn’t proceed past its third song, but I’m quite certain it is.
As a general rule, decent songs are a suitable starting point to a good album. Some of them require little work, but even this small reshaping task needs the mind of someone attuned to the spirit of the song, which, to my taste, should not be disrupted, as much as jazz stands for freedom at its best. You shouldn’t make over songs like “The Peacocks”, “Goodbye”, “Good Morning Heartache” or “Stella by Starlight”, for instance, into anything remotely suggesting any cheering up tempo music without seriously doing a disservice to them.
I can remember an exception, though: Bill Evans rendering of Brazilian pianist Luiz Eça’s “The Dolphin”: Featured in his “From Left to Right” recording, Eça’s song was absolutely revisited pace wise so that this tune, although very gorgeous, was rhythmically indolent and lifeless, suddenly gained force and expressiveness, to the point of being twice played in the same record (take one as a trio – “Before” - and take two by the trio added by strings – “After”). Evans, besides lending his fantastic talent to it, just sped it out a little… That happened in 1969. The oddity here is that, since then, nobody ever tried to follow his steps and every other recording I’ve ever heard of that song respected judiciously Eça’s original lazy rhythm. Maybe Evans’ arrangement was too his own…
I know, I know: This art allows everything one may want to do: mood subversions, pace alterations, other songs citations, pure inversions, theme shortenings and even renderings of songs you can only identify if you believe in the words of its interpreter, that is: as much as you try, you can’t pinpoint the song played, even if it’s well known to you. In this case, you’d better ask the musician (if you can) to tell and, when he answers, you have no way other than believing in his words. (You know, chance might play a misleading role in the booklet info.)
This happened to me once. It was a song from an album by Franco D’Andrea. You see, D’Andrea do work the songs he plays, and that song was overworked for me. I don’t recall the name of the song and don’t know anymore which album it was in, unfortunately, but I’ll give some trying to find it. It would be a good test for you striving to find out the music he was playing…
We have our limits, our likes and dislikes and this sum up defining the musicians we follow, being especially decisive when the subject is jazz, regarding its extreme personal character. But our taste can change with the passing of time.
I used to be downright subversive, and welcomed the most iconoclastic renderings. The farthest the travel, the more it appealed to me. A waltz could be turned into a samba, a tango into a bossa nova, a ballad into a rock: no barriers allowed! (Subversion is akin to youth; often a consequence of skin deep thinking and passionate behavior). I’m not like this anymore, but, in any way, I’m not here to say everyone should be like me and, even less, have any intention to inhibit the limits of this art; I’m just voicing my feelings.
Many people don’t understand jazz and just think it’s an exercise of charlatanism. Others find it a mere mean of show-off dexterity and its value is closely related to it: the virtuosity rules the judgment. It seems to me that, in some instances, this is preeminent among musicians, and I think it may mar a little the simple appreciation of a musical presentation. Those of us who know little or nothing about musical theory and can’t play any musical instrument are easier devoid of this.
Through the course of a life devoted to jazz appreciation, I’ve noticed an alarming amount of improvisations in jazz which have little or nothing to do with the original theme. These are what I call “prêt-à-porter” arrangements, which, taking into account their meaninglessness, can be relocated to any other song one may want, being their effect unchanged, which means: zero consequences! For me, these are mere music prowess show-off, certainly intended to impress the less attentive. Or else: pure lack of inspiration…
After so many years of listening to some two or three generations of jazz players, I can surely state I’d rather listen to those who may wander to their hearts content, but never let you forget the song you’re listening. This shows commitment to the song they’re playing, honor to its author and respect to the essence of the theme played. Even liberty has to have some boundaries.
Speaking of liberty, there’s that kind of no-main-theme-or-multitude-theme jazz or, as it has become known, “free jazz”, which is the kind of playing by musicians like Cecil Taylor and Marilyn Crispell, to name just two. These are the fiercest of wanders. (Some would include in this group the pianist Paul Bley, which I don’t quite agree, as I see a beginning, a middle and an end in anything he does). You may as well ask Keith Jarrett to join the formers, as per some of his most up to date outings and other recordings from some three or four decades ago. Jarrett intense and tremendously emotional playing has graced the world for more than forty years now, and he has nothing more to prove to anyone. Should he be in the same band wagon of Taylor and Crispell? Would the consummate success of albums like “Paris/London: Testament”, or his top-hitter “Koln Concert” endorse the feats of that couple and others alike? You be the judge…
Anyway, I find this branch of jazz unfocused, too aimless for my liking and I’d rather stay away from mixing Jarrett with them.
To counterpoint it, there are also the no-jazz jazz musicians: you see, often comprising female singers, the farthest they can get is to say “looooooove” instead of “love”. This is all the jazz they can deliver and, amazingly, it fulfills the needs of many. There’s a plethora of them, and I reckon many are suitable or even outstanding musicians but jazz singers they’re not.
This kind of perfunctory jazz musicians has got lots of exposure in a great deal of specialized jazz publications. I can only explain this in light of an increasing lack of density of subjects to be covered, as much as I know “jazz” is still something not altogether outlined.
As I rule, I don’t usually seek either…