Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Reflective Practitioner of Jazz

Most of what I have written about the reflective practice of making or listening to music has drawn upon the classical repertoire, primarily because this repertoire was the source of the data in Donald Schön's field work in this domain. Last night, however, I had the pleasure of listening to a true Jazz Master (authenticated by the NEA), who provided excellent (and stimulating) examples of reflection-in-action with regard to both performance and listening. The Master is Ahmad Jamal; and, as I wrote in my review, he is a composer who, like Ornette Coleman, seems to have latched on to Karlheinz Stockhausen's "moment" style of composition and made it his own. Using this review to think through this hypothesis was great fun, but I still have to be honest about the fact that it was little more than hypothesis.

However, I happened to share this hypothesis with the guys sitting with my in my box in Herbst Theatre. One of them went backstage after the show, asked Jamal if he had been listening to Stockhausen, and reported back to me through electronic mail. His quote of Jamal's reply was:

Yeah, and I been listening to everybody

Jamal then added:

Lately, I've been mostly listening to myself.

I took this as an affirmation of Jamal's fundamentally reflective approach to his practices of both making and listening to music (including his own).

This adds further fuel to my fire that any "theory of listening to music" must be grounded in Schön's principle of reflection-in-action. We can only "elevate ourselves from the sensory experience of hearing to the more cognitive nature of listening," as I wrote on Friday, if we can tap into the reflective nature of what we hear. This is why I often try to identify autobiographical elements in compositions, even those works as abstract as the preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich. Jamal, too, was autobiographical in his decision to perform the fifty-year-old "Poinciana," the work that is probably still most closely associated with his name. However, as I wrote in my review, rather than reviving memories of his fifty-year-old recording, he approached the tune "in a far more deconstructed way." Here is how I explained that point while, at the same time, establishing his connection to Stockhausen's "moment" style:

By assuming that we all remember "how it used to go," he can now extract individual "moments" from the tune, putting each one under a microscope, so to speak, and examining it from a variety of different angles before moving on to another "moment."

Thus, last night's performance was a synthesis of reflective listening and reflective performance. Listening to himself was an important element, but just as important was that he had a good strategy for selecting his listening matter! Perhaps this new insight into Jamal's reflection-in-action will reflect back on my ongoing effort to listen to Coleman's Free Jazz session!

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