Sunday, July 15, 2007

Returning to Ornette Coleman

I do not seem to write very much about jazz these days; and, when I do, it seems to have more to do with my hypothesizing that Karlheinz Stockhausen (possibly along with his son, Markus) seems to have a better feel for jazz as an act of performance than most of what is currently being offered in the name of jazz. I used the italics in that last sentence, because I feel that, given the overwhelming demand for music that we now download and carry around with us on some portable device, there is an increasing tendency to view music, whatever its genre may be, as a manufactured studio product. In other words we have become so obsessed with using recordings to relegate music to the background as a "soundtrack for life" that we have lost touch with the foreground "roots" of music: performance in front of a "live" audience.

This has a further consequence, which is that, when such a performance does take place, audiences are probably less aware of the "real-time" virtues of that performance than they used to be. In this respect I think that Prince may have hit on any interesting solution. I learned about this from reading confused of calcutta (but later saw it covered on the BBC):

So it was with some amusement that I read this story, where he is described as having done a deal with the Mail On Sunday to give his latest album away free before it hits the shops.

As the BBC has now reported, today was the day of this grand experiment. The reaction from the manufactured-product camp has been downright testy:

But the giveaway has angered retailers, who called it "an insult" to high street record stores.

It also dealt a blow to Prince's record label, Sony BMG, which has shelved plans to release the album in the UK.

However, this report has also tapped into Prince's motive, which I feel is the heart of the story:

"Prince has done this because he makes most of his money these days as a performing artist," the Mail on Sunday's editor, Peter Wright, told BBC Five Live.

"He's got a fantastic series of concerts coming up at the O2 Dome and this is a way of telling people what he's doing."

Carrying this logic one step further, it is that Prince has decided not just to promote his upcoming concerts but to actively cultivate the audience for those concerts. By giving them the opportunity to hear the recorded versions of his new material ("telling people what he's doing"), his audience will be better prepared to appreciate those elements that live performance add to what it means to "experience music."

Thus, those retailers may be right to feel insulted by his strategy. He is basically telling his fan base (and quite likely others made curious by the promotional strategy) that anything they buy from a record store, physical or virtual, will never be anything more than a secondary by-product of what he does. His live performances are the most important part of his life as a musician, and an audience that is prepped with free recordings of the new compositions is more likely to get this message.

This takes me back to jazz. My problem seems to be that it is just not fun any more; and it is not fun because, even when a performance is live, it feels as if it is still little more than a "playback" of things that have been concocted through recording studio work. I recently tried to communicate this message in a survey conducted by SFJAZZ, ostensibly conducted to find out what jazz lovers really want them to offer in their programs. Ironically, my sour opinion was rewarded with two complimentary tickets to hear Ornette Coleman in October!

This should make for an interesting test of my current thinking. I came to know Coleman through a live performance that he gave during my student days at MIT. I did not start listening to his recordings until CDs replaced vinyls, but those CDs became an important part of my collection during my years in Singapore when there were almost no opportunities to hear quality performances of jazz. My first impressions of Coleman were shock-of-the-new astonishment. I could do little more than "bathe" in all those new sounds that could not be processed by my mind as anything more than joyful chaos. Through my recordings, however, I have begun to make sense of that chaos; so I shall be able to go to that October performance as a far more informed audience than I was at my first exposure. I'm not sure about the rest of the audience, though. One certainly does not hear much of Coleman on the radio from either KCSM, the one serious place to learn about jazz on the public airwaves of the Bay Area, or the "Real Jazz" channel provided by XM Satellite Radio. There is no doubting that the guy is an acquired taste; but it seems as if all of those parties offended by Prince's new approach to releasing new music are also the parties that make it so difficult, if not impossible, to "acquire" a new taste in the first place.

This all reflects back on the sorts of arguments that Andrew Keen was trying to make about "culture death" in that "debate" broadcast by Book TV yesterday. Jeff Howell (the not particularly "moderate" moderator from Wired) wanted to wax eloquent over the "long tail effect;" but Keen was smart enough to see the flaw in the propaganda. The issue is not whether there is a "place" for experiences of limited appeal, such as cultivating an appreciation of what Ornette Coleman brought to the jazz scene. I am sure there is plenty of his stuff out there on the long tail, just as I am sure that I can find it, because I know how to do just the right kinds of narrowly-focused searches. The bigger challenge is whether or not Coleman can cultivate an audience for adventurous listeners who want more from jazz than they are going to get from the mass productions of Wynton Marsalis and others like him closer to the center of commercial attention. Can Coleman be "discovered" out there on the long tail by such listeners? Keen is skeptical about this proposition, and I share his skepticism.

So, putting the Internet aside, will either SFJAZZ or KCSM do anything, not just to encourage buying tickets, but also to prepare the ticket buyers, for an evening with Ornette Coleman in October? Once again, I am skeptical. In this case, though, I would really like my opinion to be proven wrong!

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