Sunday, October 28, 2007

Preparing for Ornette Coleman

This past summer SFJAZZ, the organization behind the semiannual San Francisco Jazz Festival, approached me through electronic mail with a request to participate in a survey. I do not know if this was because or in spite of the fact that I had not purchased any tickets from them for a couple of years, but I hoped that the survey would give me the opportunity to vent my displeasure with their offerings. It did, which meant that I was able to make the two points that I felt were most important:

  1. For the most part their offerings ran the gamut from lame to insipid. I realize that SFJAZZ cannot take all of the blame for this. I agree with Gary Giddins' arguments as to why jazz just is not what it used to be. I have felt that way for at least fifteen years when, in a conversation, I happened to remark that the only saxophonists who interested me were now dead.
  2. Too many of the events take place in the Nob Hill Masonic Center. This may not be the absolutely worst place to go for serious listening to music of any kind, but it is definitely a major contender. Again the fault does not lie entirely with SFJAZZ, since, if they are to get even close to making budgetary ends meet, they need at least one venue that will hold a large audience.

To some extent my complaints may be a variation on the joke Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall about the two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills. The first says, "The food here is really terrible," to which the second replies, "Yes, and the portions are so small!"

I suppose what matters to me most is that Igor Stravinsky's injunction about the need to be a good listener, which I have cited in so many contexts, is equally applicable when it comes to jazz. This is particularly evident when we read documents about Lennie Tristano's approach to teaching jazz improvisation, which put considerable emphasis on listening to recordings of major jazz solos and then reproducing by ear, either by playing or singing what one had heard. Unfortunately, Stravinsky was probably not a particularly good listener of the jazz of his day, at least if we are to judge him by his efforts to invoke a "jazzy spirit" in some of his own compositions. Most of those works have merits of their own; but it would not surprise me to learn that Stravinsky, himself, had to live with the cold truth that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

As a "reward" for the hard line I took in participating in the SFJAZZ survey, I was informed that I had "won" two complimentary tickets to the current Festival. I was given several options, most of which reflected that the Festival organizers either disagreed with or ignored my first point. However, Ornette Coleman was one of the options; so I made it clear to SFJAZZ that this was the only option that interested me. If tickets were not available, then they could just not bother with "rewarding" me, since making those two points was all that really mattered to me. However, the tickets were available; so tonight I shall once again brave the ghastly setting of the Masonic Center in search of another good listening experience.

I have been listening to Coleman for quite some time, going all the way back to when I heard him bring his trio to perform at MIT. This was not long after he had decided to perform some of his work on violin. Since then I have built up a modest collection of CDs (including the Atlantic anthology); and my ears keep making progress in finding their way around his work.

The San Francisco Chronicle tried to do some advance work in last Sunday's "Datebook." The result was not quite as aggravating as many of the classical and opera reviews that I tend to read there, but I am not sure that it contributed very much to the cause of good listening. Coleman is primarily associated with the "free jazz" movement, since Free Jazz was the title of the Atlantic recording that was released in September of 1961. The basic idea was that, while improvisation had traditionally been a matter of spinning out embellishments on a familiar tune (often so elaborate that the tune was barely recognized), a "free" improvisation would dispense with having any such tune as a foundation (however far in the background it may have receded). Historically speaking, Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh were already experimenting with doing this sort of thing about fifteen years before Atlantic released this recording; and, to be fair about my own listening history, my first taste of this technique came when I heard the impulse! recording of John Coltrane's "Ascension," recorded at a session in June of 1965. The Chronicle piece, on the other hand, tended to concentrate on comparing Coleman with Cecil Taylor, basically arguing that Coleman was easier to take because his notes were not as densely packed as Taylor's and they tended to play out in more "melodic" lines.

I would take this as a serious injustice to both Coleman and Taylor, but I think it illustrates why listening to free jazz is more challenging than listening to even the most highly embellished bebop solos. Once you kick away all the foundations, then you are, literally, free to take your playing anywhere you want. From an analytic point of view, this means that what you play is really only informed by your past experiences of playing and listening, whatever they may have been. Tristano, Taylor, Coleman, and Coltrane all had widely differing experiences. It makes little sense to compare them, nor to assume that my past experiences in listening to any of them will help me very much when I listen to Coleman tonight.

Does this mean that we really cannot be a good listener at a "live" performance of free jazz, whoever its creators may be? Does it all fly by too fast for our cognitive capabilities to keep up with it? To the extent that we may never tease out all the intricate interplay of detail that we can find in Wagner, this is probably the case; but who expects to hear Wagner at any jazz performance? (Yes, I know that Gerry Mulligan was good enough to tack the opening bassoon solo from Le Sacre on to the end of one of his improvisations; but listening to Stravinsky was not the point of that gig!) Nevertheless, I believe that our listening can still be guided by that medieval trivium that I continue to invoke. The logic may involve little more than a chain of spontaneous associations "in the moment;" but the performers have enough command of what they are doing to recognize the difference between the embellishing and the embellished and render a grammatical prioritizing of what they are playing. Finally, the issue of rhetoric is no different than it is in any other performance, addressing the problem of how to both attract and then hold the listener's attention, whether by devices of musical invention or by performances gestures that facilitate the ear finding its way around such a "free space." These three elements always guide us, whether through a microscopic moment captured by Webern or the impetuous forty-minute "ride" of the Atlantic Free Jazz recording; so they will be with me (as usual) when I hear Coleman "live" for the first time since my student days.

No comments: