Sunday, December 12, 2010

Being True to the Source

While it should be clear from my account that I really enjoyed the 25th Anniversary Concert by the Turtle Island Quartet on Friday night, there was one aspect in how a couple of their numbers were introduced that deserves a bit of attention.  One of them was Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” which was immediately associated with Jimi Hendrix and was included with other Hendrix selections on their latest CD.  Similarly, “Cross Road Blues” was properly attributed to Robert Johnson;  but, by similar reasoning, was then associated with Eric Clapton’s recording.

Now, in all fairness, I have to wonder whether Columbia would have gone to the trouble of releasing all of Johnson’s recording sessions had it not been for the efforts of the British pop musicians, particularly the Rolling Stones and Clapton, to return Johnson to his proper place in public attention.  So little is known about Johnson himself that the myths about the man vastly outweigh any actual facts, but even those myths are important to anyone who aspires to take up the torch as either performer or listener.  On the other hand Dylan had been a “hot property” for Columbia before Hendrix became a major source of attention.  Indeed, Dylan may have influenced what Hendrix was trying to do as much as the old Johnson recordings had cultivated Clapton’s interest in getting back to the “primal roots” of blues.

Another way to be fair, of course, is to recognize that Turtle Island as more interested in jamming than in giving any lessons in ethnomusicology (or any other branch of musicology, for that matter).  As I noted in my review, just about any genre is fair game when the Turtle Island members (and their friends) get together to make music.  However, this is a good time to recall that the authors of the Upanishads believed that knowledge resided in the connections that bound together elements from similarly unrelated realms.  What continues to impress me about Turtle Island is their conviction that “making music” is a practice that transcends more confining activities labeled as “playing jazz” or “performing the classics.”  However, that transcendence emerges from those connections established between “realms” normally assumed to be “unrelated.”  Calling attention to the audience cannot harm the listening experience and may even enhance it.

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