Sunday, January 9, 2011

Listening to Jazz with a "Classical" Mind

Beyond my ongoing joke that jazz is “chamber music by other means” lies a deeper question of just what it means to listen to jazz as if it were chamber music (or, for that matter, to listen to chamber music as if it were jazz).  I recently tried to tap into these question when I wrote an piece about a performance of the Marcus Shelby Trio in the front parlor of the Victorian Hass-Lilienthal House in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, which was about as clear an example of jazz in a chamber music setting as one would be likely to encounter.  Beyond the immediate “surface level” experience of listening without any need for amplification equipment lie a variety of sensemaking questions that are probably as applicable to performing as they are to listening.

I found myself dwelling on these questions last night and again this morning for another “assignment,” this one covering Arturo Sandoval and his combo at Herbst Theatre.  My strongest impression was that Sandoval’s performances, particularly on both trumpet and piano, were informed by an impressively diverse repertoire of listening experiences.  The most explicit of these was his decision to call one piano solo “Oscar,” since it was basically a reflection on such listening experiences applied to Oscar Peterson.  More interesting, however, were the sorts of free associations that emerged during improvisation, particularly when he would precede a “tune” by a highly prolonged improvised introduction.  Unless I am mistaken, one of those introductions managed to incorporate both the opening trumpet fanfare from Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony and the opening measures from the “Concierto de Aranjuez” track from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album.  At one level one could say that Sandoval used this introduction to say, “This is what a good trumpeter is expected to do;”  but at a deeper level the very idea of such a prolonged introduction can be traced back to Mahler, who built the idea on past experiences with Johannes Brahms, who probably picked it up from Robert Schumann (who may have picked it up from Franz Schubert).

Listening to Sandoval reminded me that any effort to distinguish classical listening from jazz listening entails imposing a category boundary that is not only unnecessary but also downright counterproductive.  We may listen to jazz performances to appreciate how good the performers are at jamming;  but I have written about several early music recitals based on the premise that such jamming was alive and well (and part of the accepted practice) in the seventeenth century.  For that matter there is no reason to suspect that it was not already thriving in the Middle Ages, not to mention any number of non-Western cultures.  If there is any category boundary at all, it has to do with how much attention the performers pay to any notation artifacts they are using;  but, since I continue to argue that the music is in the performing, rather than in any of those artifacts, that simply makes my case that such categorizing is counterproductive.

To the extent to which listening is about what takes place through the coupling of mind to ear, what stimulates the ear is far less important than what mind chooses to do with those stimuli.

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