Saturday, March 28, 2020

“Switched-On” Jazz Switches Off Listening

courtesy of Jazzzdog Promotions

The “Editorial Reviews” background material on the Web page for Sam Gendel’s Satin Doll album describes the recording as “a futuristic homage to historical jazz.” For those of my generation, this may well evoke memories of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’ “futuristic homage” to Johann Sebastian Bach through a series of studio albums beginning with Switched-On Bach. That first album consisted of twelve tracks through which a variety of Bach genres were realized through Moog synthesizer technology. As the Wikipedia page for this album observes, the album “played a key role in bringing synthesizers to popular music, which had until then been mostly used in experimental music.”

That album was released in October of 1968. Half a century later, there is little that is still “experimental” in the use of electronic gear. To the contrary, electronics now play a significant role in “real-time” performance in any number of widely different genres. Those genres include some of the more “avant-garde” approaches to the composition and performance of jazz. Gendel’s album, on the other hand, tries to take the same “historical” perspective that gave Carlos a point of departure. That perspective reaches back to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and advances forward all the way to Charles Mingus.

Gendel is a saxophonist; and on this album he leads a trio whose other members are Gabe Noel on bass and percussionist Philippe Melanson. Melanson’s gear is all electronic, and that may well include the processing of the the signals picked up by Gendel’s microphone(s). The result amounts to Carlos’ studio-based “switched-on” techniques being applied to a wide variety of jazz standards and a few Gendel originals. The significant difference, however, is that Gendel’s trio was giving a “real-time” performance by virtue of electronic technology that could only be imagined in 1968.

By all rights this could have been a fascinating album of “jamming in the electronic domain.” Unfortunately, this was not the case. There is a bland uniformity of performance style and rhetoric that cuts across all thirteen of the album’s tracks. The result never rises to the compelling diversity of both content and style that could be found in Switched-On Bach.

Mind you, anyone that takes Bach seriously, would observe that much of that diversity could be found Bach’s own music: All Carlos did was follow up on the likes of Edward Elgar and Leopold Stokowski, inventing new approaches to instrumentation. However, tunes like “Stardust,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” have similarly lent themselves to the stylistic inventiveness of both instrumentalists and vocalists. In that historical perspective, the sonorities of the Gendel trio may have a few new elements; but they lack the rich diversity already afforded by jazz history.

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