Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, December 31, 2007

Solo Flight

Artist: Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Album: s/t
Source: Bought new

If you had to boil jazz down to one essential, crucial element, it would probably be the solos. Despite the importance of composition, arrangement, tone, harmony, etc., it's easy to argue that the moment when any jazz tune really comes into its own as a piece of musical art is during the solos. It's the instance of pure(ish) improvisation, the one-time-only moment when the individual artist gets to have his say.

In concert, this becomes indisputable. Even the most ferocious, locked-in band can be one-upped by a transcendent solo in a club. I've seen Ron Carter use his bass, on two separate occasions, to tell stories so full and deep that they left me shivering; at an Uri Caine concert in 2000, the violinist seemed to distill the entire history of Western music in an extended break; Greg Cohen took a solo during a Masada show at the 92nd Street Y that was so powerful, he voluntarily shook off his remaining solo slots for the rest of the set. The live setting allows you to watch the musician step forward and concentrate his (and your) attention on the unfolding construction of the solo. In the hands of the right person, it's the indisputable highlight of any jazz show, with the entire audience holding its collective breath before exploding into cheers.

On record, though, I find the solo to be a whole 'nother story. Every jazz disc is replete with improvised breaks; over the course of an album, pretty much every member of the band will get a moment, at least, and usually more. But I find it hard to focus on the solos contained in studio sessions.

For one thing, a lot of jazz production is, for better or worse, fairly flat. This isn't really a criticism - it's difficult to mix a bass player in a way that outshines a horn section, and usually it would make the record sound terrible. I can't imagine all of those Jazz Messengers records standing up over time if Art Blakey's drums were at the very front of every mix.

Then there's the even bigger problem: the solo is the same every time you listen. When a musician crafts a solo statement on the bandstand, you can feel the moment pouring out of them, through the instrument. And then it's gone. If you see the band again on another night, the solo will be different; the same song, performed by a different musician, will engender an altogether different break. On CD, you know what to expect. For all of their built-in thrills, the solos on Kind of Blue have been static for more than half a century. It doesn't mean they're bad in any way, just that they are a moment of improvisation that has been frozen in amber, slightly inanimate when compared to the moment of conception.

And so with jazz CDs, I more often find myself focused on the overall sound: the way the band plays together, the strengths of the compositions, the overall feelings of energy, motion, emotion. (Mingus stands up especially well to this kind of listening, and certainly Coltrane.) A lot of recordings that lean on the solos for their greatness sometimes fail to thrill me entirely; it's a problem I have with a lot of Charlie Parker cuts, where the magic is often confined to Bird's short explosion of brilliance in a 78-rpm setting, one that is so compact (and oft-imitated) that it doesn't always grab me the way I feel they should.

So it goes with Clifford Brown. Universally acknowledged as one of the master soloists of the hard-bop trumpet, I have to confess that this studio recording usually strikes me as not more than a collection of very good jazz tunes. The playing is tight as a drum (especially, of course, Max Roach's drumming), the tunes are solid melodies that are given bright harmonic treatment by the band, and the sound is clear and forceful. Who could argue with it?

And yet, I am somehow unmoved every time I listen, and I'm pretty sure it's the predominance of the solos. Brown solos often and at length. But it is easy to be taken unawares by these breaks, to let my attention wander in and out of the lines, or maybe shift to something Richie Powell is doing on piano. I'm not there (in a lot of ways), and it detracts from finding the power that I'm sure is in the disc. This album is filled with what are, no doubt, big majestic trees of solos, but I'm not quite able to construct a visible forest from them.

SISOSIG? This is another one that I'm hoping will pay off down the road. It might take a different Brown/Roach record to open my ears to their playing (maybe the one with Sonny Rollins taking over for Harold Land on sax?), and I remain hopeful that I will find a way to learn to better hear the art of the recorded solo. The short-lived Brown remains one of those "important" artists that I want to have as part of the core collection (Max, too, of course), which makes me want to keep him in the mix.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Social Networking

Artists: Brokeback; Chicago Underground Duo; Eleventh Dream Day; Isotope 217; Tortoise
Albums: Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table (BB); Synesthesia, Axis and Alignment (CU2); Prairie School Freakout/Wayne, Lived to Tell, Eighth (EDD); Utonian Automatic, Who Stole the I-Walkman? (I217); Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Standards, A Lazarus Taxon (Tortoise)
Source: Bought new (Millions, Standards, Lazarus); Bought used (Field Recordings, Prairie, Eighth); Promos (CU2, Isotope, Lived to Tell)

It sounds thoroughly unbelievable, but I totally swear that I only tried out online social networking because I had to. For work. My job at a college involves getting info in front of students, and my boss wanted to know more about this MySpace thing all the kids are always on about. So I signed up for MySpace and Facebook (while getting paid!) and gave them a whirl.

To be honest, I was thoroughly unimpressed. It seemed like elaborate online foreplay, with no actual (ahem) social penetration. I let my pages lie fallow and went back about my business. But the hype about the youths and their networking sites kept punching through the media filter, so I decided to examine them more thoroughly.

I came to two conclusions: 1) This was a serious waste of time; 2) This was fun!

In addition to linking up with current colleagues and buddies, I soon found myself connecting with people I hadn't talked to in years, decades. People from high school, summer camp, college, many were out there, and I now had a convenient way to interface and catch up. It also made it easier to at least periodically touch base with NYC people, now that going out in the city had become more difficult. Facebook gets a rap for being a substitute for real interaction...but if there are people with whom you can't really have actual interaction, I'd say it's a step or two above letting them drift away completely.

What does all this have to do with the big ol' list of records at the top of the page? One of the cool things about the social networking sites is seeing how the people you know overlap, the cross-currents of experience, interests, geography, etc. Someone from camp went to college with someone I know from my improv theater; someone I went to college with is friends with a member of a band I like; someone from high school works a gig not too dissimilar from mine.

That sort of interconnectedness weaves and loops through all of these Chicago-based bands. Lots of cities have musically incestuous scenes, but the Windy City seems to have an exceptional level of cross-pollination. Brokeback is a solo project of Doug McCombs, who plays in Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise; the Chicago Underground Duo records with Tortoise's John McEntire at Tortoise's studio, and half of the CU2 is on the Isotope records, along with a couple of Tortoise people; and so on. To be honest, I could have made this pile much, much larger if I'd pulled all of the discs that feature overlapping Chicago folk.

But it's not just a coincidence of geography or personnel that makes these connections notable. It's the way, like in a list of MySpace friends, that the networks overlap and the ways those overlapping networks affect the sounds. EDD loosened up and explored further out as McCombs brought his Tortoise chops back to the band. Tortoise worked with cut-and-paste production methods, a style that is the foundation of the CU2 discs. The moonlighters in Isotope brought guitarist Jeff Parker back with them to their more primary projects, and his sound and style profoundly changed those bands. Is the harsher guitar of Standards drawn from EDD? Maybe. Or perhaps it's another strand of the network making its presence felt/heard. Given the Facebook-like way that Chicago's musicians share ideas, spaces, personnel and sounds, it's less like a conscious effort to import/export these factors and more like a single social-musical web that continues to weave itself around and through the city's scene.

SISOSIG? Given the overlapping nature of the bands represented here, it's kind of hard to dig one and want to get rid of another. That said, the electro-jazz collages of the two CU2 discs don't always hit my ear just right...but I feel the need to be patient with them. Standards excited me right off the bat as noise-rock, then quickly grew stale, only to reappear to my ears as an entirely different (and more enjoyable) album of guitar-centered instrumentals; I'm currently going through the same process with the weightier Lazarus Taxon box. Same goes for the Isotope discs, which keep morphing with the shifting ways I'm able to hear them. With EDD and Tortoise sitting at the center of these ever-expanding networks, I think all of these records are ones that I want to keep connected to over time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

List Me Up

One of the super-funnest things about being a paid music writer was being asked to compile End of Year/Best Of lists. If serious music fandom is like being a sports junkie, then this is as close as we get to compiling stats.

I went a number of post-pro years just compiling said lists in my head. Then last year, the Gawker people opened up a new poll through their Idolator site, and bloggers were welcome. Hooray!

Just because someone who isn't me might possibly care (and because lists are fun!), below is the list I compiled for the 2007 Idolator poll (here is last year's), along with the comments I submitted:

Favorite Albums of 2007:
1. The National, Boxer
2. New Pornographers, Challengers
3. El-P, I'll Sleep When You're Dead
4. Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake, From the River to the Ocean
5. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
6. Erik Friedlander, Block Ice and Propane
7. Glenn Mercer, Wheels in Motion
8. Bottomless Pit, Hammer of the Gods
9. Okkervil River, The Stage Names
10. Chris Potter, Follow The Red Line - Live At The Village Vanguard

(The poll only allowed for 10 entries, but I also really really totally enjoyed Aesop Rock, None Shall Pass; Battles, s/t; Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha; Caribou, Andorra; Ron Carter, For Miles; Dalek, Abandoned Language; Tinariwen, Aman Iman)

1. Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth
2. Sebadoh, III
3. Miles Davis, The Complete On the Corner Sessions
4. Bongos, Drums Along the Hudson
5. Wedding Present, Complete Peel Sessions 1986-2004

Artists of the Year:
1. Bruce Springsteen
2. The National
3. Arcade Fire
4. New Pornographers
5. Chris Potter

It's hard to tell if it was the music or just me, but 2007 was a year for a deeper personal connection to new music than I've had in awhile. Especially with the Arcade Fire and The National records, there seemed to be something almost embarrassingly emotional in the air. It was hard, with many of these records, not to have that teenage feeling that these artists knew something important about me and were singing right into my ear.

Admittedly, a lot of it is just me: the missus and me moved to our Adult House, and a New Pornographers album about grown-up love, doubts and transitions hit me where I (now) live. Glenn Mercer and Bottomless Pit brought key sounds from my Prime Rocking Years back, older and wiser and a little sadder; Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake and Erik Friedlander mined very personal experiences for instrumental music of the highest emotional order. Similarly, El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead is, I think, a top-flight album, but I also acknowledge that it might simply be that it sounds and feels more like the pre-G Funk hip-hop that I thought had gone forever and left me behind.

While I still think The National are the story of the year band-wise, The Boss was undoubtedly back in the corner office in 2007. I found Magic to be a good (not great) record, but just like Dylan last year, Bruce was very much present, accessible and bringing it to the people. He got out in front of personal and political messages which had a weight of authority that a band like, say, Wilco can't begin to approximate. That he's also managed to become the latest Acceptable Indie Touchstone (in the style of Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Neil Young, etc.) at around the same time makes Mr. New Jersey a solid contender for Mr. 2007.

Non-Poll Postscript - I am more than a little blown away to see how many things on this list I do not own as physical media. The truckloads of articles and blog posts about the dying/evolving record industry struck me as a bit of overkill, but the fact that I went the new/non-traditional route on so many of these (including my #1 fave album of the year) sings pretty loudly.