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.

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