Thursday, March 03, 2011

More Jazz

I'm still on a jazz kick, knee deep in an obsessive deep dive into it. I did the same thing with hip-hop five or six years ago and reggae two years ago: I'm trying to listen to and read about it as much as possible, discover every classic album, every hidden gem.

My one problem with jazz is that I don't have the musical background to really appreciate it. I can't tell the difference between different times or tones or chords or keys. I can appreciate technique somewhat, but since I've only ever played drums, it's hard for me to appreciate how skilled the musicians are. Still, you don't have to be a musician to know that John Coltrane was brilliant, or Charlie Parker, or Mingus.

I first got into jazz when I was in my teens, probably from reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and some of the early beat stuff. I listened to old Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday, who remains a favorite. I dipped into more experimental jazz a few years ago, listening to Coltrane and Mingus. I like how different and envelope-pushing some of the music is: for example, Coltrane's "Ascension" is like nothing I've ever heard, forty solid minutes of cacaphony that is still going somewhere. It's like looking at abstract art: it challenges your perceptions, and takes the art in a totally new and unexpected direction.

Like all abstract or avant-garde art, things like "Ascension," Albert Aylers "Holy Spirit," or Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" are often more interesting conceptually than they are enjoyable. I'm listening to "Ascension" as I write it,and the shit is crazy and kind of annoying. No, really annoying. Yet it also fills the same niche for me that some of the noisier post-punk groups like Sonic Youth or Polvo fill - it's noisy and abrasive and beautiful in its chaotic, jagged ugliness.

Of course jazz, like rock, is a huge genre that encompasses a large range of different, many of which are incompatible. When you say you like jazz, you could mean the dance music that Ellington or Glenn Miller were turning out in the 30s and 40s, or the cool jazz of 50s Miles Davis, the swinging bachelor pad swing of a lot of sixties jazz, the freaky jazz-rock of 70s Miles, or smooth jazz artists like Kenny G (who plays the same instrument as Coltrane). Even Coltrane covered a lot of ground. Right after doing Ascension, he did an album of ballads, and also collaborated with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman.

Those are two of my favorite Coltrane records. "In A Sentimental Mood" is one of my favorite songs ever.
Ellington lays down a delicate and heartbreaking piano line, and Coltrane goes tastefully crazy over it. He pays homage to the earlier age of jazz while still adding an element of experimentation.

I bought Ascension this week at Amoeba, and I also downloaded both John Coltrane's albums with Ellington and Hartman. Clearly "Ascension" is more adventurous, but  I think I like the two albums of standards better. They are easier to listen to. I thought I wanted to explore the freakier side of jazz, but I'm thinking I might go in the opposite direction, looking at some of the more carefully composed pieces. What makes works like "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" and "Love Supreme" so exciting and compelling isn't their experimental qualities, but the sheer ambition of them, the way that all the different pieces add up to one whole. That coherence is missing on free jazz pieces, and the free jazz pieces aren't nearly as fun to listen to because of it.

Incidentally, I stole the photo from a site called "Brilliant Corners," and they have a really good post on Coltrane. Many really good posts. With good comments from guys who clearly understand the music on a much deeper level than I ever will.

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