Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Deep in the Neighborhood...

When I was in Vermont with trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon last year, he relayed a crucial bit of teaching philosophy that he had given his students: “you start from where you are.” In this sense, a musician doesn’t need to copy verbatim Louis Armstrong solos to learn the language of jazz improvisation. That isn’t to say that eventually one wouldn’t want to or feel the need for Louis Armstrong, just to understand more greatly the whole of the thing – but whether it’s necessary to understanding what the instrument does or what one as a musician wants to do is another thing entirely. More than likely, it isn’t, despite what figureheads of Jazz at Lincoln center might want one to believe. Especially if the fundamental thing about music is to be able to play/create what one wants to play.

But as a listener, where does this fit in? I used to feel that knowing history was important above all towards being able to discern what a player was doing. As a critic, I felt it was important to connect saxophonist X with John Tchicai, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp or whomever. Now, I write and I find it almost damning to place someone within a certain lineage unless it’s been specifically discussed by the player. In other words, to talk about Taylor Ho Bynum, one cannot leave out Dixon, whom he has studied with. And that influence is very, very clear. But someone like Axel Doerner or Peter Evans who hasn’t specifically mentioned that influence, well… maybe it’s not so crucial, though it does help to mention parallels. As a listener, does one need to have heard predecessors to enjoy or even discuss what they’re hearing now? For me, I find that the more music I hear, the less I want to mention specific relationships between players. That said, listening to Joe Morris does make me want to go and scour Tal Farlow recordings and Albert Ayler did lead back to Gene Ammons.

In art history we were always told that the importance of teaching students about artist X was to avoid repetition of practices – so the world wasn’t full of pseudonyms painted on upended urinals a la Duchamp. In music, the more one sounds like an artist who came before, the more respect or justification the current artist receives. We would rather trumpeter X be “the new Miles” than just be trumpeter X. To answer the question that I’ve heard time and again (from musicians even) – “When are we gonna hear the next Coltrane?” – I would say never. Coltrane was what he was and we can be thankful for that. Me, I’ll be listening to Trane with the same ears I’ll be listening to that young saxophonist who gave me his or her CD-R and trying to figure out what they have to say.

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