Welcome to yet another Jazz Club, where we get to take a break from the admittedly wonderful world of metal in exchange for some horns and sax and plenty of Miles Davis. Honestly, we tossed around topic ideas for today, but nothing really seemed to stick, so we’re going to have a much more conversational installment centering around various questions we’ve been mulling over lately. Sorry ahead of time, unless this turns out great, which in that case, you’re welcome.
Inaccessibility in Jazz
Jimmy Mullett: So, Scott, what’ve you been listening to as of late, my man?
Scott Murphy: Well, my most recent jazz purchase was a Symphony for Improvisers by Don Cherry. I obviously got into him through Ornette Coleman, as Cherry performed on pretty much every major Coleman album. I have to say, I’m really glad that I took the leap on this album ( I mean, it helps that it was only $3, but still). It’s composed of two twenty-minute tracks full of invigorating – yet oddly accessible – free jazz and avant-garde jazz. It has a lot of traditional jazz components but throws them through a free-wheeling filter.
Jimmy: I personally haven’t listened to any of Cherry’s solo work – though I really should.
Scott: It kind of led me to the question I want to ask right now: is it really an accessible album? Obviously you can’t get around the intensity of the music when it comes to free jazz, but I think song length creates a huge barrier as well. I recently bought Om by John Coltrane, a half-hour song/album that presents the same issue. It’s not like I can just pull out a highlight track and suggest it to someone; they either have to listen to the whole thing, which is a pretty big investment, or just pull out a snippet, which isn’t all that indicative of the track/album as a whole.
Jimmy: You bring up an interesting question. I mean, we’re talking about many different layers of accessibility; you’ve got a point with the song lengths – a sample is not a great indication of what an album is like (just look at the new Swans album if you want an example of that in rock music), let alone a free jazz album. But then there’s also the accessibility of free jazz in the first place. Although these two layers are a lot of times one and the same when it comes to free jazz (example: Coltrane’s Ascension; Coleman’s Free Jazz, which are both over half an our long), I think that we’re nonetheless talking about one of the toughest genres to get into. There are times even for me when I have to stop and wonder, “is this is just noise or what?” I think the composition (or lack thereof) is probably the toughest thing to deal with on the whole, though. In this day and age, we expect ear worms at some level, and free jazz is anything but that. Not sure if that answered any questions or anything, though…
Scott: Nah it’s okay man, you raise some good points yourself. But honestly, I’m not sure there is an answer. Because when you boil it down, accessibility is really subjective. I know we’ve compiled two starter kit post recently, but those suggestions may be either too soft or too much for a listener depending on what they’re used to listening to. I guess my next question would be, is some music inherently inaccessible? Do you to find some jazz to be inherently inaccessible, or would you say that it depends entirely on the listener’s background? And how much is this dipping into personal taste versus actual composition and substance of the music? Personally, I do think some jazz is inherently less accessible than other styles, regardless of your background. Regardless of what you typically listen to, modal jazz is easier to digest than any free jazz album could ever be. But then again, someone who regularly listens to Death spell Omega could find Coleman’s music to be a cake walk, while struggling with, say, Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis.
Jimmy: Haha, this has the ability to be book-length stuff. I do agree with you that there are some jazz styles that are inherently tough to get into, free jazz being the biggest offender on the list. It’s quite clearly a mix of these two sides – inherent difficulty and our own tastes – but the exact ratio is probably something we’ll never really know because there are a ton of factors in play beyond our own consciousness. Wow, this is getting metaphysical…didn’t expect that from a Jazz Club…anyhow, though, I know that it took me some time to get into free jazz. I started off trying to listen to Coltrane’s Ascension – a bad idea in hindsight – and almost immediately turned it off. I think it was because I was expecting something else. Jazz for me at that time had been so much about melody and the “cool” that I didn’t really think that improvisation in this aspect would/could include complete abandonment of melody. I wanted to listen to Art Pepper and Stan Getz; not noise. It took me some time to get into it.
Jimmy: I think that coming from a hard rock and metal background was what made me eventually get into free jazz, though. Jazz, as I said, was the complete opposite of a lot of metal for me – where Alice in Chains sounded suicidally moody at times or Cannibal Corpse sounded hauntingly evil, Miles Davis was hip and on top of things. You could basically hear Manhattan coming out of his horn. I never really thought much at that time about the two sounds merging at some point. (Of course, there’s fusion, but I mean something with the ferocity of metal but the instrumentation and composition of jazz.) Metal is at its core noisy and rotten (and just plain awesome), and I think that in a way, free jazz – or really, free improvisation at its core – is sort of the melange at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. It’s like how Lou Reed thought that Metal Machine Music was the final evolution of heavy metal. He was wrong, of course, but he did bring a huge point across, and that was that atonality can be musical.
Scott: I completely agree, and I actually share a similar musical background, which may be why I transitioned relatively easier into harsher styles of jazz.
Defining the Genre
Scott: I think we’ve covered quite a bit of depth from just one simple question, so let me return the favor: what have you been listening to lately, J2?
Jimmy: Ah…I’ll never tire of that nickname…it’s been pretty obvious I’ve been spinning a lot of John Zorn lately – God knows I bother the hell out of you about it, haha. I bought the entire Naked City recordings a week ago, and am still getting through those, but on the side of jazz, I recently got a Masada CD in, which is a Zorn project that, to be VERY blunt, combines Ornette-style free jazz with klezmer music. Suffice to say, my mind has been fucking blown to pieces and reassembled during the time I’ve listened to it. I think, given Zorn’s proclivity towards genre-blending, the question I’d like to bring up is: what exactly counts as jazz? Again, I don’t expect an answer, because there really isn’t one that doesn’t rub someone the wrong way – but it’s something to consider. Can a bunch of Lower East Side musicians playing Jewish scales in a jazz quartet really be considered jazz?
Scott: Oh boy…well, my initial reaction is to say horn/woodwind instruments and improvisation, but those obviously aren’t exclusive to jazz nor present in all jazz. And I think what’s more important is what FEELS like jazz rather than what theoretically defines the genre; that’s not typically how most people listen to any style of music. I actually had this thought while listening to the first Naked City album; does a combination of saxophone freak-outs and surf rock guitar actually count as jazz? And if not, does it matter? I guess I’d pose that as my retort: does it matter what jazz is, in strict genre terms? I think to a degree it does, but in actuality, jazz is more of a concept than a nailed down genre. I hate when people say that about punk and metal, but I think it actually fits with jazz. Typically, a group of skilled musicians come together and form a musical dialogue based on their own mastery of their instrument. After saying that, I suppose the most important definition of jazz – for me at least – is some level of musical improvisation with standard jazz instruments involved. There’s a lot of great composed jazz, like anything from Henry Threadgill, or Kamasi Washington‘s spectacular album The Epic. But there still room for individual musical voice within the structure of the composition. It feels live and in the moment, at least to some degree.
Jimmy: Well, it’s funny you mention improvisation as being essential (to you, admittedly), as a lot of jazz – especially earlier forms, such as bebop and cool jazz – rely heavily on composition. Although an album like Giant Steps sounds like Coltrane’s playing it right off the bat, that’s not the case at all. It was all pretty much written out, even for live shows. It wasn’t really until musicians like Davis and Coleman started getting their ideas heard and followed that that changed, and even now it’s still like a half-truth. And even Kamasi, I’m guessing, has a few solos that are memorized, that don’t change much, if at all. But, rebuttal aside, I agree that jazz is more of a concept than an actual by-the-books definition. I’d personally say that about all genres of music, but that’d take too long to defend. Also, you grossly underestimated the genre-bending glory that is Naked City – it’s much, MUCH more than surf music and what sounds like a soundtrack to an epileptic seizure – but I’ll forgive you just this once, haha.
Scott: It’s definetly more than just my narrow definition; please forgive me for my transgressions, haha.
Jimmy: Again, just this once. If it happens again I’ll have to sacrifice you and dump your remains on the doorstep of John Zorn’s apartment (wherever in Manhattan that is). And no, that’s not an extreme reaction, so don’t even say it. Seriously, though, I still have one more (technically two, if you count the Leng Tch’e EP) album to go, and it’s positively weird, in the best way possible. I don’t know if it’s exactly Jazz Club material though, hence my addition of Masada. Which, by the way, there’s a great live video of Zorn’s acoustic Masada on Youtube that I’d highly suggest watching.
Scott: So…I love how we’ve only asked a question apiece and it’s spawned a metric fuck ton of material, haha.
Jimmy: Right? I thought it was going to be like more of a back and forth type of conversation, but it’s more like we’re dueling with muzzleloaders.
Scott: I guess the last question I’ve been mulling over is the “blind purchase.” For me, the ROI for blind purchasing jazz is much higher than any other genre, and I do it pretty frequently. So how much do you research/listen to jazz before buying a copy?
Jimmy: Fuck, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve bought blind, at least with jazz. I’ve listened to so much of it on Spotify that I sort of have an idea of what I want. I do remember buying a Sarah Vaughan live album blind, which wasn’t the greatest of purchases, but was still a good experience. I think, if you know at least a little of what you like, blind purchasing is cool, and if you like the majority of what jazz has to offer and aren’t picky about what’s an album and what’s a compilation, it can be a great tool. I personally just hate to see people get screwed by buying something they don’t like; God knows I’ve been there too many times. Still, though, the times it does work, it’s proven to be life-changing. Case in point: my first Zorn purchase was, if I remember correctly, a blind purchase. I’d just found it at Amoeba in LA. I’d heard the name and a little of the music, but not enough to really qualify for me as “research.”
Scott: And I think that’s an important distinction; most blind purchases aren’t entirely blind, unless you’re basing it solely on artwork. Whenever I make a blind purchase, I typically weight the name of the artist, what style they play and/or what period in their career the album was made during. And of course, classics like A Love Supreme are pretty safe bets in terms of buying before trying. But also, there are some missteps with the total blind purchase. Im always on a Pharaoh Sanders kick, and it’s sctuslly produced some mixed results. First I bought Oh Lord, Let Me do Know Wrong, which was half brilliant spiritual jazz and half cheesy dad-friendly vocal jazz. Then I bought Karma and Om, which are both FANTASTIC spiritual/free jazz classics, before buying his semi-self-titled debut as a band leader, which was decidedly less so. Sanders was on one level while his band was far below, leading to an awkard marriage of playing. I guess all of this is to say that research goes a long way to narrow down your selection, but there’s a lot of reward with a great blind purchase. Of course, we’re talking about buying physical music, so we’re definetly anomalies haha
Jimmy: Well, you could always buy blind on iTunes…it’s possible. I know I’ve done that a few times, haha. And, yes, you’re right, in that most purchases have some thought put into them
Scott: That’s true, though it’s less blind since you can sample right then and there.
Jimmy: Yeah, but not everyone samples, especially when you’re like me, a.k.a. young and stupid and armed with a $15 iTunes gift card.
Scott: Oh, I’ve Been There. I’ve listened to part of one thirty second sample snd bought the whole album. I’m embarrassed to name any bands, though haha
Jimmy: Agreed, there. Some things are best kept in the past!
Scott: Well this has been fun, dude. I’d definetly like to do this more often. But in a couple weeks, we’ll be back with a regular installment; prepare to tremble with anticipation.
Jimmy: Damn straight. And, hey, maybe we’ll actually have our act together by then! No promises, though. And will we be talking about Zorn? You bet your ass we will. I mean, in some way, probably.
Scott: That’s a safe bet when it comes to us and riffing about jazz, haha.
Jimmy: Oh yeah. Miles, Ornette and Zorn: always up for discussion and debate.