Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Sunday, April 10, 2011

“Jazz Matters: Sound, Place, And Time Since Bebop” by David Ake (University of California Press)

Sometimes it seems as if there must be no need to write yet another jazz book. One might think every aspect of the music’s glorious past, somewhat shaky present, and unforeseeable future must have covered in dozens of tomes by now. But then, along comes a fresh, thoughtful, carefully reasoned book discussing topics that have not been done to death, and one realizes that there may be more left to say on this heavily analyzed musical genre. “Jazz Matters” is one such book.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that author David Ake is a musician, critic, and University of Nevada, Reno professor. Having worn all these hats (though not at the same institution), I know all too well how often people performing any one of these roles feel they must grind axes in public. I don’t get that feeling when reading Ake’s collection of essays. He has points to make, certainly, but he’s willing to entertain other people’s ideas, to consider alternate perspectives, even to enter controversial subject areas with an air of objectivity. What’s more, he doesn’t write in the dry, academic, jargon-filled manner which mars many critical books published by University Presses (an area of the publishing industry I am only too happy to support, mind you). You can not only read these essays and understand them, you can actually enjoy the process. Refreshing, to say the least.

But what impresses me the most is that he has actually found new things to write about. To be sure, basing a 17-page essay on the creak of a piano bench (that’s what it sounds like to me; Ake is more careful about speculating on the source of the sound) for one brief moment during a half-century-old Miles Davis LP would be considered by many to be epitome of esoteric criticism. But it leads him to cogitate over such things as the way we listen to the sounds of jazz; what constitutes acceptable sounds and what might be interpreted as “mistakes” in an artform built around spontaneity; whether recordings should represent themselves as artifacts that capture the sounds a musician would produce during a live performance. And it all makes sense as you read it, whether you necessarily come to the same conclusions as David Ake or not.

The opening essay (not counting a well-considered introduction, which sets the tone for what’s to come) promises to be much more arcane that it actually is. His thought is that John Coltrane assumed three subjective personas during the course of his career - a “being” subjectivity, a ”becoming” subjectivity, and a “transcendent” one. Due to time constraints - and because I don’t feel the need to reproduce Ake’s ideas in this space - I will let you find out on your own what this all means. But once again, it makes a great deal of sense when you read it, and it dovetails with my own thinking about how Trane’s music evolved over the the years. The author’s conclusions are readily audible in the music, though I’ve never seen anyone express these ideas with such clarity as Professor Ake does.

The third essay is about what Ake terms the “carnivalesque” elements that are too rarely encountered in contemporary jazz, elements that he feels can be found in the music of the New York ensemble Sex Mob. Essentially, Ake feels there is too much of a premium placed on jazz musicians being dead-serious all the time, that the sense of boisterous fun that could frequently be found in jazz of earlier eras has been lost in the rush to glorify jazz as a ”serious artform”, glorified as “America’s classical music” in the words of the late and beloved Billy Taylor. I have to confess that the music of Sex Mob has never particularly excited me. Still, the grim visages and austere approach of so many self-important modern jazz artists does seem to leave their music with less emotional content and perhaps less audience appeal than need be the case. Laugh all you wish at the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (my example, not one from the book), but their loud, informal, high-spirited music was entertaining fun, easily enjoyable by anyone attuned to the popular styles of the era surrounding the First World War. To be sure, there is considerable artistic validity in serious, straight-faced jazz, but why can’t there occasionally be a sense of “play” in the “playing” of jazz as well? I can almost hear the grumbles of certain self-appointed taste-makers who might read this essay.

Another concept that never crossed my mind - though as someone who is noted as much for his love of folk and traditional country music as jazz, I have certainly noticed the rural influence in certain post-bop artists - is posited in an essay focusing on Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. Ake points out how jazz has always been associated with The City, whether that city be New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles - the list goes on. It has come to be regarded as a sophisticated response to certain conditions and facets of urban living. But what Jarrett and Metheny (and others of their ECM label-mates) have done, in somewhat related, but essentially independent ways, was to bring a sense of the pastoral to jazz, taking their music out of the strict city environment by utilizing certain elements of folk-rooted musical approaches, in a manner which might be tabbed as “Americana”-related. This essay relies somewhat on musicological analysis, tempered with aesthetic effects, but once again may be read without a Music Theory text at one’s side. It might have been interesting had Ake considered the subject of Western Swing - the first fusion of urban jazz with country sensibilities - in this essay, but since his major concern is, as the book’s subtitle clearly indicates, jazz “since bebop”, and Western Swing’s most creative period (I feel) was before World War II, it was probably considered less-than-relevant.

Ake’s essay “Rethinking Jazz Education” is on a subject close to his heart, and certainly one I can identify with myself. As a Music History professor, many of whose students are involved with the SUNY Fredonia jazz program - indeed my office is directly across from that of the head of the jazz program - I get to witness Jazz Education close-up on a near-daily basis. (I have also served as Faculty Co-Advisor of the Fredonia Jazz Ensemble and have written liner notes for a couple of their albums.) Among the arguments discussed by Ake is the often-heard grumble that in former times, musicians learned from other, more experienced veteran musicians in clubs, on the scene, face-to-face, often on the job itself. There was less of the current-day majoring in classical music, being trained to play art-music scores, and receiving training in jazz primarily in reading-oriented big bands in an academic setting, the accepted method (or at least AN accepted way) of teaching jazz in many institutions. The learn-by-doing method is thought by many non-academic musicians to result in a jazz performer who is potentially freer to express oneself through improvisation, a tendency which some feel to be stifled by academic training. And I can understand that argument when I hear some students struggling through attempts at improvised solos. But I also hear other students who are well on their way to becoming fine jazz artists, not simply technically, but in terms of creative improvisation as well. As with everything else on campus, the key is the individual student, the effort they put into it, the background they bring into the program, the degree of self-motivation they have to break free of their training and their schooled technique. (And I would argue that schooled technique is very important to future employment in music; not everyone will get to play small-combo gigs as their main source of income). There are many options and many opinions pro and con to learning to play jazz in an academic setting, and few of them lead to instant, one-size-fits-all answers. I would recommend anyone involved in the field to read and carefully consider what Ake has to say on this topic, which goes well beyond the few generalities I offer here.

I personally find the final essay to be the weakest in the collection. In it, Ake discusses the question of the “American-ness” of jazz, by looking at several factors - origins, the spread of jazz to Europe beginning in 1919, the levels of skill and understanding of European jazz artists of earlier eras vis-a-vis more recent European musicians, the status of expatriate Americans in Europe in the bop and free-jazz eras (where they were often treated as Conquering Heroes), and interviews with American-born musicians currently residing and working in Paris. Jazz is a music of African-American origin, and many people still believe African-American jazz musicians to have a special sense of the music. Nevertheless, Europe has developed its own styles of jazz, less dependent on African-American roots, often betraying the influences of developments in European classical/art music. Has jazz ceased to be a solely American artform? If so, how does this effect the status of Americans working in Europe? These are all fascinating questions. Yet somehow, I don’t feel Ake has devoted enough space to come to definitive conclusions, if any such conclusions can indeed be made. I would like to see him take on this subject in a longer format, preferably a book-length treatment which would delve more fully into each of the topics addressed in this essay.

But even in his one near-failure, David Ake provides much food for thought and fresh perspectives. I think that’s what I enjoy most about this book. It does not merely rehash long-exhausted ideas, but opens up the possibility that there is much more to be said about jazz, even in the 21st century. And if jazz criticism can remain healthy, jazz itself should be able to remain healthy, too. And that’s good news in our increasingly commodified musical world.

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