Is Jazz Boring?

Oh, my, over at the Washington Post, they’re getting into click-baiting. A recent article states that All that jazz isn’t all that great, and begins with the following pronouncements:

Jazz is boring.
Jazz is overrated.
Jazz is washed up.

To be fair, I have to agree, somewhat. Not so much that jazz is boring, overrated, or washed up, but it has certainly stagnated.

Author Justin Moyer lists several reasons why jazz is bad:

1. Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.

Nah, that’s not a big deal. Great songs are great music; lyrics aren’t essential.

2. Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

A valid point, sometimes. He says:

“The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great. If it did, Phish and the Grateful Dead would be better than they are.”

Well, the Grateful Dead are (were) pretty good, in part because of the improvisation (I don’t get Phish), but it’s a different kind of improvisation. It’s much more structured.

For me, the problem with a lot of jazz improvisation is that it is too loose, or too formatted. Many musicians play songs where each member of the band gets a solo, rather than choosing specific songs where a given soloist may improvise better. When improvisation becomes the rule, yes, I think it’s boring.

3. Jazz stopped evolving.

That’s probably true. My jazz collection runs from the late 1940s to the 1970s, with a few exceptions (Bill Evans recordings through 1980, Brad Mehldau, through the present, some Pat Metheney, etc.)

Two terrible things happened in jazz: “free jazz,” where anything goes, and nothing sounds like music, and “smooth jazz,” which is elevator music with saxophones. There is a special circle of hell for people who play smooth jazz.

(I also avoid any group with the word “Project,” “Collective,” “Experiment,” or similar words. There’s something wrong with musicians who want such clinical names for their bands.)

If you check out new jazz releases, there’s not much going on that’s radically different from what was happening between, say, the 1950s and 1970s. Some jazz musicians are using electronic music, or copying it (such as Dawn of Midi, with their album Dysnomia). But, overall, jazz new releases mostly sound like they could be decades old. One could, of course, say the same about rock music; since the 1980s, not much has evolved, other than the use of electronics.

4. Jazz is mushy.

The author quotes Wynton Marsalis, who said “Too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all.” True. But that’s not a problem with jazz, it’s problem with the way music is marketed. I think Wynton was referring to smooth jazz…

5. Jazz let itself be co-opted.

The author says “This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy.” Perhaps, but I think there are still lots of jazz clubs out there. Yes, a lot of jazz musicians are playing concerts in concert halls, rather than clubs; because there’s a demand.

It’s hard to tell if this article was serious. In the beginning, the author writes, “this is not satire,” but in the comments, he claims that it is.

The piece above is a work of parody and was not meant to be taken seriously. My apologies to anyone who thought it was real.

But I think he raises valid points. I like jazz, and I don’t listen to much new jazz. Perhaps that’s because I’m still discovering all the “classic” jazz, but most of what I sample that’s recent just bores me, or sounds like pale imitations of the great jazz musicians of the past.

However, the click-bait nature of the article, and the claim, at the beginning, that it’s not satire, followed by his statements in the comments that it is satire, show very poor judgement on the part of the Washington Post’s editors.

Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis — trumpet
Wayne Shorter — soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin — electric guitar
Chick Corea — electric piano
Herbie Hancock — electric piano
Joe Zawinul — organ
Dave Holland — double bass
Tony Williams — drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.

New Release: Miles Davis, The Original Mono Recordings

51jghBW5KkL._SL500_AA280_.jpg I spotted a recent release that will interest many jazz fans: a 9-CD set of the original mono recordings of Miles Davis on Columbia Records. It contains the following albums:

  • ‘Round About Midnight
  • Miles Ahead
  • Milestones
  • Jazz Track
  • Porgy And Bess
  • Kind Of Blue
  • Sketches Of Spain
  • Someday My Prince Will Come
  • Miles And Monk At Newport

By from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store.

As you may know, for these albums, as for other music of the time, the original mixes were made in mono, with the stereo mixes being often rushed out afterwards. Since very few people had stereo playback equipment, mono was the standard. Other artists have released similar sets in recent years: Bob Dylan (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and The Beatles (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

It’s interesting to hear these mixes, because they do often have a more refined sound than the stereo mixes (though many stereo remasters are far superior to the original stereo mixes). It’s also a bit of nostalgia: of a time when a record player was a simple device; when you didn’t worry about bit rates and dither; when all that mattered was the music.

If you’re a fan of these artists, you’ll want these releases to compare with the stereo albums you own. You’ll find that, in some cases, the tracks are from different takes, and you’ll certainly find that the music sounds different, because of the way the instruments are prioritized on a one-channel mix.

Album Notes: Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac

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I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years now, and own all of his releases (as main performer, not as sideman). I think he’s an extremely innovative pianist, and I especially like his work with his trio. This new album, recorded live at the Marciac Jazz Festival in France, in 2006, features a solo performance, one of only two live solo releases he has made (the other is the 2004 Live in Tokyo).

This is an attractive album, with energetic performances, and flattering sound. (I felt that the Live in Tokyo album had somewhat brittle, harsh sound.) In solo performances, Melhdau tends to wander a bit more than when he has a rhythm section backing him, and this album is a bit less attractive than his live recordings with his trio (such as the 2008 Live at the Village Vanguard). But it’s a fine example of his work, and any fan of jazz piano should definitely get this. Not only does it have two CDs, but also a DVD, with all but one of the songs. (I haven’t watched the DVD yet.)

However, there’s one thing I need to point out. I ordered this set directly from the label, Nonesuch, which provides MP3s by download as soon as the album is released, so you can listen to the music before you get the discs. There are some oddities on some of the tracks: a couple of them end with loud applause that doesn’t fade out; it just cuts off as the next track starts. For example, Lilac Wine has very loud applause at the end (and it deserves it; it’s a beautiful song), then cuts off immediately as Martha My Dear begins. But at the end of Martha My Dear, the same thing happens; it cuts from applause to My Favorite Things.

It is not normal that a professionally edited album would have this abrupt cut between tracks, and, now that I have the CDs, I can see that it’s the MP3s files that were truncated. In fact, in the MP3 files, four of the songs on the second disc – the ones that have the abrupt edits – are missing a total of over 2 minutes. From the amount of applause, it seems like Lithium was the last track in the set, and the rest were encores. Nonesuch’s MP3s are therefore just hacked off at the ends, and there’s no reason for this. So do buy the CDs; don’t buy any MP3s from Nonesuch. I note that Amazon is not selling this in MP3 format, but the timings on iTunes are the same as the bad MP3s I got from Nonesuch, so if you want this album, get it on plastic. While you don’t miss any of the music, the abrupt cut from applause to music is jarring and annoying.

UPDATE: I heard back from Nonesuch, who replied, “We have looked into this issue, and have learned that the original MP3s were indeed mistakenly truncated. We have corrected the files.” So apparently the files will be fixed on their site and on iTunes, but if you do have the truncated files, do get in touch with whoever you purchased them from to get new copies.

Music Review: Brad Mehldau Live in Tokyo

Live in Tokyo
Brad Mehldau
Nonesuch, 2004

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About a year ago, a friend turned my on to Brad Mehldau. We had been corresponding by e-mail, talking about music, and I mentioned that I was a big Bill Evans fan. The friend mentioned Mehldau, suggesting that I look into one of his Art of the Trio albums. I did. I was hooked.Now, with about ten Brad Mehldau albums – some solo, but most with his trio – I’ve become and unconditional fan. So I keep my eyes open for every new release. This new recording, his first with his new label Nonesuch, is the first live solo disc he has made. He performs many familiar songs, a few new ones, and the now-obligatory Radiohead cover (a nearly 20 minute rendition of Paranoid Android).

The sound is great; the piano seems recorded from a slight distance, allowing the music to bloom in the hall, and the performance is what I have come to expect from Mehldau: tight, yet flexible, with restrained improvisation that highlights his creativity and feeling for the music.

My favorite track on the album is River Man, the final track, a somewhat melancholy ballad that is perfectly fitting for the last song of a set or a recording. Here, Mehldau takes the repetitive left-hand part as a solid base for a lyrical improvisation of the song’s simple tune, and increases the tension and complexity as he goes on. Sheer bliss.

There is something interesting to note about this album. It is available in two forms: on CD and by download from the iTunes Music Store. What is interesting, however, is that the iTunes Music Store offers the equivalent of a double CD for a little more than the usual album price ($13.99), whereas this double CD is not available on plastic. Even more surprising, the iTunes Music Store does not mention this difference, and the only indication on Brad Mehldau’s web site is a link on the main page, but there’s nothing on the page for the disc itself. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep it under wraps, to see whether fans notice.

So, if you just have to have the disc, go for plastic; but if you want the music, you get about two hours’ worth from the iTunes Music Store version. In either case, go for it: this is perhaps Mehldau’s best recording yet.

Essential Music: Live at the Village Vanguard, by Bill Evans

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For the first live recording of his trio, Bill Evans accepted to be taped at the Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961, playing with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. This was a Sunday, and the trio played five brief sets, all of which were recorded by Orin Keepnews, a producer Evans had worked with in the past and would do so again many times. The recordings were released on several albums: First, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, then Waltz for Debby showed the full range of songs from that day, and later More from the Vanguard was a collection of alternate takes. In 2003, a definitive set, The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961, was released, which contains all the music from these three albums, including one interrupted track that had not been released.

It’s easy to look back and judge history through hindsight, but the patrons of the triangular basement room at the Village Vanguard probably had no idea that they were witnesses to a historical recording. From the very first notes of Gloria’s Step, a piece composed by LaFaro, you can hear the perfection that Bill Evans and his various trios would bring to jazz over the next two decades, and the magical rapport that these three musicians had on stage. But the recording equipment lost power during this first song, leaving a partial take with a dropout in the middle. Those who read symbolism into the vagaries of life might see this as a premonition of Scott LaFaro’s death only ten days later in a car accident.But the recording remains one of the most powerful live recordings of any jazz music. Evans plays with the detachment and subtlety that made him such a great artist, allowing the other members of his trio to be creative performers and not mere accompanists. Evans would record many albums throughout his career in this lineup, which became his preferred way of playing, but the one to return to is this sacred 1961 recording.

It’s almost a shame to hear the crowd mingling and talking behind the musicians, as though they were impervious to the beauty of the music; Evans would say, “I just blocked out the noise and got a little deeper into the music,” but Paul Motian claims that the crowd is what he likes best about the recording: “The sounds of all those people, glasses and chatter; I mean, I know you’re supposed to be very offended and all, but I like it.”

Each of the pieces played that day is a masterpiece, from the jaunty Gloria’s Step’ to the heart-rending My Foolish Heart, to the delicate Waltz for Debby, one of Evans’ most beautiful pieces. When they finished their last set, with only a handful of people still listening, playing LaFaro’s Jade Visions? twice, they all went home leaving history behind them.

(You can read a moving article about this famous performance, by Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker.)