Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Sports Illustrated recently ran a portion of Jerry West's biography and it revealed that the NBA's iconic figure (literally) led a miserable life of depression and self-loathing. The NBA's logo is an artistic rendition of West on the move. Nobody moved quicker, with more determination, or with better accuracy. West played before the 3-point era, but that didn't stop him from shooting from that territory or beyond (even beyond the half-court line). Reading this biography reminded me of a day when elite athletes played for something other than giant bags of money.

That, in turn, reminded me of the real and practical reason ordinary people pay attention to elite athletes, musicians, and artists of all stripes; they remind us that humans can be incredibly special and near-godlike (by a believable definition of "godlike"). Money removes that reminder and replaces it with something more crass and less admirable. Jerry West played like a demon to quiet the demons in his head and from his past. The best musicians have something to prove, too. Songs to express, heart to expose, words to ventilate and enlighten, and sounds in their heads that need to find air to move and ears to respond. When those moments are preserved in a recording, music takes on history and it's a rare kind of history that can be repeated in the privacy of our homes or even all but inside our heads with in-ear monitors and a mobile player. To clear out the Thanksgiving dust, here's a little inspiration:

Nothing like a little Jeff to brighten up a winter's day. My kind of Xmas music.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Serving Music?

In my manufacturing career as a quality and manufacturing engineering manager, I was always asking my employees and managers, “Who does this serve?” whenever they wanted to implement a procedure, change a process, or add paperwork to our workload. One of the late-great Quality Management concepts was that everyone in an organization "serves" someone. From the CEO to the shipping clerk, all of those jobs exist to provide service to someone in the customer or organizational chain. When that system fails, we end up with a society like the one the 1% have created today and, historically, that never lasts long.

Last week, I took some friends to the local jazz club, the Artist Quarter, to listen to a well-known local jazz saxophonist and that question popped into my head for the first time in a few years. In my opinion, the best music is created by musicians who are “serving” the assembly of sounds the whole group creates and that the rest of us call “Music.” In the classical world, I think this goal is commonly accepted principle. In an orchestra, everyone, including the featured soloists, is focused on the whole they are creating. They all obey the conductor who is the conduit to the audience for the musical environment being created. There is no shortage of oversized egos, varying talents, or personality conflicts in classical performances, but they are mostly sublimated in the service of the music printed on the page in front of every player. Even solo classical performances are still directed by the directions on that page that describe how to best service the composer’s aural vision. On average, I would argue that classical music performed in groups is more closely directed toward the service of the music.

In the pop world, this ideal is rarely reached because the service goal for popular music is profit, not music. The engineer, producer, and record label drones all serve as focus groups who analyze the gross aspects of a recorded performance for the possible financial return. “Will it sell?” is infinitely more important than “is it beautiful?” There are obviously violations of this generalization, but those only occur when the “music industry” is in disarray and the financial interests have lost control of where the music is going. That may never happen again in our constantly-connected, followed, friended, and information-manipulated world. Pop music is so thoroughly commercialized that musicians call it that, “commercial music.” That’s a term that used to apply to music made as background for advertisements. Today, a prime goal of popular musicians is to have a song end up in a commercial or as background in a television series. The service of music as an ideal entity is becoming a vanishing cause in the pop world.

Jazz pretends to be a different animal than either pop or classical music. Since jazz presents practically no possibility for financial reward, jazz musicians can imagine themselves to be in a similar boat as classical musicians. Since improvisation is valued over sheet music regurgitation, jazz musicians tell themselves they are more purely serving music, following the muse, as it pops into their heads.

In application, jazz often fails to live up to the best goals of either pop or classical music. The performance I took my friends to was a case-in-point. As if there were some rule that stated each of the four musicians would be allowed a moment in every song to show off, every tune followed the same sax-melody-sax-solo-piano-solo-bass-solo-drum-solo, rinse, and repeat routine.

To be upfront, I have to say that 99.9% of every bass and drum solo I have ever heard has been a miserable exercise in gymnastics. Bass players insist on showing off how fast they can play “pittoon-pitoon-thump-thump-pitow.” Drummers piddily-piddle, paradiddle, and whack the crap out of their percussion paraphernalia until the audience is looking for any excuse to drink more or take up smoking outside in the rain. There is nothing musical about listening to the rhythm section be non-rhythmic. On a commercial basis, selling a drum solo (outside of the Safari’s 1963 fluke hit Wipeout or the few seconds of Steve Gadd’s work in Steely Dan’s Aja) or a bass solo (I have no examples of that.) is ludicrous. Can’t happen. Outside of nihilistic minimalist modern weirdness, classical music is without any examples of extended bass or drum solos. Only jazz musicians imagine that an audience wants to listen to that silliness.

Music is not what is being served in traditional combo jazz, at least in the live performance venue. Musicians’ egos are the one and only focus. Everyone gets a place to show off and disrupt the music for a moment of self-proclaimed glory.
I believe, that’s why modern jazz musicians like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, Stanley Clarke, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Larry Carlton, Chick Corea, Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, Mark Egan, Béla Fleck, Jeff Lorber, and hundreds of other pop-influenced, jazz oriented musicians have found an audience. They waste minimal time stroking their egos and maximum time serving their vision of Music. Sometimes, that veers toward commercial music, for the same reason pop music was perverted by hard cash, but just as often modern jazz musicians reflect the attitudes and dedication of the players who created jazz. While many of the players in Duke Ellington’s bands received solo opportunities, they didn’t expect ten minutes of attention in every tune. Most of the acknowledged classic jazz albums featured incredibly brief moments of rhythm section solo time, if any at all; Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dizzy Gillespie’s An Electrifying Evening, and Charles Mingus Mingus Ah Um, Dave Brubeck Time Out, and an almost infinitely long list of great performances that created a genre and audience.

Live jazz, however, still appears to be working at repelling all but the most tolerant audience more interested in X-games performance and less absorbed in Music.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.