Thursday, November 18, 2004


Range of volumes

"Fortunately for music, as for all other manifestations of life, it has so far been impossible to homogenize temperament. Even, for example, in a time of unusual tension, such as the present, there are those who somehow sustain an open, lyrical, non-competitive approach to being alive." -- Nat Hentoff, in original liner notes to Duke Pearson's Sweet Honey Bee (1966)

This weekend, I bought some jazz. Fine, swinging jazz is usually good for whatever ails me. So although I flirted with buying new re-releases by Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd, both fairly experimental for their time, I ended up coming home with Duke Pearson and Dexter Gordon. I've been hooked on the Pearson album for the last few days, and Nat Hentoff's notes go a long way towards explaining why. There's been quite a bit of tension and anger in the air lately, and I was in need of a different "temperament." I settled on Sweet Honey Bee when I read Pearson quoted in the liner: "I'm not mad at anybody."

I'd like not to be mad at anybody. Some might say that is a cop-out, a fleeing from the lists of political combat. Plenty of jazz artists, I suspect, could have said the same to Pearson in 1966, another time of "unusual tension." Melodies and ballads seem in bad taste at such times. Such times call for squeals and squeaks from angry horns, for pounding on piano keys and disregarding harmony. Real progressives have no time for chord progressions. I see the point. Would not a tune like "Sweet Honey Bee," which opens with a funky flute line, have sounded a bit too sweet in the year that James Meredith was murdered and the Black Panthers were founded? A flute line.

Does it sound too sweet now, in the year of "f-bombs" on the Senate floor and car bombs in the streets of Baghdad? Perhaps. But I'm inclined to agree with Hentoff that music is a saving grace precisely because it can offer a different pitch, even at a fevered time. Call me a sentimental so-and-so, but this week I needed a track like "After the Rain." It's an exquisite Pearson ballad with, yes, another flute solo by James Spaulding. It's worth the price of the album. That song also made me pull out this Sarah Vaughan record, because right around the 2:30 mark, Pearson quotes a phrase that reminded me of her take on "Jim" ("... doesn't bring me any flowers."). And Ron Carter's bass work on the Pearson album also gave me an excuse to dust off his spare and beautiful duet album with guitarist Jim Hall, Alone Together, a title that seems appropriate for our divided times. These albums have been rotating in and out of my laptop all week. But all of them scream out that they are not screaming. They are not mad at anybody.

There is even something reassuringly dialogical about the Pearson album. The call-and-response swing of "Big Bertha," which begins with a Basie-like intro, is conversational. The horns say one thing, and then the piano repeats it back, to make sure he's heard correctly. The horns repeat, but in a slightly different form: yes, you heard right, but now hear this. Then the piano talks back, not in a merely repetitive way, but with a new take on the conversation. A few more back and forths lead to an open space where the soloists get to speak their minds, but then the group summarizes and concludes. If only democracy sounded so good.

I know I'm sounding like Wynton Marsalis, which is ironic. Marsalis usually gets on my nerves, with his constant Ken-Burns mantra about how jazz is America, how jazz is democracy, how jazz is Louis Armstrong, and how that means Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the late Coltrane are anti-democratic and anti-American. Nonetheless, there's something to wishing our national conversation were more like the melodic give-and-take of Pearson's jazz, a conversation that combines passionate talking with equally concentrated listening. The problem I have with Marsalis is his attempt to homogenize the temperament of jazz, his tendency to be rigid about the rules for what counts as true dialogue and what does not. I'm not calling for that, anymore than I would call for a homogenization of our national conversations. There's a time for angry jazz, and there's a time to speak softly, as in a morning sunrise.

Perhaps this is a time for angry jazz, and for anger. I don't want to write Coleman or Taylor out of the jazz canon, just as I don't want to silence outrage now. But neither do I want to silence silence. I don't want jazz that is always the same temperature. I rail against constant railing. I'll listen to the shouts above the gale, but also give me "After the Rain."

Earlier this year, while I was in Boston, I had a chance to see Jim Hall play at Harvard. The seating was open and the admission was general. I managed to arrive about an hour early, and that was early enough to land me a seat in the front row. I was literally feet away from where Hall was standing on the stage. It was the best seat in the house, because Hall still uses a small personal amplifier to perform. In the program notes for the concert, he explained why:

"It isn't that I want to play soft all the time, it's that I want a wide range of volumes, someplace to go. 'Loud' doesn't mean anything if everybody is loud. The same with 'soft.'"

Collective Improvisation:

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