Walking the Jazz Tightrope

I went Friday night to hear my friend John Esposito and his band play at the Uptown in Kingston, NY. (Imagine making me visit a place called the Uptown; but Kingston is not Manhattan.) Esposito is the kind of jazz pianist for whom jazz is still a dauntingly rigorous discipline, and his band – Eric Person on sax, Greg Glassman on trumpet, Kenny Davis on bass, and Pete O’Brien on drums – is made up of people able to meet exacting standards. The tunes were mostly Esposito’s own, carefully defined but with harmonies and rhythms often too complex for me to follw. There were bass patterns that when you started counting turned out to be odd lengths like ten or eleven beats, but seemed normal enough at first because they dovetailed so smoothly. Gesturally the music was all over the place, but harmonically so tight that you could always sense a level of control. Unlike the kind of free improv where anything goes, this kind of jazz is still akin to the tightrope walk, the acrobat flight, the death-defying leap. Because while the energy level was that of a feeding frenzy (especially O’Brien, whose frantic polyrhythms ranged far from the meter only to land magically on the downbeat, like an Indian tabla player), the aims remained precise and clear, and a misstep would have truly led to disaster.

The contradictory pressures that Esposito puts on his music to be 1) enormously fluid and virtuosic, and 2) harmonically and rhythmically exact remind me of a competitive, gunslinging, self-challenging strain in jazz that goes back to the early stride pianists, and that hasn’t existed in the classical world for decades. I’m thinking of what stride pianists (“ticklers”) were expected to be able to do back in the 1920s, as recounted by the great James P. Johnson:

Every tickler had his special trademark chord, like a signal…. Then they’d do a run up and down the piano – a scale or arpeggios – or if they were real good they might play a set of modulations, very offhand, as if there was nothing to it. They’d look around idly to see if there were any chicks near the piano…. At this time, they’d drift into a rag, any kind of pretty stuff, but without tempo, particularly without tempo. Some ticklers would sit sideways to the piano, cross their legs and go on chatting with friends near by. It took a lot of practice to play this way…. Then, without stopping the smart talk or turning back to the piano, he’d attack without any warning, smashing right into the regular beat of the piece. That would knock them dead.

That’s the attitude: that you have to have incredible chops, and that you have to be able to prove you have such chops by your astounding feats.

I imagine that European classical music used to be more like that back in the 18th century, when every composer needed to be able to improvise a fugue onstage. Back then, performance conditions were more like they are in jazz today: audiences applauded not only at the ends of movements, but after a particularly good tune, and everyone enjoyed seeing a composer meet the challenge of improvising on a theme dictated by someone in the audience. The late-18th/early 19th-century composer/performer was more of a tightrope walker. At the sensationalist extreme, Mozart, showing off, even played in public with a cloth over the keyboard so he couldn’t see the keys.

What Esposito’s performance, and my frequent conversations with him, make clear is that for all their rampant hybridization in recent years, classical music and jazz remain at contrasting stages of development. As he and I are always agreeing, a young jazz musician today has to know jazz theory and history backward to get gigs; classical musicians, assuming they’re fluent on their instruments, can get by knowing much less. A cellist can play in a Shostakovish symphony without knowing how to resolve a German sixth chord, but a sax player who wants to join the band in a Bird tune better know her flat-five chords and where the tritone subs go – counter to the hallowed stereotype that classical musicians are heavier on academics. As for composers, an excess of braininess during the 12-tone era led to so much ear-unfriendly, cerebral music that braininess has become suspect in the classical world, and a healthy dollop of ignorance, even amateurishness, almost seems an asset in a postclassical composer. No one knows what composing “chops” are anymore.

More essentially, though, postclassical music does not set itself rigorous tasks in such a way that failure would be evident. Everyone knows how a fugue, or a traditional sonata, is supposed to work, and when a classical composer tried one, he risked failure and embarrassment. Today’s composers set themselves up against no such risk. What’s valued in the postclassical composer at the moment (I’m thinking here of younger figures successful on the orchestra circuit, like Michael Torke, Steve Mackey, or Michael Gordon) is a kind of audacity, a nose-thumbing eccentricity, a charade of going against the rules even though everyone secretly knows there aren’t any rules anymore – for example, repeating a melodic riff, or sustaining a harmony, long past the point at which a classical composer would have yielded to the desire for variety. A postclassical piece can’t really fail, in a way, because the moment you impose an objective standard on it, it laughs at you for being so old-fashioned as to have objective standards. It is itself, in a sense, a joke about the fiction of objective standards. The only failure a postclassical piece courts is a lack of consistency, an inability to carry out its own eccentricity to its final conclusion without flinching.

So which is better? to set your aims clearly and risk not achieving them, or to explore without aim and just see what happens? It’s sort of like asking whether it’s better to be 23 or 47, better to live in London or Utah, better to throw a nickel into the air and shoot a hole through it or throw a fistful of nickels to watch them bounce – and I know arguments for both. What intrigues me is that I find in jazz – at least Esposito’s kind of complex, disciplined jazz – a living window through which we can look back at what classical music used to be: a difficult, challenging art with inviolable rules and the spine-tingling risk of objective failure. And given that view maybe we can judge whether, and how far, we want to move back in that direction again.

(As always, John, thanks for the insights.)


  1. says

    I always liked your writing when i read you in the Voice years back, when it (the V.V.) was worth reading. I think genre labels become straight jackets. Initially serving a purpose they soon can obscure more than reveal. My daughter Emma is at Bard College and looking for John Esposito’s e-mail address led my to your review of John’s performance from 2003. I enjoyed reading you again after many years. Thanks, Eric