Rifftides reader Mel Narunsky writes regarding
Recent CDs, Part 4:
From a modern moldy fig
I know I’m going to get a lot of flak from this, but as an old timer, let me be among the first to acknowledge that, with a few exceptions here and there, I am one of those who do not “accept that jazz values can exist apart from standard song forms and harmony, and without being tied to a steady 4/4 pulse” – the exceptions mainly being some new recordings from the older, familiar musicians – many of whom joined the “funky”, “smooth”, “fusion”, “jazz rock” , “electronic” and other types of watered-down jazz at the end of the 1960s which became so successful commercially when discovered by the non-purists.
I now approach all jazz recordings made by musicians with whom I’m not familiar with much trepidation. My old ears and brain are unable to cope with improvisations that I find impossible to follow, ergo I don’t enjoy the experience. In most cases I find the sounds very ugly. The question has been asked before, and I ask it again: whatever happened to beauty in music? Similarly, I find it difficult to listen to contemporary so-called “classical” music. I think of it as anti-music.
But the worst aspect of the jazz in question is that it simply doesn’t swing.
And Duke Ellington was quite right when he said, “It don’t mean a thing……”
Let’s hear other viewpoints on this matter. To respond, click on the “Comments” link at the end of this post.
Not much to discuss unless Mel cares to name names… anyway, it’s hardly unusual that people’s tastes tend to ossify as they get older. But that’s got nothing to do with the substantive merits of contemporary artists, that’s just further evidence (as if more were needed) that most people gravitate towards music that sounds like the stuff they liked when they were younger.
Chris H says
I didn’t know Wynton read your page Doug!
Michael J. West says
So much for “Take Five” or “All Blues” being jazz…as they are not in 4/4.
The moment you put constraints on what can define a form of music is the moment it starts to stagnate. You put it in a box and announce that it can only develop within X parameters.
Additionally, anyone who can listen to, say, Bitches Brew and declare that “watered-down jazz” can’t possibly have that much trouble with other avant-garde forms.
Finally, the point about it not swinging is one that I, and most other jazz fans, wrestle with a lot. But it has the same problem: declaring that “it’s only jazz if it swings” is murder to the form. What makes jazz jazz, as far as I can tell, is that it flows logically from the jazz tradition, which doesn’t necessitate any one aspect of the music being common with all of the music that preceded it.
Now I’m rambling, so that’s it for me. For now, anyway.
Deborah Hendrick says
This is dangerous ground because I know so little about jazz, but mostly I agree with Mel Narunsky. I DO like it to swing … Please dear God let it swing … and if doesn’t swing, then please let it break my heart because it is so beautiful.
I love that jazz comes in many forms, but to me the fundamental dividing line seems to be Jazz played for Other Jazz Musicians, and Jazz played for the Rest of Us.
From some one who wasn’t around during the Jazz period, I would agree
Michael J. West says
Interesting that he calls himself a “modern moldy fig.” Apt, but ironic, considering the original moldy figs insisted that if it swung, it WASN’T jazz.
Mel Narunsky says
It Don’t Mean A Thing…
Firstly, I hasten to take Chris H’s point about the jazz that’s not in 4/4, (thank you, Chris), and I have to modify my previous remarks as I now realize that I love many jazz performances in other time signatures – from Jitterbug Waltz to Eleven Four (just listen to Paul Desmond swing on this one) and these are undoubtedly jazz.
There is another side to jazz where it does not necessarily have to swing – and that is in out-of-tempo solo piano or guitar performances. They are, in my opinion, certainly jazz: it’s a different listening experience, and, I might add, a very rewarding one.
I have just listened to (Darcy James Argue’s) “Desolation Sound” – it’s not unpleasant to listen to but it didn’t move me too much. To me, the essence of swing is the aspect of the music that makes it difficult for me to prevent my feet from tapping, and my whole body from physically reacting to the swing of the music. “Desolation Sound” doesn’t do this to me.
Billy Taylor spoke in the 1960s about there being various types of jazz, and that there is a type of jazz to suit anyone – so in the final analysis I guess it all boils down to personal taste.
Stefan Kac says
What’s your point, Mel? Now we know what you like. Big frickin’ deal. It doesn’t bother me one bit that you don’t consider certain things to be jazz. You, like so many others these days, seem to be speaking in almost ethical terms. You can go on not accepting that “jazz values can exist apart from standard song forms and harmony.” The nature of such values and whether they qualify as belonging to “jazz” or not is not under your control, nor is the manner in which any given artist chooses to use them. No one is right or wrong here; it’s a pointless argument to undertake. We don’t care if we offend you. You can have the word “jazz” if you really need it just to survive. Most of us don’t.
Peter Kountz says
I do understand Mel Narunsky’s point of view..I can even engender sympathy for it. But I fear Mel has backed himself into a corner. Not all jazz has to swing just as not all jazz has to be in 4/4,3/4/5/4 etc.
Our poster DJA and his band, with his compositions, affirm this view, as do Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. Consider Ben Ratliff’s conversation with Ornette Coleman in the 9/22/06 NYT and OC’s idea of the mystical, the other-worldly side of jazz. if jazz is truly a universal music–and I am one who believes this fully–then it must–and will-do all kinds of things musicially, only of of which is swing.Let’s let Mel have his way with the caveat that it is only one of the ways of jazz. Jazz does and should have a kind of “academic” side…a studied side..but this is only one part of the great puzzle of jazz. Okay for Mel, BUT…
Darcy James Argue says
Your music inevitably reflects your personal background — Bob Brookmeyer has the swing feel he does largely because he grew up in Kansas City in the 1930’s. I grew up in Vancouver in the 1980’s. I don’t think my music would sound better if I tried to ignore my actual musical background and wrote stuff that tried to make it sound like I was born in a different time and place. It would also be weird for me pretend that I’ve never heard the music of the past 35 years. I don’t think I could shut my ears to the musical culture at large even if I wanted to.
We all agree that full-body swing is a trip, but it’s not infinitely expressive — nothing is. My chart, “Desolation Sound,” is about a specific place in the Pacific Northwest and the gray, rainy, forbidding mist-shrouded beauty of it, and if I’m trying to evoke the emotions that I associate with that, the old “spang spang-a-lang” doesn’t really cut it. If everything has to swing in a rigidly traditional sense, then you’re severely limiting the emotional scope of the music. Maybe someone thinks that if it’s not tippin’, finger-poppin’ swing, it’s not “real jazz”, but that’s their hangup, not mine. I don’t much care what box people want to put my music in — I only care about whether it communicates the story I’m trying to tell.
That said, I have no aversion to using a more familiar swing feel when it fits the plot — see “Flux in a Box” or my Brookmeyer tribute, “Drift.” (There’s an extensive audio archive on my blog.)