Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Late To The Party - Organ Damage/Wild Things/Bird Notes

End of the year roundups are a great way to find out what you've missed from the previous year.  To cite just one example of something I'm sure I wouldn't have found any other way, my favorite discovery from the year-end conversation at Nate Chinen's The Gig is the (get ready for it) badass Norwegian organ trio Elephant9.  I realize that the phrase "badass Norwegian organ trio" sounds like it contains multiple oxymorons, but check 'em out and see for yourself.


I don't remember where I found the link to this Awl piece from 2009, but I just came across it this weekend.  The Awl was one of my most-read sites of 2010, but I guess I wasn't checking it regularly before that.  In any case, Tom Scocca articulates the problem I had with the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are with much more clarity and force than I'm capable of.  Reading it was cathartic.


Another thing from 2009 that I only recently got around to reading was Steve Coleman's Charlie Parker "Dozens" at, an epic piece worthy of its subject.  As the writings on his M-Base website demonstrate, Coleman is almost frighteningly knowledgeable and insightful on just about every aspect of the art of spontaneous composition (his preferred term), and this Charlie Parker piece is like 12 excerpts from the best textbook on the subject never published.  There's the basis of an education here, an implied course of study.  It takes some close listening to grasp some of Coleman's points, but if you follow his example and really dig into this music, he will teach you some things.  And lest you think he's just blowing conceptual smoke, he provides plenty of transcriptions to illustrate his points.  With one complete reading, I feel like I've only started with this piece, but Coleman has already made me listen more closely to the music he discusses, which is perhaps his most important lesson.  As Phil Schaap's long-running radio show has amply proven, this is inexhaustible music which just sounds better as you pick up on more of its nuances (most of which are guaranteed to elude on a first or even third or fourth listen).

Coleman is particularly strong in trying to understand (without pretending to be certain) how Parker and his associates thought about the music they were playing from a technical standpoint (which may have been quite different from the way the music has been analyzed after the fact).  Though it may sound like a ridiculously esoteric piece of musicology, Coleman's elaboration (supported by quotes from Parker and Gillespie) of the distinction between minor sixth (with a sixth in the bass) and half-diminished chords is a valuable bit of analysis insofar as it illuminates something about the thinking behind the improvisation.  Coleman isn't just describing what Parker played, but how he (along with Gillespie, Monk and others) might have developed the approach that led him to play it. 

Reading David Foster Wallace's "The Empty Plenum", a review of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, just after reading some posts on Coleman's blog, I noticed that the concept of time and its relationship to language comes up in both places.  Language is particularly important to Coleman's understanding of Charlie Parker's music.  He conceives of Bird's solos as hip, streetwise conversations, with the natural but extremely intricate rhythms of speech (Coleman takes the idea of musical "phrases" quite literally).  Jason Moran did some experiments in this area, "transcribing" recorded conversations into music ("Ringing My Phone" was one recorded result).  Coleman suggests listening to a Parker solo and focusing only on the rhythms while ignoring the pitches.  Both Moran's transcriptions and Coleman's listening exercise serve to reveal underlying structures that may be obscured by "content" (words or pitches).  [Update: some interesting speculations about the connection between language and improvised music in this video.]

One last note re: Steve Coleman and his appreciation of the masters - his 1991 album Rhythm In Mind, which I recently downloaded from his website, is a beaut.  It's an all-star lineup, including Von Freeman, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Ed Blackwell, but to me, Tommy Flanagan shines brightest of all.  Flanagan is one of those widely-acknowledged piano greats that I've never taken the time to really get to know, but his work on this album has made me resolve to dig into the Flanagan discography in the new year.

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