Free Country

I got in an argument with Adam Benjamin last fall when we were driving back from Cambridge to New York. We were listening to music, some of it from CDs camped out in my car, some of it new: Miles Davis Seven Steps to Berlin box set, a mixed Cd of contemporary Belgian music, the odd Rufus Wainwright disc, Ethiopiques 14, Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra’s new record, other things I can’t remember. I buy new CDs when they come out, even though I feel a little like a sap at the register when everyone else is downloading or simply ripping. But I like having them and checking out the artwork, putting them in my collection, and you know what they say, put your money where your mouth is….

Anyway, Adam’s into music education, he’s going for a masters at CalArts. So we got to talking about the program at Banff Workshop (he’s coming up along with the rest of Keystone this year), jazz programs in general, how you teach improvising and repertoire, how you learn it, what’s important, what’s not. We started talking about what’s happening in jazz, what we listen for, and how that becomes teaching.

Well we disagreed about this. I think what makes a jazz group great (I know that jazz means many things to many people, I’ll just say I use the word loosely) is the freedom of each player to be themselves. That’s what I listen for, a conversation between individuals. How free is everyone? How much are they playing together? How does that freedom serve the whole music? Are they in straight-jackets? If so, does it serve the music?

What makes jazz distinctive is the richness of interaction between the players. And for interaction to happen, there has to be freedom. And with freedom responsibility and with responsibility power.

There are many ways to be free, and varying degrees of freedom — to me that is one of the biggest tasks for a jazz composer or bandleader. That is the prime decision to be made in creating a music. That’s the challenge. And a successful balance creates great music.

Maybe this is not a particularly original idea, but it defines what I like about music, and why I don’t like certain things, even recordings by artists whose work I generally like. In a way, teaching has helped me define this feeling, which was instinctual, but vague for many years. Teaching helped me understand why I gravitate towards certain things and away from others. The issue of freedom has also had an enormous impact on the way I write.

Now, I hate universal theories of anything, but I’m having a hard time not seeing this musical dimension of freedom as something that extends to all kinds of music. In pop music I’m more excited when I hear a band, or whatever it is, playing together. Even in programmed electronic music tracks isn’t it the programmer’s personality that makes it rock? Listen to Milton Babbitt’s Ensembles for Synthesizer from the early 60s and tell me that doesn’t have personality.

What makes a compelling classical (remember, using those terms loosely) performance? To me, it’s when every member of the quartet or quintet or orchestra seems to understand what the composer and/or conductor are after. That’s when they can put their personality and heart into it.

What I like is hearing a band of personalities. I like to hear some of what each person has to say, in the service of a whole. Whatever it is, they have to believe it and personalize it, whether it is someone else’s notes or not. When I don’t hear that the music rarely gets to me. My ear searches out each instrument and what’s unique about its part and what that person is doing with it. If a lot of the band is strapped down to playing parts rote, somehow the richness is gone. That’s what’s special about jazz — it’s a music of personal expression and group consciousness. It’s great chamber music.

If I may set up a few straw men to knock them down:

In response to the virtuoso soloist argument: Part of the reason Coltrane could so often hit it out of the park is that he had Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison with him so often. My point is: virtuoso as he was, his playing was always a part of the whole music, never showy for its own sake. Freedom within a group. That’s what makes it deep.

The impersonal music argument: As much as John Cage would deny it, his personality clearly pervades his pieces and a great Cage performance involves a lot of will from the performers. OK, maybe he wouldn’t deny it.

Big bands: The reason I love Gil Evans and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis is that in their music I hear everyone speaking. Even in a big band format, they found a way to elevate the individual parts to something unique and special for the players. As do all the greats, including Ellington, Basie and so many others.

See if you agree. I don’t think Adam does because he kept looking for counterexamples and anxiously picking at his bagel. Granted, counterexamples are the best way to examine an idea, or to destroy it. But soon we weren’t listening, just talking. All those great Tony Williams licks going by unremarked. But the miles flew by.