The Nineties: Rivers and Streams

I was grateful to be mentioned in many of the recent posts about music in the 1990s. It’s interesting to look back and to see how perception changes as time goes by. I don’t want to look back too much, and I don’t want to get into commenting on what one person thinks another person thinks. Others write better than I when it comes to talking about music and events. But I do want to comment on one thread out there about music, continuity and change.

I’m on record about Ken Burns’ Jazz. (I am really surprised Ethan says he hasn’t seen it. He should.). I am generally a diplomatic person, but quite honestly it made me want to destroy my teevee. Abject insults to Cecil Taylor, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, etc., etc., etc. As Destination:Out makes clear, there was a revolution happening right under the camera’s nose. That may seem clear in retrospect. But it’s especially clear if you consider the impact the music on those 1990s lists has on current practice.

Ethan posted a great essay with his thoughts about the era, sensitively illustrated with music recordings. When he gets to the main contention in his nineties polemic (he himself describes it as a “rant,” and I applaud his efforts in the ranting realm) — that there are two tributaries in the music that need to (and have not yet) flow into one — that’s where I get a little nervous.

First of all I would argue that the rivers themselves run a lot deeper than that. The very musicians Ethan uses as an example could have played music demonstrating exactly what he proposes as missing. Branford’s and Bley’s groups could cover both waterfronts if they wanted to. You may or may not like the results, but these are extremely flexible and creative musicians, capable of a broad range of music. The thing is, would they do it and still sound like themselves?

Second: The “two tributaries” thing reminds me of the Gunther Schuller idea of a Third Stream in music, between jazz and classical. It’s an idea that was widely influential at the time (the fifties), but over the years artists have grown to dislike being associated with a.) either of the two streams, or b.) a third river as the (illegitimate?) child of the first two. Subsequent music has demonstrated all sorts of blendings, and blendings of a much broader variety. In a way, that development validates Gunther’s idea of fusion, but it has also quickly out-strapped the utility of numbering the streams. First? Second? Third? Ye shall be known by the number of your streams.

In thinking about the two modes that should collide (short-hand: free and bebop, or classical and jazz, or jazz and rock, or, etc…), it seems like esthetic choice is given short shrift.

We would all learn from checking out Paul Bley and from playing with Tain. Couldn’t agree more. But it’s what you do with that that makes you who you are. Choices. Language. How am I going to play? Context. Compulsion.

A few weeks ago at Banff I worked with an incredibly gifted young musician in a small ensemble. We began the week in a completely improvised context, working on how to sharpen that action, how to focus intention, how to make a completely improvised piece of music sound fresh, exciting, and not sound the same from one performance to the next. Everyone played well.

During the break, this musician pulled me aside and asked, almost sighing, “Are we going to be playing free all week? ‘Cause that’s not really my thing.”

Overcoming the urge to slap this person (update: KIDDING!!!! dd) , I recognized this as a choice of context (though perhaps coming a bit too early in this musician’s career). The musician played really well, but had things to learn, as do we all. But it seemed like there was a lack of awareness that all music ultimately has to arise out a completely untethered form of creative consciousness. It’s only after that we funnel it into various ways of working. Context, language. Freedom of choice. It’s important to know as many sides of music as we can. But it’s also essential and unavoidable that we make choices. Those choices that each musician must make are what make the world of music so infinitely large. And what make a musician’s output unique and personal. Urgent.

Ethan later backtracks and apologizes for boxing people in. What he says later in re possibilities caught me. These are things we ought to know as complete musicians. I’m baffled as to why he argues that this musician has not arrived yet. I think the scene is richer in creative output now than it has been at any time in history. This IS the golden age.

Then he holds up Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkle. These two can do pretty much anything, which would seem to disprove his point a priori. I got the sense from reading again that by the end of the screed he woulda agreed. I’m glad he’s writing.