post show theorizing

Anyone who has been drawn into a post-concert music discussion over drinks and laughs is probably familiar with the tangle. You throw out an idea about music and find yourself defending it, even as you realize the mounting vigor of your argument is both unnecessary and likely counterproductive (and simply silly). But you keep going just for the fun of it. That’s the way to hear these comments.

Big Pronouncements about the history of jazz usually bug me because there’s always a counter-example or counter-argument. Music history is never directly linear, at least in its recent history. I suspect it never was, but I wasn’t there so I don’t really know. Basically, I don’t think music history Makes Sense.

I can’t exactly remember the question, but something about, where does the music you write for the Quintet come from, what is the inspiration, and why do you include fender rhodes electric piano? And I can’t remember exactly what I said (you can likely hear it on streaming radio in the next few days), but I found myself saying something I’ve thought a little bit about, but hadn’t thought all the way through.

One of my favorite Miles Davis groups is the so-called “Lost Quintet.” It’s the band that existed from roughly 1969-1970 and never technically went in the studio: Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea on rhodes, Dave Holland on acoustic bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums. (Damn, I shoulda just asked Jack — he was there). That band is a major inspiration for me: the playing is really free and interactive, but they are also following the form and there’s all the wonderful give and take between the band members that comes with that. And the way I hear the rhodes in that context is a natural continuation of the role of the piano in Miles’ previous quintets, but it also brings in other elements — longer sustains, thicker bass lines, percussive and electronic effects, and the ability to get as loud as a drummer.

Soon after that time, the music changed. Without getting specific and naming names in this context, I love a lot of that music. But it feels to me like the focus shifted from spontaneity and give-and-take to a much more muscular and virtuosic way of playing tunes that left less freedom in the interpretation.

(The standard history reads that that moment is the death of jazz and it was only brought back to life years later when a new generation of players started using acoustic instruments and playing tunes from back in the day. Let’s set aside that whole familiar argument for today).

When I first started the quintet I was inspired by that version of the Miles Davis Quintet. But I also set the goal as playing tunes — new tunes that I would write — following forms, playing with the freedom of interplay and extensions of melody, harmony, and rhythm. It seemed like a good place to start with a quintet in the early 21st century, looking back, while looking forward. That does seem like a moment after which everything changed. To write modern music inspired by standards, you have to look for a vibrant language and create from a living lineage.

I kind of agree with many who say that jazz went off the rails at that point. However, there are always so many leaks in the boat of any unified theory about jazz in the past forty years. After spouting my Grand Philosophy I immediately regretted it.

Firstly: Of course. Not everyone at the time was involved in that change.

I think maybe a better way to say it is that the creative musicians starting around 1970 found other modes to express what they wanted to say. Those modes had less to do with song forms and song playing and the kinds of interaction that occur in them. That’s what brought us the brilliance of the period — musicians were suddenly free to explore all kinds of feelings in the music. And not just freedom, but all kinds of genres and ways of making sound. Like it or not, that period opened the door to the wide span of the many ways people play today.

One of the things that’s allowed me to keep making music has been to pick themes for various bands and projects and limit myself to dealing with that theme in my approach. That way the world of possible music that opened up in the 70s doesn’t completely overwhelm any musical elements I may be grateful enough to have jotted down. To write songs thinking about that kind of playing was the inspiration that made the quintet possible. I’ve now decided to make a shift. From here on the new music for the band will use acoustic piano.