Monday, June 16, 2008

People Don't Get It

They just haven't the ability to discern good jazz from bad jazz. I've discovered that the most popular music form in this household is unappreciated, and certainly under-appreciated, but most people who consider themselves Jazz Fans.

Both my husband and I are musicians. I listen to music that's more Bartok and Neil Young- and yes that combination is very workable. He is more apt to listen to Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, both for influences and for sheer discovery of the proverbial soul of this music format. Just as some people can tolerate Kate Bush yet disdain Tori Amos, I am likely to put forth a Patti Smith tune the same day I write a four part choir piece. The hubby is far more inclined to push Caravan to places that are virtually impossible for any other human to master. It's who we are as musicians, and where we are in our skill, and comprehension.

Golf. I say the phrase, "He's Tiger Woods" whenever I'm asked how the most skilled player of the game manages to astound the masses. My husband understands the nuances of the game, can sit for hours discussing the traps, the eagles, and of course, the lack of beer involved. I am better suited to the stands in Fenway, screaming the disdain to the OTHER team, and drooling as Varitek and Ramirez round bases. That is the sport that seems sportsmanlike to me- Men sweat, teams bond, and the crowd is as in tune with the hot dog vendor as they are with the outfielder. It's the same with Jazz.

My husband has an ability to concentrate. I am what is kindly referred to as distracted, at best, and diagnosed improperly as Attention Deplete. Frankly, I enjoy things that have black and what outcomes, but spend most of my day drifting from writing, to music, to singing, to emails, to becoming entranced by the latest exploits of one, Anthony Bourdain. My goal in life is to not miss out on anything, and that leads me to many different venues, many different creative ventures, and far more greetings and meetings with the public.

The sidekick carrying the male version of our wedding ring can decide to do something and nothing in any way, shape, form, or design can move him from that notion. If he says, "I am going to lose some weight", he is deployed on a seven month mission to become the thinnest him there could be. For any artist he cares to hear, he doesn't become a fan, he becomes a historian. You can ask him any question regarding movies, and he can certainly out trivia any game show. His passion for the cinema is only second to his passion for chocolate- for which he can name sixteen varieties, the locations of the best shops in several continents, and will tell you the nuances from African beans to south American ones. When he states knowledge of jazz, he does so with authority, experience, and minute detail.

My taste in music is multicultural, multi-class, and very rarely excludes any tone of any sort. I've listened to shinai with the same aplomb as a Ringo Starr solo. The one tone that bothers me, surprisingly so, as I've studied the instrument as a child, is that of Violin. The shrill of the wires doesn't sit in my ear, or nestle in my head- instead it takes my ear drum and sizzles it like bacon, wearing it away like the ocean eats sandcastles. And yet, I am also a jazz fanatic.

My knowledge of the music was limited at best when I met Ravi Coltrane- who eerily appears as a clone of his late, great, father. He practiced his soprano sax in my living room at Calarts, and I had the balls to ask him "What kind of clarinet is that?" As I am a comedian, it fortunately fell like a joke in a great club. But, from that point on, my mission was to understand, learn, and devour jazz as some would decide to become parents. After several months, I understood that Dave Koz, and Kenny G are certainly not comparable to Stan Getz, nor Kurt Elling. In fact, I was so enthralled by the singers of this breed that I quickly bought any and all I could find- except Diana Krall or Billie Holliday, both of whom I have grown a bit weary.

It's been twenty years since I snapped on a 1- 3 measure. It's been just as long since I've listened to anything remotely titled "smooth jazz". And, thus comes the topic of this very blog. This is the music that the hoi poloi aren't able to comprehend. This is why a majority of jazz radio is sorely mistaken, and several of the programmers and disc jockeys should be sent to Gitmo. Annie Ross, Eva Cassidy, Rosemary Clooney, Etta- both Jones and James, Julie London, Mildred Bailey, and my favorite, Rachel Gould are in heavy rotation in the iPod and car, as I try to live every note Peggy Lee or Bessie Smith ever uttered. Julie London and Clooney share my range, but Annie Ross has my favorite playful way of making notes sound easy. The youngest member of my collection is carried by Renee Olstead, whose appearances on a comedy sitcom seem to belittle her enormous skill and talent as a jazz songstress.

Billie Holliday changed people's perception of jazz. She responded to notes by giving each personality. In this, she is worthy of history. She does however, grate on me, as a songwriter, for not actually hearing the notes she is supposed to sing, as she changes the reason for a song. Diana Krall once dated my husband, back in the days she was a Berklee student. She makes jazz very approachable, and is highly commended for her ability to take a tune, and make it available to the general population- especially those which were lost to history. However, she hasn't got the vocal range to carry off some of the better lost songs, so she kind of misses the mark with me. I think if she pulled out some Ada Jones, I'd be more impressed. But, I have heard a few dozen Diana Kralls-a-likes, and they really aren't changing the medium. Even Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, recalls Lush Life with the charisma and charm that demands attention. I'd take ten Dana Owens albums to one Krall, any day.

Rachel Gould isn't a household name, and doesn't get much rotation on any jazz radio. That's abominable. She has a voice that seems to tell the world, "This song was written JUST for me, and you will never hear it again without thinking of me." She seems to say this, but doesn't. She should. She's right. Eva Cassidy, who died far too young, as if there IS a right age to die, brings a bluesy feel to all her work, and has become what Janis Joplin aspired to be. When Eva carries a tune, you feel as if you want to be in her house, having coffee, with a cat on your lap, and doing nothing other than hearing that voice.

Don't forget, I like some pop musicians. I think Joss Stone, despite the vocalese, has mastered her voice that brings timelessness to songs. Alicia Keys, one of my favorite songwriters, pulls a punch as quickly as she seduces. Amy Winehouse, drugs be damned, works her shimmy out of nothingness. But, jazz radio has determined these artists are under the same umbrella as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and aforementioned, Coltrane. That's like saying my husband and I play the same music.

He has jazz critics come to the shows, leave jaw dropped, and writing reviews which would put tears in anyone's eyes for the joy of it. I have a habit of making people believe there are seven members to my band, that I am seeped in Earth Wind and Fire, and oh yeah, should be on a Motown label. Culturally, he's from Buffalo, and that's one step closer to Oscar Peterson-ville. I'm from Boston, and it seems I've learned much of my craft from the days spent with a guitar in a subway station. Yet, we're both considered jazz musicians.

The one thing that does frustrate him is my ability to write a song in as long as it takes him to think up a melody. I usually have all parts, done. All of what I write, I've written a million times for every artist I ever admired. He writes for himself, and it's always as if he spent years on something that takes him a few hours. He's Tiger Woods, and I'm the other guys. His sounds is timeless in ways that leave people heart-pounding and lost for words. My music is more pedestrian, and people often wonder what 1970's band I was in. I write music I wish I could get my favorite singers to sing- and he writes what only he can play.

And that is the power of jazz. It removes all pretense and turns to the heart for its purpose. It isn't some pretty little tone you hear whilst dining in an upscale restaurant, which spins around giving you a better view of the city. It isn't the comprehensive tonic to the fifth to the tonic that leaves the listener satisfied. It can be gritty, or interpreted. It can be followed the way a teen ager follows a cast member of a popular movie. It's the music which decides where we have left our broken heart, our secrets and our long lost relatives. It's Tiger Woods.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Thoreau-ly Convinced

I ran across a quote I hadn't read in some time- "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer." I have to agree with this statement, which stands as true today as it did in the 1860's, when written by the author Henry David Thoreau, (pronounced "thorough" for those who are unacquainted with the New England manner of correctly speaking French names).

Mr. T wasn't exactly the world's sweetest guy. There are great tales from Emerson, (Ralph Waldo, not "Lake and Palmer"), who called Henry just about every nasty name he could muster and some he hadn't even thought existed. Melville, Stevenson, and Hawthorne each thought of him as a well-spoken, albeit oft spoken curmudgeon whose love for his fellow man was greatly overshadowed for his love of solitude. My guess is that had he lived in this day, he would certainly never have a cell phone, would disdain the idea of "myspace" and "facebook", and probably would blog incessantly between his strolls through gardens and deserts, if not Manhattan proper.

I'm convinced I'm much like HDT in myriad ways. He never did speak a word without first thinking of its purpose. For him, the spoken thoughts were reflections of the mind, and using words carefully meant being responsible for their outcome. In this point we're united. I'm generally and willfully disgusted by those whose idle banter and chatter seem to carry on long after a point was placed squarely. It is unlikely you'll find me in small talk on a telephone, for any reason. If I don't have the punchline I won't ramble on searching until it appears on the verbal horizon. Succinct or nothing is my preference. Perhaps this is why some people think I'm not involved in a conversation, when the fact is, I'm more involved in listening.

When I was a teenaged girl, searching for meaning and purpose as one does at that age, I was introduced by a burly teacher to the intricacies of the words in Walden. I visited the Lyceum fairly often in Concord, Massachusetts, which sits in the spot near Henry's original wooden box of a home. The building stood barely giving the appearance of a residence, more resembling a large shed. I marveled at the simplicity of his life, and took many walks around the pond which shared the name of his greatest known essay. I pictured him grunting at the sales clerk in town as he got his weekly supplies, as his idea of greetings consisted of a nod, if any acknowledgment at all. He didn't speak with those whom he did not have reason to speak.

And yet, he was certainly full of thoughts, conversations, and deep insights. His essays carry readers into the concept of the Enlightenment Age, his salon chats with his peers, and the intimacy of the life of a hermit. The quotes he is well known for sit in a Wiki entry, but the greatest quotes are those that the readers discover when they find themselves mirrored in his thoughts. Ever timeless, he transcends far more than the written word, tapping into the human experience in nearly every paragraph.

I end this note with the concept of self-reliance. As he wrote a number of times, the efforts of man support mankind when man himself is solely responsible for his actions, words, deeds, and intent. He cannot demand others to supply him with worth, as it is his own to hold. Esteem, held humble, yet firm, is a stronger weapon against a venomous self-denial and negative introspection. As he walked alone, he didn't dwell on the life he left unlived, or the dreams he left unfulfilled; instead he carried the notion that his life was worth every moment, and worth every minute he spent spying the smallest of insects, or grandest of trees. The words of others, who certainly were not as keenly aware of their surroundings, didn't penetrate his shield of self worth, and self reliance. As townsfolk often bantered back about the strange man who lived in the shack- they still wondered how his great mind worked to create such wonderment. It was the idea that their thoughts weren't as important as the ones he held, and his own belief system which he lived truly to the last which caused him to be a greater man. He stood on solid mind as well as solid ground.

The lessons of the past must be apparent in the present for them to have any importance at all. Thoreau was a rabbi in the truest sense in that he taught millions to believe as he did, that the world is better when appreciated, and people are greater when understood. The quote at the beginning of this passage is certainly a statement to the idea that everyone and everything has a reason to be noted, and heard.  Those who ask questions to give their own answers are missing the reason to care for a fellow man. If he wants to hear his own thunder, he should  stay alone. If he wants to hear others, then listen intentionally. It will create a better respect. And, the one heard will be forever grateful for the chance.




The Portable Thoreau (Penguin Classics)
by Henry David Thoreau

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