From the archives: Jazz

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Platonism and pork pie hats

Sunday, 18 January 2009 — 10:37pm | Jazz, Music

Ben Ratliff of The New York Times has written an eight-page Q&A about jazz and its criticism that shouldn’t be missed. He dips into many of the issues on the minds of jazz listeners—the sustainability of the respective cultures of recordings and live performances, the effect of college educations in music performance, the anxiety over whether there has been an emergent “canon” to speak of since the post-bop masters of the fifties and sixties—but my favourite part is this elegant response to that age-old question of Genre, viz. what belongs and what doesn’t:

Q. If I just listened to Mingus pluck an open string that he let resonate for a while, would I be hearing jazz?
— Elias Falcon, Brooklyn

A. No. You would be hearing Charles Mingus.

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Runaway fifths

Tuesday, 6 January 2009 — 10:17am | Game music, Jazz, Music, Video games

My dedicated readers may be aware that one thing I used to follow quite closely, on this journal and elsewhere, was the composition and arrangement of video game music. I haven’t attended to it in some time, and am in no way up to date on what’s been going on with it apart from the occasional press releases that land in my inbox about how (to pick one example) contributors to OC ReMix provided the official soundtrack to a high-definition remake of Street Fighter II.

So I was surprised to discover that a video game band—and a jazz band, no less—had sprung up in my very own a mare usque ad mare backyard under the name of The Runaway Five, after the Blues Brothers spoof band that lets you hop on their tour bus in the oddball Super Nintendo classic EarthBound. I saw them live at the Beat Niq on Saturday, and walked away pleased with a lot of what I heard.

I am careful to say “what I heard” because, in a bungled cross-product of the sound engineering and where I was sitting (but mostly, I conjecture, the former), there were serious acoustic issues that worked against the band. Never mind the unfortunate trend of miking and amping everyone in sight in tight basement clubs where a live sound would serve them better—there were fundamental EQ problems with what was coming out the other end, as if the treble had entirely dropped out. A lot of what the band was trying to do harmonically got lost in the midrange mud-crunching.

As for the band itself—a guitar-piano quartet in the first set and an octet with four horns in the second set—it is the very archetype of the young 2000s band that draws on a potpourri of stylistic influences without necessarily committing to one or another. If their point was to illustrate the versatility of their source material, I’d say they got it across. I jotted down their whole set list but I won’t bother reproducing it here; instead, here are a few performance notes.

Continued »

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The songs of Sarah Palin

Saturday, 25 October 2008 — 7:37pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

From New York jazz musician Henry Hey comes a pair of piano settings of this year’s Republican ticket—musical transcriptions of speech not unlike the technique that motivated Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

It appears Ms. Palin has a confident flair for the flowing rhythms of natural speech that would make Thelonious Monk proud. Her recitative on the economy, as sung to Katie Couric with impeccable enunciation:

And here she is with John McCain in a bright, vaudevillian demonstration of their appeal to down-home real America:

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Wednesday Book Club: Considering Genius

Wednesday, 13 August 2008 — 1:18am | Book Club, Jazz, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006) by Stanley Crouch.

In brief: Jazz critic Stanley Crouch has a reputation as an abrasive, stodgy curmudgeon of the emperor’s-new-clothes school, beholden to a restrictive aesthetic orthodoxy and unaccepting of experimentation. This anthology of essays from 1982 to 2004 reveals that Crouch’s reputation is well earned, but well defended. In collected form, his controversial views on race—easily misunderstood if read in the context of one piece alone—cohere into an appraisal of America that is at once complex and mature.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Considering Genius, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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New York Minutes

Tuesday, 5 August 2008 — 10:55pm | Adventures, Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble

I visited Manhattan for the first time before and after the Orlando NSC, and one doesn’t visit Manhattan for the first time without coming back with a swarm of impressions that cling to the memory like barnacles.

Not content with restricting myself to the usual landmark-hopping tourist experience of scheduling ill-lit drive-by shootings (now in digital), I thought it would be rewarding to amble around the City That Sleeps As Much As I Do with little planning and forethought, and let adventure ambush me as it will. At times, the excursion assumed the manner of a pilgrimage. Mecca, with less ululation. This isn’t to say that I didn’t tick my way down the usual checklist—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more navigable corners of Central Park, a Broadway production or two—but stopping there wouldn’t have made it my New York, and like any good tourist, I populated my list of things to see with a few sentimental items, guided as always by the invisible hand of personal entitlement.

So when I wasn’t busy getting lost in more of Central Park than most New Yorkers will ever see, I went looking for Scrabble and jazz.

Continued »

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