From the archives: Pianism

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Austin McBride’s piano comedy hour

Monday, 23 March 2009 — 6:27am | Jazz, Music, Pianism

It’s difficult in the age of YouTube, weblogs, self-publication, and the Cult of the Amateur, but I try my level best never to crap all over people who are bad at what they do. Not everybody has the talent to be worth their salt in what they like doing, but people on the cusp of development have room to improve, and it doesn’t do any good to put them down. I’m sure that by strictly professional standards, I’m not very good at what I do either. In fact, I believe quite strongly that one of the essential steps to the mastery of a chosen skill—creative, competitive, or otherwise—is when you reach a stage where you understand how far you have to go before you can honestly consider yourself among the experts, even (and especially) if the casual observer can’t tell the difference.

When a shockingly incompetent amateur poses as a professional source of wisdom, is oblivious to said incompetence, and puts it on display for everyone to see in the form of an instructional video—well, that’s comedy, and it is my duty as a responsible citizen to point and guffaw as hard as I can so no poor fool gets suckered.

Meet Austin McBride, the worst “jazz” “pianist” on the Internet.

Ever wondered what it would be like to hear Sarah Palin deliver a lecture about foreign policy? That’s Austin McBride.

There is a very real possibility that he’s a sick comic genius. The timing of his musical offences is almost too perfect: the consistent pattern in his minute-long videos is to begin with a mangled explanation that might sound plausible to the absolute beginner, and follow it up with a punch line of an “experimental” demonstration.

Who else could come up with gems like this:

But I’ve seen intentional jazz parodies. (Hans Groiner comes to mind.) Intentional parodies are musically literate enough to be deliberate about straying as far from the elements of jazz as possible, and leaving a trail of stylistic breadcrumbs to make it obvious. This fellow—well, I suppose he also offers tutorials on breakdancing and bouncing golf balls on clubs, but I’m still not convinced it’s a joke.

More likely, Austin McBride is a tone-deaf scrub who’s never heard a bar of jazz in his life. And if anything he’s doing is reflective of the general perception of what jazz sounds like—a bunch of nonsense licks and blues scales over repetitive block chords—we, as a civilization, are in a serious heap of trouble.

[Edit (9/29): Given the amount of traffic this page gets from people curious about Mr McBride, it behooves me to acknowledge that it has since become clear the whole shebang was a joke. If you are still on the fence, please consult this video, where he sports a deliberately ridiculous beatnik outfit and plays in five while counting in four.]

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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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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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The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

Monday, 14 January 2008 — 10:58am | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Saturday’s Oscar Peterson tribute concert is now available online. You can listen to it in segments, but I obviously recommend sitting through the whole thing; if you do have to pick and choose, though, make it Herbie Hancock’s speech and performance. (More on him later.) Having just returned to school after three weeks out of the country, I wasn’t able to make the pilgrimage to Hogtown, but after listening to some of the heartfelt eulogies I’m beginning to think I should have stood out in the cold for ten hours on the steps of Roy Thomson Hall with the rest of the throng of ladies, gentlemen and music-lovers all who, like me, would not have the sense of personal identity they possess today were it not for the inspiration of the greatest jazz pianist there ever was or ever will be—and my favourite musician of any stripe, period.

The myriad tributes in O.P.’s honour, both in print since his passing and in the concert, offer a personal underscore to something I always knew about, but only on paper—that he was not only an exemplary musician, but an extraordinary role model in every respect: someone who demonstrated that you can have your cake and eat it too—that great jazz doesn’t have to come at the price of drug addiction or poisoned race relations. The real condition of its production is the will to be the calibre of artist you want. And the kind of man who realizes that is the kind of man who will play his way through a debilitating stroke and live to the ripe old age of 82.

I’m not a sucker for biography. I like to imagine that you can appreciate art apart from its creator, and that in the majority of cases, you should. But sometimes, I have to wonder how much of that is a matter of burying my head in the sand—not wanting to acknowledge that Bill Evans’ sentimental figurations were paying the tab for the heroin coursing through his left arm—and it’s a relief to look up to someone like Oscar Peterson and not have to make a single excuse.

That’s when you know you’ve picked a hero. For Nicholas Tam, that moment came at the age of fifteen.

Continued »

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Regarding Oscar

Tuesday, 8 January 2008 — 5:22pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

I left Canada 21 December and returned this afternoon; only a minute ago did I find out that Oscar Peterson passed away on the 23rd, the day I was stranded in China while my Siamese destination made its way back to democracy. I have a lot to write down, but I think I may have to set everything aside to compose a lengthy and personal obituary.

Oscar Peterson was without question one of the most important figures in my life, and has been since I was old enough to discover the myriad human wonders of the world for myself. On only two other occasions have I been so affected by the passing of a celebrated individual whom I never met (Douglas Adams, Charles M. Schulz), and in both of those cases, I found out as soon as the story broke and shared in the mourning with those who remembered their lives and works with a fondness of similar profundity.

I never did get to see him play.

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