Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jazz, Sweet Jazz

I do not venture into cultural commentary on this site, at least not often enough. It is probably because of the political nature in which I have allowed this blog to evolve. This should not be too surprising since I am a political scientist and a longtime political activist. Plus, there is very little of what constitutes Americana these days that I prefer or want to be associated with. The athletes are over-pampered, overpaid steroid abusers and unconvicted felons, participating in one of the few collectivist endeavors tolerated by this society's owners, next to organized religion--neither of which cost the upper 1% income tax bracket a dime (as opposed to the kind of intolerable collective political efforts that are inculcated into our consciousness as un-American).

Music has been one of the greatest disappointments of American culture, even more than the perversion of athletics. It is difficult to rationalize how we have gone from a place where bands who played and wrote their own music descended to the point of making multimillionaires of the likes of Madonna and the Backstreet Boys, but it happened. Maybe it was the visual obsession with music videos, the increasing corporate control and manufacturization of music as a product, instead of art. Regardless of what it may be, I am certain of this much. It made contemporary rock and most pop music utterly un-listenable. Even those genres that started out as a rebellion against dominant cultural narratives, like rap, was over time trivialized and turned into a series of stripper anthems (much like the hair metal bands of the late '80s and early '90s).

It was during this gutterization that I began to listen to different forms of music in my early adult years. Jazz was one of those joyful experiments. It is improvisational and an acquired taste, and best of all it is a form of music that is distinctly American.

The problem with jazz, like classical music, is that you get stuck with the past, those musicians who are long gone, and who set the standard for the genre. For the longest time, I was in the glories of the past camp in jazz (and still am when it comes to classical music), but I have branched out over the past several years, searching for and listening to contemporary jazz musicians and singers I consider worthy of recognition.

One of the most talented, and in my view underrated, singers to come on to the jazz scene recently is Melody Gardot. She is a Pennsylvanian, who has only been singing for the past five years now--a career that began after suffering a near fatal car accident, spending several months in a hospital following a hit-and-run incident (an ironic way to start one's recording contract). Her voice, sound, style seems almost reminiscent of Billie Holiday, in the best way, but she accomplishes this with her own persona and presence that you rarely see in this day an age (a bona fide talent who can write and carry her own music).

Here is the live version of Quiet Fire (embedding was disabled, so I could not post it).

For those who tire of being spoonfed the 10 year old target audience garbage from MTV...

If you are ever fortunate enough to have this lady in concert in your town or city, you need to acquaint yourself.


cognitive dissident said...

Thanks so much for this recommendation! I'm now eagerly awaiting the release of her new album in April, and I don't buy very much new music.

Like you, I'm also largely in the "glories of the past" camp, having long considered 1959 the high point of American music. (Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Mingus Ah Um, Time Out, etc.) With a few exceptions, such as Maria Schneider's jazz orchestra, most new music just doesn't hold my attention. Ms Gardot does, though, and I hope to hear her on tour.

Have you read Alex Ross' "The Rest Is Noise"? I have to credit him with making 20th-century classical music more understandable...although appreciating it remains an ongoing endeavor.

TA said...

Cognitive Dissident, I think you will enjoy her new album. Baby I'm a Fool is on it, and it is to me her signature song. I did not even know about her until several months ago, reading other jazz site commentaries, and to say the least I was pleasantly surprised.

Yes, I know what of you speak when it comes to the problem of listening to contemporary jazz. I never really started listening to jazz until my late teens, and since it is considered a genre in the past tense you begin by listening to the classics (i.e., Billie Holiday, Parker, Dizzie, Duke, Count Basie, Miles, etc.).

I have tried to listen to more contemporary jazz, but the best musicians are mostly instrumentalists, like Herbie Hancock or Maynard Ferguson. A good contemporary jazz singer, however, has been more difficult for me to find (having been spoiled by those classics), but Gardot caught my attention the first time I heard her voice. It is hard to describe, sort of like the response I had to the first time I listened to Holiday's Them There Eyes or Carmen McRae. She is that good.

As for classical music, thanks for the book recommendation. I will be sure to look it up (most of the books I read are academic and confined to the social sciences, so this should make for a nice departure). I have tried to rationalize my reactionary view of classical music (basically, I have grown to detest anything that even betrays a hint of atonality), but I have yet to conjure a reason that will allow me to escape the title of a neo-classicist. I suppose I would have been at home with Stalin's socialist realism. I know that makes me persona non-grata in the Western arts community, but I will never forget the manner in which I laughed in the face of my high school music teacher when he tried to show us a recorded 'performance' of John Cage's 4'33. I hate thinking this way. There are very good contemporary classical music composers out there, I am a huge fan of Alan Hovhaness (one of the greatest composers this country has ever produced, in my view), but musically I am still a romanticist at heart.