Friday, December 31, 2010

A Prophesy

On December 21, right on this blog, I prophesied an encounter.  On December 28, that encounter happened:  I saw the Bad Plus at the Village Vanguard, and after the first set, I introduced myself to Ethan Iverson in the musicians' room in the back of the club.  So what, right?  Well, maybe.  It wasn't a trying introduction, or a long one.  I really just wanted to show him my face, in person, to perhaps shake his hand (I did).

We both have jazz blogs, are tangentially related on the jazz internet, and I wanted to add another dimension to that relation.  I don't think online connections are superficial.  They can be--like any sort of connection.  I used to think blogs were lame, nerdy, uninteresting.  And some are.  But if you have a blog, and you work hard on it, and people read it, then that can be very satisfying, for you and for those reading it.

When I started this blog, I felt embarrassed--like I was declaring my self-importance.  I didn't want my blog to resemble a personal diary.  (You decide if I've been successful.)  I wanted to write about jazz--and I ended up mainly relating the music to my life.  I don't really feel embarrassed about having a blog anymore, but I am self-conscious of having one.  It's hard not to be.

I'm sitting in a cafe right now, there are three other men typing away on their laptops in my vicinity, and I'm wondering what they're working on.  Is it possible they're blogging, too?  Yes, but if they are, they're probably not blogging about blogging.

I don't really know who reads my blog.  I know some who do.  But when I look at the statistics--the page views (about 50 a day), the traffic sources (how are people finding my blog through a Russian furniture website?), the audience (22 page views from India this week)--I tend to think more about the purposes of blogging.

Every so often, I search my name on Google and find, to my surprise, websites and other blogs that have linked my entries.  You may control what you write, but once you unleash it on the internet, you can't know where that writing will end up.  In fact, it doesn't really end up anywhere, which doesn't mean it's not going anywhere.

I think that's ultimately a good thing:  It's one of the primary, albeit incidental, purposes of blogging.  So, on December 21, when I wrote I would introduce myself to Ethan Iverson at the Village Vanguard, it felt like a bigger deal than it might actually have been.  (Incidentally, that entry was linked on WBGO's Twitter feed.  I found it when I searched my name on Google.)

When I walked into the musicians' room, saw Ethan and introduced myself, I wondered if he had read my entry from December 21.  I didn't ask him.  I told him I was home for winter break, from McGill University, that I enjoyed the show.  He asked me if I am a writer or a musician.  I told him I play the drums, some piano, but at the moment, I consider myself more a writer than a musician.  He thanked me for coming out, said that the recent blizzard had almost prevented the band's timely arrival from Minnesota.

As I talked to him, I realized that my blog persona might actually just be my blog persona.  I try to be honest, to write what I think, but the tangible me, the one sitting before the computer right now, typing out his thoughts, the one studying political science and Arabic at McGill, the one who went to the Village Vanguard on December 28, the one with inhibitions--he is a separate person. 

That doesn't mean the connections I make on my blog are artificial or superficial.  They're just different.  Those connections allowed me to meet someone in person, someone I wouldn't have imagined meeting a year ago, someone who knew my name.  In a way, it wasn't even an introduction.  In the musicians' room, I didn't want to keep Ethan for too long, so I shook his hand and thanked him for talking to me.  "I'll see you on the internet," he said as I walked away.  

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010, Jazz and Me


 Last week, Anthony Dean-Harris, the editor in chief of Nextbop, asked me and a few other contributing writers each to write a top five list of jazz albums for 2010.  After thinking about it for a while, I realized I couldn't do it.  I just didn't think my list would be sufficient--because, simply, I hadn't listened to enough  albums released this year.  I didn't want to pass off a shoddy list.  Thinking about the year, I realized so much in my life had to do directly with jazz.  So I made a different sort of list.  Find it here

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The System(s)

This happened a week ago, but I think it deserves a mention here to round it out:  Ethan Iverson, pianist of the Bad Plus, added me to his blogroll, which was a a nice surprise.  Mr. Iverson first linked me on his blog back in September to refer to a post I wrote on Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi.  I was surprised about that, too, so I wrote a sort of glowing, thankful essay about it here.  That essay was called "The System"--I was referring to the blogosphere, how you need to keep linking and posting and commenting to get some notice.  I mentioned a lot of people in that essay whom I had met through my blog, making a case for online connections. 

But it had a sort of meta feel to it, because in that Masabumi Kikuchi post--in which, after seeing Mr. Kikuchi play at the Village Vanguard, I praised him for his refreshingly bizarre approach to the piano--I also mentioned Mr. Iverson.  He was sitting at the table next to me that night at the Vanguard. 

About a month ago, I commented on Mr. Iverson's blog, asking about Mr. Kikuchi.  He responded:  "Matthew, I was so amused when I searched for Masabumi and found your description of me lurking behind him and taking notes."  I hadn't considered his view of it before, but it really must have been quite funny to find what I wrote:  "[Ethan Iverson] was there, sitting at the table behind the piano, staring with stolid curiosity, the night I first encountered Mr. Kikuchi."

I never thought Masabumi Kikuchi would bring me closer to jazz, but I never think a lot of things.  I should probably be aware of that.  In a week or so, the Bad Plus will be performing for about a week-long run at the Village Vanguard.  I'll be there on the twenty-eighth, and I hope to introduce myself to Mr. Iverson.  Maybe after that I'll start calling him Ethan in my posts(?).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Shape of Jazz to Come

There is a common posture among jazz fans, a Miniver Cheevy-like regret about jazz's fate.  I went through that regret.  When I noticed about three years ago that most of the jazz music I listened to was recorded before 1965, I started to think about what that meant.  Was I an atavism?  That seemed too simple.  Was jazz an atavism?  I didn't know enough to decide.  I still don't, but I now know that jazz is special, for one reason, because it led me to these important questions.

In my profile for this blog, I write:  "I care about jazz immensely--not as a zealous advocate or a surly eulogist."  It's clear I'm doing some advocacy just by having this blog.  But when I started writing in August, I didn't want my entries to seem like pleading.  I didn't want to reinforce some false sense of jazz's victimization.

I don't think hope hurts, though.  For me, it's always a pleasure to go out and see a great live performance.  I think most jazz fans get into jazz through records.  I did.  If you start out listening to older records (as I did), you eventually start to realize that most of the musicians you're listening to are dead, or very old.  I saw Oscar Peterson at the Blue Note about a year before he died.  I was 18.  He was about 80.  The experience depressed me. 

When I wrote hope doesn't hurt, I didn't mean hope for jazz's popularity.  I meant hope for yourself.  Because ultimately, I've noticed jazz doesn't really have problems.  Its listeners do.  Here's a quote from the great French pianist Michel Petrucciani: 

“To me, there is the creator of that music.  You know, they are creators of that music, like the classical composers.  And Trane was one of them, and Bird, and Bill Albert Evans was one of them, and Tatum, you know, people like that.  I think they really created what we call now, jazz.  I mean, it was jazz then too, but somehow, they really give so much information so that young people, like me for example…I mean...It’s so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there’s so much information.”

As a guest on Piano Jazz, he was responding to Marian McPartland's question about what he thought of John Coltrane.  That was in 1986.  He died in 1999 at the age of 36.  But if his words were true then--"It's so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there's so much information"--imagine how much truer they are now, about 25 years later.  Here's another quote, from New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff:

“Jazz is in a funny moment.  It’s big cultural moment may have passed, I mean, I wouldn’t argue against that.  We want things—in popular cultural, in entertainment—we want things, you know, fast and succinct.  And jazz takes a while.  You know, jazz is sort of always going somewhere.  It doesn’t just declare what it’s all about in two and a half minutes.  And yes, all these people have died, but also, you know, in an earlier time, up until the early sixties, the media was much more focused on jazz.  There was a time when jazz was just about semi-popular.  Well, it was popular further back in the swing era, but then in the late fifties and early sixties, it was sort of semi-popular.  Now it’s not even that.  But, there’s tons of musicians, young musicians coming out of music schools.  I mean, more so than ever before.  You know, there’s been this great explosion of jazz education since the seventies.  And I mean, a lot of these young musicians don’t have enough gigs, they don’t have enough places to go.  But tons of people are playing jazz now.  And I still hear great musicians all the time that I’ve never heard of before.” 

He was responding to Tavis Smiley in an interview from 2008 about, basically, the loss of jazz icons and the shape of jazz to come.  I think the two quotes fit well in succession.  There is so much information out there--on recordings, in transcriptions, in books, videos, interviews, pictures, blogs.  There's a lot for a musician--and a listener--to take in.  Of course there really aren't enough places for jazz musicians to go.  That could be a result of jazz's dwindling popularity.  Or it could be that there are so many more jazz musicians--the competition is higher.

It's probably a combination of the two, but that problem is not endemic to jazz.  I'd like to be a writer.  (That's ultimately why I have this blog.)  I'll graduate in the spring, and then I'll start looking for jobs.  I have no idea how hard it will be to get a good one, but I imagine there are a lot of people like me who want what I want.  The competition is high, and there aren't many jobs. 

I've come to the conclusion that to get closer to what I want, I'll have to work very hard.  I'll have to keep learning by doing--to never think I've learned enough--to get better at what I want to do.  I might never get a job writing.  I'll never know if I don't try.  And in a way, I think that jazz musicians just graduating from school have to think in the same way if they want to differentiate themselves and perhaps succeed.

Sure, that mentality is not new.  It could always apply.  But now, when it's hard even to get an unpaid internship--when so many recent graduates are moving back in with their parents--it seems truer.  When you decide to go into the arts, that's a brave move.  When you decide to go into jazz--in these rough times--I think it's noble and brave and worthy of attention.  That doesn't mean jazz musicians will ever get the attention they deserve.

It may be harder and harder for jazz musicians to differentiate themselves--because they have to deal with about 100 years of recorded material, and because there are just so many jazz musicians.  But in a way, that's fitting for jazz.  When I listen to a jazz record, I'm not listening just to jazz, I'm listening to Ben Webster's vapory tremolos, Albert Ayler's earthy wail, Pat Metheny's radiant guitar notes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba's sensitive touch, Gretchen Parlato's nimble enunciation.

Perhaps the main point of playing jazz is to develop your own sound, your own musical voice. That may be getting harder and harder to do.  But there's no reason to regret this.  Because it's harder, it makes the music more valuable.  Earlier I wrote I'll have to think I've never learned enough in order to differentiate myself.  I think that the best jazz musicians are those who have thought like that, who have regarded their sounds as constantly unfinished, always in need of revision and scrutiny.

I look forward to graduating in the spring, to finding work I enjoy.  That might not happen right away, but I imagine it will happen.  I don't know what jazz will look like in the next few decades.  But I look forward to finding out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The John Escreet Project

John Escreet

This happened a while ago, but the review I wrote was just posted on Nextbop, so what can you do?  I saw the John Escreet Project on the night of Saturday, November 27 at Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal.  I had to sit at the end of the bar, with a limited view of the stage, but that's just something you have to deal with.  I still enjoyed the show because everyone in the club seemed into it.

I've always wanted to walk into a jazz club and have the owner know my name.  Now it's a reality.  Of course there's an exchange going on.  I write a review of the show to watch the show for free.  And that's fair in my mind.  I'm only a student.  I don't expect to get paid, though it would be nice if I did.

I often feel a bit awkward when I'm sitting in a club, taking notes, thinking about what I'll write about later.  I'm hoping that doesn't limit the emotional experience of seeing live music.  I have to write things down to remember them--like song titles, descriptive words, quotes--but when I sit down to write a review, I tend to remember a lot more than I thought I would.  You have to rely on your notes, but more importantly, on an afterimage of the performance that sits in your mind. 

Of course I fear being wrong.  But that's also just something you have to deal with.  You can only try not to be wrong.  It's fun for me, though--like slowly taking a risk.  I'm only twenty-two.  I could be wrong a lot, but I try to stay within my means.  I only know so much, but I can only know more as I gain experience.

I'm not completely comfortable being a critic.  Not that I am one, but when I write these reviews, I have to be one.  I don't really like uncritical writing about jazz, though.  I don't like seeing praise where no praise is due.  It makes for empty writing.   

So I try to maintain my critical insight without abandoning everything else--warmth, humor, anger.  I try seriously to not take myself too seriously.  That's what keeps me going when I walk into Upstairs Jazz Club and Joel, the owner, walks me to my seat.  That's what keeps me going when I open my notebook before a show, uncap my pen, and get ready to learn.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gilad Hekselman and Ari Hoenig Interview



On the night of Friday, November 19, I sat down to talk with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Ari Hoenig between sets at Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill. (Find the review of the show here.) They were performing in the Rick Rosato Trio, and I caught them in the musicians’ room about thirty minutes before the second and last set of the night. It was a pleasure to talk for a bit with these fine musicians.  Find the interview here.  Also, happy Hanukkah!