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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 5 February 2012

Book Notes and Blue Notes

by Marc Chénard / February 1, 2012

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Richard Williams The Blue Moment–Miles Davis and Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music
Faber and Faber, London 2010. 320 pages
ISBN: 9780571245079

British journalist Richard Williams’ 2009 work discusses the most emblematic album of modern jazz: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. The author notes in his introduction that shortly after beginning his project (around 2002), two works on the topic were released, prompting him to rethink his handling of the topic. As those works dealt respectively with the circumstances of its making and each of its main actors, Williams looked to both the formative influences on Davis and how the album impacted on music in general. The book is divided in three parts: in the first (90 pages) he discusses the development of Miles in the 1950s, with special emphasis on composer-arrangers Gil Evans and George Russell. Next, he briefly recounts the sessions leading to the album (20 pages), as a launching pad for the most personal part of Williams’ work, a 120-page discussion of its repercussions. In the first two sections, the author tackles his subject with the objectivity of a historian, presenting little in terms of new factual information. In the last section, the tone changes, as if the music fanatic takes over, at times obscuring the actual connections the author tries to establish. His enthusiasm for alternative rock incites him to discuss groups like the Velvet Underground, Soft Machine, and the projects of Brian Eno, not to overlook the American minimalists, James Brown, even the ECM record label. As laudable as the author’s intentions are, he doesn’t manage to deliver the goods; readers are left to themselves to really grasp the connections between The Velvet Underground’s albums and Kind of Blue, other than their being built on minimal harmonic material.

Howard S. Becker, Robert R. Faulkner, Do You Know?... The Jazz Repertoire in Action
University of Chicago Press, 2009. 232 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 22623 9217

Given the plethora of books about jazz, one wonders if a new spin on the subject is possible. The present study, however, manages to stand out from the existing lot…and in more than one way. The work sets out to answer a seemingly simple question, but a fundamental one in musical performance: how do musicians, with no preparation, meet one another onstage and play a whole evening with no music in front of them? How often have there been one-nighters comprised of musicians meeting on a bandstand for that only occasion, but still making music adapted to a given circumstance? This is where the concept of “repertoire” comes into play: defined as a body of musical works lacking any firm boundaries, it is a repository of innumerable popular melodies (with or without lyrics) that are familiar to its users, some more than others. This topic is explored in the book by its two authors, both of whom are sociologists and musicians with experience in the field. From their own sociological perspective, they proceed to observe very closely the behavior and reactions of musicians, but as musicians the authors are able to deal with musicological elements, such as musical forms, melodies and the like. Another distinguishing characteristic of their study is their focus on the process of music making rather than on those who play it. With few exceptions, the subjects (mostly not identified, in accordance to the methodology of sociological inquiry) are unknown to musical audiences, but people who are simply working as musicians for entertainment. The authors also contend that this ‘repertoire’ goes beyond music: for them, it could also serve as a framework for a wide range of social relations, a theme briefly touched upon in the closing chapter. As for their main question, readers may find a good part of the answer in chapter 6, but it is surely recommended to read everything around it to fully appreciate its insights.

Sounds and Silence (Travels with Manfred Eicher)
A Film by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer
ECM 5050 DVD 276 9886

The opening sequence of Sounds and Silence, a recently issued DVD on the ECM label, shows its founder, Manfred Eicher, in a sparsely furnished room, contemplating. This may seem a bit pretentious until one realizes that Eicher’s artistic ideals and significant work ethic are the result of inspiration as much as effort. Composer Arvo Pärt, seen early in the film, applauds the producer’s enthusiasm and seriousness, and views him as a true collaborator. Indeed, Eicher remains on a constant quest to “hear” the music properly, as the audience would, and has succeeded in doing so, a fact borne out during this 87-minute feature.

The most inspiring moment reflecting this quest is the scene where he works with Swiss bandleader Nik Bärtsch, his group Ronin, and the sound engineer to blend the overtones from the piano, thus enhancing the group’s sound. This episode reminds me of my own experience of a recording session I did (Almost Never, nuscope 1007), as I worked with engineer Cookie Marenco to achieve a sound image that would complement the spacious music of a trio led by clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Eicher’s working relationship is done on a much higher level, based on his own musicianship (he is a classically trained double-bassist) and thorough working knowledge of a studio, thus leading to collaborations that are both fully realized and deeply considered. As shown in another scene with oud specialist Anouar Brahem, the results of Eicher’s input can be luminous, even in a live setting.

Cast in the manner of a road trip, the movie follows the producer and a coterie of the label’s musicians all over the world. Perhaps ironically, there are no scenes shot at the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Norway, home to many ECM recordings. Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek does, however, make a guest appearance with composer Eleni Karaindrou’s large ensemble. Eschewing a linear development, the film’s continuity is ensured by the producer’s uncompromising stance to best present the music according to his vision. This is a very worthwhile movie not geared to sell “product” but to present its essence. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to discover the label’s ongoing history, now in its 43rd year. Russell Summers

Russell Summers is founder of nuscope recordings, a label based in Fort Worth, Texas, dedicated mainly to chamber-like improvisational music.

Live Jazz on the Net

Presenting music in livestream is by no means a novelty. In jazz, it goes back to the late 1990s when the Knitting Factory, New York’s cutting-edge jazz and experimental music den, pointed a camera on its stage 24/7. Welcomed by the fans, it met a hasty demise when one John Zorn discovered this without prior knowledge of the owner’s “initiative”.

Fortunately, things are much more above board nowadays. What’s more, technological capabilities have vastly improved, and live streams of concerts are now definite assets for artists and venues alike. Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in Montreal has taken full advantage of this by luring audiences from near and far into its friendly premises. Introduced last October, this initiative (a first for a jazz club in the country) now has excerpts from over 30 performances archived on its site, including such notables as Sheila Jordan, Ben Monder and Ignacio Berroa, and surely many more to come in this New Year. Owner Joel Giberovitch claims that the artists really wanted this and have encouraged him to go this route, and to this end he draws up a contract with them in due form. Check out the club’s Website under the tab ‘live streaming’. MC


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