Contemporary What?

About a month ago, at six in the morning, while I was eating breakfast, on the radio was playing a concerto for soprano sax written by John Harbison, a contemporary classical composer of high note, these days. The female commentator spoke after the piece was over, in fact, I believe she was interviewing Harbison, about how wonderful and unusual it was to be featuring a soprano sax in classical music and how amazing it was that Harbison’s composition stretched the capacity of the instrument.

Well, if you know what I write about, you can imagine my reaction to this totally uneducated and vapid "observation." With all due respect to Harbison, a concerto for soprano sax is a predictable piece to write, especially given the fairly recent attention to jazz music as expounding some "interesting stuff". And with all due respect to the commentator, her comments about stretching the soprano sax demonstrate her lack of knowledge in the field of music, in general.

There are true movers in the world of contemporary jazz, like Steve Lacy & Joe McPhee whose improvisations/compositions on the soprano sax far outstrip the labored, controlled composition of Harbison. In fact, there is no comparison. Harbison, I dare say, knows not a damn thing about the depth and height attainable by the soprano sax. I wonder if he knows who Steve Lacy is; and how about Coltrane, do you think Harbison has listened to his recordings using soprano sax? Maybe.

And speaking about purity, formalism, and exploration of jazz instrumentation, let me say a few words about one composer/pianist, Uri Caine, who is all the rage. Why does jazz need to be bastardized and rolled back into Bach? Why can’t jazz musicians keep on creating like NO ONE has ever created before. I mean let loose and travel through the mystery spectra. Coltrane reached those arenas toward the end of this life. Musicians have inherited all of the legacies of Coltrane, Ayler, Dolphy, Cherry and are still within reach of Rollins, Coleman, Saunders (these two lists are ridiculously incomplete). Musicians now are assimilating all that has gone before them to reach beyond the far reaches of the jazz players in history. There is so much to digest; there is so much more to say, so much more integration of instrumentation to be done, so much more universe to be explored in improvisation. It will take Harbison years to even write the notes that will equal the sound of Coltrane that he composed on his feet. And why must Uri Caine think it is cute potentially to incorporate fugues & counterpoint into a jazz mode?

And then, there are some other jazz musicians to talk about. I went to a Christian McBride Quartet concert last night, truly hoping that McBride had wrestled his way out of his James Brown moves, which he actually had, and moved on to something else, which he has done. But where he has moved to ain’t where I was anticipating that he would go. Yes, he is promoting his new CD, SCI-FI. Fine. However, the content, despite being all original, is based on fad music, rock music and isn’t jazz anymore. It is funk, it is loud and it is so electronic, the acoustic becomes lost. (I will say that Jeff Keyser is one hell of a keyboardist; his attentiveness to the rest of the band was absolutely exceptional. His eyes followed every move that McBride and reed player Blake were making and for that reason, Keyser’s prudent interweaving with the melody and bass line was exceptional.) So the question becomes, where has all the creativity gone? The so-called, by my table mate, "child prodigy" in McBride has run amuck in commercialism, in much the same way as Herbie Hancock did. A talent who cannot develop his creativity because something else took over. It is obvious to say what "that" is, but I will say that I know of the musicians who have not been taken over by "that" and are developing the jazz music that will be handed down to future music practitioners like McBride, Hancock, Hubbard (please note that these three players worked with some of the jazz greats before they went out on their own---you could also ask if they are truly finding their own voices like Coltrane did, when he went out on his own).

The concerts within the recent past that I have attended and have not written about , regretfully, have featured the music that moves me. Two Meetinghouse Concerts in Amherst, MA spotlighted the joviality of the Joe Maneri group (Barre Philips on bass, Randy Petersen (he plays with Uri Caine!) on drums, Joe Maneri on reeds, and Matt Maneri on viola) and the complete atmospheric beauty of the music produced by Alan Silva and his group (Silva on keyboards, Sabir Mateen on sax, and Jackson Krall on drums). Each gig contained pieces that knocked my socks off in terms of the completely exaggerated use of the instruments. None of the sound came from uncontrolled novices. These musicians are masters of their instruments and some are at least becoming so. The thrill of listening and being touched by this vanguard, serious, truthful, sincere music far exceeds my reception of the music put up by McBride’s group, for instance only. There is much more engagement in the music heard at the Meetinghouse concerts. As there should be: the music challenges my ears as well as my mind & my imagination and impresses me with its sheer innovation. The form and structure of the music presents itself and that is part of the challenge. But the structure is not like the structure of the rounds that a fairly traditional jazz trio or quartet takes. The form and structure make themselves and given my awareness, I can see and hear it as it metamorphoses. That in itself becomes the prize, the gratification, the buzz, the hit, the greatness.

The words I have written raise questions of what can we as human beings be satisfied with, how can we expand our minds and our belief in the spirit of creativity, which does not need a church or consequent religion to inspire. We can seek the truth within our souls and examine that which we can really appreciate and to which we can without fear open ourselves. Enough of this mediocre existence. What a boring place to be in or aspire to go to.

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