Fast and Fake, Shake and Bake

Currents + | -


Back in 1990, I passed through a town that I like very much. While there, I went to a club and heard a pianist and his trio. The music was nothing special at all. There was no real interplay, and the pianist seemed to wander aimlessly over the chord structure of each piece. He most certainly did not swing in any sense of the word. His playing was stilted, unimpressive, and totally forgettable.

So I forgot him and his music. I did remember his name, because it was not an average name. It stuck in my head.

Jumping ahead nearly twenty years, I'm surfing the net, going to all of the web sites that are shamelessly offering free downloads of musician's works, mine included.

[Everything is free, now. I used to make a good living on CD sales and downloads. Now, the RIAA, in collusion with the US Congress and some very greedy lawyers and businessmen, have stolen 99 percent of my income. "Legally." And so, on dark and stormy nights, I google myself and listen to this or that free Jessica Williams download, some of which I've never heard before.]

I come across a download of a tune performed by this same pianist, the one whose name I remembered and whose music I forgot. And, liking free stuff myself, I go ahead and click the play button.

Mother of God! This guy is playing like two Oscar Petersons on speed. He's got the left hand going one way and the right hand going the other. He makes Keith Jarrett sound glacial. He sounds like he has nine hands. I'm dumfounded.

Now, it turns out that the town that he lives in is near a town that I now live in. And it turns out that he's with a label that I've done some work for. And I'm blown away, really amazed by this music, and happy for ... let's call him X___ ... that he's found his center and is playing like a human dynamo. Really happy.

So I call the producer of the record label and I say "wow! I'm listening to X____ right now and he's burning the house down! He's amazing. It gets a little much from time to time, and there's no space, but this is an amazing feat. He's an amazing player. Why in the world haven't I heard him on the radio? Why haven't I heard about this genius?"

And the record producer says, "well, see, there's kind of a secret here. He's a teacher, and an arranger, and he doesn't consider himself a pianist. And he never really could play that way, so he wrote all these killer arrangements out, wrote them out note for note. It takes him like a year or a year and a half to make an album. Sometimes he'll spend a month or two just to get one tune recorded. So that's why there's only two CDs out there."

And I'm feeling pretty stupid right then. I say, "what happens when he plays in public?" and the producer answers, "he sounds just kind of average, and he can't really replicate those things in performance, so he doesn't play in public much."

In retrospect, I'm frankly relieved. I am glad that I am not sounding as badly as I thought I was. I am glad that I am still playing music from my heart and not from my cerebral cortex and prefrontal lobes.

I'm not putting X___ down for this: he worked HARD to get these tunes on CD! Harder than anyone would've believed. I'm glad that I know about this, though, because it helps to explain the academic approach to jazz, and the Berklee phenomena, and the exploding chicken mystery.

In a word, I'm starting to understand what's been going on all around me. I'm starting to get why a lot of these 16-year-old kids all sound the same, all graduating from the hollowed (sic) Berklee Music Skool. All of their chords are the same. All of their chops are beyond amazing. All of their thematic development is similar. They even LOOK alike! And they all sound like a poor man's Chick Corea... and I cast NO aspersions on that GREAT artist and pianist. He couldn't ever dream that he would be chosen as the template for the cheap imitations that were to be replicated and mass-produced for the edification of the new, academic jazz elite.

Ah. The academic jazz musician. An oxymoron.

All of their music is like exploding chickens. Lots of "pawk pawk pawk" and then "SQUAWK!" and then KABOOOOOM, thirty-second notes and blood and feathers everywhere. I'm not kidding here. The exploding chicken style of jazz music. Invented and patented by Berklee™. Sent into the world, a horde of unsuspecting chickens, all young, all full of themselves, all set to go off at a predetermined time and place, in full public view.

I'm all for innovation and I'm down with speed too if it's called for. It's nice to hear those millions of notes that McCoy Tyner plays, all stewing like a cauldron, while his left hand hammers the chords. Steam comes off the man. He's being HIM. He's burning up the road. He can't help it, as my friend Ray Drummond says. But all of his notes MEAN something, they tell a story, and they are NEVER THE SAME TWICE. That, X___, is jazz.

When I listen to Dexter Gordon play, I swoon. You can't swoon to a chicken on its way to critical mass. Back in the Keystone Korner days, I'd listen to Dex and just go down so deep into my soul there was no deeper to go, because every note he played held such gravity. He was playing slower, but right with the music somehow, back in the last bar sometimes. He was so laid back he was almost asleep. He swung so hard that the music would turn your world around. Make your heart melt. Make you hot and crazy and happy all at the same time. You wanted to jump up and shout, and here was Dex, all 6'6' of him, swaying, smoking, drinking, and playing all at the same time, like a blues in Bb that was going about as fast as your heartbeat (60 bpm) and it sounded FANTASTICAL!

And now we have exploding chickens and guys that spend a year or more making a jazz album.

Life sure has changed!