Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween sucks. Great idea, miserable execution. I can't count how many of my childhood costumes were ruined by a heavy winter parka. In most respects it's a perfect holiday: Kids dress up and collect candy from neighbors. The only wrench is the weather; this weekend, we had our first snowfall. You can't march kids through New England winter dressed like ninja turtles.

Simple solution: Move Halloween to August. Forget the legacy of Samhain and All Hallow's Eve; that's like saying Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have their roots in Christianity. It's a secular holiday that centers on costumes and candy. Stop ruining it with runny noses in the name of tradition.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

This fellow wrote a column proposing a neat writing exercise. The premise is simple: Select at random two sentences from different books, and write a paragraph to bridge them. I've read two books suggesting similar calisthenics, Pocket Muse and The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and I think both are worthwhile.

You've got to be careful with etudes. Too much time spent playing Hanon and you'll end up sounding like a piano teacher. The trick is to get the patterns under your fingers without allowing the phrases to bleed into your voice. But a well-written etude is invaluable. It captures a lesson learned in the real world by veterans and makes it accessible to beginners. It can't substitute for experience, but it can fend off bumps and bruises.

I've always wanted to get a license to drive both a motorcycle and an 18-wheeler. I figure if I learn to drive everything on wheels, it will make me a better driver in my own car. The same principle applies in writing: There's almost no correlation between journalism and science-fiction, but practicing one will certainly impart skills to aid the other.

One writing exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany:
Let two characters reconstruct, on paper or in spoken words, a conversation after the fact, perhaps disagreeing over the words and the meanings of some of the words. There should be some kind of problem at the heart of this conversation, something troubling to both these characters, which causes them to fight over the very memory of words and the meaning of the alternate speeches remembered.
I doubt I'll become a great novelist; and if I did, I wouldn't incorporate that scene. But it's an obvious challenge, and it would force me to confront specific problems as a writer -- devising plausibly different sentence structures, balancing consonance with dispute, and eventually reconciling contradictory ideas. I think a carpenter becomes better for having felled trees and fashioned rocking horses. I think writing the occasional bit of tricky nonsense must make a better writer.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

A few years ago, a friend told me she'd learned a memory trick: Repeat something to yourself for eight seconds and you'll remember it forever. She proved her point by telling me her AOL password, which I remember to this day.

So when Kerrie told me that any behavior practiced for 21 days becomes a habit, I believed her; and that became the impetus behind this journal. I wanted to write more often, and I decided to publish daily. I hadn't practiced a regular writing regimen since my stint with Phil Wilson. I figured it would be good for me.

I've missed three days in 21. For practical purposes, I've accomplished my goal. But I'm also studying for the LSAT and trying to draft a script, and spending an hour here each day has taken its toll. Besides which, I don't fancy the thought of running the well dry, so to speak. So it's time to lighten up.

I can't say how frequently I'll update. I'll aim to write weekly, hopefully more -- but no promises. My ambitions lie offline, and this can't be my priority. That said, I doubt you'll see a significant runoff. I'm a sucker for a pulpit.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The seminal Christmas album was Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Five years ago, in an unimaginative marketing ploy, Cyrus Chestnut re-recorded that album; and in the process, he demonstrated exactly what's wrong with Christmas albums and why there are so few classics.

Christmas albums represent guaranteed sales for record companies. It's an angle that everyone loves, tied to a season when everyone loves to shop. Most successful artists are offered their own Christmas album eventually, and many grab the opportunity. Every November, record stores clear several racks to fill with Christmas albums from the hottest new artists. And every January, they send back boxes of unsold albums that no one will ever see again.

The problem with jazz Christmas albums is that they're treated like acceptance speeches at the Oscars -- everyone wants on board. Because the record company knows they can sell the album, they're willing to spend more money; and predictably, everyone wants to share the spoils. Just like Oscar speeches, this becomes networking: "Put me on your Christmas album, and I'll put you on mine."

The result is an impressive cast of names who have no dynamics together -- and more importantly, an erratic album. Classic albums are greater than the sum of their parts. They're not just collections of good tracks; they're carefully-chosen programs which combine to establish a mood. This is incredibly difficult to achieve with varying personnel on every track.

Diana Krall is about to release a Christmas album. If she had used the piano/bass/drums configuration from Love Scenes, it would become an instant classic. Ditto for Eric Reed, who released Merry Magic in 2003; if he had recorded a simple piano trio, his album would live for 50 years. But because they knew they would be guaranteed immediate sales, they felt free to take a field day; and in both cases, the results were music that will be forgotten in ten years.

This is symptomatic of the problem facing all major label jazz decisions today: a lack of foresight. No one thinks about Blue Train and Sketches of Spain and wonders, "Will my records still sell in 50 years?" They record to meet the projected demand of the immediate market; and if they can't see a positive return inside three months, they scrap the album. The tragedy is that we won't be able to look back on this time and say, "Thank God they took a chance on that."

Christmas albums do provide an enormous marketing opportunity. Recording artists should take advantage of that -- not just as an opportunity to make a profit, but as a chance to contribute a memorable statement to a distinguished tradition. The smartest thing Diana Krall could have done would have been to assemble Christian McBride and Russell Malone, and record straight-ahead versions of the classic carols. She blew her chance. Here's hoping someone picks up the slack next year.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When big bands began featuring soloists, their spots were short. You would get eight bars if you were lucky; that was your chance to sell or go cold, and it was the only way to get your name on the marquee. Because the stakes were high, solos were assigned in advance and the players wrote out the lines they would play. Improvisation was too risky.

But that's its allure. Few art forms allow the audience to witness creation. Writers need courage to publish works even after months of revision; for a writer, the idea of someone watching over your shoulder while you write is absolutely petrifying. Jazz musicians stand onstage and bare themselves to the audience -- not just their work, but the actual process of creating it.

I've seen all kinds of bands play live -- road bands, big bands, students, and legendary players meeting for the first time. Some were consummately professional, and some weren't worth the price of admission. But I've found that the memorable concerts always left me feeling like I had been sitting in on a rehearsal.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Yellowjackets are a jazz anomaly. They get pigeonholed as smooth jazz because of their sound, but their music is as brilliant and complex as anything Wayne Shorter wrote. I wrote an article about their visit to Berklee in April, and every musician I spoke with agreed: The Yellowjackets prove that through hard work, anyone can achieve a level of excellence indistinguishable from genius.

When they released Altered State in March, DownBeat panned it with four critical reviews. Here are a few excerpts:
There's a steady, low-key buzz in the air but not much sting on this rather bland set of home-cooked pieces. The band coasts through a mix of carefully crafted lines and time signatures with their usual poise but with little discernible inspiration, leaving a trail of easy-listening light jazz behind. [John McDonough]

While this CD is not as vacuous as past Yellowjackets records, in part because of a less pumped-up mix, it doesn't honestly have that much to recommend. The most bland of several paths that Miles Davis' electric music could have taken, it's tight, slick and free of anything original to say. [John Corbett]

Though the Yellowjackets certainly is a sophisticated band -- particularly since reedman Bob Mintzer joined -- the foursome never seems to let go of its music and let the world just feel it... [They] also assume my attention span is short. Tracks last four to six minutes; ideas and solos are discrete, crisp and to the point. That could be a plus, but in this case it's like getting a taste, but never a real meal. [Paul de Barros]
Bob Mintzer wrote a letter in reply, calling their characterization of Altered State "inaccurate, unjust, and an overly dour surmise of the music of a band that has been working on a sound and concept for over 25 years." He continued:
It's inane and lazy to dismiss this music based on a perceived slickness or on length of tunes and solos. If one were to listen inside the music a bit instead of judging the book by its cover, they might notice an unusual and original compositional style, strong ensemble playing, an identifiable sound and four musicians dedicated to moving the music forward in an honest and heartfelt way.
That's a fair characterization of the Yellowjackets. Their compositions are truly stunning, incredibly complicated schematics that swing and groove as if they were 6/8 riffs out of James Brown's songbook. All four players are absolute pros with unique voices and an uncanny ability to listen to each other. I'm a fan, and yet I'm forced to agree with de Barros: Their potential exceeds their execution.

I'm sympathetic to Mintzer's argument. When I first heard Bill Frisell's solo album, I was disappointed he had used loops and overdubbing -- until I realized that was like being annoyed with Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel because I liked the Pieta. But the Yellowjackets' legacy, I think, is likely to stagnate as composers of intricate music that was left to others to mine; and that would be a waste. I've heard each member play outside the band, and they're all first-rate improvisors who are fully capable of cutting loose. There's a lot to be explored within their music. They should be the ones to do it.

Monday, October 24, 2005

I didn't learn to cook until my 20's. Once I did, I fell in love. Remember how it felt when you got your driver's license? Suddenly the world was wide open. You were no longer subject to the whims of bus schedules or subway stations, or your parents. You could go anywhere, anytime.

Learning to cook is like that. One day you're looking forward to Easter, hoping your mother will bake lasagna; and the next day, suddenly, you realize you can prepare it yourself in just a few hours. The supermarket goes from being a chore to a world of possibilities. It's like discovering freedom.

Bob Weiner turned me on to a book titled The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. She suggests that one way of dealing with writer's block is to redirect your attention into a completely unrelated -- but still creative -- activity. Cooking is a great example. You set aside whatever you were working on and spend an hour doing something constructive; and when you're finished, you've exercised the right neurons without banging your head against the wall. What's more, you gain the confidence of having created something you can see and touch.

Sitting in front of that blank piece of paper will always be like learning to cook or learning to drive. You're faced with almost unlimited possibility, but the decision rests solely in your hands. It's simultaneously seductive and frightening. Will I bake a cake or boil tea? Drive around the block or flee to Atlantic City? Write a poem or a novel?

To quote a comic book: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Last night, Catherine Zeta-Jones hosted Saturday Night Live and performed a tap dance during her monologue. I've always liked when celebrities tap dance. I could give a damn about dancing per se; but it's a token from their ascent and a healthy reminder to folks who think celebrity comes easily.

Rosie O'Donnell said her life's ambition was to become famous. She dropped out of college at 18 and spent all her time watching television. You have to ask yourself whether that's someone to respect.

Emerson said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. I'm not sure I'd want fame; but if the world did come knocking, I hope I'd have a mousetrap to show them.

Hollywood thrives on luck. David Mamet compared it to Wall Street: "The price of stock has no relationship to the worth or prospects of the company traded." But once the furor dies, every stock is judged not by its yield but by its merits; and excepting the occasional Rosie O'Donnell or Donald Trump, Aesop's wisdom still holds true: "Slow and steady wins the race."

Saturday, October 22, 2005

When you're a kid with a guitar, the instrument hardly ever leaves your hands. Then you buy a four-track and make your first recording, and that's when you learn a hard lesson: No matter how many hours you've spent playing unplugged, your whole world changes once that red light clicks on.

You can't practice for recording. You can only record. It's the same with playing in front of an audience -- and it's the same with writing. If you want to be a writer, it's not enough to write; you've got to publish. Start a blog. Write reviews on Amazon. Mail a letter to a local newspaper. The point is, that psychological component is absolutely essential: You need the threat of an audience.

Friday, October 21, 2005

There are three major jazz magazines: Down Beat, JazzTimes, and Jazziz. I read the first two. Kerrie asked me tonight why I don't read Jazziz.

Frankly, it's a lousy magazine. They focus too much on slick advertising; they eschew journalism and insightful criticism in favor of unabashed publicity; and they lean heavily on commercial pop-jazz instead of the real thing. But they occasionally print a worthwhile interview, so I used to flip through each issue and buy two or three a year. I stopped in May 2001.

That month, Jazziz published a caricature of Kenny G on its cover accompanied by a four-page cover story devoted to mocking the man and his music. The premise was that critic Michael Roberts would spend a day listening to all of Kenny G's records, one after another, and journal his experience like a diary. If you think that sounds childish, these excerpts are unlikely to change your mind:
10:17 a.m.: I don't know if it's meaningful, but the gaps between the songs seem longer than they once did. Everything's slowing down for me; my fingers moving on the keyboard seem to leave behind a ghost image of themselves, like something out of The Matrix.

1:44 p.m.: "Always." I swear I've already heard this song five or six times today.

4:33 p.m.: In the tiny sliver of silence prior to the beginning of what's supposed to be the album's last song, "Over the Rainbow," I predict what Kenny will do to it... Suddenly, I realize that I've accomplished my purpose. In a very real way, I've entered the mind of Kenny G -- and it terrifies me. I'm terrified. I'm confused. I'm exhausted.
Keep in mind: This wasn't scrawled inside a bathroom stall at a YMCA. This was the cover story in a national magazine with a circulation above 100,000. This story was approved by an editor, his managing editor, and the editor-in-chief.

I don't like Kenny G. His music stinks and he doesn't seem interested in improving. But the publication of this issue coincided with new releases that included Columbia's boxed set of the complete Miles Davis & John Coltrane recordings, a new Chick Corea trio, a solo album from David S. Ware, a sequel from the legendary Maneri/Morris/Maneri, and a Paris concert recorded shortly before Bill Evans died.

I know these records well. And the thought that, instead of writing about this amazing music, a major publication instead dedicated a cover article to a mean-spirited, childish jeer... I didn't want anything to do with these people. I didn't want to read their opinions. I don't waste time on Kenny G because he appeals to the lowest denominator rather than trying to contribute something worthwhile. The only thing Michael Roberts and Jazziz proved is that they were no different.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

James "Blood" Ulmer has been playing music for more than 40 years. He achieved moderate success as an avant-garde jazz guitarist, cutting records for small labels that few people heard. Then he met Vernon Reid, formerly the guitarist for Living Colour. Reid took the reins as producer and decided to push Blood in a different direction. He hired a band, and Blood recorded his first-ever blues record.

That was two years ago. The record sold well, and they released a sequel. These discs redefined Blood's identity: No longer a second-tier jazz guitarist, he now stood among the preeminent blues musicians. It was as if Reid had discovered what Blood was supposed to be doing all along. And then they took a new tack: They dropped the band and recorded a third album, Birthright, with just Blood and his guitar.

I promise you, Birthright will appear on every serious critic's Top 10 list for 2005. It's more than simply a good album; it's an original statement, and a record that has already had a seismic impact upon its genre. The truth is, great blues albums are like white lobsters. They're incredibly rare in a genre where mediocrity has become the rule, even from legends like Buddy Guy and B.B. King. But with Birthright, Blood Ulmer turned the thing on its head. He didn't set a new standard; more accurately, he exhumed the old standard. It's a landmark album. And it's fucking great.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Here's a free tip for the clergy: Don't be afraid to revise Scripture. The Bible's countless insights into the nature and ambitions of the human soul are couched in weak, antiquated writing. Kindle them with poetry. Have faith: Polishing the language for the sake of oratory will not constitute a betrayal of sacred trust.

To borrow the words of ghostwriter David Charnoff:
The spoken and the written word are not the same. The trick is to use the building blocks of the spoken language to convey not the thing itself but the authentic tone of the thing. ...The average translator gets the literal meaning right but misses the tone. And tone is everything.
In centuries past, buildings were alive. Architecture was a continual process, and no structure was ever "finished." Musicians completed each other's concertos; painters recycled their canvases. The sense of inviolability we assign to art today is a recent phenomenon. If the pendulum is going to swing, we will have to expand our notions of revision and evolution. Art seems to achieve more when it is willing to stand atop the shoulders of its predecessors rather than simply admiring them from afar.

I don't think the Bible's greatest value is in helping man to understand God, but rather in helping us to understand ourselves. In most editions I've seen, the potency of each story is dulled by language that reads like Chaucer. A book publisher would be wise to invest in a modern revision of the Bible in the spirit of Seamus Heaney's Beowulf; but in the meantime, God's servants shouldn't hesitate to interpret his words for the flock. You can't stir a man's soul unless you can first command his attention.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Edmund Morris wrote a column in Sunday's New York Times condemning the decline of physical exertion in art. He writes, "I worry that further withdrawal of the body will increasingly depersonalize creativity in our computerized age." I agree.

Berklee used to require entering freshmen to learn the penmanship of music notation. They eliminated the class several years ago and replaced it with a class in Finale, the industry standard for music notation software. During the same period, the composition departments began accepting recordings produced by computer sequencers instead of live bands. According to Berklee, this was the future.

The best resource at Berklee are the project bands. Years ago, someone had the brilliant idea that since performance majors were required to participate in bands, the school should assign a few bands to play student-composed music exclusively. So-called "project bands" meet several times a week, and they include quartets, chamber groups, five-horn groups, and a big band. They are available to any student who wants something played, whether it's a ten-minute arrangement or simply a few bars of a tune. I can't overemphasize how valuable these bands are to budding composers -- and yet most weeks, I was the only writer in the room.

Instead, my fellow composers were upstairs in the Learning Center, programming their music into computer sequencers. They don't have to conduct. They don't have to copy parts. They don't have to learn the limits of each instrument, what a trumpet can play that a trombone cannot, and they don't need to worry about how long it takes a band to learn each passage. They can sit with the computer indefinitely, tinkering until it's just right.

Music is supposed to be cooperative. Painting and poetry are crafts practiced in your basement, but music requires interaction. Among the qualities necessary for prolific composers, in addition to talent and skill, is leadership. You have to assemble a band that wants to play your music, and then you have to teach them how.

This requires another craft that can't be replicated by a computer: notation. It's fine to litter your score with ink splatters as long as you understand; but each player needs an individual part that is clear and coherent, and designing parts is an art in itself. You have to mark cues and align rehearsal letters. You have to plot multiple-measure rests for each instrument, and you have to conserve space to fit each part on as few pages as possible. There are a thousand tricks, some simple and others clever, but each one is a judgment call. Notation software attempts to accomplish all of this using algorithms. It's just not possible.

And even if it were, the process is invaluable. There simply isn't any better way to learn the contours of your music than to draw its characters by hand. It's a slow and patient process. You feel the melody as it rises and falls, and you see each pause. You can't prepare a saxophone part without hearing, as you write, what the trombones are playing at each moment. There's no way to duplicate that experience. You have to hold the pen.

Morris paints a stark picture, but his criticism is insightful. A writer whose hand has never cramped, who has never ruined a shirt with spilled ink or broken an expensive quill, is less of a writer. These aren't the archaic tools of a craft that has fallen into obsolescence; they are fundamental elements of the experience required to establish your voice. In art, what comes easily isn't worth doing. The ability of technology to cut those corners doesn't make it easier to become a great artist. It just delivers mediocrity to the masses.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I emailed one of my best friends last week with a link to something I'd written. She replied:
"You know I read this stuff. I am, even if the only one, forever reading whatever the hell you throw at me. Half out of curiosity and half out of trust."
There's a scene in The West Wing where one of the writers (Richard Schiff) is sitting with a Poet Laureate (Laura Dern) and she says to him, "I love the way you write." He's sweet on her, so the scene has another dimension; but I promise you, every writer who heard that line felt his heart melt.

An artist would rather be a good artist than a good person. It's not even a tough call. I try to be loyal, honest, and kind; and if I reflect those qualities, I'm delighted. But it's like the legend of Robert Johnson, that he sold his soul to the Devil for his ability to play guitar. That story has lived for nearly a century because it carries a ring of truth: Given the chance, most artists would absolutely do that.

Hal Crook wrote an essay discouraging kids from becoming jazz musicians. Essentially, he said, "It's incredibly hard; it's constant and lifelong; and often you have to choose between eating and paying your rent. There are a very few people who have to do this. If you are capable of doing anything else with your life, do that."

I remember thinking he sounded like he was describing seminary, which is a great analogy. It's a calling. There are a thousand epigrams about what it means to be a writer -- someone who turns answers into riddles, someone for whom writing is pain -- but the best way to say it: "A writer is someone who doesn't have a choice." Charles Ives began his career as an actuarial clerk and eventually became a partner in his own insurance agency, and in the meantime he managed to become one of the most significant musicians in American history. That's an artist.

Phil Wilson told me his measure of an artist was the ability to make an emotional statement. If you can establish that connection, the rest falls into place; and without it, you may as well pack up your horn and go home. Art exists only as communication. That connection is crucial. I'd love if people enjoyed what I wrote; but if I had to decide between being reviled and being forgotten, I'd choose infamy. I'll console my hurt feelings with the knowledge that I've struck a chord. The highest compliment isn't, "I liked your stuff," but rather, "I'll be back for more."

That's why Johnny Carson, on his last night, thanked people for inviting him into their homes for thirty years. And it's why I've taken the long way around to say: The more I read it, the more I'm certain that's the most poignant compliment I've ever received. Thanks, Carolyn.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Kerrie's grandfather died on Thursday. He was 90. His wife passed away a few months earlier, and he had been blind and ill for several years. He spent the last months of his life in a nursing home. I never knew him well; but from what I've been told, he lived a full life. When the end came, it would seem to have been a blessing. I expect his funeral will bring relief, that he's finally found his way home.

None of us hope for a lingering end. But maybe there's something else to consider. This didn't happen as a sudden tragedy that no one saw coming. Not only was it expected; it was welcome. It has to be easier this way, at least for the family. And maybe that's a final, selfless note to celebrate about a man's life. No one enjoyed knowing that he felt pain; but in this ending, there was no surprise. There may be courage in that.

Friday, October 14, 2005

For those who missed Wednesday's ALCS game and haven't read a newspaper since, here's the short version: A controversial call in the ninth inning led to a White Sox victory. White Sox batter A.J. Pierzynski struck out on a fastball from Kelvim Escobar, but he ran to first base anyway. There were two outs; and catcher Josh Paul had already rolled the ball toward the mound as the Angels began walking off the field. Then came the surprise: The umpires called Pierzynski safe.

The home plate umpire made the call. He said the ball had hit the dirt before landing in Paul's glove -- in which case Paul should have thrown the ball to first base. The replay angles aren't clear; the ball seems to change direction, but it's not clear that it hit the dirt. Pierzynski did the right thing: He ran, because he didn't hear the umpire call him out. But as he ran toward first base, everyone in the stadium saw the umpire make a fist: the universal signal to call a batter out.

Mistakes are part of any game. Umpires are human, and they're going to blow calls. Sometimes it'll go your way, sometimes not. You have to be able to absorb those calls and win despite them; if the game hadn't been close, the White Sox wouldn't have won. But there's also no denying that, if Paul had kept the ball, he could have thrown Pierzynski out regardless of the umpire's call.

It doesn't matter what you're playing at; some rules are universal. You've got to learn them and you've got to play them -- whether it's baseball, football, office politics, or marriage counseling. And as is often true, you can learn it best from poker: "You want to win the hand, you have to stay in 'til the end."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

In 1960, John Coltrane released Giant Steps. The title track was a 16-bar tune based on a harmonic cycle descending in major thirds. Rather than explain in technical terms, let me put it this way: Coltrane walked into the session with the tune, passed around the music, and started to play. The pianist on the date was Tommy Flanagan, who was a heavyweight by anyone's measure -- and Flanagan was so befuddled by the changes that when his turn came to solo, he choked.

That's how the legend began. When Coltrane's concept caught Tommy Flanagan off guard, other musicians took notice; and it didn't take long for "Giant Steps" to become the fire baptism for jazz players. You can learn the concept, but it never becomes easy. It's routinely called at jam sessions; and if you can't hang the changes at a serious tempo, you won't be taken seriously as a jazz musician. It's unavoidable.

And to some degree, it's unfortunate. Because while I think it's healthy to throw down a few hurdles in the path of up-and-comers, "Giant Steps" continues to be recorded by seasoned pros. Occasionally someone will pitch a new angle, like Jerry Bergonzi's interpretation in 5/4; but usually it's the same old, same old cutting session. It's a shame, because that's not what Coltrane's legacy is about.

The famous story about 'Trane is that he practiced so much, he would often fall asleep with his horn in his mouth. Judging by his facility on the instrument, that's probably true. It's fair to say that a significant part of his identity as a musician was technical proficiency. But John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual man. His greatest work, recounted in 2003 by Ashley Kahn and certified as a gold record 25 years after his death, was A Love Supreme. It's a sublime prayer and a poignant piece of music. It's one of those great moments in art. It's transcendent.

So the question is, in an art form built upon reinterpretation, how did "Giant Steps" become the de facto Coltrane tribute while "A Love Supreme" remains virtually untouched?

There are no sacred cows in jazz. Imitation, in the form of adopting someone else's tune, is the highest form of flattery. And contrary to what Metallica would have you believe, jazz is the official music of testosterone-soaked brawling. Every tenor player can recite the stories of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young trading blows onstage. Jimi Hendrix's penchant for destroying guitars was inspired by Charles Mingus smashing an $800 upright bass during a concert in London. Point being, humility and temperance aren't part of the stereotype. If there's a mountain, a jazz musician will climb it. There's absolutely no credibility to the usual explanation, "Nobody touches 'A Love Supreme' because it's too hard."

Only two people have confronted the piece on record. The first recording is credited to Elvin Jones, for obvious reason; but actually, it was Wynton Marsalis's band. It's a spectacular recording, rarely acknowledged but among the high points of Wynton's career. Wynton's brother Branford has recorded the piece twice. The first, bundled as a bonus disc with an obscure compilation, received mixed reviews and apparently incurred Branford's own disappointment; but in 2002, he returned with a new band and knocked the ball out of the park.

So it can be done. And the standard repertoire is shifting, as contemporary artists are beginning to adapt structures from Radiohead, Nirvana, Pavement, and other bands into the jazz vernacular. "Giant Steps" was a watermark, but "A Love Supreme" was a watershed. It's time to elevate Coltrane's legacy. His material deserves better than to be fodder for arm wrestling and pissing contests. To date, "A Love Supreme" is jazz's premiere symphony. That's fertile ground, and we're not a delicate group. We ought to tear it up and find out what's underneath.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I spent last night sitting around a kitchen table, talking about music with two old friends. Once upon a time, we all worked together in a record store. For about a year, it was pure magic -- an entire staff comprised of bright, young, passionate musicians. We worked long days together, and we partied together at night. Whatever you may have liked about Empire Records, I promise you: We had more fun.

Anyway. The subject of recording came up, because Leesa is working on her first full-length album. She's faced an uphill battle, for much the same reason that I agonized over my final recital: She's a perfectionist. I'll let you in on a secret: Perfectionists envy everyone else. We do things better, but y'all get more things done. Perfectionism is ultimately procrastination, and it sucks. You know you could do a better job if you took one more day; but there's always one more day -- and before you know it, ten years have passed.

The first lesson I learned from Brookmeyer was a story about another student. During a lesson, this kid played a recording of himself playing with his band. Brookmeyer listened quietly; and when the tape ended, he lifted his trombone and repeated a few notes from the kid's solo. He asked the kid, "Why did you depart from that idea?" Then he demonstrated how that simple motive could be inverted, augmented, and developed a hundred ways to expand it into a far longer statement.

There are two schools of thought in the performance of jazz. Many old bandleaders used to encourage soloists to memorize what they would play, to be certain that every note was well chosen. Most players today, however, think jazz is defined by improvisation. The model is, fifty strangers huddled inside a darkened bar watching five musicians slug it out onstage, praying that they'll witness an epiphany. And the only way it happens is by exactly what Brookmeyer describes: You pick a spot and you start digging. Mostly, you end up with rocks and soil -- but you're hoping for gold, and there simply isn't any other way to find it.

During our conversation last night, Foley remarked that he wants to focus on recording, producing a few low-budget recordings every year. Maybe after ten years, he won't have produced a single "perfect" album. But he'll have a stack of tapes documenting his growth; and maybe, if he's lucky, he'll have captured a few moments of genuine discovery. If he waited for perfection, those ten years would go wasted.

To Kill a Mockingbird will probably forever remain a classic of American literature. But that book, those 288 pages constitute the sum total of Harper Lee's published writings. I think that becoming a great author requires more than producing a single great work. We do remember Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell, but we wouldn't mention them in the same breath with Dickens or Shakespeare. And given another century, unlike Dickens and Shakespeare, those authors may be forgotten altogether, even as their works live on.

There's something I keep coming back to, which is: Art requires craft. Any schmuck can glue together four tires and call it a statue; but you can't carve, paint, or compose anything coherent without practiced skill. There are lessons you cannot learn except by doing a thing, lessons which add immeasurable depth to your subsequent works. I don't know whether that depth might yield insight about the human condition, or may reveal heretofore unknown laws of expression, or God-knows-what. But I think achieving that depth is the goal of every aspiring artist.

Monday, October 10, 2005

There's a line buried within a monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross that's always stuck with me: "You cheated on your wife...? You did it, live with it." It echoes a theme Mamet wrote into House of Games: "When you've done something unforgivable, you must forgive yourself."

Two contexts cast different lights on a common thread: Your problems are your own. Solve them or don't, keep them in your pocket. Used to be, a man didn't talk about his ailments. You call yourself a patient, folks pity you or they loot your house. Your clothesline is for clean laundry. What's dirty stays indoors.

People complain about the demise of the American neighborhood. We used to visit each other's porches and drink lemonade, they say, and today we hardly know who lives next door. I don't know about that. Whatever may have happened to porch swings and picket fences, families today live with their windows open and their shades drawn. Rest in peace, discretion and shame.

Roger Rueff wrote a terrific screenplay, the gist of which was that character is shaped by regret. Pardon the local colour: "You can't learn, you don't fuck up -- and you ain't learned, you ain't worth shit." I'm a good fiancé, and I figure I'll make a decent husband; but that's only because I spent so many years being a lousy boyfriend. My ex-girlfriends paid the bill for my future wife. And so it goes.

Life is worthless without mistakes. The human condition requires hurt feelings and bruised egos, anger and jealousy and betrayal. When Thanksgiving rolls around, count the people you've hurt among your blessings -- because ultimately, maturity is about doing a better job tomorrow. Take a breath, learn something -- and then forgive yourself. Your life is your own.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

I'm not a fiction writer. I'm barely a fiction reader. For ten years, I never opened a novel. So when I decided to try my hand at scriptwriting, I expected a challenge. A blank piece of paper is a serious thing, and it's easier to tell a story than to make one up.

I decided to begin with dialogue. It's the first thing I hear as a viewer; and as a musician and composer, it's the natural start. The rhythms flow, even where I don't yet see the story. I know where I want to hit; I know where I hear anticipations and syncopations. I feel the cadences. The story, I'll find.

In real life, people speak myriad ways. You wouldn't confuse a Brooklyn Jew with an Alabama redneck or a homeboy from South Central. A writer could break his neck trying to contort himself around the dialects heard over a lunch counter. So I asked myself, Do I want to sound authentic? Is that the reputation I want?

The simplest way to answer what I want for myself was to examine what I admire in others. If you scalpel the lines from Oleanna and toss them in a hat, you'd never be able to determine, from style alone, which were spoken by a 20-year-old student and which belonged to a 40-something professor. But they all scream David Mamet. Ditto for Aaron Sorkin's scripts from The West Wing: Every line bleeds Sorkin, but a married woman speaks no differently from a college freshman. And then there are my roots. Brookmeyer shapes his lines carefully, deliberately, and every one sounds like him. But he doesn't write trombone lines for trombones and trumpet lines for trumpets. He writes music, and it's his own.

The most fun book I ever read was The Big Sleep. I'd be lying if I claimed the plot was ingenious or the characters compelling; but reading as a writer, every line slid like butter. It's old stuff, stuff slung by Bogart and Bergman and Gable and Bacall. On any list of writers I admire, whose dialogue I'd emulate, Raymond Chandler ranks alongside Mamet. And when he writes a speech, it's gold no matter whose glove it lands in.

So I decided: No, I'm not aiming for authenticity. I'm not scripting a documentary. I could give a damn, somebody thinks I wrote the real McCoy. What I want is a stamp, a consistent measure by which my pen becomes recognizable. I hear Bill Evans from the moment he lifts a hammer -- Miles, from the first press of a valve. What I want: a drawer slams, a heel clicks on the sidewalk -- someone says, "I know that sound."

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I reserved this account in 2003, when some friends tried to resurrect an old AOL group on BlogSpot. I've been posting to Slashdot for awhile, but their recent CSS update included some unwelcome changes. I can't spare the time to code my own site; so when a friend sent me a link to his new blog, I decided to reactivate this account. If Slashdot tanks, maybe I'll move here. In the meantime, since I need to adapt my writing for scripts, this can be a sandbox.

And so. I suppose I should start with a base hit, but I can't resist: The Art of Fugue, Bach's masterpiece recorded by the Emerson String Quartet. It's not necessary to butcher the pronunciation; suffice to say, a fugue is analogous to the five-paragraph essay formula. It's a schematic for composing music, according to the wisdom that creativity thrives when subjected to limitations. (If you haven't yet achieved that realization, skip this part.)

It's a striking example of how the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. But I'm not a classical scholar, and you can find plenty of texts analyzing the piece, each line and how they interact. What I can add to the discussion is an analogy, and an alternative use: This record is like an optimization program. It's like realigning a magnet. It's maintenance for your brain.

You've heard of the Mozart Effect: the notion that your baby will become smart if you play classical music. There's a lot of adspeak, but it's a sound principle: Good classical music is composed of complex, meticulously plotted patterns; and intelligence is mostly about organizing and recognizing patterns. If you wallpaper the kid's room with criss-cross designs, he'll acquire a knack for picking out patterns. Ditto with music. Put it this way: Spend a week watching The Sopranos and you're likely to find yourself dropping F-bombs at Sunday dinner. Spend an hour listening to this record, you'll find yourself thinking clearly.

Chalk it up to meditation, or osmosis, or whatever dampens your kleenex. Point is, even if you're such a troglodyte, you can't appreciate good this record anyway. Consider it therapy.