Last Ground

A few final thoughts about last week's post on folklore vs. innovation:

Re-reading David Foster Wallace's "Authority and American Usage" I came across a paragraph that  reminds me to be vigilant.

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit." A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a very difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a D.S.'s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity — you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.


Sam Newsome recently wrote a gentler missive to encourage innovation, "Standing Apart from the Crowd," as did George Colligan in "Jazz?  You mean that OLD stuff my Grand Dad listens to?"

I like both these pieces.  However, I must disagree with George slightly and declare that The Real Book and other lead cheats are part of the problem of recent jazz.  Lead sheets are a fundamentally inaccurate way to transfer the information. 

A particularly vivid example is the music of Duke Ellington.  Duke's music is full of precise, counter-intuitive details impossible to notate on a lead sheet.    Those details are why any record from any era made by Duke himself instantly has a mystical, mysterious sound.  Yet so many boring covers of Ellington show no concern for that mystery.  It's incredible that so few go deeper than a cheat sheet.

Since I've thrown Ray Brown under the bus already, here's one frustrating example:  Quadrant Toasts Duke Ellington:  All Too Soon.  Hey, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Joe Pass, and Mickey Roker are four of the greatest jazz players, deeply lyrical and swinging at the same time.  But as a devout Ellingtonian, I'm appalled at the smoothing out of so many of Duke's most interesting wrinkles. They are clearly using the simplest of charts.  "Solitude" with the wrong changes and done as a bossa nova is the end of everything, really. 

Ray Brown in particular should have known better, since he played with Duke a couple of times. (Of course, Brown may not have had anything to do with these arrangements; maybe somebody else brought them all in.)  Still, at least the members of Quadrant are old enough to have the real jazz folklore in their sound.  Younger musicians who could never hope to have the same life experience but are still comfortable rifling through "Duke without wrinkles" are that much more superficial. 

It's not just Ellington!  All major jazz composers avoid stock harmony and rhythm.  Likewise,  I hope recent jazz worthy to be included in Colligan's proposed "new" Real Book would also be too detailed to be reduced comfortably. 

I'd go for a list of tunes, though.  Maybe George or someone else could offer a list of modern compositions that should become common language.


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