All That Jazz

Without delving too deeply into my long absence from authorship (I was saving the world from something you’ve never heard of. Yes, I was wearing a cape.), I’d like to swerve out of our usual lane a little bit. But I’ll put the blinker on because that’s how society should function.

In this age of ego and id, classical music must at times seem like superego to many would-be listeners. Impersonal, formal, rules-obsessed, difficult. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent Tilson Tantrum, while awesome, probably helps reinforce this stereotype. I understand the need for quiet and attention, but are we creating the world here and one errant slip of the baton will make water taste like liquid Roquefort? This criticism is even more emphatic for players of my beloved sport, tennis. Quiet, everyone! These delicate geniuses, these highly-paid professional athletes need absolute silence for their bodies to move properly! They should probably just play in semiconductor fabrication facilities in those white suits, or the Television Room in the Chocolate Factory. For the love of Pete, go to a minor-league hockey game. Somewhere between there and the hushed chapel of Wimbledon, you can still earn an honest buck swinging a tennis racquet.

Jazz, on the other hand, has never suffered from a lack of immediacy. Well, until we got to the really experimental stuff and washed-out smooth jazz Kenny G products of reverse peristalsis. So, ok, I’ll amend that to say, for most of jazz’s history, including the most important eras, jazz never suffered from a lack of immediacy. On this grey, freakishly warm day in November, I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord”:

It is hushed and yet immediate. A prayer needing no words, certainly not from this hack.

Now, I’m being purposely unfair to our beloved classical music in order to make a stylized point. Because there are plenty of composers whom I find full of iconoclasm, personability, connection, contrasts – human artists rather than vague painters of boring symphonic landscapes in Randomville-sur-mer, Europe. And there days when they speak to me as I hear Coltrane speaking in “Dear Lord.”

They are out there to find, and highlighting them is one thing I think we’re “doing” here. It’s also clear that the links and exchanges between classical and jazz go back to the latter’s beginnings, and have been rich and fruitful ever since. In trying to find a Wall Street Journal article on classical and jazz I made note of a while back, I came across something better: this article written by Chick Corea on Miles Davis’s setting of the second movement from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” That concerto is one of the highlights of the classical guitar canon – very Spanish in its composition and execution, a wonderful journey of texture and emotion. The second movement in particular, which  is what Miles “covered”.

Chick Corea is, for me, one of the most unique musicians to whom I have ever had the pleasure to listen, whose work truly blurs distinctions and bends and twists definitions with grace and verve and precision and virtuosity. He ain’t classical, but he ain’t all jazz, either. Listen to his “Children’s Songs” album for an incredible demonstration of this. Here is the inimitable Mr. Corea on the Miles track:

There also was a sense of freedom. Evans had written a gorgeous score and the orchestra was reading notes. But Miles was improvising. He was making up phrases and melodies as he went along. It made me realize that the act of creation was a beautiful thing—that you could make up melodies out of the ether. Years later, in 1971, when I left Miles Davis’s band, I relistened to “Concierto” and was inspired that year to write “Spain.”

And speaking of inimitable, here is Miles’s interpretation of the second movement (16 minutes). The ‘Evans’ that Corea mentions is Gil Evans, one of the great jazz composer/arrangers.

And the great John Williams, with the ‘classical’ version:

Happy listening, cats!

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