Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Few Improvised Paragraphs Concerning Musical Matters

It has been brought to my attention that this blog needs to become more serious in intent, less coy in its avowed elitism. Other quarters plead for a more intimate, chatty touch. Everybody agrees that I need to include more stuff to look at that is stimulating, something on a par with the daily visual bombardment that greets you from, say, taxi enroute to airport.

I am offering for this, my latest post, some theses concerning the nature of some of our current problems in our life and in our art. I will approach this post (and others to follow) in an improvised fashion. Imagine I am taking choruses, or in this case taking paragraphs.

If you mention the phrase "The Three Tenors", it is popularly known that this refers to the celebrity and media event of the touring and recording of three most acclaimed tenors in the opera and classical world: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. This was as big an event as the classical world could ever hope to experience. Three masters of their art were everywhere televised, recorded, listened to and discussed.

Many years later another kind of "three tenors" musical event occurred. This was the recording and performance of three giants in west cast jazz tenor saxophone: Pete Christlieb, Ernie Watts, and Ricky Woodard. All three were alumni of the top big bands of several decades, like Kenton and Louis Bellson. All are supreme masters of the improvised solo, and all three are involved in important and noteworthy commercial and pop studio recordings, as Christlieb was in Steely Dan's work, for example.

The latter three tenor project was not very much heralded. Outside of a handful of jazz fans, and woodwind performers, maybe even fellow musicians, few people knew nor cared about this instrumental trio, especially when stacked against the fame of the opera singers.

Here is Christlieb playing "But Beautiful", to perfection.

All of our problems in culture can be gleamed from this single comparison and the data contained therein.

Any explanation that the classical tenor project is innately a widespread success because it is sung, or because the material is inherently likable by more people by virtue of its familiarity, or by the virtue of the superiority of certain Italian composers in the 19th century (or, in the case of "My Way", Canadian American pop composers) is an explanation that is question begging; it is a just-so story. Everybody loves a song with lyrics, my interlocutor would say; it is more natural, goes back to our earliest roots, song is our first creative act as humans etc.

It really doesn't matter how much brain data or social data you can muster to prove the reasons for this inequality of reception. It is a testament to a sheer lack of musical taste, dare I say imagination among the masses of people. (As much as it is a testament, perhaps to the special genius of Verdi and Paul Anka). That the tenor saxophonist is less appealing when he plays improvised lines upon standard popular songs whereas the operatic tenor is always, already a hit when he sings very proper, very predictable repetitions of arias that go back hundreds of years, is for me a matter of great sorrow.

Steve Martin in his play Picasso At The Lapin Agile has a character noticing that Elvis Presley is so much more famous than Albert Einstein. Then the character says a line to the effect of "it will always be that way", a line destined to generate great laughter in an audience. This may be a bon mot on Martin's part but it is not true. Or rather, it becomes the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is not a question of the styles being different. It is a question of a deep human limitation that exists around the world. This is the same human limitation that causes millions of people to embrace movies like Titanic.

Comments like these get me called names like snob or elitist. People are forever defending people's right to not like Jazz. It is considered impolite to suggest that this dislike stems from a flaw in the listener.

Actually, given what we know about marketing, anything can be sold on a mass scale. There is no reason why some genius promoter could not have made three middle aged tenor saxophonists as famous as three opera singers. Instrumentals like Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" have been at times as famous as any vocal recording. Looked at in this way, I blame advertisers for not doing their job, or rather, they do their job rather selectively and aim their considerable powers of persuasion at the service of things like the movie The Social Network or trumpeter Chris Botti, rather than, say a grand tenor man like Pete Christlieb. Anything can be sold. Where is the advertiser who happens to be a jazz buff that feels Christlieb could be as famous as Pavarotti?

Perhaps it is the wrong era: in the past the three tenors could have been John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Farrell. (Imagine that performance and recording)! Of course there was the late Michael Brecker. Nobody can hope to beat Brecker at tenor saxophone musicianship and he was almost famous, mainly, because of all the pop albums he was on.

Reception theory in academe has taken a wrong turn in being so accommodating of the receiver. Reception theory should interrogate the audience with all the skepticism and chilly distance that Marxist and Feminist critics once gave canonical works of art.

In any case, quality and taste are not matters that have ever been necessarily limited in appeal. Indeed, a large part of the history of art is a consistent and strong tradition of high quality work that reaches large numbers.

Historically this was always the case (until now) with literature. Books of the highest quality like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina were once widely available at local Kiosks. They were bought and read, I believe, approaching the sales, in their time, of a John Grisham or Jodi Picoult today. One might say that the classical music of Mozart was rather popular in the 18th century. Purely instrumental music has seen waves of popularity equal to that of vocal music.

I think one of the characteristics of a flourishing and "advanced" culture is the existence of widespread instrumental music.

What need explaining, because it is so historically unprecedented, is the appeal of rock music. What does it say that a music in that particular style is so pervasive and popular? What modes does rock ignore or choose to highlight? What gets lost by its domination? Indeed, when the very word "music" is uttered what is generally meant is invariably some kind of band with the usual singer and an electric guitar and so on. The phrase "music scene" means some of kind of alternative band.

But that is a topic I have already addressed once. Yet it bears some more research in the future.

I could not find any clip of the three tenor saxes on youtube. Yet I did find the following. I hope you "like" it.

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