The problems with live improvised instrumental music,
or why Jazz is Doomed.
I’m waiting, spinning an empty Topo Chico, gnawing on a stale cookie. The cafe is alive and happy. People talk, enjoy their lattes, post status updates on Facebook. They are communing.
The silence is shattered by a sudden rat-tat-tat-spling audible to anyone within a three block radius. There in the corner, a young gentleman perched behind a drum kit tests his instrument. Another spling-blam-flam and more adjustments. Eyebrows arch like question marks, the chatter turns to groans. A saxophonist begins snapping a tempo and suddenly the sound of “Stella By Starlight” envelopes the room. Eyes fix on the musicians, briefly, then they begin to roll. Someone yells “The PA-T-IO, let’s move outside.”
The band races through the melody making way for the first improvisation, a fast sequence of notes that wind through the harmonic confines of the tune’s form. No pauses in thought, no sustained tones, just a barrage of notes unleashed with machine gun dexterity. The band’s volume notches up by 10db, the tempo follows suit. The drummer drops from brushes to sticks, the bass player moves from a two-beat to a quarter note walking pattern. And louder, and faster, and no break in the notes. Five minutes later, his solo ends and another takes it place, then another, then they take turns soloing in short 8-bar cycles. Stella returns at the end, now twice as fast and four times as loud.
No one claps when they finish. The band exchanges some snarky banter and decides on the next tune. It’s something the bassist sort of knows, something off a rare Blue Note album by a mid-level jazz star named Sam Rivers. “Bossa,” he barks while counting off the tune. As they vamp on an ad-hoc intro, at least half of the room is in the process of clearing out. Those that stay are positioned near the back of the room hypnotized by the glow of their laptops and the hip-hop thumping away in their ear buds.
I get it though. They were there to drink coffee, these guys came to play. But here’s the thing. The night before a 20’s-style acoustic group played to an enraptured audience no different than the one here tonight. They were an instrumental band too, no singers. They succeeded because they were fun. Direct melodies, strong and consistent rhythms, they smiled when they played, they joked with the audience, and they did all this without the aid of amps and 6-piece drum sets. One of the band members played a washboard. Ok, maybe they were a little kitschy too.
Long sections of improvised notes do very little for the listening public. People like melodies and songs they know. And if it’s new, it should be memorable. Improvisations, the ones that are remembered, are not just a string of fancy lines; they’re a mood, a journey — they’re exciting. Cannonball Adderely’s solo on “Autumn Leaves,” Miles’s solo on “So What,” Coltrane on “‘Round Midnight.” These are the moments that defined a genre.
Today, most jazz groups miss this essential detail. They are too loud and quite frankly, they’re boring — there’s not much being offered that a listener can really enjoy. Visually, the disposition of a jazz musician can be called “shoe-gazer with a scowl.” They look miserable, or pretentious, or both. Harmonically it’s too dense. Melodically, well there usually isn’t any melody. And rhythmically it’s either a monotonous swing or a erratic set of polyrhythms (often poorly executed) that bewilder and annoy the audience. And there’s absolutely no regard for dynamics. It’s just loud, loud, and louder.
The only ones that seem to enjoy this bizarre mediocrity are the musician’s themselves. And quite honestly, most are listening for entirely different reasons. They’re note-counting or counting errors in the performances.
axiom #1: critical listening among jazz musicians usually means listening for things to criticize.
They can do that at private jam session. In the meantime, I recommend a few of these players take notes from the bands that people actually enjoy hearing. Who are these people? Gee, why not go out and discover them.
axiom #2: musicians typically only show up at other people’s gigs to make fun of those playing or if there’s a potential they’ll get a gig out of it or to get drunk with friends
I admit that this is all a bit of hyperbole. I’m just trying to make a point that us jazz nerds could benefit from a little self-analysis on why gigs are fading away and why the scale of pay is steadily decreasing.