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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Bad Plus present Science Fiction at the Berklee Peformance Center, Jamuary 24, 2015

Here's an oversimplification of the difference between "classical music" and "jazz".1

In classical music the performers are tasked with recreating a musical experience that has been recorded in a notated document for this purpose, whereas in jazz the performers create in the moment using some sort of predetermined framework as a jumping-off point.

In classical music, the performer transforms the prerecorded information into live sounds to the best of his understanding of the composer's intentions, bringing to life the music in the composer's mind at the time he wrote it down.2 In jazz, there are various traditions to writing things down, from full fledged everything-notated-all-the-way-through, to some sort of "you play what you feel like when I point at you" approaches to all points in between.

Let's take Duke Ellington for example. It's obvious when listening to his music, there's a lot of stuff written out. But, if you've ever heard a recording of a rehearsal or recording session out-takes, you'll learn that things could change on-the-fly if a better idea came along. And there's always the spontaneity of the moment. For instance, at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington determined that between the mostly written-out pieces "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue" there would be a "blues interlude" where Paul Gonsalves would improvise over the standard blues form for an indeterminate length of time. As it turned out, Gonsalves' momentum and the audience's frenzied reaction sustained this interlude for 27 choruses (or about six minutes).3

Which brings us to the idea of "jazz repertory," the idea of going on stage and performing music written at some point in the past in a manner somehow consistent with its original presentation, as opposed to just playing older tunes in one's own style, an elemental part of the jazz tradition. With music written for larger ensembles this is easier, as parts and such needed to be written up beforehand, and may still be lying around somewhere, or even perhaps published. This however is often done more for "nostalgia" or "historical" purposes (like the Count Basie or Glenn Miller bands that come around from time to time) rather than as a sort of "present tense" music making. And, as I said, so much of jazz is in the spontaneity of the moment, the forest is often missed for the trees in this approach. For example, sometime around 1990, Wynton Maraslis4 attempted to recreate the Duke Ellington performance described above, this time with the 27 choruses planned out as a matter of course. Obviously the effect was not the same, with a non-frenzied audience less likely thinking "how long can he keep this going?," but rather "when will this be over?"

With smaller ensembles, this can be trickier. A lot can depend on contact with the source. Groups like Sphere, or Old and New Dreams being made up of various former Monk and Ornette sidemen respectively, or various groupings of Miles Davis sidemen playing the old repertoire can do this with authenticity. The Ideal Bread play Steve Lacy's music, but had various student-teacher relationships with the master.

But if you're starting from scratch? When groups just play the melody and then improvise over the changes, it's not a problem. But sometimes the question of what is improvised and what is written out beforehand, or if there's some not particularly obvious organizing concept, the answer is not always so clear.

Which brings us to The Bad Plus' presentation of Ornette Coleman's 1971 recording Science Fiction. The album is a collection of eight compositions, not a single unified work. Some of these are relatively simple tune/solo pieces, some have more convoluted structures. A couple are of the "what exactly is written?" variety. There are eleven musicians presented in five different combinations, none of which match the ensemble presented here (Sam Newsome - soprano sax, Tim Berne - alto sax, Ron Miles - cornet, Ethan Iverson - piano, Ried Anderson - bass, electronics, and voice, and Dave King - drums), which immediately demands some reinvention.

The set began with a chorale of unknown (at least to me) origin before launching into "The Jungle is a Skyscraper" a dense melody, followed by free improvisation suitable for introducing the band members. (Iverson gives a good breakdown of the tune on his wonderful Do The Math blog). This was followed by "Law Years", the most classically Ornette song from the album. Anderson closely followed the contours of Charlie Haden's introduction and solo following the theme in one of the few moments of imitation during the evening, as imitation was clearly not the intent. An atmospheric piano introduction led into "What Reason Could I Give", and also my one main complaint with the program, the choice of Anderson as vocalist. Six musicians cost enough, I'm sure, and bringing in a seventh for the two brief vocal parts would probably be too much of a luxury, but the parts are crucial and Anderson didn't quite pull them off, and to me at least, looked a bit uncomfortable performing them. I wouldn't say he ruined it for me, but there seemed to be a compromise, perhaps necessary, on a crucial point.

The biggest challenges of the evening were the two most experimental works on the album, "Rock the Clock" and the title tune. For "Science Fiction" the band improvised much less feverishly than what's on the album behind the recorded slowly ... recited ... poem by David Henderson (and crying baby sounds), while Anderson and King manipulated electronic sounds. On the record "Rock the Clock" is where the band most lets it rip. Dewey Redman wailing on tenor while Ornette scrapes the violin in that way he does, as Haden riffs through a wah-wah pedal and Ed Blackwell plays something closely resembling funk. Here, the Bad Plus were also a bit more restrained, not quite rocking out, but to good effect, the wah-wah riff playing on a loop.

The encore was the exuberantly played, and aptly titled "Happy House" an outtake from the album later released on Broken Shadows and later on the Complete Science Fiction Sessions.

Throughout the night Newsome and Miles stood out as soloists, although the ensemble was uniformly strong and the ensemble concept seemed a priority.

As an example of the Jazz Repertory concept, this concert seemed to take the right approach. Rather than trying to recreate the results of the original process, instead try to find the essential elements of the original, and try to recreate the process through your own abilities and creativity to achieve new, fresh results. By that measure, the Bad Plus and their collaborators were quite successful.

1 Assume these words are in quotation marks the rest of the way through.
2  There are several approaches to this, and several other places to argue the validity of one approach over another. This will not be one of them.
3 This is a very famous recording of this.
4 Like John Cage and Andy Warhol before him, I think Wynton Marsalis' ideas and philosophies about his art will end up being considered apart from, and more important than his actual artistic output. I often disagree with his pronouncements about jazz (and his manner of presenting them), but, a lot of the arguments he's started have been well worth having. Although, I find a lot of his music boring and weighed down by pretentiousness and self-importance, Marsalis is perhaps the most important jazz musician of his generation, at least in terms of keeping jazz as an item on, if not exactly pop-culture (although Theo Huxtable did have a poster of Wynton on his wall), than at least the middle-brow cultural menu of the 1980's to persons of my generation (about 10 years his junior).

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