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A Special Way

By Marc Copland


"The notes donít lie. Are the notes hip - -are there deeper reasons for their presence? Such reasons are audible in the finest music of any genre."

 Photo: Juan-Carlos HernŠndez


Jazz at its best is an adventure of the mind and an affair of the heart. Those of us who love this music share a bond: we live for those musical moments that inspire us by challenging our ears, teaching our minds and elevating our spirit.

The best of these moments take on an almost magical quality. In pursuit of such moments, real fans and dedicated musicians expend so much of their time and invest so much of themselves. What is this magic - what are the criteria for excellence in jazz? For this magic to continue, it is important for the excellence creating it to be recognized and nurtured.

40 or 50 years ago, something of a consensus on this subject existed. The best artists, signed by a handful of record labels, were free to record without commercial constraints and their music seemed to break new ground with almost each new release. The important bands--Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans among them--found a healthy availability of gigs in which to develop their concepts; and because work was steady, the listening public had a chance to hear and digest their music and development. This was a great era for jazz. It grew in wonderful ways; great innovations were rarely ignored and their inclusion made the music vibrant and healthy.

In the last half-century, a confluence of developments - artistic, commercial and technological---has contributed to the evolution of a less uniform jazz world. Some of the by-products of this evolution are positive; for example, there is available today a Dionysian feast of musical styles unimaginable in the jazz of the mid 20th century. But the growth of stylistic variety has been accompanied by a lessening of consensus as to what constitutes high quality music. Commercial interests often lose sight of important artistic developments - or, sometimes while recognizing them, lose faith in the publicís ability to do the same. As a result, a lot of great art goes undiscovered; and when an art form loses opportunities for growth it is all the poorer for it.

Older jazz classics, which should help point the way, are in trouble, too. Many true works of genius--essential parts of the musicís history - are unknown to most of todayís public, even to serious music students. Young aspiring players hearing these recordings for the first time are often stunned by the musicís brilliance and freshness; this should come as no surprise, for works of genius donít go out of style. If this music is properly recognized, the acumen of the public will increase, which can only help the music in the long run.

Works of genius possess a special feel and sense of intuition, as well as a sophisticated usage of harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, form and/or structure, taking a step beyond or adding to previous musical practice. These works - these solos - are, although improvised, so well constructed that removing a few notes or even a single note seriously diminishes the impact of the music.

These same criteria ought to apply to todayís music: the notes donít lie. Are the notes hip - are there deeper reasons for their presence? Such reasons are audible in the finest music of any genre. Style, setting and instrumentation can be crucial musical components, their importance to jazz no less than that of orchestration to classical music; but the defining characteristic remains not what instrument or instruments played the notes, but the merit of the notes themselves.

Originality should not be confused with superficial differences. Great music has an organic, conceptual idea and distinguishes itself by its content; over-emphasizing extra-musical factors runs the risk of missing the point. Innovative playing blazes its trails with new musical usages that are responsible for how fresh the music sounds, even in a solo recorded years ago. Stylistic context can be crucial, but the wonder is what the musician achieves working in any particular milieu. Hungarian folk music, with its unusual rhythms and scales, was essential to Bartůkís work --but this folk music did not bring about the high level of his compositions; Bartůkís genius did. The revolutionary musical tools of Stravinskyís Rite of Spring are not lost when performed on two pianos. And Coltraneís solo on the original release of "Impressions" --coming from the supposedly brash improviser of "sheets of sound"--reveals itself upon deeper examination to be a masterpiece of melodic development, a worthy successor to the work of Louis Armstrong and Lester Young.

To appreciate achievements of this level requires a lot of listening, but the rewards are great. Whether we listen to a recorded solo capable of being revisited repeatedly, or to a live solo never to be heard again, our deep attention to and appreciation of the music will lead to an understanding of the notes as the product of a sophisticated musical intelligence--of mind and passion working together at the highest level. The great solo makes uncommon musical sense not only in its original context, but as an architecture of notes that says something far beyond its setting; it opens the door to the understanding of a higher meaning.

The fact that human beings can create such work and do so in barely a few minutes of instrumental improvisation rather than by long hours of trial and error at a desk with pencil and paper, is a wonder. It leaves us no choice but to marvel at another of the many ways--and for us, a very special way--in which beauty can be created by the human mind and spirit.


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