Friday, August 11, 2006

Griot Liberté

I was listening to Rubalcaba's Solo and the inevitable question arose, Is this Jazz? I enjoy solo works by jazz pianists, but I can't shake the feeling of their being haunted by Debussy's Preludes, in spirit if not in any technical sense. Perhaps the impression is largely a question of taste. Bud Powell's "Dusk in Sandi," a personal favorite of mine, is surely haunted by Debussy's Preludes. Fats Waller's "African Ripples" welcomes other ghosts. The problem, common to other musical traditions but acutely present in jazz idioms, is that the music has its source at once in ensemble performance and a call for expressive improvisation. Historically the trend has been towards freer and freer improvisation of solo performers, which also seems to be the trajectory European chamber music has followed. At what point do the ties to the rhythmic ensemble become so attenuated that the music becomes something else? When it no longer swings? And yet swing itself is fluid, improvised. I'd say the ties are broken when the music is no longer understood, when the time is so off it can never get back on. Ultimately the listener rather than the performer is responsible for relating a solo performance to the jazz tradition. (The performer of course is responsible for a kind of ideal listener, a way he wants his music to be understood.) So in the age of digital acoustic reproduction the question "Is this Jazz?" never recieves a definitive answer.

I've had bassist Buster Williams' Griot Liberté in heavy rotation the past few days. It's a great album through and through, but the track that really sold me was Williams' solo performance of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Ever since Miles first introduced Rodrigo's piece to the jazz world, there have been listeners who wondered, Is this Jazz? It is now. It's also a great piece for classical guitar and orchestra (e.g., Sharon Isbin, whose full-bodied sound is the best thing to happen to her instrument since Andrés Segovia, gave a fine performance of the Concierto with the New York Philharmonic not too long ago). In Williams' hands, one hears echoes of Miles, and the gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez. That Spanish tinge gone wild--not the two-bass players wild of Coltrane's Olé, but wild the way that Spanish tinge goes wild sometimes, more serenely. I wonder what Jelly Roll Morton would make of this music, whether it would sound familiar to him. And I wonder whose ghosts are these?

posted by Fido the Yak at 9:27 AM.


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