Most musicians desire to be labeled ‘original’ or ‘uncategorizable’, but few actually warrant such a characterization. Jim O’Rourke, however, would satisfy the qualifications for such a description. Allmusic.com labels him as a “post-classical composer”, but depending on the context from which you know him, he could be considered a pop producer, an alternative-rock bassist, a jazz musician, an electronic artist, an avante-garde musician…the list goes on. But what is most fascinating among all of this multi-faceted artist’s output is his own. Alone, O’rourke really is a sum of all his parts. He has a natural songwriting ability, but he can’t help but push the boundaries of convential form. He has a knack for straight-forward alternative pop, but at the same time feels the need to express his more creative components. And he understands the importance of a cohesive, artistic statement, but that doesn’t prevent him from wandering from what is expected. Among his many solo albums, Jim O’Rourke’s “Insignifance” stands as his magnum opus. Not because it is overtly adventurous or groundbreaking, but rather because it is a seamlessly concocted combination of a seemingly incompatible variety of sources and influences, and because in the end it just sounds so good.
And again, think of what sum all of O’Rourke’s parts generates: Imagine Wilco meets Tortoise meets Sonic Youth meet Gastr del Sol with splashes of the Beatles and electronic surges straight out of Edgard Varese or Paul Lansky. That statement alone sounds overwhelming and seemingly impossible, but O’Rourke achieves it. It is easy, upon first listen, to discard this work as unambitious, considering what O’Rourke has strived for in the past, but that would be missing the point. O’Rourke might have expected such a reaction; after all, the title of the album seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own ‘backwards step’. But the beauty in this record actually lies in it’s ability to deceive. The music sounds so simple and familiar, but it is so rich in texture and individuality that the more one digs in, the more one realizes there isn’t anything else quite like it.
“Therefore I Am”
“Therefore I Am” hits you early on in the album. Much of the song is a repetitive guitar riff that sounds like the best of an amateur garage band, but it is exactly this repetition, and what comes out of it, that makes the song so entrancing. When O’Rourke finally gets to the end of the chorus, what seemed to begin with one drummer and one guitarist has evolved into an orchestra of multiple drum sets, hand claps, layers upon layers of interlocking guitar parts, all complete with the obligatory “ooohs” and “aahhs”, only to resolve right back to where it started from.
The layering of instruments continues into the beginning of “Memory Lame”, whose first minute is built out of a very Steve Reich-esque tapestry of guitars, eukeles, mandolins and god knows what else, before falling into an all too familiar pop sequence. O’Rourke uses the opposite approach with the final track, “Life Goes Off”, which begins with familiar movements but evolves into an extremely rich amalgam of instruments and harmonies before fluttering out in an electronic buzz.
“Life Goes Off”
What the album as a whole communicates after even a single listen is that O’Rourke has an innate talent, respect, and love for pop music, enough so that he can leave it at its heart unchanged but also put in so much of his own effort and individual touches as to make it unique, special, and his own.
As I have mentioned before, it’s pretty easy to mask the influence of others’ music on your own and call it an original composition. Whether this is done intentionally or innocently (or both), it still surprises me when I find antecedents to songs which show that, in essence, they were essentially already written.
Maybe I’m a little out of the loop on this one, but in all my years, no one has brought this to my attention:
1. Written: 1938
This 20th century composer was popular in the early to mid 50’s among jazz musicians, enough to inspire this interpretation:
2. Recorded: October, 1955
Now, if you haven’t noticed it already, check out 1:36-2:17 on the first track, and 1:36-1:56 on the second…
It’s really interesting to see the progression of influences that helped lend a hand to the development of modalism. It would be interesting to know if Coltrane wrote “Impressions” based on the latter or the former, but its far more likely that it was from the latter (which should be a hint).
Oh, and if you’re wondering, October 1955 was certainly prior to the writing of Coltrane’s “Impressions”. November 1955 was the first recording session John Coltrane had with Miles, meaning he was at least two or three years from beginning to explore modalism.
Another bizarre one. I wouldn’t call this influence so much as daylight robbery, but it’s not actually that simple. Alan Silvestri is a seasoned film scorer, having been in the business for about 40 years. His score for “Forrest Gump” is one his most memorable and lauded works, even though he didn’t come away with an Oscar or a Golden Globe. But what is most interesting about the main theme from this score is that it bears an extremely strong resemblance to a very specific rendition of a classic pop song. And who recorded the rendition? An unquestionably major influence on Silvestri. A few notes:
– This specific rendition is from a 1969 album
– The song’s most famous version was sung by Richard Harris in the 1960’s.
– The melody as played by the “renditioner” is actually slightly different than how it was written, but clearly connects the original song to the theme from “Forrest Gump”.
– Very ironically (and this is a dead giveaway), Silvestri won a very prestigious award recently that bears the name of the “renditioner”.
And the 1969 rendition of ____? (performed by _____?):
Perhaps if someone brings this to light I will post the most famous recording of the original song.
Another one of these. These aren’t actually songs but rather introductions to albums, but the influence cannot be ignored, just take a listen.This one is interesting because you would not assume that one of these artists would influence the other. However, despite the fact that they operate in different genres, I do actually think that one of them holds the other in high regard. A few clues:
– One of these tracks appears on an album recorded between 1995 and 1999 but not released until 2001, and the other is from an album from 2006.
– The tracks do appear in chronological order.
– Both artists have openly displayed a respect for the other’s style of music.
Few would categorize the beginning of the 21st century as a time of jazz-information overload. We all know that jazz is escaping more and more from the public eye. But the diffusion of music-related technology and the prevalence of ways to download mp3s for free has made music of eras-passed especially available to the curious listener, and this applies to jazz probably more so than any other type of music. The average music publishing company is not raking in the majority of its profits from much recorded before 1970 other than Elvis. Thus, the crackdown on mp3 blogs leaves most jazz recordings (including/especially out-of-print and rare records) readily available. Combine that with the fact that each year jazz education programs across the country are increasing their enrollments, and you’ve got a lot of this music changing hands very quickly. Being a child of the 80’s (add 30 years to this song), I was (un?)fortunate enough to have begun my serious delving into this music pretty much at the exact turn of the millennium. That being said, from the start I was already being subject to a large dosage of a jazz-information overload. This meant that unlike children of anyone prior to the internet revolution, I wasn’t necessarily inclined to start at the very beginning of any presumed listening list. The internet and CD burning allowed me to begin at one of any number of branches of a large tree, and extend individually down it until I felt the need to jump to another. The largest and most prominent branches were not necessarily the ones I needed to grab onto, and because of their over-exposure, were sometimes the ones I would consciously avoid.
One album that I avoided in such a way was John Coltrane’s Blue Train. This album is undoubtedly a ‘classic’, certainly in the ranks with Kind of Blue, Time Out, Headhunters, and all the other albums that even the most casual listeners can name off the top of their heads. And because of this album’s reputation alone, I spent at least 10 years refusing to listen to it. I was a jazz snob from day 1, and that meant that I was disinclined to associate myself with what the commoners listened to; I was above that. But in retrospect, and after all my listening inbetween, I have found that going back and finally listening to it has given it a meaning I would not have originally discovered. When I listened to John Coltrane’s solo on “Blue Train” recently, for the first time, I heard the present, the future, but certainly not 1957.
“…the barrage of notes in his extended solo helps to create the urgency of a man spilling out his inner-most feelings” – Lewis Porter, Coltrane Biographer, describing Coltrane’s tenor solo on “Blue Train”
What I heard speaks volumes about John Coltrane and his lasting legacy, but it shines very poorly on the current state of the music, and the way that most current jazz musicians approach the music. John Coltrane was an incredibly versatile artist, one whose legacy stems as much from his compositions and albums as his solos and technique. He was also a smart musician, and he knew when and where to show off certain abilities. Compositionally, Coltrane’s albums tended to occupy one of two distinct categories. On albums such as Ballads, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and My Favorite Things, he showed off his power of interpretation. However on albums like Giant Steps,Crescent, and A Love Supreme, Coltrane sought to highlight and focus on his own compositional ideas. These were purposeful differentiations, and they were crucial to building the overall effect of Coltrane’s oeuvre. But what many don’t understand is that Coltrane made very similar decisions regarding his technical output.
The Quintessential’s Quintessential:
An inherent characteristic of Coltrane’s flurrying technique is that it is distracting. That does not need to be a negative property, but unfortunately the legacy that Coltrane sowed through his masterful ability can indeed be distracting in the worst way. Players today have become blinded by technique, and more often than not this preoccupation comes at the expense of good music.
The true technicians of early jazz were mainly self-taught and most, upon reaching a desired level of ability, plateaued. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, among others, maintained the same general technical ability throughout their entire careers. Charlie Parker, in particular, still holds a special place today as a remarkable technician, but it should be noted that this technique emerged very early on in his career and went virtually unchanged until his early death.
The next generation of artists that began to emerge from the be-bop era had a greater amount of technical development to undergo because of the natural virtuosic abilities of artists like Parker and Armstrong. However, upon reaching greater fame and credibility, artists such as Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter (who, contrary to what many believe, were remarkable technicians at an early age) scaled back their technical output in favor of developing other aspects of their music.
John Coltrane represents a breed of musician unlike the two previously mentioned, and one that today dominates the scene. Coltrane was a restless spirit, and one content only on reaching further into the unknown. In terms of his technical output, this meant moving from the depths of harmonic exploration to the depths of sonic exploration.
Of course, this kind of constant development is important for the music, but only the most masterful musicians are tastefully capable of balancing endless technical development with musicality. Today, unfortunately, players, listeners and critics alike are much too concerned with technical ability than quality output, and it is because of the success and misunderstanding of Coltrane’s restlessness that this has occurred.
A prime example of Coltrane’s legacy as a technician stands in his song “Giant Steps.” To this day, “Giant Steps” has a reputation of being one of the most difficult jazz standards to play, but its reputation is still somewhat misunderstood. In reality, the composition is remarkably simple: there are only nine chords in the entire song, V-I’s or ii-V-I’s in three keys that constantly repeat in an ascending or descending augmented pattern. And Coltrane’s solo, while stunning, is quite repetitive (for example, in the master take, on the ii-V-I in F, Coltrane plays various permutations of the “5-6-7-8 of ii, 6-5-3-2 of V, 5 of I” pattern at least 10 times in his two-and-a-half minute solo). But performing the song is still considered a bellwether of technical ability, and the song has thus been overplayed and overstudied.
Overplayed not just on computers and CD players (and record players?) either. If you want to torture yourself by sitting long enough at a jam session, you’ll hear it called. And it will be called most likely by someone with something to prove. And it will be counted off as fast as the rhythm section is willing to play it. And it will last for what seems like an eternity. And why not? To the musicians at a time like this, there is no audience, so why not play for as long as possible? In an interview with Ted Panken, a veteran of the jam-session scene (and someone who was able to emerge unscathed), Roy Hargrove, succinctly summarized the problem Coltrane has created at jam sessions, and pleaded for humility:
“It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there…everybody can’t be John Coltrane!”
Largely due to Coltrane’s legacy as a technical powerhouse, many modern musicians neglect to appreciate his moments of restraint. A saxophonist friend once told me that “everybody knew” Coltrane’s worst solo was on Miles Davis’ recording of “You’re My Everything” from the album Relaxin’. “Why?” I asked. “Listen to how much space is in-between his phrases. He’s lost, he has no idea what he’s doing.” This is pure ignorance. Too many people believe that technical ability cannot be reflected in restraint. And what if, perhaps, it can’t? Why does it always have to be shown off? For too many young musicians, the first thing they hear is ability, and the last thing they hear is music. I’m sure that if Coltrane had known he would have had such an effect on future generations, he would have taken some time out from blazing forward to pause a moment, breathe, and step back. I’m sure, because he cared that much about the music.