Jeff Buckley is one of those artists who, because of his untimely death, left a million what if’s floating around. The canonization of such artists helps magnify and mystify even their smallest efforts. Sure, it’s terrifying to think that Clifford Brown was only 25 when he died, or that Kurt Cobain was able to have such a huge effect on an entire generation without living past 27, but it is only because they’re gone that we’re able to wonder (or care). If Radiohead died in a plane crash after OK Computer, their legacy would of course be much different.
However I really can’t hep myself with the ‘what if’ with Jeff Buckley. The only full record he left with us is amazingly daring, well-rounded and accessible. I have ventured little outside this official collection of songs because most of what remains are either demos or incomplete recordings, and they were never given the go-ahead by Buckley himself to be released, so I think it’s unfair to associate these tracks with him.
But recently, I was reading up on the history of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and I noticed that particularly popular rendition of the most famous movement, “When I am Laid In Earth” was that of Jeff Buckley. Now, I’m having a hard time thinking of even a single other pop/rock artist of the last 20 years who has even attempted an opera cover, let alone successfully, or of one from the 17th century. It’s a perfect example of how fearless Buckley really was, as well as a great sign of his abilities and (lost) potential.
Paul Bley is an interesting and elusive figure in jazz. Yet somehow it’s hard to even avoid hearing people talk about him and his music. Just the other day I came across a version of Jazz.com’s “The Dozens” featuring Aaron Parks on Paul Bley. “The Dozens” is an occasional feature that lets musicians and/or critics pick 12 tracks representative of a particular artist or theme. Sometimes the choices and commentary can be very bland (the Steely Dan Dozens is terrible), but there are also some very worthwhile and illuminating posts. One of those is Aaron Parks on Paul Bley.
I am by no means an expert on Paul Bley. I mean, how can you be? With over 130 recordings to his name, and having recorded everything form solo piano records to live synthesizer shows, Bley’s discography is one of the most physically and aesthetically daunting of any musician’s in the past century (Bley himself could only compare the sheer mass of his discography to that of Louis Armstrong). But still, I would say i’m pretty knowledgeable about his most important recordings. Yet Parks managed to come up with a list that I was mostly unfamiliar with, which is pretty exciting. And of course, no comprehensive Bley list could be complete without the famous solo on “All the Things You Are.” It’s interesting to hear Parks’ take on it.
I also recently came across a very interesting radio interview with Mr. Bley from 2000. This was my first time hearing the pianist speak, and I was surprised (based on a lot of the stories I’ve heard about him) at how cordial and open he was. It’s not uncommon for artists who have been around and through as much as Bley has to be quite obtuse and prevaricatory in interviews that ask pretty basic questions, but Bley was more than willing to answer very open-ended and straightforward questions regarding his own development and the effect other artists have had on him and expound upon similar topics in very concise ways.
There were a few moments in this hour-long interview that stood out:
I’ve always known that Bley has had experience playing with a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz throughout his career, but I was amazed at the sheer breadth of individuals that he mentioned having been lucky enough to play with. They included Ben Webster, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie and even poets Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs. A lot of these weren’t just one-off’s either. He recorded with Parker, hired Don Cherry and Ornette coleman for a band that became Ornette’s famous quartet after Bley left, ‘discovered’ Pat Metheny and even mentioned being quite close with Miles Davis.
Bley had an interesting take on the development of free jazz, which he mentioned twice. According to Bley, there were two stages in this development. One occurred in 1958, when jazz began to lose form. The other occurred in 1964, when it began to lose meter. He loosely associates Coleman and Cherry with the former, and Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp with the latter.
Bley also had an interesting take on the role of the piano in free jazz. He seems to agree with Keith Jarrett (or Keith Jarrett agrees with him) that it is ‘impossible’ to play ‘free’ on piano. In his interview with Ethan Iverson, Jarrett says that Cecil Taylor ‘did everything he could’ in this regard. Bley seems to agree, and the interviewer contrasts Bley’s approach with that of Taylor’s. Bley talks about how the challenge of the pianist when Ornette’s group came out was to create sounds with the piano that could be altered/adjusted after they were created (I’m assuming he means the act of bending notes/creating polytones with one sonic output). He then briefly explains the difference between trying to do this with the piano itself as oppossed to using prepared piano.
Bley offers the most concise explanation of why jazz is considered “America’s classical music” that I’ve ever heard. Responding to a comment about how his most recent work sounds very much like the work of early 20th century European classical composers for piano (Schoenberg, Webern), Bley remarked that his music was innately separate from classical music because what we call “classical music” is actually European classical music. What he means by this is that these composers were of a European influence. Bartok, for example, derived a lot of his compositions from European folk music, and Tchaikovsky from Russian folk music, etc. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, draw their influence from American folk music. Thus it is immediately a different type of music, if not just in name only. So, even though some of it might sound similar to European Classical music (Bley’s later work in particular), it is by definition jazz because it has grown out of an American Folk tradition: the blues.
When I re-find the link to this radio interview, I’ll post it. It’s more than worth an hour of your time. This, in the meantime, is worth 6 minutes of your time for sure:
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.
A few days back, The Allmusic Blog (one of the only redeeming factors of a terrible site) came out with a very comprehensive look at the pianist who would have turned 200 today. While the debate will linger on about the importance (and, as one commenter says, “profundity”) of the artist, this post will give you more than enough to chew on while you decide or re-decide. Check it out:
While allmusic.com remains suffering, the Allmusic Blog has kicked into high-gear. Recently, a bunch of really interesting (and thorough) posts have started to emerge. Today’s post about the use of classical music in Olympic skating is particularly revealing, and has some great clips to go along with it.