How can we recognize the difference between “good” art and “bad” art? The question is inherently unanswerable – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective terms, and the question implies an objective answer: choose good/bad like you would choose yes/no or black/white.
Before we pass any judgements, we must realize that context HUGELY affects our feelings for a work of art. Imagine a picture of two solid-colored squares – on the wall of an elementary school hall, you might think “pretty easy” – on the wall of the MOMA, you might think “pretty brilliant.” But that’s an oversimplification – to understand the squares, you need to know the title and some information about the artist’s background. If you learn that the artist has also drawn highly detailed sketches of the human body, you might think that the squares are simple not by necessity of ease but for a purpose. You might reconsider your feelings when learning that the name of the artist is recognizable. While the squares may or may not cause an initial visceral reaction, your feelings for them will be influenced by the context.
Jazz – like modern art – has sounds that are not necessarily enjoyed by everyone. Like all the great art forms, jazz has purveyors of modernism looking to challenge the listener’s notions of what is and isn’t music. Context is certainly going to affect your feelings for those sounds. Listen to this excerpt:
If you heard that at the Village Vanguard, you might dig it. If you heard it in Central Park, you might think someone disturbed found a saxophone. Would your taste for the sounds change if I told you that the recording was of John Coltrane?
That sound snippet of Albert Ayler was unfair, because I removed the context of the entire composition and just gave you 15 seconds of intensive improvisation. However, let’s say that we as observers have enough self-awareness to actually cut away the influence of context and judge “good” and “bad” solely on what our senses experience. In jazz, where there’s “no such thing as a wrong note,” I think that the governing factor is voice. What I mean by ‘voice’ is really twofold:
First off, the notion that there are no wrong notes in jazz is contingent on the ability of the player. Take for instance, a B-natural on a C7 chord (spelled C E G B-flat). Offhand the note will clash and it could sound like a mistake, but you can earn that dissonance by how you get to the B-natural or where you go from it. Perhaps you’re implying a subdominant chord (G7) leading into your dominant. Or maybe you’re beginning to shape a tritone substitution (C#m7 to F#7). This is probably way more technical than you’re interested in – the point is, a player can ‘voice’ that “wrong” note into a “right” one. In the many saxophone lessons I took with Ralph Lalama, he always loved to hammer that point home (“it’s the voicings you m…..f…..r!”) Ralph is not one for subtlety.
The second part of ‘voice’ that is important is the delivery of the player. If a player phrases with confidence and generates a recognizable style of playing, their musical world will open up into endless possibilities. Every note sounds with purpose and a player is free to play without constraints, following not the technical aspects of music but their inner voice. This is SO much easier said than done, however, and the aural difference between those who have accomplished this Olympian feat and those who merely claim to is often extremely subtle.
There’s an oft-overlooked saxophonist whom I heard for the first time in 2006: Gary Bartz. Gary was playing with the McCoy Tyner Trio in NYC and I was immediately blown away. His phrasing, vocabulary, and delivery were all so incredible – I couldn’t believe that I had NEVER heard his name mentioned in a classroom at graduate school. The most memorable tune of the set for me was McCoy’s ‘Blues at the Corner.’ I’ve posted a version from around the same time below along with a transcription of Gary’s first two choruses which start at 1:02 into the video.
Some very interesting shapes used by Gary Bartz on what for him is a G blues!
Interestingly enough, in an interview with Bret “The Jazz Video Guy” Mr. Bartz recently spoke about voice and how students in music school are going about finding theirs in a ‘backwards’ manner compared to how cats in his generation found theirs.
A great example of a recent music school graduate who does not in any way lack for voice is Nashville saxophonist Rahsaan Barber. Rahsaan is a great technician and instrumentalist, but most impressive is that he has a fully developed voice. In his carefully chosen words, Rahsaan always manages to convey that his playing is first and foremost guided by a strong inner voice. I know this to be true because Rahsaan’s playing and sound are instantly recognizable (and if they’re not to you, buy his recent album!).
I’m very excited to announce that Rahsaan will be sharing his talents and insights at this month’s Nashville Jazz Workshop Jam Session, to be held on Sunday April 17th at FIVE pm (later start time than usual!). I look forward to seeing you there!