Monday, December 13, 2010

Bobby Hackett and 'technique'

Most musicians are obsessed with mastering their instruments. Some focus on perfecting their high registers, while others think mostly of the speed of their fingers on the keys. A tasteful few concentrate on developing a beautiful sound. Stride piano master James P. Johnson is reputed to have practiced in the dark with a blanket over the keyboard to increase his strength and accuracy, while others such as Charlie Christian jammed 'til dawn to perfect their ears and invention.

This physical mastery is called 'technique', and the poorer one's technique is, the more it can occupy one's thoughts. A slow-fingered saxophonist is overtly conscious of his plodding, and the trumpeter lacking an effective high-register might spend many practice sessions addressing and readdressing the problem.

Cornetist Bobby Hackett was more concerned with the difficulties of his instrument than most. He was a guitarist who found himself better known for his secondary (though much loved) instrument, and thereafter he embarked upon a regime of lessons, practice and mouthpiece hunting. Through these efforts, he achieved a more consistent mastery of the cornet, and later the trumpet. His recordings from the 50s and 60s show a polish unheard in his earlier playing.

But by focusing on improving his technique, did Bobby Hackett lose something of his original style? Perhaps. His early recordings show a very real delicacy; when he plays a phrase, we listen, hushed, with the understanding that it might all go wrong at any moment. We hold our breath in case we might distract him. We recognise that here is a human being who is just as likely to take a momentary wrong turn in his music as we are in our own relationships, conversations and emotions.

Some misguided musicians have rebelled against the tyranny of technique, and insisted that 'pure' music is untutored and raw. I don't believe that at all. It's just that one's limitations can inspire unique solutions and approaches. My belief is that, while I might marvel at the superhuman feats of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum or Roy Eldridge, I am moved more by a flawed human with a gift for beautiful music.

Here is Bobby Hackett (along with other jazz greats), playing Embraceable You in 1938. It's a love song, and he sounds truly in love - passionate, inspired, yet unsure.

'Echoes of Harlem' dance troupe

Impressive dancing and infectious enthusiasm from 'Echoes of Harlem', Swing Patrol Melbourne's premier dance troupe:

This is a visual/physical evocation of the music I love.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jazz doesn't know who's playing it

We are right to celebrate Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and the rest of the jazz greats, but often glorious music is performed by musicians who are obscure or even unknown to the jazz cognoscenti. For every 'West End Blues', featuring Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines at their early peaks, there is a fascinating record by nobody in particular. Perhaps these second-tier recordings are less innovative and polished, but they still reflect the admirable energy of musicians striving to play the best music they can. Often the results are exciting and unique.

A precious memory of mine: US/Australian jazz genius Tom Baker and I stood at the bar in an Australian pub at the conclusion of a weekend jazz festival, shortly before he was cruelly taken from us by a heart attack. The jam session tottered unsteadily nearby, fueled more by alcohol and enthusiasm than by skill and inspiration. The musicians were not well-regarded jazz players, but rather a collection of semi-competent 'weekend warriors'. As the predictably messy final chorus of Tiger Rag reached a crescendo, suddenly everything clicked into place musically and the tune finished in a blaze of driving hot jazz. Tom turned to me with a look of sheer joy and whooped his approval as the applause began.

He'd spent the weekend as featured guest, sitting in with any band he could find. At times, I'd wondered how he could bear the difference in competency between him and the musicians with whom he was performing. That miraculous few seconds of music, and Tom's reaction, taught me all kinds of lessons about music and life.

Here's a fantastic record by the breathtakingly obscure J. C. Johnson & His Five Hot Sparks, playing 'Red Hot Hottentot' with spirit and poise:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sidney Bechet the composer

It seems bizarre to me that the compositions of Sidney Bechet are not performed by jazz musicians more often today. Sure, there are a couple I have heard on a regular basis - Petite Fleur, Dans Les Rues D'Antibes - but many others are neglected, or perhaps even worse, performed only by Bechet imitators.

Now I love to hear someone grasp nobly for the same tone, power and vibrato that Bechet possessed. I truly believe that the musician as imitator has a few really valuable qualities, most notably acting as a publicity device for the original - drawing attention to a figure who might otherwise be overlooked. But it is the kiss of death for a composer.

Bechet wrote many fine compositions that have not been explored in the way they could be. Why doesn't someone revisit Blackstick, Southern Sunset, The Broken Windmill, Song of the Medina, Promenade Aux Champs-Elysees and his many other tunes with a new approach? Because they are too closely associated with the performing style of their composer. Bechet the musician has doomed Bechet the composer.

There are exceptions, of course - Bob Wilber focused on Bechet's compositions, not his playing style, in the group Bechet Legacy. But it's still soprano sax/clarinet at the forefront. I'd like to hear them done by a full big band, or a Hot Club style quintet, or a tenor saxophonist with rhythm section.

Here's Blues in the Air, a Bechet composition that could (should!) be played by jazz bands everywhere. Apparently the minor strain has been lifted from an operatic melody - W.C. Handy and others practiced 'tune collecting' in a similar fashion, so I've forgiven Sidney.