Sunday, August 19, 2012


I'm posting this here, rather than on Burning Ambulance, because I haven't posted here since May, and because it's more of a rant than a considered essay, or a review of a specific album.

Indeed, it's the opposite of an album review—it's an explanation of exactly why I will not be listening to an album I just received in the mail.

Yesterday, I got a copy of Live at the Blue Note, a disc featuring alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Joey Baron. All talented players, all featured on albums I've enjoyed in the past. So I flipped it over to look at the track listing. Here's what I found: "What Is This Thing Called Love." "Body & Soul." "Stella by Starlight." "I'll Remember April." "I Remember You." "I Can't Get Started."

Are you fucking kidding me? Do you know how many versions of each of these songs exist already? Does any human being alive need to hear one more version of "What Is This Thing Called Love"? Or "Stella by Starlight"? Or "I'll Remember April"? Who can fucking forget April, at this point?

The very first sentence of the brief liner notes told me everything I needed to know. It reads, "When the leaderless group of Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron came together for a week-long engagement at the Blue Note, they brought little more than their instruments with them—no set lists, no prior discussions about the music they wanted to play." The third paragraph elaborates on this idea, saying, "Though these standards serve as jazz's lingua franca, having been performed and recorded countless times, they exist as reborn songs by dint of those interpreting them. Konitz, in particular, has been partial to this repertoire for years. Yet, at the Blue Note, he played this material with these guys for the first time. Presto, new music!"

Speaking as a consumer and a jazz fan, I gotta say, with all due respect...fuck you guys. You wanna know why jazz albums don't sell for shit? Because labels release recordings of lazy, entitled old-timers coasting on name recognition, sleepwalking through tunes everyone who's into jazz has already heard 500 times before. This is Konitz's regular MO, as the quote above pointed out. Last year, he put out an album on ECM, Live at Birdland, recorded in 2009, on which he was backed by pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian. That album featured versions of "Lover Man," "Lullaby of Birdland," "Solar," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "You Stepped Out of a Dream," and "Oleo," and it was duller than listening to paint dry. Now, granted, even back in the '50s, Konitz's albums tended to feature only one or two of his own compositions, buried in a pile of standards and interpretations of other jazz players' tunes, but the fact that he doesn't even play his own older pieces, choosing instead the most uninspired possible set list, is almost criminal.

This is not a diatribe directed solely at Lee Konitz, by the way—I want to make sure that's crystal clear. This is a problem afflicting the music across the board, and I think it may be time to lay down the law: Jazz musicians need to stop recording standards. (I'd like to see musicians play only songs they or their bandmates wrote, but I've still got to leave room for stuff like bassist William Parker's new Duke Ellington project, which is awesome.) Play the old standards live if you want, if you've got so little respect for your audience that you think they still want to hear "Body & Soul" in 2012 (if you do still want to hear "Body & Soul" in 2012, seek professional help). But if you're headed into a recording studio, or even putting out a live album, you better have some brand-new music prepared, or you're not getting my money.


Unknown said...

Sounds like somebody's going through the motions and collecting a check. It's turning jazz into a museum art, a problem that besets concert music on occasion.

If you are going to play something I've heard a hundred times, you'd best bring something very new to the proceedings.


The question is, perhaps, who is writing the New Standards. Let's find those composers.

Dave R said...

I think you're missing the big picture. There is a place for standards in jazz, and a place for new compositions. The problem is when musicians decide it has to be either, or. Look at the Keith Jarrett standards model. Perhaps you hate it, but I'd argue that most people who have heard the Standards Trio understand that all these old tunes are being born anew. Jarrett obviously doesn't have to prove anything to anyone; he's got a huge catalog of originals. But he believes standards are the best medium for him and his great trio to deliver the goods. He's not coasting and to claim his is would be ludicrous. It's the same for Lee Konitz. He's one of the great saxophonists, and he never repeats a lick. He could play Stella By Starlight 100 times in a row and it would be vastly different each time. It's the same with each of the musicians playing on this new disc you mention, and each of them has a huge repertoire of original material. They chose to play standards on this disc because they love doing it. Personally, I don't really think Bill Frisell is that great of a composer (I have most of his discs but I rarely listen to them). I'd rather hear him play standards or other people's material. The problem with standards comes when the players are indeed just coasting, and not bringing anything fresh to the tunes. This is cocktail jazz. I haven't heard this new disc you're talking about, but I doubt that's what's going on with it.

Unknown said...

I can relate to what Phil is saying. If i'm in the right mood i can get into an album of standards, admire the artistry and all, but on a day to day basis it definitely doesn't inspire enthusiasm. Holding up 2 CDs in a store; given the choice between a standards album and an album of originals i'll take the originals every time.

Catch and Release Music said...

Lyn nails it: There are more song-writers on the planet right now than at any time in history. There MUST be a few cranking out some jazz-interpretation-worthy tunes, right? Off the top of my head, Joe Henry, Tracy Chapman and Tom Waits all write melodic lead lines in their music.

The other aspect of this discussion is, of course, where is the audience, and what will get and keep them in the seats? If all you play is stuff they've never heard before, you risk playing to your friends, many of whom will find other things to do the next time you invite them to a gig. So the dilemma is, play the old standards, in the best interpretation to showcase your own musical style, or go out and un-earth a few NEW songs. Go ahead. I'll wait here.

Stefan Kac said...

"...they brought little more than their instruments with them—no set lists, no prior discussions about the music they wanted to play."

...and, I assume, little or no rehearsal. That's the biggest obstacle to performing new repertoire; not finding it, but learning it, be that a matter of individual or group effort. While I share your views in large part, I'm far less troubled by the specific case of the stagnation of the jazz repertoire than with the way music (not just jazz) has become a flashmob art. If you want to play original material, you're not just asking the audience to take a chance on something new; you're making your project more expensive to fund and asking for a greater commitment from your musicians. In attempting to present new material, there is an incredible amount of inertia to overcome that, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with either aesthetics or marketing. The failure of so many elder statesmen to lead the way on this front is indeed galling, but I wouldn't be surprised if most of them aren't themselves as frustrated as you and I are with a musical culture and infrastructure which are the biggest obstacles to their own replenishment.

Having said all of that, I bring a willing, open mind to every standards gig/record I check out, and every now and then, I hear a group really making music that way. It reminds me why we bother with standards and how I might bother with them better. The band Fat Kid Wednesdays, from Minneapolis, comes to mind, though they play lots of originals also. In LA, I heard a group with Larry Goldings and Larry Koonse a year and a half ago which featured some stunning interplay, suspensions of time and pulse, etc. No one in the audience or on the bandstand was bored that night; it's not unheard, just hard to come by.

It's well-documented that great improvisors across many different musical cultures often have surprisingly limited repertoires, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad (or avoidable) thing. Jazz as a verb, so to speak, is repertoire-neutral; it's perfunctoriness that's the real bugaboo.

Dan Tepfer said...

Uuuuuh... With all due respect, you're making an elementary error, which is to confuse the material that's being improvised on and the actual improvisation. You could have picked 50 guys who, I completely agree, play standards like some craggy museum piece, but instead you picked Konitz, one of the few people in the world who can consistently make these old tunes sound brand new. (Which isn't to say that Live at the Blue Note is his best record). With an improviser of his caliber (and there are only a few others), the material that's being improvised on is very much secondary to the actual music being made. Do you have the same rant about free improvisation, where people are improvising on nothing? What counts, at the end of the day, is whether the music sounds fresh and authentic. For most musicians, it helps to have new material. For a few, it just doesn't matter. Konitz is absolutely one of those.

Unknown said...

In terms of improvisation I would rather hear somebody improvising on a standard than another tune with a vampy 1 or 2 chord solo section, like so many originals these days. But like Dan says, it's the result and the spirit that matters. Konitz can play I'll Remember April more refreshingly than most can on a standard or an original.

mondal said...

I haven't heard this new disc you're talking about, but I doubt that's what's going on with it.

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pwlsax said...

I like to play substandards - old stuff nobody gives enough of a shit about to play. Of course that limits your audience to about twelve nerds in the northeast. But if's fun music.

CrocodileChuck said...

& how, Phil


ps Loved your book