18 February 2007

a marriage made in arts non-profit heaven

i do know a fair amount about jazz - at least, a fair amount considering that i'm a pop-obsessed, indie-rock-bred music blogger. and i've got some things to say about it - but i know they're going to get bigger and hairier than i feel like dealing with right here and now, so i'm going to try to limit my scope to this perfectly lovely jason moran album, and more specifically to this song:

6 milestone Y jason moran and alicia hall moran

it was an easy valentine's choice, because it's an artistic collaboration between husband and wife, and it doesn't get much more romantic than that. alicia, who wrote the tune, sings as the "jazz wife" (as jason puts it in the liner note, "musing about the whereabouts of her traveling husband.") there's a nice little self-contradiction in that she's not actually sitting home and waiting, she's participating performance.

back when she was just alicia hall, she wrote a rapturous treatise on love as the "soul of genius" for the liner note of moran's 2002 solo piano album modernistic: "listen and you will do more than sense his genius - you will hear his life." [she also says that "it is the element of love that ciphers the query on genius"... but i'm not going to go there.] along these lines, "milestone" might be construed as not just about their marriage (presumably) and a function of their partnership, but actually literally constituting their marriage.

certainly, more broadly, it's a stylistic marriage of jazz (his milieu) and classical (hers), through the juxtaposition of classical vocal technique and a jazz quartet setting, with his pianistic approach containing aspects of both traditions. of course, in the contemporary art music world this recording absolutely inhabits and exemplifies, and very probably in their respective artistic careers, the boundaries are hardly that well defined. there are other elements of classical and academic music throughout this "jazz" album: in the nostalgically respectful reading of carl maria von weber's "cradle song," in the self-conscious avant-gardeism of "break down" and "artists ought to be writing" (both of which sample the voice of art theorist adrian piper, and, for me, resonate strongly though probably unwittingly with the work of the books, similarly intellectually-inclined musicians who tend to travel in rather different circles), and in the minimalist compositional structure of "RAIN" (a piece inspired by african-american slave culture.)

moran's piano-playing itself (at least as i've experienced it) tends to reside fairly far from the fluid, earthy vernacular we're used to hearing from more traditionally-oriented jazz pianists.
still, it doesn't feel overly clinical or dispassionate. there's plenty of personality discernable even in the less conceptually-anchored pieces, and the intellectual components of the album are nicely tempered by a distinct, sentimental emotional aspect. this is significant - it lends "milestone," for example, a warmth and tenderness that's mostly absent from don byron's similarly-minded but rather glib album a fine line. [a fine line is a sort of conceptual record about arias and lieder, for which byron collected melodies from the likes of roy orbison, puccini, and leonard bernstein, setting them for various small jazz ensembles, some instrumental but in several cases with a classically-trained vocalist.]

it is extremely pertinent that artist in residence is an album of material culled from three separate commissions by prominent arts organizations; which is to say this music is fundamentally borne of the institutional, non-profit arts world. i take the "in residence" of the title to suggest that moran is a resident of that community, and in a more permanent sense than the phrase usually indicates. this isn't to say that he or this record are entirely divorced from a/the more "pure" jazz community: especially these days, there's an awful lot of overlap.

whether that overlap is a good or bad thing for jazz (as an art form? as a cultural tradition? as music?) is an open question - without attempting to address it, i would hazard that it opens up certain possibilities while limiting others. in some ways moran seems to be doing something analogous to how i described matmos vis-a-vis contemporary electronica a few posts down - that is, he's taking a conceptual approach to his parent genre - or maybe better said, using (in his case) jazz as a tool to explore concepts outside of its normal ken - in a way that, while technically remaining within the parameters of the jazz tradition, challenges those parameters to the extent that he sometimes seems to be more properly situated on the outside looking in.

"how can an abstract jazz artist say clearly how they feel and make an audience understand?" in his liner note, moran poses this question and asserts that this work "centers around exploring possible answers to the question." adrian piper provides one possible answer in her sampled speech - "artists ought to be writing about what they do" - and moran takes this to heart, offering a fair amount of explication in the booklet. but there are bound to be even more satisfying answers out there as well. his choice to cover the "negro national anthem" hints at another possibility, one based as much in culture resonance as it is in intellectualism. regardless of how adequately he feels he's been able to address these concerns, it's pretty clear that he's got a firm awareness of something which is vital to remember in the highly theoretically convoluted context of contemporary arts institutions - that to be intellectual doesn't have to and shouldn't mean to be unemotional or impersonal, and that art can and should strive to be both.

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