Listen to music that you don’t understand

Play any popular number on a gig and you’ll get applause as soon as the audience recognises it. Some artists thrive on this, notably James Taylor, who has sung the same old stuff for 45 years and still smiles and makes it fresh.

People respond to memories evoked by the music rather than the music in the moment. This is clear if you ever play in a covers band. Better play Jeff Beck’s solo on Hi Ho Silver Lining note perfect or the audience will drift away. What’s required is reproduction, not improvisation. Changing the music makes it wrong and it is no longer as effective. The content of the music is not relevant; the music is only a key to a remembered mood.

There’s nothing wrong with using music for the comfort or nostalgia that it offers, but as a musician you aren’t going to learn much. Sure you can listen to Kind Of Blue for the umpteenth time and marvel at the musicianship, at how modern it sounds, at the beauty of the music. But you don’t really need a recording for that. It’s there in your head. Try it, lie in bed and hear All Blues or Freddie Freeloader in your mind. Of course there’s always more to learn from that album but there’s a whole world of other stuff out there to learn from.

At a jazz summer school a woman told me how much she hated the playing of one of the tutors. I told him about this and he said that it was good to have evoked such a strong response in someone. That’s deep. If you hear new music that has no discomfort, or challenge, or  unfamiliarity or excitement, then it’s not really new, it’s easy listening. Areas of music that you don’t understand require work, concentration, familiarisation. If you don’t listen you’ll never find out if there’s something there for you.

People new to learning jazz struggle with this. Everywhere they look there is stuff that is new, unfamiliar, challenging. Where to start? What I did at this point in my development was to ask each of the players that I admired the most (particularly the tutors on jazz courses that I attended) to recommend two or three favourite albums. And then I would work hard at listening to what they recommended. At the beginning, I had to suspend the concept of enjoyment, and simply tried to attend to what was going on. Over time I began to understand the music. At the start, most of it sounded like my friend Jim’s idea of jazz: three people starting together, playing three different tunes, and then miraculously ending together. Over time it started to make sense.

But there’s another side to this. At a drunken party, someone said to me that all jazz is self-indulgent. I said that’s like saying that everything said in Italian is self-indulgent. Well actually I didn’t. I was too drunk at the time, and thought of that next morning, as you do. I wished I had said it. The conversation stuck in my mind, and coming back to it I can see both sides of the discussion. The audience may want to hear stuff that is familiar. You are doing no-one any favours by speaking in a language that the audience doesn’t understand. If music isn’t about evoking a response in other people, then it’s about evoking a response in yourself. Which is definitely self-indulgent.

And then there’s that row when Pat Metheny ranted about Kenny G recording himself over Louis Armstrong’s It’s A wonderful World:

There ARE some things that are sacred – and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, Louis Armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. To ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value – and I refuse to do that.

Here Pat is making music into a religion. Louis was a popular musician and It’s a Wonderful World is a pop song. How is it any more sacred than any other music that’s been sampled and recycled in the last 30 years?

OK, so let’s allow that Louis Armstrong is sacred to Pat. Saying that people may not do anything with his sacred music sounds dangerously close to the current Orthodox Anglican argument about gay marriage – you may not marry whoever you want because it offends my religious rules.

I’d prefer to say that I don’t appreciate Kenny G’s music and leave it at that. It ought not to offend me if other people like it, and if it does, I’ll try to keep that to myself. But it reminds me also that popular acclaim is the last thing that I want for my music.

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