Friday, March 1, 2013

Performance as Game

I can pinpoint the moment when I became a Serious Jazz Listener. When I was in high school, I played saxophone in a small extracurricular ensemble attached to our music school. One evening we played an intense, 40 minute version of "Afro Blue," collectively improvising on F minor in 3/4 time until we were exhausted. Floored by the experience, I sought out and purchased the John Coltrane Quartet's Live At Birdland. When "Afro Blue" began, it seemed like familiar territory. The group articulated what was basically the melody I knew. McCoy Tyner's solo started veering into the unknown almost immediately, but I barely noticed. The piano was a mystery to me anyway and all I heard as things started getting heavy was "intensity." Then Coltrane's horn came in and everything changed.
He engaged the raw materials of the music, form, melody, harmony, structure in a way that was utterly alien to me. This bore very little relationship to our naive F minor jam.

Coltrane was playing by an entirely different set of rules.

In his discussion of Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, Douglas Wilson describes a famous loss in the game of Go in which a student exploited a rule designed to prevent player advantage during break periods to defeat his master. He suggests that one explanation for the loss is that the seemingly trivial rule was able to re-frame the game that was being played.

"...we might point out that he was playing a different game than he had thought he was playing....In adding a new rule to make the game more “fair,” the officials had also changed the very game itself. It wasn’t the same game that Meijin had grown up playing."

The move was very controversial. Wilson goes on to make an interesting set of points about rule negotiation and systematization and the influences of a game's culture on how it is played. What interests me now, though, is that the primary objections to the controversial move were seemingly aesthetic in nature. For the author and master, it wasn't just a breach of etiquette. In the quoted passages, Kawabata compares Go to a painting or a piece of music and the move to a smear or false note. It's described as "ugly," and the locus of the work of art it's defacing is in the interaction of the two players within the implied contract of the game.

I'm currently playing double bass in an adult ed jazz ensemble at New England Conservatory of Music. I am still a beginner at the instrument. Last night we were playing and discussing Coltrane's composition "Mr. PC," and I told my coach about a version Coltrane played with Eric Dolphy (Dolphy comes in at 2:18; coincidentally this was also performed at Birdland.) He shook his head for a little while and repeated Dolphy's name several times. He said he hadn't listened to Dolphy for a long time and wanted to revisit his music now that he knows more. He described when he'd first heard Dolphy's music.
"Dolphy's crazy. I mean amazing, but crazy. I heard people talking him up so I decided to listen. And I just couldn't understand. Everyone's playing and then Dolphy's solo starts and I was like 'it's all wrong! What is he doing?' Elvin didn't know what he was doing, he just plays time, like he shrugged his shoulders and was like 'I don't know either.'"
He went on to say that even then he recognized that Dolphy was doing something amazing and he wants to go back and listen a lot more now that his ear has caught up.
In 1962 many critics were calling what Coltrane and Dolphy were doing together "anti-jazz," "ugly," "destructive." In the view of those critics, now generally viewed as regressive, their performance practices, the way they reconfigured sonic elements was defacing the music they were playing.

But Coltrane and Dolphy had both paid dues in more conventional ensembles and had some automatic cred. Even more divisive was Ornette Coleman, who popped onto the scene a few years before the above recordings, AND had a lot more vitriol thrown his way. Listen to "Focus On Sanity" from The Shape of Jazz To Come. Consider how it is possible that this would have invited any kind of ire, much less the violent reactions it received. I didn't understand how that could be the case until I started learning to play bass.

Functioning in a jazz rhythm section is very different than playing a lead instrument. The primary functions are cohesion and propulsion. Bass and drums lock together to create a solid pulse on which to build structure, but they also must maintain a relationship with that pulse and with one another in which the music feels like it's being driven or pulled ahead or drawn back. On a moment-to-moment level, microscopic differences in beat placement between different beats in the bar and between musicians combine to form the foundation of the "feel" of the music. If this is solid, a soloist can toy with time, sound and beat placement and remain grounded.
A level above the moment-to-moment cohesion and propulsion, the rhythm section is responsible for maintaining the overall structure of a piece. In most non-free jazz, some form of the harmonic rhythm from the melody of the piece is maintained throughout all solos. The rhythm section maintains the form and signposts important elements to prevent soloists from getting lost. When people do get lost (a famous feature of the 60s Miles Davis groups), the rhythm section either provides or takes cues to get the music back on track. I was always aware that the rhythm section played a "supporting" role, but until I started playing in one I wasn't entirely sure how that existed.  And now that I play as a rhythm section player, I hear music differently.

And as a result I also understand the implied rules of shared performance differently.

Ornette Coleman worked with his rhythm section to untether the group from certain previously central structural elements of that implied contract. Though early on they still sometimes played changes, The Ornette Coleman rhythm sections usually followed and led the soloists far afield, using the propulsive AND the cohesive grammar of a jazz rhythm section to create structure on the fly rather than reinforcing the pre-existing structures of the written melody. And whereas previously a soloist's statement was taken to be in conversation with the underlying harmonic structure of a song, no matter how radically altered, a soloist in Ornette's band could no longer be said to be interacting with that structure. The sound grammar Ornette used as its own base elements was developed by the beboppers as a means of elaborating and extending melody in a fixed context.  By divorcing that grammar from its context, listeners, especially close listeners, heard it as nonsense.

Ornette had smeared black ink on his canvas by radically altering the unwritten rules of a jazz performance in a way which is virtually inaudible to today's casual listener.

A performer in a group could be said to be engaged in a game with the other performers in that group for the benefit of a set of spectators. But the individuals and the group could also be said to be engaged in a game with those spectators, and a game with the musical materials being manipulated during the performance. In some ways, the tension between the rules in those games, any differences between shared understandings of the rules at play between those games, and the possibility of a performer introducing new and unexpected rules at any time are what make jazz performances exciting to me.

And as in games, the masters often prove to be responding to rules and affordances of a much higher order, and their performances often get richer as understanding blossoms.