Not all of the songs that comprise the canon of Christmas carols are unrewarding vehicles for musically creative collaborations, but most need at least a re-harmonization in order for jazz musicians to improvise intelligently on them. Why are these examples of the tribute our society pays to redemption so devoid of musical excitement?
Jim Hall was one of those musicians whose playing changed how American music sounds. His imagination and technical command of the guitar allowed him to rethink and subsequently expand on the traditional approach to the instrument’s fretboard, almost as if he were playing a piano. One could say that Hall was a singular point in the culture of American guitar playing.
Experienced musicians eventually arrive at a point where the physicality of the instruments they play seems to disappear. It’s at this point that proprioception, e.g. muscle memory, provides the player with a cognitive shortcut that frees the conscious mind from primarily focusing on the mechanical details of music performance and allows it to address issues of aesthetics.
Scientific research shows that listening to music is an activity that fosters cohesion and synchronicity in brain function, which is very good for social messaging across large numbers of people who are listening at the same time, whether or not they’re listening to the same thing. I believe the research also shows that improvising music requires a similar mode of cognition, allowing for a kind of “disembodied cognition,” as one researcher calls it.
Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are all individuals who use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new product.
Even though there are more and more fast food outlets and less and less old-style delicatessens than when I first arrived in 1977, New York is still the best place for me to live when it comes to the music I play and listen to. Living elsewhere is like cigarettes, drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and “super-size” fast-food: I gave it the old college try, and it’s just not for me.
New York City is Mecca to thousands of aspiring artists, especially jazz musicians. But, to twist a phrase into a Gordian knot, not everyone who makes it there, makes it there. When trumpeter Al Kiger decided life on the road wasn’t for him and resigned from the innovative George Russell Sextet, the jazz scene in Indiana welcomed him and he prospered.
A musical reflexivity exists between genre and locale, a fact that is supported by concepts like: “Chicago” versus [Mississippi] “Delta” blues or “West Coast” versus “East Coast” jazz. In this paradigm, musicians, especially those who improvise, can act as a nexus of many stylistic affectations that might be realized in a unique artistic voice.