Articles by Ratzo Harris
One of the great things about playing music like this is how the performers leave the concert with new eyes and ears. Although Harvey Sorgen and I have known about each other for a while, we had never played together before (that I can remember, anyway) and we both found ourselves playing things we normally wouldn’t in a “free-jazz” setting. Part of that was each of us just seeing what the other would do when presented with an impromptu “motive” and part was the discovery of what we can do well together.
Last Monday I went to hear yet another concert at University of the Streets. This time, though, I had no reason to be there other than to watch and listen to the group headed by guitarist/composer Omar Tamez of Monterrey, Mexico. The 37-year old Tamez is a moving force in the Mexican music scene. For the last fifteen years he has led the Non-Jazz Ensemble, a group with a varied personnel and repertoire.
I’ve been blessed to be playing in several regularly repeating performance situations where the personnel and repertoire are fairly fixed as well as situations where the performances and personnel may not occur or assemble again. The regularly occurring performances are in restaurant/bars where the management appreciates music and takes pride in making a place where music can be presented as an art and not as a backdrop to small talk.
To this day there is a tacit understanding that jazz improvising comes less from study and practice than from divine inspiration. That includes a premise that the more deeply one is ensconced in a culture of literacy, the less able one is to “properly” perform jazz music. Of course, most professional musicians know this to be fallacy. The best and best-known jazz icons throughout the history of the genre learned the basics of music at an early age and continued to engage in intensive training throughout their careers. Jazz is not, nor was it born of, a musically illiterate culture, although it is generally accepted to be born from a culture that was kept illiterate for purposes of controlling them.
What a pleasure to play in pianist/composer David Lopato’s concert at the University of the Streets performance space last Tuesday. The line-up included; Marty Ehrlich on clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones, and flute; James Shipp on vibraphone and hand percussion; Richie Barshay on drums and percussion; and Hal Friedman on piano (when David and I were playing synthesizers).
Pop music, like most of pop culture, sees itself as a commodity to be marketed commercially, targeting its listeners as mere consumers with the end result being to make money for those who distribute it—with the actual manufacture of the media (LP, cassette tape, CD, etc.) as part of the distribution process—while those who create the music in the first place receive as little remuneration as possible.
I don’t claim the music of Frank Sinatra to be “inferior” to anyone’s and I have no problem, per se, with his music. In fact, I like it … a lot—even his drivel, like “High Hopes.” Ole’ Blue Eyes studied his craft diligently and held his music to high artistic standards. His bands played great arrangements and included top-notch musicians. But Sinatra’s music isn’t a vehicle that I find conducive for my artistic standards. For one thing, there aren’t enough bass solos.
My blog from last week inspired one of my regular off-site commentators to a criticism that raises an important issue about American music. The springboard for the comment was my admission that a group I am in had agreed to explore a new strategy in our improvisation with the end of “presenting something palatable to a broader audience than just ourselves.”
We’ve been playing as a group for about a year and at first we created very long pieces that morphed from one idea to the next, but a decision was made early on to work on shorter pieces that focus on a single idea with the goal of presenting something palatable to a broader audience than just ourselves. This agenda allows us to play well-known pieces as well as free improvisations without putting off the jazz “purists”.
The remainder of the International Society of Bassists convention was both stunning and anticlimactic. I listened to bassist Gene Perla play a fabulous set of music with locals pianist Sean Gough and drummer John Arkin and joined by vocalist Viktorija Gecyte. Wayne Darling followed by displaying his flowing over-the-bar approach to jazz improvisation with pianist Bill Mays.