Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Jungle Line (Joni Mitchell)

I'm still glowing from Herbie Hancock's Grammy award for his jazz homage to Joni - interesting analysis below... :-)

The New York Times
February 12, 2008

When something newsworthy or popular or positive happens to a jazz musician — a big award, say — many in the jazz world feel astonished for about four seconds, then quickly act very smug. You know: We’ve been sitting here patiently, full of our aesthetic virtue, so used to being ignored, and the world has finally come around to our point of view. Are we happy about it? More to the point, what took you so long?

Are we entitled to feel that way about “River: The Joni Letters,” by Herbie Hancock, being named album of the year at the Grammys on Sunday ? We could, but it would be silly. Perhaps the speculation is true that Amy Winehouse and Kanye West split the vote. And yes, it is very unusual to see a record of such modest sales win the big prize. But inasmuch as it is a jazz album, it is precisely the kind of jazz album that would win this award.

First, let’s just get this over with: Where were you in 1965, Recording Academy, when Mr. Hancock made his venerated album “Maiden Voyage”?

But look one year further back to 1964. “Getz/Gilberto” won, and besides “River,” it is the only more or less jazz album in 50 years of the Grammys to have earned this award. There might be instructive logic there to unravel why “River” beat some records that are far more successful and far more emblematic of their time. (“River” has sold around 55,000 copies, whereas Kanye West’s “Graduation” has sold two million.)

“Getz/Gilberto” was a collaboration between the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and the bossa nova musician João Gilberto, with his wife at the time, Astrud Gilberto, as occasional singer. It shares some important qualities with “River.”

Both are quite beautiful, though practical: experiments with strong ideas made moderate. Both are syncretist collaborations between a flexible jazz musician and a famously uncompromising genius who invented his or her own style — two musicians of putatively different worlds. Both feature light-voiced singing on a little less than half the tracks.

And on both, the drums sound chastened. (When a jazz record with really assertive, swinging rhythm wins album of the year, then jazz enthusiasts can feel smug. “Good taste” — an idea that means quite a lot in this category of the Grammys — can be telegraphed quickly by reducing the role of the drums.)

“River” isn’t just a jazz record. It is a singer-songwriter record. (Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen and Luciana Souza are on it, all singing Joni Mitchell songs, as is Ms. Mitchell herself.) It is soft-edged and literate and respectable. It seems, at least, intended as an audience bridger. And it also a very Grammy-ish record, not just because Mr. Hancock, and others on it, have won various Grammys in the past.

Institutions like to congratulate themselves, and giving the prize to “River” can be understood as a celebration of the academy’s more high-minded pop impulses. The best album category, in particular, is often a corrective or an apology for any excesses or shortcomings of the present.

It can amount to a sentimental, history-minded celebration of album culture. At this point it can conjure and lament a lost world of musicians and styles from the 1970s or before, those who actually played instruments, sometimes very well, and trusted their listeners to pay attention to them in 40-minute chunks. From the last 15 years of the award this idea could explain the victories of Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Steely Dan, Santana, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett and Eric Clapton. (It doesn’t explain Celine Dion, but if we perfectly understood the mind-set of academy members we wouldn’t watch the show.)

Some of what “River” accomplishes as a jazz record is serious indeed. Mr. Hancock’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” is the modern jazz process itself: a complete reharmonization of a familiar song, with rhythm that keeps vanishing and reappearing. Wayne Shorter’s saxophone playing on many tracks, including his own “Nefertiti” and Ms. Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin,” is casually brilliant — some kind of strange, subconscious vernacular. And though Ms. Mitchell has never called herself a jazz singer, her vocal performance on “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” has a rhythmic assurance that a lot of self-identifying jazz singers could use.

It’s a cool-tempered album, almost drowsy. In so many ways it does seem a strange choice, not just in its modest commercial profile but in that it’s the first album to win this particular award for either Mr. Hancock or Ms. Mitchell. Yet it is also august and exquisitely acceptable: precisely the qualities that this category of the Grammy Awards tends to orient itself around.

BOOK: Jazz Styles: History and Analysis by Mark C. Gridley

POEM: Nightclub by Billy Collins

You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

QUOTE: "A jazz musician is a juggler who uses harmonies instead of oranges." ~ Benny Green

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