De-Sprinkling the Stardust? Gary Giddins and Samuel Andreyev.
I’m currently having the great pleasure of reading ‘Jazz’ (first published in 2009), by the great critic Gary Giddins and the scholar/teacher Scott deVeaux. It takes the somewhat novel approach of interspersing, within the textual narrative of the music’s history, around 75 detailed breakdowns of celebrated single numbers, from Bessie Smith’s 'Reckless Blues’ to Anthony Braxton’s 'Piece Three’. These breakdowns are sophisticated and detailed, at times offering an almost second-to-second analysis of the musical action, much of which, as a non-musician, was completely over my head. (“Wilson embellishes the chord progression with a harmonic substitution” is an entirely typical description.) On the other hand, entries like “One last blast ends the piece” I can totally get my head round.
I know, I’m an 'amateur’, as Wire contributor Daniel Spicer helpfully pointed out recently.
Following, for example, the development of the Braxton piece, I found the breakdown fascinating and informative, helping me to appreciate both the composer and the band’s achievements, and thereby enhancing my appreciation of the work, but it did make me wonder: does this sort of thing scrub off some of the accumulated stardust of the composing and improvising? Breaking it down into its constituent parts can take away the magic of thinking “how did they do that?” Another example of this process of demystification can be experienced in the (wonderful) Samuel Andreyov’s vlogs about Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band. In one one of these, discussing Trout Mask Replica, he takes apart the opening track 'Frownland’, expertly describing what each member of this exceptional band is doing, exposing the bare bones of their achievement and displaying just how much bad faith Beefheart displayed in playing down just how 'magic’ this group of musicians in their early twenties really were.
Some free improvisers have ploughed a similar furrow within their own music - Dominic Lash with Derek Bailey and Jason Yarde with AMM. Free Improvisation remains a particularly difficult genre to write about, as I have found, and I tend to rely on analogy and impressions to convey its effects, lacking the dissecting tools to properly examine what the improvisers are actually doing in real time, as they weave their 'magic’. Lash’s deconstruction I found particularly mystifying, although I was in awe of his ability to 'understand’ what Bailey was up to. Obviously, there there are different epistemological variants at play here in portraying this music, and perhaps the most healthy one is a combined model?
The Giddins/DeVeaux book comes highly recommended, but in the end I found that the (admirable) methodology they have used left me just wanting to hear the music, unaided by their scalpels and dissections. Giddins still remains my critic 'of choice’ for jazz music, and I love his commentaries, many of which are readily available on YouTube.