Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Discursive and Embodied Jazz in Days Gone By

In the beginning was the Word....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us--John 1:1, 14.

One wag has said that sentimentality is caring about something more than God. If true, that would be idolatry, an offense to God, reason, and even to oneself, since one was designed for better things. Thus, it is best avoided. Nonetheless, one may savor--or even pine over--the goodness of things now rare or extinct. We should applaud the past as well as hissing it when necessary.

That brings me to Stan Kenton's 1959 album, "Standards in Silhouette," which I just acquired for a welcome low price. As I was listening to these mellifluous melodies and sonorous solos, placed into Kenton's unique orchestral voicings, I was also reading--and there was much of great interest to read on the back cover as well as on both sides of the album jacket. An introductory essay explained the mood of the album as "blue." Each piece of music was thoughtfully described in a short paragraph. There was a black and white photograph, but it did not dominate the back cover. Prominent was the claim that this recording was "full dimensional stereo," which was only then breaking on to the scene. In fact, the very concept of stereophonic music and something of its technology was explained on one side of the album jacket. I marveled at the clarity and seriousness of the prose. It was assumed that the buyer of this record was interested in how stereophonic differed from monaural sound representation. One was also instructed that a special "cartridge" was needed to play stereophonic albums. A monaural cartridge (and needle) would not do; in fact, it could damage a stereophonic album. However, a stereophonic cartridge and needle would not damage a monaural record.

Now, this may seem like ancient and rather boring musical and technological history, but consider how discursive and embodied it all is. Albums took up space and offered room for words, if desired. The words and music complemented each other. The words (both about the technology and the nature of the music itself) introduced and augmented the music. If one listened intently and read the descriptions (of the music ) and explanations (of the technology), one's sensorium would be taken up with the event a rich and multidimensional manner. You would be taken up and taken in.

Fast forward (to use an outmoded technological expression based on tape recordings) fifty years and consider the means by which most now usually listen to recorded music. Subtract both the embodied and discursive quality. First, the CD, which was smaller, taking up less space, having no album jacket, and using technologies more opaque than groves and needles. Second, consider music put on digital files on iPods and so on. "There is no there there," as was once said about Oakland. The music's medium is now disembodied completely. Sound is produced, but not housed in any form that is graspable, visible, or tangible. One downloads music, not entire albums necessarily. Then one creates one's own play lists, instead of listening to the ordering of music as conceived and recorded by the artist.

What has happened? Well, more than I can write here. But consider miniaturization (a large- scale trend applicable to most technological change) and dematerialization. CD were smaller than albums. The iPod is smaller than a CD and holds oceans of data (if the metaphor is apt). Sounds is still presented through a technology, but the medium itself has radically altered from what I described in the second paragraph is this essay. This, I aver, affects the experience of music qua music. The idea of a "concept album" (such as "Standards in Silhouette) is nearly lost, given the dematerialization which allows for rearrangement of musical units. And whereas one might carry around an album and let friends read the essays on the back cover and dust jacket, no such thing is possible with an iPod. Some CDs come with booklets that may contain significant essays. This is often true with vintage jazz records by the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I often read fine essays by Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddens, Francis Davis, and others. Yet even here, the feel, the materiality of the record album is diminished, even if not lost entirely. And, of course, if you bracket the problem of pops, albums sound better than CD and CDs sound better than iPods.

Given this phenomenology and ontology of the jazz record album (that's what I was discussing, to use pompous philosophical language), I pine for this kind of embodiment and discursiveness (or textuality). But if one haunts the right stores and retains the necessary technologies (my 1973 Pioneer turntable and tube amplifier), these discrete sublimities may still offer their (dated and delicious) charms.

Now, who wants to have a record party?

Jazz at Jacks

What's the word on Jazz at Jacks in downtown Denver? It appears to have a smooth jazz ambience, or am I wrong?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Title, A Judgment

This is the title of an instrumental piece of music from the 1976 Keith Jarrett release, "Mysteries"--"Everything that lives laments." This stunned me.

"Paris Blues"

Today I found a mono record album of "Paris Blues" (1961), taken from the film with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, and Diahann Carroll. The music is by Duke Ellington, with a guest appearance by Louis Armstrong. I saw the film on video cassette some years ago, but it has not been released in the US as a DVD.

The music is superb, and features a small combo version of "Take the A Train" and take of "Mood Indigo" featuring trombone. Besides Ellington and Armstrong, no musicians are named on the album, although I recognize Johnny Hodges, who sounds like no other alto (or other) saxophonist I have ever heard. His slurs, articulation, and dynamic precision are astounding and instantly recognizable.

This was quite a find (for $5), since the CD on Amazon goes for over $40. I purchased it at Wax Trax in Denver, an excellent and affordable store for jazz albums. (However, I cannot say much for the music they usually play in the store [mostly punk and metal], and you better be prayed up before going into the bathroom). I found the trailer for the film on YouTube. The basic plot is that a two jazz men--one white, one black--go to Paris to find their musical muse. Paris was more welcoming to black jazz musicians in that day as well as more appreciative of jazz. (Not a few jazz musicians--such as avant-guarde drummer Sonny Murray and post-bebop tenor saxophonist, Dexter Gordon--found sanctuary there.) Newman and Poitier also find supernaturally beautiful lovers. There is sexual intimacy without commitment (otherwise known as sin), producing some broken hearts in the process. I'd like to watch the film again now that I know more about jazz. As a cultural artifact, it would be fascinating; it likely displays some Existentialist themes, given jazz and the time period.

Let me know if you have seen the film and if you have any commentary on it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Heidi Schmidt at D'Vine Wine

"God bless the Child."

Local musical artist, Heidi Schmidt, performed at D'Vine Wine (1660 Champa) tonight in downtown Denver from 6:00-to after 9:00 PM. Heidi played acoustic guitar and sang, and was supported by Peter Taylor on acoustic guitar and Jeremiah Johnson on tenor saxophone.

Since I arrived before anyone I knew, I was able to sit and simply listen for most of my time there (7:45-9:00), while sipping a good and reasonably-priced glass of wine. The combo graced us with jazz standards, such as "Summer time" (which I requested), "God Bless the Child," and others. At first, the instrumentation struck me as a bit odd and improbable for jazz. Yes, the jazz trio is a staple of the music, but it usually is comprised of piano, bass, drums; or bass, guitar, piano; or organ, drums, and guitar; or (rarely) saxophone, bass, drums (you need a killer saxophonist to make that work: think Sonny Rollins back in the 1950s). But two acoustic guitars, vocals, and saxophone is an unlikely arrangement.

Or so I thought. Heidi often accompanied herself and Peter accompanied and soloed capably. Jeremiah soloed soulfully and did not overwhelm the guitars, which is a real possibility with the tenor, which John Coltrane called, "the power horn." I never missed bass or drums, because all flowed together so seemlessly and beautifully.

Heidi (I met her, so I suppose I can keep using her first name) has a warm and expressive pressence without being a poser. She has a strong and supple voice and is a very good guitarist as well. I don't know of too many female jazz vocalists who accompany themselves on acoustic guitar. In fact, I cannot think of any. The show-stopper was "God Bless the Child," a Billie Holiday centerpiece, which is often performed, but rarely performed well, since it requires a vocal and emotional range that few can touch. Heidi (and her saxophonist) touched it. They reached deep and found gold.

This is jazz!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Entering an Old but New World

Duke Ellington's music, as performed by his orchestra, is so large, so refined, so warm, so fascinating, so painfully beautiful at times. I am just a neophyte to it all, since my love of jazz has been mostly limited to smaller groups, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. But an entire orchestra, led by the Duke, at full throttle, simply is "beyond category." I thank God for this gift of aesthetic goodness.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Edward Kennedy Ellington

Duke Ellington,

note selection,
sound perfection,
beauty protection.

Concentration. Concertation.

Elegance. Elation. Elevation.



Duke Ellington!

Doug Groothuis Reviews Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith

Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. 218 pages. $14.99. ISBN: 978-0-310-28252-5.

[First published in Denver Journal.]

There have been too many attempts to link Christianity to something else in order to jazz it up—as if the Gospel itself was not sufficiently compelling. Those both on the liberal and conservative ends of the theological spectrum—and even those in the middle—have been guilty of this. The “Christian atheism” of the middle 1960s took this to an absurd extreme. Jesus has been likened to a CEO, a therapist, a salesman, and so on, in order to pad his paltry resume. At best, these efforts highlight something in Jesus not previously apparent. At worst, they deny Christianity and replace it with an ersatz religion that has no gospel at all (see Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:6-11). Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the cosmos, does not need to be jazzed up. Nor does Christianity need a make over.

Robert Gelinas avoids these pitfalls by showing that jazz can teach much about following Jesus. In fact, we should “compose a jazz-shaped faith.” Gelinas, a Denver pastor and graduate of Denver Seminary, neither twists the gospel, nor forces jazz into an alien religious mold. Instead, he finds in jazz deep and fascinating themes that resonate with the adventure and challenge of Christian living. Although he is not a musician, Gelinas discovered jazz in college and loves “the gospel in jazz.” Readers of this revealing book will come to know more of jazz and more about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

After recounting his initiation into jazz, Gelinas briefly explains the nature of the music. Louis Armstrong said, “Jazz is jazz,” but this does not go too far. Jazz grew largely out of the music of African-American slaves. African music was mixed with Christian themes learned from their oppressors. “Pain gave way to the blues, and the blues gave way to jazz—they are all connected.” Gelinas, an African American, says that “to talk about jazz it to talk about race”—and the plight of African Americans, who were, in the words of Ralph Ellison, “un-free in a free land.”
The origin and nature of jazz is a deeply contested subject. While one cannot deny that jazz was born and grew up from the African American experience, it has roots and variations that place it beyond any one racial ethos. Gelinas never claims that “jazz is black” or that non-blacks have not contributed greatly to jazz. However, his narrative overemphasizes the racial element somewhat. Later in the book, Gelinas states that “jazz was produced by those who were ‘un-free in a free land,’” thus excluding those musicians who were freer in a free land because they were not black. White musicians such as Benny Goodman (who led one of the first racially integrated jazz bands), Harry James, Dave Brubeck, and many others filled out the multicolored pallet of jazz. Despite this minor caveat, Gelinas explores a vital aspect of the music: jazz as a form of life seeking freedom and justice for those wrongly denied it.

Jazz displays many creative, ennobling, and beautiful elements. Gelinas emphasizes its roots in the blues, syncopation, improvisation, ensemble cooperation, and creative tension—all modes of being that should be applied to the Christian life.

The blues are rooted in the pain of living in a fallen world, but refuse to wallow there. The old slave songs and spirituals lamented a life lived in chains, but transcended the bondage through song itself, and hoped for those chains to unbound one day. The blues roots of jazz give it a gritty sense of hope for a fallen world crying out for redemption. We, too, should see life for what it is, lament the losses, but press on with vision for better things through the power of God today and tomorrow and in the End.

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing. The jazz rhythm emphasizes the off beat, and, as Duke Ellington put it in a song title, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” To transpose this to the Christian life, syncopating means emphasizing the off-beat, finding novelty, and having “en eye and ear for that which goes unnoticed and unheard in life,” as Gelinas puts it. Jesus syncopated when he saw what others missed and reached out to the socially invisible or ostracized. A jazz-shaped faith does the same thing: it learns how to swing.

Improvisation is also constitutive of jazz. “Improvisation is what allows jazz to exist in a continual state of renewal,” Gelinas notes. A player improvises within the theme of a piece of music, but brings something new and distinctively his or her own to the old. Louis Armstrong went so far as to say, “Jazz is music that’s never played the same way once.” Every jazz solo is an adventure of self-expression that must, nevertheless, harmonize with the self-expression of the other musicians. This collaborative aspect of jazz is what Gelinas calls “life in concert.” Each musician contributes something unique himself or herself, but never in isolation from the larger group. The metaphor from jazz is rich for Christian existence. We must find out own voice (or calling), but never merely for our own sake, but for the sake of the group (the Body of Christ) and before the audience (the listening world of unbelievers).

Thus far, I have been appreciative of Gelinas’s explanation of jazz themes and how they radiate models of Christian living. He gets inside of jazz and pulls out some hip chops. As a jazz lover and Christian, I say, “Pastor, you swing!” However, as a philosopher, I must address a few missed notes found in the chapter “Creative Tension.” Gelinas rightly emphasizes that jazz thrives on tension and does not fear it. Being creative—as genuine jazz always is—means being willing to risk on stage. If one improvises on a melody, one may miss the melody entirely. Wrong notes are hit—and then cannot be hidden or retracted. As jazz critic, Ted Gioia puts it, jazz is “the imperfect art” because it requires composing on the spot during solos; those accompanying improvise as well. Gelinas tells of John Coltrane’s pursuit of musical excellence and the tensions he had to face and overcome in that musical and spiritual journey. So far, Gelinas is solidly in the groove.

But he goes out of key by applying the ideas of tension and especially paradox to Christian living and theology. One the one hand, a tension may pull us in two directions simultaneously and to good effect. For example, Christians are to be in the world, but not of it. There is no contradiction here. We should not escape cultural involvement (Matthew 5:13-16), but we should not be defined and defiled by the ways of the fallen world (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.). As Gelinas notes, a suspension bridge stays up precisely because of the tension supporting it.
Nonetheless, when Gelinas speaks of paradoxes he threatens to undermine the coherence and truthfulness of Scripture, of theology, and of apologetics. Gelinas writes that “I believe in absolute truth, and I believe that truth can be known.” Moreover, he believes the Bible is true. Yet Gelinas claims that the Bible affirms many paradoxes. He cites James Lucas’s ominously entitled book, Knowing the Unknowable God: “Resist your enemies and love them; ignore hypocritical spiritual leaders and obey them…” Gelinas calls these paradoxes “impossible possibilities,” which, of course, sounds contradictory. Gelinas writes that “I no longer read books that offer the Scriptures devoid of seeming contradictions. I take them for what they are—the words of the most creative being in the universe.” Yet he affirms that the Bible contains no real contradictions. Can we make sense of this?

A contradiction occurs when one statement is logically incompatible with another statement. Consider: (1) Doug Groothuis can play the tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and (2) Doug Groothuis cannot play tenor saxophone solo on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” If someone told you that both (1) and (2) were true, because this is a paradox (and not a contradiction), you would send them off to the woodshed for more practice in logic. There is no reason to think that the conjunction of (1) and (2) could be true without some plausible way of resolving the opposition between (1) and (2).

Now, if the Bible is true in all that it affirms, it cannot contradict itself (or any truth outside of what is stated in the Bible). One may try to rescue or protect the Bible from apparent contradiction by invoking the category of paradox, but unless there are plausible ways of resolving the paradoxes, they appear more like flat-out contradictions. And if any two statements contradict each other (in the Bible or elsewhere), they cannot both be true. At least one of them must be false. Even Charlie Parker would not improvise his way out of that kind of tension.

This issue is tremendously important for theology and apologetics. A necessary criterion for theology is that Scripture must be viewed as a system, a coherent set of truth claims. If any theology affirms that a proposition is both affirmed and denied in Scripture, then that theology is contradictory; and it is, therefore, false. In apologetics (the rational defense of Christianity as true and knowable), noncontradiction is likewise a necessary criterion for truth. In commending the Christian worldview, the apologist must present it as a logically coherent model of reality. For example, the apologist cannot claim that the idea of the Incarnation (Christ as both human and divine) is an irresolvable paradox and hope to draw anyone closer to Christianity through reasoning. Apologetics needs a strategy to argue that the doctrine of the God-Man is logically coherent. (On this, see the section on the Incarnation in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology.)

One can appreciate Gelinas’s recognition of paradoxes in the Bible and his desire to stay true to Scripture by not imposing a false coherence upon biblical teaching. One can also agree that the Christian life presents us with some difficult existential tensions. However, if one is left with a Bible rife with irresolvable paradoxes, then there is no reason to think that Scripture affirms truth that is absolute, noncontradictory, and knowable (as Gelinas commendably does). As the philosopher Gordon Clark said, “A paradox is a Charlie Horse between the ears.” As such, paradoxes should be dissolved, not embraced.

Gelinas does briefly write dealing with paradoxes by finding a tertium quid (third way), but he does not seem to realize that this strategy resolves the paradox. (The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a master of this method.) Soon after mentioning the tertium quid strategy, Gelinas continues to write of “embracing tensions.” But the tertium quid strategy releases tension by providing a logically satisfying solution to the apparent contradiction (that is, paradox).
Despite my philosopher’s complaint against about five pages of this 218-page book, I applaud Pastor Gelinas’s creative, knowledgeable, and winsome way of bringing jazz and Christianity together. While I wish he had developed the biblical concept of justification by faith in more detail in connection with the meaning of the Cross of Christ, I am happy to report that his next book will be called Strange Fruit: A Jazz Theology of the Cross.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jazz Impressarios Unite

How many creative ways are there for non-musicians to introduce people to this majestic music we call jazz? One need not be a concert promoter or recording executive. Here is one simple idea.

When you are in a public place, such as a coffee shop, ask someone in charge if he or she could change the music jazz. I did this (in a very low key way) tonight at Solid Grounds Coffee Shop (a comfortable and friendly and pretty place in Littleton), thus changing the environment for the better.

Let us know if you have some other ideas.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In the Light: Keith Jarrett

Many years ago, I read a review (perhaps in Rolling Stone) waxing nearly mystical about Keith Jarrett's double-album entitled, "In the Light" (1974). Yet, for some reason, I never purchased the recording or even heard it. Last week, however, I found the album at the premier music store of Denver--Twist and Shout--for only $2.99. At the time, Jarrett was playing in jazz trios and other smaller groups. But this recording is from another place. Jarrett composed for a sympathy orchestra, a brass quintet, and only performs on two of the pieces.

I have neither yet listened to, nor come close to digesting, this enigmatic and intriguing offering. Rather, I want to relate a comment made by Jarrett on the liner notes (as they used to be called). Realizing that many would not understand this piece of work, he gives a brief apologetic for artistic freedom. This paragraph gripped my attention:

Western Society is so hung up today on the great god "Opinion" that they [sic] are beginning to forget the there is such a thing as Truth. This is a direct parallel to the fact of their being also hung up on "Style" and forgetting that there is such a think as Music and, whereas something is either True or not, something is either Music or not.

Jarrett is presenting his work, this music, as something worth considering, worth listening to in its own right--apart from conventional senses of style and mere opinion. He is asking us to attend to objective qualities inherent in the art. In C.S. Lewis's categories, Jarrett is bidding us to "receive" the music instead of "using" it according to a predetermined purpose and sensibility. To receive a piece of art-whatever the art form: painting, photography, writing, or music--requires that we let it be what it is to us, that we not make it mere fodder for our own devices or desires. This requires discipline, a bridling of ego--in a work, humility.

Humility is a virtue and a gateway into reality. Art may (or may not) summon it forth.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jazz On Line

Here is a free Internet portal for various styles of jazz. I just found it. There is no "avant-garde" or "free jazz" option, though; and the fidelity is not the best. Do you have any other suggestions for jazz music sources on line?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Three Wishes

In 2008, a fascinating document of jazz history was revealed to the public: Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, a collection of photographs of jazz musicians in New York taken by The Jazz Baroness, Pannonic de Koenigswarter (or Nica). In the 1960s, She asked many of these musicians what their three wishes were. I am only part way through the book (more commentary to come on this blog), but two sets of answers stand out to me:

Ornette Coleman:

1. Eternal life.
2. Love.
3. Happiness.

Mary Lou Williams:

1. To love God more.
2. To do His will.
3. That he should save souls through me.

Think on these things...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Mostly Coltrane." Steve Kuhn Trio (2009)

Although not familiar with Mr. Kuhn's work, I had a veridical hunch that this recording would be excellent. Why?
1. Joe Lovano, one of the most distinctive and virtuosic saxophonists of our time played on it.
2. Mr. Kuhn had played briefly with John Coltrane. 3.
It was mostly the music of John Coltrane.
4. ECM, the incomparable, was the label.

All the musicians have a deep sensitivity for this music, which they play respectfully but creatively. You feel the spirit of Trane, but as it is reflected through the prism of each of these superb musicians. Mr. Kuhn is a rich and sometimes surprising pianist. Mr. Lovano has gotten completely inside these pieces and Trane's playing as well. He is confident in his own voice, yet inspired by the feel of Trane. Mr. Baron is highly creative and plays the difficult no-time pieces flawlessly. The band plays material from all of Trane's moods, including some of the more difficult late-period music, which takes considerable courage to play. They execute it all flawlessly.

There is beauty in this world. Let us give thanks and enjoy it.

"On the Road with Duke Ellington" (DVD Review)

"On the Road with Duke Ellington" is less a full documentary of Duke's incomparable life as it is a glimpse of his life on the road in the mid to late 1960s. We hear him speak of his passion for music-making and life in general (including his philosophy of breakfast).

The film is minimally and tastefully narrated, and lets Duke and his orchestra do the talking. We see and hear Duke with his road band, with symphony orchestras, performing sacred music, and in a trio format, which ends the film. His rendition of "Take the A Train" accompanied by only bass and drums is (to use a Duke-ism) "beyond category." There is so much information supercharged in every note, every chord, and every pause...that one feels the entire history of jazz in just a few fleeting but unforgettable moments.

I hate most all television for many reasons, but this was shown on television in 1974. In this case, the medium fits the message, even if the man is larger than life. I recommend it to every student and lover of jazz.

Legends, All

Can you name all these cats?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Prayer as Improvising

My fellowship, Wellspring Anglican Church, offers a wonderful "side altar" ministry during communion, which we celebrate every week. One or two people stand in the back and offer prayer for anyone who seeks it out. These "prayer ministers," who are selected by a person well-schooled in the discipline, are given a few basic guidelines on what to do. We do not counsel; we do not touch the person without asking; and so on. The ministers simply wait for people to walk to the back of the sanctuary and ask for prayer.

On Saturday night, I was reflecting that my service the next day as a prayer minister had a lot in common with a solo in jazz. One needs to know the tradition, listen to the other cats playing, and improvise accordingly.

I have been praying with the Bible as my guide since I became a Christian in 1976. I have read all the biblical prayers, some (especially in the Psalms) many, many times. I have prayed most of the prayers in the Scriptures and have prayed in other ways countless times over the years, doing this by myself and in groups. I am not a virtuosi, but I am a journeyman.

As a prayer minister, I have no idea what people will ask me to pray about. It could concern health, relationships, or direction in life. There are no written prayers to read at that time, although the Book of Common Prayer contains many deeply biblical and powerful prayers. As I pray, my chops come from my knowledge of the Bible and from the presence of the person before me. I have to have "big ears" to hear what these souls are saying and what the Holy Spirit may be saying to me about them. I endeavor to pray according to the biblical tradition, in terms of the spiritual lessons learned in my life, and the through the inspiration in the moment to love my brother or sister in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am sometimes surprised by what I pray. Sometimes I seem to get "in the grove." Other times, I wonder. But I do not have the option of remaining silent. I must improvise--in the pressence of the Lord and his people.