Monday, April 13, 2009

Sort Of

George Winston--"Rain" (mp3)
Ralph Towner--"Winter Solstice" (mp3)

It's a question that poets and artists, if not philosophers, have pondered: does the pale imitation undermine the real thing? Does commerce diminish art? Can B get you to A?

Was Hemingway right when he told Fitzgerald that F. Scott's commercial writing was weakening his "real" writing? Will a lifetime of Aunt Jemima's syrup bring about an eventual conversion to the more complex pleasures of Grade B Vermont Maple Syrup? Does the Quarter Pounder with Cheese make you want to know what all the Kobe beef fuss is about?

Yes, my friends, I have grappled with these very issues, and musically.

Back before there was New Age or any of that kind of stuff, before John Tesh became a household name, there was ECM. ECM was (and still may be) a record label specializing in a kind of jazz, a jazz of a type. There was a starkness there, a clean, crisp, but almost sterile production sensibility, airy melodies in odd keys, instruments with unusual tunings, and, for a college student in the late 70's, the sense that I had never heard anything like it.

While ECM never was the main focus of my listening, being the rocker that I am, it did intrigue me enough to follow my brother's lead into an exploration of this kind of jazz. For us, the twin gods of ECM were Ralph Towner, and, especially, Keith Jarrett. My brother once proclaimed, and I still ponder the idea, that he would like to have Ralph Towner's "Icarus" played at his funeral. Clarification: I don't ponder playing it at his funeral; he'll probably outlive me. But I still think, when I hear it, how Towner's composition captures both the desolation of a lost loved one with a kind of hope. Perfectly titled song. Keith Jarrett was the one we really listened to. His Koln Concert recording was eye-opening to me for two reasons: 1) it was absolutely beautiful and 2) it was completely improvisational, which was something I couldn't even fathom.

Of course, when we went to see him in concert, jazz neophyte that I was, I kind of went hoping to hear my favorite portion of the Koln Concert.

Uh, Bob, it was improvisational, remember?

Seeing Jarrett in concert was also my first experience of getting "shushed" by the artist (the other was Neil Young a year or two later, who quit playing in the middle of his acoustic set because people were yelling and clapping and cavorting during "Sugar Mountain;" Neil said, 'I'm sorry, folks, I love music too much' and left the stage). Jarrett did not want us to clap or make any noise at all during the songs because it would disturb his concentration. A bit pompous, I'd say, but who was I to know.

And then came George Winston. George was the popular, best-selling pianist who took ECM into its profitable stage and helped to usher in the New Age. I listened to him quite a bit in the late 80's as kind of an update of my jazz side. But, he wasn't really jazz, was he? You can listen to the selection above and decide for yourself. My sense is that he is kind of a Salieri to Keith Jarrett's Mozart, if you've seen the movie Amadeus. Not as talented, not as complicated, not enough variations in his cycles through the same melodic passage. We saw him here for a well-received show. Perfectly enjoyable and pleasant, but kind of ho-hum like an Alison Kraus performance. It just reminds you that there is better stuff out there.

And that is my point: Winston doesn't do much for me now (though, in the selection above, I do like that repetitive passage that begins at 1:02). But, I'd like to think that he did lead me to better things, that my appreciation of pianists like McCoy Tyner, Dave Brubeck, Marcus Roberts, that my smattering of forays into more accomplished jazz are the result of swimming in the kiddie pool with George Winston.

It's the same approach that I took with my children and music. I never tried to control what they listened to, but I did play what I liked along with what they liked in kind of a democratic attempt to lead them into different, what I consider better, areas. I don't know. I think it worked. It worked for me when I was a kid and my dad was blasting Glenn Miller all the time. And, my younger daughter enjoys studying to Mozart, and I heard her humming Tom Petty just the other day.

The entire stable of ECM artists, including other temporary favorites like Jan Garbarek and Pat Metheny, is available at Itunes.


John said...

Loved this post and definitely agree that tastes can grow from rather modest beginnings. Maybe that's one of the reasons so many readers of this blog are in education in one or another way--we believe that people can be educated to like poetry that doesn't rhyme, novelists who use complex syntax, and even movies that are more than just a few months old. While I appreciate the guilty pleasures of the new Keith Urban cd, I don't pretend to think that I'll be listening to him in ten years. That Keith Jarret Koln Concert,'s just timeless genius...

John said...

George doesn't label himself as a Jazz or New Age pianist. "Rural folk" is what he likes to call it. I'm not sure I've heard him clarify in words what he means by Rural Folk, but my interpretation is he's taken his stride, rhythm and blues base (have you heard his first album?) and applied it to interpretations of the rural life he grew up in. In the 1996 PBS special, where he plays "Rain", he describes it as interpreting the storms he grew up around in Montana. Like him, or not, that is poetry.