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Journey into Jazz

Transcendental Jazz: Does It Exist?

By Published: January 11, 2004

Jarrett sounds, unaided and unembellished by electronics and even other instruments, as an angel performing on the earth



Aparna is a close friend who not only blessed with a heavenly voice, a deep insight into vocal music and a restless questioning mind... it’s fun to sit discussing with her all the pros and cons of music right from downright trivial to the soul-uplifting philosophical ones. More about her can be found at www.aparnapanshikar.com .

I did startle here with the observation that a perceptive American psychiatrist has said that dialogue between two humans is usually doomed to failure because when A talks to B, there’s A’s perception of himself lets call it A1 and then B’s perception of A, lets call it A2—on the other hand there’s A’s perception of B, lets call it B1 and then B’s own perception of herself, lets call it B2: so you have six images there trying to butt in, shout down and distract one another! Food for thought indeed.

She did a bit more by declaring later in this tête-à-tête that there are moments, and this fact should be marked, only sometimes when the artiste gets so lost in performing that the depth of the artistic expression, the emotional outpour appears to transform itself into a might river and slowly the artiste cannot control it any more. It’s a spooky realization, she tells me, that her persona is taken over by an inner force, and she no longer has any control on the wonderfully creative process of producing the most pleasing permutations and combinations of musical notes within a specified frame of a scale like prescription called the raag [or raga].

On further probing several other equally thought-provoking issues emerged. She further said it was like making love to yourself, a statement that is a tad too hard to get your teeth into if you cannot sing at all and perhaps less so if you have experienced any transcendental moments in expression through singing. Much more food for thought here too.

However further scrutiny of the reflections also yielded a treasure trove of emotions because she said usually when such a magic moment arrives, and it is very rare, then she feels she has turned into an instrument. Just who controls her, who strums her or who generates those celestial melodies, is something she would not pay attention to because as I feel her everyday persona has dissolved into some fourth dimensional entity or perhaps higher.

Music being truly universal in nature, it is common to listen to such observations come from those who take their music seriously. Those who are devoted artistes, or those who have added a spiritual angle to their music be it instrumental or vocal. The prime example that leaps to my mind is that of John Coltrane, whose playing—especially in his earlier albums like A Love Supreme and Ballads, etc. betrays this dogged insistence on climbing up the transcendental ladder... the spiritual angle is never missed by those whose ears are trained to separate the wheat from the chaff when spirituality enters music. We were talking about Indian classical vocal music in the paragraphs above, and it stands to reason that John Coltrane betrayed a clear leaning towards Indian influences in his later years. It is unfortunate that as a musician he was continually developing, and I suspect, turning inwards—so a bulk of his free jazz bordering on the avant-garde is not so easily decipherable to the ears trained for melody more than harmony.

However it is a safe bet that had he carried on relentlessly on the same path i.e. the path which allowed him to embellish his improvisations with a spiritual angle and absorb more Indian classical influences, we could have seen the birth of a true fusion -where all that is common to Jazz and Hindustani music could have bloomed into pastures that exist on in select chambers of our minds...

Sun Ra is another example, who sometimes speaks of such transcendental effects in his own music—which is usually erratic in nature according to many discerning jazz lovers and critics. My personal assessment is that whenever his music ‘clicks’ it does so with a bang: the jazziness gets pushed a notch higher and the quality of his wildly unpredictable but delectable improvisation turns a delightful new hue.

Then there is Keith Jarrett whose music, especially the more elaborate and rather introverted performances like some of the live concerts e.g. Cologne Concert, wherein he grunts, mumbles and seems to forget there exists an audience out there... all this points unequivocally in the direction that an inner force is struggling with the more self-conscious performing artiste (why else the groans?) who’s into a balancing act with an unpredictable backseat rider on a bicycle built for two. It would be presumptuous to say that the average listener can discern the ephemeral effects of two such forces belting out a single melody: like Ferrante and Teischer rolled into one, but the vital fact remains that at certain points in the celestial improvisations, the melody becomes so powerfully evocative of the Indian traditions that one fails to realize where the music slips from one category to another... that’s world music at its highest. Driven by the inner force: no wonder it has a global appeal. Jarrett sounds, unaided and unembellished by electronics and even other instruments, as an angel performing on the earth to many who have never heard him earlier—there’s this transcendental quality in his music which has to be experienced. Try his Spheres an album he recorded in an obscure German village with a 700 year old massive organ—and only the severely tone deaf can miss that celestial quality of transcendental music here. Jarrett reaches out and touches the stars routinely. George Winston, someone who hardly ever gets jazz billing, manages this sort of lyrical beauty in his piano playing too. What we are talking about is rather too diffuse, and for those readers who may be sharpening their axes to chop this piece to mincemeat, I would say whoa! Hold your horses, there’s more to come...

Rahsaan Roland Kirk who most unfortunately got labeled as a crazy circus artiste more and hardly ever like a serious jazz artiste who contributed solidly to the growth of free jazz, used to talk about such a transcendental effect, in fact many do even today. But that takes serious efforts. For the uninitiated, I would strongly recommend big dollops of my personal favorite Carla Marciano (who tells me she has been congratulated by John Coltrane’s cousin Mary for having recorded her tribute to the great Coltrane] whose music teeters on the transcendental, and often slips up into the other world effortlessly. There’s a natural charm in this game of hide and seek she plays with the terrestrial compulsions and the celestial forces. A most interesting display of fireworks, when she chooses to improvise on lines of John Coltrane, the Jazz Giant.

Cheers then, have a Great New Year... and do keep writing to me. I try to answer everyone.


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