Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice
Landing on the Wrong Note is a very serious book. (By definition, any work discussing the idea of dissonance in jazz must handle the matter with care in order to avoid becoming noisy itself.) To properly appreciate Landing on the Wrong Note you have to put on your thinking cap, find a quiet place, and wade through a high density of ideas. (I personally recommend a long flight or train trip as the ideal opportunity to bite into the book.)
If you're willing to put in the effort, it can be a really enlightening read. In reviewing this book, I've chosen to deal with the ideas in the author's own termsin order to effectively communicate some of the complexity involved. It is my hope that AAJ readers might also benefit directly from a blow-by-blow summary of the seven substantive essays in Landing on the Wrong Note.
What I've written here can be taken as encapsulated information and argument on its own. Those interested in the gory details should view this discussion as a starting point for their own exploration of Landing on the Wrong Note. The rest will hopefully find my summary an item of interest in and of itself. Heble's book is truly outstandingthe very fact that I've chosen to discuss it at such length should be evidence that it's worth your attention. And most importantly, it's not just a book by a critic for critics.
So take the review as a starting point, or use it as an endpoint. It's your choice, but I would heartily encourage any reader interested in the deeper ideas behind the evolution of modern jazz to read onward...
Much has been said about the role of dissonance in expanding the palette of sounds available to the jazz musician. Ajay Heble, a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, offers a collection of essays in Landing on the Wrong Note which deals with specific sociocultural/musicological/linguistic aspects of this idea.
Heble's primary interest, apparent throughout the book, is the conceptual and cultural framework behind paradigm shifts in jazz. His style betrays an academic bent, with an abundance of quotes from other sources and a marked degree of sophistication in vocabulary and construction. This intellectually demanding aspect may deter readers interested in quick and easy consumption, but it has the advantage of offering a rigorous framework often missing in books about jazz.
To be honest, much of the extant literature about jazz relies upon personal anecdotes, subjective opinion, and storytelling. Landing on the Wrong Note , on the other hand, relies on logic, precedent, and systematic integration of ideas across many fields of study.
The first and by far the most compelling essay in the collection addresses linguistic aspects of the free jazz revolution. Heble uses as his musical framework the innovations put forth by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor around 1960. The author contextualizes the invention of free jazz with post-structuralist linguistic developments from around the same time. Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics from 1966perhaps the most compelling of these documentsadvances the idea that verbal meaning can be viewed as a relational construct among words. Thus linguistic expression offers a distinct realm of meaning when words are considered not just in relation to objects in reality, but also relative to other words.
One example Heble chooses from Saussure's book is the idea that the Geneva-to-Paris express train holds its particular identity not because it's a train, but because it's "different from all the other trains in the timetable." Using the same framework, one can view musical ideas within collective improvisation as holding meaning not in relation to the distinctly European concept of diatonic structure and the all-important root, but instead (most significantly) in relation to simultaneous improvisation.
Heble's thesis, elaborated upon at length, is that musical lines can hold specific meaning relative to other musical linesin the absence of any adherence to conventional tonal structure. Thus the "dissonant" musical statements of Coleman and Taylor from around 1960 offered something novel by making use of inter-relational meaning. It's a compelling argument which is hard to deny. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, one of today's most articulate proponents of post-structuralism as a basis for collective improvisation, makes a similar point in his interview for AAJ.