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Being Here: Conversations On Creating Music

Ian Patterson By

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Being Here: Conversations On Creating Music
Radhika Philip
461 pages
ISBN: 13:978-0-989-488006
Radio.org
2013

New York has been the incubator for much of the most dynamic music in the history of jazz. For Bombay-born anthropologist Radhika Philip, witnessing one gig in Smalls was a life-changer. Seduced by the energy of the performance, the thrilling improvisations and the musicians' joyous communication, Philip was inspired to interview some of today's greatest improvisers and composers in order to better understand what exactly makes them click. In these candid conversations, 25 leading musicians shed light on the multiple processes involved in improvisation and composition.

Certain common threads link the narratives of interviewees such as guitarists Bill Frisell and Ben Monder, saxophonists Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman and David Binney, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Uri Caine amongst others—the most obvious being an openness to all music and an urge to experiment with form. Significantly perhaps, all bar saxophonist Mark Turner, cornet player/conductor Butch Morris, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Woody Shaw Jr. III do not see themselves as jazz musicians; clearly the reductive nature of the term—or indeed any defining term—is more of an issue than its political connotations.

"Music is not about style, it is about a certain reality and truth that goes into the music," says bassist William Parker. "They don't tell you that the strongest music you can play is your self-music, which can be just as strong as [saxophonist] John Coltrane's music." A constantly recurring theme is the necessity to pursue a personal sound: "I don't think it's possible to express what you really want to express by using someone else's materials," says bassist Thomas Morgan. "And so incidentally, the music that is most honest is also the most creative in general."

It's probably no coincidence that bebop doesn't register strongly on the radars of these musicians: "Playing bebop in a jam session now doesn't have the same significance it had in the forties," says Shaw Jr. III.

Economic considerations also play some part in the reluctance to embrace—or outright rejection—of the jazz label: "I am trying to diversify and place my music within an art context that opens up an entirely different financial bracket," says pianist Jason Moran. Though Philip doesn't pursue the question of money the music clearly doesn't exist in a vacuum and for many musicians there's a financial need to ply their trade in Europe: "In the past nine years not a dollar has paid my rent," attests Morris. "Most of my income still comes from Europe."

"Being here," it seems, also implies "being there" a significant proportion of the year—a reflection of just how marginal creative music is, even in New York.

Philip's subjects acknowledge being inspired in varying degrees by jazz's iconic figures without feeling constrained by the weight of the tradition or bound by stylistic considerations: "You have to keep yourself open to different influences...because that is what makes you grow," affirms drummer Kenny Wollesen. "It's all just music," says Frisell.

This openness to all music is explained by Blade thus: ..."the generation that I'm part of...is post so much. When I was coming up jazz was no longer popular music. Swing music was almost forgotten." The advent of soul, funk, pop and singer-songwriters, Blade explains, expanded musicians' horizons and their willingness to experiment in different genres: "I've never had these boundary lines placed around me."

The principal thrust of Philip's interviews, however, revolves around the creative process and the intent behind the music. Broadly speaking, Philip fires the same questions at her subjects whose answers are expansive, engaging and revealing. Improvisation, often perceived as the cornerstone of jazz/creative music is a key focus of Philip's investigation and the interviewer elicits some fascinating thoughts from the musicians on what's involved in playing free and the relative merits of improvised versus composed music.

One of the most thought-provoking responses comes from Frisell: "I think people mistake freedom. Making some sort of loud, edgy noise, which I still do sometimes, doesn't have anything to do with freedom. That Nashville (Nonsesuch, 1997) record—people said they thought I was playing it safe because the music didn't have dissonance or distortion and all this stuff... for me to go to Nashville and play with guys I didn't know was much more dangerous and edgy and adventurous than going to the Knitting Factory and playing a bunch of noise with people who I had been doing that with."

In attempting to describe music-making, particularly the on-stage communication, improvisation and self-expression, the musicians draw on a wide and colorful array of metaphors including magic, acupuncture, sex, heart surgery, sailing, healing and, time and again, meditation. Nearly all describe the element of mystery and there's no fast-track: "Hard work goes into it," says Blade. "A lot goes into it. Honestly, it does come from all the time you spend at the instrument."

Only two women are interviewed—pianist Maria Schneider and saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom—which reinforces the notion that the jazz narrative remains a predominantly male one. Are there really so relatively few creative female musicians in New York? If the gender discourse is notable for its absence then the racial one is more prominent.

Other issues that have long dogged jazz, those of the pressure to conform {..."some of the music that I was making was purely about how hip it was"—Jason Moran) and elitism (..."don't try to make it worse by coming over to our territory"—pianist Robert Glasper) are largely absent in Philip's thoughtful interviews; when they do occasionally surface they serve to emphasize the singular pursuit of individual expression and universalism common to most of these musicians.

What also emerges from this tome are the challenges, as Mark Turner puts it, of processing "fifty more years of music than musicians in the fifties had to..."

The wide-ranging material in these 450 pages provides a certain amount of guidance for musicians who are serious about their craft as well as plenty of insight into the creative worlds of some of the most celebrated of contemporary musicians. New York may be the main catalyst for creative music today but as these fascinating interviews reveal the cauldron's ingredients hail from every corner of the earth. Recommended reading.

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