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So You Don't Like Jazz

Khruangbin: The Sly Art of Containment

Khruangbin: The Sly Art of Containment

Courtesy YouTube Screen capture with effects by A.B.


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I think you have to be very careful to have an aesthetic guiding force if you allow yourself this kind of a freedom. And be very selective about the feelings you want to express, because otherwise you could get as subjective as an infant that’s crying in its crib. No one can deny that this infant is expressing himself, but no one would call it art.
—Bill Evans
It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb, "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers the tastes and sensibilities of the other person. The "So You Don't Like Jazz" column explores ways to do just that.

This month's column begins at the dawning of the 1960s, a pivotal period in jazz that produced some seminal albums, true masterpieces that demonstrated that "less" can indeed be "more." In stark contrast, at the same time another movement emerged in jazz which emphasized freedom and an "anything goes" approach. Finally, returning to the present, we take a look at Khruangbin, a highly original trio out of Houston, Texas, who have mastered the sly art of containment.

Anything Goes

There is no doubt that freedom is alluring. The artist, unbound by constraints or conventionality, is free to go where an impulse or mood dictates. Anything can happen, a wild ride into the darkness of the subconscious, or a flash of inspired brilliance. The layman might not possess the knowledge and insight necessary to understand such art, but thankfully we have intermediaries who can bridge the gap.

Such was the case in the early 1960s when the paintings of Pierre Brassau were exhibited at a gallery in Göteborg, Sweden. At this time abstract art was the rage, and local art critics lauded the work of this budding young artist. Here is a newspaper critic's glowing review published after Brassau's first exhibit opening: "Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer." Snap! It turned out that Pierre Brassau was a four-year-old chimp from the local zoo. A newspaper reporter had set up a hoax to test art critics' true powers of discernment. Eventually an article about that hoax made it all the way into Time Magazine in February of 1964 (back in the day that was the equivalent of "trending" on social media.)

In this period the anything goes approach had also made it's way into music. Although it's not something I'm drawn to as a listener, I can understand why musicians enjoy the cathartic release of playing free jazz. Many of my musical heroes are fans of it, so it's clear to me there is something worthwhile going on, even though I don't get it. Cards on the table, my inability to enjoy it bothered me until I learned of the initial reaction of some music legends back in the day.

Ornette Coleman, a contemporary of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, released The Shape of Jazz to Come on Atlantic in 1959, just after Thanksgiving. It was an album with a prophetic title that helped to launch the free jazz/avant-garde jazz movement. The reaction was swift, polarizing, and even violent. After a gig at the Five Spot club, the drummer Max Roach was reportedly so outraged that he punched Coleman in the mouth. Instead of cooling off, Roach showed up in front Coleman's apartment building at four in the morning taunting him, "I know you're up there, motherf###er! Come down here and I'll kick your ass!" 1

Miles Davis, not someone to sugarcoat his thoughts, put it this way, "Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you're talking psychologically, the man's all screwed up inside." Nevertheless, freedom and diversity are part of the essence of jazz, and today Ornette Coleman enjoys a great deal of respect in jazz circles. He put his mark on jazz, left a lasting legacy, and has legions of devoted fans. On the other hand, if Coleman provoked that kind of reaction in some of his contemporaries, imagine how free jazz sounded (and sounds) to the uninitiated newcomers to jazz.

Is There a Middle Path?

Charlie Parker had a clear vision of what music should be, and he shared it during a radio interview with Paul Desmond in 1954. Interestingly, his vision also works well for art. He thought music should be something beautiful that people can understand, it should be precise, and as clean as possible. Here is his exact quote: "I mean ever since I've ever heard music I've thought it should be very clean, very precise—as clean as possible anyway—you know, and more or less to the people, you know, something they could understand, something that was beautiful, you know."

The advantage of this approach is that an artist can follow Parker' path and still defy conventionality, push boundaries, and champion the freedom of expression. For instance, Salvador Dalí's surrealistic paintings were unmistakably the work of a gifted artist and a skilled craftsman. Significantly, his art was also aesthetically pleasing and wasn't limited to a niche audience. The iconic melting clocks in his painting, "The Persistence of Memory," are still instantly recognizable to a large swath of humanity. That's a remarkable feat, pushing limits and breaking with convention without sacrificing beauty and aesthetics, and appealing to a large audience.

Another one of Coleman's contemporaries, Oliver Nelson strikes me as musical artist who achieved something analogous. Nelson's music, like Dalí's art, demonstrated unmistakable brilliance. He was able to thread the needle using complexity, discordance, and sophistication to produce music that was challenging, yet appealing to a wider audience. For example, listen to his seminal 1961 release Blues and the Abstract Truth, on Impulse!, recorded when he was only 29. Below is one of the best known pieces from that album, but I especially recommend checking out the song "Blues and the Abstract Truth" he wrote and arranged for Jimmy Smith in 1966. Sadly, Nelson died at the age of 43 in 1975.

Less Is More

A quintessential proof of the power of the "less is more" approach is Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (Columbia, August 1959). It was, and still is, a profoundly influential album that has inspired artists far beyond the confines of jazz. It went platinum three times in the United States, twice in the U.K. and Australia, and more than a half century after its release has amassed millions of views on YouTube. It's rightfully considered a masterpiece, often mentioned as one of the greatest albums of all time, even outside of jazz circles.

It was, in Davis's own words, "a return to melody." But it's more than melody that set it apart, Kind of Blue also envelops the listener in an intimate mood. It fits Charlie Parker's vision of being beautiful, accessible, precise and clean, with an emphasis on the expression of soft emotions. It's simply magic captured on tape. Despite the subdued vibe, it was also revolutionary. It's modal approach was a seismic shift from the complex chord progressions of bebop. A year earlier Davis had used a modal approach to a limited degree on Milestones (Columbia, 1958) and Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1958), but on Kind of Blue he went full modal. Davis recognized that a modal approach allowed him a much bigger canvas. It provided a seemingly limitless space for soloists to explore. A decade later, rock musicians inspired by Kind of Blue, began painting their own soundscapes on that modal canvas.

It was the praise of many of these rock musicians that motivated many of their fans to check out Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. For many such fans, working backwards to build an appreciation of jazz has been a never-ending and fascinating exercise. Personally, I'd been listening to Kind of Blue for years, when one day I had the humbling experience of coming across Bill Evans's "Peace Piece," which had been recorded a year prior to Kind of Blue. With that came the realization that in addition to the genius of Miles Davis, giants like John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, and the influence of Gil Evans, this masterpiece was also the result of Davis adapting his band to the musical sensibilities and tender elegance of Bill Evans.

That made me curious if there might be a quote somewhere from Bill Evans about abstract jazz. Fortunately, I came across an interview he gave on Finnish television, and his answer, much like his musicality, was insightful, honest, and cleverly subtle. Here is my transcription:

Interviewer:Your opinion about this avant-garde jazz?

Bill Evans:: I think there's a very healthy thing going on, but I don't think it's gotten organized enough yet. The only thing I think is a danger about allowing yourself all this freedom, is that you could sometimes indulge yourself and express feelings that are too personal, I mean too everyday personal feelings that might not relate to another person. I think you have to be very careful to have an aesthetic guiding force if you allow yourself this kind of a freedom. And be very selective about the feelings you want to express, because otherwise you could get as subjective as an infant that's crying in its crib. No one can deny that this infant is expressing himself, but no one would call it art.

Time Out

Just before Christmas in 1959 another historic album was released, it was the first jazz album to go platinum by selling a million copies, and it went to #2 on the pop album charts. That album was Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, released by Columbia, Dec. 1959. The album also produced a single which sold a million copies—the iconic "Take Five," with one of the most memorable hooks in the the history of jazz. As is often the case with hit singles, the musicians did not think they were recording a hit. "Take Five," written by Paul Desmond, was envisioned as a vehicle to showcase a drum solo by Joe Morello in 5/4 time. Understandably, a five minute tune with a two minute drum solo did not seem destined for the pop charts. In fact, although Brubeck's albums had consistently done well commercially, the record label was concerned about how the uncommon time signatures would be received by the public.

Dave Brubeck's life story itself is so uncommon, it seems like a Netflix series waiting to happen. His father was a cattle rancher and a championship roper. The family lived on a 45,000 acre ranch 40 miles outside of Sacramento, California. His mother had studied piano in England under a well known concert pianist, and had originally intended to become a concert pianist. As it turned out she focused instead on the musical education of her sons. Dave Brubeck's two older brothers both went on to careers in music as composers and music teachers. Brubeck's poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a proficient sight reader, but he overcame that thanks to his great ear. Nonetheless, he was not destined for a career in music, he was supposed to work with his father on the ranch. He grew up riding horses, mending fences, and herding cattle.

When it came time for college, he enrolled in the school of veterinary medicine. Fortunately for jazz lovers, one of his professors told him to quit veterinary medicine and study music. Initially his strategy was to study reed and brass instruments, and put off piano until his senior year. He was well aware that otherwise his inability to read music would be quickly discovered. As expected, after five minutes of piano instruction his professor was on to him. He immediately went to the dean and said Brubeck couldn't read a note of music and demanded that he not be allowed to graduate. The dean called Brubeck to his office and gave him the verdict, which he took stoically to the dean's surprise. Asked why, Brubeck replied, it doesn't matter, all I want to do is play jazz. Befitting a screenplay, other professors went to bat for him, citing his proficiency in counterpoint and harmony. Finally the dean resolved the situation by allowing Brubeck to graduate, but only if he gave his word never to teach piano.

After graduating in 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the beginning of WWII. He remained stateside until 1944, when his unit was shipped to Europe to be part of the deadly Battle of the Bulge. Another screenplay worthy moment ensued—just before his unit was scheduled to move to the front lines, he volunteered to play piano for a Red Cross show that passed through. As a result, the only killing he did was on stage —he was freed from combat and ordered to form a band. He formed a band he called "The Wolfpack." While in the Army he also met Paul Desmond.

Fast forward to 1951 (skipping some serious dues paying) Brubeck was in Hawaii with his wife and kids: "I was swimming with my kids on Waikiki Beach and my last famous words were, 'watch daddy,' and I dove into a wave and there was a sandbar right in front of me. And rather than hit it with my face, I turned my head and it almost broke my neck, and I thought I was gonna be paralyzed. I had to go to the Army hospital and stayed there for twenty-one days in traction and they were able to pull my neck back." He lost his job and his trio, and the nerve damage he sustained caused him to adapt his playing to complex rhythmic chords instead of emphasizing single note runs.

It was rather ironic that Brubeck was forced to pledge that he would never teach piano, because he ended up returning to the universities in a capacity that had previously only been extended to classical musicians. In the 1950s Brubeck strove to bring jazz to colleges, and became a major draw on the college touring circuit. He had a knack as a teacher for helping student audiences appreciate what they were hearing. An added benefit was that his college-themed albums surely helped him to establish the fan base who embraced Time Out and propelled its popularity. The Dave Brubeck Quartet's music was highly innovative, complex, and impactful, yet it also followed Charlie Parker's vision of what music should be, and had what Bill Evan's described as an "aesthetic guiding force."

There's so much more, but thankfully there is an exceptionally well made video which explains how Time Out came about, the impact Brubeck had on jazz, and it indirectly helps to explain why "Take Five" has an astounding 75 million views on YouTube.

Inside the Box

A casual observer might not expect that guitarist Mark Speer of the Texas trio Khruangbin could have much in common with Dave Brubeck. Well, for starters there's the cowboy thing. All of Khruangbin's recordings have been done in the barn of the cattle ranch owned by his family—in fact, Khruangbin's first single was entitled, "A Calf Born in Winter." Moreover, both Brubeck and Speer innovated by drawing upon music from other cultures, and like Brubeck, Speer also has a clear aesthetic vision.

Speer had been in several bands whose members worshiped at the altar of anything goes, and celebrated thinking outside the box. When Speer and bassist Laura Lee formed their band, Speer opted to do the opposite of thinking outside the box—he strove to practice the sly art of containment. His artistic vision allowed the band wide latitude, but also assured an appealing vibe and a recognizable framework. Just as the unusual time signatures Brubeck encountered in other cultures transformed his sound, Khruangbin achieved its exotic genre-fluid sound by drawing upon musical vibes from other cultures such as Thailand, Iran and Africa, and blending that with dub, retro-funk, soul, and psychedelia. It's an exotic multicolored-box, but it is a box.

Speer and Lee met in Houston when she was still an art student and became friends after discovering a common interest in Afghan music. Speer encouraged Lee to take up the bass and helped her learn, and after six months she auditioned for the band he was working in as a guitarist and joined their tour. Afterwards, the two recorded in the Speer family barn, and decided to add a drummer for the clean, no-frills breakbeat sound they envisioned. Speer enlisted his friend DJ Johnson—Speer and Johnson both played in the gospel band of United Methodist Church in Houston, Speer on guitar and Johnson on organ. Technically all three sing, but they are primarily an instrumental band who generally use their voices for texture and atmosphere.

Unknowingly, they are guided by the clear aesthetic force mentioned by Bill Evans and they also follow Charlie Parker's formula for music: something beautiful, clean and precise that people can understand. Although they don't play jazz, it's not difficult to imagine jazz musicians coming up with something similar. After all, they are playing essentially instrumental songs of extended length live on stage. If you're a young jazz musician, there might be something to learn from the breadth of the audience Khruangbin have reached by practicing the sly art of containment.


1 Midwest Jazz Summer 1994 (Vol. 1, #2)

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