The great pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk
, is credited with the remark that "writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture." But don't dash off and try to authenticate the quote. One, it'll just take you down a rabbit hole, and two, whether or not he ever actually uttered those words doesn't really matter. Because far too often, it's true.
It's true to the extent that the offending scribe is violating a fundamental law: either he doesn't know the subject well enough to write about it, or he doesn't know how to effectively express himself. Or both.
Obviously, the ideal writer on the subject of jazz, by virtue of understanding the music, would be a professional jazz musician. Similarly, based on an ability to express ideas, a professional writer would be the best person for the task. But these skill sets are rarely found in the same person. Hence the uneasy marriage between writer and musician, and Monk's (or someone's) snarky comment on it.
Jazz musicians have tended to stick to expressing their often complex musical ideas through their performances. But writers have quoted Shakespeare, tortured metaphors and squeezed the life out of countless adjectives and adverbs in the attempt to describe the blue notes, chord voicings, progressions, and swinging rhythmic patterns that characterize the music. Unfortunately, no matter how sincere their efforts, attempts to define or delimit jazz have always been reminiscent of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. (Jazz is like an elephant's trunk ... or its tail ... or its ear.) And being hard to define, the music is therefore hard to describe. You see the problem.
But it is a problem only because we enjoy talking about this music so much. And the reason we do is simple. Music truly is a universal language, a polyglot, some form of which is spoken in every culture in the world. Listening to jazz, and talking or writing about it, are ways of learning how to speak the language more fluently, ways of more fully engaging our culture and the world around us. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress
(Da Capo Press, 1976), Duke Ellington
said it well: "What is music to you? What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the 'esperanto' of the world."
Thus the jazz journalist's paradox, wedged halfway between Monk's comment and Ellington's. Attachments
As luck would have it, while in the midst of pondering these philosophically, morally confounding matters, the dark clouds parted for a moment and a grandly appropriate opportunity fell from the sky, a singular chance to connect readers directly with an important piece of music and many of its principal creators.
Lyricist and singer Lorraine Feather had released her CD, Attachments
(Jazzed Media, 2013), after skillfully assembling many of the same stellar session players she has used for her two recent, Grammy-nominated CDs, Tales of the Unusual
(Jazzed Media, 2012) and Ages
(Jazzed Media, 2010)i.e., guitarist Grant Geissman
, bassist Michael Valerio
, violinist Charles Bisharat
, drummer/percussionists Michael Shapiro
, Gregg Field
and Tony Morales, plus a guest visit from saxophonist Bob Mintzer
(on bass clarinet)the sort of busy, in-demand musicians who require a fair bit of coordinating to gather together and get recorded in the same studio, at the same time.
More significantly, Feather had managed to reassemble the same cast of musical co-writers with whom she had collaborated on those two previous recordings, composers whose stylistic breadth and technical facility span an ever-widening musical spectrum: Russell Ferrante
, the versatile keyboardist/arranger for the ambitiously metamorphosing band, Yellowjackets
; Shelly Berg
, monster stride pianist and Dean of Music at the University of Miami; and Eddie Arkin
, veteran producer, guitarist and author of Jazz Masters Series: Creative Chord Substitution For Guitar
(Alfred Music, 2004). Added to this bewitching mixture was J.S. Bach on one piece and Joey Calderazzo
on another. But it was her new collaboration with the extraordinary Dave Grusin
that caught my eye.
Grusin's addition to this gathering of composer/collaborators signaled a new direction for Feather, which, if you are familiar with Ages
and Tales of the Unusual
, and choose to view all three recordings as a suite, is almost de rigueur
for the progression of the seriesthe recordings being like three chapters in a book, each startlingly different from the last, but thematically consistent with basic subtexts in the other recordings. Charles Bisharat's addition for Tales of the Unusual
presaged the kismet of Grusin's arrival for Attachments
When Lorraine Feather records a song, she chooses the company she keeps carefully. She needs to. As a lyricist, first and foremost, she writes the most profoundly thoughtful and emotional lyrics in contemporary jazz; as a supremely gifted vocalist, she therefore demands music that translates one of these poetic pieces into a form that is vocable and singable. While many others have sung her songs (Julie Andrews, Patti Austin
, Diane Schuur
, Cleo Laine
, Janis Siegel
), doing so requires a certain vocal dexterity and emotional bravery. And as her own principal artist, her sophisticated lines necessarily demand that she collaborate with composers and arrangers who possess the sensitivity to compose for this wordsmith's famous turn-on-a-dime diction and agile voice.
So when I discovered that, one for one, all these co-writers, including the somewhat elusive Grusin, were so enthused about the Attachments
project that they wanted to talk about it, I knew I was onto something good and rare. When I discovered that her recording engineers (Geoff Gillette and Carlos Del Rosario), those unacknowledged legislators of the music world, were equally
enthusiastic about discussing the technical aspects of this music, I leapt at the chance. It was apparent that the quality of the entire recording was what all these musical wizards were jazzed about. Dave Grusin