Transcendental Jazz: Does It Exist?

AAJ Staff By

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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.


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