of what I say is meaning less.
Cyrus Chestnut mounted the podium for his 2011 Montreal
International Jazz Festival concert at Salle Gesù,
I wasn’t sure if he came to play the piano or haul it away.
When he sat down at the instrument, he made it look like a toy,
but there was no toying around when it came to his playing --
with an ever so gentle and preternaturally delicate touch that
mocked his girth.
before a note was played, this grand man of dignified bearing
and consummate intelligence introduced his latest album, Journeys,
with a caveat: that improvisation -- the Gloria and preserve of
jazz -- is playing without a chance to edit. For the serious musician,
the significance of this daunting utterance cannot be overestimated.
Chestnut was transposing into speech what the music has already
confessed, but our judgment refuses: that composition is superior
to improvised jazz, in particular, recorded improvisation.
climate, with perhaps the exception of the new wave of Scandinavian
jazz, Chestnut is rightfully concerned that insufficient attention
is being paid to composition, and that in certain circles laboriously
worked out, worked on solos are being slighted for betraying the
spirit of improvisation. Chestnut’s courageous declaration,
which constitutes a necessary criticism of contemporary jazz,
explains why many jazz musicians and listeners keep returning
to the American Songbook, or, in the case of Jarrett and Corea,
to classical music.
dissing spontaneous invention performed at the highest level,
Chestnut is asking both musicians and listeners to consider the
possibility that if modern jazz is ailing, it is not only because
improvisation has taken precedent over composition, but the reasons
for it are being willfully ignored by those who should be making
it an issue: the elite jazz schools and jazz critics. Is there
an argument to be made that if we revered the musicians less and
the genre more jazz would be in a better place?
a musician is fluent in the language of music, he can play whenever,
whatever and with whomever he wants. He soon discovers that it
is much easier to improvise than compose, without acknowledging
that the former constitutes the musical path of least resistance.
On top of which it is now de rigeur for elite jazz musicians
to play musical chairs instead of making long-term commitments
to the group concept. Who hasn’t Pat Metheny played with
during the past fifteen years? Nowadays, it is not unusual for
a musician to find himself ‘live’ or in the studio
without having met, much less practiced with, the other musicians.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the typical jazz CD excites
interest for about as long as it takes a reviewer to dutifully
listen to and hype it up. Bad reviews of jazz are as rare as worthwhile
music. Jazz devotees who depend on informed criticism for making
decisions on concert selections and CD/vinyl/DVD purchases are
being sold down the river.
lovers of jazz, with few exceptions, listen to their favourite
jazz albums less frequently than their favorite songs (a Beatle
tune, a Rogers & Hart standard)? Because most improvised music
cannot withstand the scrutiny of repeated listening. It is an
inviolable law that after the initial listening, all recorded
improvisation becomes composition since the notes are exactly
the same. And when a jazz musician consents or seeks to record
his music, he is unequivocally declaring that he wishes the music
to be heard more than once, which means he is implicitly asking
the listener to consider as composition music (the solo) that
was created on the spur of the moment.
French jazz critic, André Hodeir (Jazz: Its Evolution
and Essence, 1956), attempting to reconcile the demands of
composition with the spirit of improvisation writes:
piece may have been worked out, but we must make clear what
we mean by this. It is not an organized composition, nor even
the product of creative meditation, but the result of a crystallization
of thought in the course of successive improvisations. Even
such a limited kind of working out makes it possible to eliminate
weaknesses in continuity that pure improvisation lets by.
also cautions that too much working out can lead to sterile play
(meaning playing from memory). He goes to say: “It is hard
not to cherish a preference, at least secretly, for the miracle
of continuity in a burst of pure improvisation. “ By that
formulation, the greatest improviser/composer who ever lived was
Mozart, who composed entire operas and symphonies in his head.
is jazz all about,” asks Montreal music critic Juan Rodriguez?
When “the familiar and the unknown coexist very nicely.”
appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Cyrus Chestnut and his
trio demonstrated what can result when the worked out and worked
on open up a realm that is at once agreeably familiar but enticingly
only partially disclosed -- a continuously mutating realm exclusive
to jazz and the custodian musicians who endeavour to spontaneously
make explicit the nexus between “the familiar and unknown.”
the control of a Renaissance master, Chestnut’s right hand
ascents and descents, depending on the mood or theme, unfolded
like threads of silk or a twist of twill, while the left hand,
with a mind of its own, was ever mindful of its role in both support
and muse. Unlike Keith Jarrett, who used to spend ¾ of
every solo concert searching for the next idea that may or may
not arrive, Chestnut refuses to enter into the public domain an
idea that has not been thoroughly dismantled and reassembled.
We instantly recognize the payoff: those sudden and unexpected
bursts of articulation where the unfamiliar has been rendered
with such clarity that we want to return to it again and again.
These “moments magicaux,” which are the sine qua
non of composition (recorded music), are not to be confused
with ‘groove,’ where a musician is said to be ‘in
a groove,’ which, consequent to a repeating motif, is more
of a comfort than creative zone, or the musical equivalent of
an opium den.
dedicated the Salle Gesù concert to the
unveiling of his most recent album, Journeys, a sometimes
pensive, sometimes exhilarating rite of passage through swing,
pop and gospel. Of the many pleasures that were the issue of the
music was the deep connection and rapport between musicians who
didn’t so much follow each other as coexist on the same
wave length, which could spin, dip, rollover and turn on the moment.
The audience was treated to gorgeous pianissimos as well as sometimes
woolly, sometimes wispy soundscapes produced by bassist Dezron
Douglas -- just rewards owed to exceptional musicians who had
done their homework.
Chestnut has dared to make his abode that nebulous area in jazz
where the listener, by virtue of repeated listening, perforce
comes to regard an improvised solo as composition. Deeply concerned
that the balancing act that is jazz is tottering, Chestnut wants
the jazz solo to once again compete with the standards established
Mr. Chestnut is not nearly as well known as Keith Jarrett, Chick
Corea and now Brad Meldhau, or not as modern as Kenny Warner is
merely a point in fact. He is making a critical point and jazz
can do no better than give it its due. If there is indeed a crisis
in jazz, the flipside of any crisis is opportunity.
Chestnut is a breath of fresh air in a stagnant pool of undoubtedly
gifted musicians who have turned their backs on the challenge
of composing enduring works of music, who are more wrapped up
in their mystique than music making, and have forsaken the concept
of the group (through thick and thin) for a tenuous network of
collaborators that come and go. He is holding up to the mirror
the bloated category of itinerants posing as musicians searching
for they know not what, and in their desert wake they have left
a trail in the sand (a CD/year) that will not survive the first
windy “Night in Tunisia.”