The Jazz phase

Don’t ask questions, but I’m having a jazz moment.

As has been discussed elsewhere, I have a proclivity towards getting emotional when watching films on planes. Perhaps it’s the difference in air-pressure, or the single-serving capsular nature of flying. Some years ago, on a flight out of Dubai, the triple-whammy of The Wrestler, Changeling, and Gran Torino left me overwhelmed, hollowed-out, a remnant of a shell of a human being.

One recent film that had no such effect on me was Whiplash, en route to New York. (I fared less well with Boyhood on the return leg.) Instead, by the end, I felt as triumphant as its protagonist, a sensitive soul at music conservatory who is transformed into a Titan when he gets behind the drum kit.

Just as great a joy as the film was spending time with the ‘standards’ from its soundtrack, principally Hank Levy‘s “Whiplash” and Juan Tizol‘s “Caravan”. Everything’s snappy rather than taut. The reeded instruments are given room to breathe. It’s the big band music I recall from yesteryear, from St. Barnabas Day and from music support group fundraisers, jolted up a gear into something not only palatable but positively grin-inducing. The time signatures are more dizzying than those attempted in the Recital Hall; the interplay between overdriven electric bass and dank piano more exotic and outré than those Mr. Francis would have risked. Or maybe I’m doing a disservice to the past.

2014 was fertile ground for jazz in Oscar-baiting cinema. Among the many gauche elements in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, there is the insistent musical accompaniment by the jazz drummer, Antonio Sánchez. Far more wilfully difficult than the music in Whiplash, here there is laconic percussion and nothing else, save the occasional, sparse and brief interruption of strings at an awkward pitch. The rhythms rove and wend round the action, such as it is, but work well unencumbered by footage of Michael Keaton. Here is a tumultuous clamour like a kitchen catastrophe; there, an in-the-pocket groove; occasionally, as on “Night Chatter”, the fleeting evocation of the steamy jazz club.

At the other end of my current jazz spectrum from the brassy, coppery fare in Whiplash and Birdman are Kieran Hebden‘s (a.k.a. Four Tet) collaborations with the late percussionist Steve Reid, which culminated in Live At The South Bank, a performance at which they were joined by the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.

More brazenly arrhythmic and atonal than Sánchez’s work on Birdman, the trio brew a heady concoction of drones and bleats, gurgles and fills. Their being caught up in the moment is so intense that Gustafsson forgets to join in until the second track. When he does, on “Lyman Place”, it is to unleash a maëlstrom that teeters on the verge of the parodic as Hebden’s electronics take flight. Beneath the younger pair, Reid’s sticksmanship is unhurried and dilated. At the track’s conclusion, Hebden and Reid are silenced, and Gustafsson bellows out a kind of jazzman’s call to prayer. The sacred becomes the sleazy. When, as on “Untitled”, Reid deigns to pick up the pace, the boys favour more cosmic textures and timbres. I’ll not lie—many will struggle to pick out discernible “music” in the madness.

Colin Stetson has collaborated with Gustafsson, and even looks a bit like him, but can’t properly be considered such a jazz player. That makes me wonder, in our fluid era, where one draws the line between modern classical that’s expressive, hypnotic and beguiling, and jazz that’s founded in cyclical patterns, and is droney and reminiscent of raga. A composition like “The stars in his head (Dark Lights Remix)”, on his breakthrough album New History Warfare Volume 2: Judges, sees Stetson at his least definable. The basis of the piece is throbbing and rhythmic, but the incessant triplets are periodically overlaid with barbaric squalls and sheets of noise.

The masterstroke with Stetson is that all the sounds you hear are created in one take, solely on saxophone (except when he’s joined by vocal collaborators such as Laurie Anderson and Justin Vernon). Credit Efrim Manuck with sculpting one-off recordings from dozens of microphones into a simulacrum of an avant garde quintet. You’re unsure whether to be dazzled more by the songwriting, the physical musicianship, or the skill of the recording.

Yes, the jazz has taken hold of me.

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