Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Updating" run amok

Recently, a friend of a friend on Facebook posted a link to a press release about an upcoming album.  The album was supposed to be some sort of homage to Fats Waller, and the wording of the press release gave her hope that it might be good music for Lindy Hoppers.  

So, I clicked, and I read, but it didn't give me any hope.  It said things like:

"recasts the music of the legendary jazz entertainer Fats Waller as a modern dance party"

So, that sounds good, right?  But then:

"I asked myself what could be the extra layer, or the extra couple of layers, we might add to Fats' music to provide a number of different ways for audiences to enjoy it?"

Hmmm.  Now I'm feeling a bit suspicious.  Extra layers?

"From the propulsive afrobeat groove of 'Yacht Club Swing'..."
Uhh...  so it's not swing music.  Well, I guess I didn't really expect that...
 "Moran and Ndegeocello radically recast Waller’s repertoire for our times."
And that's where any hope I that I had evaporated.  Nonetheless, I looked it up and found some clips.  It was worse than I expected.  Judging from these clips, the album will have competent playing by good musicians.  But it has nearly nothing to do with Fats Waller.  Now, I don't mind if these musicians want to explore their own musical ideas, and if they want to use the Fats Waller tunes to do so...   but if they wanted to pay tribute to him (or exploit his famous name), I think it would be more fitting to play the songs in such a way that they are recognizable.  I don't know why the music has to be "radically recast" for our times.  

Do you think I'm exaggerating?  The review in the New York Times says this:
On Friday and Saturday Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello led a band of jazz musicians through tunes that started in fragments of Fats Waller songs, or songs Waller played, or sometimes just the words from songs he played: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Two Sleepy People.” They started there but ended up in fragmented and repeated funk vamps cued by Mr. Moran’s Fender Rhodes electric piano and Ms. Ndegeocello’s chanting voice. [...] The Fats Waller songs served only as suggestions.

Moreover, this claims to be dance music, but if the album turns out to be anything like the clips I found, I don't see how it is danceable, no matter the dance.
I think it's a shame how often Lindy Hoppers get excited about various modern versions of swing music, only to find that these things don't work well for dancing.  (Dancers, what is wrong with the old stuff?)  I also think it's telling that a piano player would seek to pay homage to Fats Waller, one of the most entertaining piano players ever, by playing music which is no doubt intellectually interesting to other jazz musicians, but which has no appeal for a broad audience.  This shows just how far jazz has moved away from its roots as popular music.

Waller and the other musicians of his time were extremely able, but they did something that musicians of their ability rarely do today: they practiced the craft of entertaining.  These musicians did not lack in sophisticated ideas, but they focused their formidable ability on the task of playing fun music for dancers and average listeners.  This was not simple music, but it often did sound simple.  The musicians, partly out of necessity, sacrificed some freedom and creativity to keep the music fun.  I think that makes the music they produced more, not less, interesting.  It is fascinating to me to see how they worked within the boundaries of popular music.  This is also not an easy thing to do. 
It is also strange to me that in all of the clips I have looked at Moran never plays in even an imitation of the stride piano style.  Waller is practically synonymous with this style, and it was a style that every jazz player had to learn at least up until (and including) Thelonious Monk.  I don't know whether Moran is unable or unwilling to play stride piano.  Either way, it's a shame.  

(If you don't know what stride is, look at a piece like "Carolina Shout," below.  "Stride" refers to the way the left hand makes big, and regular, leaps between a bass note and a chord about an octave higher.  This was the basis of Fats Waller's style, and of swing era piano playing in general, and it's not easy.)
Just as Waller's style is not easy, even though it may sound simpler, playing for dancers is not easy.  It is truly an art of its own, and it is one that has been lost in post- World War II jazz.  I get the impression that current jazz students regard this old music as nothing more than a quaint curiosity.  I think people today are still heavily influenced by the desire that created be-bop; the desire to have people listen carefully and seriously to your musical ideas...  and not dance, because that would take away from the listening.  Even if I don't like the result, I'm glad that Moran has the impulse to bring dance back to jazz.  

Finally, what bothers me most about this is the idea that this older music needs to be updated.  This project is typical of a belief that there is some value in old things but that people today cannot appreciate them for their inherent value.  This is especially common when it comes to old jazz.  I don't understand this attitude.  When I go to see a performance of classical music, it is not "updated" to make it more accessible to me.  Yes, the interpretation of the music changes over time, but subtly; the music is presented with the goal of authenticity.  The unspoken agreement is that the music is worth appreciating and that the audience will make the effort to appreciate it for what it is.  This same agreement applies to performances of post World War II jazz.  But older jazz doesn't get this kind of respect.  Why?  I guess because it was popular dance music.  I see no other reason.

What I object to is the subtext that in our age we are not capable of appreciating the music of Fats Waller, or that it is too much to expect people to make an effort to do so.  If Moran does not think this, he must think that simply playing Waller's music is beneath him, and his words of praise for Waller suggest otherwise.

- - - - -
Clips of Moran's Project:

Here is a performance of Carolina Shout where you can see the left hand fairly well.  I had a hard time finding a video which shows the left hand clearly, and the left hand is what defines stride piano:  

Finally, Fats Waller.  Don't let his mugging distract you from his ability:

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