Music with Hyphenated Feelings
AAJ: To return to the idea of dissonance and chaos for a moment, there’s an optimistic feeling that comes from the music of the ’30s, with the melodies and chord sequences that, for example, Lester Young and Ben Webster worked with. But that really changed with Ornette and Cecil, and now we have a music with hyphenated feelings, optimistic-anxious for example. Is that right, does that makes sense?
KV: I think I understand what you’re saying. I don’t know if, and I don’t honestly disagree with the idea that the sort of levels of complexity on the surface of the music of someone like Cecil Taylor is quite a bit different than the music of, let’s say, Lester Young. I would say that the content of the music of Lester Young is no less complex than what Cecil Taylor’s music is about, and I’d be surprised if you talked to Cecil if he would disagree. It would be interesting to find out his perspective on it as an example. But I think that all art is complicated and all art, great art, art that stands the test of time and has meaning to people generations after it’s made, is complex. Otherwise it’s just a superficial statement, a superficial communication about experience that has nothing to say to people from another country, another time period.
I think that certain kinds of complexity that developed in the course of the twentieth century in the music of the United States and into Europe connected to jazz and improvisation in some ways, and it’s certainly been said before that it’s almost a compressed version of the developments of Western composed music that happened over several hundred years. But I think the components that are surface—and by surface I don’t mean superficial, I mean the construction, the components, the language types, the grammar—are, to use an analogy, quite a bit different and in some cases quite a bit more dense than music that was earlier in the century. But for every example of those kinds of differences you can find exceptions and I think that it’s very easy to find examples of someone like Peter Brötzmann being incredibly lyrical and introspective, and beautiful in his playing in a conventional way, almost out of a Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet style. The same thing is true of Cecil Taylor, same thing’s true of Albert Ayler, people that are associated more with let’s say aggressive expressions in a music that has dissonance, that has many rhythmic layers to it that in terms of its surface, is seemingly more complex than, say, someone like Lester Young to use the same example. I think the more you come to appreciate and be able to hear the music of Lester Young, the deeper and deeper it goes and the more reference points and complexity become clear.
In an almost an inverse way…I know that for many years it took me, I mean it took me a long time to figure out that Cecil Taylor’s music had conventionally notated material involved. You know in the early years of listening to him, I was blown away and impressed with the amount of energy and kinetic motion in his music, but it wasn’t until I heard Student Studies after listening to Cecil for a few years that I realized, wait a minute, there’s reference points here that they know ahead of time—it’s not just all improvised. Okay, that points to my own listening ignorance and the time it’s taken me to figure things out but once that happened, then it was okay. There’s a certain sense of organization here, there’s a certain clarity that I was missing before and once I was able to kind of crack that it got me to the clarity in Cecil Taylor’s playing. Because Cecil is a great artist, because Lester Young is a great artist, their music has a lot of emotional resonance. It has a lot of intellectual resonance and it’s like any art; it speaks to many levels simultaneously in a complex way. A beautiful Lester Young solo is not unlike a powerful Cecil Taylor explosion at the keyboards to me. The way they sound is quite different, the way they organize their material is quite different, but the complexity of experience is on a similar level and that’s based on the way I receive that music and hear it, you know. An art experience, listening to music, looking at a painting…part of the thing that’s fascinating about it is, there is a lot of subjective perspective and that makes the thing interesting to talk about [laughs].
© 2021 Ken Vandermark – musician & composer | Disclaimer