Saturday, November 19, 2011

Groovy Talkin' Verve (or, Talkin' Verve: Groovy!) (1998)

This set tries to answer a serious question in a fundamentally unserious way.  At the same time, only different:  it documents some artists trying to answer a serious question in ways that range from serious to un-.  Viz.

The rise of rock over the course of the '60s seemed to threaten to, and in fact by the end of the decade did, displace the mainstream of American pop.  From the '20s through the '50s, if I have this right, that mainstream had been a course defined, broadly, by jazz.  Pop singers like Sinatra had roots in jazz, and sang in a style that drew its rhythmic pulse and melodic impulse from jazz.  Popular music in America in this period swung, to a greater or lesser degree.  Jazz therefore had a natural "in" with pop, because it shared this basis in swing;  jazz was therefore able to enrich its repertoire with pop music, because the pop music of the period was so influenced by jazz.  The mutually-reinforcing cult of the "standard," right?  Pop music lent legitimacy by its adoption into the jazz world, which also legitimized jazz by situating it in close proximity to "standard" pop songcraft.  Tin Pan Alley and 52nd Street shake hands and both agree that each other was the shiznit. 

In the '60s (started in the '50s, but didn't hit until later), mainstream pop stopped swinging and started rocking.  We're not just talking the British Invasion, either:  Motown's beat wasn't a jazz beat.  Stax's beat wasn't a jazz beat.  And jazz suddenly found itself in danger of becoming superannuated.  Its standards were sounding old-fashioned.

There were lots of ways of phrasing the questions raised by this.  Could jazz appropriate contemporary pop songs like it had "standards"?  Could Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards tunes, or Holland/Dozier/Holland or Hayes/Porter songs, be jazzed up the way Rodgers/Hart or Cole Porter songs could? Could attempts at doing that result in serious music, or only kitsch?  Was jazz as a musical idea separable from the swing beat?  Could jazz continue to evolve?  Was rock intrinsically nothing but greasy kid stuff played by "non-playing motherfuckers" (in Miles Davis's inimitable characterization), or was there something there?

Verve, as we've seen, was already all about what the Village Voice would later (probably more retrospectively than it knew) call "pazz & jop".  So it was natural that the label would at least be willing to experiment with the New Rock, at jazzifying it, or at rockifying jazz - natural that the label would be in the forefront of that effort, which would have been perceived as an imperative by artists for every label.  So the question this set should be asking is, how did Verve do it?  And how well did Verve do it?

The problem is, I don't think the compilers were interested in answering any of those questions seriously, or in examining how the artists they're dealing with tried to answer them.  Because most of what's here is just here for a laugh, and the things that actually work, musically, that inspire grooving rather than goofing, work in ways that go unexplained by this compilation.

The compilation draws from a surprisingly small number of records released between 1965 and 1971 on the Verve, Mercury, MGM, and MPS labels.  Over a third of it is made of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery selections, which makes sense, given how close those gentlemen stayed to pop in their Verve years, but these selections don't provide any revelations (except possibly for pointing out how bad a singer Smith was - he vocalizes on "Dock Of The Bay," and you wish he hadn't).  Add in a trio of Quincy Jones numbers and a pair of Willie Bobos, and over half of this disc is both literally and conceptually redundant with other items in this series.  Okay, fair enough, they probably didn't expect anybody to be so dumb as to get all the volumes...but some of the other cuts on here are good enough to make you wish the compilers had looked a little harder, thought a little bit more seriously about what they were doing.

The most ear-opening numbers are three tracks from the atrociously-titled Blood, Chet And Tears, a 1970 record that was Chet Baker's only outing for Verve.  We get "Vehicle," "Evil Ways," and "Spinning Wheel."  These work for much the same reason that Astrud Gilberto's take on Chicago's "Beginnings" works:  they draw from the most jazziest strain of contemporary rock, and they take it seriously.  Chet's playing well, the arrangements are forceful (very close to the originals, though), and you don't get the feeling that anybody involved is looking down their nose at the songs.

Which they wouldn't have necessarily had to do...  I'm no expert on any of this stuff, and I haven't yet started to seriously explore fusion (the elephant in this particular room), but it seems to me that a lot of the problem with the way jazz artists dealt with the rock threat stemmed from a general unwillingness.  Like, there were enough kids in rock bands in 1970 who listened to jazz, and who really wanted to expand their own music, that you could have imagined a serious rapprochement.  But instead most artists and producers seem to have taken an attitude of, "Shit, do we have to play this rock shit?  Okay, let's get it over with.  What're the kids listening to?  Beatles?  Rolling Stones?  'Tequila'?"  And then they just dash off whatever Stones title is selling best at that particular moment.  Instead of taking the time to realize that artists like Santana, Chicago, the Allman Brothers, King Crimson, and yes the Grateful Dead were thinking seriously about how to bring elements of a jazz sensibility into a rock context, and meeting them halfway.  (To this day, Santana's early '70s records get treated as "rock," and not jazz.  Why is that?)

Then again, sometimes the least serious intentions can still result in great music.  Oscar Peterson, in a quartet also featuring Ray Brown and Milt Jackson, provides a rendition of the Stones' "Satisfaction" that clearly doesn't take the tune at all seriously, but it's a complete gas.  Everybody solos at breakneck speed and within about thirty seconds you forget what tune you're listening to and just dig the improv.  Which is what tended to happen to standards anyway.  So.


Matt said...

My biggest problem with jazz takes on rock standards is that the results tend to be pretty boring because melody and large-scale structure (32-bar AABA or whatever) aren't as important in rock as they are in jazz.

(This isn't an anti-rock thing, though; it's just that rock stresses different stuff that doesn't translate well into jazz. It doesn't really matter how well you reproduce the harmonies of "I should have known better"; if it's not two Johns [talk about a cruel impossibility], it's just not the same. Not to mention the importance of actual words. And it may just be because I'm only familiar with the old standards AS jazz standards that I'm happy to let a saxophone sing Cole Porter rather than grumpily comparing it to [favorite singer X], but I'm not convinced of this; I think that you have to look at the shift over the 20th century towards appreciation of performances rather than compositions, enabled by ever-improving recording technology.)

I had really high hopes for the Bad Plus when I first heard about them, and I dig some of their material and their enthusiasm for finding new things for jazz to do, but for example their version of Smells Like Teen Spirit didn't do much for me. It just felt like the song was too simple to support much of interest. (Heart of Glass was a little better, I suspect because the original was already just one big solid groove.)

I think it's really telling that when Miles Davis decided that he wanted to rock some, the result was a completely new sound. I don't think that this was just the standard Miles Davis "it's been five years, think I'll invent a new genre" maneuvering.

Playing Japanese music as I do I see this from that side too: there are people tuning their kotos to diatonic major and playing classical music or pop music. It just feels kind of pointless. You can't use many of the aesthetics you developed playing the koto, because the music doesn't call for heterophony or that special kind of singing or koto-style tension-and-release. But on the other hand you can't use the aesthetics of rock, partly because it's hard to rock out on a koto (unless you're Yagi Michiyo) and partly because you just aren't trained to reproduce those aesthetics. It takes a lot of practice to sound natural and raw!

I guess all of the above doesn't apply to specifically jazz-influenced rock like the Dead, early Santana, even Steely Dan, whatever. I don't really have them in mind (although, really, were Santana's compositions, as opposed to his performances, that great? would there be much point in getting your piano trio to cover "Black magic woman"?). I'm thinking more like those Beatles/Stones things, you know.

Matt said...

(Also, note how Davis's take on hip-hop was such a spectacular train-wreck. I submit that the difference between "Doo-Bop" and "Bitches Brew" is at least in part due to the different approaches to incorporating the respective non-jazz aesthetic of each: BB as a digestion and reinvention, DB as a "solo over the top" ridealong.