If You Have To Ask…

…you’ll never know. That’s the legendary answer to the question “What is swing?” I suppose that might be the reasonable response to the questions I have about some points raised in the must-read interview Nicholas Payton gave to Ethan Iverson over at Do the Math. But still, I’ll ask. Payton and Iverson talk about working with classical musicians, and I wonder exactly what is going on in situations like this:

EI:  I haven’t had the experience of having a full orchestra read something that I wrote, but I’ve been around a lot of classical musicians trying to play something with an American beat and it’s always worse than expected.

NP:  I’m really shocked.

EI:  Even basic even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right.

NP:  And triplets! Triplets really messed them up, and I thought, “Well, it’s a triplet.”

EI:  It’s funny because they can probably play five in the time of four, but really playing three in the time of two will hang them up, right?

I don’t doubt what these gentlemen are saying, I just wonder what is going on when the “even-eighth note syncopations won’t lay right”. Rushing? dragging? inconsistency? steady, but incorrectly placed with regard to the pulse? something with accentuation or articulation? How about when the “triplets really messed them up”? It partly depends on whether we are talking about slow or fast triplets. When I ask my musicianship students to execute a moderately slow three against two, a few of them can’t play the triplets evenly, and end up doing a pattern of two dotted eighths and an eighth note instead of three equal triplet quarters. Was that happening? The thing is, you obviously have to play even-eighth note syncopations and three in the time of two to play European classical music well. But something was going wrong in the situations Iverson and Payton describe, and I am curious as to exactly what it was.

I have to say I don’t know anybody who can do a precise five against four who can’t play a good three against two. But, again, what does it mean to play a good three against two?

Black Friday Miscellany

– Ethan Iverson is playing a benefit in Willow Grove PA this Saturday – information here.

– Peggy Pearson recalls her late colleague Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I’m at work on an oboe quartet for Peggy.

– Sharon Browning (of JUST Listening) will present an Advent retreat, Fasting from Frenzy: Making Room for Divinity at Cranaleith Spiritual Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, December 13, from 10 to 3. More information here.

Tootie Heath Trio in Philly

At one point tonight, I was listening to a song from 1923, played by a drummer born in 1935, with a pianist and bassist both about half the age of the drummer. It was the Tootie Heath Trio playing James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” in a concert presented by Ars Nova Workshop at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. I felt like the whole history of jazz was vibrantly alive before my eyes and ears.

With Tootie on drums, Ethan Iverson at the piano, and Ben Street on bass, the group offered much musical joy.  Heath, a historic figure with a jaw- dropping discography, is truly a percussionist, not a drummer – there was some amazing tambourine playing tonight. The variety of colors, the endlessly imaginative ways of marking the ends of phrases, and the deeply swinging time – all this was combined with a wit alert to everything happening around him. Tootie also offered some remarks, including indescribable tall tales of growing up in Philadelphia, and various deliciously bad jokes.

It was fascinating to hear Iverson in a context more straight-ahead than that of The Bad Plus, the trio where he is most often heard. There were still Iversonian elements: the Monk influence; the preference for understatement; the absence of empty or rote flourishes; the strategy of sequencing a melodic cell regardless of the harmonic consequences – and then magically leading those consequences to a perfectly logical, albeit unexpected goal. His playing was also admirable simply as piano playing for its variety of colors, created with a variety of playing techniques: flat-tish fingers clinging to the keys for delicate nuances (as in a very touching “Memories of You”), more curved, pointed fingers for shouting passages.

I must admit I was paying most attention to Heath and Iverson, but I was struck by the warmth of Ben Street’s sound, enriched at times by elegantly executed double stops or pizz tremolo.

Iverson announced that the trio would be recording again in the next few days – that disc is instantly on my wish list.

Here’s Tootie, post-concert – dig the bowtie:IMG_0228


Walker, Messiaen, Rosen

I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.

I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up –  but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.

There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”

I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:

In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.


I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.

Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.

I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.

Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…

I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?

Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.

* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?

Big Polyrhythm in the Background

I put a chunk of my response to Ethan Iverson’s Carter post on his current Forumesque comments. I was troubled by his reply:

@James: Thanks for your comment. I’m sure many other smart classical musicians agree with you. I will let the matter rest there except to note that the “big polyrhythm” lurking in the background of any of my comparisons between jazz and classical is race.

Which I take to mean that smart jazz musicians would not agree with me. But agree or disagree about what? I am not sure what part of my comment he is referring to. My guess is that the thing that smart jazz musicians would disagree with is the question of whether some classical musicians – a tiny minority – might also have professional level jazz abilities – whether they have any grasp of what Iverson refers to as the “folk music” aspect of jazz practice.  Maybe the problem is what “professional” means – that what I am thinking of as sufficiently competent to be called professional is far from professional in the judgement of a smart jazz musician. But I still think at least some musicians today are able to engage with a variety of musical practices competently, whether their primary practice is classical or jazz. I haven’t heard Iverson play classical solo piano, but I expect he does a great job.

Although I did not bring up the issue of racism in my comment, I certainly didn’t mean to deny its importance either. Iverson’s point about unequal institutional support for classical and jazz musicians is quite correct.

Doing Carter’s Math

I was happy to see Ethan Iverson writing about Elliott Carter in a recent post, and I heartily agree with the comment on the depth and breadth of American music with which he frames the post, but I wonder about a few of his assertions and conclusions:

“Time” is really the issue, I believe. For all his intellectual “games” with rhythm, nothing Carter ever wrote really “has game.” The older jazz cat’s schadenfreude surely stems from the knowledge that many of the greatest American musicians, frequently coming from the literal ghetto, have traditionally been consigned to the figurative ghetto by the intellectual elite — even though swing is a much more profound rhythmic discipline than 21:25 or 216:175.

The last phrase of this is a confusion of categories – swing is an extremely subtle and sophisticated performance practice; Carter’s large-scale polyrhythms are background structures that have to do with how the piece is made more than with how it is heard or played.

Ted Curson mastered the jazz beat, you can hear it on “Folk Forms, No. 1.” Nobody who has ever played Carter professionally could jump in there with Mingus  — either improvising or reading that transcription — and sound anything but anemic.

The obvious but pointless rejoinder is to wonder if anyone in Mingus’s band could have played Carter correctly, pointless because these are simply different musical practices and it is foolish to expect profound mastery of such different skill sets among all musicians. On the other hand, I must say I am tired of the ancient canard that classical musicians inherently can’t swing. No, I don’t think there are many classical musicians who have a degree of mastery of jazz that they deserve to get on the bandstand with someone like Mingus – after all, how many jazz musicians function on that level? But the ability to function simply on a professional level as a jazz musician – not as a major contributor to the field, but simply as a professional – is more common among those who are primarily classical musicians than one might think. I bet you could draw a professional level jazz quintet from most major American symphony orchestras – not one ready for the Vanguard or for a recording studio, but professional – capable of swinging and knowledgeable about some portion of jazz’s multiple repertoires.

From the other point of view, I imagine that, fifty years on from Live at Antibes, there are more jazz musicians that can play Carter’s 90+ than there used to be. I am not saying that means they are “better” musicians! Just that the boundaries of who has what skill set are somewhat more permeable – especially today – than we sometimes think.

But Haydn, Schumann, and Carter are not in the same tradition! Haydn and Schumann are open to the public, Carter is a hermetically-sealed world.


Please don’t compare him to Haydn, compare him to the thorniest James Joyce.

I can’t exactly disagree with what Iverson is saying here, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

– I feel like Haydn, Schumann and Carter are in the same tradition in a way that, say, Haydn, Schumann and Feldman are not. Carter is still a “pre-post-classical” composer.

– Joyce is certainly thorny, but there is plenty of “folk music” in Joyce as well; Ulysses is full of the demotic.

– Haydn is certainly open-hearted, but there is plenty of subtlety in Haydn that is “hermetically-sealed” from “the public”.

Carter was a closed book to me until I heard a bunch of rehearsals of his Elizabeth Bishop song cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell at Yale’s Norfolk program in 1981. I could latch onto the vocal line to provide a thread of continuity that I could never find in, say, the Concerto for Orchestra. The frozen registers of the pitches in the first song of that cycle (each pitch sounds in one octave and one octave only through the whole song) also provided a degree of coherence that I couldn’t find elsewhere in Carter’s music – of course, it’s tough to build a big body of work on a stunt of that kind, important as that strategy might be in passages in Webern and Lutoslawski. Once I found my way into Mirror, I started to be able to follow the discourse in other Carter pieces. Furthermore, as has often been noted, in Carter’s late-late period that thread of continuity is more apparent than earlier. Still, except for moments, the harmony in Carter doesn’t make total sense to me. (Nobody should be fooled into thinking the analyze-ibility of Carter’s harmony insures that it is meaningful.) I have to say though that there are plenty of historically important jazz improvisers – past and present – who created music where not every pitch is meaningful. Harmony is significant to a different degree in different musics. I enjoy some Carter in the way I enjoy some freer types of jazz.

Two last thoughts – I have more than once heard passing mention of Carter’s appreciation of bebop – I doubt that his knowledge of it went very deep, but I wish I knew more about his relationship with that music. (The connection between jazz and 20th century American concert music – I mean beyond Third Stream or Copland’s pseudo-jazz of the ’20s – was more widespread than is commonly realized.) And, with regard to folk music, Milton Babbitt is supposed to have once remarked, “But Schoenberg is my folk music!”

Still Fakin’ It

Take note of Ethan Iverson’s comment on the post regarding fake books below. He has more to say at Do the Math. The point made there that I think we all need to write on the back of our hands is this:

And more practically, those countless standards I learned from cheats have meant much less to me artistically and professionally than a far fewer number of compositions that I really got inside.

It’s always about depth and mindfulness, isn’t it? It’s like I tell my musicianship students, it’s not the number of minutes you practice, it’s how mindful you were when you were practicing.

(Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if you – mindfully – put in a whole lot of stinkin’ minutes…)

Fakin’ It

I feel guilty when I read Ethan Iverson railing against the use of fake books in jazz performance. I steal a nervous glance at the shelf of fake books in my office, and wonder, “are they really such a bad thing?”

Well, Iverson is quite correct that they really are a bad thing if they delude people into thinking that they are truly doing justice to a piece simply by unquestioningly rendering the chords and rhythms notated in the fake book. Lead sheets are only an aid, and a limited one at that – and often a hindrance. And the more mature the jazz performance, the more limited the utility of a fake book. And yet… for those of us whose relationship with jazz is on the aspirational side of the spectrum, rather than being fully formed professionals, an intelligently utilized fake book, coupled with study of recorded and live performances, can be a helpful resource, if for no other reason than giving some kind of ready reference to a large amount of material.

I think fake books were originally intended to provided gigging musicians with convenient access to a lot of pop material so as to please patrons on the job. I have a reprint of an old book that I have heard musicians more senior than I refer to as the “#1 book” – not in terms of excellence or popularity, “#1” just being a generic title. (I say “reprint” because I have seen an even earlier version that was loose-leaf sheets in a binder.) The book was not legal – John Harbison has told me how it was the kind of thing that would be sold from out of the trunk of a car. (My first girlfriend gave me my copy, she claimed she just bought it in a music store, which seems improbable.) The newest songs in the book are from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1949). There are three tunes on each page, including lyrics – the notation is pretty hard to read in a dim room! A fake book such as this one was not an unreasonable resource if you were requested to play “Did your Mother Come From Ireland” or “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”. (I speak from experience.) The problem is that most of us who had to play such tunes from such books were aspiring jazz musicians – and the fake book consciousness, so to speak, was still in place when volumes like the illegal version of The Real Book became available. Hence the renditions of  “Confirmation” offered with the same interpretative depth and care as performances of “Did Your Mother…” .

As for Iverson’s comments about the Ray Brown performance of “Solitude”, attention must be paid to his professional judgement, but I hesitate to fully endorse it. I have always been struck by how black practice of black music doesn’t necessarily correspond to how (many, though not all) white folks would like black music to be. I’m talking about choice of repertoire and decisions about harmonic and rhythmic framework, not matters of technical competency, ability to swing, etc. The one African-American teacher at my high school back in Cleveland would listen to well-performed but cheesy jazz-pop with appreciation, just as he would listen to Miles, and I don’t think it was because he couldn’t tell the difference. What I perceived as a conflict was perhaps my problem. The one time I saw Ellington perform (thanks to that same teacher who gave me a ride there), I was surprised at how much the pop side of his book, with a vocalist (forgive me, I don’t remember who), was the focus of the concert. I had gone there hoping to hear “Ko-Ko”, or “Chelsea Bridge”, not “Satin Doll”, no matter how impeccably performed. Even at that young age I (unwittingly) had certain Euro-American modernist ideals in place, the kind of thing for which Gunther Schuller is criticized. (I’m not saying Iverson has that problem! I am just saying that I suffer from that problem, and I know I need to keep that in mind.) I don’t mean to naively romanticize black musicians as though every record by every black artist is great. And maybe Ray Brown’s interpretation of “Solitude” is just bad, I don’t know the record, and Iverson’s opinion must be respected. But maybe a bossa nova version of the piece, with the “wrinkles” omitted, is actually part of the “folklore” of black music(s), more widely interpreted.

I am always annoyed by assertions that jazz is utterly un-notate-able, while European music is fully contained, so to speak, in the notation. Any serious attempt to perform the rhythmic subtleties of a Chopin mazurka, or to figure out the articulations to employ in a Bach suite movement will reveal how little is recorded in the notation of European music – about as much as appears in the rare good transcriptions of jazz improvisation that do exist. As for jazz performance, notation obviously occupies varying degrees of importance, depending on the medium, style, etc. Of course, notation infrequently plays a dominant role.  But it still has a place. And in the realm of us aspirational sub-professionals, notation, even the incomplete or half-incorrect notation in a lowly fake book, can still serve a purpose.

Now to work on my reharmonization of “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland?” using Maj 7 #5 chords…

Adding up Barber

Do the Math has posted comments on the Barber Piano Concerto. While the piece is not exactly K. 466, I don’t think it is as problematic as Iverson makes it out to be. He talks about the opening of the third movement as great movie music, and I was reminded of sitting with Steve Jaffe at a performance of some relatively obscure Copland orchestral music. I whispered to Steve, “This sounds like movie music”. He corrected me, saying “No, movie music sounds like this.” I think the same applies to the Barber.

Iverson has no patience for the episode at fig. 18 of the concerto’s finale – I wonder how he feels about the passage in the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra to which this episode is indebted – it is right out of the “game of pairs” movement. Is that just as weak?

Barber is at once overrated and underrated. His easier songs and the piano sonata are relied upon by myriad college students needing to check off the “20th century”, or “English language”, or, Lord help us, “contemporary” box on their senior recital program – used so often you would think he was considered the greatest American composer. (At least this was the case when I was an undergrad – maybe that has changed. I doubt it.) But in another perspective, he is insufficiently appreciated by those who prefer an edgier idiom. You really shouldn’t dismiss the guy. Joe Straus does not; there is an interesting take on the slow movement of the piano sonata in his recent book on Twelve-Tone Music in America, and it is nice to see Barber in a book with Wolpe and Martino, among many others.

Ives, Carter, Crumb and Reich are more important composers than Barber. (Update: read the comments for a discussion of problems with that sentence.) But I certainly wish I had written “Sure on This Shining Night”, or “Knoxville”, or the Piano Sonata, or the Adagio (and not just for the royalties!) or even the Piano Concerto.

A tale is told of Barber conferring with Szell after a rehearsal of the concerto. Barber was considering adding a whip* to the percussion in the third movement, and said to Szell, “make sure they bring the whip tomorrow.” Szell replied, “I don’t know, the orchestra didn’t play that badly.”

*Also called a slapstick – two pieces of wood, hinged and struck sharply together – it is the sound at the beginning of the Ravel G Major concerto.

Monk, Modern(ist), and Network

– Ethan Iverson’s observations on Monk in the context of the recent Martial Solal concert here in Philly share some points with my own thoughts.

– I’ve started reading Paul Griffith’s Modern Music and After. Customary brilliant writing, questionable vision of what’s important in the last 60 years of music. More comments soon.

Network for New Music presents music from Japan, including works by Dai Fujikura, Takemitsu, and a Gene Coleman video. Friday, April 15 at International House here in Philly. Go to the Network page about this event for a link to a Red Cross site where you can make donations to help Japan.