Wrong From the Top: Me on Justin Moyer on Jazz

Posted August 9, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Miscellaneous

Tags: , ,

Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer posted a spectacularly ill-argued and misguided screed against jazz, which I will herewith proceed to expose for the drivel it is. I would not do this here except that (a) this happened in the Post, meaning it is central to the DMV musical experience (maybe); (b) I used to freelance for Jazz Times, and still listen to jazz a good amount; and (c) the article is just that bad. Now let’s proceed.

Although he begins by baldly stating “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up,” Moyer does not pose an argument that actually synthesizes various strains of thought to support these statements; instead, he makes five points that build on each other in no way. While the listiclish format will not endear him to ancient scholars of rhetoric, it does make it easy to set ‘em up and knock ‘em down.

Moyer’s first knock on jazz is as follows: “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.”

When I was in high school, I told someone that classical was my favorite type of music, and she replied with scorn that classical was the easiest music to compose because it had no words. I never thought I would encounter an argument quite like this again, but Moyer brought it back!

The obvious error is of intention. If you want to hear songs with words, you can go to a show with a vocalist — even a jazz show, as there are many vocal jazz concerts. If you want to hear talented musicians exploring the basic harmonic possibilities associated with that song while weaving in fragments of melody and occasionally arriving at serendipitous moments of synthesis, you should go to a jazz show. It appears Moyer prefers the former type of show, but this does not invalidate the existence of the latter.

Perhaps Moyer was conscious of this flaw in his argument when he followed Point No. 1 with “Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” States Moyer, “The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great.” This would be a devastating argument if only everyone who loves jazz didn’t already agree with it.

You see, most people acknowledge that there exists both great jazz and bad jazz. In great jazz, the musicians achieve the full possibilities of the improvisational form, the eye-opening combination of exploration and synthesis mentioned earlier. In bad jazz, they’re just noodling around and they don’t do any of that stuff.

Later, Moyer says he doesn’t like Wes Montgomery’s music. That’s fine! It further appears that many people disagree about what constitutes great jazz and bad jazz. Montgomery is not some people’s cup of tea; others appreciate what they perceive as elegant and deft musicianship that doesn’t call attention to itself but repays the attention you give it. But nobody is saying it’s great because it’s improvised, except the straw man Moyer created.

“Jazz stopped evolving,” complains Moyer in Point No. 3. He then discusses artists who have continued exploring the boundaries of jazz (leaving out about a million other people) and then says they don’t count because he doesn’t like them. So there, modern jazz artists! (Also, don’t front like back in the day you weren’t bumping “Rebirth of Slick,” which of course featured rapper Ladybug Mecca, a native of Silver Spring. See, this post relates to the rest of this blog somehow!)

He also says that “jazz is being kept alive by nostalgic Americans” who have the temerity to continue enjoying the music of their youth. One day, Justin Moyer, you too will be old, floundering in a world of new music that sounds like noises and trash to your different-era ears, and on that day you will take solace in a recording of music in a style traditional to you, and Justin Moyer III will laugh his head off at your grandpa music. But Justin Moyer III might still be listening to jazz, because jazz artists continue to evolve the genre in ways Justin Moyer doesn’t like.

Ready for the next devastating indictment of a musical genre? “Jazz is mushy.” It turns out that there are a bunch of artists playing jazz and they do it differently! Moyer quotes famed jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis as saying that “too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all,” and then complains that Louis Armstrong, Kenny G, Charlie Parker, and John Zorn don’t sound like each other. This is right after he complained that jazz stopped evolving 50 years ago, folks. I can’t even figure out what wrongheaded piffle I’m supposed to be rebutting here.

Moyer also complains that people use the word “jazz” to refer to things that are definitely not jazz, like President Obama’s speaking style or Ralph Ellison’s prose. While I find this annoying as well, it has zero to do with jazz being boring, overrated, or washed up, which the lede lead me to believe this listicle was going to prove.

Here comes the clincher: “Jazz let itselt be co-opted.” For Moyer, the sign of a dying art form is that some of its practitioners (he doesn’t say how many, or what percentage thereof) have been able to secure academic positions rather than languishing in glamorous artistic poverty like all the respectable musicians. White people have begun to study this music in school like it’s worthy of further analysis or something. And look at people memorialising musicians they enjoy! Why, the horror.

In conclusion, Moyer failed in every conceivable way to prove the statements with which he led off his meandering, content-free musings. However, he did inspire me to read his article twice: Once so I could get mad about it and the second time so I could write this response. And thus, Moyer was likely successful in his overall objective. Sigh.

Here’s some good jazz to wash all that bad feeling away:

Yeah, no evolving happening there!

Summertime, and the Listening is Easy: The “President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol, July 17, 2014

Posted July 19, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

The weather this week smiled upon First Lieutenant Ryan J. Nowlin as he made his debut as assistant director of the U.S. Marine Band, “The President’s Own.” (The previous assistant, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, took over the director spot when Col. Michael J. Colburn retired last week.) Outdoor concerts happen at the mercy of D.C.’s summer weather, but stormy Monday and Tuesday yielded to balminess for his first two concerts leading the band on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol. I heard the second performance of the program, on Thursday night.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it's time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though.

If I ever get tired of this view of the band and the Mall, I guess it’s time to move away from the DMV. Not yet, though!

Gustav Holst contributed the most substantial work on the program, his Suite in F for Military Band, four short fantasies on English folk tunes filled with wonderful sounds from the master orchestrator. As concert moderator GySgt Sara Dell’Omo noted, the Marine Band really likes marches, but they refrained from pressing ahead too fast in Holst’s, allowing the tune to blossom. The setting of “I’ll love my love” swelled with emotion, and the “Hammersmith” movement had a great charge from the actual blacksmith-y hammer used in the percussion. Nowlin and the band couldn’t quite synchronize the superimposition of two folk themes in the finale, though, and the result sounded a little tentative.

Normally, the band handles any challenge thrown at it with ease, as proved in other selections on the program. In both Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ “American Overture” and Henry Fillmore’s “The Circus Bee,” the band played like a single instrument: tossing off brass riffs in the former with a rhythmic energy and emphasis that induced excited dancing from the five-year-old in front of me, carefully grading the accelerando in the latter while maintaining maximum exuberance. John Philip Sousa’s “The National Game” marks another entry in that composer’s roll of catchy toe-tappers, and how is it that we don’t hear this march, written in honor of the National League by a D.C.-born composer, at Nationals games? It even has pratfall noises that one could sync with video of errors by opposing teams!

The program cannily interspersed solos to vary texture, too. GySgt Frank Crawford played his tuba in Jean-Baptiste Arban’s set of variations, “Carnival of Venice,” which normally calls for the more nimble trumpet. The challenge did not faze Crawford. As the difficulty of the variations gradually increased to ludicrous levels, with the tuba seemingly puting nary a note astray, the crowd started applauding out of a combination of astonishment and relief like that for a tightrope walker who has made another safe traversal.

Dell’Omo, for her part, stepped out of the concert-moderation role and into the soloist spot for two songs, showing a brassy mezzo and bringing out the breezy delight of “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis” and taking a lovely wallow in the (mawkish) sentiment of “For Good” from “Wicked.”

By the end of the concert, more than a few passersby had been caught by the music; they made a ring of people behind the band, looking up at the Capitol Dome. The sun had set to the west down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the dusk had brought a touch of coolness to the air. Kids who had managed to sit mostly still for an hour of music had some more attention left to pay as the band roared through a transcription of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture.” To close, Nowlin and the band performed a stirring arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” followed by the Marines’ Hymn, which together had everyone on their feet.  It was a perfect ending to an evening of light music in the shadow of our nation’s Capitol.

BAND-HEARING OPPORTUNITIES

The Marine Band switches to Wednesdays at the Capitol and Thursdays at the Sylvan Theater next to the Washington Monument next week. You gotta catch them if you like a nice light-music concert in the summer; nobody does it better, at least within the city limits. (The National Symphony used to do some lovely concerts at Carter Barron, but sequestration has put an end to that.)

The Army Band takes over Thursday nights at the Capitol next week for its excellent light-music performances, to add to its Friday night shows; I’m going to get over there before the summer ends.

The Air Force Band and Navy Band seem to have mostly gotten out of the light-classical business, but you should go see concerts by them anyway.

In the wintertime, you can hear these ensembles indoors, typically playing more substantial fare (here’s an example). Did I mention all these concerts are free?

Pretty sure DMV Classical is the only outlet to cover this concert, but Anne Midgette coincidentally has written a piece on military bands in general, which I commend to your attention.

A Brief History of My Reaction When People Tell Me I am a “Young” Person Interested in Classical Music

Posted July 5, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Regular life

Tags: , ,

 

My age My reaction
15 “Yes, but I’m a totally legitimate classical music fan nonetheless. Let me tell you how I liked the performer’s ritard in the slow movement. Spoiler alert: I did not like it.”
20 “Does this venue happen to provide tickets that are discounted based on my youth?”
25 “Yes, but I certainly don’t know anything about how to get other young people to come to these things. Particularly young women.”
30 “I’m not really that young, except in a classical music context. It’s kind of sad that you think I’m young, actually.”
35 (present day) “Yes. I am young. Thank you for noticing.”

Carrying On Tradition: The National Festival Orchestra at the University of Maryland, June 21, 2014

Posted June 23, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been attending National Orchestral Institute and Festival concerts at the University of Maryland since I was in high school, when the happening was just the National Orchestral Institute and its students performed collectively as the NOI Philharmonic. Though the musicians at NOI change every year, Saturday’s National Festival Orchestra concert, in which the assembled young people performed under the baton of Rochester Philharmonic conductor laureate Christopher Seaman, evinced the same virtues that drew me to the festival when I was young: Top-notch orchestral playing, crackling with excitement one hears only sometimes at professional symphony concerts, for rock-bottom prices – $25 for any seat in Dekelbaum Hall, in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Christopher Seaman.

Christopher Seaman.

Saturday night’s program of music by Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, and Gustav Holst provided a lot of opportunities for Seaman and the orchestra to wallow in sound or emotion. Skipping most of those, Seaman set flowing tempi and rarely slowed things down, even noticeably abbreviating the typical pauses between movements. Yet these were full-hearted readings nonetheless, thanks to the gorgeous sounds the orchestra made and the excitement that informed the playing.

The antics of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” have always been lost on me, I confess; I listen to hear that the fiendish horn solo comes off well and then, despite my best efforts, zone out. Here said solo did come off well (as did the woodwind pratfalls that accompany it), but Seaman’s brisk tempi allowed me to actually hear the humor of the various episodes. Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” drawn from the opera “Peter Grimes,” demand more atmospheric playing, which they received: you could almost hear the waves lapping on the shore in the string figures and smell the salt tang in the thin air, limned by the winds, during the “Dawn” interlude, while the storm interlude crashed all the more powerfully for holding something in reserve until a big climax.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra put on quite a fine performance of Holst’s suite “The Planets” a few months ago, and if you sat me down with recordings of the National Festival Orchestra’s rendition and the BSO’s, I’m not sure I could pick out the professional versus the nonprofessional orchestra. The Natty Festivians had a few moments where the percussion got out of sync with the rest of the orchestra, and a couple times one member of the brass hit the wrong repeated note for a couple measures, but that was it for the demerits. In the students’ favor: Massive, snarling low brass, lower strings that made an impenetrable shelf of sound when called for, sweet-toned upper strings, and all-around excellent wind playing. The 5/4 tread of “Mars” felt impersonal and relentless as it should, quick and steady on Saturday, and the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-esque climax of “Uranus” felt inevitable thanks to similar rhythmic intensity. “Mercury,” where the melody flits among sections of the orchestra, sounded like a continuous thought thanks to the careful coordination of Seaman and his players. The heart of the work for me, though, was the noble theme in the middle of “Jupiter,” played by the National Festival Orchestra with a simplicity and eloquence that conveyed deep emotion without digging for it. A tough trick to pull off, but Seaman and the orchestra did it.

There’s one more National Festival Orchestra show this month, next Saturday at 8 pm, in which Leonard Slatkin will conduct Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and some other stuff. Twenty-five bucks!

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey

WHEN I WAS YOUNG…

I certainly would not have thought of conductorly restraint as something to which one should aspire. I wanted everything to be all emphasis all the time. It appears that after having eagerly sought out such approaches, I am now ready for balance and restraint to have the fore. I was feeling so nostalgic driving home from the concert and thinking about piloting my parents’ Ford Taurus station wagon to the terrible acoustics at Tawes Hall to hear a bunch of kids who were actually a bit older than me play orchestral instruments better than I could do anything, and it really gave me some perspective. It’s time to pur away childish things, For example, in this review…

I DIDN’T EVEN MAKE THE OBVIOUS JOKES ABOUT THE CONDUCTOR’S NAME

You know what jokes I’m talking about. Don’t lie. (I can put away childish things but cannot pretend that they don’t exist, apparently.)

A Collegial Chamber: National Orchestral Institute Faculty Artists at the University of Maryland, June 5, 2014

Posted June 8, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

For years, I’ve attended the orchestral concerts at the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute and Festival, because a bunch of talented young people living, learning, and making music together often results in exciting concert-going. However, to teach those students, the NOI also gathers together various orchestral luminaries, and said luminaries put on a concert or two as well.

I always thought the orchestral faculty would probably play music for difficult-to-assemble instrumental combos, show the whippersnappers how to communicate through music, and generally have a good time. But I never went. On Thursday night, I finally tried actually attending one in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall, and it was exactly as I expected.

The first half of the program featured three medium-length combos of one wind or brass instrument and a few strings — how often do you get to hear textural variety like that? Oboist Mark Hill, violinist James Stern, violist Katherine Murdock, and cellist Julia Lichten had just the right touch in Bejnamin Britten’s Phantasy, phollowing Britten’s phree invention where it led but phinding a relationship of the parts to the whole. Phun! The high caliber of playing helped too; Lichten was particularly notable in the opening and closing notes, quiet and mysterious.

Gorgeous playing didn’t make Alan Hovanhess’ “Haroutiun (Resurrection)” enjoyable, though. Trumpeter Chris Gekker moderated his tone beautifully to fit with his string-playing colleagues, but Hovanhess’ theme dripped with sap, and the music never strayed too far from the theme and its modal harmonies even in the nominally fugal second section.

Along with violinist Sally McLain, violist Edward Gazouleas, and cellist Peter Stumpf, Frank Morelli and his bassoon brought back the fun in Carl Maria von Weber’s “Andante e Rondo ungarese.” All of the musicians enjoyed the poise of the Andante theme and the infectious rhythms of the rondo, but the star was Morelli (day job: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), who played virtuoso runs up and down the scale with scintillating style and wit.

Frank Morelli. Photo from Orpheus' website.

Frank Morelli. Photo from Orpheus’ website.

Johannes Brahms’ second string sextet made up the second half of the program: a meaty piece full of the harmonic shading, motivic complexity, and general wistful mood that we think of as echt-Brahmsian. Though a Romantic-era piece, it benefitted on Thursday from the assembled stringsters’ Classical-style emphasis on lightness and transparent textures. You could hear everything that was going on with the internal voices and follow the motives around, or you could let the emotions of the music carry you away, and I did both. The only hiccup was that David Salness and Stern, taking first and second violin, respectively, seemed slightly out of tune with each other at times. Otherwise, top-shelf stuff; Murdock and Gazouleas were exemplary middle voices, and it was a treat to hear Stumpf and Lichten make their big melodies sing.

Did I mention this concert was free? You can check out the other stuff in the NOI Festival here. There are a couple chamber concerts by the students today, which I have also always thought would be fun to check out. Maybe next year.

See It and Believe It

Posted June 3, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Miscellaneous

In case you missed the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performing a choreographed version of “Appalachian Spring,” the video is now available:

Not as cool as it was live, but still pretty darn cool. And good job to Maryland for documenting it. More on the performance here.

So Long Lives This: Aaron Grad and Augustine Mercante at the Mansion at Strathmore, May 15, 2014

Posted May 17, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

Tags: , ,

Composer Aaron Grad doesn’t feel constrained by conventional models; he fashions his means of expression to suit his end. For example: His cycle of Old-Fashioned Love Songs, written for his wife and commissioned by Strathmore, where it received its DMV premiere on Thursday night.

In the cycle, Alexandria-born Grad sets to music poems by…him, written largely in metrical rhyming verse. He also includes songs by composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Cyndi Lauper, recontextualizing the tunes to his own ends as necessary. The only instrument Grad calls for is an electric theorbo, which he built and plays, although he said in a post-concert Q&A that he isn’t quite adept at playing it yet. All these songs were sung by Augustine Mercante, a music-school chum of Grad’s, who used his fine countertenor voice in any musical style Grad asked him to.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Sounds like a lot of ideas for one opus, but Grad has enough skill to make these disparate elements and novelties coalesce. The electric theorbo has an intimidating array of strings and outputs, but its general sounds are familiar enough: haunting strummed chords, percussive twangs, gently plucked melodies that hung sweetly in the air. (I was momentarily surprised when Grad used a sampler to layer on textures, but then, instruments can do that now.) It’s an old-fashioned instrument refashioned for modern purposes, and Grad made it sound good. It sounded particularly good tracing the close arpeggiated harmonies in Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger’s “Toccata No. 2,” which is the first music in Grad’s cycle and dates all the way from 1604.

The cycle actually opens with a spoken recitation of Grad’s “Preamble,” with the preamble set to music after Kapsberger has his moment. Grad’s poems are pretty sturdily constructed, with some witty turns, particularly in “Music Theory” — “Dissonance for its own sake/Is such a load of hooey!/We don’t needlessly complicate/Our composition, do we?” He is not entirely immune to the lure of a fine cliche, but like any good postmodernist he owns up to them: “A foolish quest this is, to bare my heart/Through tired, worn-out conventions.”

But he doesn’t just acknowledge the dead language; he gives it some new life. Part of this success comes from seeing in the songs by others a through-line across the centuries, particularly with the same vocalist and instrument enlisted to bring them to life. Part comes from how Grad cannily comments on the songs of other authorship; Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” gets intro’ed by Grad’s “Risk Management,” a monologue of a nervous lover, in which the theorbo bristles with tension but also propels the music forward into the sweet oasis of the Foster. A reprise confirms that the risk has been successfully managed.

The whole thing wouldn’t work without Mercante. Grad tailored the cycle specifically to his voice, and so Mercante sounded extraordinary, a gorgeous voice that shifted from sparkling William Boyce to swinging George Gershwin without breaking a sweat. The sheer purity and high-ness of his male voice gave a timeless, universal feel Grad’s words as well, suiting a cycle that deals in big thoughts about love rather than specific thoughts about a person.

The closing two songs of the cycle both showed some of Grad’s best moves and scaled the steepest emotional heights. Normally, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” reads as a lovers’ retreat, but Grad prefaced it with “The Poetics of Loss,” which begins, “If we cannot speak of death, Let us simply say: away.” Grad’s arrangement of the accompaniment, spare and clean, reinforced the new interpretation; once the song was done, the music slowly but surely rolled back into the Kapsberger with which the cycle began. All sorts of ideas and juxtapositions informed these moments, but Grad’s singular vision and skilled realization made them matter.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler. More about the song cycle here.


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