Friday, April 5, 2013

Putting the virtue in virtuosity

Joshua Bell-virtuoso violinist
I'm totally loving my lecture classes this term, and it's just one week in. We've had some really stimulating discussions. Has anyone learned anything? Well, who knows. Nobody had their eyes closed, at least not that I noticed. I have to make sure to keep a certain amount of control of the class, because, what with the internet and everyone's short attention spans, it's easy to go from talking about Duke Ellington to videos of cats leaping over furniture. Still, I don't want to just lecture; I want people to actually think about things in a different way. Don't get me wrong, I have power points and planned lectures: sometimes, the best time is had when we improvise!

Today's Jazz History class got into a great discussion regarding the concept of virtuosity. This came about after hearing three contrasting examples of jazz music. The first was Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues." The second was a tune from Michael Brecker's first album, called "Choices." The third was a live performance by Esperanza Spalding, an original tune called "I Know You Know." The point of the exercise is to compare and contrast the three tracks, which represent the past, present, and arguable future of jazz, respectively. Another point of the exercise is to listen for the textbook "salient characteristics" of jazz music: blue notes, syncopation, improvisation, polyrhythms, call-and-response, and swing. We know that in some music,  some of these elements will not be obvious at times, and even some will not exist at all, and yet we can still call the music jazz.

One common denominator in these three tracks was a presence of a virtuoso star soloist. What is a virtuoso. We agreed that a virtuoso is someone who is beyond outstanding on their instrument, who has a high level of technical ability. Indeed, the textbook definition of "virtuoso" is as follows:

 A Virtuoso (from Italian virtuoso, Late Latin virtuosus, Latin virtus meaning: skill, manliness, excellence) is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in the fine arts, at singing or playing a musical instrument.

Further description from wikipedia:

The defining element of virtuosity is the performance ability of the musician in question, who is capable of displaying feats of skill well above the average performer. Musicians focused on virtuosity are commonly criticized for overlooking substance and emotion in favor of raw technical prowess. Despite the mechanical aspects of virtuosity, many virtuosi successfully avoid such labels. Once more commonly applied in the context of the fine arts, the term has since evolved and can now also simply mean a 'master' or 'ace' who excels technically within a particular field or area of human knowledge—anyone especially or dazzlingly skilled at what they do.

We agreed that Louis Armstrong was a virtuoso cornetist. In his day, no one could do the kinds of technical things he was doing on the trumpet. Armstrong was known for playing 100 high C's in a row and then a high F at the end of the night. However, beyond just his physical talent for this, he was more swinging, more inventive, and more charismatic than any jazz instrumental soloist who had previously existed. So, this implies that it takes more than mere high notes to be a virtuoso in our eyes. (I'll get to high notes later.)

Michael Brecker is still worshiped for his speedy phrases. However, I think that beyond the "Brecker licks" that every tenor player loves to play, there is a lot of passion and inventiveness in Brecker's playing. So once again, it's not just merely being technically impressive; it's a certain level of artistry and using technique to create an emotional response. Some might disagree in preference of other tenor players. I can enjoy the simplicity of Charlie Rouse or Stan Getz as much as the blazing ferocity of Michael Brecker.

Our discussion started going left when we got to Esperanza Spalding. My contention is that, due to her fame, critics will write that Spalding is, AS A BASSIST, in the same league as Dave Holland, Christian McBride, Ron Carter, etc. I think that this notion is dubious. However, Spalding, as a bassist/vocalist/composer/performer is without a doubt a virtuoso. She is dazzlingly skilled at what she does.

Was Theolonious Monk a virtuoso? Most of the jazz musicians said "yes", despite the fact that Monk is known for unorthodox piano technique, highly angular and confusingly simplistic melodies, and a strange, perhaps off putting stage presence. For the benefit of those civilians in the class who had never heard Monk, we watched some concert footage of Monk with his quartet. Even with Monk's odd phrases and clunks and spaces, we still agreed that Monk was a virtuoso at being Monk.

In almost the same breath, I asked if Bob Dylan was a virtuoso. The initial reaction was "NO!" Now, I'm certainly not a Bob Dylan fan by any stretch.  However, is he a virtuoso at being Bob Dylan? Whether you love his music, or think he can sing at all, he is an original and identifiable musical force. Indeed, one of the things I think that the blues and the folk influence in American music has done is made it so that you don't have to be the best singer on the block to make music. In Italy, you cannot perform opera unless you have Luciano Pavarotti type of chops. However, you DO have to have a distinctive sound and a unique message, which, I will say begrudgingly, Bob Dylan does.
(Here again is one of my favorite videos, from the We Are The World sessions, where Dylan lays his track down. It's pretty funny, all due respect.)

I have found that the older I become, the less impressed I am with the traditional virtuosity. I want to hear SOUL, I want to hear MEANING. I still like a lot of music that many folks might think is pretty heady. Still, I remember as a kid being blown away by Maynard Ferguson (may he rest in peace. I heard he went out on a high note....). Ferguson's higher louder faster technique was really amazing to hear live. However, I find myself now unable to listen to more than thirty seconds of high note trumpeting. I think it has it's place, and I certainly wish at times that I had better range. However, I don't think high notes are necessary to make good music. Sadly, many trumpet players around the world, who I'm sure are fine human beings, seem to spend most of their time trying to play as high as they possibly can on the trumpet. I was hanging out on, drifting around, and at a certain point began to notice that many trumpet players had posted videos of themselves playing double high C's, or even above. (I've posted a few below, just for fun. You'll probably have a headache after you listen to them. There are hundreds of them.....) Uhhh, yeah, that's great , fellas, but can you play me a melody? What about playing some blues? How about something with rhythm?

All of this leads me to believe that the transformation of the idea of viruosity is a good thing. We want to play out instruments well-really well. But musical vision and artistry is so much more than that. I'd rather hear Miles Davis play one middle register note with feeling than all of the triple high C's in the world. I mean, if you had a choice between being Miles Davis, or being able to play a triple high C, which would YOU choose?

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