Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 27, 2012

Coltrane/Holdsworth/Jarzombek:Abstract Melodic Expression and Odd Affinities

Material Format of Music, c.1973-1987?
Hey Kids! This may be news to you, but aside from the radio, old geezers like myself - anyone over 40 - once had to either 1.) buy a vinyl record; 2.) check a vinyl record out from our local library if they had what we wanted; 3.) borrow a friend's vinyl record if they had what we wanted to hear...in order to listen to what we wanted to in the privacy of our own homes. Okay, cassette tapes were around, too. We could record vinyl records onto cheap blank cassette tape, but these things had the propensity to become stuck inside the machine, and then...spaghetti. They really sucked. (Or I guess you youngins would say "suck ass"?)

I remember when the Walkman was a new thing. (I know, I know: I'm leaving out 8-track tapes, which were often played in cars.) The trendiest people walked around town with these gigantic (now they are, right?) players, with headphones on. That was...just a few seconds ago on the tech-scale timeline.

                                           The Walkman vs. the iPod

What I want you to realize: there was once no digital music available for consumers. Zero. I remember the first time I saw a CD: are you tryna tell me...do you mean that tiny record (it looked like a micro-version of a vinyl record to me, only it was silver, not black) is supposed to be "better" sounding than my old records? I suppose I have to buy a new fangled machine to play those things, eh? Indeed.

Wikipedia tells me that audio CDs and CD players became commercially available in 1982, but my friends and I weren't sold on them until 1987. By 1988 we had become Converts. At that time, if you told me there would be little computers everyone would personally own, they would hook into some Net that we were all hooked into, and you could obtain digital music FREE from this thing, I would have thought you were high, or had been reading too many bad science fiction stories, or you were off your meds. Maybe all three.

But enough about the material conditions of the music we listen to.

The Way A Few Players Have Played, c.1961-2012
Now: I know you don't have to be a musician to understand what I'm going to note here, but maybe it would help: once certain jazz soloists who played treble-clef instruments achieved such a dazzling level of technical virtuosity, the music started to get "out" there, for a lot of people's ears.

Some would argue that the 1940s invention, in New York in after-hours clubs, of be-bop, by the finest players in the world, was when all this started. They soloed a lot. They played faster than anything ever heard. They were willing to use more chromatics (notes that don't belong the scale and key proper, but served to "color" their solos), more dissonant intervals (especially diminished substitutions for 7th-type chords), and they were willing to exploit anything their particular instruments could do (mostly saxophones and other horns, but the clarinet too). They got really good at playing the highest pitched notes.

By 1959, Ornette Coleman's group was playing way-out "free jazz" and...if you got it and liked it you were in the minority.

When artists are completely devoted to their craft, they know what's gone before them. They know who the Greats are. They want to do something no one had ever done before; they want to stand outside the shadows of the Greats that came before them and maybe be Great themselves. If only a small, devoted audience "got it," then so be it.

Now: I grew up playing guitar, wanting to be a great rock player. And later I became influenced by all kinds of non-rock music, including jazz, classical, bluegrass, and Indian ragas. I listened and listened and tried to incorporate what I heard in those musics with my rock playing. Lots of rock guitarists did this. Now here's my point: when I finally started listening to John Coltrane, who I think is the greatest sax player ever, I heard the most fantastic heavy metal soloing imaginable. I knew jazz purists - who seemed to at best loathe heavy rock - would think I was crazy for perceiving things this way, so I kept my mouth shut. Only a few other metal guitarists I knew understood where I was coming from.

What we were seeking to do, in the shadow of Edward Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads and Uli Jon Roth, was to play extremely fast, but with a singing melody, all the while exploiting our instruments for what they were capable of doing. When I heard Coltrane play a familiar tune from 1961 (I'm not sure exactly when the following clip was recorded), I flipped-out when I heard him solo! Check it out, Coltrane on soprano sax:

This is still just unbelievably cool and amazing and thrilling phrasing to me. He's melodic and fast. He's thematic and inventive. McCoy Tyner's piano and Eric Dolphy's flute solos are also tremendous. I thought Coltrane sounded like the greatest metal player ever, because I was so firmly ensconced in that frame of reference. Of course he's playing a non-metal instrument, and there are no Marshall stacks. That's not the point. The point is: if you're practicing all day long, and you have ideas about how you want to sound, you will accept things that other extremists wouldn't. Who knew what Coltrane would sound like in five or six years? (Later)

Out of England, a jazz fusion guitarist. I read an interview with Edward Van Halen, and he mentioned a jazz guy that played with a rock sound, on a Stratocaster, and he thought this guy was the best he'd ever heard. His name? Allan Holdsworth. Of course I had to go out and buy Holdsworth's latest vinyl record. (It was I.O.U. and I didn't "get" the singer.) I had no idea what Holdsworth was doing when he played chords, but when he soloed? Our jaws dropped off our faces and rolled around on the floor! He was playing really "outside" but still: gorgeous melodic lines which seemed like extensions of the chords he was playing over, but maybe some odd scales we hadn't acquainted ourselves with, plenty of dissonance and odd intervals. He was doing wide stretches and playing just an uncanny legato style, as if he's not picking the strings; his left hand was so large, flexible and dextrous he sounded to us like Coltrane he was so fluid...only with a sort-of rock sound! I couldn't believe it.

Here's Holdsworth playing "Devil Take The Hindmost." After all these years I've grown to appreciate his chordal playing much more too. Note: Holdsworth has experimented with all kinds of fancy guitars since I first discovered him. Here he plays a small-bodied thing with no headstock. He's also become known as the finest Synth-Axe player. The solo starts around 1:50.

Heavy metal shredders Joe Satriani, Richie Kotzen, John Petrucci, and Greg Howe have noted Holdsworth as a big influence. Also: Rush's Alex Lifeson, Journey's Neal Schon, and the late great Shawn Lane mentioned their admiration for Holdsworth. But note: when Holdsworth was a kid, he admired sax players more than guitarists, and has said he's modeled his solo playing - legato so smooth it sounds like his favorite Coltrane - and he once said he "detests" the sound of pfft when a player pulls off - lifts off - a note on one string to a lower one on the same string.

Note that the solo flight here may seem quite abstract. I argue this is inevitable when a player is trying to distance himself from others playing around and before him. I know of no other electric guitarist who ever played like Holdsworth before him.

A friend of mine who knows far more about the newest, youngest metal bands told me, when I asked him who the guitarists were being influenced by, replied after a moment...Allan Holdsworth. I thought he was going to say John Petrucci or Paul Gilbert. I should've known.

Here's my favorite metal guitarist - I also think he's the best metallist in the world, although he's still relatively unknown: Ron Jarzombek. From his solo recording Solitarily Speaking of Theoretical Confinement, here's a 2 and half minute series of little metallic bagatelle that evinces Jarzombek's place in this long line of virtuoso legato - smooth, fast, clean and connected - soloists. The picking is off the charts. His left hand is godly:

From Jarzombek's band Blotted Science, here's "Synaptic Plasticity." The solo at 3:04 - after all those mathematically-challenging time-changes, abrupt shifts, and odd harmonic sequences he suddenly drops into what I call "Holdsworth Mode" - and it's a striking mood shift. Note the solo at 3:55 is much more in the classic metal "shred" style. This guy can do it all.

So, in ending, I've tried to argue that, as much as its hardcore adherents would like to try to refute it, jazz player Coltrane, fusion player Holdsworth and metal player Jarzombek all meet in this rather abstract area in which the best players find common ground: extremely fluid and effortlessly fast line playing, which is both melodic while straying outside the ordinary confines of garden-variety scale playing. In Ben Ratliff's 2007 book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he notes Coltrane's considerable influence on metal players.

Here's a pic of Holdsworth and Ron Jarzombek, looking at the former's chord-solo charts. Ron looks as baffled as I was when I looked at similar stuff in Holdsworth's Melody Chords For Guitar. Holdsworth has a very idiosyncratic way of thinking about his note selections...and Jarzombek is a Frank Zappa-level total theory-freakazoid!, but how can you "think" when you play that fast and with such freedom and abandonment?:

In case anyone's wondering how far out Coltrane went, here he is, not long before he died, on "Mars." I personally have not heard a guitarist play this far out there. It's impossible for me to describe:


Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff. I wonder if you would enjoy Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, a novel about a bear who plays saxophone. Coltrane's music plays a major role in the book.

michael said...

Thanks. This was one of those blog posts that I thought about for maybe 10 seconds, then decided to write it, figuring a very small handful of people would find it and enjoy it over a period of a few years. I had difficulty because it's a subject in which I could write in a very technical and dense way, but I didn't want to alienate my readers even further than I already had. When I re-read it after sleep, I thought it was missing depth...Oh well.

I have yet to read The Bear Comes Home.

phodecidus said...

I'm twenty-three years old and that picture of the walkman next to the iPod immediately grabbed my attention. I bought that very same 'sports' walkman at a thrift store a few years ago. I've burnt through many iPods since then and have permanently converted to tapes from MP3s.

Many relics of the recent past have been pushed into the landfills of America, their unique aesthetic attributes dismissed in favor of having a sleeker, sexier model. I wish we'd just stop making new cell-phones and gadgets and focus that energy into bigger, more important problems.

And then there's John Coltrane. Having grown up with my father's collection of jazz records, I do admire Coltrane a lot but John Zorn is my favorite sax player. Maybe you should look into him.

michael said...

@phodecidus: I hear you about the "sleeker sexier model" stuff, but markets and consumers seem to demand this. You and I are perhaps out of step with the mainstream on this.

There's an interesting aspect of the drive toward sleeker and sexier: what Buckminster Fuller called omniephemeralization in mind-power being used in science, then being cashed out materially in our technology. Here's a basic definition of what Fuller was talking about: almost everything we make will do more with less, become smaller, faster, weigh less, and use less energy. The landfill e-waste problem is very real, but the more the omniephemeralization, the less waste...

I like Zorn as an avant composer. I own about four of his CDs. He may be the foremost exponent of radical jewish culture, and I admire him for his fecundity. I do think Coltrane was a virtuoso nonpareil, while Zorn exploits the sax for really wild and chaotic free expression. And he's a good player.

You know who I think really kills on sax these days? Branford Marsalis. He's from a famous family, so we might assume he's given undue attention, but WHOA! I remember, 16 yrs ago, when a jazzbo friend came over with Branford's latest CD, The Dark Keys. It was astonishing how good that guy was..and is.

As far as soprano sax: have you heard Steve Lacy?

Anonymous said...

You might like Dave Lanciani
Dimaension X on archive.org.

He seems to think his influences
are Frank Zappa, but I can hear
a common thread here.

Coltrane has always been ahead of
the curve, but he was in distinguished company.

Charlie Parkers band read in later
years like the who's who of jazz.

michael said...

@Anon: Thanks! I didn't know about Lanciani. This is why I started a blog: to learn about things I never knew existed. I listened to a lot of To Black Dresses and Exploding Robots and really liked it. Extremely fine legato chops like Jarzombek? Not really. But all-around composition and imagination? Very impressive.

There's so much out there that I haven't heard that I know I would love, I can just feel it. And mostly, I think it's due to the omniephemeralization of digital equipment. I know a guy who bought, for under $1000, something that has more capability than Queen had when they recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody," and it's in his basement, and he's got a studio, and it's killer. Working with him, I now realize how influential the engineer can be on a recording, because I've dinked around with that stuff. It's like learning an instrument itself. And it's affordable! Anyone can make really great-sounding records in their own homes now.

Those guys in Minton's Playhouse who invented bop: Bird, Diz, Monk, Roach, Bud Powell, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke: If I could go back in time and listen to them jam all night after their (paying) swing gigs!

Back to weirdness and Zappa-ish metal: there's a wild guitarist named Luke Jaeger, who once played in something called Sleep Terror: total wild metal, then very abruptly: jazz or something very odd, back to metal.

Eric Wagner said...

I love this review Rafi Zabor wrote of the Coltrane cd "One Down One Up: Live at the Half Note":

The Breaking Point, April 10, 2006
This review is from: One Down One Up: Live at the Half Note (Audio CD)
I've known these performances for years, some of them from the time of the original broadcasts in 1965, and the Impulse release presents them with the best sound so far. They come from the last months of John Coltrane's epochal quartet, and the music is taken as far as it can go within that format. The breaking point and the end of the quartet are only months away. For me, this version of "Song of Praise" was, from the first time I heard it, one of Coltrane's greatest recorded performances, stretching the form to its ultimate extensions without shattering the quartet's universe of discourse. Coltrane's first solo is so exhaustive in its explorations it's hard to believe it's only about five minutes long. McCoy Tyner seems to be left out there longer then he'd like--there's a chordal sequence about two-thirds of the way through that I read as Come back, John. When Trane does come back it is for a solo of terrific passion and density, with a soaring reprise of the melody, just before the actual restatement of the tune, to climax it thrillingly: a complete catharsis, and one of the greatest things Trane or anyone has ever recorded. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

"One Down, One Up" seems to have been canonized as the album's classic, but for me it's a long, dark search with intermittent discoveries made along the way, and with Elvin Jones trying several times to kick it up a notch--listen for his sudden increases of volume and intensity: sounds to me as if he sensed the thing was in a rut. There's another long performance, called "Creation" on a bootleg release on a Blue Parrot LP in the late seventies, even more difficult and dissonant than "One Down"--you could say both tunes are excavations of difficult depths and "Praise" is primarily about ascent--and there may be other performances still from these Alan Grant broadcasts. It's great to have the current sides officially, reliably available, with royalties paid to the family for a change, and I keep kicking myself for not having gone down to the Five Spot in those weeks. Oh well, I still have Birdland. Comment | Permalink