Friday, March 30, 2012

Beyond Category

If you have been following this blog and posts that I've made here and there on the Internet, you'll know that I believe that the essence of jazz - and really music in general - revolves around freedom.  If you think about the best and most free-feeling times in your life, I would be willing to bet that there is a memorable soundtrack playing good time tunes on infinite repeat on the turntable, tape deck, CD player, or iPod of your mind.

Last month, as I was searching for ways to bring TIMKAT Entertainment back from a (way too) long hiatus, Robert Glasper's "Black Radio" was released.  I listened to a few of the tracks, actually expecting a trad jazz vibe, but instead was challenged by what is likely to be a truly groundbreaking album.  The more I listened, the more it occurred to me that Glasper had created something very fresh for a new audience.  Here is a pianist and vocalist that dared to mix break-beat, jazz rhythms, rap, soul, neo-Soul, Nu-Jazz, all these labels, to ultimately deliver a unique experience to the listener and meanwhile express his innermost feelings as an artist. 

What I like best about Black Radio is its daring musical and social spirit and most of all, you guessed it, its freedom to be, defying those confining labels. Duke Ellington often said that extraordinary people in his life were "beyond category" and that's a great way to describe many artists' inner creative urges to grow beyond conventional bounds.  It is often difficult to recognize art that will endure while enjoying it in the present, but I think Glasper and team are headed in that direction.  Time of course will either be a gentle or cruel judge, but usually one of the most fair.

Lately, it would appear that going beyond category shouldn't be too difficult for creative people to accomplish, as some of the most pervasive and powerful influences in media follow set formulas that have evolved over the past 15 years and therefore lulled us into a collective social slumber in its wake. Regardless, it continues to be an elusive treasure to possess.  

Take the "reality TV show" format, for example.  Whether or not most have noticed it, this show's format, like the classic sit-coms and variety shows of the past, follows a basic formula as follows:

  1. Introduce characters (...often filled with despair and woe ...)
  2. Create a conflict  (Host highlights said despair and woe ...)
  3. Rise the conflict to a semi-climax (Characters become upset that host highlighted their problems)
  4. Cut to commercials to keep suspense ... (... because why else would we keep watching?)
  5. Hit a breaking point (climax)  (Characters are now in total meltdown mode.)
  6. Resolve conflict, end show (Characters eventually see the light and are grateful that the host 'saved the day.'  Thank goodness.  Tune in next week and we'll do it all over again!) 

If you're not sure about this analysis, use these notes the next time that you watch shows like A&E's "Hoarders: Buried Alive" and Food Network's "Restaurant Impossible."  While completely different in subject matter and characters, the format of the show is the same and so far has been a recipe for ratings success.

Music is also not immune to having established a set formula; in fact, in composition and theory courses, we learn that there are many "song forms".   Here, I'll illustrate a traditional standard or pop song.  Start with a Verse - Repeat the verse with different lyrics - Move to the chorus or "hook" of the song - Rinse and repeat through verse and chorus again - Throw in a bridge for variety - Spin back through the final chorus hook - End song, coda out.  Or to music geeks, it's song form AABAABCB ... repeat B and fade out ...

As artists of all stripes, we were well-schooled in formulas.  What are scales and chords if nothing more than a convenient way to package the study of music into bite size pieces?  What are the blues if nothing more than a great formula of three chords that help to tell a story? 

I'm not knocking formulas - please don't misunderstand.  We need them as a basis when learning new skills, concepts, and patterns.  We need them to grasp the functions of the world around us.  However, when an artist "busts out of school" to weave new formulas and result in new ideas - together, this is extraordinary, this begins to stroll toward beyond category, and this is what most artists I've met yearn for, regardless of if they actually ever reach that goal.  The pursuit itself is more than worthy.

As usual I've slipped down the rabbit hole of rhetoric and so I'll get to my point.

TIMKAT is still a tiny jazz entertainment company, but lately, the mammoth drive to push outside of a (boring) comfort zone has challenged me to think in new and creative ways in order to swim upstream in a world that doesn't always rush out to buy jazz records.  This month, I am delving into the idea (thanks Mr. Glasper, though we may never meet!) of mixing and matching sounds that most would never say that they go together in order to grasp a new concept. 

One such light bulb went on for me a couple of weeks ago:  what if I dared to combine two things that I love into a potentially new and funky sound -- house music and classic jazz -- break-beat and smooth-jazz, for starters!  Unclassic the classic and un-smooth the smooth.  Could it be done?  Is it possible to take an Irving Berlin track such as "Change Partners" and turn it into a raving club anthem?  Is it possible to shift "Star Eyes" into a funky and irresistable beat that folks would love to crank in the car? I don't know, but like Glasper, I am willing to push some boundaries to find out.  As a result, I have started the investigation by opening conversations with folks outside of the jazz world (DJ Jason Wolfe: Basement Funk Vol 1 from House Candy Music is a bit of inspiration, for example) but still within the industry to pursue that dream. 

Pushing boundaries doesn't always win a creative person a warm and deserving welcome.  For example, some people (critics included) hated Charlie Parker with Strings in 1952, saying Bird had "sold out." Others couldn't get their minds around John Coltrane's A Love Supreme in 1964.   American audiences avoided Disney's Fantasia in November 1940. The movie was a flop then, but it is suddenly a masterpiece today.  We hear the same dismissals today when some posit that Esperanza Spalding's music isn't really jazz. 

[Begin Soapbox Aside:  If there is anything that needs to be dismissed, it is not their creative efforts; rather, it is our ingrained double-standards and narrow preconceptions on the art form itself.  Furthermore, it appears that as Spalding can be dismissed that her work isn't really jazz, Glasper can be hailed as having "one foot planted firmly in jazz and the other in hip-hop and R&B."  To each artist's credit, I think they are both doing the same thing -- pushing the envelope, challenging convention, and inviting us to indulge in that flight -- in delightful but different ways that fit their own personal styles best.   :End Soapbox Aside]

Because as I mentioned, isn't the essence of jazz about freedom?  Logically, it follows that if jazz is about freedom, then no one has the right to shackle an artist into a subjectively convenient category that arbitrarily dictates what's real and what's not.  And speaking of formulas, how's that one for a trusted method to how to approach music and life?  Be free.

Best always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut
President, pianist, idealist
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Twitter: @timkatent

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