Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, January 28, 2004


Everybody has a distinctive walk.  The shapes your body makes as you propel yourself over ground are distinctly yours.  Your posture, your gait -- they’re yours and no one else’s.  Same with your voice.  As individual as your fingerprint.  Surveillance experts know this; science can track it; for all I know anybody who’s ever marched at a protest may be on some giant government gait/posture database somewhere in suburban Maryland.

A traditional jazz value is the development of an individual voice print on one’s instrument.  Some rockers achieve this as well, particularly lead guitarists and drummers.  Electric guitarists often play particular guitars and dial their amps and pick-up settings to get a particular tone.  To take two examples, implying no special endorsement, Jerry Garcia often (but not always) played with that unique Jerry Garcia tone; Carlos Santana has his typical tone (which he sometimes strays from).  But each of them also has a unique way of improvising melodies that makes their solos distinctive even when they stray from their typical tones.  George Harrison in his solo career changed his guitar tone frequently, but his slide guitar solos are always immediately recognizable because he has his own “way of walking” with that guitar.

Last night on the jazz/folk/world college station I heard James Blood Ulmer playing Ornette’s composition “Lonely Woman.”  What a gorgeous composition, a signal composition of free jazz, a beautiful melody that DEPENDS on being unmoored from strict adherence to bar lines.  (It occurs to me while typing that I’ve never heard the Modern Jazz Quartet’s early version of the tune; I wonder how they dealt with the intense rubato built into the tune.)  I’d never heard or heard of Ulmer’s version, but I know it’s him because no one else sounds like him.  His skittery, angularly melodic electric guitar style is distinctive and terrific.  He and the bassist and drummer flowed through their multiple tempos beautifully, often each playing in their own tempo, but responding to each other in terms of density, or intensity of attack and dynamics.  When one would play louder and more staccato the others would respond to that while each usually maintaining their own rhythmic pulse.  Dense, complex music.  Very cool.  I would have liked to have heard it live, where the louds and softs really do get loud and soft, unlike on record, where recording technology flattens the louds and softs to produce a consistent volume so I can hear it nicely over the noise of traffic while driving in my car without having to constantly turn the volume up and down.

Everybody is a star, like Sly and the Family Stone say. And my definition of a star is somebody with a uniquely personal “way of walking,” which means everybody. The complexity and degree of distinctiveness is the question in musical style. In his autobiography, Roland Barthes defends his hack piano playing, mistakes and all, on the grounds that better pianists impose their interpretations on the music, while he, Roland Barthes, lacks competence to do so, and so he plays what the composers have written unfiltered. Whether that’s true or a witty and elegant line of baloney (and I suspect the latter), nothing could be further from individualistic jazz America. James Blood Ulmer and band interpreted the heck out of “Lonely Woman,” and the composer wouldn’t have had it any other way.
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