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

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Last Saturday, a week ago, driving around with my family on the other side of Puget Sound, looking for totem poles (which the 2-year-old loves), we came upon the 86-year-old Marian McPartland’s weekly show, Piano Jazz. Her guest that week was the 82-year-old Toots Thielemans, the great Belgian jazz harmonica player. They chatted about their love for Hoagy Carmichael. Thielemanns told of how he met Carmichael once at a party, and then, surprised by memory, “But you were there, Marian! It must have been 50 years ago!” Cy Coleman was there with his lyricist, Toots said, and they sang their new song, “Witchcraft” (a big hit for Sinatra). It was really touching.

And they played Hoagy’s song “The Nearness of You,” and it was lovely.

What we think of as mainstream jazz -- the swing-to-bop practice of jamming on changes -- requires of its practitioners an immense memorized repertoire of mostly 32-bar songs, and an ability to improvise obligattoes and variations over the chords in any key. Most of the 32-bar songs really reduce down to 16 bars of music, as most are structured, 8 bars of an A strain, a repeat of the A strain, 8 bars of a B strain, and another repeat of the A, perhaps with a slight melodic or perhaps even harmonic variation: “AABA” is the famous diagram. And the jazz guys & gals know hundreds, maybe thousands, of these songs by heart.

It’s a musical language that depends completely on the players knowing the conventions, so that 5 people who have never met can get together and sound good, which is the premise of McPartland’s show. And the other side of that word “convention” -- the music almost always sounds conventional now. Perhaps because so much effort goes into learning the conventions and the repertoire, few players have the abiliy to make particular, personal statements. Much as I enjoy Marian McPartland’s show, it’s because of her conversation -- her own completely competent playing doesn’t ever strike me as especially engaging. Toots Thielemans’ playing often does have what Barthes may have called an excess, something beyond what’s expected, beyond the smooth surfaces of convention. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Barthes’ “The Pleasure of the Text,” but while listening to McPartland & Thielemans it came to mind. From Barthes, I associate that personal, particular, excess of style that I hear sometimes in Thielemans’ playing with a flirtiness. And, as you and Barthes know, flirtiness can be a great pleasure.
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