Billy Hart

When Will The Blues Leave

© Elise Fimbel

© Elise Fimbel

If jazz is America’s distinctively homegrown art form, blues is probably its most sustainable foundation. The dramatic evolution of this so simple 12-bar form from the black laborer’s work song to modern-day jazz deconstructions never ceases to fascinate me. There is just something indestructible about the blues, probably because it developed out of resistance to one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of humanity. But hey, I’m no music scholar, and to gain some theoretical insights into why jazz came to be what it is – a music style that consistently refuses to be categorized– a good place to start is to read Leroi Jones’ Blues People, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But what I’d like to share today is a video of the Billy Hart quartet delivering their own personal take on the blues. The handful of loyal readers out there will surely notice that I’m lavishing praise on the usual suspects here, pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame), saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and of course the veteran drummer Billy Hart. But what can I say? This is a stellar cast and they are just killing! I guess what made me want to squander away precious time on Youtube is to hear how each musician appropriates the idiom with their signature chops while somehow summoning its 100-plus history off the well-trodden path. I have to admit I first didn’t identify the song as a blues until Iverson’s solo kicks in. The opening theme’s convoluted line played in unison by Turner and Iverson over Street and Hart’s spacious time doesn’t really give any hint either. Soon enough though, the essence of the blues shines through in all its fascinating beauty, each musician appropriating the lineage with casual resolve. What I find particularly engaging here is that despite the well-known adventurous nature of these improvisers, this is a pretty straight-ahead take on the blues! I don’t detect any major reharmonization or complex time signatures, or any kind of “device” usually required to avoid clichés and hackneyed licks. So, what’s going on here? What is it about this rendition that does justice to the blues in the refreshing context of modern jazz?

Let’s try to break it down a little bit. The song begins with an intro played in unison by Iverson, Street and Hart. This sets the mood very nicely and allows Hart and Street to lock in and build up the ensuing drama. The slow-burn groove these two establish is one reason the song works so well, Hart’s subtle ride and crash shadings wrapping seamlessly around Street’s roving line. And in comes Turner, stating a darkly sinuous theme totally in sync with his lyrical tone. By this time, things are still fairly open-ended as to what kind of improvisation will follow. Psyched, I grab my bass and listen for the bass. Well, I’ll be damned, they’re playing a blues in G7! Of course, they would choose a relatively common key, stupid. It’s what they do with the obvious that commands respect.  So, Iverson’s solo starts, his spare line building out of little fragmented dabs and leaving huge chunks of space to devastating effect. It feels so good to hear Monk, Wynton Kelly or Paul Bley lurking in there, melded into Iversonian mode. As the piano solo gathers steam, bass and drums switch into 4/4 swing, the music takes off, swinging hard but softly, if you know what I mean.  I love the way Turner comes in, four bars into the form, taking his own sweet time but just nailing it. Everybody seems relaxed but dedicated to celebrating the mysterious appeal of this simple form. But that does it for my tentative shot at the jazz concert review (I wasn’t there anyway!). Though this is an all-star band, there are no heroic displays of virtuosity here.   But somehow, in the way they put their modernist vibe on the blues, these musicians are showing tremendous respect for its vital contribution to jazz.  From the Mississippi Delta to the Village Vanguard, the blues has come a long way. There’s comfort in knowing that jazz musicians today still believe in its undying power. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out:

Ursina Commedia

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

Credit: Rick Smit, Creative Commons License

I seem to be obsessed with animals these days. But when one of them happens to be a talking bear that plays the alto sax and waxes philosophical about the human, uh, bear condition, I feel compelled to go ahead and look under all that fur.

The Bear (or alternatively Bear), as he is simply referred to in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) has gotten sick and tired of the freak show routine under the friendly supervision of his sidekick Jones ( a human).  Getting up on his hind legs to impress the incredulous crowds is a bit undignified for a bear that can play the clarinet part of the Mozart quintet with a few snout adjustments. But the musical odyssey he embarks on with the benevolent assistance of Jones, now become a proactive manager, presents an equally daunting challenge: Coming into his own on the saxophone without compromising his musical vision, making it through the late-night gigs as police squads prowl around, keeping a band together as the success of a recording contract comes with the drawback of touring US backwaters where mediocre gigs are sapping group morale. To add insult to injury, Bear is in love with the stunningly beautiful and tormented Iris, and this improbable but passionate relationship is proving too overwhelming for his big-hearted self. Their dialogue often has a bantering yet fairly intellectual edge:

“My thoughts ain’t worth that much,” he said.

“I don’t’ believe you.”

“You know that line of Rilke’s? Beauty is nothing but the beginning of a terror we are just able to bear?”

“You think it might be a reference to you? That’s rich.”

Amazingly enough, for all the Bear’s quirks and witticisms, there is never any doubt about his genetic identity. He is a bear, a talking four-legged mammal striving for beauty and love in the tumultuous world of humans.  And it is precisely his hard-edged humanness that causes him to experience the most uplifting moments of life (playing his heart out alongside his musical heroes, making love, rambling through the wilderness and teaching a bird how to sing Monk right!, etc) as well as the darkest hours (a dreary time in prison with a wacky German doctor who has “trouble with ze dipdthssong”). Meanwhile, Jones, also has his share of troubles and when a gang of angry kids beat up on him in Washington Square Park, he comes to reflect on his own humanity:  “How to be human, how to be human, I don’t know how it’s done. What is a man anyway?”

The bear, “on the other paw”, is incessantly engaged in a soul-searching quest to transfigure his gigantically awkward self into a caring and dependable presence (for Iris, Jones, or his band members). Filled with humor and insightful descriptions of the tribulations of jazz life, the book features an impressive cast of fictitious and genuine characters including bassist Charlie Haden or drummer Billy Hart among others. This is obviously a gem for music lovers, replete with highly detailed musical analysis and jazz memorabilia. But the book doesn’t let down the neophyte, who will also find food for thought aplenty. As he picks his way through a second solo during a fast and eventful tune, Bear ponders on the music playing out around him, revealing the compelling urgency at work in the most fervent artistic pursuits:

            “Listen to these guys, he thought, hearing Haden and Billy’s accompaniments and insinuations, the flex of beat, the suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain. Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich multifarious world, and if you went outside its visible parameters you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing obeisance to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play. All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together in potential, articulate and complete, and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of unknown process. All you had to know was the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life, is all, no more no less.”

 By the end of the novel, the Bear is still struggling with the vagaries of life but he seems closer than ever to resolving the existential dilemma: “Who could have imagined how large joy is once you’re cut loose from the farce of having to be someone”. While the book does get a little lengthy in places, the serpentine sentences have a musical quality that seems entirely justified here. Jazz fans will revel in the inside stories sprinkled in throughout the narrative and the characters’ dialogue but beyond the music, or accompanied by it, it is the bigger picture of social alienation and the quest for the healing power of art that is depicted here. That should speak to quite a few of us furless humans.

The Bear Comes Home (Norton, 1998) is the first novel by writer and jazz drummer Rafi Zabor. Thank you D. for hipping me to this one. Amis francophones, le livre est paru sous le titre Un Ours à Manhattan (Denoël, 1999, traduit de l’anglais par Philippe Rouard)