Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Holler Back At Mingus

This is something that I wrote in 2003/04 after a particularly good night out with my Aussie friend, Kelly Layton.

Recently I have been listening to a lot of jazz. Not the watered-down Kenny G shit, but the real deal, MINGUS! Jazz isn't easy on the ear. "Jazz is improvisation, and improvisation is jazz," as Charles Mingus so eloquently put it all those years ago.

Usually when you play something like 'Haitian Fight Song' to people who get their music taste from an FM dial they turn their noses up, they try and get as far away from it as fast as they can and in the shortest possible time. They call for it to be turned off, they even somehow manage to show never before seen acts of intense diligence in getting you to turn, "That shit off." But, from what I have learnt from men who have jazz in their veins is that you never do. You simply can't. How do you cut off your lifeline from the order that surrounds you daily. Don't get me wrong, I am not being elitist, I too have spent moments in the foetal position as, "The greatest change in musical history is about to hit you." It did. I nearly sucked my thumb and called for my mom. I got, and am still getting, my jazz education from one source, Kelly Layton. Listening to jazz with Kelly is like being driven at 300km/h down a one-way street in the wrong direction on a heavily, thunderous rainswept midnight with no hands on the steering wheel. He didn't once make any attempt to ease me into it, like I would do with someone who had only just started listening to house music. I'd have started them off with a Blaze record filled with beautiful melodies and vocals you can sing along to in the shower. Kelly just stuck on Charlie Parker and almost drowned me. It was a good old southern baptism at age 24. I have since learnt to swim and am known to catcall along with Mingus on certain pieces. The best thing about jazz is that you can literally, on some live pieces, smell the smoke in the air. Feel the density of the music as every note hits you.

Now this is going to get the jazz nazis in a right twist, but I don't think that Jazz has to be all about Mingus, Ellington and the dialogue that comes out of Coltrane's tenor sax. Jazz still surrounds us daily. Henrik Schwarz is jazz. The way how he builds his tunes up then takes you down a bit then slams it all in at once, all while adding subtle melodies just shows how much improvisation goes into his records. He'll build an entire record around once single note but never without leaving his own distinctive calling card on the final piece of music offered to the masses, or maybe that should be the 3000 of us that actually buy his records.

DJ Krush is jazz. I was on the brink of tears a few weeks ago at LUXY when he played out here in Taipei. The man simply played his records as if he was improvising with an entire band. He was orchestrating, fine-tuning, experimenting and all the while absolutely crushing my fragile little mind. He only played for an hour, but in that hour he completely pissed over anything you're ever likely to hear leap from two turntables and a mixer. It was far, far too short for my liking but it was perfect. I was astounded by the skills that he displayed. Alot of DJs around the world have taken to the EFX units of mixers like a duck to water, usually with glee as they can finally mask the fact that they have shit taste in music with all the delays, flanges and reverbs. DJ Krush uses all these elements to add to the music, not to detract.

A great Mingus anecdote is from the 60s. Sy Johnson played piano with Mingus during a run at the Showplace. He was apparently quite an even tempered man, or as even tempered as a jazz musician could be, but even he fell foul to Mingus' desire to sabotage everyone's performances in a bid to get them to play above themselves. They were playing 'All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother' when Mingus started hollering at Johnson to play the pedals. Now, Mingus didn't simply ask his musicians to play he enraged them to the point that they raped their instruments for all they were worth, plucking the last shreds of dignity from every note they could muster. Now ordinarily Johnson was quite good with the pedals, but the fact that they kept on changing every four bars and that one of them was completely fucked didn't exactly make his days work any easier. While he was trying to find something universal he somehow managed to enrage Mingus who threw down his bass and charged over to the piano where he stuck his face right into Johnson's and started banging on the bass end of the paino with his Herculean fists. Johnson was so mortified that he began to take all his rage out on the, by now, severely battered piano. Mingus who had now returned to his bass began hollering back at him, "White boy you sure know how to play!"

So what's my point I hear you cry from the cheapseats? My point is that over time music seems to have lost that need for improvisation. Audiences have been educated to expect normality to the point that NERD sound like they're completely off the map to them production wise. Is it time to start playing music that just improvises all the time and takes out the much needed groove to get your ass swinging? No. If that was the case we'd just be listening to Autechre records and we'd all be even more severely depressed. What i'm calling for is for DJs and listeners to experiment a bit with what they stick into their daily listening schedules. Mix it up. Educate and invigorate. Purge your collections of maligned crap. Get your head around good music, and when Mingus calls to his band, do yourself a favour and holler back.

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