Saturday, March 16, 2013

Morandi and Marty: Games of Perception

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize that there is nothing lacking,
The whole world belongs to you.”
-Tao Te Ching

“Jazz is only what you are.”
- Louie Armstrong

“Maybe I was just gradually developing a trust in the act itself, that somehow, if it were pursued legitimately, the questions it would raise would be legitimate and the answers would have to exist somewhere, would be worth pursuing, and would be of consequence.”
- Robert Irwin, painter

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of “less is more” or “doing more with less.”

The philosophical Taoists maintained that no action is an action; one meaning being to let things take their natural course and another denoting not forcing things to happen.

Dizzy Gillespie said that interesting Jazz solos are often about the notes that are left out or that are not played.

Philosophical Buddhists deride “Monkey Mind;” the mind that jumps from place to place instead of one that is focused on a simple, direct and peaceful life without the mad rush to acquire things and to immediately gratify the senses that seem to preoccupy many of our days.

Marcus Aurelius declared that: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” The more complicated our thoughts, the more convoluted our lives become until we miss the essence of things.

Jazz artists constantly struggle with finding the essence of things.

Jazz solos are created in time and space and, once played, they’re gone. You can’t go back and change anything.

With everything in continual motion, keeping things simple helps the Jazz soloist find what he/she wants to say; the story they want to tell.

Young players create solos using a lot of notes, largely because they have the energy and stamina to do so, but, in part, because they’ve yet to learn how to pare things down and get to the real meaning of the matter.

Along these lines, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz explained:

“I keep thinking that it doesn't matter what tunes you play. The process is the same, and if it works, then it's like a new piece, you know. And it is a fact that the better you know the song the more chances you might dare take. And so that's why Bird played a dozen tunes all his life, basically, and most of the people that were improvising—Tristano played the same dozen tunes all his life. And you know, it's amazing what depth he got. He wouldn't have gotten that otherwise, I don't think, in that particular way.

I think it's something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light. I just feel with each situation I'm in, different rhythm sections or whatever, that "I'll Re­member April" becomes just something else. And it is a very preferable point — that's the main thing. Everybody who knows that material knows that material pretty well—the listeners and the musicians. So they know, you can just nakedly reveal if anything's happening or not; there's no subterfuge. And that aspect of it is appealing to me, I think.” [Wayne Enstice & Paul Rubin, Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with 22 Musicians, [New York: DaCapo, 1994].

I’ve written previously about the astonishing rich arrangements that Marty Paich [1925-1995] created using smaller instrumentations. In case you missed that earlier piece, it has been reposted to the blog sidebar.

Marty’s more-is-less approach to orchestration came to mind recently while I was viewing the artwork of Giorgio Morandi [1892-1964].

Both Morandi and Marty are involved with what has been described as “games of perception.”

Marty could take a few instruments and orchestrate them in such a way as to convince the ear that a much larger band was actually playing the music. Marty became a master of arranging for Jazz groups that generally ranged from eight to ten pieces [i.e.: octet and tentette, the latter also referred to as a dek-tette].

And yet, Marty could also take on projects for larger orchestras such as Stan Kenton’s [My Old Flame and The Big Chase] or Terry Gibbs’ Dream Band [Opus de Jazz] and write charts that made these big bands seem spirited, airy and quick moving, almost in spite of their size. If Kenton’s music had a reputation for being ponderous, Marty’s arrangements were so skillfully drawn so as to alter that perception.

“Giorgio Morandi, an Italian artist who died in 1964, aged 73, was known almost exclusively for his luminous, pale paintings of bottles, bowls and jugs. He transformed these simple, seemingly banal, utilitarian objects into works of art.

Morandi’s many images of bottles and jugs, in rows, or huddled groups, seem like a world unto themselves. Most were created between 1915 and 1961. They are poetic, amusing and occasionally ominous.

At first glance, these rows may look like a single line of vessels separated by un-etched, white spaces. But another look reveals that these are not gaps but another row of vessels.

Pleasure replaces perplexity as the viewer joins Morandi in a perpetual game of hide and seek.

First exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1928, Morandi learned how to etch at the Academia di Belle Arti in Bologna, his home town. He later taught at the Academia.

In his later years, Morandi’s etchings were prized by intellectuals and artsy rich, including Federico Fellini and Sophia Loren.” [The Economist, 1.19.2013, p. 83].

Similarly, Marty Paich would move up from his humble beginnings in the Jazz world to write arrangements for popular music nobility such as Ray Cahrles, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Linda Ronstadt, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Michael Jackson.

But even when arranging for these luminaries, Marty never left his Jazz roots very far behind.

One of Marty’s most enduring achievements are the little, big band orchestrations that he wrote for Jazz saxophonist Art Pepper on Art Pepper +  Eleven: A Treasury of Modern Jazz Classics [Contemporary OJCCD 341-2].

The Pepper- Paich mutual admiration society produced a Jazz classic with a recording that is an almost perfect representation of the skills of everyone involved: from Les Koenig, owner of Contemporary whose idea it was to put the pair together in such a setting, to Pepper’s outstanding soloing on alto sax, tenor sax and clarinet [not to mention Jack Sheldon’s as the “other voice” on trumpet]; to Marty’s scintillating and inspiring arrangements; to all of the musicians on the date in executing his charts both with accuracy, style and for infusing them with a sense of excitement.

In his insert notes to an album, Nat Hentoff explains:

“In this new, uniquely integrated set, Pepper receives a differently challenging, frame work from Marty Paich than he – or most other soloists – has yet received on records. And Art responds with consistent brilliance.

What Paich has done has been to provide more than just accompaniment for Art. He has integrated the resilient band backgrounds with Art’s playing in a way that stimulates Pepper but doesn’t obstruct the improvisatory flow of ideas. Paich was able to accomplish this fusion because he knows Pepper’s style well through several years of association, including dates on which Marty was a pianist for Art.

“I wanted to give him,’ Paich notes, ‘a different kind of inspiration than he’s used to with just a quartet behind him. I wanted Art to feel the ‘impact’ of the band, and I thought this setting would spur him to play differently than usual – though still freely within his natural style. And it did. Art and I have always thought very much alike. I couldn’t have asked for a more compatible soloist.’ Keeping Art free and yet integrated with the band was the main challenge for Paich. ‘There are even sections here – unlike the usual big band situation – in which Art improvises with ‘just’ the rhythm section.’”

Or astutely put another way by Ted Gioia in his seminal Jazz West Coast, Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, the overriding reason for the album’s success was that:

“Paich’s sensitivity to Pepper’s distinctive talent is evident throughout ‘Art Pepper plus Eleven.’ Other arrangers had been able to capture specific sides of Pepper’s musical personality; - Shorty Rogers, for example, had created several successful settings to feature the lyrical quality in Pepper’s ballad work – but Paich was able to develop settings that wrapped perfectly around the full range of Pepper’s sound, not only utilizing his alto voice in different contexts, but also effectively exploring his seldom-heard playing on clarinet and tenor sax.” [p.304]

“The collaborations between these two artists remain among the most satisfying meetings of musical minds West Coast jazz produced.” [p.303].

In order to illustrate the games of perception involving the concept of less is more in their art, the editorial staff of JazzProfiles, with the aid of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the facilities of StudioCerra, developed the following video montage of Morandi’s work with an audio track made up of Marty’s arrangement of Bernie Tune from the Art Pepper + Eleven album.

At 2:44 minutes, the chart is a masterpiece of brevity and simplicity, while, at the same time making a major musical statement that’s loaded with details.  It’s all in how you perceive how Marty is doing more with less.

Right from the outset, Marty uses stirring chords drawn from a pentatonic scale [a scale based on 5-notes instead of the usual 8-notes] with bass pedal tones formed by trombonists Dick Nash and Bob Enevoldsen.

Interweaved with this is an introductory vamp that’s played as a unison “voice” by Jack Sheldon on trumpet and Art Pepper on alto sax.

In the vamp, Marty’s sets up Jack and Art in a call-response interaction with the brass with all of this happening in the first 10 seconds of the track.

Such is Paich’s genius at brevity, that it’s more complicated to explain it than it is to listen to it.

Throughout the arrangement, Marty unfolds a hide-and-seek interplay between the line played by Jack and Art in unison and the other musicians in the band, which, if you subtract Jack and Art, totals 9 players.

And yet, the band sounds as though it’s twice as large.

When Art begins his solo at 0.44 seconds, Marty phrases the band in unison behind him as though it were a trumpet section using plunger mutes to play a series of “doo-wah’s” that really help punch the time along.

When Art finishes his first chorus, Marty brings the whole band back in at 1:18 to engage in a series four-bar sparring with Art.  If you listen careful, you can hear Jack Sheldon’s trumpet in unison once again, but this time phrased under [!] the line the band is playing.

The third chorus begins at 1:53 minutes with a counter-melody “duel” involving Jack and Art in unison “versus” the entire band.

At 2:01 minutes, Marty pulls the band forward while Jack and Art recede into the background, and then he brings everyone back again voiced in unison at 2:10 minutes.

All the while, drummer Mel Lewis is slapping everything in sight with his “rub-a-dub” style and booting the arrangement along.

Marty uses dynamics in the band’s volume so effectively that one would swear that they were listening to one of the Woody Herman Band’s Thundering Herds.

Marty concludes the chart with a punchy 5-note ending that’s drawn from the same pentatonic scale he employed to begin the arrangement!

Convoluted, complicated and complex?

Nope, just a game of [aural] perception.