Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ethan Iverson links to a fun article by Lewis Porter on Dave Brubeck--a riff on Brubeck's legacy of introducing eastern European folkloric elements to his take on jazz and Arthur Farwell's use of Native American music as inspiration for concert music and how one is famous and the other is marginal


Prog Rock comes straight out of Brubeck. The Bad Plus used a lot of Prog Rock references, and our acoustic instrumentation sort of brought it back to Brubeck, although the musical material was more Rush or Yes than Brubeck.
Brubeck is famous for those “prog” odd meters, but ironically he wasn’t adept at improvising within those odd meters. In general Brubeck’s musical failings are mostly rhythmic. There’s an old joke that goes, “Since Brubeck couldn’t make it feel right in 4/4, why not add a beat and make it 5/4?”  The best 50’s stuff is fine, and it reaches a peak with Time Out (it wouldn’t be a hit record if it didn’t swing) but from the mid-60’s on Brubeck can be hard to listen to, especially alongside Roy Haynes or Alan Dawson. He even turn

I was in a prog rock band, not one that went anywhere, but I might push back ever so gently on the idea that prog rock comes straight out of Brubeck.  I admire the classic Brubeck quartet myself and among jazz composers Ellington, Monk and Brubeck are my favorites.  But prog rock, Robert Fripp's admiration for Bartok is pretty well-known.  I would say that prog rock, in terms of its deepest reaching roots, comes from central and eastern European folk traditions.  Brubeck, for instance, drew upon Turkish rhythm patterns by having 9/8 in 2+2+2+3.  If Brubeck was the archetypal jazz musician who openly drew upon folk traditions that weren't sticking to duple and triple meter then, sure, in a sense I'd say prog rock draws from the same well of assymetrical metrical patterns that Brubeck did.  Yet as Kyle Gann pointed out at his blog PostClassic, Anton Reicha had a fugue in his 36 fugues with a 5/8 subject in A major whose answer comes in at E flat major.  Whether or not Brubeck was familiar with Reicha I couldn't exactly say at this point, but Reicha was Bohemian and so, well, this gets back to the idea I've been proposing that prog rock and Brubeck drew from central and eastern European folk traditions rather than "just" African diaspora music.

Porter makes a succinct case that Brubeck's whole approach to soloing did not sit within the prototypical/stereotypical conceptions of jazz improvisation. I.e. when Brubeck succeeded he succeeded greatly and when he failed he failed hard.



But among jazz musicians, jazz critics, and “hardcore” jazz fans, Brubeck’s piano playing has largely been either vilified or ignored. If a pianist says his or her main influence is Brubeck, that will almost guarantee a negative reaction in those circles.

In fact, there are very few pianists today who openly credit Brubeck as an influence. One of the few is Ethan Iverson, who told me that “Brubeck is one of my biggest primary influences.” (Ethan also notes that in an interview with Keith Jarrett posted on his blog, Do The Math, Jarrett recalls some formative experience with a solo piano album, Brubeck Plays Brubeck.)
Now that you’ve followed my line of reasoning, it should make sense that there are so few pianists who profess to be disciples of Brubeck. His approach is not a “style.” It wouldn’t make much sense to transcribe him, or to learn his solos and licks. Because the whole point is to hit one note or chord and see where it leads you. It’s the process, not the notes — a process that everyone can learn from, without sounding anything like Brubeck.

Does this method work all the time? Of course not; it’s a high-risk approach. Using a standard approach to jazz improvisation would be a surer way to a high batting average. (Even a relatively uninspired Flanagan solo still sounds excellent, whereas an uninspired Brubeck solo can indeed sound “heavy-handed,” as is often claimed.

As I was saying, Brubeck took an approach to improvised solos where he succeeded or failed spectacularly depending on the context and for a lot of people the whole approach itself is just a failure.  But I love those moments in the classic Brubeck quartet where Brubeck's chordal solo breaks free of the pulse so that every downbeat in 3/4 from the band becomes the downbeat for a swing take on 2/4 marching along as if the band had always been playing in duple meter.  I suppose if we decided to call it polymetric we could but in post-Milhaud terms it could be a rhythmic/metric counterpart to bitonality or polydiatonicism.

At the risk of making what seems like an out-of-nowhere suggestion Dave Brubeck's controversial but indisputably successful career in jazz adding aspects of European folk elements that come from eastern rather than western Europe, and his Milhaud-influenced introduction of things like tonal ambiguity might stand as a jazz counterpoint to Joseph Horowitz' considerations of Arthur Farwell.  To try to put this more clearly, Farwell's Polytonal Studies are interesting to listen to but they certainly don't swing as much as Brubeck (even for those who would contest that Brubeck could even swing) and Brubeck introduced things like polytonality and unusual meters and metric divisions (which also appear in Native American songs if you go through a variety of transcriptions) and did so in a way that wasn't tethered to the Indianist movement as a whole.

Moreover, Dave and Iola Brubeck were publicly antiracist in ways that may have helped Dave Brubeck's work, however controversial it could be in his life, withstand questions about appropriation or legitimacy of a kind that will dog the music of Farwell even if his music gets more exposure.  If, for the sake of argument, Dave Brubeck did within jazz as popular music the things that Arthur Farwell did but did them in the midst of a life committed to combating racism; if Brubeck drew upon European influences; then perhaps Brubeck managed to demonstrate through both his life and music he was aspiring to a musical art that integrated what purists on various sides of color lines and musical genres were committed to keeping segregated.

Brubeck was Brubeck, or at the risk of putting things this way, Brubeck wasn't setting himself up as a leader within a movement that would correspond to the Indianist movement the way Farwell was connected to that movement.  Brubeck was a white man playing in a style that had been defined by pioneering black musicians but, maybe like Joseph F Lamb being the white Irish Catholic in the Scott Joplin circle before him, this was a white musician bringing something into a popular style that respected the art of the style itself while also bringing in some other aspects from other styles.  If we have no choice but to put this in terms of folklorist paradigms composers like Brubeck and Lamb integrated folkloric paradigms in ways where their sense of compositional craft and technique didn't necessarily cancel out the folkloric aspects of the style they worked in.

Being a bit skeptical lately of describing everything in such folkloric terms (having recently finished Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound) Brubeck and Lamb in their respective generations took the popular musical styles made by black musicians seriously as art and made contributions within those styles as art.  Farwell, however well-intentioned, was drawing inspiration from Native American music as a kind of folklore that was super-imposed into a technique and craft that was steeped in concert music.  Maybe there's a case to be made that Horowitz was a kind of United States Bartok but I think, perhaps, that the extrinsic nature of the musical gestures to compositional technique itself may partly explain how and why Brubeck has remained a legendary figure within jazz while Farwell, however competent a composer and capable a musician, developed a craft and technique to which Indianism was extrinsic.  Whatever you think about Brubeck's use of asymmetric meters and drawing on Balkan musical folklore was inseperable from how he deployed that musical inspiration.  Once you jettison duple and triple meter as the only options you're letting that rejection of binary metrical options guide where your music may go. 

I think Farwell's music deserves a hearing but I also believe it will remain niche because in so many ways the better ideas I can detect in Farwell's music in terms of exploring polytonality and exploring folk music roots that aren't tethered to Germanophile ideals, were explored in some ways more effectively by Brubeck later in a popular (i.e. jazz) rather than a concert music style.  Drawing inspiration from something for the sake of art and treating that source of musical inspiration as art in itself is both a subtle and not-subtle-at-all distinction and that may get at something that could be germane to the longevity of Dave Brubeck's music, controversial as it was during stretches of his life, and the marginality of Arthur Farwell.

It might be Farwell was at a disadvantage in attempting to adapt Native American musical themes to keyboard.  Horowitz has been making a case that the Hako string quartet Farwell wrote is a good piece.  It may also be that given the microtonal elements and assymetric metrical patterns that can appear in Native American music that among Western instrumental idioms strings, woodwinds and percussion were always better suited for taking up Native American musical gestures than keyboards. There are some kinds of Native American songs that I think sound better on bottleneck guitar rather than being played on a keyboard, for instance. 

I enjoy reading Iverson's blog and I'm also something of a Dave Brubeck fan so thanks to Iverson for posting a well-written article on Brubeck.  The thought experiment of connecting the legacy of Dave Brubeck in jazz in contrast to the legacy of Arthur Farwell is a spur of the moment thing you can do at a blog but it's something that comes to mind because it seems like something that can connect dots between observations by Iverson and Porter about Brubeck in relationship to jazz and writers such as Joseph Horowitz and Brent Michael Davids on the Indianist movement in general with some emphasis on Arthur Farwell in particular.  As interesting as I find Farwell's Polytonal Studies in theoretical terms I admit they aren't a fifth as fun as the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out.

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