Monday, February 28, 2011

TIME CHANGES: A New Language

First albums say more about your adolescent time and place in the world than just about anything else. I’m not talking about the first album you remember or the first you put down hard cash for; those are incidentals that say more about what stereo you were sitting closest to or what album-cover struck your fancy. What I’m talking about is the first cycle of songs you adored from front to back, that sequence of events in which you quietly commended yourself for hearing the beginning of the next song before the current one was through. Because it’s strange getting into music as a kid, and realizing that by acquiring the habit of listening to it – an activity that requires very little effort from an outward, physical perspective – you’re joining a more mature language that, if still rooted in youth, has infiltrated every corner of the world.

I was twelve when I first fell in love with a full album – Offspring’s Smash - and I recall the pride of enjoying something that didn’t come from a Toys ‘R’ Us shelf. Part of that satisfaction likely stemmed from the fact that Offspring’s breakthrough was also a favourite of my father’s. Yes, that’s right, my Dad was blaring Smash - a rather dicey choice for a suburban street dominated by young families - while painting the front porch when my ears first perked up. Over the following weeks, I broke into my cassette copy with the bedroom door shut, processing its use of aggression through tempo and language, rewinding certain progressions and then stewing over why I saw fit to rehear them.

Fourteen years on, I suppose I’m still scrutinizing those interests. Call them catalysts for teen-ambivalence or healing music for the aggressive spirit; whatever I found so exemplary in those songs has been placated through an incalculable number of radio-rock parallels. It's a natural reaction to grow weary of any language that perpetuates the same ideas and, eventually, Offspring's dynamics were ironed flat.

Recently I’ve taken up jazz. It’s a genre that has continuously laced my field of vision, first catching my ear by inspiring the samples of trip-hop and turntablism, then later by fusing to the compositions of life-changing bands like Radiohead and Talk Talk. Being open to the genre was crucial, of course, but only as a precursor to taking that first, daunting step. Admittedly, I’ve since wandered right off the proverbial cliff. Amidst an early February blizzard, I bought Dave Brubeck’s Time Changes, which provided a crash-course on his quartet’s style as well as chronicling Brubeck’s first success working with an orchestra. Two days later, I picked up Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Django Reinhardt’s Djangology; two classics of little association that educated me on fusion (the progressive mixing of rock and soul to jazz fixtures) and post-war, gypsy-guitar virtuosos.

Where these poor, exiled records will settle amid my sizeable collection of rock and electronica, I can’t say, but there’s a thrill in wading through a canon as labyrinthine as jazz. So far my interest has piqued upon the progressive, instrumental records of the 50s and 60s, plus a few modern releases from Munich-based label ECM. Unlike the sedated trajectory of “smooth-jazz”, releases from the likes of Davis and Reinhardt exude a stringent discipline on improvisation. That any two recordings of the same song – whether it’s a studio effort, live cut, demo take, or a varied group of musicians – can result in such drastically different performances exemplifies the artistic freedom at work, the elastic creativity that keeps each instrumental collision united toward some greater good.

In many cases, where the “greater good” escapes my sensibilities, I reconsider the grounds by which I took up this foolhardy jazz-odyssey in the first place. Are my current tastes waning? Am I searching for a listening experience I won’t feel any pressure to analyze critically? Or, could I be genuinely engaging with a new musical love affair? Smash still reasserts my existence as a twelve-year-old better than any photograph or childhood memory; its hell-bent obsession with self-destruction happened to be enough escapism for whatever angst fuels a kid on the verge of his teens. But what secrets might jazz hold for a navel-gazing music-nerd of twenty-eight years?

First, a new language is revealed. Upon hearing jazz was under my skin, a colleague at work coyly played an invisible piano while singing a series of dislocated bleeps and bops. It’s a classic joke, one I’m pretty sure I’ve acted out myself. And I still find it funny while I’m skipping the divide, listening as the echoes of my old critiques turn tone-deaf. The dynamic of the joke changes too.

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