My musical ear has changed. I always listened to excellent music—my first loves were MC Hammer, Aerosmith, Dance Mix 92-95, Phish and of course Grateful Dead. I don’t regret one note I listened to, but I wasn’t listening to the whole of every song, and gravitated too heavily to the guitar.
It’s begging the question: Did I focus too much on guitar because I was a guitar player, or is that why I became a guitar player in the first place? In either case, I didn’t properly value rhythm sections. I should have listened to everything. This might seem like not really a big deal but actually I think of it now as a sonic sin, akin to watching only 80% of the every screen while watching a movie. Musically, I was crooked.
Rhythm sections were something I responded to, I felt them, but didn’t hear. To be fair, I listened to a lot of bootleg Dead tapes with varying degrees of audio quality. But to listen to the drums without really hearing the bass is to hear the drums without their context. Drums and bass live together, there’s a dialogue between them in the music, and to only hear one is to really miss both.
I have known this for a while now, maybe months, but felt this quite intensely the other day messing around on a bass while my buddy drummed. The bass drum and the bass guitar are a tandem. It’s very possible to like a band because of their rhythm section without quite knowing that’s why you like them. That’s why Dave Byrne of Talking Heads wore that big suit, to make his head look small and his body look big as a reminder that music is fundamentally physical, not intellectual.
Early, the jazz bass player’s role was to support a soloist improvising over the tune’s harmony. They soloed, too, but it was mostly a supportive role. In 1970 Miles gives us Bitches Brew, which isn’t just a killer album title, it provides musical hints about the new direction: the instruments simmer together in a cauldron. Gone is the formula for 50’s jazz and even the freer 60’s stuff, where all instruments play the head of the tune, principle soloist solos first followed by second and third horn, drum solo then close with the song’s opening melody. Rather, there’s one groove that everyone participates in at the same time.
I had one saxophone lesson in 2007, wherein my teacher made an astute observation that astonished me: Coltrane was a hog! He kept soloing forever and forever, with the best rhythm players backing him. There was no melodic exchange. Now, I love Coltrane deeply, but this is more or less what he did.
A nasty alto player who used to run the Dal sax department told me something similarly astonishing: He said Cannonball Adderley was content with his bad ass swing, while tortured Coltrane changed his sound every week because he was just unsatisfied. I had thought Coltrane’s quest to find music’s highest height was a service to humanity. I will never say a bad word about John Coltrane, whose sublime music has genuinely given to me more than what religious people get from religion. Once in a while I’ll play him and have a kind of sacred experience, but generally I need music structured differently.
Miles said he learned from Sly and the Family Stone how to dismantle that old standard jazz formula, and melt his horn into the other instruments, rather than playing one after another in their turn.
The Band is the perfect sound for me now because of its balance. On the surface they don’t appear to have anything in common with Miles, but not only did they play on bills together in the early 70’s, their music is both a cauldron even if the brew is nothing alike.
The Band was a bar band for 10 years before they recorded their first album. This is key to understanding them. They had played loud high-octane Rock in every bar in the American South and Ontario. In the studio, in Big Pink, they wanted to turn the instruments down, hear each other, play songs on which their instruments intertwined. No virtuoso guitar or drum or bass solos. Their music is on a foundation of interdependence.
Most bands only have one or two super talented members whereas everyone in The Band is an all star. So maybe other groups can’t be as balanced as they are because their talent is dispersed lopsidedly—it’s a question of talent, not vision.
Glenn Gould said it’s “anti-democratic” for a pianist to have one dominant hand. Sure, but commitment to democracy isn’t enough, it’s very difficult to have a left hand that plays as deftly as the right. Gould would call The Band democratic. They are perfectly, utterly balanced.
There’s something so tacky to me now, even vulgar, about million-notes-a-minute guitar solos. So guitar-centric. “Play rhythm for me while I shred” is like asking friends for a favour rather than hanging out together on equal terms. This kind of solo is a physical achievement of dexterity, not necessarily a musical one. I can marvel at Steve Vai and G3, even feel envy at their shocking chops, but I don’t really want to listen to it.
Picasso had to prove he could paint in a renaissance style before his more abstract stuff was taken seriously. Why? For many people art can’t be serious unless it passes a certain threshold of technical achievement. This is understandable to an extent—you don’t want to celebrate an artist that produces something an untrained infant can.
Yet complexity does not equal quality. Would his abstract work be any less incredible if Picasso couldn’t also paint in a renaissance style? Does Neil Young need jazz chops to be taken seriously? Of course not, it’s ridiculous. Every artist is their own genre.
Most art presupposes the possession of certain amount of artistic skill, but not all. Judging art purely by the skill required to pull it off, rather than by the vision or soul behind it, is nearly as vulgar as judging paintings by how much money the Art World says it is worth. A solo isn’t good because it’s hard to play, but because it’s musical. Of course it’s OK to be impressed with a tough passage, but only if it’s musical.
Art is a mood, a vibe, a sound, a feel. Art is not ranked along any one ultimate hierarchy. But in music, I think it’s important to give the same weight to all the instruments. Actually I think Western Classical generally privileges melody and harmony over rhythm, the first conditioning of the Western ear. This dynamic trickles down.
The ironic thing is African music was often called “primitive” specifically because the rhythms were literally too sophisticated for Westerners to process. There’s a moment in the Ginger Baker documentary when he’s hanging privately with one of his hero drummers as a teenager, who plays records of some African drumming. Baker is asked to name the time signature, identify where the beat starts. He cannot.
Balance for me in music is along this axis to, between harmony, melody and rhythm. Rhythm should be a feature, not in service to the other two. I listen to a lot of Atlantic Soul records now, where the punch is the groove, not some dazzling soloist.
Music is infinite permutations of tension and release. I want to caution against confusing sophistication in music or art for quality: Like I said, I still love that old Dance Mix stuff, and a lot of old E-A-B blues is basic on paper but sounds like shit unless you play and sing with feel. If you can dance to a tune or you like hearing a song, that song has done its job.
But the music hitting me hardest now has togetherness, it’s communal. The Band sounds like they’re all having a great time hanging out together (and when they stopped enjoying hanging out, their music immediately suffered). It’s not an accident that they all play each other’s instruments, live and on albums. They’ve transcended their particular instrument and are playing music.
A wise friend told me once there are four stages to music. The first is “unconscious-unknowing.” Think of a child who plays air guitar because they feel the music in their bones but have no idea how to play actual music. Second is “conscious-unknowing,” the beginner who labours to follow the basic instructions, but is now playing music. Third is “conscious-knowing,” the accomplished musician who knows what and how to play but still must think about it. The final stage, that almost nobody reaches, is “unconscious-knowing,” where music is simply felt and transferred to the instrument immediately, without thought required.
This fourth category is filled with musicians who have transcended their instrument, or maybe two or more instruments. Their music isn’t a physical phenomenon anymore. It’s not even a cerebral one, because while it takes brains to play, it’s about feeling as much as thoughts. Not just the degree of thoughts and feelings—not how much intelligence and feeling is there–but the nature of these things.
The only pertinent question to musicians in the fourth category is: what are their musical thoughts like? How good are these thoughts/feelings? Charlie Parker’s music is nearly impossible to play, but that isn’t his real achievement. It’s his ideas that are impossible to conceive of. Lots of people mimic Parker today, and they are incredible musicians! It’s very, very hard to do! But they are reproducing his licks, not the mental originality that gave rise to them in the first place.
Musical ideas need not be complex to be good. It’s instructive that when musicians get tired of playing bebop, they mellow out and play grooves. Miles’ Birth of the Cool or even Kind of Blue. Thought of this way, the idea of ranking musicians or bands in sequential order is ridiculous.
I worry that a lot of people hear music on YouTube and it sounds like shit. MP4s, or iTunes, sounds like shit. Non-flac digital files compress music so that a device can store a million songs. Really, the sound waves have a narrower range. It’s a real distortion. Apple, Spotify and YouTube offer immediate access to every song on earth, and in exchange, they don’t sound as good. This may differ from recording to recording, or on your speakers or something, but I suspect there is a generation hearing subpar music. As TVs have improved their picture, our audio quality has gotten worse.
I say this not merely as grumpy man, but from having taught guitar to kids for years and seeing how they listen now, on devices or computers. I suspect the worsening audio quality impacts the way contemporary producers and DJs create and play music. Medium Is The Message kinda thing. But that’s a longer story for another day.
An old proverb I heard is “chess is an ocean in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe.” Same goes for music. Take from it as much or as little as you want. If you like having it on in the background, cool! But listening actively is a life-long activity that evolves, and pleasure really deepens. However far you want to go in listening to music, there are many who have already gone further. That this is true is just such, such a blessing.