Sunday, January 1, 2012

What's New?

While reading John Szwed's biography of Miles Davis, So What, it struck me what a quintessentially modern man Davis was. I mean "modern man" in a narrow sense as someone constantly seeking the new borne out of boredom. As most jazz fans know, Miles developed or worked in several jazz idioms, from bebop to cool jazz to hard bop to modal jazz to fusion to smooth jazz (consider his straight reading of Cindy Lauper's "Time After Time" or his early ballad recordings which are like ur-smooth jazz). When asked why he started playing modal jazz, Davis responded that he was bored with bebop. He rarely listened to his old recordings. The past was past and he was constantly seeking the next new thing.

This modern attitude is prevalent in our lives. We are faced with constant change. Staying put is really leaving the mainstream. Returning to old ways is downright strange. Well, perhaps, less so now with the growing interest in sustainable farming, sustainable design, caveman diets, and so on. Some people are waking up to the fact that not all change is good. Most audiophiles know that playing a record produced in the 60s on a 60s turntable is a far richer sonic and emotional experience than listening to a digital recording made in 2010s on a computer. Try telling the average person that records are better than mp3s and you're met with an expression like you said you prefer drinking milk straight from a cow's teat. (Yeah, it may be better, but how inconceivably weird are you.)

In my estimation, Miles reached his artistic peak with his second quintet consisting of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, especially Tony Williams. Listening to this quintet is like having a dream about jazz. It's recognizably jazz, but has an elusive, mysterious quality to it, both familiar and unfamiliar. It's not free jazz. One senses a logic at work that's related to the past, again like how dreams reassemble one's past experience into something different and, I believe, something meaningful. After a few years of working in this style, Davis ventured off to playing fusion, which to me was a big step artistic step backwards. But to Davis it was new and different. That mattered more. That's the modern attitude.

Obviously not all change is bad. Without his modern attitude, Davis would've never developed cool jazz and modal jazz, which contributed to the richness of jazz history. The challenge in the modern age is discerning the changes that are truly progressive and changes that are ultimately ways to stave off boredom, but really don't improve our lives.

1 comment:

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