"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are We Selling Our Music Short In Our Effort To Work?

Several years ago, after I had recorded my first CD, Sam I Am with Criss Cross Records, Gerry Teekens, the label’s founder and producer, asked me if I had given any thought to what I’d like to do for the next record. I told him that I’d like to record with the same musicians, and hopefully, do a better job on the next one. Well, his answer is what you'd expect to get from most labels, club owners, and promoters: “You recorded with them the last time, we need something new for the next one."










It ‘s understandable from a business perspective why one would take this position. If your project has a different name and/or members, it’s seen as something new and fresh, and hopefully, easier to sell than if it’s just a repeat of the last one. My issue with this, however, is whether or not buying into this way of dealing with our music hurts us artistically.

I call it the Post-Dave-Douglas Syndrome (PDDS)--where we feel we have to have to invent a new band concept every time we want to make a CD or be booked on a festival. In all fairness to Dave, he’s just doing his thing, and I’m sure it’s all very sincere. Not to mention, I’m singling him out because he’s been the most successful at doing this. For good reason, mind you.

Dave is a product of the Downtown musical culture, where many of its musicians often played at places like The Knitting Factory, Tonic, and The Stone, often working with many groups and configurations. And I think the premise of this jack-of-all-bands approach was quite innocent in the beginning.

Imagine this: It’s a Wednesday night, and you write four or five new compositions to be performed during an hour-long set at one of the aforementioned venues. At the end of the gig, you and your band might make a hundred dollars and enjoy a few free beers. To add to this experience, you figure why not give the group some ironic name like The Running Still Funktet, John Doe's Organized Chaos, or my favorite, The Silent Noise Trio. And if you’re an active player on this scene, playing these venues regularly, in couple of years you could easily have three or four bands.

Of course, a gig is a gig. And as Billy Higgins said, “Get to the bandstand anyway you can.” But I figure there has to be more to it than this. It can’t all be about our “bookability” and developing new angles for promoting ourselves.

If you’re a composer, always writing for and working with a different project comes with the territory. There’s a kind of finality to a concert giving by a composer. The music is often more involved, and usually requires more of a commitment from the musicians who are hired to play it. And sometimes the music is a result of a commissioning or grant—with the exception of the big band. But I’m mainly speaking about small groups that are more improvisational and band oriented--what most of us do.

Some of the best work has come from those who have made a commitment to a group or a sound, and really explored it to the fullest. Miles, Ornette, Coltrane—they’re all great examples of this. Imagine if after a making A Love Supreme, Trane put together a Brazilian project, and then a Latin jazz project, just to make himself more bookable. We would have missed out on a lot of great music.

I started thinking about this more and more after noticing how people responded when I told them that I was working on my third solo CD. The most common responses were: “ Didn’t you just do one?” And my favorite: “Another one?” And I do understand where they are coming from.

A solo CD is usually looked at as one of these momentous things you do once in a lifetime--sort of like climbing Mount Everest. Half the fun is being able to say that you did it. And once you do, you have something interesting to talk about at parties.

And solo saxophone, mind you, is even more of a novelty. There are a few exceptions, like Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, John Butcher, and Evan Parker, who have released large bodies of work playing in the unaccompanied format. But it’s not a musical path followed by many.

However, I do feel there’s a growing trend amongst musicians of not being committed to a single sound or musical vision. The focus is often times on finding a new project to promote or market, rather being solely focused on improving ones current one. The way that I see it is like this: Even if a couple of albums don't turn out as we'd hoped. That may only mean that it’s time to go deeper, not that you need to change your musical trajectory. I understand if it’s just not working out or if you feel that the music has run its course. Then yes, you must move on. I’ve done that myself.

We shouldn’t let one or two recordings define who we are as artists. And definitely should not cow tow to promoters, club owners, agents, only thinking about our bookability. We’ve already tried that. Musical cultures tend to flourish more when the music is actually put first, and not its commercial viability.

When we’re long gone, we want people to see our extensive discography and say, “Oh yeah, now I see what this guy was about.” Those one or two horrible CDs might become historical in that they will be seen as transitional CDs that enabled you to get to that one really great one. Look how many recordings Miles Davis made before he got to Kind of Blue.

You dig!

9 comments:

  1. Sorry I came to this late - great piece, lots to think about............ Thanks Sam

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  3. Found this through Iverson's blog. Great article, Sam. May it be widely read.

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  4. Thanks, Sam. You put your finger on an important point. Going deep is really the thing, and having a lot of different outlets can be a challenge to that depth in the music. Incidentally, you also confirm my father's suspicion about my musical career by identifying a syndrome named after me. ;-)

    If I could add one thing to your point -- I think this phenomenon of musicians running with different projects pre-dates the Knitting Factory scene. Duke Ellington would be the big example for me of someone who wrote and performed in many facets and who seemed to constantly have new visions to present. That instinct continues in the work of progressive artists like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steve Lacy, and Henry Threadgill.

    Our generation (I'm 48) grew up hearing all the periods of Miles Davis at once -- as one body of work. I've talked to a lot of musicians who feel that has inspired them to try to bring all that music together. It spawns a lot of different ways of working, and maybe the natural result is for musicians to create in multiple formats.

    But that's all after-the-fact theorizing -- the music comes first. Thanks for your music, and for sharing your thoughts.

    -Dave

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  5. Cover the fire DD, blah

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  6. Nice post. One nit - Miles made many excellent albums before Kind of Blue! They were hardly transitional - he was on the leading edge long before 1959.

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  7. First thing David Friesen says in his ensemble classes is that there are very few great groups in jazz. Which is strange, since there are tons of great players. And exemplars like Miles' quintets, Coltrane's quartet and Bill Evans' trio have established interaction as a primary criterion for excellence in all regions of the vast musical territory known as jazz. Business-wise, branding a group works, whether the group is the Kronos Quartet, Radiohead, Wu-Tang Clan or Keith Jarret / Gary Peacock / Jack Dejohnette. Club and label owners ignore that reality at their own peril.

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