Sunday, July 31, 2005


In classical music, the written composition is something like a play. Each actor has a written part which is followed exactly, and the performance is measured by how well the actors breathe life into each role. In jazz however, a composition is more like the topic of a conversation in which the performers are invited to participate. They are free (and indeed encouraged) to present novel and interesting ideas within the framework of this topic (As an interesting aside; Indian classical music is a more rigorous treatment of this conversational philosophy). And just as in any conversation, a jazz performance is measured by how interesting each participant's ideas are, and their interplay.

This is why it's so great to see a jazz standard performed by different collections of musicians (or even by the same collection in a different setting). Each session is a meeting of minds -- learning, collaborating, exchanging and innovating. Old friends revel in knowing and anticipating each other's conversational style, and new meetings provide exciting fresh perspectives on tried-and-true lines, inspiring even further innovation.

This is also an interesting analogy within which to explore why some people like certain (performances of) compositions and not others. Think back to the last social gathering in which you participated in (or listened in on) a group conversation. If a conversation leaves you out of your depth because the ideas are too complex, then you tend to tune out. Similarly, if the conversation is mere drivel, it quickly becomes irritating and boring. A conversation which is a complete barrage of new ideas is exhausting, while one that merely repeats well-known phrases sounds cliche. Even so, it's important to realize that novelty is in the ear of the beholder, and each listener is a collective set of experiences that give new events and ideas their context.

Just as listenening or participating in a social conversation needs a requisite intellectual substrate, listening to jazz demands the corresponding collective musical experience within which we can understand the melodic discussions that evolve. Therefore, not just performing, but even listenening to jazz is a practiced art which takes time and training. If pursued however, it enables one to decrypt this secret world of conversations where the ideas can be refreshing, thoughtful, emotive, and always infectious.

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