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Saturday morning quote #19: Milestones

September 23, 2011

We’ve reached a few milestones this week with our blog: This is our 50th post and we have topped 8,000 visits.  While this may seem insignificant in the larger scheme of things, we feel quite pleased that there is some degree of interest in our musings on music of the 16th century and its collision with the aesthetics of the 21st century.

In honor of these milestones, we share a few quotes that bring into sharper focus the basis for some of our opinions on the interpretation of old music – and the spirit in which it might be received.  Or, less obtusely, we think a great deal of music for voice and lute of the 16th century has much, much more in common with jazz than with the catch-all category called classical music.

Think about it: It was music that was popular and current.  It was music rooted in dance forms and tender ballads.  Improvisation over ‘grounds’ (familiar sets of chord changes) was a highly respected art form, replete with recognizable quotations cleverly drawn from popular tunes.  Then there is the Fantasia:

The most principal and chiefest kind of music…is the Fancy [fantasia], that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it…In this may more art be shewn than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure. And this kind may bear any allowances whatsoever tolerable in other music except changing the air and leaving the key, which in Fancy may never be suffered. Other things you may use at your pleasure, as bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you list. Likewise this kind of music is, with them who practise instruments of parts, in greatest use. . .

Thomas Morley A Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music, 1597

Fantasias evolved from improvisation and are nothing more than musical ideas that are written out, developed, and subjected to a more stringent compositional standard.  But any jazz musician will write out the music if he or she wants to remember an idea or an improvisation for posterity.

Brilliant ‘jazz’ composers like Billy Strayhorn worked consistently at the highest standard, composing and arranging a great deal of the music associated with Duke Ellington.  A gentle genius who humbly remained backstage for most of his career, Strayhorn was kept busy with arrangements and orchestrations for Ellington, but found time to compose some wonderful pieces like ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ ‘Lush Life,’ ‘Johnny Come Lately,’ and Ellington’s signature tune, ‘Take the A Train.’

Why shouldn’t you play a simple melody? It’s a matter of being humble…All great artists are humble.  The ones who are not are not great artists.

I think everything should happen at halfway to dawn. That’s when all the heads of government should meet. I think everybody would fall in love.

Billy Strayhorn

Jazz guitarists of today are not likely to consider themselves the bearers of a long and lively tradition of improvisation, dating back more than 500 years to the fantastic running lines and wildly rhythmic inventions of Joan Ambrosio Dalza (Venice, 1508).  But it’s a fact that we are the inheritors of a tradition that goes back much farther than Django Reinhardt or Charlie Christian.

Templates of style and form for modern improvisations can be linked directly to those of the past.  The backbone of the improviser’s art was in arranging, embellishing, and sometimes reharmonizing popular vocal music.  Just like Joe Pass and his improvisations on songs by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, lutenists like Francesco da Milano created inventive and intricate variations on the vocal music of Josquin des Prez and Clement Janequin.

The composed suite-like duets recorded by notable 20th century guitarists Dick McDonough and Carl Kress are directly descended from renaissance lute duets, with their intricate interplay and seamless exchange of melody and accompaniment.   And as far as the form of lute songs, there is not much difference – at least in intent – between what we perform and the wonderful collaborations of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass.

Then there is the modal jazz that took root in the 1950s, advanced by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and company.  Even if not deliberate, this was an auspicious step backward using the language of early music with a modern and hip accent.  The album Milestones includes some of the best examples of a style that blends the stark language of modal music with the improvisatory freedom of jazz.

We wrap up with a few quotes from Wynton Marsalis, an eloquent musician and advocate for the demystification of classical music – as a skilled instrumentalist – and also the recognition of jazz as the highly developed and eminently communicative art form it is.

Jazz makes it possible for individuals to shape a language out of their feeling and use that very personal language to communicate exactly how the world feels to them. Recordings froze the sounds of these musicians, affording us the pleasure of entering their world whenever we wish. The world according to Lester Young. Mmmm. That’s where I want to be. Then, to be there over and over again.

Yes, recordings allow you to dip into evocative musical moments anytime you wish.  As a parting shot, Wynton Marsalis responds to the question, “What are some of the things you think about before going onstage?”

I always make sure that my pants are zipped up. There’s nothing more embarrassing than walking out onstage with your pants unzipped. That happened to me in Seattle a long time ago.  Also, tripping on wires. When you walk on the stage, make sure you notice where all the wires are. You definitely could walk out there and fall on your head.

Good advice.

One Comment
  1. Dan permalink

    Great connections & insights. I have been shifted to the Jazz department at my day job in the record/cd store, so I finally get to hear much of this great stuff. Unfortunately, Dick McDonough and Carl Kress are completely absent from our data base, and we have no cds or vinyl of their fantastic collaborations.

    Just today, I introduced a new lute student to some lute history- recounting the tales of Pietro Bono Brusellis, Paumann, and other late Medieval/early Renaissance duet plectrum players who gigged as lead/rhythm – solo/tenorista partners in similar fashion to Joe Pass, Pisano, etc. It was a revelation to him.

    The pants thing is quite important. The stitching in sensitive areas is as critical as zipper awareness. Not me, thank goodness, but many years ago a good friend went onstage with an unnecessary auxiliary ventilation aperture about eleven inches south of the rose of his Baroque lute. We still haven’t told him, don’t plan to.


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