At the close of my last blog post (which I devoted largely to the appearance of Norah Jones at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival–and the state of jazz as an art form just now), I said I did plan, in my next post, to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival—and I shall do that, although, because I would like to take advantage, now, of immediate enthusiasm and gratitude felt having recently received a remarkable double CD from bassist David Friesen (one for which I was asked to write liner notes, and did so—and I will include those notes here), I would like to hold off on a more extensive post on the Monterey Jazz Festival in order to post word on the amazing work David has just completed.
Jazz bassist/pianist/composer David Friesen’s My Faith, My Life contains work that sums up and amplifies an exceptional career. In many ways, my response to David Friesen’s lifetime consecration to jazz–a career throughout which, given his inclusive, supernal (surpassing the ordinary), transcendent nature, he has taken jazz beyond its temporal, terrestrial boundaries, or borders–my response invites further reflection on the current state of the art form of jazz itself..
Here’s the cover of the My Faith, My Life CD, and a photo of David Friesen himself (Photo credit: 13thfloor.co.nz)
And here is access to a YouTube video by David Friesen on the release of the CD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0ELqxpe5Zs&feature=share
At the close of my last blog, I cited statements Nate Chinen offered in his recent book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century: “As long as people have been talking about jazz, they’ve been talking about where it’s going. The conversation rests on presumptions of forward progress and collective striving. But while some musicians have embraced the premise, others refused to play along. A well-meaning interviewer once asked Thelonious Monk where he thought jazz was going, and the pianist replied, ‘I don’t know where it’s doing. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.’”
I agree with Nate Chinen. Looking back on a claim I made when, just before the Monterey Jazz Festival took place this year, I was invited to give a Skype interview regarding the event for a program called Showcase on TV news channel TRT in Istanbul, Turkey: when asked “Why is jazz still cool?”, I responded, “Because that’s its nature. Jazz is cool in and of itself—no matter what ‘history’ may attempt to claim (‘Jazz is dead’; ‘The audience for it is getting too old, or dead’; et cetera). Those who are faithful to the art form don’t just like it, they love it, with a passion.” I agree with Chenin that “There is no way of prognosticating jazz’s future. Or even its precise trajectory, because the art form doesn’t adhere to a linear axis.” It just IS. Given the “spirit of multiplicity that now prevails,” I agree with Chenin when he says of “the present moment and its endless possibilities … Progress is almost beside the point. The music will flow and fluctuate, keep going. And where to? Anywhere. It just happens.”
A complete, accurate definition of the word “jazz” has proven difficult to pin down—from the day (or night) ragtime turned into “jass.” The word “jazz” didn’t appear in print until 1912, and applied to baseball, not music. Ben Henderson, a right-handed pitcher for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League reported in the Los Angeles Times: “I got a new curve this year . . . I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles [a knuckle ball?] and you simply can’t do anything with it.” Circumstantial evidence is strong that the word was used for a long time in the American South to refer to sexual intercourse. Among other theories (or guesses) we have: the word derives from “jism or jasm, nineteenth-century terms that referred to spirit or vitality as well as to semen; from Jezebel, a nineteenth-century term for a prostitute, or from jasmine, a perfume supposedly favored by Jezebels.”
Standard dictionary definitions are less colorful (or offensive). Jazz is American music that stemmed from ragtime and blues, “characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre”; or “popular dance music influenced by jazz and played in a loud rhythmic manner.” Standard text book definitions are just as cut and dry (or dull: nowhere near as lively as the music itself): “Music might be jazz if it has a bluesy flavor, or uses jazz associated music instruments such as saxophones and drums, or has jazzy rhythms.”
This may be a case where scholarly “experts” are not of much assistance, and it’s best to go to a source that knows the music best: jazz musicians themselves. One of the most articulate of these (both musically and verbally) was Duke Ellington who, asked to define the art form, said, “I think the music situation today has reached the point where it isn’t necessary for categories. I think what people hear in music is either agreeable to the ear or not. And if this is so, if music is agreeable to my ear, why does it have to have a category? … There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
That final sentence has also been attributed to Richard Strauss, and numerous other musical figures, but it may not matter who got there first. The observation seems true. And Ellington was known to come up with other insights just as lively, and enjoyable, as the art form itself—such as: “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” … “Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one.” … I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right” … “Roaming through the jungle of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs,’ searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats.” (from Music Is My Mistress).
Here are two photos of Duke Ellington–solo and with his orchestra (Photo credits: battleofthebands.com; musicrising.tulane.edu)
I mentioned David Friesen’s own career throughout which, given his inclusive and transcendent nature, he has taken jazz beyond its terrestrial boundaries, or borders, and I believe he would agree with Duke Ellington on the following point: “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
I know, from the interviews I’ve done with David, that he would agree with Ellington that “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen.” And I believe David Friesen might answer the following question as Duke Ellington did: “What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘esperanto’ of the world.”
I’ll turn back full time to David Friesen and his copious contributions to jazz (now that we may have a better understanding of what jazz IS, or can BE), but I’d like to include, as a means of wrapping up this discussion of where the art form is today, the thoughts of one its more articulate contemporary practitioners, pianist Brad Mehldau: thoughts on what it was like to collaborate, in improvisation, with bassist Charlie Haden on their CD Long Ago and Far Away.
“Charlie [Haden] and I are walking along a path side by side, with no one in front. The path is wide enough for that … It’s like the path itself is being laid with every step we take together. Just beyond each last step, there’s nothing but a precipice of wide open space—pure potential … In order to attain that ‘higher’ kind of freedom, you had to have absorbed some fundamental aesthetic guidelines in a deep nuanced way—so you could have your way with them … If the resolution is suspended, there is a design—the sweet pleasure of deferred finality. Tension and resolution—the hallmarks of harmony, are always at play… he was not particularly interested in freedom for its own sake. He cherished order and formal integrity in music just as much, and what he cherished most was beauty … he had this very respectful, often delicate and reverent approach to playing.”
And those words echo what I find in the music of David Friesen: design, tension (passion) and resolution, order and formal integrity—and above all: beauty, a “very respectful, often delicate and reverent approach to playing.” Jazz Beyond—above and beyond, higher, transcendent, both of this world and not of this world (boundless, “otherworldly”), or as I said in my liner notes to the double CD My Faith, My Life: music informed by the faith that has shaped David’s life: a life synonymous with music: a dynamic, ongoing commitment—continuity enacted at an optimal level, always.
Here are my liner notes:
At the peak of their careers, great artists often turn to autobiography: a full account or summary of all they have given us over the years, a fully mature (fully-realized) re-creation of or reflection on the work of a lifetime. Gandhi, St. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Helen Keller, William Butler Yeats, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mary McCarthy, and Harpo Marx all did so in words—but a great musical artist is more likely to offer this gift in the medium known best: such as the miraculous two CD recording My Faith, My Life by jazz bassist/pianist/composer David Friesen—a work that sums up and amplifies an exceptional career.
David Friesen’s faith is that of Saint Anselm of Canterbury (“I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”) and that faith has shaped his life: a life synonymous with music: a dynamic, ongoing commitment—continuity enacted at an optimal level, always. I first heard and wrote about a performance by David Friesen (in Monterey, California) in 1988; have been fortunate to write written liner notes for seven of his CDs (Departures, Three To Get Ready, Four to Go, The Name of a Woman, Five and Three, Triple Exposure, and Structures), and have maintained 30 years of admiration and respect for David and his work.
The first CD in the autobiographical My Faith, My Life consists of recent solo performance on bass. A few of the pieces first appeared on LPs I have in my collection: “Ancient Kings” on Through the Listening Glass (1978, with John Stowell); “Children of the Kingdom” (Star Dance, 1976, with John Stowell, Paul McCandless, and Steve Gadd); “Sitka in the Woods” (Amber Skies, 1983, with Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, and Paul Horn); “Martin’s Balcony” and “Long Trip Home” (Departures, CD, 1990, with Uwe Kropinski), and “Lament for the Lost/ Procession” (on Long Trip Home, CD, 1992). On My Faith, My Life, David Friesen goes it alone, which calls all the more attention to the intimacy and immediacy of his compositions, and the extent to which David has become at One with these pieces over the years.
“Ancient Kings” opens with a familiar Friesen underpinning fluid vamp, then a drone that turns into a fully engaging melodic contour, the mood one of the passionate meditation (a paradox, yes!) David has become a master of; “Children of the Kingdom” offers a merciful mood, patient, forebearing, free of the “cast out into outer darkness” weeping and gnashing of teeth of Matthew 8: 12, from which the title comes; “Sitka in the Woods” suggests immense space, anticipation, drama, homage to the largest conifer of the spruce species (growing 200 feet tall, 17 feet in diameter in David’s native Oregon); “Martin’s Balcony” (along with “Roof Tops”) is panoramic, an expansive “here and now,” with inviting echoes, percussive clicks, counter rhythms; “Long Trip Home” is a journey, reflective, lyrical; and “Lament for the Lost/Procession” is just that: a deep grieving “cello” sound, a wide range of voices, turning into a pilgrimage, a reverent procession that soars with praise and prayer—a perfect close to the solo bass “My Faith, My Life” CD—each track laced to another by a shakuhachi interlude or transition: the whole a bounteous suite, a lifetime of music.
Here are two more photos of David Friesen: a solo performance of “Children of the Kingdom” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1977, and now (Photo credits: The Hudson Collection; https://jazzdagama.com)
As early as 1976, Nat Hentoff wrote: “Once in a great while, a musician emerges with such authority and such seemingly effortless originality that his place in the front ranks of his instrument is unquestioned.” Hentoff was not speaking of promise or potential, but actual performance, and forty-two years later, with My Faith, My Life, David Friesen has added immeasurably to his stature. The adjectives Hentoff provided stand, immensely expanded: “Prodigious technique … compelling story telling … mood-exploring … spaciousness of spirit … one of those musicians who can never get enough of music.”
The second CD in this set features David Friesen performing more of his own compositions on piano—an instrument for which he may not be as well know as on Homage bass (although he soon should be!): an instrument he embraces with the same taste, touch, and skill as he does the bass. Again, a few of the pieces have a worthy history: “Only Just Yesterday” appeared on the CD Five and Three (2010); “Playground” and “Song for Ben” on Where the Light Falls (2014); “Right from Wrong” and “Another Time, Another Place” on Triple Exposure (2016); and “New Hope” on Structures (2017). Each piece is rendered in the spirit each title suggests: “Only Just Yesterday” recognition, realization, the recent past made present; “Playground” lighthearted, sportive, a refreshing recess; “Another Time, Another Place” suitably nostalgic, a simultaneous sense of lost and found; “New Hope” is stately, soaring, laced with goodness and mercy all the days of your life. As with the first CD, these reinterpretations offer the intimacy and conviction that arrive with age: wisdom as David has come to wear it.
The last two pieces on this CD provide perfect closure: “Time Changes” easefully evolves, with both anticipation and solid steps forward; and “My Faith, My Life” sums it all up: a credo, affirmation, reverence—lower register continuity laced with sublime melody: a hymn to the Source of all song, with a fitting A-men at the close. With its two CD suites complementing each other so fully, My Faith, My Life is an epochal achievement: a testament to all that faith matched with a meaningful, purposeful life can create.
Congratulations, David, on this achievement—your lifetime of exceptional creativity.
In my next blog post, I will make good on the promise to do justice to much of the excellent music I witnessed at the 61st Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ll close now with an overview of what I’ve tried to say about jazz in general: the wise words of a writer I much admire, Ernest Becker: “How a person solves the natural yearning for self-expression and significance determines the quality of [a] life … Human beings are the only things that mediate meaning, which is to say that they give the only human meaning we can know”; and he quotes Carl Jung saying that the “relationship to the self is at once relationship to our fellow beings”—and also theologian Martin Buber on “seeing in the other person the self-transcending life process that gives to one’s self the larger nourishment it needs.”
And I’d like to toss in some words of the Chinese 369-298 B.C.E. Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu): “The artisan Shui made things round and square more exactly than if he had used instruments of measure. The operation of his fingers required no application of his mind; his intelligence was entire and encountered no resistance.” And on Confucius looking at a Cataract near the gorge of Lu, which fell a height of two hundred and forty cubits, “producing a turbulence in which no tortoise, crocodile, or fish could play. He saw, however, an old man swimming about in it,” and he asked his disciples to rescue the man—but by the time they got there, the old man was “walking along singing, with his hair disheveled, and enjoying himself at the foot of the embankment.”
Confucius asked the old man if he had some miraculous “way of treading the water,” and the gentleman responded, “No. I began to learn the art at the very earliest time. I enter and go down with the water in the very center if its whirl and come up with it when it whirls the other way. I follow the way of the water and do nothing contrary to it … I know not how I do it and yet I do it. That is why I say my success is as sure as fate.”
That’s all for now, Folks. May whatever (merciful and meaningful) “success” you desire eventually become as sure as fate. See you next blog.