Frank O’Hara, in his mockifesto “On Personism,” writes “I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was atrack star for Mineola Prep.” He proposes a great argument against virtuosity which he sees as grandiose, showing off; he implies that drawing attention to facility (technique) is mere cleverness. In jazz I tend to associate cleverness and “facility” with empty technique: playing a lot of notes (often fast) that signify not all that much. I feel this way about a number of Oscar Peterson’s solos or some of the horn players of Wynton Marsalis’ generation and predilection. In classical music I think of Heifetz and Horowitz occasionally drawing attention to how well they play more than the pleasures and meaning of the music itself.
O’Hara himself has often been accused of cleverness, diminished as a poet of “personality” (whatever that means beyond a voice that would never be accused of sounding like anyone else). Critics of French films, especially those who don’t seem to value wit or sensuality, make similar accusations (parenthetically one only has to look carefully at the best of Truffaut and Audriard to understand that wit and depth of feeling are not opposites). I’d propose that one person’s cleverness is another’s playfulness; the French have a word for enjoyment, a love of life: jouissance. I suspect lovers of jazz and poetry could use a little jouissance don’t you? Cixous writes about it as a feminine pleasure (as opposed to the masculine pleasure of mastery) that combines the physical, intellectual and spiritual elements of experience. Sandra Gilbert calls it “a fusion of the erotic, the mystical, and the political" (which I’d call social). Either way, sensuality becomes organic to spirit and body, embodied experience. You don't have to figure it out, you just have to dance to it.
So I want to talk about chops. Among poets Ashbery, with an astonishing ear for a range of dictions and metaphors, has great chops. He’s certainly been called clever or shallow by those who don’t understand his project. Bob Hicok and Dean Young called “clever” poets, but I believe in their best work – and there’s lots of it – these poets are seriously playful. Their surfaces evoke a depth of feeling.
My only question about chops is, for what purpose does the artist use his or her technique? What’s the craft in the service of? I want to talk about James Carter, an incredible saxophonist who’s often accused of cleverness. Here’s a critic straight off the Amazon boat, and not an ignorant listener, making a familiar accusation. “Carter has a tendency to showboat live.This is a criticism often levied against him, unfortunately, somewhat justified. Although capable of an astonishing number of extended techniques and adept at a myriad of styles, he seems unwilling to edit himself in a live situation. Whether caught up in the moment or simply wanting to push himself further, each solo follows a similar pattern, with the same ferocity and humor that the previous one contained.”
So here’s the deal from my point of view: Carter’s ferocity is sometime anger, sometimes dissonance, sometimes speedy; his humor’s sometimes playful, it’s sometimes witty, quoting from some of the old masters (a noble jazz tradition); but his ballad playing is simply full of heart (you should hear his “Round Midnight” on the bass clarinet –the early album’s THE REAL QUIETSTORM, paying tribute to Eric Dolphy at the same time making more lyrical statements- or this heartbreaking version of "I Wonder Where Our Love has Gone, from a 1997 concert in Japan." I call that range.
All his solos take up the first lesson of jazz: they swing. They’re replete with rhythm underneath every improvisation. Sometimes self-consciously so, as with a low pitched squawk, or with his phrasing, or with the rhythm of his circular breathing (what lungs!). So it reduces his art to trace his solos as the critic does above. Because Carter follows another tradition, which is to play the head, to play it straight ahead as he gathers steam, and then to adventurously improvise (as one might a cadenza in classical music).
An example from the 2006 North Sea Festival. North Sea Jazz Festival
You can call that an unwillingness to edit, but you’ll hear it in Coltrane, especially after 1961.Coltrane's one of Carter’s many influences; early on the most recognizable influence is that sensualist of the 40s and 50s, Don Byas (who used to say he played the sexophone), who Carter considers the bridge between Coleman Hawkins and Coltrane). In fact that pattern characterizes most avant-garde jazz, where playing the changes no longer suffices to make a musical statement. Hooray for an artist who wants to push himself further. Miles Davis was once asked why he let John Coltrane take such long solos. Miles said “Because that’s how long they take,”
For me James Carter’s astonishing chops are in the service of recalling and transforming jazz traditions (here’s an incredible version of Sidney Bechet’s “Jungle Drums”)
He remembers rhythm as the soul of jazz, he gets the most sound out of every instrument he plays (soprano, tenor, flute, bass clarinet, and bass saxophone) in creating a symphony of sound that will evoke the whole spectrum of emotions. He’s an incredibly accessible player because he knows where he comes from (not only Detroit but from the swing and bop players who came before him – he keeps their sound alive) and he’s an incredibly challenging player. He plays funky chicken with Organ trios, his own quartets always incorporate inside and outside playing, he’s played as a member of the World Saxophone quartet (here’s a short improvisation from that group):
His live concerts tend to include more free jazz at a time when most sax players, even the best of them, are working mainstream to make a living (I’d say most poets too, though making a living’s not an issue – in poetry it’s more about what its advocates call “populism” and accessibility). Carter plays with big bands, strings, he plays challenges, cutting up Joshua Redman by the way. There’s nothing he won’t try, and that’s because he’s looking for venues that will make him stretch.
“On Personism” satirizes pretentiousness in “lofty ideas.” So perhaps he’d roll his eyes at some of my justifications. Of course the manifesto is full of ideas and gloriously clever: witty, self-conscious, provocative (“this is getting good, isn’t it?”) . Most important, it’s seriously playful. His argument's substantive and it’s meant to change the way we look at literature as impersonal artifact (still reacting in some way against Eliot and his generation). And the best of James Carter’s work, which can make us laugh and cry inside the same solo, is after, as Hemingway would say without irony, big game. That's the lofty "Ernest" way of saying it., Only Carter seems to suggest that old fashioned way of thinking -- the tradition as is -- is kind of funny. Maybe a necessary but insufficient way to make music now, The songs need to be taken somewhere new and unheard of and filled with jouissance.