Structure & spontaneity: Lessons from the art of jazz (part II)
December 31, 2008
There is a line of thinking that says if I tell you the meaning of the word Zen, then it wouldn't really be Zen. The same could be said concerning the meaning of Jazz as well. "What is Jazz?" in a sense is like saying "What is Zen?" Of course, we can talk about them and label them, and with our verbalization we get close (and the discussion may be interesting, even helpful, inspiring, etc.). But we never experience the thing itself by talking about it. Zen is concerned with the thing itself. Zen is about the now — right here, right now. The essence of jazz expression is like this too. It's about this moment. No artificiality, no pretending to be anything you're not. No acting. No wishing at this moment to be anywhere or with anyone except where you are. There are many forms of jazz and jazz expression, but to my mind if you want to at least get close to the essence of jazz, then listen to this album: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (I talked about this album here a few months ago). This is one of my favorite albums of all time and is considered to be one of the best albums (if not the best album) ever recorded. Listen to this cut of "So What?" off the Kind of Blue album below on YouTube.
I always thought that there was a sort of aesthetic to the Kind of Blue album that expressed the tenets of restraint, simplicity, and naturalness. In the music you hear a kind of free yet structured spontaneity, an idea that seems oxymoronic until you study one of the Zen arts...or jazz. Then recently I read the liner notes again from the Kind of Blue album, notes that were written by the legendary pianist Bill Evans. In these notes (copies pictured in photo on the right and are included in the 50th Anniversary box set) I found that he actually makes a direct reference to a traditional Japanese art form (though I'm unsure if he's referring to shodo or sumi-e). As you read these notes below, think of how Miles Davis's approach to the Kind of Blue session can be applied to live presentation in all its myriad forms, and for that matter, to the art of life.
Bill Evans's liner notes from Kind of Blue
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful of reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a take."
Recorded in 1959, its impact still grows
Recently, I purchased the 50th Anniversary of Kind of Blue from Amazon. It's a bit expensive, but certainly for an organization or a school I think it's a good purchase. You can see a clip from the documentary DVD included in the package below — this should give you a feel for the contribution this special album has made. The package also includes copies of Bill Evans's hand-written notes which later became the liner notes for the original album. The copies of his notes alone for me make the purchase worth while.