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The Sound of Surprise


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#1 Dan Gould

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 07:55 PM

This question/topic occurred to me yesterday when I discovered that there was a new Eric Alexander release on High Note. Now, once upon a time, I'd have probably snapped that one up pretty fast, or moved it near the top of my wish list, and in fact as I listened to the samples, I thought they sounded perfectly fine ... but then again I've got a number of perfectly fine EA discs, this one is unlikely to be any different or "better" than the rest. I thought to myself "well there won't be any surprises on this one."

Which got me to thinking about the famous Whitney Balliett line that jazz is "the sound of surprise" and it got me to thinking things like:

How often are you really "surprised" when listening to this music?
How important is it to be "surprised"?

When I see active threads seeking recommendations of Milt Jackson and Blue Mitchell recordings - after a certain point, where is the "surprise" in hearing these "new" recordings? A lot of folks who love Duke and Count Basie - how much surprise do you hear in their typical recording?

It occurs to me that the true moments of "surprise" are few (though this is not an exhaustive list):

Klook or Max Roach transforming the sound/contribution of drums
Parker or Gillespie
Ornette, when he first got attention

I know that the sound of surprise is meant to invoke something smaller - the perfect chorus, or the near instantaneous, ESP-level interaction between players. But does everyone listen closely enough to catch those moments? Relatively few people here have the musical training to truly follow an improvisation and catch those true moments of "surprise".

So, where does "surprise" fit into your appreciation of jazz? And if "surprise" isn't a big part, what keeps you listening?

For me, I don't think that "surprise" is what got me into jazz or kept my interest. I think its the "dark blue center", the swing pulse, the sound of trumpet/sax/piano/guitar etc.

Well I've run off at the mouth - I hope this gets an interesting discussion started.

Edited by Dan Gould, 15 October 2007 - 07:56 PM.


#2 Chuck Nessa

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 08:15 PM

Great idea for a thread but the wrong moment for me and I would not respond "kindly". Please keep this going, Dan is onto something worth discussion.

#3 Nate Dorward

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 08:43 PM

The more you listen, the more surprises you find.

That's the short answer, anyway.

#4 Chuck Nessa

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 08:44 PM

Then again I also dream that I'm playing and my instrument suddenly just disintegrates in my hands. Surprise!!




What does that sound like? :mellow:

#5 ghost of miles

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 08:45 PM

It is a good idea for a thread, Dan--the same thought has occurred to me before. I experienced SOS last night while listening to some of the Muhal Richard Abrams that Lazaro was playing during his Blue Lake special... it still can be found among such skilled older improv players, as well as some younger ones--and also in areas that we might not automatically think of as "jazz." I'd like to deepen what is a rather rudimentary understanding of the technical side of things, because I think I'd have a subtler appreciation for those moments in all sorts of jazz; but I also want to widen what I listen to. Or at least widen my ears and mind.

Lee Konitz is somebody whose performances continue to spark the sound of surprise for me. Been listening a bit to a new big band out of NYC, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society--a band that draws as much on modern indie rock as it does on classic-to-modern jazz--and there's probably better than that around, but I get the sense there of a real attempt to move forward.

I think at a certain point a listener can, in an organic sense, get so tired of listening to certain forms of the music that he or she just naturally has to move on and explore different elements, approaches, sounds, etc. I suspect it's the same for musicians as well. Could be naive optimism on my part, but I think perhaps we're just about at the point of exhaustion when it comes to recycling the past--that the music is going to move forward of its own momentum, even if it has to carry most of us along (or not). Not to disown the past (a past that I love), but that its influence will be reflected in different ways.

Edited by ghost of miles, 15 October 2007 - 08:46 PM.


#6 Free For All

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 09:06 PM

Then again I also dream that I'm playing and my instrument suddenly just disintegrates in my hands. Surprise!!




What does that sound like? :mellow:


Sorry, I removed my post. Need to think about this some more.

#7 JSngry

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 10:02 PM

Supposedly no two snowflakes are alike. So theoretically, every snowflake should be the source of a surprise.

But yeah, right, and oh well. How into that one you're likely to be at any given time depends on a lot more than the wonder of nature or something like that.

"Surprise" is ultimately just one part of a lenghty equation that = "compelling experience", something that somehow hits you where you live and doesn't just pass through barely, if at all, noticed. And "comfort" can also figure in that equation as easily as "surprise", especially if the comfort is a deep, primal one. In fact, sometimes I find surprise in just how deep, how primal, the comfort that I find in certain things are. In fact, at this point, that's where most of the "surprises" I find are - not so much in music itself, but in what it stirs in me.

Balliet turned a clever phrase, and in many ways it was a useful one. But it ain't the whole picture, not by a long shot.

Edited by JSngry, 15 October 2007 - 10:04 PM.


#8 JSngry

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 10:03 PM

Then again I also dream that I'm playing and my instrument suddenly just disintegrates in my hands. Surprise!!




What does that sound like? :mellow:


Sorry, I removed my post. Need to think about this some more.


If the music keeps playing, then that means you've transcended the need for an instrument. And believe it or not, that's a very beautiful thing.

Seriously.

#9 Larry Kart

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 11:04 PM

First thought is that there are "macro" surprises, like those that Dan mentioned -- "Klook or Max Roach transforming the sound/contribution of drums, Parker or Gillespie, Ornette, when he first got attention" -- and there are lots and lots of those, though perhaps fewer in recent years, and then there are "micro" surprises, where musicians whose styles are more or less familiar to us manage infuse their work with a sense of choice/intensity/discovery in the moment. A few examples that come to mind are Konitz, who does this pretty much always (and whose very existence musically arguably was one those "macro" surprises); then, going back a fair bit, Johnny Dodds at his best (e.g. his solo and ensemble work on "Perdido St. Blues" from 1926, with Kid Ory and George Mitchell); and Tom Harrell on a new album of his, "Light On," that I listened to for the first time tonight. All three of those examples (and thousands upon thousands of others) have a version of that "in the moment" quality mentioned above, and heaven knows that there are thousands upon thousands of jazz performances that don't have that quality, most of which I don't find interesting. What is interesting about the three that popped into my head -- Konitz (actually a performance I listened to tonight, "Hi Beck" from, purely by coincidence, the album "The Sound of Surprise"), Dodds, and Harrell -- is that their "nownesses" are a bit different. Konitz, as always, is just ("just"?) making up melodies on the spot, while Harrell, who arguably is doing or trying to do much the same thing in his way, often strikes me as being close to in a quandry as to how his lines will proceed, though I then find this air of what might be called crystallized doubt to be appealing -- because it is usually crystallized; so often, so it seems to me, on the edge of being hung up, Harrell does typically get there, by a hair's breadth. By contrast -- and this is subjective -- Konitz's risk-taking doesn't leave with me much or any sense of doubt; rather, it feels like an adventure we're sharing in a mood of mutual confidence, even though specific pathways will prove to be mutually unexpected. But Dodds now -- that's another kind of thing. First, the figures he's working with in his "Perdido St." solo are even then pretty standard ones. But damn they don't sound that way -- in part because Dodd's sound in itself is such an intense, in the moment thing. Later on, revivalists would try to impersonate that harrowingly shrill, diamond-hard and dense mass of overtones, but its actuality seems to say, in addition to whatever else it says (and Dodds's solo certainly says some lovely things rhythmically), that "I, Johnny Dodds, made this thing (and/or this way of making things), and no one can ever erase the 'presentness' and the personalness of that invention." Thus, perhaps, the sound of surprise that can exist in the work of such figures as Johnny Hodges or Milt Jackson, who might seem not to be surprise-makers at first but were so, I think, in their invention/discovery of specific musical means that were made inseperable from their personalities.

#10 John L

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Posted 15 October 2007 - 11:24 PM

This is an interesting thread.

I would say that "surprise" can be one of the reasons why music is interesting or compelling, but it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition. The random sound of 1000s of people screaming over the noise of drills and bulldozers might be surprising, but few of us would want to listen to it for very long. :) Conversely, if "suprise" was the only factor that made music compelling, we wouldn't keep listening to our favorite recordings over and over again even after the point where we can anticipate everything that is going to happen.

#11 ejp626

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 12:03 AM

I wonder if it is something specific to Western or even US culture that insists that there always has to be some new thing, something surprising. I could tack on some Marxist analysis here, but am too tired. It's not that I don't try to listen to today's innovators or more often the innovators from the 1970s, but almost always return to hard bop of the 1950s/60s and people essentially working in that tradition (Eric Alexander, Stefon Harris, Jason Moran). I've just really not liked any of the rap/jazz acts that are out there. Probably the only person on the scene with something new that I actually enjoy is Vijay Iyer where he is drawing heavily on Indian music and mixing it with jazz.

Anyway, this lead me to think about "world music," which often just means African music packaged for Western ears. Not to say there are no developments in this field, but it is a point of pride that some of the songs they are playing are in a tradition over 500 years old and in some cases the songs themselves are well over 100 years old. The valorization of the new at the expense of the old does not appear to happen so much. But of course, this is only a partial picture, hinging mostly on what record producers are picking out (say in Mali which is a huge favorite of the BBC right now). In many African countries the kids are only listening to "the new thing," even if traditional music is still being played in clubs. Ghana is kind of an interesting example where highlife was more or less pushed out by US-influenced dance and funk music (and if you haven't heard Ghana Soundz 1 or 2 you are really missing out). Another counter example I just thought of are the great Tuareg group Tinariwen who play electric guitars, which was certainly pretty surprising the first time I heard it. Nonetheless, I still think the quest for the new and surprising may be less extreme outside the US.

#12 king ubu

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 02:28 AM

Interesting thread indeed. Not sure I can add a lot, but of course ole clem is onto something when he mentions Derek Bailey. I bet most of you jazzheads and harbop-centred fans (now in the macro perspective, there's nothing as unsurprising as hardbop, no? of course there are countless great solos, fascinating turns and twists and "kairos") would be really caught off-guard by Derek's Tzadik album "Ballads" (a new one with a similar concept has just come out, titled Standards) - haven't heard it yet).

On the other hand even though "surprise" may lie in the center of improv, it can still turn out boring, full of chliché, and totally unsurprising, too, of course.

There are also the personal surprises, like hearing some particular musician for the first time and being struck by how much one likes the music, how wrong one's idea of this musician before was... or the moments where you reconsider someone, not by slowly getting used to someone's music, but by this moment of surprise, where all of a sudden something you have known and just found ok or merely interesting, hits you as a surprise. (I had some such moments with Wirbur Ware, lately... never understood all the attention he got, but I loved him on the Jenkins/Jordan/Timmons album as well as his own Riverside, and mostly on Griffin's "Way Out", which to me - even though I've loved Griffin for quite a while - was a very pleasant surprise, in how great it is, including Wilbur Ware's bass playing.)

#13 The Magnificent Goldberg

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 08:04 AM

Oh shit! I just lost my fucking post!

It's this fucking finger mouse thing I'm using. Can someone tell me what keys i must have pressed to go back and lose the post so far please?

MG

#14 The Magnificent Goldberg

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 08:34 AM

OK, earwig oh again!

I like Larry's analysis of "macro" and "micro" surprises. Think that's a useful way of looking at it.

Personally, I think too much attention is paid to the macro side, some kind of reflection of a deterministice view of history. Yes, the great innovators are important. We should track their innovations as they form the new, and ever-renewed, conventions; it's an indispensible element of one's education. But really there are very few innovators compared to the vast number of people who are the purveyors of micro surprises, who do what we all do - try to be ourselves within the parameters that society sets; push the envelope a bit; maybe make a few holes in it; but not make a revolution.

I do tend to see musicians as people much like myself, and the self-recognition element of listening to music is important. But so too is the foreignness, which has to moderate the self-recognition. In other words, most of the musicians I like come from and were brought up in societies very different from the one in which I was brought up. It takes a good deal of effort to try to understand where that foreign music is coming from and to sort out what is common to me and the musicians and what isn't. And I'm not sure I ever really succeed.

But foreignness itself is a big element of macro surprise, even though the music may not actually be terribly macro innovative. For me, hearing Fats Domino's "I'm in love again" at the age of 12 was an overwhelming surprise though, to someone who'd been brought up within the tradition of New Orleans R&B, it wasn't terribly innovative; just a micro surprise, if you like. But, a few years later, hearing The Drifters' "There goes my baby", which was innovative and a key turning point in the development of Soul music - now that was another macro surprise! I didn't know WHAT I was listening to when I got the record home and heard it for the first time.

These occasions are terribly important, wonderfully exciting, but in the end, unrepeatable, like falling in love.

A few weeks ago, I heard this lady

Posted Image

Concha Buika, for the first time. Another amazing experience. I posted here
http://www.organissi...showtopic=36317

that it was better than sex (at my age).

Actually, I was wrong. It's better than sex at any age. Sex is something you can have any day; falling in love is a one-off and much more to be treasured.

But you can't live forever falling in love with the same person, or music.

MG

#15 Dan Gould

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 09:38 PM

Up for more comments - FFA especially.

#16 Peter Friedman

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Posted 16 October 2007 - 11:25 PM

In many situations surprise is not the correct word. I can listen to something by a musician I have heard very frequently over a long period of time, and on a particular recording everything just seems to come together in a way that reaches me deep down inside. It may be the way the soloist and the rhythm section fit together in a groove that brings a special smile to my face, or an exclamation of praise to my lips. Sometimes I may just focus on the drummer or the bass player. Or it may be a highly creative improvisation that leaps out at me and draws my attention in a new way.

Sometimes when listening to a recording I have had for many years, I hear something that I had not ever noticed in my previous listening experiences with that particular album/tune. Just recently I was playing a Stan Getz Quartet CD that I had heard numerous times. For some unknown reason, this time my ears were especially attracted to the playing of drummer Victor Lewis. While I don't think "surprise" is the proper term to use here, the fact is that I developed a deeper appreciation of Victor Lewis than I had before focusing on his playing on this CD.

Sometimes , as has been briefly mentioned, it is not surprise, but the comfort of hearing a musician or a style of music that has been an important part on my life. That recognition can bring a warmth and deep seated enjoyment. It can be highly satisfying to be so familiar with a recording that you know all or many of the solos by heart, and can hum them along with the musician.

Some listeners may constantly seek the newest music out there and want to be on top of the most contemporary happenings in jazz. I am old enough that I left that attitude behind quite some time ago.
I am not searching for something new and different (in the macro sense) when I listen to music. What I want is music that is emotionally and / or intellectually interesting and enjoyable. The personal listening history of each individual is critical in determining what it is that will stimulate that positive reaction for them.

Edited by Peter Friedman, 16 October 2007 - 11:28 PM.


#17 Guest_Bill Barton_*

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Posted 18 October 2007 - 11:09 PM

Personally I think that surprises can abound, even in musical forms - such as hard bop - that have been around a long time.

Sometimes they are micro surprises like the "perfect" note at the "perfect" time in a solo or an unexpected chord that a pianist drops in. I think this falls into the category "micro" as delineated earlier in the thread.

Sometimes they're macro surprises like the gorgeous arrangement of Duke Ellington's "New World A Comin'" (performed as a ballad) on Thomas Marriott's Both Sides of the Fence CD. And I'd cite Marriott again for the sometimes wacky, sometimes funky, always unexpected twists and turns of his Willie Nelson Project group (I heard them live last night and they are quite the trip.) These may not fit the earlier definition of "macro" but they transcend "the moment."

There are some artists active these days I find to be full of both kinds of surprises. Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura are good examples. You just never know what they're going to come up with. It could be a supremely lyrical composition such as "In Krakow, In November" by Tamura, which I just can't get out of my head, or a segment of balls-to-the-wall free improv that practically fries your brain.

#18 Hot Ptah

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Posted 19 October 2007 - 10:19 PM

I was very surprised by Dee Dee Bridgewater live with her Mali musicians. It was quite different from her past concerts and in some ways a unique combination of types of music. It was somewhat like Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road concert but both were unique. That is one of the most surprising concerts I have heard this year.

#19 montg

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Posted 20 October 2007 - 10:59 PM

I wonder if it is something specific to Western or even US culture that insists that there always has to be some new thing, something surprising. I could tack on some Marxist analysis here, but am too tired. It's not that I don't try to listen to today's innovators or more often the innovators from the 1970s, but almost always return to hard bop of the 1950s/60s and people essentially working in that tradition (Eric Alexander, Stefon Harris, Jason Moran). I've just really not liked any of the rap/jazz acts that are out there. Probably the only person on the scene with something new that I actually enjoy is Vijay Iyer where he is drawing heavily on Indian music and mixing it with jazz.

Anyway, this lead me to think about "world music," which often just means African music packaged for Western ears. Not to say there are no developments in this field, but it is a point of pride that some of the songs they are playing are in a tradition over 500 years old and in some cases the songs themselves are well over 100 years old. The valorization of the new at the expense of the old does not appear to happen so much. But of course, this is only a partial picture, hinging mostly on what record producers are picking out (say in Mali which is a huge favorite of the BBC right now). In many African countries the kids are only listening to "the new thing," even if traditional music is still being played in clubs. Ghana is kind of an interesting example where highlife was more or less pushed out by US-influenced dance and funk music (and if you haven't heard Ghana Soundz 1 or 2 you are really missing out). Another counter example I just thought of are the great Tuareg group Tinariwen who play electric guitars, which was certainly pretty surprising the first time I heard it. Nonetheless, I still think the quest for the new and surprising may be less extreme outside the US.


I agree with a lot of this post. The notion of jazz, or art more generally, as progressing seems dubious to me. Change and development are two very different concepts-- So, I'm not looking for 'macro surprises'. The micro surprises are there--and generally the more honest the voice, the more surprising it is. That's why the heavily homogenized set of voices emerging from the jazz education industry is so discouraging to me. Something about jazz education in this country is messed up, I wish I could identify the source. Sadder still are the clumsy attempts by these technicians to try and force a macro change--as if inviting a guest rapper or turntabilist onto your cd session is pointing the way forward. Good grief.

#20 jazzbo

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Posted 23 October 2007 - 05:57 AM

I very much like Larry's concepts of macro and micro surprises.

I hardly analyze music any longer. . . I just let it speak to me, and my surprises are from listenings and in the sense of a startling moment of brilliance or an unexpected burst of sound.

I find lots of microsurprises all the time. Louis Armstrong singing often yeilds them. I just get floored by one phrase sometimes! Sun Ra Arkestra and Duke Ellington Orchestra for example provide them. A sudden blend of a few instruments that just makes me sit up and go "wow."

Macrosurprises. . .I hven't run into many lately in jazz, but I know I will.

Edited by jazzbo, 23 October 2007 - 05:59 AM.




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