The Famous Door
With our brains set on “shuffle,” programmed now to process (if not to crave) a constant barrage of random sounds and images, a quartet such as the Four Bags no longer seems like the desperately jokey novelty it would have seemed like a decade ago. The group is a chamber ensemble making music in the era-defining category of the uncategorizable, its work a hybrid of jazz, classical, folk, and pop musics from around the world. Exuberant, virtuosic, and light-spirited, the Four Bags make smart music with a quiet, joyful intensity.
My late mother, bless her, prodded me to write better by withholding her approval, and I’m grateful to her for that in the same way that Philip Roth should be thankful to the Nobel committee. He and his admirers (and I’m one of them) might not have been able to enjoy the considerable pleasures of Roth’s late-career burst of ambition and prolificacy if he had not been fixated on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I wouldn’t want to be Jon Weber. He is a jazz pianist of superhuman ability; he has an encyclopedic command of music history (and not just jazz history, but classical and rock history, as well); and he plays well with others, as he has shown not only in the clubs but in the radio interviews with fellow musicians that he has done as one of the main back-up hosts of the long-running NPR radio series Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. Earlier this year, NPR announced that McPartland, now 93, would no longer be taping new programs.
A musical duet is no less susceptible to power dynamics than any other intimate collaboration between two partners. In creative terms, someone is usually on top. Even when figures of virtually equal standing join up, as Kanye West and Jay-Z did recently with their extravagantly produced and even more extravagantly hyped match-up, Watch the Throne, it’s usually clear that one—in this case, Kanye—exerted more influence, if not quite dominance, over the other.
Musicians, like gods and sci-fi writers, play with time at the peril of their work. Because music falls on our ears in real time, and also because we have a cardio-vascular metronome set to 4/4, we are physiologically predisposed to music with a steady beat. We generally respond best to songs that, like us, have a pulse. When we are confronted with rhythms broken up in uneven parts, they tend to strike us as unnatural or jarringly cerebral—or both, if we’re anti-intellectually inclined to think of stimulus to the mind, rather than the body, as abnormal.
Duke Ellington, asked once in a TV interview about the music of his people, bridled at the question and improvised a riff on the fluidity of identity. "Let's see—'my people,'" Ellington said, feigning puzzlement. "Now, which of my people? You know, I'm in several groups. I'm in—let's see... I'm in the group of piano players. I'm in the group of listeners.
Forty years ago this July, a few weeks before what would have been his seventieth birthday (on August 4), Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack in the brick shoebox house in Corona, Queens that is now a museum in his honor. The pallbearers included Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra, all of whom had shared the stage with Armstrong at multiple points over his long career.
Because their physical form is the quality that most obviously distinguishes vinyl records and CDs from digital music, we forget today that spinning discs were once more important as mechanisms of access than as objects. Music existed before record players, of course, and my grandparents could hear it performed in the dance halls of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn, where they courted.
Bjork, the great plastic-ice queen of art pop, has been preparing a whole album of music with apps for electronic devices, due for release in September. As a music lover with a deepening attachment to his iPad, I’m looking forward to playing with it, since noodling around with the stuff is the point of interactive entertainment. To stir up early interest in the album, Bjork has released a new music video made in collaboration with her longtime director, the gifted, if erratic Michel Gondry.
Apart from the music and dancing, the canonical movie musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are almost unwatchably cloying and ridiculous. Then again, saying that is like saying that, apart from the flavor and the coldness, an ice-cream cone is pointless and impractical. I didn’t learn to appreciate musicals until I was in college and took a course on the subject taught by the late film historian William K. Everson at NYU.