Late Deference to Taste and the Re-Imagining of the Big Band

For a preposterously long time, I've held to a rather peculiar rule as it relates to music recommendations. All recommendations that come from friends are ignored for at least three months. For example, a friend of mine told me about a year ago, "Hey, you should check out Esperanza Spalding." I gave my usual, "Um... yeah. Sure." Shrugged the whole thing off and continued on my merry way. Time passes and she's playing the Newport Jazz Festival this past summer and I decided to give her set a listen on NPR. Sure enough, my friend was right and now I pay her attention. I've even played her a few times on my radio show. The thing is, it took over a year for his wise words to sink in, partially because I like discovering stuff on my own or through the internet.

As our parents always say, "Oh, so you won't listen to me but you'll do whatever your little nappy-headed friends will say!" (Okay, so maybe not all our parents say that.) Ever since college, the internet has been my friend. It is a wave of information and outreach that I oddly trust more than those around me because it has some mystical sense of authority, even when it can be monumentally wrong. Sometimes, it can even break me down and change my mind about things.

Since I've gotten involved with KRTU, the folks there have been hyping up the Roy Hargrove Big Band. Yet for months, I've been telling them how the album really doesn't work for me. I never could gel with the medium of the big band. When you put a huge group of people like that together, they all have to work together and I think it hampers how outside of the limits a musician can go. When it comes to jazz, I'm a man of trios. Someone keeps rhythm, someone keeps beat, someone goes off and does something crazy. The more people you add, the less of a chance someone has of going crazy. Because this is how I generally enjoy music (i.e. adept, arhythmic insanity), it's a large reason why I don't have enough rhythm to dance (unless you count frenetic gyrations while in the kitchen by myself). So even if you do have the trumpeter who has played with Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Common, and Shirley Horn, and Oscar Peterson, you get all those folks in a room and there isn't a lot of chances someone's going crazy. The big band is a medium more dependent on composition than improvisation. So giving a first listen to his new big band album, Emergence,leaves me a tad underwhelmed for most of the journey, even with people who know sooo much more than me playing it up.

But then the internet led me to Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. Argue has compiled a big band with a different bent to it. His compositions are very strong and moody, grand in scope and holding to a rather interesting theme: steampunk. The big band manages to go off how I like it because the composer has assembled a great group with great timing, enough room to give everyone adequate solos with a good measure of improvisation, but also create brilliant compositions with a great running concept. How exactly does one create "steampunk bigband" music? The big band is an invention of the early 20th Century and had to recede during the Depression. It certainly isn't Victorian, futuristic, modern, or technological. The concept of steampunk is as paradoxical as basing a subgenre of jazz around it in such an anachronistic form. But it totally works.

After hearing one track, I was hooked and hope was restored in the big band. I gave Hargrove another listen. Yes, I still don't think the compositions are inspired enough for the hype I'm hearing, but the medium of the big band isn't as tired as I thought it was before. Hargrove still adds a modern edge to it where he can, I mean... he has to. He's Roy Hargrove. Hargrove is as much a multi-talented jazz musician (in the way that he can absolutely transcend genres) as Robert Glasper, Stefon Harris, and Terrence Brown. Besides, if Darcy James Argue can make me rethink the whole medium, it's time I gave others a more fair shot.

That took me less than three months to figure out. It's a stupid rule, I know, but I'm learning. My own misconceptions about my having to discover on my own what I listen to is rather ridiculous and if I can recognize that others have good taste, the least I could do is actually take cues for it from time to time. I'd at least be able to figure out Roy Hargrove faster than I did.

Or not be late to the party with Esperanza Spalding.


DJA said…
Many thanks for the very kind words, Anthony. I do like Roy's bigband a lot and I'm glad to hear in some roundabout way my music led you to reconsider what he's doing. I hope you get the chance to hear that band live sometime -- it's a powerhouse.

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