Friday, August 7, 2009

Zeitlin's Zeitgeist

I'm probably not smart enough to articulate this adequately, but here goes...

Is it possible for a musician to be "too intelligent"? I've been thinking about this idly as a result of reading a lengthy interview that Marc Myers conducted with Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin.

We know that creativity in the arts often emerges propelled by depression or anger, tragedy or pain, rather than casual joy or the simple desire to paint or write or compose. One can be a brilliant and prolific writer--John Updike, for example--and yet have very little actually to "say." Think of Art Tatum, florid and fancy and almost without peer as a piano technician. Yet most listeners discover that a little Tatum goes a long way. (Bad joke: "Yeah, that's Art... Tatum or leave 'im.") Oscar Peterson has his detractors along similar lines too, whereas Thelonious ("The Onliest") Monk, spare and angular and erratic--his artfully wrought style less striding than hop-skip-and-jumping--for most Jazz fans has scaled Mt. Olympus.

That's not due to the silly American veneration of artists who quit the field early, or retreat into madness, or die too young, whether Keats or Elvis, Jackson Pollack or Clifford Brown. Instead, it's partly that in music and other forms of art, we regularly value simplicity over complexity. We want straightforward presentations--the joy of Fats Waller or Louis Armstrong rather than the willed pretensions of Keith Jarrett or Wynton Marsalis; Ray Charles rather than Adam Makowicz, and Aaron Copland instead of Eliot Carter--maybe even Berg without Schoenberg. In literature, The Sun Also Rises trumps The Man without Qualities, and Huckleberry Finn beats out Finnegans Wake. (International literary phenomenon Roberto Bolano and red-hot thriller writer Stieg Larsson are praised and newly dead authors currently offering savage excess in place of emotional substance.)

From a different direction, think of the history-of-art embrace of Picasso and Matisse and Miro and their pals; they were masters at paring things down to a few basics, yet retaining enough content to avoid the trap of, say, Abstract Expressionism--all those studies of shape and color, painterly action and contentless form, now rapidly fading in the esteem of critics and historians and ordinary artlovers.

But I meant to be talking music...

Denny Zeitlin is a working psychiatrist in the Bay Area, with an active practice for 40 years now. He is also a polished pianist of nimble mind and nimbler fingers whose early albums are currently being reissued and reexamined (almost to the extent of the emperor being refitted), and his playing still soars or rambles or fractures in various directions--floating like a butterfly, stinging like a... well, not wasp; maybe a hornet. But he definitely remains a thinking pianist, his intellect seemingly engaged even during his elegant freeform solos.

I have admired Zeitlin's playing since I first heard and bought Carnival and Live at the Trident back in the late Sixties. But neither of those LPs nor any of the few I've listened to over the years since (whether acoustic or synthesized) have ever compelled me to joy or tears or wonder. He is just too smart and trained and complex--too intelligent, I would suggest--to be simple. It's not that his playing must be barren of style, but maybe that the connections on offer, the "content" (if that's what it is), needs to be less abstract and more emotional.

All this is flagrantly subjective, of course. The essential thing for me is that while I like Zeitlin, I don't--maybe can not--love his work, the way I do almost anything by his far-from-simple peer Bill Evans, or the venerable Monk, or Red Garland (another who dropped out too early), or long-lived master Hank Jones.

I believe that Zeitlin knows too much, thinks too much, wants to be unique too much, doesn't just let up on the intellect enough, relax into the flow, and simply play.

But I'm no musician, just a lone listener reporting on my own reactions, and I might have second thoughts (or at least more informed ones) if I attended Zeitlin's well-traveled lecture on "Unlocking the Creative Impulse: The Psychology of Improvisation"--even though the idea of a psychiatrist psychoanalyzing Jazz improvisation gets my back up right away.

Anyway, I hope someone else refutes much or all that I've written here. Convince me with your reasoned response.


Alan Kurtz said...

I'm unfamiliar with Dr. Zeitlin's musicianship, so I can't comment on him as an exemplar of the artist who thinks too much. However, you make me uneasy with your reference to "the silly American veneration of artists who quit the field early, or retreat into madness, or die too young, whether Keats or Elvis, Jackson Pollack or Clifford Brown." I didn't realize that Keats ever attained pop-iconic status on this side of the pond, but Elvis was venerated as early as 1956, near the start of his career, long before he (take your pick) quit the field early, retreated into madness, or died too young. Jackson Pollack was also quite faddish during his lifetime, as attested by his coverage in LIFE magazine. And if you mean to suggest that the elevation of Clifford Brown into the pantheon of jazz trumpeters is nothing more than "silly American veneration," I'm afraid either your ears or your judgment are failing in your dotage, my friend. (Welcome to the club.) Still, your larger point is valid. By all accounts, Charlie Parker was a highly (no pun intended) intelligent man, and certainly wielded unrivaled technique. Yet, for me, his most compelling statement on record is "Parker's Mood" (1948), a relatively simple but thoroughly superlative blues. I guess German poet Christoph Martin Wieland was right: "Minder ist oft mehr."

I Witness said...

Perhaps I might have said A Keats, AN Elvis, etc.--I wanted to suggest generic arts figures partly attaining veneration due to dying young, etc. No matter how great their work, the veneration was kick-started by death and such, and we are forever subject to such foolishness (Jim Morrison, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain, the fine young actor who played the Joker in film recently)--the artist's true worth somewhat obscured by the biographic details, whether sordid or tragic. And then there's the cult of celebrityhood... Arts judgments should not be so misapprehended.

Anonymous said...

Zeitlin's music, though, is very "Beautiful"!

I Witness said...

Hello, Red. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder, wouldn't you say? But this stuff is way above my pay grade... From Gary Giddins' liner notes to Sonny Rollins' great Road Shows CD: "For Rollins, it ((change in jazz)) means a personal growth animated by the belief that tomorrow he will play a better solo than he has ever played before. He recently observed that one cannot improvise and think at the same time, and his entire career can be viewed as the passage to an inexpressible perfection." Rollins? or Zeitlin? It's a false choice.