Ed Note: I straight jacked this post from my homie and one-time music junkie mentor Shawn, a.k.a. Dimples McGillicuddy, blog: The Reazon. Because I like it, and you should too. Plus, I one upped him by including a stream of the recording below. Word.
Now that I’m back in school I find that I barely have time to post about music anymore, which I really regret. But I was listening to some music earlier, and a few thoughts occurred to me which I just had to write down.
First, the song: “My Foolish Heart”, played by Bill Evans Trio (specifically, the 1961 performance at the Village Vanguard). I really recommend that you give it a listen. I realize that jazz piano ballads are not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, but if the song hits you in half the manner it hits me, I think you’ll like it. I’ve probably listened to the recording a thousand-plus times, and I never get sick of it. I’d heard the song many times before (“My Foolish Heart” is a classic jazz standard), by other artists, and there are, of course, lots of ways to approach the song. But, for the way the melody speaks to me, and the emotions it invokes within me, Evans’ treatment of it is just about perfect to my ears. Exactly the right combo (ie, set of instruments), playing at just the right mood, at just the right intensity, with just the right phrasing. It picks up exactly where it should, and the breaks in phrasing are placed just right. It coasts along so delicately and gingerly, you can almost sense how carefully Evans places each note, as if he doesn’t want to damage this “foolish heart” any further. Just wonderful.
Bill Evans – “My Foolish Heart”, Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961
Aside from all that sentimental fluff, the other thing that I love about the recording is how relatively low-key it is – at several points during the song, you can clearly hear people talking in the background. And, as is obvious when the audience applauds at the end of the song, the setting is small and intimate… maybe just a handful of people.
And I just love that about this recording… how such a fantastic performance – and really, what many jazz enthusiasts consider to be a pivotal moment in the development of small jazz combos – was witnessed by only a smattering of people, with little fanfare. That’s something that I really like about live music, and part of why I love(d) going to see live shows. It was just that hint or possibility of witnessing something remarkable that would stay with you for years. It’s such a stark contrast from so much of today’s music, where everything is so neat and pre-packaged, and polished and glossy. While production and distribution certainly have their place in music, things are so unbalanced these days that people have lost the notion of music as a performance art.
I was just having an interesting conversation with some friends the other day, when one of them talked about how, in a consumer economy, people start relating everything to images or end-product, and lose sight of the process and/or social relationships that it takes to create, develop, or produce that product – an idea that Marx called “commodity fetishism”. So for example, when we buy a pair of Nike’s, we think of Michael Jordan, instead of the young underpaid workers who are making the shoes. We place all value on the commodity itself, and lose sight of the social relationships inherent in the products or services we receive. (I don’t pretend to be an economist, but that was my rudimentary understanding of the idea.) As a corollary, things start becoming represented as an image or catch-phrase, and in America, truly nothing is sacred. Thus, even something like the idea of social revolution becomes something you can market and sell – as a picture of Ché Guevara plastered on a T-shirt, for example.
But that’s absolutely the case in today’s music industry – it’s a commodity – and while I am certainly in support of artists getting paid for what they do, the result is that it has skewed our culture’s ideas about music in ways that really, really bug me. Music (and musicians) are not (or should not be) little bursts of rhythm and song that can be packaged up and enclosed. Music breathes and it changes; it moves from place to place, it develops in little pockets, and it can come together in wonderful moments of inspiration. Musicians have to practice and work at their craft; they struggle in their careers, or with their technique; they hear other artists, and meet people or places that inspire them. A song like “My Foolish Heart” (but really, any song) is not just a melody that you learn and then, boom, you’re done with it. A musician has to choose how to approach it, and can constantly refine his or her treatment of it, and his or her technical skill in playing it. The song itself can breathe and change as different people interpret it and adapt it. And nowadays, people just know about this particular song that they heard on the radio, or this particular album, and completely lose sight of the long-term nature of music, and also, how volatile and momentary music performance really can be.
That is one of the things that I love about jazz, blues, and hip-hop, because at their cores, they are built around improvisation. No two songs are EVER the same. That’s true in all music, really, but is an accepted central dogma of both jazz and hip-hop. You practice and develop as a musician or artist, and then, when it’s time to perform, you just simply “let it rip”. As musical cultures, they’ve accepted and even embraced the fact that music can be malleable and messy, and that part of the magic lies within the moment.
– “Far from commercial, no need for no rehearsal” – Inspectah Deck, “Let Me At Them”
For what it’s worth, that moment is something that I want to appreciate. Bill Evan’s “My Foolish Heart” is a great reminder of that to me – both in how wonderful a song performance it is, and also in how inauspicious a manner it came about. I’ve gone looking for other recordings of “My Foolish Heart” by Bill Evans, but none of them are as good as his 1961 performance (at least to me). And that reminds me of a simple rule that I heard Kermit the Frog state many years ago – there are moments of brilliance out there, but you just hope that you can be in the right place, at the right time to enjoy them.