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NX35: Harvey Pekar Speaks on Experimental Jazz


by Jerome Weeks 14 Mar 2009

Brave Combo’s Jeffrey Barnes and Harvey Pekar at NX35 Before we get to anything else, a you-read-it-here-first bit of news: At the beginning of his Saturday afternoon, onstage conversation about jazz, the graphic novelist and music critic Harvey Pekar praised the performance of Brave Combo the night before at the Boiler Room. He expressed a wish […]

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Brave Combo’s Jeffrey Barnes and Harvey Pekar at NX35

Before we get to anything else, a you-read-it-here-first bit of news: At the beginning of his Saturday afternoon, onstage conversation about jazz, the graphic novelist and music critic Harvey Pekar praised the performance of Brave Combo the night before at the Boiler Room. He expressed a wish that Jeffrey Barnes, the band’s saxophonist and its trumpeter Danny O’Brien should get together and just cut loose — “and record it someplace.”

Barnes later said, almost as an afterthought, that Pekar could get something close to his wish on Sunday at 2 p.m.at the Loophole. Barnes, Don Bell, Combo’s drummer Arjuna Contreras and jazz bassist Drew Phelps would be trying on a little “free jazz.” It’s not on the official NX35 schedule.

So there you go.

Anyway, back to Harvey.  In his onstage conversation with Barnes at Denton’s Fine Arts Theater, Pekar expressed a wish that more people would support experimental or free jazz because, otherwise, “things won’t evolve. People play the same thing, decade after decade, and it becomes — stagnant.” Rather than his famous curmudgeonly self, Pekar was rather affable. In particular, he extolled three musicians and played tracks by each: reed player Joe Maneri, saxophonist Josh Smith and trumpeter Nate Wooley.

Of the three, Maneri is the grand old man of free-form blowing, trying it on even before Ornette Coleman. In additon to one early track from 1963, Pekar played Maneri’s Paniot’s Nine, a highly unusual number for its 9/4 time signature. Pekar didn’t mention that, in fact, Paniot’s Nine is used during the opening of American Splendor, the splendid film adapted from Pekar’s atobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The tune can be found on its soundtrack.

After a few minutes of Paniot playing on the CD boombox, Pekar felt he had to ask, with a touch of concern: “”Does anyone out there like this?” Apparently, he hadn’t heard about the UNT Jazz Studies program. About a quarter of the 70-80 people present shouted he should let the track continue.

Pekar is not the kind of self-righteous fan who, as he put it, waves his finger in some tired guy’s face at the end of a workday to admonish him, “Start listening to Joe Maneri! It’s your duty!” There’s no moral obligation to like difficult music. During the Q&A, one audience member asked him if the lack of popularity such artists ‘enjoy’ isn’t partly their own fault. Art is communication, and if such musicians weren’t going to accomodate listeners at all — then what else could they expect? Pekar immediately granted the point. These artists he said were basically making a bet that someday, more people would listen.

And  earlier  in the program, the softer, slower, more lyrical sax work of Josh Smith just about put some audience members to sleep. For what it’s worth, there was a personal connection here, too: Josh Smith played in Leave Me Alone! , the jazz opera by Pekar and composer Don Plonsey. Frankly, I wished Pekar would have talked about the experience of creating Leave Me Alone! There aren’t many jazz operas around.

I was curious about Pekar’s interests in experimental jazz because for all of his extolling it as cutting–edge, the fact is that atonal or free jazz has been around for more than 40 years — talk about doing the same thing over and over for decades. Yet, like the 12-tone Viennese school in classical music, it has never been widely accepted by the public. So it remains, for the most part, “risk-taking” because it remains thoroughly uncommercial.

My other question is whether, on the farthest edge of the experimental, does it even remain “jazz”? Does it simply blend into the larger “experimental music cosmos”? I”m hardly a jazz traditionalist, but when Pekar played Wooley’s truly “out there” trumpet piece — and its squeaks and whooshes sounded rather like a barrista having trouble  steaming up a latte — I thought of several pieces of musique concrete that sounded roughly the same.  When a jazz composer forbears the use of conventional blues-jazz chord progressions, when he doesn’t employ any Latin or other dance rhythms, when he even avoids the classic jazz orchestrations and arrangements (trios, quartets, big bands, etc.), then what’s left that can distinguish his work as …  jazz? I’m open to suggestions; as I said, I’m curious, not doctrinaire.

And sure enough, Pekar said that Wooley has taken to rejecting the label of “jazz” for some of his more recent work. To demonstrate that Wooley wasn’t just some incompetent noodling around with the wrong end of his musical instrument, Pekar played a more conventional, bop-ish piece, a running cascade of 16th and 32nd notes.

To which, Barnes, a versatile multi-instrumentalist in his own right, assured Pekar that he was sure Wooley knew how to play. He just wished Wooley might tell him how he made the thing make those noises.

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  • Nice report with some interesting points. Thought I might chime in…

    When discussing whether something is or is not jazz, I feel that a problem arises because of how broad the term has become. I think that many people have resorted to calling free music “jazz” simply because it better represents the audience they believe would interested in their work. Much of what we call “experimental jazz” may not sound like a traditional conception of jazz, but often it is music that evolved from jazz concepts. As a result, people who have followed an interest in jazz may have fallen into listening to this more “experimental” product of the jazz tradition, and so from a marketing standpoint, it makes sense to appeal to those listeners.

    However, this may not really be the case any more, as many new instrumentalists are equally influenced by post-classical, electronic, rock music, etc… And furthermore, the term “experimental” is problematic – too easily is the term thrown on to music that sounds simply unusual. Experimental music is perhaps better understood as that music which creates a sonic scenario in order to observe its results. As you said, the “experiment” of free improvisation and atonal music is certainly more than 40 years old. More often, I find that contemporary musicians are utilizing the results of these classic experiments (I think of the work of Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, or Roscoe Mitchell) for their own musical ends.

    Lets not forget that back in the day, the jazz pioneers we now revere were often spurned for playing a music that had largely dropped the trappings of what was then conceived of as “jazz.” Personally, I have taken to heart the words of the great piano innovator, Bill Evans. I hesitate to quote directly, but, in a nutshell, he defined jazz not as a genre, but rather, as a process involving the communication of musical ideas through improvisation. Given this analysis, we may want to restructure our question from, “are they playing jazz?” to “are they doing jazz?”

  • Lets not forget that back in the day, the jazz pioneers we now revere were often spurned for playing a music that had largely dropped the trappings of what was then conceived of as “jazz.” Personally, I have taken to heart the words of the great piano innovator, Bill Evans. I hesitate to quote directly, but, in a nutshell, he defined jazz not as a genre, but rather, as a process involving the communication of musical ideas through improvisation. Given this analysis, we may want to restructure our question from, “are they playing jazz?” to “are they doing jazz?