Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stopped making sense: CSNY 1974

I've been spending a lot of time with CSNY 1974, a new 3CD/1DVD box set culled from the famed folk-rock group's arena tours of that year. I've been a fairly casual Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fan for a long time, but a fan of a certain type—namely a Neil Young obsessive with a lesser regard for the rest of the group. Yesterday's heavy listening to this (fucking awesome, I should say up front) box shifted my thinking significantly.

When I first spun CSNY 1974 a few months back, I remember taking note of the vast chasm separating a Neil contribution like, say, "On the Beach"—one of his deepest and most haunting songs—from a Graham Nash tune like "Our House." The difference between Young's uneasy existential meditation ("I went to the radio interview / But I ended up alone at the microphone"—whew!), and Nash's wholly placid campfire-singalong love ode. My impulse was to rank, to set up a snobby hierarchy, pegging the former as clearly more weighty, and thus more valuable, than the latter.

But what I was overlooking was the weird alchemy of the so-called supergroup. The way that the coexistence of disparate talents can shed new light on each one, even if, for a moment, one seems like the obvious sun, with the others acting as mere minor satellites. I'm not sure CSNY quite rivals Fleetwood Mac in this department, i.e., in the sheer depth of their genius arsenal. Seeing Nicks, Buckingham and Christine McVie on the same stage a few weeks ago reminded me how unlikely it was that those three pop magicians, each with such a different appeal, ended up in the same band, but CSNY have their own special kind of wonder.

Listening to this new box set, you really feel the cycle of personalities in this band. I've spent countless hours with Young's solo work, and a lot of time with Graham Nash's excellent 1971 solo debut, Songs for Beginners, but before I got ahold of CSNY 1974, Stephen Stills and David Crosby were both a bit of a mystery to me. This set has made me an ardent fan. There's something so soulful and plainspoken about a song like "Almost Cut My Hair," Crosby's meditation on "letting [his] freak flag fly" after nearly stowing it for good, or Stills's ragged roots-rock jam "Love the One You're With." There's a sense in which Nash and especially Young are operating in this sort of ethereal realm due to the riveting, angelic qualities of their voices—sounds that it's hard to imagine are coming out of actual humans. The other two, though, personify these sort of hard-living bros, the kind of musician who has to really work to get off the ground.

And when you stop trying to reconcile it, and just let it happen, the contrast between Young's eccentric lone wolf—recounting this tour in his great new car-themed memoir, Special Deluxe, he writes about how he traveled separately from the main CSNY entourage on this very tour—and Nash's bleeding-heart protest singer starts to seem revelatory. To hear Young's "Revolution Blues," (where the narrator confesses that he hates the "famous stars" that have flocked Laurel Canyon "worse than lepers," and threatens to "kill them in their cars") back-to-back with Nash's "Military Madness," during which he leads the crowd in a "No more war!" chant, drives home the essential hodgepodge nature of this band, and how the members' decision not to smooth over their differences and distinctions, but to simply present them alongside one another in sprawling night-long performances, was the source of their genius.

Crosby, Stills & Nash without Neil Young was a highly skilled but essentially harmonious (pun-intended) group; Crosby, Stills & Nash with Neil Young was a weird, brilliant ragtag assemblage—a band whose performances present the exact opposite of a unified front. Perhaps—given the widely reported dysfunction in the group—even men united, during a tour like this one, in a sort of money/power/fame alliance, or for some other crass end. While many great rock bands work as a single mighty engine, CSNY were like four separate motorcycles cruising down the highway in a temporary alliance, holding their formation long enough to make a record or complete a tour, before Lone Wolf Young decided, yet again, that he'd had enough.

And from what I've read, that dynamic continues to this day. C, S and N always keep their door open to the possibility of touring with Y, but Y, as he seems to do with all his creative partnerships, follows his own star, returning to earth only when he's ready, and who knows when that will be. But what CSNY teaches me is that he gets as much from him as they do from him. The CSNY context humanizes, popularizes, arena-izes Neil Young. Yes, say, a Crazy Horse concert is always going to be this monolithically awesome event, but it is an event shot through with Young's inherent stubbornness and lack of interest in the art of crowd-pleasing, of inviting an audience to sing along and smile. 

Those populist arts are right in Graham Nash's wheelhouse—and in Stills's and Crosby's, in slightly different ways—and they are the gifts embodied in an immortal song like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." You put that open, communicative force together with Young's borderline-hallucinatory introspection, and you have something volatile, just shy of nonsensical. (Even the relatively innocuous "Old Man," for example, means something entirely different—more extreme and dire—here than it would at a solo Neil show.) You have the tension that separates the supergroup from the non-. You have men who may not even belong on the same tour bus, let alone stage, making it work for whomever's sake—their kids', their record company's, their wives', maybe their own, but who knows. And weirdly, paradoxically, you have magic. A byproduct of this whole messy jumble. You don't know how it got there, but it's happening. CSNY 1974 is all of that—a band, a tour, a box set that makes no sense until you stop trying to make it make sense.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The price of right: 'Whiplash,' a jazzless jazz movie

When a more or less mainstream movie comes out about a topic you specialize in, you take notice. You almost feel compelled to form an immediate opinion, because you know someone will ask: "Have you seen this new film about a jazz drummer? What did you think?!"

The movie I'm talking about is, of course, Whiplash, which deals with a sadistic—or is he enlightened?—jazz-band director at a Juilliard-like NYC music school and his super-driven student, possibly also on his way to a life of cold inhumanity and artistic immortality.

I should say up front that I found Whiplash really compelling as a straightforward human story. The acting was solid all-around, and the transformation of the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller), into a kind of Art Monster felt believable and suitably complex, i.e., you weren't sure whether to admire him or pity him as he drove himself ever harder, past blisters and bleeding and beration at the hands of his teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. that dude who's in everything but whom you probably don't know by name).

This question of how far you need to go—or maybe, how inhuman you need to become—in order to be great is one worth asking, and Whiplash thrusts it in your face for pretty much its entire running time. But what I found almost more interesting were the questions it didn't ask. Whiplash ostensibly concerns itself with jazz, with drumming, with music in general, but to me, it felt strangely divorced from any of those things. What I mean is that Andrew's entire quest is presented as no different from that of, say, a marathon runner or mountain climber. The drumming in the film is entirely tense, joyless, athletic, extreme, punishing. We hear music being played in Whiplash, but mostly we see and hear practice, and practice that looks and feels very much like self-flagellation.

Director Damien Chazelle apparently played in high-school jazz band, so I guess I should assume that in addition to posing his core inquiry of "At what price art?," he's also asking questions about the sort of militaristic regimentation of jazz during the past few decades. But this seemed sort of like an undercurrent rather than anything the movie came right out and addressed. I couldn't help noticing that there were really only two actual musical fixations in the film, two hallowed icons held up as examples of the greatness that Andrew is trying to achieve and Fletcher is trying to inspire: Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker. I could be mistaken, but I don't think a single other drummer was named in the film besides Rich. That makes perfect sense, in a way, because to me—respectfully, Buddy Rich has no place in my personal drum pantheon, jazz or otherwise, but to be fair, I haven't dug very deep into his work—Buddy Rich is the icon of jazz as sport, jazz as "My band is going to wipe the floor with your band," jazz as a chops war, jazz (or music in general) as a thing not to be studied, enjoyed, savored, but as a battle with clear winners and losers. Is this why Chazelle chose Rich—i.e., as a sly critique of those who would model themselves after the wrong kinds of artistic heroes—or was it simply that he, as a young jazz hopeful, worshiped at Rich's altar? Or that Rich is simply the go-to shorthand idol of "every aspiring jazz drummer"? (Another thing: Like Rich, almost everyone shown playing jazz in Whiplash is white. Again, I wonder: critique, commentary or coincidence?)

In terms of Parker, there's not a single mention of the fact that he was, like, a brilliant alto saxophonist and improviser. All we hear about is that he was an inferior player who became an immortal one after—in the famous story, recounted ad nauseum in the film and elsewhere—drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him during a jam session. (I've heard this anecdote so many times that I can't even remember where the supposedly definitive version comes from—does anyone else happen to recall?) In any case, I thought it was very telling that there's not a single mention of, or even allusion to, the idea of improvisation in the film. Andrew's entire quest revolves around mastery: mastering rudiments, mastering certain tempos and feels (all the while being verbally and physically assaulted, both by Fletcher himself and by his own ever-developing inner Fletcher), mastering charts, mastering a sort of samurai-like ascetic discipline. The idea of inspiration, of expression, of putting one's personal stamp on the music never comes up. Jazz as it's portrayed in Whiplash is about rigor and bombast, mostly in an ensemble context, and that's it. And it was hard for me to tell if Chazelle intended his movie as a critique of this ghoulish perversion of jazz in the academy, or if that version of jazz—the one where jazz looks very much like, say, wrestling or football or rugby—was the only one he knew, and was therefore the only one his film dealt with. I'm splitting hairs here, but I came away from Whiplash wondering all this.

Chazelle leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Andrew's quest, the one that will very likely result in him become a famous drummer with no personal relationships whatsoever, is worthwhile, or even fated for someone of his constitution. But I couldn't tell if were also meant to be asking whether "succeeding" at this version of art—i.e., not the version where you change the world through the depth and specificity of your vision, i.e., the Miles, Mingus, Ellington and, yes, Parker version, but the one where you basically become a charts-obliterating robot—was even a worthwhile goal to begin with. Is Whiplash simply a film, in other words, about the price of getting jazz right, or is it also a film about how profoundly the jazz-education system—teachers, students, everybody who embraces this apparatus for the learning/inculcation of jazz—has gotten jazz wrong? Because, yes, relentless practice is what turned Charlie Parker into Bird, but it wasn't the relentless practice of, like, the saxophonic equivalent of rudiments and snazzy ’70s-style big-band charts. It was mechanical study combined with the drive to make a personal statement, with actual passion and curiosity, a concept that is not even remotely touched on in Whiplash (again, a calculated omission? Hard to say…). Passion not just to "improve" but to discover.

So Whiplash definitely made me think—just maybe not along the exact lines it seemed to be trying to make me think. But as a visual, visceral and emotional document, I thought it was extremely successful. Jazz, music and drumming aside, it's basically about the idea of a young man pushing past his breaking point and going into a kind of transcendent/purgatorial free fall, a portrait of what the obliteration of "normalcy" in the name of excellence looks and feels like. (My friend and Time Out colleague Josh Rothkopf nailed all this in his Whiplash review.) Chazelle really rubs your nose in the madness of it all—the rehearsal scenes in particular, with Fletcher halting performances time and time and time again with a bulging bicep and clenched fist, are suitably excruciating. And the film's dark pull really centers on how much you find yourself agreeing with Fletcher's worldview at times. This idea of "Is the desire for greatness unreasonably extreme, or is the rest of the humanity too content to settle?" is a profound one, whatever your chosen field or life path.

Yes, the "jazz" in the film looked and sounded nothing like the jazz I love, but then again, I've never studied jazz at a conservatory. (I'd be really curious to hear how someone from that environment would respond to Whiplash.) Bottom line: a good, thought-provoking night out at the movies, and a rare chance to see a feature film that touches on some of my chief obsessions.

P.S. Forrest Wickman goes deeper into the cymbal-throwing incident (myth?) and its relationship to Whiplash here.