Style & Canon

Style is much larger than a happy mix of canon and jargon. In fact, it can be downright incendiary.


(Photography by Jillian Hakala)

The week before last, my partner Matt Borghi and I – together known as Teag & PK – had a couple local radio spots. The first was a part of 89.7’s Coffee Break and featured a brief interview, during which we were asked the dreaded question: what type of music do you play? We offered a lengthier-than-necessary non-answer (telling the host what styles we don’t play as opposed to those we do), hopefully hiding our annoyance – not with the host, but with the question. We abhor discussing it. As I touched upon in this post, our collaboration features many different musical avenues: one night we’ll feature electronic ambience and improvisation, the next it’ll be completely acoustic and Matt will improvise vocal blues a la Son House (and well, might I add). Simply saying “folk” does more to exclude a large chunk of what we do than cast a wide net. We’re not bluesy enough for the blues-ers, not folky enough for the folkies, and not jazz enough for the jazzers. Instead we are what we are and quite happy with that. (Although it does present an ongoing PR problem.)

I mention this because “style” in general has been a personal nuisance for many years. A label, on paper, may just be a single word – folk – or handful of words (post-hardcore [huh?]), but in context it presents a multitude of problems. If something is “folk,” then what kind? Appalachian? Woody Guthrie? Hungarian? Ani DiFranco? If none of those, does the label then somehow do a disservice to those disparate forbears? If it’s completely different, why use the label at all? Simply because it’s acoustic and not on commercial radio?

A few weeks ago I finally watched Jazz In The Present Tense: Icons Among Us, the 2009 documentary that “answered” (to put it lightly) Ken Burns‘s Jazz. Now, I know that people love to complain about the Ken Burns behemoth, and I’ll be the first to jump all over it. After all, it spent ~19 hours exhaustively discussing everything jazz from 19th-century roots music through hard bop, but then gave ~45 minutes of lip service to the 1960s avant-garde and highlighting Young Lions of whom Wynton Marsalis approves. Cute. But for all its sins, Burns admittedly did a lot of good – the archival material alone is worth the time and money. And it does a wonderful job of presenting jazz and its beginnings as a product of African American culture, and (rightly) how the music fits into the context of US race relations. However, perhaps the biggest fault (or virtue, depending on your viewpoint) is that the whole documentary is based upon a particular canonical view of jazz and its stylistic definition. It really is pretty solid for the first 5 or 6 episodes, but becomes exponentially narrower as the series progresses. It goes from being all-inclusive  to a museum exhibit, allowing access only to those musicians (curators) who once associated with those now-or-soon-to-be-dead icons. (Wynton played with Art Blakey and therefore is the designated torch-bearer, right?) As one of my favorite professors in graduate school said, “Classical music is now mainly an amusement park for old people.” (This coming from a harpsichordist.)

Enter Jazz In The Present Tense. While the documentary of course features many contemporary musicians from the broader jazz spectrum, it’s thesis has to do with the word “jazz” itself. Whereas Burns (and Wynton, or rather Wynton via Burns) stated This is jazz, JITP asks What is jazz today?. The answers come from all sides – Terence Blanchard, John Medeski, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Robert Glasper (his newly-released Black Radio is getting much press), Donald Harrison Jr., Marco Benevento, and more – and it’s quickly evident that these disagreements aren’t  slight. For example, Harrison’s obsession with both hard bop and his association with Art Blakey would even make Wynton blush. The divide between the more traditional jazz-is-anything-up-through-hard-bop and jazz-needs-to-keep-changing-to-stay-alive camps is quite evident. The filmmakers also take some time to focus on the word jazz‘s parallel in rock: jam band. I was very refreshed to see that, as “jam band” is more of a bad word than anything according to many musicians. After the Grateful Dead, most bands who featured improvisation wanted to be called anything but a jam band, a problem that continues to this day. Of course, Herbie was the one to perhaps best state the problem, saying, “The term jazz, in a sense perhaps, is its own worst enemy.” Herbie, one of the last remaining living legends – literally – is still light years beyond not only many of his peers but also the younger generations, both artistically and intellectually. (One of the many reasons I hold him on such a pedestal.)

[Side note: I couldn’t help but literally laugh out loud when Nicholas Payton appeared on my television as the first interviewee, spouting his nonsense. For those at least peripherally aware of online jazz “debates,” he’s heated up the blogosphere the last few months with self-righteous, incoherent rants, stating that jazz is now dead and that we should call what we think of as jazz “Black American Music” instead. Payton’s new term isn’t the problem – it’s his schizophrenic non-explanations of it. He does make compelling points now and again in his various blog entries, but the ongoing argument as a whole is…something. NPR’s perennially-disappointing A Blog Supreme has given Payton’s tripe far more attention than it’s due. If you’ve seen #BAM on Twitter, that’s probably why…]

Of course, this isn’t a film review. My viewing the documentary, coupled with the recent radio spot, are simply two instances out of countless similar experiences I’ve had. But the whole dilemma of style isn’t just an matter of definition, but one of context, as it’s reliant on many factors. One such factor is canon. Every style has its major works that serve as hallmarks. However, once you scratch the surface, you become aware of just how deep the rabbit hole can go, as not everyone will agree on everything. As with the two jazz documentaries, Burns was comfy with most styles through Hard Bop (except for Cool/West Coast), and Icons found almost no consensus on anything.

The classical canon, and expectations of students’ familiarity with it, has stuck in my craw for many years. Going to college and graduate school for (mostly) classical performance is interesting for a saxophonist, considering the instrument is only ~165 years old. Consequently the instrument’s repertoire is only a fraction of the size of the flute’s, violin’s, or piano’s. This causes two issues: 1) saxophonists, unlike most other classically-oriented instruments, are immersed in contemporary music, but 2) this also causes a deficit in performing and knowing older (Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, early Romantic) literature. While most classical saxophonists probably couldn’t pick out the second movement of one of Beethoven’s string quartets, we also can pick out and understand the sequenzas of Luciano Berio better than most other classical musicians. Does that mean that classical saxophonists are somehow “less than”? No, it’s just a different animal. Speaking for myself, I have an interest in many of the older/other styles and genres, specifically Renaissance and Baroque music and Wagner. (The latter goes deep.) And my personal (not just academic) interest in orchestral music has really deepened these last couple years. But of course home base, classically speaking, is still contemporary music. (To reference another recent internet meme, I’ve been correcting a musical blind spot. With much enthusiasm.)

I definitely agree that in order to learn a particular style of music (be it a broad category such as classical or jazz, or perhaps narrower like heavy metal), one should be intimately familiar with both the style’s history and the details of its evolution and various iterations. But I don’t believe that it ends there. Not at all. Those who’ve forged ahead to create something new – large or small – have almost always included some sort of outside source or influence. Besides, regarding the above jazz discussion, the biggest argument against the jazz-must-continually-evolve-and-include-outside-styles crowd is that it overlooks or even disregards earlier styles. Following that logic, however, why is it that pre-Hard Bop purists are allowed to do the same for later styles without similar condemnation?

As regular readers know, I’m equal parts classical, jazz, and pop. (Only in that order for alphabetical reasons.) I cringe each time I write, say, or type “classical and jazz saxophonist,” or anything else to that effect. Honestly, I just consider myself, plainly, a “saxophonist” or “musician.” And frankly, at the end of the day, the only canon I’m really concerned with is my own – the canon that has shaped me. As a musician, I’ve worked for years on developing my own personal style and aesthetic. Much work indeed remains to be done, and I’ll arguably never be complete. If someone were to assemble the canon of Michael Teager’s musical education, there would of course be saxophonic references – Coltrane, Liebman, John Harle, James Carter, etc. – throughout, but it would also include the music of the Top 5, Elton John, Richard Wagner, nineties rock, and ECM, just to name a few. Yes, I know A Love Supreme forwards and backwards. (And rightly place it above most other works of art, where it belongs.) But I’m just as familiar with CrashMellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Aenima (to focus on ’95-’96). And they’re just as important to the musician I am and continue to become as any other “major work.” I discussed this latter point slightly over a year ago here.

It’s not that I think standard repertoire need be diminished or negated, but room must also be made on the pedestal for other, more individualized preferences. In fact, such personalization should be encouraged. While younger generations are becoming more open-minded, it seems that the old guard, especially in classical music, jazz, and other academically-associated musics, remain set in their ways. Slowly but surely, the boundaries are eroding.

This topic has many tributaries, and if I go any further you’ll need breadcrumbs to find your way back. But it does tie together. Style – jazz, classical, folk, blues, rock, etc. – is more than just a word, like it or not. It implicitly suggests and entire tradition and repertoire. Even slight deviations from a stated style can jar the listener, promoter, booker, and/or critic, taking me back to the introductory anecdote about Teag & PK‘s “style.” What do Matt and I call our project? Does it matter? It seems to be in our interest to avoid  such categorizations, or simply make one up just to end the discussion. Common problems we’ve encountered are:
• We’re not “folk” because of the sax (and occasional electronics)
• We’re not “jazz” because of all the verse-chorus songs
• We’re not “blues” because it’s too folky
• We’re not “rock” because it’s guitar and sax
• We’re not “indie” because…we’re not hipsters? 🙂 (We still haven’t figured that one out.)
• Those ambient improvisations? What the hell are those?!?

And to top it off, we really don’t care what it’s called. We’ve considered calling it “acid folk” – not to be confused with “psych folk” – just to have something consistent. And it doesn’t offend any purists we may encounter along the way. When Matt’s canon – ambient, rock, Flight of the Conchords, and blues that Alan Lomax would approve of – meets mine the result is something beyond either of us. It’s also beyond simply picking one style and sticking to it.

The result is what matters. Not what we call it.

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