Critical hemispheres

Today, this blog celebrates its fourth anniversary. Since it started with Whitney Balliett, it’ll continue with him, too.

Like the New Orleans stomps from the 1920s or a Big Sid Catlett drum solo, a typical Whitney Balliett essay starts with a bold statement, and then immediately slips effortlessly into pointed digressions, sly asides, and subtle nuances. Here’s the opening of “Sabbatical,” from 1961:

When life becomes nothing but a bowl of clichés, how many young and successful people of non-independent means have the resilience and backbone to withdraw completely from the world and reorganize, refuel, retool, and refurbish themselves? Well, there is one such heroic monk—Sonny Rollins, the thirty-one-year-old tenor saxophonist.

Balliett goes on to tell the circumstances of the famed musician’s sabbatical and burst of renewal. Throughout the piece, Balliett succinctly describes Rollins’ influence, the “millennial air” that heralded his Return (which Balliett capitalizes, as he does when referring to Rollins as the Master; it’s a good joke and genuine homage all at once), the then-current hard-bop scene, the new performances, and the cadences of Rollins’ conversation as well as how he fidgets when talking to Balliett.

This last part is key to understanding Balliett’s continuing appeal, two years after his death. Balliett puts his critical faculties in dialogue with Rollins’ talk—the first half of the essay is punctuated by substantive quotes from the saxophonist. Unlike so many working critics, then as now, Balliett reports. His Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954-2001 is a sterling example of the critic as journalist, of a writer going out into the field on a daily basis. His grand pronouncements ring true because we get the sense that Balliett’s writing them at the nightclub, between sets, just after the said event. This sense of immediacy comes through even when he’s writing jazz history. His conversational tone—casual but never chatty—gets across the idea that jazz is ever living in the present, even when he’s discussing concerts and scenes from decades before he was born. Balliett always seems to be making a record of the music, taking it all in rather than lecturing on it.

Even when he is schooling the reader, his grand opening salvos tend to splinter immediately into quick, telling details and notations of inner conflict within the music. In “Sabbatical,” a piece ostensibly about the Rollins rebirth, a large chunk of quote from Rollins concerns guitarist Jim Hall: “My new group will have Jim Hall on guitar. I want to do more things with harmony, and he’ll give me the framework. He’s an excellent soloist. But it’s most important he’s willing to do things for the good of the group. He has an attitude to work for the group.” Two pages later, in reportage/critique of the concert itself, it’s Hall—and not Rollins—who more-or-less closes the essay:

Hall, whose background chords were brilliant, followed [Rollins] manfully, and the piece ended with a brisk sound of four-bar exchanges. Once a placid, timid, and somewhat academic guitarist, Hall has perfected his rhythmic and harmonic sense, and, unlike his contemporaries, he never glosses over his notes. Two-thirds of his solos were good, and the rest exceptional.

The grandmaster gives way to the bit player. This trajectory happens again and again in Balliett’s prose. Collected Works’s timespan covers roughly the rise of bebop to the present. Balliett’s 850-page tome can then be seen as one expert’s history of perhaps America’s most distinctive and representative popular idiom. But the book’s exciting because it’s history written in real-time, on cocktail napkins and shot through with gossip and one man’s crisp wit and sly style. His work, taken in omnibus form, never gives off the aura that it’s straining to taken as A Definitive Omnibus Statement. Or, to be more exact, Balliett gets the bold statements out of the way at the get-go, so that he can concentrate on the little things beneath the surface, which interest him much more.

In itself, that’s an astonishing gambit. I’m surprised at how much he gets away with, how much deep-think stuff I’m willing to grant Balliett, simply because he makes pronouncements in such an offhand way. Here’s the opening for “Oil and Water,” from 1979:

Jazz began as a collective music played by spasm bands and marching bands and bands put together for picnics and dances and boat rides. Its early practitioners, untutored and certain only of the melodies they played and the aural space they had to fill, leaned together, and their solos were limited to short breaks and occasional statements of melody.

Now, Balliett’s probably right. But who begins a two-page concert review, which doubles as a brief profile of a musician, with such a brash clarion call? And who else in jazz criticism had the audacity and range of knowledge to spend most of the first paragraph—again, it’s mostly intended as a brief, straightforward review—describing how the solo came to dominate jazz, and what the music has lost as a result?

As it happens, the musician under consideration is again Jim Hall. It’s evident that, to Balliett’s ears, the guitarist is still weaving magic with his fingers:

Only the human voice can stand alone as a musical instrument. (The piano, of course, is multi-voiced.) All others, ironically, strive to sound like groups by resorting to enlarging devices such as double-stops and trick-tonguing and overblowing. Jim Hall, our paramount guitarist and a consummate improviser, has reduced his musical environment, but only so far as a duo—a combination he has practiced with constant success for a decade. There is little that two instruments cannot do together. They can fashion counterpoint, which hones and brightens their voices. They can pit their timbres and set up invigorating cross-rhythms. They can subtly comment on each other in their accompaniment. And they can play in unison or in harmony, or play dissonantly and give the impression of many voices.

That’s precise, pointillist writing—so much that I forgot that, just a few sentences earlier, Balliett was ranging over the full trajectory of jazz performance. Hall likes duets. Balliett’s review spends one paragraph critiquing the guitarist’s duet album with bassist Red Mitchell; the second (and final) paragraph details a duet live concert with Hall and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. That second paragraph is full of rich detail— “Brookmeyer’s and Hall’s rhythmic centers were different. Brookmeyer plays in a pummeling, sometimes staccato-on-the-beat style, and Hall often favors easy, downstream phrasing.” An essay that began with capsule history ends with minutiae about a single concert, and the two strains feel right together, as they usually do in Balliett’s hands.

There’s eighteen years between “Sabbatical” and “Oil and Water,” and 29 years between the latter piece and Jim Hall’s duet collaboration with Bill Frisell: the ethereal but jaunty masterpiece Hemispheres (2008). I’ve been listening to the two-disc album ever since Maria Schneider recommended it to me, and you should do the same. The first disc contains just musical conversations between the guitarists, and frequently becomes so exploratory and out-there that it takes a few minutes to realize that each song is sonically grounded. The second hemisphere adds Frisell regular drummer Joey Baron and bassist Scott Colley to the mix, and the approach is more straight-ahead jazz standards than the free-form first disc, but it too has odd reverberations throughout.

The discs of Hemispheres provide ample evidence that an old master can still sound fresh, immediate, of the moment, even though Hall’s been around long enough to see his style be admired, challenged, parodied, and then finally revered. The same, of course, is true of Balliett’s criticism. I hope his peers notice.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Critical hemispheres

  1. Writing about music is nearly impossible, and most who attempt it veer between the clincal and the hyperbolic. But neither a list of the extended harmonies or a list of adjectives do very much to make us hear. For fifty years, Balliett took on that task — through sharp observation, poetic leaps, an extravagant imagination that used apparently homespun language, and the Goddess Metaphor — and he succeeded. His best sentences have the energy, passion, and echoing resonance of a four-bar break by any one of his heroes.
    I salute you for your sharp, attentive look at what he did and continues to do. He remains my ideal as a writer: eloquent, sly, funny, pointed. When I was reading his books over and over in 1969, I didn’t know how much he would sublimate himself. And I had the good fortune to meet him several times, casually, and sent him rare Catlett. He was exceedingly gracious without ever inhabiting the mountaintop, and was generous with his praise. I miss him!
    I’ve written about him on my jazz blog (address below): you might approve! Thank you for writing your sleek, well-honed piece.

  2. Happy blog anniversary! I haven’t read any Balliett yet, but I think I’ll go to the library now and scare some up.
    IMPORTANT: tell me you’ve been able to listen to those Pere Ubu albums! DUB HOUSING is one of my absolute favorites, and I was lucky enough to buy that monster DATAPANIK IN THE YEAR ZERO box set that Geffen was mad enough to release in the mid-’90s…

  3. Michael and Craig, thanks for the kind words. Michael: I certainly DO approve, and Jazz Lives has been added to my music blogroll. Craig: Yes, I got around to Dub Housing and Cloudland. Of the two, I’ve gotten more sheer pleasure out of Cloudland, which is more approachable for a neophyte, although “Caligari’s Mirror”–with that awesome stadium-ready swoop of “Hey hey! Drunken sailors! Missed the boat, what to do?!” emerging unexpectedly from those drone/dirge choruses–gets stuck in my head for hours at a time.

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