Sunday, March 18, 2012

Chet Baker and the Ghost of Jazz

- Peter Allen

We were talking about music recently and my favorite interlocutor offhandedly brought up free jazz.  I took the opportunity to consider my relationship with the style and realized I don't particularly care for it.  Not because I think it's in any way inherently bad; I simply have no way to connect to its world.  Admittedly I haven't tried horribly hard to access said world, but it made me think more about what jazz I did connect with and why I felt that connection was possible.

I realized in the process that the jazz artist I have listened to most consistently is Chet Baker.  As per usual, I immediately tried to figure out if my taste for Mr. Baker was a product of a theoretical commitment.  And, as per usual, it was.

I recently posted on Young Money as post-modern troupe.  In that post, I talked about 40's beats and how ghostly they were; much of his work is made from half remembered, echoing melodies and muted bass thumps.  His music, at its best, is devoid of bombast and conveys a sense of unplaceable loss.

I feel the same way about Chet Baker.  Androgynous, high beyond belief, and totally alienated, Baker's take on jazz standards sound like they've been slowed down and played back through an android.  Just as Wayne's unique style comes in large part from the effects of the syrup that he constantly consumes, you can hear the heroin dripping off Baker's voice into the microphone.

Imagery aside, I think that Baker resonates with me because in large part I think the time of jazz is long past.  The Western musical event of the early 20th century, jazz has long been marginalized by pop music.  As the latter style dominated the mainstream in the second part of the last century, jazz worked in (relative) obscurity to push all the way to the extremes available to it, including fusing with other genres.  Jazz became dispersed into the bloodstream of music as improvisation and fusion became rote. As a result, I'd argue that playing jazz today is always retro, always an act of nostalgia.  What used to be controversial, alternative, and sexual is now tame and routine.  Jazz in the 21st century is the persistent echo of jazz in the 20th.

Baker's music acknowledges and embraces this fact. His inverted return to the pop-jazz standards that epitomized the genre at the height of its popularity brings the place of the genre today into stark relief.  The fall of the billboard pop machine due to pirating, the demise of physical music, and the corresponding rise of the internet as distribution medium has allowed for unprecendented experimentation. I would argue there are two dominant paradigms in music production today, both of which often overlap with the other.  The first paradigm is the modern one, a brutal new approach to experimentation where music goes to places it simply has not before and the bounds of genre (and the category of music itself) are stretched and twisted, at times to the point of nihilism.  See here Death Grips, Wolf Eyes, and/or The Dillinger Escape Plan.  Many of these new experiments incorporate elements of jazz to help them get that much closer to musical oblivion.  The second paradigm is the post-modern, the self-conscious remixing, reuse, cross-breeding, appropriation, or detournement of old styles and decades (at times, centuries) of music.  See Lady Gaga, Bloc PartyPac Div, and/or The Gaslight Anthem, each of which revives a set of nostalgic tricks to new effect. For an example of the fusion of this radical experimentation and self-conscious callback, I can think of no band better than Animal Collective. Anything that diverges from these agendas risks being accused of being unoriginal or worse, being boring.

In my mind, Baker performs the same revitalizing inversion for jazz, post-hoc.  His versions of standards, like 40's beats, have the numbness of something long lost.  And what is lost here is the entire style and history of which he is a part.  In a lot of ways, Chet Baker was playing jazz's eulogy before it died.

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