What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March 11, 2013 Issue

Is it crass to rue the lack of melody in the playing of a jazz standard? I wonder this as I listen to Jason Moran’s abstract version of Johnny Green’s great “Body and Soul” (on Moran’s 2002 album Modernicity). Moran’s interpretation renders the song almost unrecognizable. Whitney Balliett wrote, “Jazz fans relish the shock of melodic recognition and when it doesn’t come they grow disoriented and gloomy” (Collected Works, 2000). That’s the way I feel about Moran’s “Body and Soul.” In a profile of Moran, titled “Jazz Hands,” in this week’s New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson says that Moran “often uses only the parts of a song that appeal to him – in his version of ‘Body and Soul,’ the most recorded standard in jazz, he plays only the A part.” This is an interesting approach, but while I respect the effort, I’m not crazy about the result. It’s like taking a beautiful green artichoke and stripping it of its leaves just to get to its heart. Alec Wilder called “Body and Soul” an “enormously innovative song” (American Popular Song, 1972). It deserves homage, not deconstruction.

Nevertheless, “Jazz Hands” itself is a wonderful piece of writing. It contains three “visits” that I enjoyed immensely: to a practice room at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston, where Moran gives lessons to three students; to the KC Jazz Club at the Kennedy Center, where Moran’s group Bandwagon, plus Bill Frisell, rehearsed; and to the Village Vanguard, where Bandwagon was playing. Wilkinson’s evocation of the scene inside the Village Vanguard is superb. When he says, “One night, I occupied the last seat on the banquette, which is beside the drum set and is called the drummer’s seat, because drummers like to sit there to observe,” I smiled appreciatively. This is exactly the kind of personal, specific, journalistic observation I devour. “Jazz Hands”’s ending is equally marvelous:

What I remember most clearly was a moment, at the end of a passage of frantic playing, when, suddenly quiet, all three had their hands poised, their eyes closed, and their breath held. They seemed to be listening as acutely as animals in the woods. Each was waiting for one of the others to make a sound. Instead, a small smile formed on Moran’s lips, and he slowly lowered his hands to his lap, and, without opening their eyes, the others lowered theirs, too.

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