art of the jam 22
wreck room wizard of sound andre edmonson had to work a show at axis last night, so we set up on the little stage at "wreck west": jam-meister lee allen on 6-string bass 'n' vox, matt hembree (goodwin / underground railroad) on yr regular 4-string bass, steve huber (fw symphony) on violin, joe "drumzilla" cruz on skins, me on gtr, and a new addition to the roster o' musos who've played the little jam: tony chapman (ex-sivad / ghostcar, among others) on synth and gtr. (there was another drummer who i believe plays with the symphony and may actually have been to the jam before, but because i suck, i missed his name. he was good, though.)
perhaps the convo over dinner of thai soup w/shrimp had put me in a contemplative mood, but i spent more time on the stand _thankin'_ than is usually my wont. (if things are hittin' on all cylinders, the entire night blows by in what seems like minutes and when it's over, i can't remember a damn thing i played.) maybe it was the (iraq or something damn near like it) war drama being broadcast over fox onto the big-screen teevee facing the stage in the back of the room (mighta been a good idea to turn it off, but whatevah). maybe it was the presence in the house of ex-johhnny reno sideman / current soundtrack composer paul boll, a thoughtful and literate muso with whom i've often chewed the fat over similar subject matter. anyway, the topic o' the evening inside my head was the dichotomy in jam-land between two competing aesthetics or approaches: the virtuoso and the groove.
if you accept the premise that all human behavior is a form of either 1) looking for sex or 2) running away from death, it's not too hard to figure out where the virtuoso tradition came from. it's the impulse that says, "look at me! i'm _wonderful_!" (see frank zappa's take on it in the real frank zappa book: spooo!) and the jam is where it manifests itself most fully, the self-realizing outlet for musos who are, um, between bands, or who ply their trade in more restrictive formats. it's a venue conducive to excess: "i've been sitting here for three hours waiting to 'spress myself, and i've got maybe 15 minutes to show all these ppl just _what i can do_." now, don't get me wrong -- i think technical ability is _good_: the more facility you possess, the more expressive you can be. but therein lies the dilemma, because while listening to all this unbridled expression can be exciting, it can also be fatiguing. the end result can become, as willie the shake said, "a tale told by an idiot...sound and fury signifying nothing."
that's where the groove comes in. think of the groove as the glue that holds the whole thing together. as joe carducci might say, it's the surplus value found in between the notes. it's what made the gestalt of individual elements contained in the music of the meters, the jb's, booker t. and the mg's, parliament / funkadelic, the stooges, black sabbath, the ramones, black flag, the john coltrane quartet, etc., much more than the mere sum of parts. it's the reason why vinnie colaiuta was zappa's favorite drummer: his ability to play regular meter behind wild-ass solos, rather than speeding up (as lotsa riddim players tend to do when they hear fast notes). virtuosity is _event_-oriented; groove is _process_-oriented.
these contrasting approaches are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, be complimentary. this was evident to me last night listening to lee allen and matt hembree play together. lee's a virtuoso, classically trained, a disciple of jaco, victor wooten, and flea. he uses six strings 'cos he can't get out everything he wants to say with just four. other side of the coin: matt's no slouch technically, as anyone who's heard him play with underground railroad can attest. he is, however, strictly riddim ("like the dire straits song," he sez). his ears are big enough to allow him to appreciate bela fleck and the buena vista social club, but he teethed on the three r's: rem, the replacements, and da ramones. his contributions are always solid and inventive, but subtle enough for undiscerning ears to miss.
the key to melding these two approaches into, um, _music_ is _listening_. styles or genres aren't important. ability levels aren't important. that is, if all the ppl involved use their ears to listen and their judgment to leave space for the others. listening can make the difference between a clusterfuck and a rarefied improvisational moment. i guess what i mean to say is: empathy wears the white stetson.
speaking of which: txu is kicking tony chapman's ass right now. if you're in the market for a real nice '82 rickenbacker bass and wanna help a brother out, go see him at milano's on west 7th st.