A Way To Listen To Jazz

Patrick Jarenwattananon has an interesting post in what has been a bit of a series on getting into jazz vis-a-vis one’s intelligence. He listens closely to Steve Coleman’s new CD, Harvesting Semblances And Infinities , trying to connect Coleman’s liner notes to what he hears, and specifically trying to break down the pieces of Coleman’s meter on the opening track. That’s a valid and fine way to listen, to really reach out and get involved with what the music is doing and how it works. I would also suggest, constructively, that it’s irrelevant.

If there is a problem with people listening to jazz because they feel a disconnect between their intelligence and the music’s intelligence, I’m not sure what it could be. Yes, I joke about Art Blakey saying jazz is an intelligent person’s music when it comes to responding to cretinous rejections of the music, but intelligence has little to do with it. Or rather, musical intelligence is the only kind that matters.

Some people love jazz from the first moment they hear it, others come to it slowly but successfully, the rest (most) don’t find it involving. Jazz, like Classical music, does require a basic commitment of active listening, or engaging with what is going on rather than having it spoon-fed with little awareness, as is the case with most disposable pop. Jazz is mainly an instrumental music, so there’s no clever hook to ear-worm you, and jazz is an improvised music, so listening means following a musician to unexpected places. Good jazz and good improvising maintains a balance between the expected (based on the tune and the playing that has already gone by) and the surprising. Not all jazz is good, not all soloing is good, and there’s no shame in not liking a solo that wanders without reason and meaning, or that is nothing but clichéd gestures. Here’s how it’s properly done:

Listening this way has something to do with musical intelligence, which seems to me to have something to do with memory, with being able to hold in the mind’s ear how a tune and a solo started and so refer what is happening in the now to that context. But that’s mainly interest and involvement, an attitude rather than a quotient. Be willing to listen and to keep listening, and one’s musical intelligence (context and memory) will grow. The musical information will remain transparent as the density and velocity of activity increases (this is the scientific model that I see especially in Classical music, where the knowledge of what is possible accretes, and Perotin  leads to Beethoven’s Op. 111). Charlie Parker becomes crystal clear, as do Coltrane’s sheets of sound, as does Cecil Taylor . . .

I would add that if sensitivity, (empathy), is a unit of intelligence, than yes intelligence helps. Sensitivity to what one hears is important. Does the music sound well made, does it seem to make sense, do the parts work together and in the context that they create for themselves, is the musicianship honest? That last part is so important and so difficult to explain. Take the Coleman example; he has certain things to write about his art that may or may not make sense when read, but if he is honest about them then it will make sense in the music, which will sound well made and which, being well made, will then be good. “Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)” is well made and sounds good. You can try and break down the meter, but there are other things to listen to; I hear the pulse, not the subdivisions of the beat of how the beats are parsed into different measures but the flow of strong rhythmic moments in time, something which can be even though the meter is uneven, the combination of the two making a complex and more pleasing and exciting pulse. I hear the way the tune goes and the sounds of the horns together, and so I hear in my own learned-context of listening a sound that comes out of blues, big bands and Art Blakey. I hear solos that are coherent, that start someplace and end up someplace else, and even though I can’t say what they mean in concrete terms, I know they mean something. This is what I think makes Harvesting Semblances And Infinities Colemen’s best recording, because it doesn’t rely on explanations and liner notes, it works in terms of music. I actually wrote my review without once reading his notes or any of the press materials, because how the thing sounds is what matters. And the sound that reaches the ear of each behearer is the same, some ears will reach out for it, some bodies will groove to it. It was made with great intelligence, but it doesn’t require specific understanding to enjoy.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.