It's Harder To Write a Song Than a Sonata

The previous episode of Treme was the most well made and fully realized of the season so far (Patrick and Josh break it down, as always, at A Blog Supreme). It’s taken four episodes for this season to lay out its materials, and they are finally starting to come together.

The best moments of the series have, sadly, been the ones that surround death, especially the gripping, beautiful and extraordinarily melancholy and hopeful conclusion to the first season:

(which matched the final moments of the finale of season four of The Wire for complexity, poetry and mystery:

the only equals to the final sequence of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse):

In Treme, death means music, means the musicians and the culture, and, in what seems to be working out as a long-range structure, means individual cops and lawyers (Terry and Toni). It also means incipient exploitation and corruption, and that’s also burgeoning.

Musically, two thoughts. One is that I hope that the producers make Delmon more interesting musically. Now that we see his journey, the kind of rote stuff they’re sticking us with isn’t bearing the weight of the story. He’s like an opera character, and the music needs to make us know and believe what’s happening inside him. The brand of modern jazz he’s playing is irritatingly stuck in the Woody Shaw model, great as it is but also too out of date to be contemporary. That he pulls out some Jelly Roll Morton hints at where he’s going (the episode before, Delmon was talking about Morton’s Library of Congress recordings, but never gives us a hint of how beautifully, spectacularly vulgar they are – and by the way, $19.98 is epic value for these!) , but compared to the brief power of Mississippi Fred McDowell we get over his stereo, he’s a baby trying to be a man.

Annie’s musical/personal journey, so often secondary to the plot, is actually much more interesting and realized than most everything else on the show. Her interest in getting further in her career, and her stab at writing a song, are so well done that anyone watching will appreciate that it’s probably harder to write a song than a sonata.


Author: gtra1n

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.

8 thoughts on “It's Harder To Write a Song Than a Sonata”

  1. Delmond’s character, his playing, and music, are much more based on Wynton Marsalis, Nick Payton, and are a composite of other NOLA trumpeters of the ’80s and ’90s, more so than anyone remotely near the caliber or forward-thinking innovation of Woody Shaw, whose music still has yet to be adequately elaborated upon in so far as its harmonic breakthroughs, both in terms of the trumpet and of Shaw’s advanced compositions, arrangements, and performance style.

    The fact that Delmond’s character is a trumpeter-bandleader does not in any way connect him with the tradition of jazz trumpet leadership that comes through Art Blakey; Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, et al. The music he presents is much more representative of the post-Wynton line of musicians who turned their focus largely on a retrospective celebration of NOLA musical heritage and on Louis Armstrong. His style is representative of the aesthetic that jazz musicians from NOLA have helped repopularize over the past 20-30 years and he is a proponent of that same movement. If anything, Delmond NEEDs to check out some Woody Shaw, seriously. It might teach him, and his ears, a thing or two.

    1. I know what you mean, but I can’t agree, I just don’t feel it. It’s a drama to begin with, and it’s not made for jazz musicians, and the character, in terms of presenting him to the public, has nothing to do with what the public knows and sees of Wynton. He’s neither and educator nor a tendentious scold. He’s also finding his way, slowly, to his roots, and clumsily, he’s not synthesized an modern tradition with anything old-time. As far as the music we hear the group play, in snatches, I don’t hear anything Wynton is responsible for, but plenty that Woody is. It’s post hard-bop, post-fusion, no pretensions to Ellington, politics or the like.

      1. If anything, there might be some sort of trivial bastardization of a late Freddie Hubbard. I can assure you that the producers, and artistic directors, looked at 1980s Wynton Marsalis (“Black Codes,” post-Blakey) as the model for this character and that they have very little idea of who Woody Shaw is, much less how much or what he contributed to the trumpet or to jazz. I can’t fathom how one would associate this guy with innovator that intellectual titan that Woody Shaw was, aside from the fact that he plays trumpet. Shaw was not just a performer, he was a conceptualist, a visionary. This guy plays just trumpet.

        As for what Woody is “responsible for,” please explain and give examples if possible. And, please explain what the Woody Shaw “model” is and how it is out of date when no one has been able to carry it forward, to this day.

        How much of Shaw’s music are you actually familiar with?

      1. Look, you’re making a musical argument that, while it may be true, I am uninterested in. I am making a dramatic argument. We never hear enough of Delmon’s stuff to make any evaluation of it, as far as I’m concerned. His willingness to play with the kind of musicians Wynton has publicly dismissed does not support the dramatic case that Wynton is his model.

        Musically, the fragments are what is a standard post-Woody Shaw contemporary mode. That’s not a musicological term, it’s history. It’s in a post-Bitches Brew mode too, even though there’s nothing fusion about it. So what? The music is working within a vocabulary, and with a set of tools, that Woody Shaw made famous, and in terms of the trumpet playing itself, it sounds more like Woody on the live Dexter Gordon record than anything else. If you want to transcribe thirty seconds of Delmon at the Rose Room and parse it through Rosewood, knock yourself out. That’s not what I’m interested in.

        What I am interested is what they mean to articulate via the character. It’s sort of clear, but it’s not been done well at all. Where is the character’s dissatisfaction with the music he’s playing? Where is his interest in polyphony? Where is his interest in a different idea of rhythm? Where’s the blues? Right now the music side of Delmon seems just something to color his relationship with his father. They do a great job showing Annie’s musical development, and Antoine’s professional development, not so much here.

      2. Musically, the fragments are what is a standard post-Woody Shaw contemporary mode.
        -How so?

        That’s not a musicological term, it’s history.
        Which term are you referring to? And is it really history or YOUR story?

        It’s in a post-Bitches Brew mode too,
        How so?

        The music is working within a vocabulary, and with a set of tools, that Woody Shaw made famous, and in terms of the trumpet playing itself,
        -Such as?

        it sounds more like Woody on the live Dexter Gordon record than anything else.
        How So?

        If you are going to venture so far as to assume the use of musical terminology to justify your historiographical claims, then please cite specific examples to support them. At least back up what you are saying. These remarks about styles and/or futile deviations therefrom are conveniently overgeneralized and don’t appear to have any real bases in fact. Your interpretations are legitimate but if you are going to state such loose claims with such overarching musical authority, then you need to be a bit more specific beyond loosely listing sub-genres of music as defined by the Naxos, Oxford, or the Grove dictionary of music.

        As for the dramatic issue of the grossly underdeveloped character and the sub-sub-plot surrounding his uninteresting family dilemma, I agree with you.

      3. I’m not sure if you’re looking for an argument or an education, but it takes a mere listening to the recorded history of jazz to hear the development of non-songform structures, extended vertical harmonies with their added dissonances and soloists not only adding their own harmonic language on top of that but modulating to other keys in the course of their solos. Likewise, with the growing prevalence of straight eighth-note rhythms in combination with a horn players, for example, emphasizing the remnants of swing and bop in their phrasing and articulation. These tools, which you can hear on so many records, including Bitches Brew and Rosewood, combined with personal aesthetics, make a wide-interval, fairly vertical conception musical, rather than merely intellectual in the manner of so much pre-planned music, as in Serial systems, and make it a standard style in ‘Modern’ jazz of the past forty years (now less than contemporary vis-a-vis the music of guys like Henry Threadgill and Steve Lehman). It’s right there in the ears. Music is a body of knowledge that accumulates through time, and all that knowledge is available to every musician, especially in jazz which still, despite the rise of institutionalized pedagogy, still transmits that knowledge through recordings and live gigs. That is self-evident.

        That’s it for me, you’re welcome to the last word, or words, as you see fit. But if you need someone to prove to you the details of the musical education of an imaginary person, someone to dig up the tape of Delmon practicing along to the tape of Clifford Brown practicing, you need to go somewhere else.

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