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No jazz without composers of the past

October 28, 2010

From the Jazz Corner:

Does “the best” always mean “the same?” Listen to a recording of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, and you will be treated to a near perfect recording. Now play the same piece, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Perfect. The New York Philharmonic, perfect. In the classical world, musicians perform to the best of their abilities with the goal of playing compositions perfectly. There is a right way to play a piece — the notes that are on the page — and anything else is wrong. A perfect performance three times over of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony sounds exactly the same each time. Compare this experience to hearing any three saxophonists perform John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. All three will be trying their best, and all three will sound completely different. Improvisation ensures that a piece will never be played in exactly the same manner twice, even if played by the same musician. A jazz musician can walk onstage on several different nights, play the same songs to his absolute best, and walk offstage having played only a third of the same melodies each evening. In short, classical music values consistency and reproducibility. Jazz music values spontaneity and individuality. Admittedly, the argument isn’t entirely fair to classical music. Classical performances will inevitably vary in terms of energy, phrasing, tempo and volume. However, the melody won’t change from performance to performance; classical melodies, in spite of their presence on paper, might as well be set in stone. In jazz music, it becomes difficult to distinguish “the best,” because there is no “perfect” performance, no sacred, untouchable arrangement of notes delivered by a messianic composer from a musical Mount Sinai. Jazz seeks to marry the inspiration of both the composer and the performer. None of this should diminish the cultural and historical value of classical music. Without the great composers of the past, jazz would simply not exist. Classical music appeals to those who like structure and predictability. Jazz music asks you to be prepared for anything, and live in the moment. Which are you? So asks the Jazz Corner.

                                     Joshua Cutchin has a master’s degree from the University of Georgia in musicology.  

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