This week I was speaking to a friend who is in the music production business, and the conversation turned to some cover bands he had worked with. That, in turn, led to a discussion of cover bands in general. One of the points I made was that I distinguish carefully between cover band and tribute band: a tribute band is an impersonation act, one that not only plays a particular artist's music but tries to mimic the experience of seeing the band live. A cover band is, or at least should be, an act that tries to put its own interpretation on another artist's music.
You'd think the latter would be the more prevalent in jazz, wouldn't you?
The single most radical, imaginative, and subsequently fascinating jazz-repertory recording of the past 15 years was the 1992 album, Hal Willner presents Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus. Willner, working with Sue Mingus (Charles's widow), put together performances of my favorite composer's work featuring unconventional superstar ensembles: players as diverse and brilliant as Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill, Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello, Geri Allen, Don Byron, Vernon Reid, Henry Rollins, Chuck D, Leonard Cohen, Dr. John, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards. But because Willner can't sit still with just a bizarre lineup of musicians, he also throws in a bizarre lineup of instruments: each of his 19 arrangements features at least one of the unique instruments designed by composer/eccentric/visionary Harry Partch.
Frankly, such a daring, experimental, and out-there approach to music is exactly the kind of shot in the arm that jazz needs. (This has nothing to do with a particular era, current or otherwise; jazz always needs this kind of shot in the arm.) And the result is intriguing, from head to toe. But for at least one observer, that's not enough...and for all the wrong reasons.
Gary Giddins, of all people, loathes Weird Nightmare. The foremost authority on jazz in American letters, and the 30-year jazz columnist for The Village Voice, one naturally expects Giddins to have the most open-minded and all-encompassing opinion around, on this subject at least. But when he gets around to Weird Nightmare, he makes a comment that pains me to the core:
"In one of five often defensive liner essays, Frannie Thumm, who introduced percussion instruments built by Harry Partch into the project, defends it against objections from the 'fanatical following[s]' of Partch and Mingus by quoting Stravinsky, 'You respect, but I love.' Yet it is precisely respect bordering on fake reverence that makes this music so stupefying. I should think that loving Mingus means embracing his vitality. It might even mean honoring the context in which his music was produced."
Perhaps I, a mere student rather than a scholar, am missing the point--but it sounds to me like Giddins is suggesting that Mingus's music cannot viably exist independently of the composer's persona. Nor can it exist independent of some codified, trapped-in-time definition of the jazz tradition. I find that perspective offensive; so, I suspect, would Mingus. The notion that anyone who takes on Mingus' music is beholden to his biography and his contemporary jazz world is surely meant as an homage to the composer, but in fact it denigrates his body of work and his abilities beyond belief.