I have to admit to still being a little intimidated by Jazz music. It's like standing in front of an abstract painting where your eye doesn't even know where to start looking in order to form an impression. With art I've been able to train my eye not to look for an "entrance" into the work and try to let the whole speak at once in an attempt to assimilate the artist's message. In some ways you have to start on an instinctive level, and evolve into rational thought gradually.
While it's one thing to be able to do that with your eye, to do the same thing aurally feels much harder to me. Part of the reason is that my ear is not as sophisticated as my eye. I've had very little music training and while I'm able to distinguish notes and tunes etc, I lack the ability to recreate what I hear. This makes me feel insecure when it comes to my abilities to appreciate the music to it's fullest. It feels like I'm living the adage those who can't play teach, and those who can't teach, critique.
But I've never interpreted that to be a literal reference to someone's ability, more of a state of mind. When I hear that saying I always get the image of some bitter, failed actor, musician, or author sitting behind a typewriter thinking of ways to take revenge on those who have been able to succeed where he or she failed. Since the people whose work I review in these instances usually leave me amazed at the scope of their imaginations and the breadth of their talent, I know I don't fall into that category.
So, when I hear a disc like the most recent one released by Keefe Jackson, Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This on Delmark Records I take a deep breath, and dive in without trying to think about it. I don't know enough technically about what he and his fellows are doing to analyze it from that perspective, but at least I can give an honest emotional opinion.
Sometimes that means, of course, that my first impression of the music is going to be the strongest, and in this case what I felt was that the mind behind these compositions has a great sense of humour. The first track on Just Like This is called "Dragon Fly" and it begins with two sputtering trombones emulating the spasmodic motions of dragon fly wings. The song gradually opens up to include all twelve members of Project Project, as they create a wonderful homage to the flight of a dragonfly.
Aside from the obvious homage/joke to the orchestral piece "Flight Of The Bumblebee" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it felt like there was a thread of laughter floating woven into the whole piece. Think of a dragon fly darting across the surface of a pond on a hot summer's day; zipping back and forth, with speed and agility. Now think of what trombone sounds like when playing staccato notes at the bottom end of the scale.
There are the inevitable comparisons to flatulence that spring to mind, but aside from that there's the incongruity of the brassy notes and the airiness of the dragonfly's flight. In fact, before I knew the title of the track, the opening bars of the song sounded for all the world like they were revving a car engine on a cold winter's day. It struck me as a humorous way of opening an disc of music – gentlemen start your engines – but now the humour seems even slyer.
Normally, you'd associate a flute or a violin with the rapid flight of something like a dragonfly. But on a second listening I had a clear visual of the big lumbering dragonflies you see occasionally – ones that look so primordial that they could just as easily be buzzing a brontosaurus as you – bumbling through the bull rushes by a riverbank on a hot and humid July day.
Of course not all the songs on the disc are designed to create such vivid visual imagery, these are sound pieces after all. But even on some of the more discordant and chaotic tracks, "Which Well" for example, it really feels to me like the mind behind this has an impish sense of humour. Maybe it's just me but for a while it sounds like the collage of instruments, we are talking about a twelve piece band after all, are trying to simulate the hollow sound that would be found inside a well.
That impression is only compounded for me because it is immediately followed by a wailing saxophone solo which sounds like somebody falling down a well. Does that sound frivolous? Would you rather I said something about how the discordant and abrupt sounds reflect the panic stricken, anxiety filled atmosphere that so many of us experience? Or perhaps how the contrast between the melodic clarinet solo that follows on the heels of the torrid saxophone is a commentary on the choices we face when it comes to how we approach the difficulties life throws at us?
Maybe though it's none of the above, and the pieces are all about experimenting with sound and discovering the modes of expression available to them. I don't know, and I can't without asking Keefe Jackson. He says that he writes music keeping in mind the people who will be playing it and the potential for sound that each of them brings to a performance. These are free-form improvisational players who he is building a frame work for. so he wants to allow them plenty of room for manoeuvring.
It would seem that no matter what layers of interpretation I, or anybody else for that matter, wants to impose on the music, it comes down to what each individual creates from what he is given to perform by Keefe. While this sounds like it could quickly become an exercise in chaotic discordance, the overall structure of the piece dictates that they stay in contact with their fellow performers at all times. The result is always exciting, occasionally confusing, but always interesting to listen to as you never are quite sure what to expect from either the composition or the performers.
Keefe Jackson's Project Project: Just Like This is a great example of how a composer and gifted instrumentalists come together to create unique pieces of music. On occasion some of the pieces lend themselves to interpretation, but in general they are the expression of people who take great joy in the playing and creation of music.