22 October 2013

Living Beyond Style (for realz)

If there's one thing regular attendance at The Blue Whale has brought home to me, it's that the notion of being beyond style is deeper than the lip service nearly all of us living and working today tend to pay to it. That is to say that I have been hearing a lot of music there that very much reflects the image the rest of the country has of L.A. (slick, polished, resolved, catchy, technical), some of which I wouldn't otherwise be going out of my way to experience, but which has, generally, been so well conceived and executed as to transcend the limitations (as people like me tend to see them) of the styles in question.

The saying about "good music and the other kind" comes to mind here, though to get on a razor's edge about it (and really, Modernists, where else would we want to be?), it is a saying that, much as we love its utterer, skirts more issues than it addresses. Even from the unfiltered vantage point of an individual audient, such all-or-nothing evaluations paper over the nearly intractable complexity of the listening experience, comprised as it most always is of numerous "good" and "bad" aspects all at once. Such it is that a group like the Billy Childs Electric Band, which I caught recently, constantly threatens a listener like me with all the rhetoric of showbiz and a notable banality of pre-composed material, all while melting my face right off as a total musical package that ranks in the top 10 live music experiences I've ever had.

Indeed, Childs' compositions and keyboard chops alike are almost impossibly polished. In Minneapolis, we run people like that right out of town with behind-the-back shit-talking. They don't fit the narrative we've constructed for ourselves to inhabit, the one where we repackage all of our shortcomings as conscious musical decisions and deride anyone whose faults are less obvious, whose technical polish is laid on thicker than ours, and, most of all, who are more obviously stylists than innovators. I must confess to having fallen victim to the Minneapolitan mindset myself on more than one occasion, and that is to say that Minneapolis, though it is an admirably pluralistic and original place in many ways, is not quite as far beyond style as we'd all like to think. Style, as any professional musician learns quickly, is only slightly less political than sex; to be beyond it, then, is not so simple as merely refusing to talk about it.

To wit, it's easy to highlight the superficial commonalities between the Childs group and the best of my hometown in spite of the stylistic grand canyon that separates them: high-level listening and interplay among the players, an incredible dynamic range (I doubt many Minneapolitans have ever heard a group this slick play so incredibly soft), and an unmistakable jazz aesthetic. The differences are just as stark: Childs' music is more through-composed, more harmonically "inside," and far more refined in overall tone color than most anything you can hear in Minneapolis without venturing to the Dakota.

Even after a relatively short time out here, I can already see the warnings of so many Minneapolitan rogues in evidence: clearly there is a more dominant mainstream at play in L.A. than in Minneapolis, and clearly I will find my way into friction with it at some point along the way. To be 100 percent beyond style is to be ambivalent about one's own stylistic direction, and to hew to whatever this mainstream dictates for you. Clearly I have no intentions of going quite that far as a performer or composer. I must say, though, that as a listener, given the quality of work out here, I certainly can imagine worse fates: I am learning a ton from what I'm hearing, and concurrently having a swell time doing so.

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