Old and new dreams

I’ve come to the end of a self-appointed task (and indulgence): a year of writing a weekly note on a piece of music that stayed with me. So…. how about looking back on looking back?

It began as a lockdown project. And one way of dealing with lockdown, for the privileged, has been a counting of blessings.

And – loved ones, health and solvency aside – the ones that mean most to me are cultural. Every one of these tracks is a blessing. Together, these 52 remind me that music I love, usually something going under the broad label of jazz, has enriched my life immeasurably. Still does.

What fabulous good fortune to live at a time of such rich creativity, and technology to match.

We in the lucky half of the world now have astonishing access to the cultural highlights of the day, or any day. In the past, it was surely radically different. In most societies, a small minority had access to a mere fraction of what humans had made or thought. After all, it’s not so long since finding music depended on borrowing a disc, staying up to catch a radio programme’s one and only airing, or happening to browse the right bin in a specialised record shop. 

slow work, with occasional surprises

The advent of, as it were, the equivalent of the universal jukebox for all of culture can be a mixed blessing. Fair reward vanishes for starters. But also, combine total access with the sheer number of creators, and a world with a population of 7.5 billion will serve that population a permanent cultural surplus, of everything.

I tend to think that’s more of a problem for creators, too. As a sometime author, I  get the feeling in a big book store that it is amazing anyone would bother to write anything new, least of all me. As a listener, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way.

There are drawbacks though. The choice on offer now can be overwhelming. And the new releases I manage to audition in any given week now that I do a bit of reviewing are often mediocre. If they don’t hit me with the same force as stuff I first heard decades ago that could just be because I am no longer young (definitely) or impressionable (probably). But I don’t think so. I can recognise the feeling of hearing the music that makes me feel seventeen again (The Mahavishnu Orchestra) or fifteen (Jimi Hendrix). The things I’ve written about this year don’t do that.

yes, I did see them live; yes, they were amazing

But one reason aside from lockdown that I began this was because I’m at an age and stage where it’s interesting to consider what has lasted, and  – as well as how you ever choose – how early choices enable and constrain. 

Some constraints are given, I suppose. My chosen 52 include startlingly few women. Jazz was even more male-dominated then that it is now. There are also relatively few Brits, and hardly any singers. The former because, I think – although some claim the contrary – that the most interesting music was mostly coming from the US; the latter because, then as now, there are few singers I can bear to hear more than once.

More generally, though, there is the usual mix of guided choice and serendipity. 

Serendipity: an older brother bought this, recorded in 1965 – no idea why. I loved it before I really even knew what jazz was.

We all build our own maps of culture, and usually cherish connection and cross-fertilisation. The right domains yield more rewards the more one explores. And the two art forms that have meant the most to me, jazz and poetry, are both creative fields where the more things you have sampled, the richer your appreciation of them all. Each good example informs all the others, as of course happens for the authors too.

Maybe that’s true for all worthwhile art? In which case it doesn’t matter which kinds one begins with. But I don’t really know. Life is short, and there’s only time to deal with a selection of all the manifestations of human creativity this way. I could begin  an intensive investigation now of opera, say, or modern dance – but time spent with new music would likely be more fulfilling because it would involve material that can be sifted and sorted in a much more informed way. Informed not in the limited sense of knowing stuff, but by a tapestry of past experience woven over decades from thousands of gigs, thousands of recordings and many hours of reading. Even with aesthetic capacities limited in ways I can’t know, that leads to some kind of evaluation matrix that is, at least, my own.

Dance has a small vocabulary, and choreography mostly consists of piling up an endless series of failed attempts to deny gravity: discuss

So it is still worth listening to new music, with that in mind. Again, I am maybe extra-mindful of how much of it there is because jazz, expansive as it is in any case, has grown so much in volume if not quality. There must be at least an order of magnitude more super-skilled players in the UK now than 40 years ago, maybe more. Every year now the colleges send out hundreds more highly-schooled debutants, most of them eager to perform and record. And there is far better access to the musical offerings of the rest of the world.

At the same time as enjoying some of this, it’s important to go back to the old work. To see how one’s response may have changed, to enjoy it when possible, and perhaps to recalibrate the whole shifting, shimmering array of connections that somehow constitute an individual awareness of “jazz” (or anything else).

The 52 tracks are a combination of things I still listen to regularly, some pieces I hadn’t revisited for some years. Nearly all stood up well – and quite a few I appreciated more, or differently, now. And I enjoyed plenty more that I haven’t included here. Sometimes, I think, I may have got to know the music better just because in those days I listened to a good new record daily or weekly for months. Now, of course, the persoal library, not to mention the flood of new stuff, makes that much less likely and even first rate new work sits unheeded after a few plays. So I guess there are a mass of things half-forgotten from the years between the early acquaintance with jazz and now, especially the last couple of decades, that I should try again soon. Fortunately, music lends itself to this. (I’ll never re-read all the novels in the same vaguely remembered category). I recommend it.

This year’s weekly date with old recordings has given me: immense pleasure; a renewed appreciation of the good fortune of hearing so much great music; and a slightly strengthened confidence that this music is the best bet for continuing to experience art that lasts. I suppose I got into jazz – and poetry for that matter – largely by chance. And no doubt it was at the expense of giving time to other cultural realms that could easily occupy a lifetime. But they will do for me, thanks. Now, what to write about next year?

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