Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Virtual Jazz?

One of the hallmarks of jazz relative to most other genres of music is spontaneity—what makes jazz “jazz” is not only swing and improvisation, but the “in-the-moment” interactions among musicians, and among a soloist and the audience. Thus the saying that “jazz is never played the same way once” (and who said that? I forget!) – it isn’t fully planned ahead (if at all) and there are no re-runs. Yet I read an article from the LA Times about a new technical marvel that will allow Art Tatum to re-record his 1933 masterpiece, “Piano Starts Here.” Isn’t Tatum long dead? It seems that the copyright holder, Sony BMG, has called on a North Carolina company, Zenph Studios, to digitally translate not only Tatum’s notes but his style—how he struck the keys, moved his fingers, worked the pedals….characteristics that modern technology can analyze and supposedly recreate with precision. Notes the Times, “the result, if all goes right, will be a new CD that replicates the original performance, in stereo and higher fidelity.” So hang on jazz fans, soon we can hear Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or the voice of Bessie Smith without scratch and hiss. Virtual re-issues might be the next big thing on the record market, and surely this will revive jazz sales!

I guess I can see some merit to this Brave New World—it would be nice to listen to Tatum’s flying fingers unfettered by the relatively poor recording science of his day. What would Armstrong sound like if he had recorded his 1920s squeals and shouts without the additional hiss and crackle of early high fi? But early recordings not only captured the blemishes of primitive audio engineering, they also captured the way the sound was delivered to mesh with that technology—singers shouting into the recording horn long before microphones allowed wax to capture nuance, sound layers dictated by where the musicians stood in the studio. Recreating those performances in modern digital stereo would indeed produce a great sound—but would it be the sound of King Oliver’s brass band or the Benny Goodman Orchestra? Would this Zenph-ified music be jazz as intended or a translation out of context?

Neither Tatum nor Armstrong would have considered regurgitating an earlier performance. The hallmark of jazz is not the ability to improve on the past, but to continuously move beyond it. Technology should help us create new ideas, new sounds. Leave the recycling to newsprint and tin cans.

No, I am not in Los Angeles and I don't subscribe to the LA Times. For a sampling of news about jazz from around the world, I check out the weekly E-news from – as they say, “we read the newspaper for you.” Consider signing on for this free service if you just can't get enough jazz locally. You’ll receive an email with highlights of jazz related article from the world’s press and links to the full articles… not always in English!