Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Music and Humor

Recently I was listening to John Scofield's amazing new album Country for Old Men.  In the album the jazz-fusion virtuoso does his take on classic country tunes.  And the results are remarkable.  I was listening to his version of the classic Hank Williams song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and at one point I just started laughing because he was taking the tune so far out that at many points it was unrecognizable.  I think of this as being playful - sort of fucking with audience expectations.  I could imagine many classic country fans holding their hands over their ears while saying things like "Naw. Just hell naw.  That a'int right."  Jazz - by it's very nature - is always at odds with the purist.

Then I started thinking about humor in music - not in lyrics - but in music.  And well, I couldn't think of many examples.  Certain genres don't seem to lend themselves to humor at all.  I don't think I've ever heard a playful heavy metal riff.  This isn't a slight - that's just a genre that always - at least to me - appears very serious.  Some country guitar and bluegrass players add little pieces of rock or jazz into their solos and I think that counts.  But I can't think of players who have turned this into a style or an aesthetic.

Tom Waits - simply by his choice of instrumentation and by seeing his voice as not one but many instruments - has always produced music that is playful and surprising.  In fact, I think it is in the idea of the surprise that humor is so intriguing musically.  It signifies something at odds with expectations. However, it's clear to me - it feels unarguable - that Frank Zappa is the great rock humorist.  The music has a symphonic like precision.  And at the same time, it's zany.

Does any of this matter?  I think so. Perhaps there is a difference between "playing" and "performing." I've had the occasion to perform really serious music with orchestras on several occasions.  There is nothing "playful" about this experience. It's exacting and for that reason, nerve-wracking. However, music that can be played and played with - forms that embrace improvisation - have a natural desire to expand their boundaries.  One way to do this is to stretch the idea of genre. Usually this produces the kind of humor I'm discussing, which is a playfulness that allows music to challenge itself and move out of a rigidly defined space.

I think most people today see that genre music is so connected to marketing analytics that it feels as processed as cheese from Taco Bell, so in that sense the more people who can find moments to decontstruct the very idea of genre, especially from the inside, the better off the state of music is.


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