What I Listen For

I’ve spent the last couple of years writing for Nextbop.com; though, not as consistently as I would like to. As I compiled my favorite albums of 2015 list at the end of last year, I realized that I hadn’t listened to a ton of new music to that point. As a result, I spent most of November and part of December listening to a whole mess of music released in 2015, and it was as inspiring as it was eye-opening. It showed me I hadn’t been listening to enough new music.

So, here I am in 2016 on an unofficial New Year’s resolution listening to new album after new album, over two dozen so far. That may not be much to other people, but I’ve never listened to this much new-to-me music in such a short period of time. I’ve always listened to a ton of music I already know, and when I do, I often already know why I like it. But when I listen to new music, I have to make the choice, “Why do or don’t I like this?”

Now that I’ve had to answer that question in depth over two dozen times in the last couple of months, I’m starting to notice some patterns about the kind of music that I like. I’m also going back to music I’ve liked for a while to see if those patterns hold true; they often do. Here are some things I’ve learned about my musical tastes.

Innovation in music is not necessary for me to enjoy it.

This is especially true in jazz, where innovation is often considered a main–and sometimes considered the only–measurement of artistic value. With its absence of anything that most would consider innovative (even for its time), Hank Mobley’s album Soul Station is just as much a favorite of mine as many innovative albums by Miles Davis. Mobley even appears on one of my favorite Miles Davis albums, and part of the brilliance of that album is that Mobley plays everything you expect to hear and doesn’t push you anywhere you don’t want to go.

Sometimes, I can even be turned off by innovation if it overshadows musicality too much, AKA I’m glad that you can play a super “hip” groove that alternates between groupings of 7 and 13 with a sitar but it doesn’t really sound good and I’m bored. If innovation is a part of what you’re naturally inclined to do as a musician, awesome. I’m not saying I don’t like innovation; I’m saying I don’t like the idea that innovation is king and should be pursued at all costs.

Great technique is subjective, and I don’t care how fast you can play.

For my purposes, technique is what allows you to express yourself. If you’re Rachmaninoff and are able to play essentially anything that’s been written for your instrument, that’s awesome. But in my opinion, some of Rachmaninoff’s best playing is on his recordings of Chopin Nocturnes, many of which do not require blazing speed or even superhuman coordination. They require the right touch and phrasing.

To be sure, those are techniques that must be studied and practiced just like blazing speed or superhuman coordination. However, they’re techniques that I don’t often hear people talking about or glorifying (maybe I’m sheltered or hang out with too many saxophonists). So, what I consider to be great technique might not be immediately what comes to someone else’s mind as great technique.

Ability to accurately articulate a viewpoint is everything to me.

Who’s a better rapper: Kendrick Lamar or Macklemore? Probably Kendrick Lamar. You could really argue either side and rightfully bring in associated artists, size of vocabulary, or even awards and album sales. But in the end, I don’t really care. What I do care about is being brought into a fully realized perspective.

When I put on “Alright”, I’m instantly transported into the world according to Kendrick Lamar. Temptations, religious identity, a mention of reparations, references to the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter Movement, the struggle between now and later. This song doesn’t represent his complete world view; it’s not an autobiography. But it is one look at life from his perspective in a particular context.

Sure, there are good Macklemore songs. Some have good messages (or at least good intentions). I even like a couple of them. But nowhere in Macklemore’s catalog are you going to find anything that touches the richness and fullness, the downright high definition of the picture that Kendrick Lamar paints in “Alright”. And maybe that’s not Macklemore’s point. Maybe he and his fans are just content with having fun songs that are sometimes clever and sometimes deal with more serious subjects. But that’s just not what I’m into.

I think one album released last year–one album that I woefully neglected until this year–that perfectly exemplifies what I’m talking about is saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s
The Epic.

I don’t know that there’s much in that release that anyone would call truly innovative. There are quasi-innovative things such as his easy-going, reggae-like take on “Cherokee”, a jazz standard that is often bastardized at blistering tempos by obnoxious musicians at jam sessions. But he’s not fundamentally changing jazz with sounds and ideas from other genres or integrating new technology into an older style of music.

Though Washington does have stereotypical virtuosic technique on display at certain points throughout the album, it’s the points where things slow down that you really hear him express himself most freely. The two tracks that may best illuminate this idea are “Final Thought” for the flashy and his arrangement of Claude Debussy’s romantic era composition “Claire de Lune” for the finesse. I’m not saying the latter is inherently greater than the former because of its tempo; I’m saying that the former isn’t inherently a better indicator of a great musician just because it’s fast.

To me, the most impressive part of The Epic is its epicness. It’s a kaleidoscope of views from Washington’s unique perspective, creating a cubist collage that comes close to an entire world view. I think Adam Shatz may have said it best last month in the New York Times when he wrote of Washington, “He may not be a major innovator, but he is a remarkably forceful communicator[.]”

Being a musician that writes about music can at times be weird and awkward. It’d be relatively easy for me to come up with a set of technical standards by which I judge all music, but that would leave me prone to missing out on certain ineffable qualities that make art great. After nearly ten years of playing and studying jazz, this non-technical approach to judging music offers me a better chance at actually listening to music instead of listening at music.