A few weeks ago, my good friend John Schott asked me to administer a DownBeat Magazine-style “blindfold test” for him. Or on him -- whatever. It turned out pretty well as you can see for yourself. Being asked to undergo a "blindfold test" had long been a dream of his, and, seeing as how DownBeat Magazine was not calling (strangely, given John's dozens or even hundreds of polite calls to DownBeat Magazine over the years, to correct their various misstatements, misjudgements, and even misspellings), John thought to take matters into his own hands. His first attempt was a bit of a disaster, so naturally he thought to call me in. Now it is true that my knowledge of music is not quite as encyclopedic as John's, but I do have a few CDs, so I grabbed a dozen or so and headed to his legendary underground music palace. Two hours later, I left for home with a feeling of accomplishment: it went very well, though upon reflection I was a little surprised at some of the lacunae which my carefully curated assessment revealed in Mr. Schott's "expert" knowledge of music. Or perhaps he was just having a bad day?
|For some reason, it was not too many days later that John called, asking if I would like to undergo a similar test. I had thought he'd be too busy, you know, clearly he had some gaps to fill in his studies, and I told him so, but he said, no, he'd be happy to come over and do for me what I'd so kindly done for him. Obviously I could not politely refuse such generosity (he made this clear to me), and so what follows is a faithful transcript of that assessment. Although there were one or two musicians I could not quite name -- at the tip of my tongue, they were -- still, I think that I acquitted myself reasonably for a first try.|
Herbie Nichols: Amoeba's Dance (Blue Note)
Dan Uh, I don't know. It sounds pretty good.
John I really thought you might recognize Herbie Nichols. As you might remember, it was when I was playing Herbie Nichols' compositions with Ben Goldberg and Zorn at the old Yoshi's that you and I first met. I chose “Amoeba's Dance” in honor of Amoeba Music, from which you and I both purchased many records and CDs over the years. All musicians in the Bay Area owe a great debt to Amoeba -- what a happening place it was in its heyday!
Dan Yeah. Uh, there's a piano on that track, I think? I liked it okay.
John Um, yes; yes there is. That would be Herbie Nichols.
Dan And how many stars is it that I rate it out of?
Dan So, uh, maybe four-and-a-half. It would have been better with a saxophone, and maybe a trombone, and... well, anyone else who was available. You'd think he would have invited a few of his friends to play his compositions. Take off maybe a star. Make it three-and-a-half stars. Or just three. It's kinda boring, like he hasn't yet figured out how dumb jazz is.
Duke Ellington: Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah), Far East Suite
Dan I have no idea. It sounds pretty good, though, I suppose.
John I chose this track in honor of your own recording, Ivory Bill (Music & Arts), which is also named after a bird. I thought you might recognize it because I happen to know you own this album.
Dan Oh yeah. [long pause] Buster Cooper sounds great in the second trombone chair.
John Dan, put away your laptop – the whole idea of a blindfold test is that you respond honestly to the music, and show what you know about the music. Looking it up in Wikipedia defeats the purpose.
Dan No, I was just looking at [pause] um, something else.
Miles Davis: So What, Kind of Blue
Dan Huh. That one's kinda nice. What... who is it?
John That's... that's the best-selling jazz record of all time. [long pause] Kind of Blue.
John I chose it in honor of your own series of “Color Music,” composed in the early 2000's. Didn't you write a piece called “Mud Blue?” I always figured that your “Blue-Green, Orange-Yellow, Red & Brown” must be a reference to “Blue in Green.” No?
Dan Oh. No, not really. But I liked that record okay. I would like it better if it were a little clunkier -- it's still too jazzy, like they're kind of, a little bit, deceiving themselves, projecting something that feels, I have to say, a bit trite. Who... ?
John Never mind. Let's try a different tack.
Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Dan What was that strange scratching noise? And why is some drunk lady talking?
John I really thought that as a composer you might know this work, which many scholars, myself included, consider one of the seminal pieces of chamber music of the early 20th century.
Dan Huh. It didn't really do much for me. Probably if they would put the whole ensemble through a single wah wah pedal I'd like it better. That's what they should do.
John [stony silence]
Dan Okay. So. . . now I get to play you something, and see if you can get it?
John You've already had your chance. Besides, it's probably just another one of your recordings, probably something really obscure like the CD you put out with the Hinds Brothers, Another Curiosity Piece, and knowing you as well as I do, I'm going to say that the track you were planning on choosing was the final one, the one with all the overdubbed saxophones, "A Call to the White House." Right?
Dan [embarrassed silence]
John I thought so. It was rather obvious. Now let's continue. You're certain to get this next one.
Dan Plonsey: New Monsters #12
Dan Take it off! That's some sad shit, man. In the first place, I hear some Charlie Parker cliches. . . . They don't even fit. That's what's fucking up music, you know. Record companies. They make too many sad records, man.
John You don't recognize that recording?
Dan Uh... Should I?
John Well, "in the first place": it's you; it's from your most recent recording, released online exactly four days ago by “Sensitive Skin” Magazine. The very first track. In the second place, it's odd that you blame record companies because as I understand it, you released it in CD form yourself. And finally, your comments are not even your own – you're quoting Miles Davis from his “Blindfold Test” of June, 1964, with Leonard Feather. Miles is responding there to a Cecil Taylor recording, with Jimmy Lyons on alto saxophone.
[a car drives by]
Dan “What does it lack? Music! No stars.”
John And that was Mary Lou Williams, from the very first Blindfold test ever. She's talking about Jelly Roll Morton there. In that context, she responds negatively to his music, describing it as dated, but of course his music had had a considerable influence on her during her formative years. [long pause] By the way, did you know that I was one of the last musicians Ms. Williams interviewed before her death?
[a very long period of silence]
Dan “I'm gonna stop this now, I'm turning this off. All I can think is that this is some kind of vastly overblown musical pap that would be more appropriate for, you know, some kind of "Pap test" than for an official Feather blindfold test.”
John Now that quote was from Walter Becker, of Steely Dan, referring to John Tesh. This "test" is notable for the second pun Becker makes here: “official Feather” – well (chuckles), it's not Leonard Feather conducting the interview, it's his daughter, Lorraine. Of whom the less said, the better – not that I am disparaging her talents as a lyricist/jazz singer, but simply stating the obvious which is to say that there is some question as to whether the enormously critical role of blindfold-tester is one that is or ought to be passed along according to quasi-royal succession. She is an “official Feather,” but is the test up to her late father's standards? Becker doesn't think so!
[a long sigh]
Dan “You didn’t play anything by Ornette Coleman. I’ll comment on him anyway.”
John No you won't, Dan, because that was Charles Mingus, taking charge following an uninspired set of blindfold choices by Leonard on 4/28/1960. Mingus therefore opts to take on the role of interviewer as well as interviewee. An interesting idea, and yet, perhaps one of those ideas more interesting in the abstract than in practice. What do you think, Dan? [pause] Dan? [longer pause] Dan?