Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

I once met a girl who told me she worked in “attributions”. I got too absorbed in admiring her attributes to ask what that involved, and it’s come back to haunt me.

Attribution in art has always been a complex business, and there’s no reason why jazz should be any different. Even so, it does pull one up short, as a relatively seasoned jazz reviewer to be confronted with a new Coltrane reissue called The Complete Lee Kraft Sessions or something equally unfamiliar that only the small print admits was originally released under a different title and under the drummer’s name. In the first case, it’s reassuring to recognize that Kraft – stout craftsman that he undoubtedly was – served as producer rather than as second tenor and that pretty much all the material within has already been issued under either Coltrane’s or Art Blakey’s names. Reassuring until you detect the marketing ploy, after which it’s merely irritating. As to the other kind of re-attribution, it makes equally good business to reissue a record – and even LP-era material is now drifting out of copyright – under the most marketable name in the ensemble rather than that of the guy who set up the session and then drifted back into obscurity. It has happened more than once to Coltrane, of course. His “other” Blue Note was actually first a Cecil Taylor record issued on another label, but everyone recognizes that Trane moves units considerably faster than Cecil, so . . .

There’s no need to get unduly hung up on an issue that is usually answered by simple economic pragmatism and by a need to repackage and, if necessary, rebrand the back catalogue. On the other hand, there are philosophical issues at stake. Given that it is the most abstract and intangible of the arts, music is also perversely the most reified. Given that jazz is perhaps the slowest of the musical genres to embrace the newly democratized download culture, the reification has an increasingly fetishistic cast. That’s inherently unhealthy, in the sense that having a record collection is a less worthy thing than loving and listening to music. On the other hand, everyone collects – bibliophiles purr over mint first editions, art lovers lock away their treasured oils and etchings – so why pillory the music business when art and literature are driven by the same nexus?

One interesting way to address the general question of attribution and value is to look at what does happen in the other art forms and consider the parallels. Everyone now understands that most significant medieval panels weren’t executed by the named (if he was) artist alone but by a small atelier of sleeve specialists, sky painters, draughtsman who could do hands or feet all day long. In the same way, we understand that jazz is a collaborative art, requiring not just horns and a “rhythm section” but also a straw-boss, composer, engineer, producer, and in the case of Blue Note, designer and photographer to deliver what you have in your hand. Sometimes the balance of input isn’t reflected in the credits. A record put together by a bassist who doesn’t much like to solo, using charts entirely by Gigi Gryce or Duke Pearson, and heavily reliant on a charismatic trumpeter and a Van Gelder-type engineer/producer won’t much sound like the bassist’s record at all. We’ve all had the experience of walking into an unfamiliar club where the hitherto unknown Joe Blow Quintet is playing and immediately assuming that Joe is the guy standing out front, blowing a long line, when in fact he’s the guy standing in the shadows at the back doing the musical equivalent of knocking in railroad ties. To some extent, these concerns are a throwback to an always-misleading hierarchy of “front-line” and “rhythm section”, but you don’t need to be a base-and-superstructure Louis Althusser type to see the shortcomings of that. You just need to have heard of Art Blakey, or Charles Mingus.

Attribution is considered more of an issue in the fine-art world (and I’m being ingenuous: that girl worked for Sotheby’s). Putting a reliable name to an unsigned canvas or sketch on the basis of a few hunches, context, perhaps a look at the microstrokes is the visual equivalent of a blindfold test, if such a thing can be conceived. Mostly, this too is about money. Hanging above my desk is a small chalk and ink drawing which I bought in good faith twenty five years ago as by the Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie. When I tried to sell it a year ago – wife, children and CD collection to support, guv – the Wilkie maven pronounced himself unsure but was sufficiently persuaded to agree to “attributed to . . .” in the catalogue, along with a significantly lower reserve. Someone else had a look pre-sale and, to cut a long story short, it’s now back above my desk as “ school of Wilkie”, or it could be yours, at considerably less than the first estimate. It’s hard to think of a precise musical analogy, unless one imagines a crackly acetate that’s believed to be and issued as a lost Bird tape, but which subsequently turns out to be Willie Charles, known to his few fans as an uncanny Parker copyist.

In practical terms, attribution in jazz usually amounts to little more than working out who really wrote “Donna Lee”. It’s perhaps slightly more complicated in collectively improvised music. As Richard Cook and I regularly found out doing the Penguin Guide to Jazz, there’s always an issue when there are three guys’ names on the cover: whose record is it? I came across an interesting example of this recently, with the reissue of a classic of European improv, Topography of the Lungs, originally credited to Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and Evan Parker, but now reissued on Evan Parker’s label as an Evan Parker record. Given a well-documented falling-out between Parker and the late guitarist, is there a story here? I asked Evan about it and the answer was perfectly straight: he put the session together, booked the studios, did most of the other associated work so, a collectively improvised session, yes, but in the end an Evan Parker record. Here the attribution scarcely seems to matter, though perhaps, as we have discovered more than once working on the Penguin Guide, there’s a small but significant contextual difference if you review a record as by one artist rather than another. In the same way, it would make a difference to a reading of The Waste Land if you were unconsciously to align it more with “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” and The Cantos and somewhat less with “Gerontion” and Four Quartets because you’d just been told Ezra Pound was a collaborator who’d knocked the manuscript into shape. Does it matter if Henry VIII is Shakespeare’s, or only partly so? Does it matter which parts of Henry VI or Titus Andronicus aren’t his? Does it matter if “Shakespeare” turns out to be a man called Neville? And so on, and so forth . . .

What matters more is whether attribution and re-attribution help you listen to music – or appreciate any other art - in a potentially creative new way. In an ideal world, of course, we’d approach all music unlabelled, unattributed, unburdened with critical reputation, as we presumably once did in a more organic and less differentiated society. My own listening pattern now, outside work contexts, is that I almost never know what I’m playing. I’ve found a way of grabbing CDs at random and slapping the disc in the machine without looking at the box or label. It’s a fascinating experiment, less illuminating in some respects as the stylistic signature becomes less distinct - because how do you mine meaning from very abstract music anyway? - but also more illuminating when the exercise isn’t about recognizing a melody or a voice and saying “Ah, Mahler” or “That’s Robbie Robertson”, but about listening to sound with no prior expectation of what instrumentation, style, even duration you’ve committed to. I recently walked round an art gallery in Riga, from which all the artist/title/date/provenance cards had been temporarily removed for updating. It was a strange and agreeable experience to look at pictures again simply as icons where the only signifiers are non-verbal or –textual.

Part of our job, of course, as music “critics” is precisely to offer those textual references and contextual information. It makes some difference to how you hear a record if you know the artist’s previous form, and it significantly deepens appreciation at one level. On the other hand, if any work of art is to be considered entire and autotelic, then such knowledge is by definition irrelevant and probably misleading. Jazz, because it is an art form that treads so many philosophical dividing lines – not least that between the personal and impersonal, “works” and work, now and that oppressive thing, history– seems uniquely susceptible to questions of this sort. It would be delightful to slap on something called The Complete Lee Kraft Sessions with absolutely no knowledge of who was playing and no functional memory of Trane’s saxophone sound, at this period or any other, but it realistically isn’t going to happen. What we need, I guess, is sufficient mental discipline and that old idea of evenly suspended attention whereby we can listen without prejudice and with no pre-set awareness of who’s supposed to be in charge, and only then start to make the identifications, prioritisations and highly relative value-judgements that are central to the critical process. There’s a paradox in this: that over-quoted Santayana line about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it is only right if you tack on the bracketed phrase “though like as not they won’t know they have”. The truth is that those who remember the past, who’re too concerned with history, are condemned either to repeat it or to spend their days avoiding it under the banner of novelty. Attribution is the DNA-test of history, the quickest and most effective way of assigning meaning and order on an otherwise undifferentiated mass of experience. To complain about it is to talk myself out of a job; to make it an end in itself is to make the job more important than the music. I don’t do blindfold tests (though it’s the one thing everyone wants to do when each new edition of the Penguin Guide comes out) on the grounds that it’s an exercise that has only three possible outcomes: looking really smart; looking really dumb; or looking – that hobgoblin of small minds – weirdly inconsistent when you spot Harold Land lurking in the background of some obscure West Coast date, but fail to recognize Sonny Rollins on Saxophone Colossus. Should you be ambushed into such a test, the cool thing is to do what Lonehill and those other reattributors are now routinely doing, and pick out the bass player, as if the horn man was either (a) blindingly obvious or (b) somehow unimportant. Attribution is the curse of a world chained to the cash nexus, because everything has to be owned by someone, but it keeps some of us off the streets.

Brian Morton©2008

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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