Sunday, May 03, 2009

`Clarity and Design and Order'

On the drive into Seattle I caught the last of Charlie Christian’s four choruses on “I Got Rhythm,” the version recorded by a disc jockey in a Minneapolis club in September 1939. Think of the timing: Hitler has just invaded Poland, and Christian, a 23-year-old out of Texas and Oklahoma, is already “the father of the electric guitar,” as Whitney Balliett says. A month earlier Benny Goodman had hired him to join his Orchestra and Sextet. Christian stayed with Goodman for almost two years until tuberculosis hospitalized him for the rest of his life. He died in 1942 at age 25, “a moth extinguished by his own flame,” as Balliett puts it.

Christian’s style is clean and precise, a combination that can sound sterile in the hands of a less rhythmically inventive musician. That’s the reason I’m largely indifferent to jazz guitarists but for Christian, Reinhardt, Jim Hall and a few others. Jazz guitarists tend to court loquaciousness, so the tedium goes on and on.

When I got home I looked up Balliet’s 1972 review of Solo Flight: The Genius of Charlie Christian, the LP that seriously introduced me to the guitarist. You can find the review on page 363 of Balliett’s Collected Works. It’s classic Balliett – beguilingly written but as packed with information as an encyclopedia entry. This passage grabbed me:

“His style was a model of clarity and design and order. It had the wastelessness and purpose of geometry, the flow and logic of Albers. But the laconic exterior was frequently ruffled, for Christian freely transmitted the emotions that drove him – those unfathomable, nameless emotions that compel all first-rate music – and he did it without ever disturbing the master plan each solo seemed to follow.”

The artist who came to mind as I read Balliett’s words was Chekhov – a master of reticence and understatement who also died prematurely of TB. Balliett’s “laconic” is the perfect adjective for both adjective-shy artists. It’s good to be reminded that eloquence needn’t be long-winded or flowery. Recall what Nabokov writes of Chekhov in Lectures on Russian Literature:

“… in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-the-street among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was.”

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