Sunday, August 19, 2012

`A Polite Way of Not Overwhelming the Listener'

“[Jimmy] Rowles’s playing demands exactly as much as it offers.”

The mediocre artist asks little of us. Even the flamboyantly avant-garde expects only admiration or revulsion, not understanding or appreciation. Better artists offer an implicit contract: Give me your attention and good faith, and I promise to reward your time and trust. I won’t waste your time. This seems true, in particular, of poets and jazz musicians. One of the best among the latter was the pianist Jimmy Rowles, born on this date in 1918. He played with Lester Young and Benny Goodman, accompanied Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and some of his best recordings, made in his sixties and seventies, were with Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. In his profile of Rowles, “Chanting with Buster,” collected in American Musicians II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett continues:

“Every tune is multi-layered, and, except for those rare times when he tires and repeats certain phrases, it has no soft spots. His singular harmonic sense governs his attack. He uses strange, flatted chords that seem to leave his phrases suspended and unresolved. They are questioning chords. His delicate runs have the same upturned, searching air.”
Musicologists object but Balliett, a non-musician (he played a little drums), gets it exactly right: “questioning chords,” “upturned, searching air.” Rowles’ playing, even when he swings, hints at wistfulness. He learned much from Art Tatum, the most dangerous of piano teachers. Out of soulful hesitancy – a prescription for dreariness in most other hands – he became, in Balliett’s words elsewhere, “the most prepossessing pianist we have." (Listen to “Morning Lovely.”) Balliett goes on in his profile of Rowles (who died in 1996):
 “His chords and broken, winding runs suggest a hesitant, puzzled attitude, a continual where-do-I-go-from-here approach. But this is only an illusion, a polite way of not overwhelming the listener.”

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