Sunday, June 12, 2016

`No Over-the-Counter Emotions'

On Friday, Terry Teachout wrote in his final Tweet of the day: “After a perfect day, a perfect lullaby, courtesy of the incomparable Warne Marsh,” and linked to Marsh’s recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” (A Ballad Album, 1983). What a pleasure to learn someone else enjoys Marsh (1927-1987). By nature, I’m not a cultist. I don’t seek out obscure or forgotten artists simply because they are obscure or forgotten, or because I want to congratulate myself on my hipness. Most of the best artists are already well-known, and most of the obscurities deserve their oblivion. Marsh was not designed for broad popularity even in so unpopular an art as jazz. In his 1985 profile of Marsh, “A True Improviser” (American Musicians II, 1996), Whitney Balliett quotes the West Coast reedman Gary Foster: “It’s not in Warne to entertain. If his playing has any entertainment value, it is in its very subtlety.”

Normally, that judgment would kill an artist for me. We’re all familiar with artistes who won’t stoop to delivering pleasure, for whom art is an assault. Marsh is not that sort. His sound is logical, cool, unflappable and, rather counterintuitively, rich with articulate emotion. Balliett admits, “Marsh makes his listeners work,” but there’s always a reward for the effort. Marsh seemed to inspire some of Balliett’s best writing. This is from a piece he published in The New Yorker the year after Marsh’s death and included in Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2001):

“His tone was brown and thick, and he used almost no vibrato. His melodic lines were Proustian. He was an intellectual improviser, who played intensely complex melodic lines, which demanded complete concentration and offered no over-the-counter emotions. He was never a popular player: he never courted his audience when he performed. He disappeared inside his music. He was a shy, hidden, restless man who waited for the world to come to him and, when it did, returned the compliment in full. Marsh might have been a cult figure but wasn’t. Cult figures often leak; Marsh was watertight.”

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