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What I talk about when I talk about Aesthetics

Still from Michelangelo Antonioni's, Blow-Up

"He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars" William Blake (Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion)

I titled this particular blog post as I did because I think that what it is to be an aesthete is to always be returning to the thing itself.

You could call this the art object if you like but it is above all a matter of intrinsic value (as opposed to extrinsic value). What is important, then, is the thing itself and not what the thing represents socially, connects with, or symbolizes, or the meaning of that thing for this or that social or collective phenomenon. Of course all these do matter but but they will not matter equally for all of us and moreover might distort more central meanings in any art work - as much as they also illuminate.

I feel that if we pay a little more attention than usual to what I am going to call the "thing itself" we might being to see why it is this that is so central and meaningful for art and culture. It is the "thing itself" that ushers in our feelings, our moods, our sense of value - whether we are even "consciously" aware of this or not. It involves our senses and is sensory. I believe the intellect is not too far behind and far more important than many realize here, but there is sense first.

Whether we are dealing with instrumental music which is quite abstract, or dealing with written, spoken or performed language - let us say a complex paragraph of one of the more sophisticated prose stylists like a Henry James or Toni Morrison - some kind of human sense response will be in play; painting, sculpture, and moving film or images I feel fit into this as well. I identify as an aesthete which is type of personal identity: this usage is far less common than the word aesthete being used as an abstract category or concept as in the aesthetic as a noun or adjective. I hope to join aesthetics and pluralism in this particular post and to do so in the most specific way possible - by one field - one of the most representative examples of the Miles Davis Quintet of the middle to late 1960s, one of the major influences on most of the instrumental jazz in the subsequent years and decades to follow.

What I am choosing could be called canonical.

This is one of my favorite recorded examples of Herbie Hancock's piano playing, as well as that great trio or rhythm section with Ron Carter and Tony Williams that was joined with the Miles Davis of that era. If we are considering that rhythm section or trio alone, this recorded performance is also a standard representative of a kind of essence of piano and piano trio performance style in the greater part of the last half of the twentieth century. This performance is the celebrated one from 1964 and the particular song is their interpretation of Cole Porter's "All Of You" from that justly famous concert - in February at Philharmonic Hall.

In addition to the first link of the entire song, I have also included a visual score, a transcription of Hancock's improvised solo for the second link: the focus of this particular blog post.

Many thanks are in order to Jungsoo Kim who apparently did this transcription.

I won't be coy in my assertion: as you listen to this you are in fact listening to one of the best recorded performances in that long, orphaned 20th century.

There are many such transcriptions of improvised jazz solos on YouTube.

For much of the middle to late 20th century we improvising musicians would often transcribe these by ear, a usually arduous, even painful process, involving placing needles on records or, later, clicks on a tape deck repeatedly. When you do not have perfect or absolute pitch as I didn't the process is even harder. Many such transcriptions were published by well known music publishing companies in those years as well as numerous underground or homemade ones. These formed a part of my own musical study beginning in high school.

I first heard this 1964 recording in 1979 and I am most sure that I bought this record with the allowance money - money I regularly earned at that time working on an assembly line in the family manufacturing plant in Tampa - and during one of many Summers spent in New York City, bought the album at Record Hunter.

The vinyl album was probably $5.95 - "the nice price" - as they said in those years. They would have a garish sticker placed conspicuously over the plastic surrounding the album. I believe at that time in the laster 1970s and early 80s Columbia nd other major labels were rereleasing classics albums and that is why I came across this one.

It is the oddest thing indeed to see an excerpt of classic recorded jazz performance, Miles Davis with Herbie Hancock no less, on YouTube, with the real time score scrolling with the music. Had you asked me in 1979, the year I first heard the Columbia My Funny Valentine recording if I could imagine a time in which millions would see it visually as a score and hear it on a single computer, I might have not known what you were talking about. Doubtless this reflects my own limitations and science illiteracy at the time - and a lack of imagination. Each of has at least some imagination, but not for all things. It feels to me the hardest thing to write about instrumental music of this kind.

The difficulty is that instrumental music is never as "representational" or specific as the music with words that continues to dominate society. There is a long literature on the meaning of music. My guest composer Jim Stephenson appears to be convinced that even instrumental music is akin to narrative or storytelling. I can't leave this post though without entering partly into the visual representation of this greatest of piano solos, into what we musicians call the score. I can only tell you that first there is the sensation of the sounds of instruments - the touch as we oftentimes say.

Herbie Hancock during his addition for Miles Davis - about a couple of years before this very performance - as told by Miles that he had a "nice touch", an observation that went a long way towards Miles hiring him. But all three musicians established what would be long lived practices for jazz playing on their respective instruments: the tone of Ron Carter's bass and is style and articulation of "walking", the fluidity, pulse, and overall sensitivity of Tony Williams drums are as important as physical touch on the piano. There is so much I could and would say about this one improvised solo, but for the purposes of this post and this podcast I am going to mention four elements. The first is Hancock's absolute command of the "bebop" vocabulary from the recent past. Another way of describing bebop is a kind of flowing line over chord changes and formed a great part of the common language of this period of jazz. Bars 25 through 35 in the score shows Hancock using this bebop language to help guide and build his solo. In addition to these type of "bebop" stylistic effects, Hancock is showing something truly original in harmonic language, building upon the bebop but adding something new. I think measures 47 through 53 are really good examples of this second element in a literal, chordal sense. I should add that even when Hancock is focusing on the single, improvised line there is a freer, more complex character in keeping with his harmonic interest - for example in all of the triplet figures in bars 83 through 88. Hancock has been a lifelong explorer of harmony in general and he has been as innovative in this element of music as he has been in the improvised line and the rhythmic motif.

Of course not only is there what Hancock brings to his solo: the decision by Miles Davis to free up the form of the entire song within the solos and replace it with a repeating chordal passage (sometimes called a turnaround in jazz circles), itself inaugurated by, among others, Ahmad Jamal, is a decision that would greatly influence subsequent contemporary music of all kinds. The third element is the soulfulness and blues aspect to the solo. This occurs throughout the entire solo, most audibly in the measures 100 through 117. This element would be most influential on his music in the 1970s; you could say that Hancock was innovative in creating his own blend of jazz and popular or R n B elements. The fourth and final element is the overall integrity of the solo. It has all of the shape and coherence of a piece of music that had been written slowly over many months rather than performed instantaneously in four minutes. This might be the most moving aspect to me of this solo. There is a real climax beginning at measure 133, and this confirms that music can have a space like a fictional drama involving human beings while being at the same time completely abstract and non specific as is instrumental music.

Above all, the rhythmic motif that is part of Miles Davis' arrangement of the entire song - exhibited up front in bars 1 through 4. This is one recorded solo over a song form Herbie Hancock was still relatively young at this time but he must have already played maybe hundreds of similar solos over this very same song. This one happens to have been documented.

My attention to a single artwork in this post is my attempt to illustrate an aesthetic approach to something humans have made.

There are of course other approaches that have validity, but this one happens to be my favorite, and is in harmony with my own experiences as a musician.

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Aug 01, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you Mitch, great post!

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