Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Beauty Of Balliett

I picked up my well-worn copy of the late Whitney Balliett's compilation, American Musicians II, with the idea of checking out (for probably the 10th time) his brilliant portrait of clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, "Even His Feet Look Sad," but got sidetracked into his lesser-known sketch of Cecil Taylor. (The fact that Balliett dug both Russell and Taylor tells you all you need to know about his catholic tastes.)

In a long, long paragraph on Taylor's style, this sentence jumps out: "He uses enormous chords; tone clusters; single-note arpeggios of such speed that they are almost indistinguishable from glissandos; runs played simultaneously by three fingers on each hand, the fingers held at an eighty-degree angle to the keyboard; runs and massed notes struck with a fist or elbow."

Beyond the virtuosic wordplay, the visual — and aural, because I surely hear that sentence as much as take it in through my eyes — imagery of Taylor in action is stunning. In a couple of the obits I've read on Balliett people have noted that he didn't use a lot of technical terminology; clearly, that's not the case. What he did do is blend technical terms like "glissando" and "arpeggio" so smoothly into poetic language that the terminology never became an issue.

Thinking about what drew me to Balliett — and to one of my other heroes, Ralph J. Gleason, before him — it's his literary approach to music that stands out. First and foremost, when Balliett or Gleason described a piece of music you wanted to hear it for yourself. Even when they were describing negative elements or inferior performances, you wanted to hear things they heard, apply your own judgment, determine what you thought was important, and make your own musical connections. If a music critic can do that they've done their job.

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