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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/03/20
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Funk Is The Enemy

There’s not much I remember clearly about the last night at the Wetlands, at
least well enough to quote, but one of those things happens to be something
that my friend declared to me. "Funk is the enemy," he said. I knew what he
meant then, and I know what he means now. We had been in the club for
several hours, watching the last Power Jam unfold and we were getting damn
sick of it. There were many reasons that I first became interested in
improvised music. Endless vamps on the same groove is not one of them.
What turned me on was the idea of endless possibility, the idea that the
music could, and did, travel anywhere. Of course, that’s a clichRegardless, what I enjoy about good improvisation is that there is a sense
of unlimited adventure, that it is being formulated from some entirely
open-ended equation that can careen from free jazz to rock to folk to world
music to… damn, you’ve heard all the genre smooshings before. Invariably,
though, they all seem to lead back to funk. Not just funk, in fact, but The
Funk, as if it were some goddamn cult.
Assuming that one believes in free will, then it is fair to say that, at any
given moment, a musician could – if he chose to – play any chord or note or
on his instrument. He could stand in silence, he could attack the guitar
from behind the nut, he could play a single note and let it hang. But he
doesn’t. It might be said that, when playing improvised music, musicians are
faced with a constant series of choices, of actions they can take. The
choices, then, are limited by certain factors: the key, the tempo, the time
signature, and other more intangible things like taste and judgment. Of
course, they are not literally limited – the world won’t end if the bassist
makes an illogical choice – but these are usually the variables that
musicians tend to follow. It’s one of the reasons why free jazz can be so
foreboding: Event A might not logically suggest Event B, at least in any way
that can be predicted by the observable circumstances of Event A.
Now think about the idea of a song. In reality, a musician playing a song is
just as free to do anything as a musician in the middle of a jam. After all,
who (or what?) is to stop him? Decorum? The consonance police? Another way
to look at the idea of a song is this: it is nothing more than a
series of choices with fixed results that creates the illusion of dispensing
of free will. This is fine, and it has its effect. It presents the thing in
a logical way: Riff A logically leads to Verse 1 which naturally transitions
to the bridge, of course. No other way to do it. The way a song is created,
then, is by limiting the choices of the musicians completely until they are
no longer choices. They just are. The next stop, for some, is to start
introducing choices back into the matter: drum fills, guitar solos, etc..
The idea is the same, though: make the momentum so great that it feels
necessary and essential.
Funk, then, is the enemy. It is a deadly one, too. Where a song wants to
create the illusion of dispensing with free will, funk creates a facetious
version of free will by pretending that it has dispensed with the choices.
Such balls-out confidence – that the groove and variety of chord changes
they are playing are the right ones – is to be admired, but – in the
wrong hands – it feels like a cop-out, an excuse to not listen, to not
create intelligent, lasting music. And, yeah, that’s a choice, and I can’t
really disparage the yearning to go out and dance on a Friday night, but I
can’t help but think that some of these people might be playing more
creative music.
There is a certain workman-like function in providing the groove to the
people — after all, people do need to dance. There is something
quaintly old-fashioned about that, but I tend to doubt that that’s what
these bands are doing, at least consciously. Maybe it’s an art form that
can’t be consciously practiced. I’d almost be willing to buy that. But I’d
like to see a jamband elevate this status to high art — I mean a really
carefully manipulated art, in the same way that the Talking Heads did to a
certain kind of groove, the way The Ramones did to bubblegum rock and roll.
There do seem to be shades of determinism in the movement towards funk.
What, then, leads to this choice? What is it conveying emotionally? What is
essential about it? Perhaps funk is more fun to play than other styles of
music just because it’s fun to watch kids dance. I know I’ve heard musicians
say that. So, in that case, they’re only responding to their audiences’
demands. This, while not exactly a high consideration of art, per se, would
be what would make me want to file funk – or, at least, hippie funk – as, of
all things, folk music. Go figure. Perhaps, then, it’s not the
enemy… hell, it’s better than most of what passes for folk these days.
Spring will soon be here and Jesse
Jarnow is preparing to do the Galeo Oop Oop

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