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Columns > Preaching on the Porch - Benji Feldheim

Published: 2005/12/12
by Benji Feldheim


Excerpt from an interview with Billy Martin on 6/21/04
Feldheim: What do you think of the jam scene in its current form?
Martin: Not much. I mean the jam scene, I dont even know what youre talking about. When I hear jam band I think like, I hear musicians that have very little scope for really doing anything original. I just have a really jaded attitude towards the whole jam band scene.
F: Im speaking less of the type of band the word describes, but more so the scene around it.
M: The audience, the sub culture I think is alwaysto me, its always been there in different forms. I guess it goes back to the sixties and Woodstock, and that whole subculture of sort of grass roots kind of music, where its generally a predominantly white, middle class kids who go to college are really open to a lot of good music and they really appreciate it and admire a lot of roots music. I think whats different about this subculture is that, plus an openness to even more experimental stuff. I think back then it was a probably similar offshoot of that jam scene that was into Coltrane, and his late stuff, and Monk, and Sun Ra and Albert Ayler.
As Dr. Thompson once said, it is time for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole thing.
A player like Illy stayed true to his art. His work with Johns Zorn and Lurie thrust him into a realm of music in savage balance of discipline and turmoil, to apply that method to the freakish and beautiful sound of Medeski Martin and Wood. Reaching jam scene audiences in the late 90s gave the band a boost in attendance, on the condition that MMW continued to get the crowd off on their taste of madness. So, he does appreciate some element, but is knocking another. If being acknowledged by the scene is a good thing, whats so repugnant about being called a jamband? Martin may be on to something. Lets take a look at where I think we are.
1. Whats in a Name
Miles said it. Garcia said it. A couple of weeks ago George Porter Jr. told me the same. Real music makers DO NOT want to just play jazz, or punk, or anything specific. These artists all said they just play music. Swiftly putting on a vacuous, simple name on an art form instantly limits the creative process by establishing a palatable formula. Once the music must fit into the context of that name, energy and thought goes toward stuffing what is played into this idea of how it should sound to fit the definition. The result? Think of a band where if asked to describe their sound, all you can think of is jamband. Sounds flat as hell doesnt it? Whether it points out an attitude of open-mindedness or not, the term jamband will forever try to categorize a sound and approach whose essence is its undefined nature. *2. The Difference *
Jamming is not necessarily improvising. If one wants to know what real improvising is, go see one of John Zorns Improv Week shows at Tonic on the Lower East Side. Those performances demonstrated how far the boundaries of familiarity can be shattered, by first spending much time and effort learning scales, rudiments and other established rules of music. The Improv Week featured many string, percussion and horn players, as well as a Theremin, lap top effects, peoples voices, blowing into bottles and a tap dancer on bubble wrap. In essence, the musicians did not focus on time, melody or steadiness. They just played. Improvising doesnt always make the crowd happy. Jamming on the other hand works to a common point of arrival. It should be tight, cohesive and have another place to go. Most importantly, no matter how out there a player might think he or she is, almost all jams are a repetition of a musical pattern already thought of some other time. The arrival of such a pattern can be truly spontaneous, but very few musicians are good enough to just shit it out. For reasons I know not, too large a number of musicians think you can start jamming right away. WRONG! I tried, and it never really worked without songs. While real improvising needs a ton of hours spent playing to be pulled off thoughtfully, jamming can arguably be done with less experience, but it isnt any simpler. Jamming needs crafted songwriting like we need sex and air. The songwriting is not just a launch pad, but another cliff at which to arrive. Jamband, for better or worse, does have an implication that all it takes to make music is easy spontaneity and that songwriting is almost tertiary. Just ask Warren Haynes what he thinks about that. *3. Only Staying in the Know *
Leaving the Old Point Bar across the pond in New Orleanssighsorry, cant help it…after the sudden Benevento and Vidacovich only Duo, Brandon DeJaynes and Bill Wray said they really enjoyed finding out about many amazing bands they had never heard before Jazz Fest. One of them actually phrased it in a way saying it was good to find music outside the scene. While a music junkie would search many a moon and land to find a genre as inclusive to experimentation and style-hybridization as the jamband scene, there are bands outside. An potential afterbirth of the limiting aspect of the name jamband is that the formula might lead some people to think playing live music is as simple as applying the formula. In other words, weak sauce players will merely try to jump on the band wagon. But why else does it happen? Because fans of the scene are content to a degree with sticking to shows they can easily find by simply following the trail of the scene. This type of laziness can affect not just the music by the scene itself. If we become too complacent, the quality of the music will wane, because bands will simply use the formula: a danceable 4/4 beat, add solos. When the quality of music dives, the drugs will be the only item left getting anyone off, and thats when the assholes arrive. You know the type. The folks who clearly are only interested in getting fucked up. Theres a ton of difference between getting fucked up and getting high. But I digress. Regardless of the drugs, relying on convenience leads to complacency, and folks involved with the scene would be more aware of music if we searched outside the ease of groups known basically as jambands.
Stay with me, it aint all that bad.
4. Come One Come All, Just Do it Well
While the genre-like parallels of the scene might strap blinders on folks as far as hearing bands not spoken about within the scene, a music junkie could search the ends of the existence and not find a single consortium of musicians and fans as open minded and interested in sonic experiments as this scene. Think of the last festival you attended, and put side by side the different styles of music played there. Varied, isnt it? A solid microcosm of this is Cyro Baptista and Beat the Donkey. The groups sound in a broad stroke is real world music. Aside from pulling in players from around the world, the band also incorporates dance routines as near as tap and as far as Balinese gong. By far and away, the most exciting group Ive seen, and yet they have had trouble with recording companies because the sound is too complex to describe in a few words. Think about Reverend Peytons Big Damn Band, if you still are not convinced. The jam scene, however, has embraced these groups along with many others that would have no chance in trying to exist in the realm of album sales and radio play for the ADD mainstream. The scene is about the shared joy between musicians and fans. Folks have suggested the internet has distanced fans from each other by not having to communicate with actual people to get recordings of live shows, but I believe the spread of music over an exponentially wider plain compared to the days of trading tapes have allowed bands to sell more music to listeners and have exposed people to bands in areas far from where they reside. Open minded fans and musicians have come together through the gates of this scene to rewrite the rules of the music business.
5. The Show
Along with the wide berth of music styles to choose from at a given jam scene show, the bands are encouraged to experiment in the moment with their written compositions. For the performer it allows him or her to let go of the pressure to simply playing a song correctly, and allows energy felt as much onstage as in the crowd to surge. Umphreys McGee, Les Claypool and many other bands have taken recordings of such instant creations as the skeletons of new songs. For the audience, it opens up the possibility that what ever they hear on a particular night, might be the only time they hear that specific version of such a tune stretched out in that way. Now, anyone involved in experiments should know the overwhelming failure to success ratio. But then again, when asked about trying over two hundred times unsuccessfully to find the right material to hold the glow of the light bulb, Thomas Edison said he didnt fail at anything. Rather, he found two hundred ways how not to make a light bulb. The musicians and fans both understand this. The sit in is a much talked about facet of jam shows and has a huge chance for failure to blow up in players faces. Musicians will tell you it takes time to really learn how to play in a balanced method with other players. Jamie Masefield, Warren Haynes and George Porter Jr. all agree that the chemistry of a band composed of people who have played together for a long time is always more important than that of a sit in. Nevertheless, I cant remember a single person at any such show walking around with his or her nose in the air grumbling about the onstage experiments.
6. And Most Importantly, We The Fans
We are the most awe-inspiring group of fans in the known human-occupied universe. We arent perfect, but fuck all that. I dont care about wookies, or shady dealers selling ten dollar hits of acid, nor do gate crashers phase the tremendous kindness that emanates from the folks at these shows. Many share, and few shove. Folks are eager to help others out, be it a much needed sip of water, or a human wheelbarrow to get passed out dancers to the medical facilities. Perhaps you and friend are stuck on the side of Highway 70, a hundred miles away from Red Rocks. Chances are pretty good youll find a ride. Even Editor Grande Dean Budnick had the help of a stranger when his car got stuck on a tree stump at Bonnaroo. Think about how many people youve met from however many random places, and then think of how easy it was to speak those folks right after you met. If anyone else can tell me another scene where such things are as prevalent as this one, enlighten me. We are also dedicated to get to shows come hell or low account balances. We bust some serious ass at times to get to these shows. The only key to keeping this most important of all aspects of our fair scene is to keep passing the good on. Readers, if you have tales of braving however many obstructions in your path to get to a show or fest, please email me your tale of how far you went and Ill see if can get a bunch of them on the site. *Conclusion: The Point *
We have a good thing here, but it needs maintenance. We cannot let the goodness be an excuse for complacency and laziness. For a start, its too easy to call the groups jam bands. Take the time to really figure out what it is these bands are playing. It wont be easy, but you will be doing a hell of a service to these groups by not simplifying what they do. Besides, if all one can say about a group is that they are a jam band, they probably are boring as hell. Solid jamming takes work, and if a band hasnt put enough in their craft to go beyond the term jam band, they need to work harder. But so do we. Really, it was We, the Fans, who started the scene. We responded to the musical creativity with insights, goodness and joy all our own. To maintain the scene we always have to put something in, and help each other when needed. We can help by getting outside the scene to show others what its about, and maybe even help a band find a new audience. Since it was us who started it, we must keep it green, healthy and beautiful. Perhaps the name of the site should change. If you got thoughts, let me know. See you in the lot.

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