Passing Judgement

I recently heard a pianist who has great facility, a voluminous repertoire, and knows all the correct chord changes. I heard someone describe this musician as “a cocktail pianist,” but I disagree. I heard a depth of harmonic understanding far greater than that which I’d expect from “a cocktail pianist.” So why then did the performance leave me cold?

Several reasons, including a lack of swing and an overabundance of cleverness. The music was so busy going here, there and everywhere that it never found a groove, and I could never get a good foot-tap going. But most off-putting was that I could hear all the hard work that was going into the performance. With each lean into the piano and up-tic of a shoulder I could see the brain gears engaged and grinding away to create intricate segues between tunes and find just the right bar into which a clever musical quotation could be inserted.

I closed my eyes, but even then the performance was painstaking, and therein, I believe, lays a problem. Great works — be they musical, literary, fine art, or theatrical — should feel effortless. We the audience, want to experience the end result, at least at performance time. I add that “at least at performance time” caveat to acknowledge our interest in behind-the-scenes processes – an attraction well plumbed by ArtistShare. But when we see or hear the heavy lifting and mental machinations during a performance, when we see the man behind the curtain, the magic disappears.

So, if the appearance of effortlessness is one criteria for a great performance, what else? What makes an artist great rather than average?

  • Superior technical skill?
  • Emotional presence?
  • Unique sound or style?

I would posit that many artists have one or two of these attributes, but that only those few who have the whole package become the great masters or legends in their field. Having said that, I must also acknowledge the point made by Owen Cordle, jazz writer for the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and also JazzTimes. In an account shared online courtesy of Rifftides, Owen writes “Sometimes the spirit of a thing can give you hope and heal you even when the source isn’t perfect. ” I agree. Here’s another excerpt (read the full account here):

This may sound odd, but part of the joy came from watching Lou grab bits and pieces of the heads and sometimes feel his way through the first improvised chorus or part thereof and then nail the chord changes solidly the next time around. He was fallible and human but a quick study. And that was the beauty of it — recovery, ingenuity, memory and the musical ear in action on the wing.

I’d likely have felt the same way had I been there. What leaves me cold is not so much the awareness of the “work” being done as the purpose of that work. When the goal is communicating the essence of the music, all is well, but when the stylistic trappings, technique and cleverness become the point unto themselves, then all is lost. This is true of great writing as well as great music; if the style screams “look at me,” it is usually to cover up some deficit. I’m hoping that some of my esteemed colleagues and DevraDoWrite readers will weigh in with their thoughts via email.

And here’s one more thought to consider. Should an artist’s personal reputation matter? Whether factual or speculated, based on press or personal knowledge, should anything other than the person’s artistic ability influence our choices of consumption? Clearly publicity and advertising do influence us, but should that be so? Perhaps I am missing out when I refuse to pick up a book by Frey just because I think he’s a liar. Being a liar doesn’t preclude being a good writer, at least not technically. And I won’t even consider reading a book by someone named Cupcake, partly because of the Frey fallout, partly because of her name, and partly because I’m sick of the look-at-my-sorry-life-now-better memoirs. None of these are good reasons to dismiss a work unseen, but hey, I’m only human and that’s my reaction. I’m glad I became a Sinatra fan before I heard that he wasn’t always such a nice guy. It’s also a good thing I read “In Cold Blood” before I found out that Capote made stuff up and exploited his subjects and Harper Lee too. Hmmm.