Taking back the music

A story about jazz and coffee and language

I’ve been spending a lot of time around old jazz records. I’m still a newbie, mind you. On the “likelihood to ruin your dinner party by talking about jazz all night” scale I’m probably only a 3 or a 4. But there’s one thing about these old records that might turn me into a proper annoyance: the liner notes. I’ve taken an enormous liking to the hyperbolic outpourings of praise that defined the rich jazz era of the 1960s.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from Ira Gitler’s liner notes for Sunday at the Village Vanguard by The Bill Evans Trio:

In listening to the present album, I find myself so absorbed that consciousness of my body disappears and I become as one large ear, equipped only with a psyche. I am not aware of the act of listening. I am suffused by the music and become one with the music. Evans’ comment — “It’s feeling” — has never been more graphically presented.

That is so ridiculous and so wonderful at the same time. This kind of language wasn’t confined to the arts, either. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — the Prime Minister of France during the early 1800s — once wrote a completely over the top description of how coffee made him feel. Even though he was very likely under the influence of a vast amount of caffeine when he wrote these words, I swear when I’m drinking a great cup of coffee I almost believe him:

A cup of coffee detracts nothing from your intellect; on the contrary, your stomach is freed by it and no longer distresses your brain; it will not hamper your mind with troubles but give freedom to its working. Suave molecules of Mocha stir up your blood, without causing excessive heat; the organ of thought receives from it a feeling of sympathy; work becomes easier and you will sit down without distress to your principal repast which will restore your body and afford you a calm delicious night.
— Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

Or how about this one, from Halldór Laxness’s novel Independent People, written in 1934:

Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten and the soul is inspired with faith in the future.
— Halldór Laxness

Beautiful. We don’t see descriptions like these any more. We’ve become too cynical, too “authentic” for such overblown swooning over the things around us. And when we do find the odd soaring language in a review, it’s mostly in the service of putting something down forcefully. Here is Pitchfork on Pink Floyd’s The Endless River:

The Endless River is stately, grandiose, and searching, but it is also bloated, pompous, and so conceptually top-heavy it just might fall off the CD rack or crash your computer.

It’s a shame that we save our best writing for vitriol these days. (I’ll also have you know that so far, The Endless River has not broken my record player.)

But let’s get back to jazz and liner notes. There’s one word in particular that my eyes are drawn to over and over on these old records: Personnel. That’s how the musicians are referred to. Not band members or players. Also not the talent or something else to over-inflate their egos. Instead, there’s an air of prestige to the word that fits the properness of the music and the language of that era. They’re personnel. Hard-working professionals. It’s the perfect description, at a time when liner notes weren’t just after-thoughts with a bunch of spelling errors.

A rare moment of sunshine in Portland. Spending it wisely.

I wish I had some smart theory on why the language we use to describe our art has changed so much in the past few decades. If I work really hard at it I could probably trace it back to post-modernism or texting or the kids these days. But my gut feeling is that the reason is much simpler than that. We’re just not forced to experience art any more. Don’t like the song? Skip it. Don’t like the movie? Stop watching — it’s not like you had to drive to a video store to get it. Don’t like what you’re reading? Go to the next URL. Don’t like to spend time making coffee? Get a Nespresso machine.

That’s not how it used to work. I’m starting to rediscover the pleasure and pain of vinyl records. Choosing an album is a commitment. It means you’re going to listen to 10 or more songs in a row by (gasp!) the same artist. It’s going to be too much hassle to skip a song. You’ll have to get up every 15–20 minutes to flip the thing over.

Once you have to spend that much time and attention on an album, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to “become as one ear” any more. I’ve been gobbling up these records in single sittings — something I haven’t done in years. There’s an immersion to being forced to deal with the highs and the lows of an album that makes the experience so much more meaningful.

The sound of music.

Listen, I know nothing is more hipster than a guy from Portland listening to Bon Iver on vinyl. I agree, it’s funny. But once you’ve stopped laughing, let me challenge you with this. Pick a song you heard recently that you really liked. Find the full album on Spotify. Start at the beginning and listen to it all the way through — even the parts you don’t like. And tell me if you don’t become as one large ear — at least a little bit.

I’m not saying we should all cancel our Pandora accounts and buy record players again. But the language of music has changed over the years, and like all language changes, it’s a reflection of how our culture has changed.

We like things fast and disposable — I get that. I mean, no one even knew what the word “ephemeral” meant until Snapchat came along. But moving quickly from one thing to the next will just never be as satisfying as really spending time with something or someone, with no escape from the person or the artist’s intentions and successes and failures. We can all do with a little bit more of that.

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