This, That, and Steve Wilson talks jazz (and much more)

First, my thanks to Brad for taking my brain drizzle and turning it into cyber sunshine. Brad’s energy and get-it-done approach is astounding!

I’ve been blogging for almost ten years now, first as editor of Envoy magazine (Catholic apologetics) and, since 2003, as editor of Ignatius Insight (Catholic books, theology, history, etc.) and additionally, since late last year, as editor of Catholic World Report. (I’ve also written two books and am working on three more at the moment.) Over the years I’ve written a number of posts about music, several of them lists of my favorite albums of the year. For example, here is a list of my favorite 68 albums of 2011. But I’ve long mulled over the possibility of a forum in which I could simply throw out my .02 worth about this or that album, artist, or musical whatever without worrying about puzzling readers or perplexing those who pay the bills. In fact, the folks at Ignatius Press have always been incredibly supportive of my excursions into musical commentary, despite the fact I am about as qualified to write about music as Lady GaGa is qualified to write and perform music. But some—well, most—of my opinions and musings about music are far, far better suited for a blog such as Progarchy. Here’s hoping I don’t wear out my welcome too soon!

Anyhow, I plan to write an incredibly self-indulgent, noodling, bombastic, and yet oddly homespun post (think “Queen II” meets “Song for America”) very soon about my musical tastes and such, but for the moment am content to point to a long and most interesting article about Steve Wilson that was recently posted, of all places, on one of the more popular jazz sites, AllAboutJazz.com. My two big musical loves are jazz and prog, (in that order), and so it was gratifying to read an article that considers Wilson’s impressive body of work in the light of jazz. Here is the opening:

There was a time when progressive rock really meant what its name suggested: progressive music, music that pushed the boundaries of what rock music was, often by integrating elements of classical music and jazz into the mix. Milestone groups ranging from better-knowns like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator all provided the opportunity for musicians to apply their diverse musical upbringings to create something that Chuck Berry and Bill Haley couldn’t possibly have envisaged when they first began playing the music that would come to be known as rock ‘n’ roll. Lesser-knowns like Hatfield and the North, Caravan, Soft Machine and Gong further explored the nexus of electrified music with the aesthetic and, in some cases, the language of jazz; even groups like Procol Harum and Fairport Convention were considered to be progressive artists, as they looked to incorporate classical music, in the case of Procol Harum, and traditional British folk music, in the case of Fairport Convention.

Four decades later and, if anything, progressive rock has experienced a revival that may not sell the kinds of records it used to back in its late- 1960s/1970s heyday—before the advent of punk rock turned many of its fans fickle and they deserted it in droves and made it into a niche music- -but it has resulted in an unexpected resurgence of interest, thanks in part to the power of the internet in creating global communities joined together by common interests. This new golden age has seen, alongside a bevy of new acts, the revival of many legacy acts, some still capable of creating new music that stands alongside their 1970s classics, like Van der Graaf Generator, others capitalizing on past glories but ultimately proving to be mere bloated shadows of their former selves, like Yes. Rather than suggesting music that’s progressing, in many ways progressive rock has fossilized into a series of subgenres that, rigidly defined and proprietarily protected by their fans, may be great music but all too often function with both feet firmly planted in the past—rather than having at least one of them stepping forward into the future—forgetting what the music is really supposed to be about.

Steven Wilson, since going solo after 20 years of fronting Porcupine Tree—a group that began as a solo project in the most DIY sense of the word but later became a group when the guitarist/keyboardist/singer/writer needed a band to play his music live— pines for the days when progressive rock music meant more than stylistic pigeonholing. Since his first solo recording under his own name, 2009’s Insurgentes (Kscope), he’s progressed in leaps and bounds. 2011’s Grace for Drowning (Kscope) was a major compositional statement, one which also reflected Wilson’s experiences as the de facto surround-sound remix “go-to guy” for groups like King Crimson, as well as his recent work with Jethro Tull, Caravan and Emerson, and Lake & Palmer.

But Grace for Drowning was more than a leap forward for Wilson as a writer and performer; his subsequent 2011 and 2012 tours in support of his two solo recordings have seen the formation of a band that brings a whole new language, a whole new vibrancy and a whole new degree of unpredictability to his music. It isn’t jazz—it isn’t even, as some fans say, “jazzy”; but with a group whose collective resume includes work with everyone from Soft Machine Legacy to Miles Davis, Wilson has a group whose approach to the music irrefutably speaks with the language of jazz, albeit in a more progressive-rock context. If progressive rock has, for its fans, often been a gateway drug to jazz, then perhaps it’s time to consider the reverse, and let jazz become a gateway drug to progressive music.

And here are two later quotes that jumped out at me:

When people talk to me and they ask me what my influences are, I mention people like Abba and The Carpenters, and the kind of reaction I get sometimes is a chuckle or a sarcastic kind of ‘knowing.’ And I’m not being sarcastic, I’m not trying to be postmodernist, and I’m not trying to be ironic. I think those records are extraordinary. Abba’s Arrival (Polar, 1976) is just as extraordinary as any progressive rock or so-called serious record. And I think that Nick is totally like that, too; he gets just as much buzz from playing with Nik Kershaw as he does with Steve Hackett as he does with John Paul Jones as he does with Kim Wilde as he does with me, and I like that about him—this complete lack of musical snobbery.” …

“I’ve never been particularly interested in pure jazz; I don’t dislike it, it’s just not my thing. But I love jazz hybrids. I love music that has elements of jazz, whether it’s the ECM catalog or progressive rock bands like Magma, Crimson, Tull and some of the Kraut rock bands. But that idea of combining music seems to be less easy to do these days. I think part of the reason—the same problem, probably, that was always there—is how do you sell music that is not generic?”

Read the entire piece at AllAboutJazz.com.

Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s