Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In Praise of Raymond Scott (edited and completed)

(yeah, he's that guy)

The act of casually listening to Raymond Scott recalls Looney Tunes from Wiley E. Coyote to Bugs Bunny. But the act of seriously listening to Raymond Scott's music feels like listening to jazz from an alternative universe -- a universe that could just as easily be operating on an infinite plane as in a pinball machine.

The rhythmic charge is not the inviting dance-along of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or even of Count Basie. His is a manic, desperate pulse that makes one nervous even as one grows exhilarated, and yet Scott offsets the bleakness of his music with musical jokes that never fail to come at the listener in ways they'd couldn't possibly expect. The result sounds like Prokofiev with a better sense of humor, or Ligeti with more regular rhythms.

(Scott also got to electronica well before most of his compatriots in the jazz world)

One can only draw comparisons with classical composers because hardly any other jazz composer ever took this sort of autonomy for himself. Louis Armstrong may have established the primacy of a single soloist as the norm, but even Scott's big band music banishes the idea of single soloists. His music, whatever the instrumentation, adheres to an ideal of equality practically unseen outside of Dixieland and chamber music. Ensembles are never merely accompaniment and the accompaniment has all the detail of a solo. The solos themselves are of a complexity not seen again in jazz until the bebop generation.

Raymond Scott did jazz the honor of taking it seriously in an era when most white jazz musicians took every opportunity to water down the flavor of black music to make it palatable for white audiences. He didn't write 'numbers', his pieces are serious musical compositions that take the jazz idiom into the laboratory for dissection. And just when you think his music can't get stranger, he distends it through a series of fun-house mirrors. No jazzman of Scott's era, not even Ellington, took as many musical risks.

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