In Defense of Taste

Written by Dan Schwartz

My last piece seems to have raised some eyebrows, though in the end it seems I came out more favorable than not. But it got me to thinking.

How much does a columnist owe to be all things to all people? Are the obsessions of youth to be carried forward if one no longer feels anything toward those obsessions? I know what I think.

When I started playing I was 13 — it was 1970 and music, popular and serious both, and indeed both popular AND serious, had just been through the most amazing five years it would have in my lifetime. I feel very lucky to have discovered Jack Casady before I got my first bass. I might have gone in the direction I went anyway, but with his playing as a guide, the rough direction was set.

In my first decade in music I had some fairly broad experiences, both listening and playing. Most of the people around me got into jazz — and fusion especially — pretty quick. I got into some of it. It was a great time of invention — not because I’m nostalgic for my impressionable teens and early 20s — but a truly great time.  If you were around and paying attention then, no doubt you remember.

Everything was an influence, but some things were more resonant than others. The early Weather Report albums, and just before it, Joe Zawinul’s utterly astonishing Zawinul, led me to it’s precedent, In A Silent Way. The Paul Winter Consort led to their successor, Oregon. The Mahavishnu Orchestra led me to McLaughlin’s earlier My Goal’s Beyond. The Jefferson Airplane led to the first Hot Tuna album and ultimately the Grateful Dead. Keith Jarrett led to, well, much more Keith Jarrett. And radio introduced me to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention and Pentangle.

I think highly of the progenitors — Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Buster Williams, but if at this point I had to choose some examples of what I love to do, that first Zawinul album and the Dead’s improvisations on folk and folk-based songs would be it: essentially modal improvisation.

All these, obsessions call them, are still ongoing. I’m listening to Zawinul right now (and my daughter just asked what it was and if I could make her a copy). But a lot have fallen by the side. That’s not to say I can’t still enjoy them — it’s extremely rare that I listened to some music that I don’t want to hear anymore — but they don’t qualify as something I feel the urge to dig into, to play if it comes up.

That includes most fusion, for want of a better term. Cecil McBee is dazzling. And I really like the first two Return to Forever albums quite a bit: Return to Forever and Light as a Feather. I saw them play when I was 15 in a tiny theater in my local junior college and they were terrific. I was blown away by Stanley Clarke’s fleetness (I met him after the show, we shook hands and his huge hand engulfed mine). But that awe, both for him and them, seriously diminished when I saw them next, and they had gone fully electric.

My affection for Weather Report went through a major downgrade simultaneously with Jaco Pastorius joining the band — but it had nothing to do with him. I’ve written that when I first heard him I felt like giving up (fortunately my second reaction was to study everything he did, and my third reaction was to leave that behind me). Anyway, if you haven’t heard “Portrait of Tracy”, from his first album (in 1976), you’ve missed the greatest piece ever written and performed on a bass. But both Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s writing took a decided turn towards the more conventional, and more composed. And I guess I just don’t like that as much.

Which gets to some of the bassists that were mentioned by people commenting on my last piece. Paul McGowan frequently mentions Brian Bromberg. I first heard him in the late 80’s, courtesy of a friend. By then, that kind of music, bass-centric and intended to impress, just didn’t do anything for me. I was working with Jon Hassell and thinking about music like that. Likewise, I recognize John Pattituci’s value, and Keltner used to speak highly of him, but that’s not the same thing as being enthusiastic enough to write about him. But if I had to choose, I’d find out who they listened to coming up, and write about them. (But if either of them have a column, I have no doubt that they aren’t writing about me.)

Which gets to my point: you write what you know; you write what you like. This isn’t a scholarly investigation: it’s an attempt to convey enthusiasms.

Minus politics.

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