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The Reason for Making Jazz Albums
by Stockton Helbing
Just this week (10/05/2011), Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, and mastermind of the iPod and all its incarnations, died from cancer. While he will be remembered for his efforts in creating many wonderful technological advancements, will he also be remembered as helping destroy the value of recorded music? The creation of the iPod allowed people to carry around with them massive amounts of recorded music in a small device that could easily fit in a pocket. Almost overnight, the days of a CD walkman and a carrying case of CDs were rendered obsolete. People suddenly were able to carry all of their favorite songs around with them, not just the five to ten CDs they enjoyed the most.
Along with the iPod came the advent of iTunes and various other online sellers of digital format music that provided consumers the opportunity to nearly instantaneously purchase music to add to their physically small, yet digitally massive, personal music libraries. Gone were the days of purchasing a full length album by an artist just to get one song you liked. You now can choose any one song from almost any album to listen to and purchase.
As more and more music became digitized, it was able to be shared at faster and faster rates, not just from authorized online digital music sellers, such as iTunes, but as illegal file sharing from various forums, torrents, and exchanges. Since the internet is a worldwide entity, laws and regulations were in no way prepared to deal with the various issues of digital music piracy and sharing. As a result, many musicians found themselves making little to no profit from album sales despite their music being listened to and enjoyed all over the world. Physical album sales plummeted as record labels and artists hoped for digital sales to be their financial saving grace.
With the ease at which music is now exchanged and the subsequent abuses that easy exchange has led to, one thing is undeniable, recorded music has greatly lost monetary value. As often is the case, when something is in abundance, we stop assigning as high a value to it as we did when it was more difficult to obtain. So if albums' monetary value has been so drastically reduced, what incentives do artists have to continue to record music? Why should musicians continue to assume the fiscal responsibilities and liabilities with little to no guarantee of recouping their initial investment, much less turning a profit, from making an album?
The answer is simple. Artists have to continue to be artistic and produce artistic creations to remain artists. A painter who does not paint is just a guy with some brushes, globs of paint, and an easel. We do not value Claude Monet because of his clever quotes or because he was a great teacher. We value him because of the paintings he left behind that are still available for people to observe and admire today. The same holds true for musicians, especially, as in our case here, jazz musicians. As wonderful as Miles Davis was, if we did not have all of his wonderful albums to listen to, to study, to emulate, and to enjoy, then all we would have were the descriptions of others to recount to us what his music sounded like live. How many words does it take to completely describe an album ? Could we describe Kind of Blue in 500 words or less? Volumes could be written on each song from that album. Books could be written about one solo on one song on that album. The old saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, than a song is worth a million, and a complete album is worth a billion.
Albums are the clear artistic way in which a jazz musician demonstrates their artistic endeavors. They provide an opportunity for a jazz musician to showcase their improvisations over different harmonic and stylistic landscapes, to demonstrate their various compositional and/or arranging creations, and to exemplify their ability to pace a full length performance of music through their use of programming, solo order, material, and choice of sidemen. Though the financial gain may not be there, the artistic importance of jazz musicians continuing to record albums is vital to the survival and continued evolution of jazz music.
Though it is not easy, recording albums is highly rewarding in many other areas other than financial. Albums have become the modern day business card for musicians. Albums are a means for a jazz musicians to demonstrate, not only to fans, but to other musicians, artistically what they are working on and pursuing. Albums are a way for a jazz musician to refresh and remind jazz reviewers, jazz radio stations, jazz clubs, and jazz festivals that they are actively performing and growing, thereby providing those industry contacts with a good reason to write about them, or play their music, or book them for a performance. Albums are also concrete representations of a jazz musician's talent that are often requested by many educational institutions when considering a musician for a jazz educational position. But, above all, it is important for jazz musicians to continue to record albums because it is a reason .
Recording an album is a reason to practice . Preparing for a recording project motivates the jazz musician to pursue the highest level of creativity and execution on their instrument. This inspiration comes from knowing that once they record an album and release it, that album will be available for anyone and everyone to listen to and scrutinize forever. The jazz musician goes through so much struggle and growth in the practice room while preparing for a recording that it is as if they have matured, or gone through some sort of jazz puberty. It is often the coupling of frustration and dogged tenacity in the practice room that leads to jazz innovations.
Recording an album is a reason to write new music . Original compositions are an essential part of jazz albums. Many jazz albums that are considered masterpieces, such as Miles Davis' Kind of Blue , John Coltrane's A Love Supreme , and Herbie Handcock's Maiden Voyage , are made up entirely of original compositions by the artist. Many other classic jazz albums contain at least a couple original compositions, despite the playing and recording of jazz standards being quite popular. When a jazz musician is preparing for a new recording project, they are prompted to write new compositions that will feature their playing, and their sidemen's playing, in the best possible light, as well as push the accepted boundaries and preconceived notions of the time. Often, if not entirely made up of original compositions, a jazz album will feature new arrangements of popular jazz standards that are so imaginative and inventive that they only vaguely resemble their common forms.
Recording an album is a reason to rehearse with musicians . Jazz music is an art form most commonly performed in a group setting. One of the most fascinating aspects of jazz music is the human chemistry experiment that is constantly occurring when a jazz group performs. The only way a jazz musician may improve at playing music with others is to do so as often as possible. When a recording project is on the horizon, a jazz musician has a viable reason to hold rehearsals with other musicians. It's a reason that will also inspire the other sidemen to grow creatively, as they will want to practice and rehearse the music to the best of their abilities so as to capture the finest incarnation of their performance when recording an album. The rehearsing process gives everyone the opportunity to flesh out problems or issues without the pressure of the microphones in front of them capturing each note for all time and the clock ticking away precious, and expensive, studio time. Often this constructive rehearsal environment results in new discoveries that in turn lead to new approaches in individual practice and composition, which in turn lead to new discoveries in subsequent group rehearsals, so on and so forth, until the group is thoroughly prepared to head to the studio to record an album of material that has gone through a collective and creative metamorphosis.
The positive reasons for a jazz musician to record an album goes on and on. There are certainly some obstacles involved, such as paying studio costs, paying musicians, and paying to release your album, but they seem to pale in comparison to the enormous benefits the jazz musician gains. In professional sports, such as in football, there are various parts to a season. First there is the pre-season, where players get prepared physically and strategically to play competitively. Then there is the regular season, where teams compete week in and week out to collect as many victories as possible. Next there is the post season, where the teams who played the best during the regular season are awarded the opportunity to compete again each other. Lastly, the championship game, the Super Bowl, the final game of the season where the top two teams compete to see who is the best. After the season ends, all the players take a few months off, and then a new season starts up again from square one. Jazz musicians do not have seasons, or playoffs, or championship games. That is what recording albums provides for jazz musicians, a reason to artistically compete, all be it with oneself, to see how well, how excellent, one can perform. Without recording projects on the horizon, jazz musicians are just stuck in a perpetual off season, waiting to get started.
Stockton Helbing is a drummer, composer, producer, writer, educator, and CEO of Armored Records. He is currently Artist in Residence at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Adjunct faculty member at the University of North Texas. Stockton's newest album, Battlestations & Escape Plans , is available on iTunes and at www.StocktonHelbing.com.
All material Copyright 2011 – Stockton Helbing Music
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