Friday, October 18, 2019

About vibe

Vibe: a scientifically accurate illustration
I've been thinking about something the saxophonist Donald Harrison said in a clinic some months ago:

“Music is about vibe. Music is all about vibe.”

It was a useful comment for him to make in the context of critiquing a group of student musicians who had just given a very tepid performance of an often-played Jobim tune. Music may not actually be all about vibe, but for me the message was you have to think about vibe. Thinking about vibe means thinking like a producer, which means thinking about the total product, and how your music sounds to a general listener.

Being too much about vibe is also a current thing. I get most of my new music from Portland's excellent jazz station KMHD, and I hear a lot of stuff that doesn't make it for me, because it seems to be about nothing but a sort of feeling of non-specific hipness, with no real depth. It sounds like it was mostly created in post on a laptop, and I come away thinking “what is this for?”

I don't need any piece of music to justify itself with a purpose, but I should not be listening and thinking “this music has no purpose.” I don't know what this Decoding Society record is “for”, but it never occurred to me to think about it. It's just inescapably great and that's it. What is Song X for? It's just pure sonic art, no further justification needed.

Some music does evoke more specific feelings. Azymuth feels like cruising on La Grande Cornice in your Mercedes convertible, wearing some very crisp whites and being beautiful. Bill Frisell feels like living in a silent art film. Ligeti feels like living in the mind of a genius Swiss serial killer.

And there are other competing issues, which you could say music is “all about”:

Groove, for example. Groove is not vibe, but often what people think is groove is really vibe. Groove is not about signifying something funky sounding. Defining it will have to be a subject for another post, but serious preoccupation with groove supersedes and forgives everything else good or bad about a piece of music.

Pop craft is its own thing, and is not vibe. Pop songs may have vibe, but specifically crafting something for effect on the radio, to hook listeners to want to listen repeatedly, is something else.

Genre is all-important for genre fans, who want one formula, repeated forever. Whatever originally attracted them to that music, they want that to continue, and something is good if it fulfills that expectation. For more discriminating listeners, genre pieces need to include some fresh element to make them sound like unique, memorable works.

Vocalists and featured instrumentalists have to think about how they render a melody; composers have to think about the pure application of melody and harmony. Those are not vibe, and you can succeed in those things without thinking about vibe. There's probably more, but I have things to do. It's something to think about.

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