The idea of the Tiny Desk Concert was born almost 10 years ago. I was introduced to it in 2013 by a congenial, talented student in Texas who was also interested in new listening opportunities. Through him, I found Snarky Puppy and listened another time or two—and also Matt Ulery’s Loom, a quintet of trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion and keyboards, bass, and drums. Matt Ulery’s Loom might be described as indulging thoughtfully in an alternative sort of chamber-jazz jam, and this group was interesting to me, both sonically and musically. I have returned to it several times.
I temporarily lost the Tiny Desk Concert and NPR’s “All [except the ones that aren’t -bc] Songs Considered” in the tiny, remaining non-reserved space in my head, but I returned to the offerings earlier this year and have begun to save some for future listening. Below I will share some three-years-old dialogue related to originality, practice, memorization, and “making music your own” in connection with Matt Ulery’s Loom’s Tiny Desk Concert. First, I want to highlight a few of my other favorite TDC concerts. Some of the brief performances are really good—and often “off the map” in terms of popularity, which in itself is a plus for me. There was a Tiny Desk Concert with the Blue Man Group, and one with brilliant songwriter Randy Newman (but his TDC left something to be desired). Jazz piano great Chick Corea has performed in this venue, and so many more. In addition to Matt Ulery’s Loom, here are my four favorites:
Nickel Creek An apparently well-known group with a long history. Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, and strong vocals.
Yo-yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and friends Anytime Yo-yo makes music, I’m ready to listen. He’s a world treasure (although I did hear once his agent had turned down a moderate-sized performance concert because it couldn’t pay enough). Edgar Meyer is no slouch, either!
Joseph An all-female trio of sisters. When musical sounds are ambient and primarily non-amplified, very little gets lost in electronic hums and over-processed masses of sound travelling through busses and effects circuits. Here, I find nearly perfectly blended vocals and guitar.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers My absolute favorite. Can’t believe I’d never heard of this group before. A couple of these songs are pure joy. Don’t miss the last tune, “Caroline,” about a comic break-up, but mostly, it’s the entirely pleasant sounds and immensely skilled instrumentalists.
Now for some dialogue about Matt Ulery’s Loom. Find the concert here. This dialogue is truncated in spots and reformatted. In the complete discussion, as well as in these highlights, some dissenting voices are aired with reference to memorization and “making music your own.”
PATRICK JARENWATTANANON (original post): The next time you go to see live jazz in a club, and the band is playing original compositions, look closely in front of the musicians. Sometimes there’ll be stands holding sheet music. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, especially if the music is a bit complicated. But sometimes there’ll be no need for stands, as the musicians have memorized the material. It’s impressive, but it also signals a certain commitment, one borne of having rehearsed and performed together often. You frequently see this in tight bands that know what they’re doing.
The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It’s intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. . . . But it doesn’t sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz. It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.
. . . Listen for yourself and decide whether you think the music is as rich as this description makes it out to be. But at least note how the band was playing without sheet music — having committed to getting this overlapping, precise stuff down pat. —
Brian Casey (with formatting not possible in the original): I like the music here—shared by a student yesterday—but I don’t love the comments’ implication that memorization = commitment to music. It’s not that memorization doesn’t indicate commitment; it’s that there are other ways to manifest such commitment. Given the intricacies and numbers of musical lines in scores I deal with, memorization is inconceivable for me.
Conn Rigante2: I agree. I think that statement is quite misguided, let alone unnecessary.
JJ BASHEM: I generally think that if you haven’t memorized the music, you probably don’t know it well enough to make it your own. Maybe I could be convinced otherwise, but if you want to talk about intricacy, I’ve seen the Bartok string quartets played from memory. Also this writer is writing specifically about combo jazz, which I think should be played from memory without exception.
Brian Casey: Thanks for the comment, and I hear you wanting to have a real discussion (unlike the person who said, “give it a rest” back there; s/he needs to show a little respect for the discussion and the topic).
“Making the music your own” is not always a worthwhile goal. It can be pretty silly, actually, in the hands of immature musicians. (I’m NOT accusing you of immaturity but am saying some are who want to “make it their own.”) The primary commitment ought to be to the creator and the musical creation. If the music is written, score study will determine a large measure of the interpretation. A certain amount of memorization will occur during the practice and/or rehearsal, but memorization can actually hinder music-making if it’s too left-brained (for lack of a better way of putting it). If your music reading is fluent and artistic, you can serve the music just as well, in some types of music.
If the writer specifically meant memory=commitment in combo jazz, s/he didn’t say that, but I hear you (although I would disagree in principle that even combo jazz must be memorized).
Commitment can be shown in more than one way—including memorization, in-depth score study, and practice.
Russ Grazier: I hear what you are saying, and do appreciate the benefits memorization can have in certain performances, but you kind of lost me with the Bartok example. There are many, many quartets who know those pieces intimately and could play the living daylights out of them, but don’t play them memorized. I tend to agree with Brian Casey that the comment under the video does more to mis-inform listeners than enlighten.