People just make noise. We like to think it’s more than that, but it isn’t. My son is fifteen months old and he makes noises. They aren’t specific yet but everything else is there, ready to go. I think a room full of toddlers might be having deep conversations that they understand, perhaps berating the necessity for a language that can be written down and used against them in the parking fines of their future. But in this gibbering soundscape can be heard a kind of phrasing, something that feels like sentences. There’s a kind of urge to speak running through them, with intonation that implies a question or a statement depending on the upward turn at the end. They are imitating us, and mostly they have us down pretty good.
What they don’t do is labour intensively at one word, remaining silent until it is perfected before moving on to the next. Yes, there are occasional words that pop out, words they pick up and repeat, that will eventually become absorbed into the stream of verbal noise and sidle up to our adult language. But there is no struggle for perfection (such as I am currently experiencing with the Italian indefinite article rules): just a kind of river of sound that picks up real words and carries them downstream.
Jazz students and teachers, you probably know where I’m going with this. Get in there and make noises. Eventually, like developing toddlers, you’ll get impatient with them and need to refine things, move the notes around, make cadences and all that. But it can wait. With no sound, with no “urge to speak”, you will be tied to the paper and what it tells you to do, all the pipework and no water. Don’t be like that, it’s no fun. God knows we need some of that right now.
It was not undertaken lightly. Playing Madonna songs solo is toying with people’s memories of teenage snogging at parties and remixing them through an Edwardian parlour instrument. The piano is designed to cope with complex note combinations (as are the fingers), but not such sumptuous layers of production as are found in Madge’s back catalogue, where two notes can be souped up into a cathartic rush of adrenalin.
In the more recent albums this production took on its own life, swallowing up both song and singer in a cloud of generic noises. (I wouldn’t, for instance, go near “MDNA” if I were you). But there are plenty of meaty things to get stuck into in the earlier stuff. “Like A Virgin” slowed down to a kind of Motown/Don Cherry feel, and the later “American Life”, just on the edge of her robotic future, has some nice angles on what is nearly a blues. “Ray Of Light” seems to hit a perfect balance, her voice sounds great, and is sympathetically framed by William Orbit’s lush layered grooves. That’s the key for me, the framing of “the voice”.
I was surprised at how much I liked her singing. She has a great voice. She’s not a great singer. Pop doesn’t care about “chops”, but she delivers everything with a kind of heightened emotion. Its like when you play in a musical pit band, and somehow the sentimentality that is compulsorily sniffed at completely overwhelms you by the closing night. (It was a relief to escape to the less draining world of improvised music, where a moving experience can at least be supplanted by another the next night.)
Madonna is so rich and famous, no one could ever deserve it. Early glee at this situation gives way to self parody later (“Material Girl” to “American Life” is quite a journey). I always felt she was sending up her life in the same way Prince seemed to.
She’s an easy target for mockery, envy, and shrugging ambivalence. I must say I never really bought into the whole bra thing either (a shame, those shares would have got me through the nineties quite nicely). But aside from the wave of nostalgic flashbacks her music triggered for me, it was an edifying experience to dig into the music and find some gold there. And while I don’t really feel like playing jazz just yet, the world of “other music” is as good a place to stick the shovel as any.