The Human Jukebox and the Unfamiliar

I went to a concert that was a first for me last night - a mainstream stadium pop concert. Paul Simon played at the O2 arena in Dublin and my good friend and great percussionist Jamey Haddad was playing in the band and comped me.

I should say at the outset here that I have absolutely no feeling for pop or rock music whatsoever – of almost any type. Somehow (probably because of my childhood, surrounded by jazz and classical), pop music passed me by. In my late teens I had a fleeting interest in Cream, and then progressive rock for a while (King Crimson mostly), but otherwise no interest, and certainly nothing that lasted. Between cassettes, LPs, CDs and Mp3s, I have over 3000 recordings in my home and not one of them is a pop or rock music recording. It does nothing for me and even the guys that a lot of jazz guys like – Sting, Bowie etc etc – leave me cold.

I do like the Beatles and admire their craft and the originality. And, (much to the surprise of many people who know me when they find out), I also like Burt Bacharach, whom I consider to be a real craftsman with a very original and identifiable style. But otherwise pop music does nothing for me. It’s not a value judgement (though sometimes it is – Justin Bieber! Lady GaGa!), it’s just personal. Pop music has no meaning in my life, doesn’t remind me of my youth, doesn’t connect me to people or places or things etc. etc. in the way that it does most people.

So, given my background and lack of empathy with all things pop and rock, it was hardly surpassing that this was my first time at a concert on this scale  - 14,000 people packed into the venue, seat prices starting at €56 rising to over €150 for the seat I was in, close to the front of the stage. And I must say I found the whole thing to be very interesting - I felt dispassionate, (if admiring of the professionalism and skill of the musicians), about the music, but interested in the vibe and general demeanor of everyone.

First of all it has to be said that Simon surrounds himself with very good musicians, most of whom play more than one instrument very well. Secondly it has to be said he does put on a very good show - the pieces go seamlessly between each other and clearly a lot of thought is given to pacing and making sure the show keeps rolling along. And it's a long show too - over two and a half hours without a break, and Simon has great energy and stamina which belies his 70 years. He's also a total pro - never slips up once, sings both in tune and pretty strongly for the whole concert. His only mis-step is when he occasionally breaks out some ill-judged dance moves, reminding one of an embarrassing elderly relative doing some 'hip' dancing at a wedding........

The music itself is a parade of his hits spanning almost 50 years, and of course the audience lapped it up. I was fairly familiar with about half of the pieces, less familiar with others, and totally unfamiliar with  the rest. In the first section of the concert, (before the African contingent arrives for the 'Gracelands' section), I'm struck by the amount of Americana in the music - overtones of country music, Cajun, blues etc. Simon seems to use all of these influences as backdrops to his songs, just as he does with the African music in the latter part of the concert.

Again, though I'm impressed by the professionalism, I'm unmoved by the music, but quite honestly, I was never expecting to get into it, and as someone with no familiarity or empathy for this kind of music, I'm not in any position to say whether this was a good performance by Simon's standards or not. I suspect, that as someone who has spent so much time at the top of his end of the business, he delivers a similar professionally well paced show every night.

But in my lack of response to the music, I was clearly in a minority of one in the auditorium - the audience adored it, cheering the opening bars of every familiar tune, singing along at certain points, and rushing the stage at the end when the opening chords of 'You Can Call Me Al' break out. But it's all quite sedate stage rushing, as the audience age profile is not one that would encourage any kind of physical activity that might create a need for a hip replacement after the gig......

And as I watched the adoration of Simon and the songs, I realized again, (and this is really the point of this blog), that what 99% of people want is something they know, and preferably something they can sing along to. What they don't want is the unfamiliar. The audience may all have loved Paul Simon, but if he had gone out there last night and played a whole evening of new music they probably would have rushed the stage. What most audiences want from a  concert, ultimately, is a human jukebox - someone who will regurgitate the hits, and give everyone a good night out and a sing-along. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But where does that leave those of us whose milieu is improvised music? In a tiny minority, that's where. One thing I realized a while ago, is that most people, as far as music is concerned at least, don't really like improvisation. They like what they know, not what they don't know. In most music performances audiences want a confirmation of what they like, a parade of familiarity - it's comforting and often celebratory, particularly so when (like the Simon concert I was at), it's experienced with a large crowd of others, all of whom are equally enamored of the music on display. But in improvised music, the audience is invited to participate in the unfamiliar, to experience the process of music creation rather than be presented with a comfortingly familiar result.

It should be noted that this love of the familiar is not confined to lovers of pop music, it's part and parcel of classical music too (where not even one note can be changed by the performer), and is not unknown among jazz fans. Jazz fans, and musicians, can also make demands of performers that they conform to some agreed norm that reinforces the audience members understanding of what jazz is. The comfort of the familiar is a requirement of some jazz listeners too -  improvised music doesn't always have the automatic support in the jazz community that one would imagine

Improvised music will never have the support and popularity that non-improvised music attracts, but it has qualities too that non-improvised music will never have. Last night at Paul Simon's gig everything was as carefully choreographed as any classical performance, there was no room for the spontaneous creative input of the musicians - everything was at the service of Paul Simon's songs and the requirement of the audience to hear the familiar. And I missed the creative input of the musicians, the sense that anything could happen at anytime, which is a quality I find tremendously attractive in music. At a pop or classical concert, you will never experience that moment where you know something has happened that never happened before and will never happen again in that precise way. This is the unique quality of improvised music, for both musician and listener, and has tremendous value, even if most of the 14,000 people in the O2 arena last night wouldn't have thanked anyone for it had it happened.

The human jukebox may be a comforting place to be for both performer and listener, but it's a place where you will never experience anything like this........

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