Saturday, May 28, 2016

Easy Living

Among the generation of alto saxophonists who came of age during the 1950s none was smoother, and few were more consistently inventive, than Paul Desmond. His feathery tone no doubt seemed bland to fans of Jackie McLean or Charlie “Bird” Parker (who died in 1955) but  to a neophyte like me, who came to jazz in the late-1960s, the cuts on Parker’s albums were invariably short, and many of them sounded like they’d been bootlegged off of radio broadcasts.

I’d gotten to know Desmond by way of Dave Brubeck records, though Brubeck struck me as a pounder, and I found Desmond’s collaborations with guitarist Jim Hall more appealing. On the album Easy Living, this duo reached a pinnacle of sustained lyricism that strikes me as extraordinary even today.

Part of the strength of this collection lies in the playlist: “Polkadots and Moonbeans,” “Easy Living,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “Autumn in New York,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” among other standards. At the time, I’d never heard vocal versions of any of these tunes, and therefore didn’t know the words—or the titles. Even today I have a hard time identifying some of the pieces by name, but considered in the aggregate, the album contains a wealth of melodic material and harmonic “changes” on the basis of which Desmond and Hall exchanged some delightfully varied improvisations.

I also liked the album cover. I knew it was kitsch—really, I did!—but all the same, the glamorous woman (reclining) in green sequined dress, the bottle of wine, the grapes, and the leopard-skin rug fit the mood of the album: unabashedly mainstream, relaxed but inventive, inspired but never frenzied.

In promotional photos, Desmond, balding and heavily bespectacled, looked more like an accountant than a late-night improviser, but at the time this wasn’t uncommon, and it seemed to fit his groove. On the other hand, the few pages of his autobiography that have survived in manuscript are filled with wry humor and understated brilliance. For example, he was both a heavy drinker and a chain smoker, but when his doctor  informed Desmond that he had lung cancer, he replied drolly that he was glad to hear his liver was still in pretty good shape.

If any fault is to be found with Easy Living, and with Desmond’s aesthetic more generally speaking, it lies in the consistently even tempos, the seductively feathery tone, and the absence of dynamic range. The same thing might be said of the theme Easy Living ostensibly advances. We may relish the notion of a dreamy life of ease and pleasure, but it’s likely that if such a thing were to fall into our laps, we’d soon become bored and irascible. Life, like music, needs an edge.

Is that really true? And if so, how much of an edge is required? I guess it depends on your temperament. The novelist Valeria Luiselli spoke for many when she remarked, “I’ve never been among that class of people—whom I greatly envy—capable of losing themselves in pensive contemplation of a bird in flight [or] the industrious coming and going of ants.” She describes herself as “too impatient to find poetry in nature’s gentle rhythms.”

I'm of the opposite persuasion, as even occasional readers of this blog might have noticed. I can spend quite a bit of time examining the shape of various leaves in the nearby woods from a position on the deck twenty feet away, taking pleasure in the form and color of each species though I don’t know what many of them are. I find it remarkable that the same plants return again and again to the nearby garden, sprouting magically from the ground in more or less the same place they were a year ago. And watching one of our resident chipmunks nibble his way down the branch of the pagoda dogwood can take up half the morning.

But such enterprises have their limits. And of course there's usually work to do. This morning I found myself with one major book project awaiting final approval from the client, another on hold. I wasn’t inclined to get started on yet a third. (Too much detail for this weary brain.) I made a trip to the farmers’ market, returning home with some eggplants and yellow bell peppers. I cleaned up the kitchen, and by 9 a.m. I was sitting in the den, deep into the letters of Pliny the younger, wherein he describes (for example)  how he fills his leisure hours.
I have spent these several days past, in reading and writing, with the most pleasing tranquility imaginable. You will ask, “How that can possibly be in the midst of Rome?” It was the time of celebrating the Circensian games; an entertainment for which I have not the least taste. They have no novelty, no variety to recommend them, nothing, in short, one would wish to see twice. It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop, and men standing upright in their chariots. If, indeed, it were the swiftness of the horses, or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like; it is the dress that takes their fancy.
But suddenly it all seems a little odd. And odder still to be describing now how I fill my leisure hours, for the pleasure and edification of some unknown reader with too much time on his or her hands.

Yes, the notion of easy living has a long, if spotty, history. From the beginning leisure and scholarship have been intimately intertwined, and in Roman times Stoics and Epicureans debated where the balance ought to lie between otium (peaceful leisure) and negotium (the combative world of politics and the market place). And the pastoral ideal—an individual or a young couple tending sheep on the bucolic mountain slopes—has been a favorite trope of poets, if not of working folk. Daphnis and Chloe epitomize the genre. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once compared that clutch of images to a second template—chivalric deeds done in service of a high-born lady—and found it inferior. After all, he reasoned, the chivalric ideal inspired durable institutions such as the tournament and the Knights Templar, some of which are still in existence, while, in his view, the pastoral tradition was never much more than an idle fantasy.

But such a judgment rests on the dubious assumption that only events significant enough to appear in the historical record--events that move "civilization" ahead--have real value. It strikes me, on the contrary, that many of the institutions the development of which we celebrate at national holidays were designed to preserve and extend a range of values that are ahistorical in nature. Thomas Jefferson’s most famous phrase—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—has sent echoes throughout the developing world time and again since it was written and proclaimed 250 years ago, but it refers less to a civic ideal or specific bricks-and-mortar institutions than to a condition of peace, domestic tranquility, and recreation that’s largely personal and familial.

Yet how can we be the least bit interested in such things when images of urban devastation in Kabul or Aleppo flood the nightly news? It’s because this dimension of living is precisely what’s being trampled underfoot in those cities, and many others, in the name of a violent crusading ideal.

Art gives us a better view of that world—the world of easy living—than does historical analysis or the nightly news. Even the histories of daily life that have become popular in recent decades concern themselves largely with norms and habits, hardly touching upon the unique kernels of affection, joy, humor, and fellow-feeling that so often animate private life.

Though it ought not to be considered a retreat from or substitute for political engagement or social service, easy living remains, I think, an essential element of mature living, and one to which we too often give short shrift. We can talk about Bernie and Hillary, global warming and "too-big-to-fail" only so long before the air in the room gets stale. Desmond’s sinuous improvisational lines trace a multitude of paths through a more pleasant and no less authentic domain.

And as long as I've wandered this far down such these avenues of musical nostalgia and philosophical insignificance, I might as well continue on and mention that the words to the song "Easy Living," banal though they may be, expose what makes such a condition "easy."
 Living for you, is easy living.
It’s easy to live when you’re in love.
And, I’m so in love,
There’s nothing in life, but you.
I’ll never regret the years I’m giving.
They’re easy to give when you’re in love.
I’m happy to do whatever I do, for you.
For you...maybe I’m a fool, but it’s fun.
People say you rule me with one wave of your hand.
Darling, it’s grand.
They just don’t understand.
Being in love? That's a subject for an extended essay, not a paragraph. The array of people and things to which we can direct our affections is potentially vast, though such sparks of connection are often involuntary and not always easy. Whether it be spending time with our dearest loved ones, reading a new book about Goethe, sharing a celebratory dinner with friends, or examining a boulder covered with moss deep in the woods, an ineffable afflatus elevates us and moves us forward toward we know not what. Lucky us.

"... maybe I'm a fool, but it's fun!"

Billy Holiday recorded "Easy Living" in 1938, but her rendering, as usual, has a melancholy strain. Among the many other vocal versions available, which range in tone from a wistful Peggie Lee to an upbeat Bryan Ferry, let me recommend the boyish and exuberant one that the Coasters released in 1957. It's a lot of fun.

In the end, there is no “theme” underlying Paul Desmond’s now largely-forgotten album. It’s a collection of inspired improvisations on a few standards from an earlier era still, and it might just as well have been called “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” or “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

This is jazz, this is art, and it may be mellow, but wasn’t all that easy to produce. If it were, everyone would have been doing it.

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