Friday, February 10, 2006

Stan the Man

In jazz, as in any art form, there is an unnecessary tension between art and commerce. This is mainly a critic-created dichotomy, the lazy music lover’s way of elevating context over sound, explanation over experience. The artists are the ones who break new ground, challenge hidebound preconceptions, and die in poverty. The commerce crowd-- for lack of a better term--take those tortured innovations and smooth them out for mass consumption, an act for which they earn thousands of dollars and the enmity of the cognoscenti, who recognize them as frauds, panderers, and grave-robbers. It’s a neat line that tempts too many people who want to write about music and the wisest of them understand that it’s bullshit.

Stanley Turrentine proves it to be bullshit. Because he’s an artist, sometimes he’s even a great artist, but he’s not complicated or troubled or esoteric at all. With his saxophone, he tells you two stories over and over again:

1) My woman is gone and I’m so sad


2) My woman’s back and life’s so grand

In album after album, there’s little more than this. There doesn’t need to be. Out of such basic themes and such exceedingly-common emotions, Turrentine crafts music that doesn’t need to be thought about, it can just be taken in. Sometimes it’s pretty, sometimes it’s glum, sometimes it’s soaring, and sometimes it’s woozy. It’s never pompous, though; you never need an expert to explain Stanley Turrentine to you. It’s all in his music, and most of that is a sheer pleasure to have playing on your stereo.

If you’re a person who doesn’t listen to much jazz, just imagine you’re watching a film set in the 1950s. You can even imagine George Clooney as the star if you want to. He’s running away from gangsters or the cops or somebody, and he winds up in the seedier part of the city. After racing down a narrow, dark alley, he comes upon a dingy bar named “Frankie’s” or “Fat Tony’s” or “The Hat Box” or something like that. Seeing the headlights of the big, black Buick appearing around the corner, he hurries up and slips inside. The place is a jazz club, a down-and-out jazz club, not one of those swanky places. The band is playing over a boisterous crowd and, as George Clooney strolls up to the bar to see if he can get the guy who runs the place to lend him a phone, the saxophonist steps up and begins to play. Now, if you’re imagining that, you’re probably imagining a saxophonist who sounds a hell of a lot like Stanley Turrentine.

As I mentioned before, Blue Note has reissued his “Joyride” album, which features his playing in front of a big, brassy jazz orchestra. Turrentine skips gamely over the half-lush, half-pumping arrangements, honking his heart out with the verve and sweetness he brought to pretty much every one of his recording sessions. It’s a nice disc to go driving around at night with, or for hanging out with your friends, or for flirting with attractive strangers. It’s so versatile, it could probably serve as the soundtrack for just about any happy moment in your life. There’s nothing pretentious about it, it’s just fun, bluesy music. Sometimes–most of the time, probably–you just can’t ask for anything better than that.