Increasingly, music is, as bassist Pete Doktorʻs former band name suggests, “audio wallpaper.” Jazz pianist and teacher Bailey Matsuda hopes to  find “a new (for him) way of listening to new (for him) music.” He states:

Bailey Matsuda

“It occurred to me while driving that I had a point of view percolating just under my awareness regarding a different kind of listening experience, one that seems to be disappearing more and more. I mean, who goes out to listen to live music anyway? We go out to drink, be with friends, hang out, dance or [“other activities” editorʻs note: censored] and it seems like the last thing that ever happens is that you have a band that is actually playing some happening [stuff] in a place where people go to listen. Not here, not in Honolulu.

“Ok, maybe Sarento’s on Tuesdays thanks to Dancin’ Dave, or sometimes at the Atherton Performing Arts Studio at KHPR. Or maybe at the Musician’s Union in their new studio once a month. But it’s the usual suspects at these venues. I did try to do my part to circumvent this trend and these choices.

“I hosted a ʻhouse’ concert at my apartment with a friend. The guests were all from his circle of friends, but I knew one or two of them. Light food for dinner/snacks and some beer and wine, and an hour of songs that no one had ever heard. An evening of songs, and one of mine could be construed a jazz ballad, but it was accessible and told a story.

“So I pose a question: has listening to digital radio or lists from iTunes or Pandora or even our own library of CD’s really become the definitive listening experience for us?

“In short, I have no idea what to listen to, who to listen to, or where to find it.”

Classical guitarist and composer Andrew York asked a similar question in the liner notes of his 1993 album. He asks us to imagine going back to a time when music was not so ubiquitous, say, the 17th century. Imagine hearing chamber music in an intimate setting. The exquisite melodies, harmonies and counterpoint. It really affects you. It may even change your life. Now compare that to today, where popular music is elevator music and vice versa. As Radiohead singer Thom Yorke put it in Karma Police, the music these days “buzzes like a fridge” – it blends together in an autotuned, grungey sameness.

Is there a way to delete and reset our listening apparatuses, and reclaim that innocence that made us love music in the first place? It seems that several things contribute to this deadening of the listening experience. First, is the excessive technology, such as autotune and scrubbed sound that make us think that people really sound that way. We should be less critical of imperfections in the sound, and look for the soul of the music. Second, musical illiteracy. There were times in the past when music really mattered to a large listening public – not just Vienna in Mozart’s time, but the “Troubador” period of singer-songwriters in the 1970s: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. The songwriting mattered, the songs mattered then, not just celebrity. Third, we need to re-engage with music by playing it, with others, listening to it live, or just really listening.

Troubador video and album on the 1970s singer-songwriters

Of course there are always counter-currents. Some musicians are going against all the trends Iʻve just derided. One positive thing about the new music environment is that there are many more microniches. On the other hand, it seems to have enabled people to become more narcissistic in their musical tastes.

As I watch my older daughter being to engage with music I see a few things that capture her “beginner’s mind” (in the words of DT Suzuki): true vocal quality (Michael Buble’s unscrubbed flawlessness), catchiness (Don McLean’s American Pie – science has just begun to show how Norah Jones and the Stones have much in common at an as-yet-mysterious level), and humor (Weird Al’s Star Wars version of American Pie). Perhaps what we ultimately need to know is when to be more sophisticated and when to be less so.

WikiRevu; Anthony Hamilton: Back to Love

Some kinds of music only work when done just right: smooth jazz (Chris Bode), overly-produced pop (Toto), reggae (you-know-who), and to a lesser extent, R & B (Stevie Wonder) . Anthony Hamilton combines the best of 70s R & B (organ-heavy instrumentation) with the best of today (extreme vocal control). It all started with Stevie Wonder’s nasal, but complete control of his vocal instrument. Boys II Men picked up on it, and next thing we knew, everyone (even teenagers singing karaoke) sounded like they were autotuned, as they narrowed down their vocal range for the sake of control – and that was before they were all autotuned. What was sacrificed was power, and, frankly, the soul in soul music.

Hamilton is not just bringing back love, but the power and soul that a generation forgot. His songs are intimate, but not narcissistic. This is a rare combination these days. And though its accessible, its not the blatantly crossover sound of John Legend. His voice has the tension of Legend, but much more subtle, and to me, sublime. Hamilton has several voices – his soft voice, as distinguished from his falsetto voice, then there’s his true voice (from the diaphragm, not the head), and he does actually do a nasal voice, but it’s more like Cameo (of Word Up fame), then the droves. I’ve observed that the best bands have at least three singers (Fleetwood Mac, ’nuff said) – Hamilton is five-in-one, and worth every one. In Life has a Way, he croons:

Take a look over your shoulder
Wise words get much older
Life has a way of humbling you down
Thought you already knew it
Took a turn then you blew it
Life has a way of humbling you down

Maybe this humility is the key to his avoiding the pitfalls of the generation Y headsingers who will not be remembered.

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