SMALL IS A BIG PART OF THE POINT



Jazz being minority music coming out of a minority culture appreciated by a minority of consumers is one good illustration of ``small is beautiful.''

Compared to the ``big'' events in the world, jazz is indeed small, and it is small even compared to other arts such as cinema, painting and opera. Some of us believe that being small is a big part of the point of the music. Another big part of the point is that everybody in a jazz band has a chance to have their say. Jazz is at once a religious sect, an aesthetic cult and the most democratic of art forms.

Although there are always exceptions, the closest a jazz musician is going to get to the mass market and still be true to himself is by influencing commercial musicians who in turn reach the masses. This happens a lot. It is a thankless achievement. You can't copyright a slot, a lick or a blue note.

Exploitation is obviously not good for you. Still, it might be said that people who complain about jazz constituting only two or 3 percent of total record sales are missing the point. The music reaches the most intelligent, the most curious, the most influential 3 percent.

This may be wishful thinking, yet the fact remains that you do have to invest in this music to get anything out of it. Jazz is not, nor should it be, for everybody.

I started taking notes about all of this earlier this month in New York while observing drummer Paul Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano record a CD being produced by Manfred Eicher for his label ECM, which stands for ``Editions of Contemporary Music.'' (It has also been called ``Excessively Cerebral Music.'')

Eicher, who once played classical contrabass, is one of the few directors of a record company anywhere near major to go after the quality of the music at least as hard as the money. ``You cannot think about art as rate of return,'' he said. He assumes that the people who buy ECM records are going to listen to them as closely as he does. He respects his customers. His faith in the music he chooses to produce reminds me of an evangelist.

Based in Munich, ECM releases 40 to 50 jazz records a year, plus a ``New Series'' of classical music. Not many directors of internationally distributed labels would grumble that his catalog's locomotive -- in this case, Keith Jarrett -- is compromising his creativity by playing it too safe.

Talking about Jarrett's popular Standards Trio, Eicher reversed the customary roles of the artist and the corporation: ``I feel somewhat disappointed that Keith's great talents as a composer and creator of new musical contexts cannot be unfolded or developed sufficiently within this trio when it plays, over and over, the American songbook. I prefer his freer approach toward music, including new encounters with additional musicians.''

Motian, Frisell and Lovano were encountering each other without headphones, which is unusual in recording situations. ``Everything is always mezzo forte through headphones,'' Eicher said. ``There are no more pianissimos. We are losing our sense of dynamics.''

The trio, which has been recording for ECM off and on for some 20 years, required only one or two takes of each track -- the album was recorded in an afternoon. There were no managers, no agents, no bodyguards, no groupies and, except for Eicher, no record-company people anywhere around the studio. It was music made for the love of it. He would mix it the following day. (It doesn't yet have a name or a release date).

They began to record around noon. Having never played this material together before, they were sight reading written arrangements. It took them no time at all to take off out of the early afternoon, groggy, sterilized studio atmosphere and to pass through the notes on the paper to get to the feeling with good cheer and without visible effort.

Producing an album of very good music in only two days is beautiful. It occurred to me that these rubato, intellectual, lyrical three-part improvisations were the essence of what is best about contemporary jazz.