Greg Saunier / Mary Halvorson / Ron Miles New American Songbooks, Volume 1

[Sound American; 2017]

Styles: jazz, American popular song, standard repertoire
Others: Elliott Smith, John Williams, The Partridge Family, Empress Of, Vincent Persichetti, Fiona Apple, The Beach Boys

New American Songbooks, Volume 1 brings together a somewhat unlikely trio, inaugurating a series in which Sound American editor Nate Wooley asks participants to “pick the tunes that they [think] should be included in a new American canon.” Greg Saunier, Ron Miles, and Mary Halvorson (each a notable figure within their own neighboring but disparate field) follow suit and present selections that are adamantly personal, toying with the assumption of an essential, universal, American canon. Dropping the assumption that jazz must be mediated by a shared repertoire and vocabulary, the trio builds upon personal touch-points for relation. By delivering unsensational renditions of songs both familiar and foreign, allowing idiosyncrasies to show through, they develop a cool plateau. It verges on the caustic but maintains equilibrium. It’s a mild success but wholly convincing nonetheless.

New American Songbook is not built upon some novel revelation. Its curative gesture is familiar to those involved in contemporary jazz. The Real Book — a collection of lead sheets to now-bemoaned standards — was developed by a few Berklee College students in the 1970s who, as fake book historian Barry Kernfeld states, “endeavored to notate what professional jazz musicians would really play.” Steve Swallow, a bassist who taught at Berklee at the time of The Real Book’s conception, adds, “I think they were accurately reflecting what college jazz people were listening to at that time, and were skimming the cream of that repertoire.” Of this, many are quick to note that professionals and educators within the Berklee scene at that time were overrepresented. This fostered a space for oddball inclusions (Chick Corea’s “Spain” or Swallow’s “Falling Grace”) to rapidly become permanent fixtures in the trade repertoire. It is largely blameless that The Real Book’s creators emphasized and overrepresented their own tastes and social contexts; the book’s widespread success was essentially an accident and largely unprecedented. Fake books at that time had been generally shoddy and incomplete (they’d adhered to copyright law and were careless in their transcriptions). The only catalogue yet that had ever held any such authority had come and gone. Invented in 1942 and terminated in 1964, Tune-Dex was perhaps the first physical, codified, and widespread songbook of American popular music, and it had a different curative bent.

Initially conceived of as a tool, Tune-Dex was a set of rolodex cards that provided just enough information that gigging musicians could fake a passable interpretation of highly requested music. This catalogue emphasized utility over quality: supply and demand was the guiding principal. Kernfeld notes, Tune-Dex advertisements “appealed to a feeling of musical inadequacy.” This is a feeling oddly replicated by countless jazz educators who chide their students for using lead sheets at all, imploring pupils to internalize these long-forgotten standards by rote. By developing a culture that looks down upon these cheat sheets, musicians competitively seek to legitimize their relationship to these anachronistic songs by way of the countless hours it takes to learn them all. As The Real Book has withstood the test of time and only solidified its centralized role (massively co-opted, legalized, and (de)legitimized by Hal Leonard in 2004, three decades after its initial conception), its utility has shifted from its roots in the supply-and-demand chain to a key role in the evaluation of skill and merit between developing musicians. I’m almost embarrassed to even write about The Real Book, because the culture that houses it treats it with such diminution.

This attitude has likely been critical in propelling jazz musicians beyond the walls of the American Songbook, leaving behind its outdated catalogue but maintaining the technique, culture, and method that it had once bred. Jazz has found many more recent successes (both artistic and commercial) when its practitioners have integrated, absorbed, and participated in likeminded music that’s coincident but just beyond its walls. Artists like BadBadNotGood, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Wulfpeck, Thundercat, Kneebody, and Tortoise have all made it a point of their trajectories to move beyond the insular, often myopic world of jazz by supporting larger, more secular artists (Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus, Ghostface Killah, Daedelus) or by reinterpreting tracks and representing their own individualized take on what constitutes “the classics” (Radiohead, J Dilla, and David Bowie have become a few likely candidates, each of them embodying a sense of universality in their own way).

It’s nothing new to contemporize and radically reframe what we consider to be our common repertoire. Nor does New American Songbooks, Volume 1 deliver an especially convincing answer to the task at hand. Instead, the album succeeds because Halverson, Miles, and Saunier know the futile goal that sits before them. They are pragmatic in their approach (limiting their purview to songs with clear, discernible melodies that can withstand stylistic reinterpretation) and anti-universalist in their execution (allowing selections based on personal significance rather than ubiquity; allowing the idiosyncrasies and particularities of their musical identities to overtake their playing). Saunier describes, “I think we went for a Fantasy New American Songbook, a surreal wishlist.” This is key. A wishlist isn’t a mandate, it’s a suggestion.

So, who hangs the plaques? Where do they go? The American Songbook is contestable. Its purview is clear (early-to-mid-20th-century American popular music, the artifacts left by the music industry’s coming of age), but its title is presumptive. Too general, golden oldies suppose a national essence. A genre in the guise of a catalogue: a canonical thing living and breathing, our natal mythos. We take it for granted and suppose that we have treated this heartbeat of the heartland with tacit abandon. It has little criteria and no definition. The American Songbook is a collectively orchestrated construct, immaterial yet bound to a certain time and place. Its influence is waning, but the order it proposes recurs throughout the industries it has wrought. As the music industry shifts to a model that interprets taste with finer granularity and larger data-sets than ever before (only to reinforce trends and contingent successes), I suspect that our collective songbook will look more varied than ever, a quality that reflects the diversification (and ultimately, the dissolution) of personal taste. More and more do we find that our discoveries are mapped out before we find them. For this reason, the personal-historical memories that drove selections like The Partridge Family’s “I Woke Up In Love This Morning” or the incidental Elliott Smith medley feel so warm and pertinent as do the ungrounded, other-less, dislocated renditions that deliver them. A relinquishing of ambition amidst the chopping block of the algorithm, New American Songbooks, Volume 1 is a deliberate secession from the machinations of the canon.

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