Words Don’t Go There: When “Tight” Just Won’t Do It

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So you’ve probably heard the adage: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  That gets to what follows, but I was reading something for my dissertation a couple weeks back (I can’t remember the author, perhaps it was Nathaniel Mackey) and the phrase “words don’t go there” really stuck out.  What the author was talking about was written language’s inability to fully capture the experience of music, and to me, the phrase “words don’t go there” gets to what the oft quoted adage is describing, yet in a clearer, more elegant, more succinct and effective way.

A few weeks back I had the pleasure to hear Miguel Zenon and the Rhythm Collective at the Blue Room in Kansas City.  Me, along with a bunch of people I know and were sitting with at the show, were constantly blown away by many things, one among them how tight the band was.

I mean really tight.
Impressively tight.
Almost unbelievably tight.
Tight beyond description.

Near the end of the first set  the “words don’t go there” phrase came back to me as I was realizing just how good the band was.  I then came to two conclusions: First, that there really isn’t any way for me to aptly describe what I was hearing.  At that moment, words couldn’t go there for me.  Second, that praising the “tightness” of a band isn’t that great of a compliment.  Here’s why: A band is supposed to be tight.  If it isn’t, something is wrong.  It’s not really a compliment to make a note of a band being just a step beyond competent.  It’s akin to that Chris Rock joke where the guy is proud of himself for taking care of his kids and not being in jail.  The punchline being “you’re not supposed to be in jail you dumb bastard. What do you want, a cookie?”  It’s like praising a singer for his or her good intonation, or for a soloist’s ability to navigate the chord changes – these are all more or less basic standards a professional jazz musician is supposed to meet.

Had I been assigned to review this concert for Downbeat or another publication, trying to describe how well Zenon and his band played together would have put me in a spot of bother.  If you read concert and album reviews, you’re familiar with these common, and sometimes generically lame ways to describe and praise a band for being tight (I admit to using some of these myself):

  • the band acts as one;
  • they have a shared consciousness, or they have ESP;
  • the band shifts directions on a dime, etc., etc. etc.

Sure, these descriptions more or less give the idea a reader an idea as to how good a band is and how well they play together, but for me – as both a writer and a reader – they don’t really make it.  But what is a critic or journalist or fan to do when they want to describe just how tight a band is – just how exceptionally tight, how how a band demonstrates beyond what is normally understood “tight” to be?

How am I able to relay through words just how amazingly tight Miguel Zenon and the Rhythm Collective were? (See how lame “amazingly tight” comes across?  Sure, the qualifying ly verb indicates Zenon et al were tighter than normal, or tighter than a working band is expected to be, but it still doesn’t get the job done.)

How am I to convey the visceral reaction of surprise and mirth I felt as the band moved unexpectedly in perfect concert with each other from a freewheeling improv section to playing a composed theme?  How do I convey the similar reactions of my friends in the audience (all of whom are fantastic musicians in their own right), to convey their sense of amazement, of their witnessing the barely graspable being firmly grasped by a group of master artists?  How do I convey the energizing effect of hearing people accomplish only what the very best of the best can do?

Sure, acknowledging Zenon and the Rhythm Collective’s tightness through one of the common phrases I listed above will more or less get the job done.  But what it doesn’t get at is the affect part of the music; it doesn’t get at communicating how the band’s performance makes me, and the other people I were there with, feel.  It might let the reader know that the band is better than most.  But, among the strongest reasons, at least for me, I listen to music is to feel.  As a motivation for listening, trying to compare music to other music is pretty low on the list (which might sound weird coming from someone who considers himself a “critic,” at least some of the time).  Sometimes I just want to write about how the music feels, not to judge it with some kind of long established evaluative criteria that governs much of what constitutes jazz writing.

Barring me having some kind of writing breakthrough, the best I can do to describe just how tight Zenon and the Rhythm Collective were a few Monday nights ago is to just say that “words don’t go there.”

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