I downloaded the latest work by Mr. Elvis Costello last week and had a listen on my way from New York to New England. In the way we coldly diagnose annoyances which are close in on our senses yet impersonal, I soon stopped listening and started mentally auditioning explanations of the record's overall weakness. One that hit me a little more forcefully than the rest was: "The musicians are having a good time."
It's just a guess of course. But it sounds to me as though these players (I didn't find out who they were) convened, chatted amicably, sat in a circle, played through the songs once or twice before activation of the machine ear, cut, and then went out for a hot meal. If I'm reading right, the organizing principle, such as it was, was: Relax, unify, and no hot licks -- an after-hours mood.
The principle seems faultless (also, incidentally, humane), and the players are predictably outstanding (though they're keeping it so basic that you might not always know). So how could it fail? Thinking back on some of my own failed efforts to get solid group performances on tape or hard drive, I believe the laissez-faire approach with musicians was occasionally culpable. I have taken the coward's way, erasing performances or starting from scratch with different hires, always loath to say to someone I admire: No, not that way; send your imagination and your hands to another quadrant; block that impulse. The reasons besides cowardice for not saying this, the practical reasons, are several. Biological creatures have very limited directability (they play and imagine the way they play and imagine). Impulse has a sacred and official alliance with musical creation. The physical and mental conditions most conducive to performance are, presumably, stress-free.
What about this presumption, though? I learned what I took to be a fundamental insight at a show 23 years ago, when my bandleader brought me to the brink of a heart-palpitating, sputtering rage moments before downbeat, and I proceeded to play the guitar, during our first set, like Clarence Fucking White. All right, that's an exaggeration, but: better than I had before or have since. Maybe. Anyway, after the incident, I thought across the years of all the captives of bandleaders reputed to be tough or disagreeable -- Raymond Scott, Benny Goodman, Bill Monroe, Miles Davis, Tommy Dorsey, on and on. You hear a good deal of testimony to the effect that the musicians who worked for these men achieved things they never could have, or indeed did, in more felicitous zones.
There's a happy class of recording musician these days that is allowed and encouraged to show up, relax, do the magic thing, collect triple scale, and go home. Good for them. Good also, for the young amateur, who has easier access to an essential urgency that is irrelevant or counter to a professional, master-class mentality. Music's not just a good time, and somebody, at least somebody at the top, needs some negativity.