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The Problem With Jazz Analysis Discussed In Robert Walser's Article "Out Of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, And The Problem Of Miles Davis"

945 words - 4 pages

Missed notes, unfamiliar formal structures, and technical intricacies have plagued musicologist’s understanding of Miles Davis’s performances and why he is considered “someone who is indisputably one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz.” However, as Robert Walser discusses in his article, “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis,” part of the problem is the approach taken by musicology for analyzing jazz music itself, attempting classicism of jazz to legitimize it as part of the European classical music tradition. Walser decries that when attempting to analyze and understand jazz music and performance we may need to consider alternative analytical methods.
Walser argues that music analysts need to develop a vocabulary that does not merely attempt to legitimize or classicize jazz. Analysts need to take into account the concept of signification, or to put this in jazz terms, “sygnifyin’.” Walser defines signification as to “assume that meanings can be absolute, permanent, and objectively specified.” Signification is an extremely narrow analytical view of music, which tends to borrow techniques from European classical music analysis. Based on the book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Walser defines signifyin’ as ideas that work through “reference, gesture, and dialogue to suggest multiple meanings through association. (…) Signifyin’ respects contingency, improvisation, relativity—the social production and negotiation of meanings.” To demonstrate the paradigm of signifyin’ Walser cites comments by Gunter Schuller on how to judge jazz stating “we must judge jazz performance or recordings on their own merits…[and] we can rely upon certain standards of performance quality and authenticity [including] technical accuracy, appropriateness to the style, and originality.” Additionally, Walser’s description of signification is extremely helpful when reading his analysis of Davis’s version of “My Funny Valentine.” It is beneficial to understanding the approach taken in the analysis and Walser’s reasoning.
In an attempt to demonstrate the benefits of sygnifyin’, Walser provides an analysis of Davis’s 1964 version of “My Funny Valentine,” to one performed by Tony Bennett in 1959. At first, the comparison of a vocal and instrumental performance of the same piece might seem odd. However, as previously defined, sygnifyin’ is dialogic and Walser’s analysis takes the position of Davis’s version commenting, or engaging in a dialogue with that of Bennett’s. For this reason, the comparison does make some sense. However, Walser also discusses some of the technical aspects and timbres of vocalizing and of trumpet performance. Because the technical facility and manipulation of these two instruments are radically different, the comparison also seems a bit out of place. For example, Walser compares the “warm baritone” quality of...

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