Is there a place for cynicism in music?

Bill Frisell - ironist turned shameless romantic?

Bill Frisell – ironist turned shameless romantic?

I was browsing in my copy of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD – mine is the seventh edition and so stops in 2004 but that’s fine: any old edition of Brian Morton and the late Richard Cook’s brick of a book is still a treasure trove of accurate fact and wise opinion* – when I came across this, concerning the 1998 Nonesuch duo album, Songs We Know, by Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell (it’s short so I might as well quote it in full):

“It’s possible to find Frisell’s eclecticism a little tiresome, and these 11 standards and jazz tunes might have been overpowered by his signature methods. But Hersch keeps him on planet Earth. The pianist’s incisive parts curb the guitarist’s taste for outrageous harmonics and there’s some terrific interplay. But the record doesn’t sustain its running time. As with all of Frisell’s records, there’s a novelty element which turns either cute or folksy at points, and the shameless romanticism which partial to is something that the guitarist can’t commit to without a lick of irony.”

There are a number of interesting observations in this short assessment – that reference to the running time, for example. It’s a reminder that Morton and Cook were dealing with a lot of original LP-length recordings, despite the stress on CD recordings in the title, and were probably more acutely aware than we have now become when the extended time afforded by the more recent medium was not being efficiently used. There are times when I feel a 45 minute album is preferable to a 70 minute one…

But the aspect that really struck me was the reference at the end to Bill Frisell’s penchant for using irony to undercut Fred Hersch’s romanticism. And it’s not a great leap from taking an ironic view to taking a cynical one: one might be the vehicle and the other the underlying attitude, but both irony and cynicism can contain a degree of sarcasm and mockery; both highlight a discrepancy between a generally held view of something and a specific view being expressed.

So, I started to think about other examples of music where a certain ironic element in the performance might be perceived – and I came up fairly quickly with two: the Mothers Of Invention’s 1968 album Cruising With Reuben And The Jets, and Django Bates’s version of New York, New York.

Now, it’s probably no co-incidence that both Frank Zappa and Django Bates have, in addition to their many admirers, a few gainsayers as well. Humour – and especially humour which uses irony – is a divisive thing: basically you either get the joke or you don’t. And that throws up the whole talking point of whether a thing can be both funny and serious. I’d argue that of course it can. Comedy is never just a good joke – it’s also concerned with exposing an underlying truth.

I happen to love Reuben And The Jets, and the Bates band’s New York, New York. I’d argue that both Frank and Django have a certain affection for, respectively, doo-wop music and show tunes. And the very act of spending time composing or rearranging such music shows that affection. It’s a fine balancing act but it’s something you can hear in the music. There might be an element of mockery there but that’s by no means all there is. It’s much more complicated.

So is any music really ironic? In fact, is it possible for music to be cynical? Well, from one point of view, the answer has to be “yes” because musicians can do anything they damn well choose. But, as a modest caveat, I’d suggest that just the act of committing that irony or cynicism to music does in some way undermine it. Creation is such a positive thing, how could it do otherwise?

As a further aside to the original starting point of all this, isn’t it interesting to note how, 16 years on, Bill Frisell’s eclecticism can no longer be viewed as tiresome at all – and he certainly doesn’t have a monopoly in it – and any perceived irony in his music can no longer been justified either. Listen to his most recent, Big Sur – you might even call it shamelessly romantic! Has he changed, or have the rest of us? Probably both.

Anyway, nominations please for examples of real irony and or cynicism in music. Just add as a comment.

  • The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD is now best sought in second-hand or charity bookshops. A condensed version of just the 1001 best recordings chosen by Brian Morton is available to buy here.
  • To buy Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell’s Songs We Know, go here.
  • To buy the Mothers Of Invention’s Cruising With Reuben And The Jets, search those same charity shops.
  • To buy Django Bates’ Winter Truce (And Homes Blaze), which contains New York, New York, go here.

Categories: Opinion

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1 reply

  1. Great post. I suppose the cynical response is ultimately to refrain from selecting anything at all. As for real irony, I should probably turn to Alanis Morissette for further inspiration or better still pretending that smooth jazz is meant ironically, usually a good tactic to dull the pain. Otherwise I’d suggest Billy Jenkins and the Belgian Blues Collective as seen here:

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