Edward W Batchelder

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Jackson Pollock: Jazz
Various Artists
(Museum Music)

album cover of Jackson Pollock: Jazz

Imagine discovering that Ornette Coleman’s favorite art was, say, seventeenth-century landscape painting, or finding out that Albert Ayler had actually harbored a secret love for clown portraits and sad-eyed children on velvet.

A similar jolt may await art lovers who pick up Jackson Pollock: Jazz—the CD accompanying the recent retrospective of the painter’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While all of the tunes on the disc were culled from Pollock’s own record collection, they’re far from being a sonic equivalent for the painter’s trademark splatters and drips. In fact, the CD highlights performers like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Pollock’s canvases may have pushed abstract art to its outer limits, but his taste in music turns out to have been as rectilinear as the frames he stretched his canvases on.

“Lots of people talk about Pollock and progressive jazz,” confirms Helen A. Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center on Long Island, “but actually he was a conservative.” Though Pollock often drank at a bar with a bop-oriented house band, she explains, “his requests were always ‘Melancholy Baby’ and the like.”

“They thought he was a square,” she acknowledges with a laugh.

Pepe Karmel, the MOMA curator who along with Rob Gibson, executive producer and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, put together the disk, reveals something even more incriminating: “Pollock owned a lot of schlock.” One of the first decisions the two had to make in putting out the CD, Karmel says, was “to eliminate the Andre Kostelanetz.”

While it’s interesting to know that American painting was revolutionized by a man listening to “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” Karmel and Gibson had a different goal for Jackson Pollock: Jazz. Working from a list of the hundred or so 78-rpm recordings Pollock left behind, Karmel and Gibson winnowed it down to about fifty tracks, making sure they got the “exact correct performance” Pollock had owned. Since no one knew the painter’s personal favorites, however, the final cut was done with an eye for “the historical development of the music, and for a variety of textures.” Karmel also tended away from what he calls “chestnuts like Ellington’s ‘St. Louis Toodeloo’”; the CD substitutes “Delta Serenade” instead.

What results is a highly listenable survey of jazz’s early years, running from Jelly Roll Morton’s 1927 “Beale Street Blues” to Coleman Hawkins’s 1943 “Boff Boff (Mop Mop).” The CD certainly disproves Pollock’s belligerent claim that “I only like Dixieland,” but like a lot of biographical detail, it’s not clear that it really tells us much about the development of Pollock the artist.

Not surprisingly, Karmel finds the connections between Pollock’s work and jazz to be, well, fairly abstract, citing the role of “rhythmic repetition” in both, or pointing out how Pollock’s dense layering of paint on the canvas can be thought of as a “visual counterpart to harmony.” Harrison, however, sees the relationship as both more direct and more difficult. “There is a connection between Pollock’s painting and modern jazz, but perhaps because it’s so obvious, Pollock wasn’t interested in it.”

© Edward W Batchelder
(from JAZZIZ)

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