This column discusses what "good" music is compared to "bad" music.
I'm not going to be so lofty to pronounce everything I like is "good" music, although I will say I like music of quality. But it's a totally subjective issue. Or is it?
The great Duke Ellington once said there were only two kinds of music - "good" and "bad." Now, of course, he was trying to break out of the "jazz" straightjacket he was put into, but the fact is Duke's music was overwhelmingly jazz in nature, although he used every conceivable style to create his own unique pallet.
When you listen to someone like Duke Ellington's orchestra - and if you've listened to enough of it - you can recognize Duke's "signature" in his art, whether it be from the 1920s all the way into the 1970s.
There are aspects of Ellington's music I love - I dig the "jungle style" of his work in the 1920s and the sublime and colorful, complex harmonies he created for his players in the 1950s. But what I love more than anything is Ellington playing solo piano or with a trio because that's where you can really hear his style distilled. He was what I would call "beyond category," which was Duke's ultimate compliment to an artist he admired.
Getting back to the difference between "good" and "bad" music, I usually think of "good" music as something I would want to listen to more than once.
"Good" music touches something in my soul that makes me want to explore it further or hear it again, no matter what the genre. "Good" music is something I can enjoy on two levels - both the visceral emotional response and the technique of the player or how well he/she tells a story. All "good" music should tell a story, even if there are no lyrics involved.
It's much easier for me to define "good" music rather than "bad" music because music is really in the ear of the beholder, so to speak. I usually think of "bad" music as something that leaves a negative first impression, but even that is too limiting. There have been several times where I listened to something and disliked it on the first listening. Then later on, maybe because I'm in a different mood or because of the reputation of the artist, I may listen to it again, and, after repeated listenings, discover something of merit in the music.
To me, "bad" music would be something that lacks the impossible to define quality of "soul." It doesn't matter the genre or how the music was made or even when it was made.
When I listen to the indigenous music of the far East - music from Vietnam, Burma, China, etc. before the 1940s, I hear a soulfulness that draws me in, even if I have no idea what they are singing or even what instruments they are playing.
I love Islamic music and Christian hymns from the 1920s and 1930s for the same reason - there is passion there. It goes to prove music is a universal language, no matter where it's created or when.
It's in our DNA as the human race, and it's the passion that makes all the difference.
Hank Williams Sr. was one of the best songwriters who's ever lived, and no one sang Hank better than Hank. His brand of country was soulful, had swing and passion beyond measure. The same could be said of the Beatles, or Bob Dylan's best work, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, John Coltrane - the list is endless. Good music also transcends time, or, in other words, is timeless.
I find solace in the Indian improvisations of the late sitarist Ravi Shankar, as well as the party anthems of '70s rock gods Kiss and Led Zeppelin.
The deep, Delta blues invented by African-Americans moves me as much as just much of anything James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, recorded. Their music all makes me feel something. It doesn't matter how opposite their music may appear on the surface.
It's the same reason I love Nine Inch Nails, although much of the band's music is made with artificial instruments. Yet leader Trent Reznor has an uncanny way to make his music organic and supremely human, even if he's using machines to create it. No one creates a groove like Reznor, which also is one of my definitions of great music. Ellington once wrote a song, "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Go That Swing." The same could be said of groove for me. And, like swing and soul, it's a quality that can't really be defined. It either swings and grooves or it doesn't.
I have thousands of records and CDs, and I say 99 percent of it is "good" music, at least my definition of such. Anyone is free to disagree. But I would argue my diverse listening habits gives me the edge when it comes to defining what is "good" and "bad" music, just as someone who has studied wines or art for years and acquired a certain skill. You've got to have a feeling for it, and, more importantly, a passion for it.