Here’s a case where I really didn’t know what I was giving up when I let it go.
In high school, my perception of jazz was shaped by the repertoire we played in jazz band, the bulk of which stemmed from the music’s early era. We played your Glenn Miller, a bit of washed-over Duke Ellington, something Stan Kenton-ish and even a Spyro Gyra cover.
But my music program wasn’t sophisticated enough to introduce anything like John Coltrane or Miles Davis, so Ornette Coleman was completely off the radar.
At the end of my high school career, I encountered the intersection of modern classical music and jazz known as “downtown New York”. I didn’t understand the traditions from which either came at that point, but I loved the noise it produced.
Before there were online streaming services, there was the music press, and back then, I would read about all kinds of interesting music more than I would actually hear it. That meant taking some leaps for faith based on something somebody wrote in a magazine.
I took that leap with John Zorn and Kronos Quartet, and I liked where I ended up. I took that same leap with the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and Crazy People Music didn’t last long in my collection.
The press around the album, as I remember it, described the album as forward-thinking and ground-breaking. It went as far as winning a Grammy Award. I went into Crazy People Music thinking it would be another Naked City.
It sounded pretty standard, which was to say it didn’t stray too far from the kind of jazz pieces we played in band. The heads on Crazy People Music maybe sounded a bit off-kilter, but they sounded nothing like what I could find on Kronos’ Winter Was Hard or White Man Sleeps.
For an album called Crazy People Music, it didn’t sound, well, crazy enough. I played through my cassette copy of the album perhaps once, then went straight back to my Nonesuch albums.
I picked up a CD copy of the album at the Friends of the Seattle Library book sale, about 28 years after I first encountered it. By then, I had learned how to listen to jazz, and I had a better sense of history about the music than I did in high school.
I like it way more now.
And within the confines of Marsalis’ idiom, the album actually does have its moments of craziness. I first went into the album thinking it would structurally crazy. Rather, the crazy stems from the performances themselves. There are some hot takes on this record.
But I think what I missed the most about Crazy People Music is the cover. The quartet looks like they’re having a blast, but it’s a fun rooted in mania. The back cover of the album jumbles the text in a manner where you can’t tell which is up. Fishbone employed a similar effect on the cover of In Your Face.