Monday, September 16, 2013

Falanghina and the Sensitive Layman

People sometimes ask me for advice on how to get into jazz.  Leaving the “what is jazz” debate for another day, I find this question a little funny because, in many ways, I think jazz is pretty easy to get into.  All the biggest names (Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, etc.) are generally some of the best-recorded examples of the music.  This definitely isn’t the case for most other types of music.  A google search of “country music artists” yields a disproportionate number of young pop country crossover artists like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, or Blake Shelton.  Regardless of whether you think this music is good or not, you definitely can’t claim it is a complete representation of the country music canon.

I’ll be the first to admit that some jazz is esoteric, heady, and prohibitive but you don’t have to dig very deep to find “Ella and Louis” or “Charlie Parker With Strings,” which are both recordings I think anyone with ears could enjoy, or at the very least understand.  I think people feel that jazz is unapproachable because of a stigma that jazz is a music that requires some scholarly knowledge of the techniques and the history before it can be enjoyed.  This is mostly absurd.

Good music does not require prior knowledge to be understood or enjoyed.  If you need proof, listen to basically anything by Louis Armstrong.  Armstrong’s music, in my opinion, is as sophisticated as that of any other jazz musician, but I can’t imagine anyone finding it unapproachable (which is especially remarkable because some of it is almost 100 years old now!).  What makes any art “great” is never technique alone.  However, I do think that learning about the techniques and the history of a music, while not a prerequisite, can enrich the listener’s experience.  Which is why when someone asks me, “what should I check out if I want to get into jazz?” I send them this video. 

Obviously the video’s a little dated, but if you can get through the schticky intro and the slightly weird interview style (definitely some brotherly tension there…), the things Bill Evans has to say, and the demonstrations he gives, are just about the best practical introduction to jazz you can get anywhere.  But don’t just take my word for it—if you want to learn about jazz or art or music in general, and you have 45 minutes, you should really watch this.

Bill Evans says in the opening segment, “I do not agree that the laymen’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of music than that of the professional musician.  In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of the sensitive layman than that of a professional since the professional, because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music, must fight to preserve the naiveté that the layman already possesses.”

So far my approach to learning about wine (and I may be going about this the complete wrong way) is educated guesswork.  I read about wines, and I try to learn what to expect from specific varietals, regions, vintages, etc.  When I try different wines I have an idea of what to expect and I try to take note of when a wine either meets these expectations or diverges from them.  It’s similar to the process I use to identify a recording: this is a piano trio record and it sounds like Red Garland and the bassist is definitely Paul Chambers, so the drummer is probably Art Taylor.  But wines often don’t fit into neat little boxes, and this for me is the fun of it. 

I had a Falanghina the other night that had me completely flummoxed.  I had never had a Falanghina and I really knew nothing about the grape going into it.  The wine was unlike anything I’d ever had, and without any frame of reference I started floundering.  At first I thought it was oaky, but then I realized it wasn’t really vanilla-y or very buttery, just rich.  One minute I found it fruity, and the next I found it earthy and mineral, and then eventually I couldn’t identify anything about it.  This was an example where the wine failed to fit into any of the categories I had created in my mind.  My knowledge (which is, admittedly, limited) failed me, and it was awesome. 

A friend of mine who loves wine but wouldn’t claim to know much about it joined me for dinner, and as I was silently freaking about this wine she effortlessly pointed out that it smelled like pine needles, and she was totally right.  From there, the wine slowly started to make sense to me.  This is a perfect example of the perceptiveness of the “sensitive layman,” and a reminder why it’s important to fight to preserve one’s naiveté, especially when tasting wine. 
Here’s the wine I’m talking about:

2011 Cantine Astroni “Falangos” Falanghina

Falanghina is a white grape grown in the Campania region of Italy.  This wine is from Campi Flegrei an active volcano area west of Naples and the soils are made up largely of volcanic ash.  As I said before, my first impression of this wine was that it was oaky, but after some time I realized that that was probably just because of its richness and golden color.  It was a bit cloudy too—could there be skin contact?  There were grassy piney aromas, as well as tropical fruit. The wine was slightly effervescent when opened and had a subtle, almost spicy minerality on the palate without being very acidic.  I almost want to say that it was like a sauvignon blanc in terms of flavor profile but with the body of a California Chardonnay, if that makes sense at all.  The wine was a little rich for my tastes, and I wouldn’t have minded a little more acidity, but it was very interesting and I clearly had a lot to say about it.  And at $15 dollars, it’s definitely an excellent bargain, especially if you’re into richer, fuller bodied white wines. 

It went really nicely with a spaghetti alle vongole and a salad of late summer tomatoes. 

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