An Earnest Exploration into the Musical Merit of Jazz Wolf
Perhaps Jazz Wolf is code for Get The Fuck Out of Here? It is for me.
If you did not know already, I am the type of person who listens to the vinyl version of The Language and Music of Wolves (narrated by Robert Redford) in earnest. I research, love, cry over, stare at, and think about wolves on a daily basis, and for several years, friends have been mailing me copies of this wolf-sounds album every time they find it in a thrift store. (At some point in the future, I would like to install an art piece consisting of every copy of my TLaMoW album playing simultaneously in an empty room, while I meditate in the center of it. Really.) What’s great for me is that this album IS ALWAYS IN THRIFT STORES. And while this classic has been in my heavy rotation for forever, it wasn’t until 2006 that I found the other staple of every wolf-sound collector—Jazz Wolf.
I feel like a lot of readers may already be familiar with Jazz Wolf, because it’s an easy ironic thing to collect and henceforth make fun of, simply because the liner notes are an expert exercise in self-delusion and grandiosity. Here they are in full for those of you who don’t know what Jazz Wolf is:
As unexpected and elusive as the wolves and their shadows, jazz music lifts, dips, builds, trails off, and begins yet another slightly different riff – all notes coming from the hearts of jazz musicians. Wild wolves are comparable to jazz musicians. As a wolf begins to howl after a long rest, one by one, other wolves in the pack choose a different note and join together in song, celebrating their camaraderie. The crescendo of all the voices fills the crisp, dark night. Far off a distant wolf returns with its own note, just like one jazz musician playing off the cues of other musicians’ notes, styles, and riff lines.
Both wolves and jazz musicians indulge in self-expression. As you listen to the selections on Jazz Wolf, imagine a few howling wolves on one side of a stand of forest green pine trees and a couple musicians playing saxophone and guitar on the other side. The notes of the two combos talk to one another, each pushing the other to reply with more soul, with a slightly different musical outlook. The starry sky is filled with the expressive music of nature – human kind and wolf brought together again in exceptional harmony.
Jazz Wolf brings you exceptional jazz music combined with the background nature sounds of gentle waves on Agnes Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, creaking trees, crickets, barred owls, whip-poor-wills, paddling a canoe on a remote Canadian wilderness lake, rain in the forest, rushing rivers, the wind blowing through a northern stand of quaking aspen, howling wind, timber wolf cubs, and a gently flowing trout stream all mixed with the voices of wild Canus lupus – the timber wolf.
Let me clear some things up for you: 1) Jazz musicians are never comparable to wild wolves, unless you tell me that all species of canine and feline have also evolved out of the legendary Jazz Musician and that we can now hunt Jazz Musicians freely. 2) This was absolutely not recorded opposite a few wild howling wolves on the other side of a ravine. 3) Half of these songs use the “saxophone” setting on the keyboard, producing a sound the equivalent of what I expect every single wolf probably fucking hates. I know I do. In fact, I have Jazz Wolf on cassette and CD (cassette actually sounds better) and have listened to it at least once a year since 2006 in an attempt to understand the pomposity of the jazz composer who could proclaim he had “exceptional harmony” with the wolves. But while I’ve thought about the man who made this music for several years, I never once thought to look him up, until today.
Chuck Lange is a jazz guitarist in Wisconsin. According to his profile on Last.fm, he’s sold over a million CDs in the “relaxation market,” which has made him a gold-level recording artist and doesn’t even account for the thousands of CDs that circulate in thrift stores or the hundreds of torrent sites that carry the files of Jazz Wolf, Jazz Loon, Northern Nights, Loon Bay, Desert Guitar, and any of the hundreds of recordings Chuck Lange has put out on his now-defunct label, NorthSounds, and his newer label, Cedar Lake. The new label, while rehashing the same nature-sounds-obscured-by-elevator-music routine, also specializes in DVDs that are the equivalent of those catsitter fish-swimming-in-an-aquarium-for-two-hours videos…only for Alzheimers patients. Basically, Lange’s business model is rock-solid, because he’s piggybacking on the marketing potential of FUCKING NATURE. Hey, do you like nature? Here, I recorded some keyboard over your nature, so I could use your same nature endlessly, record different keyboard over it, then sell it to you again as different nature, even though it’s the exact same nature you heard before. I’m absolutely fascinated by Chuck Lange, so I called him up at home. Here’s how the conversation went:
Chuck Lange here.
Hello, my name is April Wolfe, and I’m writing an article about Jazz Wolf for Vice magazine.
Uh…you’re breaking up.
Is this Chuck Lange? I was hoping you might be able to answer a few questions about—
You’re breaking up. (click)
I proceeded to call him two more times. The second time, it was pretty obvious he just didn’t want to talk and was using the old “you’re breaking up” routine. The third time, I just left a message, which he never returned. Perhaps Jazz Wolf is code for Get The Fuck Out of Here? It is for me. But I still couldn’t lay this Jazz Wolf thing to rest, because this thing sold like A MILLION COPIES, all based on the exploitation of wolves and us crazy wolf lovers who will buy anything even remotely wolf-related, apparently even elevator music albums. What’s more, the serious reviews of this album on Amazon (I say “serious,” because there are several worthy “joke reviews”) are astounding. Here are a few excerpts of note:
I love this CD. I used to play the alto sax but had to give it up due to the fact that I have a family now. I got this in cassette form years ago and loved it then, and still love it now!!! (note: must not have been very good at the sax if his family FORCED HIM TO GIVE IT UP???)
This CD is awesome! I absolutely love to listen to this CD! My dogs will all howl with the wolves. I find it very relaxing and just makes me feel like I am in the wilderness listening to their songs of the night. (note: the jazz made you feel this way???)
This soundtrack is absolutely fabulous!!! Listening to any one of the recordings instantly transports the listener into the quiet solitude of the wilderness. (note: if the wilderness were somehow polluted with smooth jazz musicians…also, it is not a soundtrack, unless Lange made a wolf movie I’m unaware of, and I highly doubt that.)
While it has established its presence amidst my consistent musical taste, it has never rusted and grown old in any manner. Except for one song, I hate it. (note: I am dying to know which song it is, but I have my guesses.)
So I tracked down one of the reviewers and wrote to him. Turns out he’s what we call “Furries,” and he has a wily wolf persona. Hey, guy, I’m not judging. Believe me, in a different world, I’d have one of those fancy Beverly Hills doctors surgically graft wolf fur humanely harvested from naturally deceased wolves all over my body, so I applaud your efforts in communing with nature. Hey, maybe I shouldn’t have said all that in my email to him…maybe he would have actually written back. Oops! You win some, you wolf some!
The only thing left for me to do was to consult with one of the world’s most foremost zoomusicologists, Emily Doolittle. As a fellow woman with a fortuitous surname in relation to my interests, I’ve been wanting to contact Emily for the past five years. The field of zoomusicology is extremely small and mostly dominated by Europeans, but it basically operates on the principle that wildlife doesn’t just make noises and interesting sounds for communication, but that they actually knowingly create what we call music for the same purposes that we create music—for enjoyment, mood-making for gettin’ down, boredom, etc. Extrapolating on this principle, we could now say that wolves cut a phenomenal album, and Chuck Lange Vanilla-Iced all over it. But I didn’t mention any of this to Emily when I wrote her, because I wanted to hear from an expert what it is that I could have been missing about Jazz Wolf that would launch it into gold-level popularity.
In response to my query, Emily said, “The overlaying of jazz (or any kind of music) with animal recordings is a bit weird. The same thing happened in classical music, eg. 'Classical Loon.' [gross] It's always a little unclear to me if things like Jazz Wolf/Classical Loon are made by people who really thought it was a beautiful idea to combine this music with natural sounds, or they just thought it would sell.” Emily then directed me to a piece called “Wolf Eyes” (not the Detroit band Wolf Eyes), by a sax master named Paul Wilson, which has a :50 sax intro in which Winter accurately replicated the music of wolves before accurately replicating the sounds of a fifty-year-old smooth jazz musician. She doesn’t particularly like the song, but does concede that Wilson had at least made an attempt to organically incorporate saxophone into nature, which I’m going to venture to say is COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE. Emily says, “To me, recordings of natural sounds and composed human music don't go together at all, unless there is some deeper reason for them to be together. (Eg. if the music is somehow structured by the animal songs, or the animal songs are altered to fit in with the music, or there is something specific about the natural sound that makes it fit in with the instrumental/electronic sounds of the music or something.” Emily would know, because she’s also a celebrated composer who has meticulously dissected birdsong to recreate its musical structure. If you’d like to hear what something like Jazz Wolf could have been in the hands of a real musician, take a listen to Emily’s work (emilydoolittle.com) or to some of her favorites in the field—Einojuhani Rautavaara, Albery de Albuquerque, or Hermeto Pascoal. Plus, Emily has some rad stories about animals that make music, like the Thai Elephant Orchestra, which is comprised solely of ELEPHANTS PLAYING INSTRUMENTS.
Fuck, Jazz Wolf! I seriously tried! I’ve given you six years of my life, which is longer than any failing relationship I’ve ever had on life support. But I think I might be done with you. I’m just going to say it: experts agree that Jazz Wolf sucks. Dear Chuck Lange, if you ever decide to return my call and defend why Jazz Wolf or any of your “Alzheimer Babysitter” musical DVDs should exist, I’m just going to warn you right now that I’ve just got really bad reception in my house right now, and I’m really sorry to tell you this, but Chuck, even though I love wolves more than my boyfriend or the use of my right leg, I’m just…I’m so sorry, but you’re breaking up. We’re breaking up. If any of you readers out there have a Jazz Wolf CD or tape lying around in your clearly unkempt music collections, please message me for my address, then mail your Jazz Wolves to me, and I will include them in my new art installation called “Jazz Wolf Genocide.” Seriously. I’m about to destroy every existing copy of Jazz Wolf in the most sensational ways possible, and you can help the cause.
- Vice Blog