Friday, 23 March 2012

Let's go down which path?

I love browsing round the web in the morning whilst drinking my coffee. The kids are either upstairs playing (if it's a weekend), or at school and it means there's time to read what's being discussed either on the news or just as often on the various music blogs to be found - consult my blog rolls at the side of this page. One of the blogs that I browse from time to time is Ronan Guilfoyle's Mostly Music blog which always has something interesting to say, whether I agree on it or not, and seems to have an avid readership which follows the various discussions and arguments that Ronan throws up. 

One of the good points about Ronan's blog is the possibility to comment on the various articles, something that Ethan Iverson on (Do the Math) seems unprepared to do, probably due to the heavy editing of comments that it may entail? I personally believe that if you write something, and particularly statements, concerning touchy subjects - in these cases music - one should 'face the music and dance' as the saying goes. Anyhow, recently Ronan has written a couple of articles/essays (here and here) on the musicians who cross over the road from jazz, or in real terms jazz musicians that end up playing pop music and having some publicity, or success. It's difficult to come down on one side of the argument or the other, however I was interested to read - in the comments - that there's still much dissension over what is jazz and what isn't. More interestingly it seems that these people are most offended by those musicians who can play jazz yet decide to follow a more commercial direction - a la Esperanza Spalding or Robert Glasper. I should immediately add that Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper do plenty of other things (musically) that are definitely risk taking and jazz in the true sense of the word. These two video are simply the videos that seem to have sparked off the original discussion on Mostly Music.

Of course this is an old discussion which harks back a long way, and who's beginnings have disappeared in the mists of time. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery are all names that had mud thrown at them for daring to play music which is more accessible commercially, and of course also financially. Grover Washington is one artist who suffered at the hands of the jazz police, although luckily for him musicians came to recognize his brilliance, if only a while before his death in 1999. There are also legions of musicians and groups who have had their music (and musicianship) downgraded via this discussion - ex: The Crusaders, Ronnie Laws, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers and George Duke to name a few (see here for more info). Most, if not all, of these musicians believe(d) in their music and fully invested their artistic values into producing it. At the same time some, such as George Duke, played parallel careers working with less commercial ventures in this case Frank Zappa (as an example). There are also musicians that come from 'the other side' of popular dance music culture that have had a great influence on the jazz music world. One that springs to mind is Meshell Ndegeocello. Sadly though Meshell Ndegeocello, great as she is, hasn't really caught the ears of younger listeners at street level, her music, which is deeply personal, danceable, and political (in the true sense of the word), is probably far too sophisticated for the average youth. Those younger (and older) listeners that are attracted to such commercial sounding music tend to be those whose musical palette is already developed or developing (*). But, just because some people can't understand why jazz players head for the funky back beat with few (if any) solos, those same people probably can't understand other extremes either ... after all who is open to all music, what is jazz, is the video below 'jazz', or even music? I suspect that many people reading Mostly Music would not call the performance (or sound) on the video below music at all, in fact they'd probably think it was a joke.

So what is the purpose of jazz if it's not to develop music in all directions? Most jazz oriented listeners today consider that real jazz should be contained within the musical norms (and time period) of the 1940's to the 1960's. In fact all jazz courses today teach improvisation techniques and harmony that take it's base from the aforementioned time period. All young student players are taught that the word of Charlie Parker up until that of John Coltrane are the norm, and what every self respecting jazz musician should (has to) be able to emulate. In recent times players such as Mark Turner have had a great influence on young students and in turn Turner's love of Lennie Tristano and his pupil Warne Marsh have completely turned fashion on it's head making the names of Tristano and Marsh famous again. But what about the other side of the fence (as the video above), where's the real new music coming from, certainly not from conservatories producing Bill Evans, Coltrane and now Turner or Kurt Rosenwinkel clones (**). In fact conservatories do not teach students to push out into the unknown and to work in lesser accepted fields. If you look at the video below of Evan Parker (circa 1985) you can immediately ask yourself, would they teach this in a conservatory? This is no the only example. Players such as guitarist Derek Bailey (1930 - 2005), pianists Cecil Taylor or Alexander Von Schlippenbach , drummers Paul Lytton or Sunny Murray have all worked on their art forms and as yet have little 'public' acceptance. These are just a few of the names that could be mentioned, and even the area that they work in is still fairly accessible, even if only to a limited audience.

Unfortunately it seems that our educational institutions are the ones holding us back. The boundaries or the way forward in improvised instrumental music and jazz are being hidden from students by teachers who are afraid of change. Although the names of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker are certainly very important in terms of jazz improvisation, one has to start asking if we should maybe also be prepared to open the doors to other forms of improvised music. The names of the 21st century are probably more like John Butcher, Misha Mengelberg, Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Evan Parker, Arve Henriksen, Toshi Nakamura, Ab Baars, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon or Anthony Braxton. However, to make this a reality I suspect that one of the most important battles to be fought will be in the teachers common rooms where opinions can be be very severe (and stiff) over what is and what isn't jazz!

 However, almost subversively what isn't being noticed is that quietly in the wings, or I should say universities, there are courses springing up teaching students the art of technology. These students also have a love of music and many enjoy the idea that they to can improvise. Newer forms of music are being embraced by musicians and the technically minded. No-input Mixing Boards, computers using Max/MSP or Pure-Data, circuit bending, vocal transformations using pedals, guitars and other instruments being treated out of all recognition are all now part of this movement. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it seems a long way from the rather light discussions (or argument) on whether jazz musicians that crossover to more popular forms of music such as pop and soul are or not jazz. Who cares, let's clear out the cobwebs from the conservatories and start making music that not only challenges our concept of music but also doesn't bow down to the sugar laden diet that is fed to the masses. That side of things I don't think can ever be changed, so I guess we'll just have to live with it.

Some sites to follow up :
Wikipedia's entry on Free Jazz
European Free Improvisers pages - Here

* = Developed or developing? I tend to find that the more music you're open to the further you're able to delve into musical realms. Many students arrive at college/university with the CDs/mp3 of Weather Report and Brad Meldhau and leave with albums and scores of Shostakovitch and Bach. Those that really 'wake up' in music school often advance even further into the world of free jazz, avant garde music and electro-acoustics.  

**= Bill Evans, Coltrane and of course Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel are all excellent musicians. In the case of the last two I should add that these two fine players are pushing the limits of music also. However, they are still connected to the long line of tonal players and so take less risks than avant garde players. Of course once one leaves the path of commercial radio friendly music it's clear that you music will get less airplay. Rosenwinkel and Turner have clearly chosen this path and have at the same time given students of jazz new inspiration in working on fresh directions concerning rhythm, harmony, intervalic playing and a freer conception of time. The bad news is .... everybody wants to sound like them!  


  1. Thanks for linking to my blog here, and for giving me the chance to discover yours, which is excellent!

  2. Hi Valerie, thanks for your kind comment. I enjoyed your blog and found the explanation of the expression perfect for what I needed to say. I'll certainly be passing by from time to time.

    Thanks again.


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