Why is the new European Jazz ashamed of it's Black American roots?
This thread is prompted by my experience at a Masterclass given by the virtuoso Armenian pianist Tigran Hamaysan (incidentally backed by American's Sam Minaie and Nate Wood who both appear to enjoy careers playing other music as well as jazz) during the course of the week before last. When he first appeared on the scene, Hamaysan appeared to have a grasp of every style of jazz from stride through to Avant Garde and taking on everything in between including Bill Evans and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was intriguing to listen to his comments after hearing his set the night beforehand and to hear him discuss just about every style of jazz piano from Morton onwards with Art Tatum singled out for god-like reverence.
However, the afternoon session tended to take the conversation into more abstract areas. Much of the conversation concerned the discussion of using different time signatures and how a "space" of a number of measures could be divided up into all sorts of bizarre and eccentric time signatures which could be chopped and changed in an alarming fashion. The impact was staggering in it's proficiency and helped explain what was going on when the group had played the previous evening. Some of the music didn't even involve improvisation although it sounded like contemporary jazz albeit superficially. This style of music kept cropping up over the course of the week and it was marked just how many players under the age of 30 are not taking their cues from any earlier forms of jazz. Indeed, Hamaysian made a point of repeatedly performing Armenian folk music and how wrong it would be to play it in a "swing" style - by which he mean't swing in the wider sense. (Bebop, if you like.)
The music seemed to please most people in the audience of the workshop and members of an American big band behind me at the concert seemed to appreciate how original and different it was. Other voices weren't quite so favourable and two colleagues who lectured on another workshop were extremely critical of the fact that the music seemed to consist of loops. Indeed, they were even critical of Metheny for doing this in once number although it seemed very much a feature with European musicians. Having been party to the conversation, it was possible to hear this repeated use of loops quite frequently and probably the worse offender I heard was Lars Danielson's quartet (with Hamaysian on piano) which reduced the music to a composed theme with the improvisation consisting of a vamp / sequence over a number of bars. I can't transcribe or write music and don't know the full mechanics of it but it was clearly a conceit and readily recognisable once you appreciated what to listen out for. I must admit that I hated Danielson's music with a passion as it seemed clinical and monotonous.
About a week afterwards I had a long conversation with my good friend and drum teacher Alain Dumont who hads worked with Americans such as Hank Mobley and Nathan Davis and used to teach at the conservatory in Lyon. I really value his opinion and he was extremely hostile to much of the newer forms of jazz. At Lyon, one of his colleagues is the former Dizzy Gillespie pianist Mario Stanchev and he commented that Stanchev was obsessed with unusual time signatures to the extent that the music he taught often didn't swing and Alain eventually had to tell him just to play a blues. For him, swing and the blues are essential incredients and take them away, you make it difficult to define the resultant music as jazz.
I don't know if it is a consequence of getter older but I certainly agree with Alain. From a harmonic and metric point of view, some of the new "jazz" I have heard over the past couple of weeks is far more complex and sophisticated than anything put down by Parker, Coltrane, Ellington or even some of today's finest players from the States, it doesn't swing. Granted that there is an argument that not all jazz swings but there seems a calculated effort not to swing. I acknowledge that jazz almost by definition evolves and absorbs from other musics like a magpie but the likes of Danielson and Hamaysian are perhaps a step too far. It probably isn't as clever as it thinks it is from a structural perspective at least yet the music seems sedcutive to both the teachers in conservatoires and their students. It made me start to think in a reactionary manner than jazz should essentially be an African American music and white musicians are only playing this music under licence. It is arrogant to think that Europeans are now offering such a marked alternative. Stuart Nicholson certainly had his finger on the pulse about ten years ago about Europe changing the perception of jazz but having heard the likes of Trotignon, Lagrene, Rava, Romano get things so right, I wonder if with hindsight he would have been quite so enthusiastic had we been aware that the music would evolve to the extent where Hamaysian and Danielson seem to get it so wrong. (Or pehaps not really even care?)
There is the possibility that it's Alain Dumont who's "got it so wrong" and not Hamaysian and Danielson?
And why should new ideas about an Art form (even if these are "wrong") demonstrate that the originators of these ideas are "ashamed of [their] Black American roots"? As these "roots" are essentially African (and as Polymetric rhythmic patterns are a feature of Ghanaaian drumming) maybe Hamayson is merely listening and responding to (and celebrating) different sources?
I agree with your comment about Hamaysian's pursuit of other "sources" but the question remains that if you change something too much does it not become something else? For me, the music (particularly LD) is missing something and the visceral / "dirty" edge that is present in some of the greatest jazz is absent in this European approach. I would concede that "swing" is a very difficult thing to define and that it's definition may actually change through the ages but to abandon an essential element like the blues seems folly. I appreciate that the magpie nature of jazz means that it is always looking for inspiration elsewhere but the repeated use of loops is changing the music into a form of improvised minimalism and even the need to improvise is not necessary. Comparing this will a group like Akinmusire's is salutory as the music played by the American is very much innovate and forward looking but it is still recognisably jazz. I find a lot of the jazz played by younger Europeans a bit anodine these days.
I liked the Danielsson clip you posted very much (in fact, I think it ended too soon) but thought the Hamasyan sounded as if the Music wasn't under their belts yet (too much counting, and the over-repeated drum patterns).
The development of a vital Art form is always going to throw up ideas that won't appeal to everyone who has followed and loved previous examples of that Art: I doubt that Haydn would've recognized what Bruckner did in his Symphonies as "Symphonic", so far had the form moved on from the 1790s. Nor did many of Bruckner's contemporaries: and it's only with time that today we accept both (and argue instead about Minimalism and/or New Complexity).
Jazz is "a Vital Art Form", therefore there are bound to be ideas and experiments that challenge preconceived notions of what Jazz is - even if some of these ideas are rejected by subsequent Artists.
What surprised me in your Post Header, Ian, was the loaded word "ashamed". I don't hear any such shame in the pieces you posted, and I didn't get the sense from your OP that that you had demonstrated any such. Loads of thought-provoking ideas for discussion and (in the best sense) argument as always, but no demonstration that the word was entirely warranted.
Given that Ian has been devoting his close attentions to jazz for (?) 30 years, it's fascinating to find him roughly at the stage I was in 1968, at the age of 22 in my case. At that time jazz seemed to be falling into roughly 3 main categories: the first of which, probably best represented by Tubby Hayes on the British scene, with people like Gordon Beck representing continuity, offered the listener to opportunity to invest in massive technique and ever more complex harmonic superimpositions on changes-based materials, themselves becoming more and more complex; the second trend appeared to acknowledge that installing complexity into materials to be improvised on had probably reached as far as it could go, and that the way forward was to allow complexity to evolve spontaeously from interplay, even to the extent of leaving aside whatever base materials had been the springboard; and the third option tied in with the then-current idea being espoused by those hostile to the abovementioned two that jazz needed to reconnect with "the roots" again and create something more substantial out of the blues revival that had replaced jazz in places such as the Marquee and Flamingo, hence we had the start of jazz rock.
My own fears at the time were that jazz would remain stuck in a rut if confined to the first option; that it would lose its identity and merge with the aleatoric/experimental/post serial avant-garde as represented by AMM and Stockhausen's "Aus Den Sieben Tagen" (to reference stuff I was aware of then); or that it would lose its identity and become one with the direction being taken by the more interesting rock music of the time (King Crimson, Soft Machine etc), in which case I would be no longer a jazz follower because jazz as an evolving form would be dead. As a consequence I missed out entirely on vital developments throughout the '70s in which, in some cases, more instantly identifiable jazz characteristics such as "swing" were sublimated, but in which such "obvious" hooks as drone/ostinato-underpinned sensual surfaces (Eno, Hassell (heavily referenced in the Danielsson link btw)), really "teasers" in the sense of keeping one attentive in hope and expectation that when some minor deviation occurred this would be the reward, were eschewed. Jazz had once been the sound of surprise: the first recipients of Charlie Parker really didn't know what was coming next, and even when certain phrases became customised there was always what was coming from elsewhere surrounding them to create innumerable possible permutations. Total openness on the part of musicians, to what could come up in a totally freed performance context, reawakened that Nowness often referred to by jazz musicians and mystics throughout the ages; release, whether in the form of harmonic or rhythmic resolution (by return for example to a regular rhythm), did not and does not "crowd out" other parameters being addressed, as would take place (and I think does) in some of the new jazz - (and not just that coming from outside America, either) - in which metric, harmonic or any other kinds of predetermined complexity pre-ordain the aspiring jazz musician down a pathway of virtuosity. I see many young guys and lasses brilliantly performing the kinds of complex, pre-scored jazz I am implicitly criticising here. And I include the Akinmusires in this. I am constantly astounded to see what to my ageing eyes are not much beyond children playing stuff so demanding of their ability to wed spontaneity to the virtuosic demands of the music they create; whether I am as excited and elated as I still am when I put Ornette's Golden Circle or Miles's Live-Evil or Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath on the turntable, I have my doubts; but that may be down to age... and probably is...
In response to the two above posts, the heading I used for this thread stemmed from a comment made which went along the lines of "if you don't want to play Be-bop, stop listening to Be-bop" as well as a remark which suggested that playing Armenian folk music in a "swing" style groove would sound wrong. Intriguing too to see musicians talking enthusiastically about being influenced by some pretty Hardcore rock groups that was described as being "absolutely mental." I don't disagree with these comments (except the enthusiasm for rock!) but similarly surely the opposite also applies insofar "if you want to play jazz, you have to know the blues." Like it or not, the blues remain a vital ingredient of jazz whether we are talking about Bechet, Armstrong , Hodges, Parker, Coltrane, Ornette or even musicians heavily influenced by Calssical music such as Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock. If the results sound like a piano trio attempting to play a kind of "Minimalist Bartok" underpinned by rock drumming, is it still jazz? What does it have to do with Black American musical culture?
I am in some way in agreement with SA and similarly find myself at odds with my own love of seeing how jazz is developing and hearing "the next big thing." Despite this, I find it a little dispairing the way that some jazz I caught last week incorporates a heavily arranged head with the improvisation being limited to soloing over 4 / 8/ 16 / whatever number of measures with the accent on playing odd time signatures. It is not just me who picked up on this - three lecturers at the "Academie2 (who were all French and have usually expressed favourable opinions about broader definitions of jazz) made the same observation as well as commenting on how dull the resultant music was. Additionally, I would add the these three musicians were broadly my own age or perhaps a little younger. My friend Alain who is retired and of a generation that grew up with the jazz of the 50's / 60's, made a similar observation although he was more negative about the lack of swing and absence of the blues as opposed to the use of loops to solo over. He also was critical of the desire for ever-complex time signatures and compounding of rhythm.
In a nutshell the argument is this. The increased complexity was with time signatures and rhythm which some musicians are developing at the expense of form with improvisation taking place over a repeating and simple harmonic structure although this is masked by the use of alternative chords / substitutions which add a further layer of complexity. As I stated above, in Hamaysian's case, there are also pieces which involve no improvisation although you would not appreciate this as a casual listener unless exposed to repeated listening. The "shame" element is probably too strong a word and maybe "reluctant" would have been a better choice. I would also have to add that the idea of improvising over a loop is markedly in contrast to SA's vision of improvisational freedom. It is almost a counter-reaction to this stance too insofar that the form is based on a limited cycle. I disagree with the obversavation about Akinmusire as his music cannot be confused for anything but jazz. The issue surely is how far can you take the music from it's supposed "African origins" before it is something else? I don't think that the Hadyn / Bruckner argument stands up in this instance as Bruckner obviously did not cross any racial / cultural / continental boundaries as is the case here.
Originally Posted by Ian Thumwood
But I still don't get why you use the word "ashamed". Musicians today have so much ready access to "World Musics" that it is inconceivable that other influences than those which sparked the first Jazz can be ignored. I don't see why a Musician using ideas gleaned from Ghana, Indonesia, India and/or Serialism should be accused of being "ashamed" of their "Black African roots"? Even if your argument that without a Blues-based language, and/or swing, and/or Improvization it can't really be Jazz were true, how does this show/suggest that the Musicians producing the work that isn't Jazz are "ashamed of" etc etc?
Read the final paragraph of my Post #7.
Not sure that I agree that the initial influences that sparked jazz can be ignored - even without sounding like a Stanley Crouch-type bore. There are many examples of "World" influences meshing with jazz in a successful fashion and the results are frequently to my liking. As someone who enjoys certain African artists, I have no truck with a lot of this. The problem is how far can you stretch things before the music becomes something else?
To my ears, some of the music I have described just lacks the spice within it that makes so much jazz "great." Listening again to the LD track, I find it a bit bland but it still doesn't fully give the impression of how uninspired it was to hear live. For me, jazz is all about personal expression and finding perameters within which the boundaries for expression can be widened. Surely, improvising over a loop is counter to this notion? The purity of the music is also a problem. Where is the grit? The result is sterile and plastic, both properties I don't associate with jazz.
I've never spoken to LD to know his opinions whilst your implications about using other sources for inspiration was stressed by Hamaysian and his bassist and drummer for that matter. They clearly believe they are playing jazz even if it has little reference to any Black, American music. I repsect their choice to try to produce music which is original and different and concede that using Armenian influences will certainly add to picquant new flavour to the music. Fair play to them in this respect. The music is not for me though.
Unorthodox time signatures in jazz are nothing new. If we leave aside 3/4 or 5/4, after George Russell Coltrane's interest in Indian Rags probably had the greatest influence (Mike Garrick suggested to me), with complex time structures trealy taking off mid-1960s with Don Ellis's big bands.
Originally Posted by Ian Thumwood
For loops in jazz we probably have to go back to Hugh Hopper's encounter with Terry Riley in 1963/4, though Soft Machine didn't really start working them into live performance until around the time of "Third" (1970). British jazz-rock, apart from just Softs, (if Graham Collier can be associated with the term), was full of odd time signatures: they were one way for improvisers to free themselves from the habitual way of thinking in 3 or 4, thereby tripping themselves (not drug tripping you understand!) into having to shape different ways of dealing with the cadence in relation to the point where the harmony changes or reverts.
My friend the jazz pianist Tim Richards says similar. "Blues feeling" of course goes beyond matters of flattened thirds, fifths and sixths and bars numbering 12 - imv it underpins what I think the greatest gift of African American culture to civilisation, namely what we call swing - which, again - is not a matter of syncopation, (Stravinsky's "Rite" - it thrills, but does it really swing???), but imv a mater of relationship to beat. Wynton has donme one good thing in brilliantly illustrating the issue of swing as that momentarily behind-the-beat phrasing that's perhaps best exemplified by Billie Holliday, whether she's singing the blues or a standard. And, of course, it's to do with the way that original vocalised tone of the country bluesmen and women is transliterated onto other instruments - easy with the trombone slide, but think of Monk's (and others') use of the minor second discord - more major/minor third as in blues than as in Mahler! Further - and forgive me for boulstering what I wrote in the previous post - listen to the way Evan Parker slurs and distorts quasi-vocally his tone on the tenor, even at his most abstract playing, and the way that great trio he had with John Edwards and Tony Marsh would interact to each other's nuances, sometimes intimating pulse, at others faltering, like the old blues guy accompanying himself on his dusty porch.
Originally Posted by Ian Thumwood
It's as intellectual - and instinctual - as that!
This too has been going on for some time. Bitches Brew, anyone?
Originally Posted by Ian Thumwood
It would have been more difficult in the 19th C for musical trends to spread as quick; however, I am often surprised at how fast past musical trends often did take quick effect. However, in the 20th century I'd confine my example to 12-tone music, and how fast it spread from Berlin to Italy and America in the 1930s, and Britain, France, Holland, Japan in the'40s. (Have I missed anywhere??)
Originally Posted by Ian Thumwood
(This message replaces a carefully-crafted, much better-written one, which timed out!