Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It seems the hot topic of jazz journalism, circa 2006, is the "invasion" (as DownBeat labelled it a couple of months ago) of young European upstarts into the North American jazz consciousness. Francis Davis has launched a recent volley through hijacking his own review of a new ECM release, and Mwanji responds quite eloquently here.

As I've seen it, the contentious issue regarding the acceptance of European approaches to jazz music is the non-linearity with which many European musicians regard the jazz tradition. Much like Westerners have incorporated various ethnic musics into jazz or rock, Europeans take what they like out of the jazz tradition and use it accordingly. Their distance (both geographically and figuratively) allows them the freedom to operate outside the jazz history as espoused by [insert highly-touted American traditionalist writers here]. This brings up the two recurring themes of the America-vs.-Europe diatribes:
  • It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Europeans are either regarded as inherently incapable of swinging, or of willingly ignoring it as an essential part of jazzdom.
  • Europeans, by virtue of their non-American status, do not understand the jazz tradition at all. According to certain critics, it is impossible to gloss over the bebop section of the history, and equate the early jazz and Dixieland with the avant-garde rumblings of the late '60s. (Edited for clarity after Mwanji's post here.)
The indefatigable Jack Reilly ties both these points together in his letter to DownBeat: "Without the blues, boogie-woogie, ragtime and stride, we would not have the jazz foundation. Europeans bypassed the building of this foundation, therefore they don't swing. The results are clear [...] their insularity oozes out of their music."

I must take issue with this. As always, it's those who stubbornly cling to the status quo that are insular. Exhibit A: The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra with Chick Corea at the IAJE in New York this past January. Erlend Skomsvoll and company trot out quite imaginative arrangements of Corea classics like "Crystal Silence," "Windows" and "Matrix," with the master at the keyboard. Scripts are flipped entirely: Reich-esque sax ostinatos as backgrounds, high brass comping for the tuba, free interludes alternating with exquisitely intricate composed passages. And how they swung when they wished to! What was liberating to me as a North American musician and listener was that they didn't try to imitate Corea's classic renditions of these pieces and fall short. They put their own distinct fingerprint on each piece. As well, the aforementioned free interludes were not mere wanking, but attuned communication on a rather high level. The American conservatory/music school mindset, which even seems to plague the professional scene, is that if you play tunes you cannot play free, and vice-versa. How quickly we have forgotten Keith, Paul Bley, Derek Bailey, and even Corea himself. The "European" attitude (which I first refreshingly experienced at the Banff Centre last year) is that it's all music, and as musicians we should be able to play tunes (both originals and standards) and to improvise freely with equal conviction, if not capacity. EDIT (08/06/2006): after an e-mail exchange with Dave Douglas, he makes the very valid point that there are North American artists who practice this as well. I refer to it as a "European" attitude mostly for the purposes of the dichotomy being treated here, and partially for the fact that I've seen this more consistently manifest in European conservatories.

Europeans are not alone in drawing from the wellspring of non-jazz music, and this has been going on for the past century. I'm surprised that critics and some musicians alike still regard the treatment of repertoire from artists like Bjork, Paul Simon, Radiohead or Nick Drake (to cite only the people I've covered in my own groups) as mere novelty, and that the inevitable next step - to write music evocative of these artists - is considered as some sort of jazz heresy. I recall what Vijay Iyer said about his use of Indian music, explaining that his concern is not whether said influence is apparent in the end product but how it functions in the generation of pieces. My added interpretation of that statement is that it's yet another piece of his personal musical puzzle, as important as Monk, Andrew Hill, Coltrane and the AACM. For my part (and for many others), I'm a gringo looking to Brazil and other parts of Latin America for inspiration. I don't claim to play the various folkloric music from that region authoritatively or authentically, but I do know I've been motivated and impressed by modern music from there and that it serves as impetus for my own progression. And who's to dispute the validity of the music that henceforth flows?

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Trinidad said...
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