Monday, April 02, 2007

The politics of fusion

Via Ethan and Dan, who got it from Jeff Parker, a great 1968 DownBeat piece by Wayne Shorter, "Creativity and Change." One prescient passage, below, reminded me of similar discourse around the height of the "jam-band" phenomenon, when fans of bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident also started gravitating towards Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Scofield, and Charlie Hunter:
When I hear a jazz musician say, "Well the young people—rock ‘n’ roll is their thing—they’re not going to even listen to jazz"—I think that they’ll change and grow up. Rock ‘n’ roll is changing with them. I’m hearing a whole lot of things from them. The "labels" are being taken off the bottles. As I said about the different scales, Western and Greek, it’s all one big thing. I saw kids with their long hair, beards and sandals sitting right down in front of the bandstand and they were part of a thing called jazz.
Speaking of labels being taken off the bottles, Hot Jazz meets Metametrics: Kyle Gann's impressively honest piece about utilizing external genre influences for his own gain. The discussion of the use of pop influence in classical music (and vice-versa to whatever extent that exists nowadays) hearkens back to Dave Douglas' essays around his piece Blue Latitudes a couple of years ago. The strength of a hybrid is the degree to which it integrates its heritages and traditions into a new creation. Even in the most irreverent music, there has to be some sort of respect for every element, otherwise it's shoddy patchwork.

I feel these essays are related, in the sense that the debate around the validity of pop-influenced classical music (read a few posts back on Gann's blog, or surf over to NewMusicBox) is fostered mostly by the critical, competitive spirit foisted upon art that Shorter writes about. The idea that hybrid music somehow demeans the music it's fusing has more to do with staunch traditionalism from critical figures. I know that in my own work, if I borrow external influences to jazz, I bend over backwards not to make it sound like a parody. One of the pieces I've written this year was inspired by the dancehall-toasting cabbies in Jamaica, but I did not want the drummer, much less the whole band, to play reggae. There's not much music more ridiculous than having 13 horns attempting to bubble and skank away in concert.

Musical discourse also needs to learn to separate the music from the musician. I consider myself a jazz musician, in that the jazz vocabulary and tradition is the bedrock of my musical education, and that a certain jazz sensibility informs everything I play, be it playing keyboards in a hip-hop band or writing for string quartet. That doesn't necessarily mean that my involvement turns the projects into "jazz-rap" or "jazz classical"; I try to approach each musical tradition on its own terms. As Gann mentions, there's a difference between writing a piece about (or a depiction of) jazz or reggae or hip-hop, and writing a jazz, reggae or hip-hop piece. There's a certain amount of dedication that varies between the two.

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