Monday, June 29, 2009

Jazz Matters 2009: Modern Jazz Piano

When James Hale invited me to be part of a Modern Jazz Piano panel alongside Ashley Kahn, Mark Miller, Alan Stanbridge, Jesse Stewart and Jason Moran, I immediately said yes. Honoured to be in such esteemed company (and honestly a little nervous), the panel took place at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage this afternoon. It was a little bizarre to be talking and not playing there, after having done two master classes (Michael Abene and Kenny Barron).

A fair amount of ground got covered in the mere hour we had, and through Mark Miller's comments on Oscar Peterson we landed on the topic of "regional mentorship," or players that are highly influential or inspirational on a localized level, but not on a national or international scale. Other topics included unsung/"underpromoted" heroes of the keyboard, the amount of music for pianists (and musicians in general) to absorb, and the role of electronics and synthesizers in the modern piano world.

Coinciding with the blogosphere's discussion of the knowledge of the tradition among young players, Moran said that some of his students at the Manhattan School aren't as aware of Thelonious Monk as they should be, let alone Herbie Nichols or Andrew Hill (or James P. Johnson). The statement "I have it on my iPod" has come to stand in for actually checking the music out. While I'm far from an encylopaedic fount of knowledge (I certainly haven't checked out enough Nichols or James P.), I can't fathom a jazz pianist not checking Monk. I was fortunate to discover Monk early on, and I'm still digging through the treasure trove there. Then again, I hadn't even heard Paul Bley's Footloose, Jarrett's American quartet, Herbie Nichols, or a good chunk of AACM-related music until well into my university career.

Miller's distinction between "influence" and "inspiration" is intriguing, and it's one that I've come across in my own development many times. As I said on the panel, Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson were my inspirations to pursue jazz piano. Does my music today necessarily reflect that? No. I haven't even listened to Time Out in years; I delved back into OP's music after his death but haven't revisited it since. I have immense admiration for what Vijay Iyer is doing too, but does it feed into my musical process? Somewhat, but not really.

I can't emphasize how important I feel that checking out the traditions - "common-practice" jazz, the "avant-garde," pre-bop, post-bop - are. My favourite musicians are equally at home playing composed music and freely improvising, and their experience in each informs the other. But the truly important thing is to investigate the music that resonates on a personal level - be it Jelly Roll Morton or J Dilla, Julius Hemphill or Djavan.

One of the audience members asked whether the listed pantheon of giants was American-centric. Probably. If it had been a European panel I'm sure Esbjorn Svensson would have been mentioned somewhere, as well as Bobo Stenson, John Taylor, and many others. But I think the approach of European musicians, at least those that I've met, is similar to my own - you investigate a wide variety of music and then cherry-pick elements out of it.

Kudos to James for running a tight ship, and to Ashley, Jesse, Jason, Mark and Alan for sharing their wisdom.


the blind camera said...

interesting point on the difference between inspiration and influence, dave - for sure, the musicians who inspire us to pursue jazz are not necessarily the ones who are going to crop up the most in our playing stylistically - think Chick Corea's admiration for Bud Powell - beyond the beginning stages of learning the music during which we may (un)consciously imitate them. Influences is such a tricky term, because it runs on the assumption that a given player has already absorbed the totality of the players in the jazz canon - definitely not a priority with some of the younger players, as you point out. But somehow, you can't be influenced by your OWN creativity and style, as anyone who's pulled out an original composition at a gig only to be cited in the paper the next day as 'influenced' by an obscure european musician you've never heard of knows. Some do manage to carve their own style - Brad Mehldau managed to disassociate himself (somewhat forcefully) from early comparisons with Bill Evans - and it is ultimately these players - Vijay, jason moran, and others you have mentioned - who have a lasting and important presence, making discussions of influence and inspiration somewhat irrelevant.

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