Monday, March 29, 2010

Delivery is passionate

Montreal pianist (and one of my mentors) Josh Rager has a guest blog at Jenn Hardy's Pork Pie Jazz, responding to the recent hivemind about the cultural relevance and significance of jazz. While I agree with Ronan Guilfoyle's sentiment that jazz shouldn't be trying to play in pop's ballpark, and I concur with some of Josh's sentiments as well, there's a tangent to this that I've been thinking about quite a lot lately.

I've been talking to other colleagues lately about the idea of really owning one's music, or owning a song. The idea is hard to qualify, necessarily: it's one of those "I know it when I hear it" sorts of things. It's the sense of conviction and belief in the art one is creating, that comes across on record or from the stage. To my ears, it often comes across as the sound of exploration, a personal musical quest.

To be fair, I don't claim to own everything that I play. But I do endeavour to try. I can't lay claims to authenticity, really - Indigone covers everything from Bjork to Ornette Coleman, Bulgarian Women's Radio Choir tunes to Stevie Wonder. Hell, I lead a Brazilian group and I'm not Brazilian in the least. As a composer, improviser, and performer, every song has its own world that it inhabits and all that I try to do is live in that world for the time that I need to.

To me, the idea of cultural significance and relevance is just a signifier for "honesty." When a soloist plays a lick and it obviously sounds like they're deploying a lick, it rings false. Hearing the stitching within a solo has become a big pet peeve of mine. I think we, as critical listeners and musicians, can tell when a pop tune is in a performer's repertoire because they truly identify with it or because it's a ploy to appear hip. Or if someone uses a non-swing beat.

The progression of "fusion" music has become truly seamless, and that music - I'm thinking of Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen, Miguel Zenon's Esta Plena, the Gilfema +2 record, Maria Schneider's use of Afro-Peruvian rhythms - is some of the most thrilling and engaging, to my ears. Zenon's record, and the music of Guillermo Klein, is to me what "Latin jazz" always should have been - modern jazz coming from a set of Latin influences without necessarily having to exhibit all the trappings of its Latin heritage. All these artists are "culturally relevant" - they are embracing their life experiences and communicating them through music. That's all any of us can ever hope to achieve. Making "Body and Soul" culturally relevant doesn't necessarily mean turning it into an R&B slow jam - it means truly understanding what that lyric, that melody, is about and evoking that emotion however one can. What seems to deter a lot of non-aficionado listeners is that mediocre jazz - irrelevant jazz, if you will - reduces music to chord changes and scales. It can become a display of craft and science, rather than an expression of art.


Jenn said...

Hey! Thanks for this, David. You should join the debate on the post on pork pie. Some people would disagree with you, I'm sure...

Andrew Oliver said...

Well said, David! When I was at Banff last year, Ben Street said something really interesting about what one might call the "90's New York straight 8th feel" a la Chris Potter's "Gratitude" or whatever - he called that feel (which, of course, he helped to sort of institute and develop himself) "without a cultural precedent." In some ways I agreed but I also think that feel itself was a sort of creation of a new cultural precedent in some ways, certainly one which the majority of jazz musicians are aware of now when someone decides to play something with a straight 8th feel which is not specifically "latin" or whatever.

But I digress. Your examples of real fusion that works are spot on, and I have been attempting to do my own little part in there with my kora band, inspired by a lot of sources but especially by Ben Allison's "Peace Pipe" which really integrates kora into a jazz setting in a non-superficial way, I feel (as opposed to numerous other attempts in the past which fell far short musically but were somewhat "exotic.")

There is certainly no shortage of mediocre jazz these days (some of which I ascribe to the proliferation of jazz education, which I will eventually post a rant about), but despite the glut of meaningless chord changes, I think the honesty comes through in good music, and I am always intrigued to introduce non-musicians to various things, I have found that even something that we would consider quite "out" can be appreciated by non-musicians as they have a certain lens that filters out the really honest music, even if they don't know technically what's going on.