Friday, December 25, 2009

All that jazz

Alfredo Triff

What's -really- jazz? 

El País covers an incident that has sparked a dormant controversy: What Larry Ochs played on stage was not jazz, but "contemporary music," a genre that he said, he has "contraindicated" by medical prescription.

That's Rafael Gilbert, the Spanish jazz aficionado who interrupted Larry Ochs's performance during the Singuenza Jazz Festival. Below, his side of the story:

Me and my wife decided to stay and listen. But after 10 minutes I started to feel very nervous. If you are not foretold, free jazz is the kind of music that irritate you and make you sick. As I couldn't take it anymore, I left and went to the box office get my money back. That's where the problems started. They laughed at us and gave us a complaint form. Then we went to the Guardia Civil.

After reading the news the following day in The Guardian, guess who was elated?

Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, leader, businessman and perhaps the most important jazzman today, has been in contact with Tremlett (the journalist that published the news). Why? He's "delighted" with the story and the complainant1 and seeks to, "in gratitude", give him his complete discography (about 70 disks). Moreover, he will sign the collection.

Is Marsalis' "delight" and sudden largesse with Rafael Gilbert a case of Schadenfreude? Methinks not. As essentialist and jazz's ambassador extraordinaire, Marsalis doesn't miss a opportunity to lecture people and legitimize his hard-and-fast views:2

But first, let's see what the fuss is about. Below, a bit of what Ochs was doing at the Singuenza Jazz Festival (2009).

Is Och's music jazz? 1- It uses improvisation as well as the typical instruments associated with jazz, 2- the metronomical pulse relies on a syncopated structure, 3- Och's instrumental techniques make use of jazz's articulations and glissandi, etc, 4- the music is driven by a performer aesthetic.

Listen to Sam Rivers' Trio in 1979:

What's the big deal? For many musicians, free jazz is a cop-out: too aggressive, lacking in structure and it sounds too, well, free. It all starts here and takes definite shape here: 3

Coleman collected eight jazz musicians in a New York recording studio in 1964 [1960], and grouped them in two quartets: himself, Donald Cherry (trumpet), Scott La Faro (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums) in one; Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums) in the other. With no rehearsal, the eight men performed a free improvisation based on no previously known tunes, no planned chord progressions, no planned structure. ... In listening, one can notice that although the players listen to one another— an idea played by one may be picked up by others, who play it in their own style—each player, even the drummers and bass players, goes his own way rhythmically, harmonically, and structurally. To ears conditioned to traditional jazz, or traditional music of any kind, this music is chaos. To ears that can listen in other ways, it is a fascinating and exciting collage, rich in detail, that changes with each hearing, depending on which instrument or instruments one listens to most closely.-- Jazz: A History, by Frank Tirro (Norton, 1993, p. 377).

Obviously, Ornette Coleman was not crazy. But why would musicians of the stature of John Coltrane and Mingus,4 toil with the new form? Let's search for context: Free jazz had a musical and political attitude of defiance. One can drawn a parallel to the socio-political climate of the early 1960's in America -something Marsalis seems to shrug off. For that young generation, free jazz represented an escape from the restrictive rules of traditional musical performance.

The new form, championed by players such as Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, etc, expanded the structure of the jazz vocabulary. Equally important, it helped triggered new instrumental techniques. Free jazz stimulated the expansion of inner-city collectives to support artistic experimentation and community education. In a way it was like going back to the roots of group improvisation. Of course, free jazz is not for everybody. Great musicians like Sonny Rollins and Miles found the form too radical.

How else could Eric Dolphy's solo (starts on 00:45) with Mingus' band sound so authentic?

The form is very malleable and each musician interprets it differently (the band Circle, 1971, with Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul):

Here is a powerful performance by the Mingus Band (Umbria, 1974). Listen to Hammett Bluiett and George Adams' solos (not to mention Don Pullen's fiery solo on piano):5

Don Cherry talks about Albert Ayler (1970's):

I doubt Marsalis would dare say this is not jazz:

Who knows? Maybe he opines Sun Ra's music is not jazz. What then?

We are ready to wrap it up: 1- Marsalis cannot ignore the historicity of free jazz. 2- Jazz is a rich and heterogeneous tradition: from Ragtime to Swing, to Bebop to Cool, to Hard-bop to Afro-Cuban to Fusion to Acid and counting. 3- Marsalis may not like free jazz -or fusion- and that's his right, but I think that for an ambassador of jazz who is supposed to represent the whole tradition to the world, Marsalis' take is shortsightedly pedestrian.

Wynton, here's my advice: loosen up a little and let the music play.
1Marsalis makes no fuss about it: he likes Miles until 1969. 2 One could argue that it's Marsalis neoclassical jazz that -because of its willful didacticism- begins to sound pretty stale. 3"Free jazz and aleatoric, or chance, performances are similar in many essential details. Attempts to destroy feelings of structure, direction, and tonality and the introduction of elements of surprise are common to both. The main distinctions between the two usually lie in the instrumentation of the ensembles and the musical training of the performers. Free-jazz instrumentation tended to approximate that of the normal jazz group—melody instruments and rhythm section—but eventually these traditional instruments gave way to sitars, tablas, amplified thumb pianos, police whistles, electronic octave machines, psychedelic lighting, and a host of nonstandard electronic and percussion pieces of equipment. Consequently, some of the free-jazz groups have the appearance of non-jazz avant-garde ensembles." --Jazz: A History by Frank Tirro (Norton, 1993, p. 377).   4 Coltrane free jazz happens late in his career, and it's based on a modal structure. Coltrane depended on the style of his idiosyncratic pianist, McCoy Tyner, who used a pedal point in the left hand which helped organize pitches around a tonal center without resorting to functional harmony. It provided Coltrane's free improvisations with a sense of focus that was absent in the work of other free jazz musicians. Check Mingus' 1963 recording of Hora Decubitus which shows a very interesting combination of the new ideas. The basic structural framework of the piece is the twelve-bar blues, but the sonority is atypical of mainstream jazz groups.5Late pianist Don Pullen once told me that free jazz was "a voice of liberation."


J. Ferrer said...

La noticia, que es bien divertida y seguí con atención, me hizo imaginar el horror de los gerentes de museos de arte contemporáneo ante la posibilidad de que cunda el ejemplo y la gente comience a pedir la devolución del importe del billete que han pagado para ver según qué exposición. El espectáculo sería fascinante: una masa de puristas frenando a quienes consideran impostores... El pueblo contra el (presunto) charlatán...

william Rios said...

Don Pullen once told me that free jazz was "a voice of liberation." .....sin dudas

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more. Marsalis plays well but he thinks he is the ayatollah of jazz.

miamibourbaki said...

Jorge: It strikes me that for a jazz ambassador, Marsalis' idea of jazz is so selective. Thanks.

Thanks, William.

A: Ayatollah of jazz... that's heavy.

william Rios said...

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Triff.