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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Language, not style - it's the imagination, stupid!

Jason Marsalis' recent well publicised rant on Youtube concerning what he sees as the preponderance of 'jazz nerds' destroying jazz with their odd meters, chromatic solos and straight 8s rhythms has started the jazz wars rumbling again. Of course the Marsalis clan are well versed in the politics of the rant and can always be relied upon for some rabble-rousing quotable quotes. But this time it seems the arguments have matured somewhat and instead of a vicious Youtube comment-style backlash, a fair amount of considered debate has been undertaken - which is all to the good. Chris Kelsey in particular had some very good and typically well thought out arguments to make, as had Peter Hum, whose blog brought the whole thing to my attention in the first place.

It really amazes me that people like Marsalis - or whoever his opposite number on the other side of the jazz style wars might be, miss the point so massively when they get into this kind of polemic. The history of jazz is studded with great music that IS great music because the players made it so - not because of the style they were playing in. There are countless examples of jazz musicians making great music out of the flimsiest of material as well as from great compositions. Sonny Rollins is of course one of the great masters of this - he can make great jazz art even from such throwaway ditties as I'm an Old Cowhand or 'I Told Ev'ry Little Star'. For every 'East Broadway Rundown' or 'The Bridge' there was an equal number of St Thomas's and 'Toot Toot Tootsies - Rollins made them all sound great.

Ditto Miles Davis - witness how his bands could elevate such tired repertoire as 'Autumn Leaves' or 'On Green Dolphin Street' into a sublime piece of abstract musical art on the Plugged Nickel recordings. In fact I believe the Plugged Nickel recordings are the ultimate proof that it's the imagination and attitude that you bring to your material that counts, not the material itself. On the Plugged Nickel, Miles' band, often in front of a small (and sometimes audibly drunken), audience work their way through material they must have played hundreds of times, and find extraordinary riches contained therein. They were such great musicians, with such an endless curiosity and freshness of approach that the material - which in the hands of others can often be boring, predictable, and trite - yielded some of the greatest examples of the improviser's art ever recorded. And there are SO many examples of this throughout the history of jazz - what about Coltrane playing 'My Favourite Things'? Lester playing 'Shoe Shine Boy'?

Style is ephemeral, language is not. Sonny Rollins' improvising language is applied to whatever style of piece he chooses to play. What people like Marsalis do is get into massive sweeping statements that miss the point entirely - it doesn't matter whether you play swing or straight 8s, or whether you play standards or original compositions. It doesn't matter whether you play in odd metres or in 4/4. What does matter is how much imagination and creativity you bring to your material.

As a testament to the idea that style means nothing and creativity means everything, here are two examples of wonderful contemporary jazz improvisation, one which would probably fall into Marsalis' 'Jazz Nerd' category, and one which probably wouldn't. I think these examples clearly show that the vehicle you choose to express yourself in is immaterial:

First off here's the French drummer Franck Vaillant brilliantly incorporating Korean music into a straight 8's groove composition in a piece that can only be described as imaginative and joyful.

And here's Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts playing Monk's 'We See' absolutely straight, no arrangement, no 're-imagining', no 'deconstruction', just great improvising in the swing idiom, over changes, and with everyone refusing to succumb to cliché or by-rote playing. Another example of how the vehicle doesn't matter, it's the approach and imagination that ultimately is the arbiter of whether something is worth doing or not.


  1. Well said Ronan. Nice one. J

  2. Gotta say that language may be less ephemeral than style, but it too evolves. What seems to have evolved very little is form. Or, at least, as I say in a recent post at Brilliant Corners-the old forms have remarkable durability. The fact that Wilson's marvelous group has such chops means they are not restricted when it comes to choosing the right form-language relationship to tell the story they want to tell in a particular song.

    Too bad the Marsalis comment almost seems geared to induce divisiveness, as young musicians should be inspired by the idea that much can be gained by mastering different languages. If you don't, the synergy you need to find between form and language is severely constricted.

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  4. Hi Ronan --

    Here's an update, our response to "We See":


    Style? It's music, and we hope it's good enough.

  5. "Style is the answer to everything.
    A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
    To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
    To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art" -C. Bukowski