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Monday, May 24, 2010

Give the Drummer Some!

Too often in jazz and improvised music we just take the cheap and cheerful route regarding using the drummer as a soloist in our compositions and with our bands. But there's so much more that can be done other than the usual default drum solo options. I've made a few suggestions in an article on my website. You can see it Here

Coming soon - an extensive interview with Steve Coleman on the subject of rhythm. Watch this space...................

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.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rhythm People

Time was in jazz when 3/4 seemed exotic.......... It’s not that long ago since jazz musicians didn’t play in 3/4 at all, or rarely. Charlie Parker never played (or at least never recorded) in 3/4 for example. Now, to quote my compatriot W.B. Yeats, ‘All is changed, changed utterly – a terrible beauty is born’.

I think when the jazz history that covers the last twenty years is written, two things will loom large – possibly larger than anything else, at least as far as the evolution of the music is concerned – the vast expansion of the rhythmic language of jazz and the invasion of ‘world music’ (for want of a better phrase – though if you think about it, aren’t all other musics part of this world.......?) techniques into jazz. The two developments are of course linked, since so many rhythmic techniques from outside of jazz – from Balkan music, African music, Indian music, Arabic music etc. - have been seized upon by contemporary improvising musicians hungry for new ways to play old things.

The developments in the rhythmic language of jazz – and by that I mean the expansion of rhythmic techniques available to and used by jazz musicians – have been enormous over the past twenty years. I remember demonstrating the playing of ‘All the Things You Are’ in 7/4 in the early 90s at various jazz schools and getting reactions that ranged from surprise to complete incredulity. Now such things are commonplace – no longer exotic, 7/4 is indeed the new 3/4, at least among young musicians – it’s that ‘other’ time signature you go to when you need a break from 4/4. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, something that’s considered pretty mainstream these days – in addition to that you have a plethora of techniques used by various musicians ranging from the additive rhythms of the Balkans, to metric modulation techniques (derived from Indian music, or the Miles 60s rhythm section, or even the work of composers such as Elliot Carter), to playing in odd metres. And of course many musicians use many different aspects of these things in various combinations, exploring a bewildering array of rhythmic approaches and techniques.

There are various reactions among musicians to all this new activity ranging from enthusiasm and excitement, to fear and dismissal. Where musicians are positioned in this reaction range usually depends on their age and experience. For younger musicians this new rhythmic landscape is what they’ve come to expect, to older musicians it’s often a scary place to be, depriving them of the rhythmic underpinning that they’ve based their entire musical lives on. But like it or loathe it, the genie is out of the bottle as far as this development is concerned – complex rhythms and much wider variety or rhythmic techniques are here to stay.

(Rudresh Mahanthappa)

Though the spread of these new rhythmic ideas encompasses the entire world of jazz I think it’s definitely caught hold in Europe more than in the US. Not that there aren’t groups and musicians exploring the new rhythmic possibilities in the US – Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Fieldwork etc. - all of these have utilised the new language to great musical effect. And of course Steve Coleman, one of the major architects of the new language, is an American. But in general as far as I can see most American musicians hold on to the more traditional rhythmic values in their music – and quite understandably since they are living in the land of the original source material and that language is bound to have a stronger hold there than in Europe where a different rhythmic tradition (or traditions) has held sway in the indigenous music of the various countries or evolved in recent years.

I think another reason why the new rhythmic language has captured the imagination of European musicians so much is because the gigantic impact of World Music on western European music over the past 15 years or so. Many World Music acts have had incredible commercial success in Europe over recent years and Europe also has very big immigrant populations from India, the Middle East, and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Of course America has huge immigrant populations too, but somehow I don’t think the music of these populations (with the possible exception of the Latino populations) has entered the popular consciousness, and by extension the jazz consciousness the way it has in Europe

I remember going to the IASJ annual meeting a couple of years ago, a meeting where most of the students were from Europe, and remarking on how during the final concerts only one swing piece was played in 6 different concerts by the student ensembles. In the same year I went to the IAJE in NY and virtually all the student ensembles I heard were very much from the spang-spang-a-lang school of rhythmic approach. It seemed to me indicative of the different rhythmic priorities of high level young musicians from different continents.

(Karim Ziad)

Europe is awash with groups and musicians who are using a bewildering array of rhythmic approaches, and combining all kinds of influences. For example the French drummer Franck Vaillant has incorporated Korean music into a kind of M-Base influenced outlook to great effect, Stéphane Payen has done a similar thing with Senegalese music, AKA Moon have quite a rock sensibility, Karim Ziad uses the music of his native Algeria, Nils Wogram often uses typically Balkan additive rhythms, while Kartet are definitely influenced by contemporary classical compositions in their music. These are just a few of the multitude of approaches and concepts being used in Europe at the moment and of course there’s much interesting rhythmic work being done in the US and Brazil, Australia and Canada etc. etc. The new rhythmic language – or languages are here to stay.

A couple of years ago myself and my brother Conor had a chat with the Brazilian composer and saxophonist Marcelo Coelho at a cafe in Siena in which we talked about the fact that there’s so much different rhythmic work being done all over the world yet most people doing this work are often not aware of what others working in the same musical field are doing. From that conversation emerged the idea of forming a kind of association that would allow practitioners to be in touch with each other and enable them to share ideas and concepts. This grew into the International Rhythmic Studies Association (IRSA) and we had our first meeting in Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2008. Though we started small it was a great success in terms of setting out to put people with rhythmic ideas in touch with each other. We followed that up with the 2nd meeting in 2009 in the same place, and this year for the first time the meeting will move across the Atlantic to Dublin, where we’ll hold the 3rd IRSA meeting in July.

This is proving to be the best attended meeting yet with nearly 30 participants from 12 different countries. The structure of these meetings is very simple – in the mornings the players get together and play, there is no set format, people bring ideas and everyone gets to try them out. In the afternoons formal lectures are presented and this year, to give you an idea of the range of interests out there, topics covered in the lectures will include:

Odd Metre Clave
Afro-Brazilian Rhythms
Layered Subdivision
Compositional Process based on the Rhythmic Line Approach and Ron Miller´s jazz modal harmony
Global Tala
Paris, Bruxelles, London – the Rhythmic Triangle
Rhythmic Contemporary Piano Music
Irish Traditional Music

These topics give some idea of the breadth of interest in all things rhythmic that’s out there at the moment. For some it’s a brave new world, for others a barren landscape – but now that it’s been discovered there’s no going back. For young musicians it’s an exciting prospect to be able to explore these areas, but of course it’s also yet ANOTHER thing a young musician is supposed to be able to deal with in their professional life – starting off as a young jazz musician these days is not for the musically faint-hearted..............

As an example of the type of thing being explored by musicians from both sides of the Atlantic, here’s a clip of a trio I’m inolved with – MSG – with Rudresh Mahanthappa and the Dutch drummer Chander Sardjoe, playing Rudresh’s ‘Enhanced Performance’. For those curious about the rhythmic structure, it’s built on two leasures of 5 followed by a measure of 9, and this is then gradually speeded up through metric modulation, using the 8th note triplet as a subdivision – so there! For the rest of you – hope you enjoy it regardless of the structure.