Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Every (Jazz) Man Has His Price

Why do many truly great jazz musicians, musicians who over many years have played some of the greatest music in the idiom and forged reputations as being among the finest in the world, agree to make recordings with people who, in jazz terms at least, simply can’t play?

Why do many truly great classical musicians, have such a lack of respect for jazz that they feel they can hire some of the greatest players in the music to accompany them while they butcher the idiom?

These questions were prompted by listening to an absolutely dire recording by the classical violinist Nigel Kennedy called ‘Blue Note Sessions’ in which Kennedy is joined by some of the greatest jazz musicians active today, who seem quite happy to play with someone who, to descend into Irish argot for a moment, doesn’t come within an ass’s roar of the kind of level of improvisational ability, or vocabulary, that should be required for anyone hoping to come within the aforesaid braying distance of any recording studio containing the likes of Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, Joe Lovano and Kenny Werner. And listening to Kennedy’s playing here, he’s so far below the level of the other players – stilted phrasing, clichéd, unimaginative, throwing notes at improvisational problems – it seems extraordinary, at least on the surface, that he could make an album like this with players of this calibre. Yet not only can he be on this album, he is actually the leader on it.

I find these kids of classical ‘crossover’ recordings very both infuriating and depressing.

Infuriating because of the arrogance of the classical musicians who on the one hand claim to love jazz (or Brazilian music, or Indian music or whatever genre they or their record company feel is worthy of exploitation), yet never stop to ask the question whether, if they really respect and love the music as they claim to, they should REALLY be playing with true masters of the idiom, recording it, and putting it out under their own name? Have they no shame? Are they so immured in their own sense of self-worth that they believe themselves to be capable of playing pretty much anything at the highest level? Is it a case of ‘listen, I can play Beethoven’s violin concerto at the greatest concert halls in the world, how could I NOT be able to play a blues with jazz guys!? I’ve been touring the planet and been playing great music with the world’s greatest orchestras for over 25 years, and I’m a household name – of course I can improvise over a simple tune like Autumn Leaves!’ Do they never listen back to the recordings they make with great jazz musicians and writhe with shame at the vapid clichés, stilted phrasing, crocodile tears attempts at blues phrasing, and general corniness of what they play in these projects?

Maybe they do, maybe they’re just pressurised so much by the record company, who feel this will help broaden their appeal, that they’ve no choice but to do it. Mind you, in the EPK video for his Blue Note album Kennedy states that one of the things that persuaded him to do the album was the fact that people like DeJohnette and Carter would be on it – so, no fear of HIM feeling like he’s not worthy to play with jazz people of that calibre. He obviously sees it as a meeting of equals. Nigel Kennedy is a great classical violinist, but is, at best, a hack as a jazz musician (others can comment on the success or otherwise of his ‘Hendrix’ project), so the idea that in this milieu he has the artistic right to record with these musicians is in my opinion laughable. Just because you have the money and the opportunity, should you still do it? Not if you’ve even a shred of respect for the music or musicians involved. But I’m convinced that despite all the profession of love for jazz and respect for the tradition these players pay lip service to, underneath it all they don’t really believe this to be a serious genre – or at least as serious as theirs. Otherwise they wouldn’t record and release these awful discs.

And I find these recordings depressing because of the jazz musicians’ compliance with this disrespecting of the music to which they’ve devoted their lives, to which they’ve contributed immensely, and by which they have inspired thousands of musicians all over the world. Now of course there’s money involved here, and I’m not condemning anyone for having a big pay day. But I think that surely there must be a cut-off point – a point decided upon by a combination of the stature of the jazz musician involved and how much or how little they need the money. I can’t believe at this point in their careers that either Ron Carter or Jack DeJohnette – two musicians who command big fees all over the world – really needed the money Kennedy gave them for their involvement in this mediocre (to put it generously) project.

Nor can I believe that they did this for any other reason than the money – if they really believed Kennedy was any good as a jazz musician they’d be including him in some of their own projects – right? Has any jazz musician of any stature, anywhere, ever included Kennedy (or any other classical high-flyer for that matter) in their own creative projects? I don’t think so. The whole history of this genre is one of the classical musicians waving a wad of money at the jazz guys and the jazz guys scampering over, only too happy to lend their names and prestige to any lame ‘jazz’ project as long as the price is right. Maybe it’s a hangover from the days when you did whatever you could to get by, a gig’s a gig etc. etc. But surely there must come a point where you reach a level of financial security when you really don’t need to place your talent and achievement at the service of anyone who has the price to hire you, regardless of their ability?

Because what I find doubly depressing about this is that I don’t believe the reverse to be true. That is, in the classical world, that the true heavyweights – the Evgeny Kissins, Arturo Benedettis, Anne-Sophie Mutters etc. - , no matter HOW much money was involved, would countenance a jazz guy hiring them to play on a classical recording that he (or she) was making, listen to him butchering Brahms or Shostakovitch or whatever, and agree to have their names lent to the project in order to allow it to gain credibility, and to allow the jazz guys to pretend to their own jazz public that really could play classical music at the highest level. I just don’t believe it would happen. These people have too much regard for their own genre, their own art, their own tradition to traduce it like that in public for folding money. Why can’t the jazz equivalents of these great musicians have the same self-respect and the same respect for their own tradition?

If the greatest players in the jazz world can’t respect the music they’ve helped to shape enough to refuse to publicly appear and record with players who can’t play – no matter how well they may be known in other fields – then what hope have the rest of us got in convincing the world that what we do is serious and worthy of equal consideration with any music?


  1. oh Ronan, another rant! I can understand that you think NK is just another classical violinist, and it is as disappointing to me as Wynton, in the respect that they are (or were) both forward looking, but yet have neither commissioned new works from composers. Such a pity, but their choice. As for Jack, Joe and Kenny working with them, and I´ll never forget the first time I saw kenny with Archie Shepp (!!) I´m sure you are in contact and you can ask them.
    My suggestion would be about the cracks betwen the jazz establishment, and transition, Abercrombie´s quartet has been especially good at that with Feldman, so maybe this is the new Grapelli and Menhuin, kind of compelling, huh?

  2. Hi Ronan!

  3. To paraphrase the old adage, the problem is not that they do it at all, but that they do it badly. If NK had done this record and sounded like Mark Feldman, I'd definitely want to check it out. While it may bespeak a lack of respect for the art form, it may just come from wanting to loosen up and have some fun - and if you can afford to hire the best, why not do it? I'm not condoning it, mind you, just speculating.

    I think jazz musicians have done better going the other direction; think of Aaron Copland writing a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman or the superb recording of Jobim compositions, "Urubu", whereon Claus Ogerman arranged the music for the NY Philharmonic to play.

    Rock musicians, too. Chris Squire, bassist for the band Yes, made a great recording called "Fish Out of Water"which features players from the London Symphony Orchestra.

    Off the top of my head, I can't think of many classical musicians who crossed over and made credible statements as jazz artists. Andre' Previn made some good, mainstream, if derivative, recordings with Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne.

    I also think that Leonard Bernstein was a composer and musician who understood jazz well enough to let it inform a lot of his own music but knew to leave well enough alone.

  4. There certainly is more of that possibly feckless grazing by the classical boys in the jazz and popular pastures than the other way round. Rampal and Bolling isn't an exact analogue but similar. From the other direction, Jarrett sometimes does it, Shearing played with it some. No doubt there are a lot more examples. I don't like the results, but in principal, I don't have anything against it, although it is hard to understand why accomplished musicians of any stripe, who seemingly aren't desperate for the money, would be collaborators.

  5. Word on all those points, Ronan. I just wish Kennedy would have come up with a new voice coming out of his classical background. His attempt to play 'jazzy' just isn't fresh.

  6. Respect Ronan to come out with this blog! Nigel and the other musicians should be confronted with your words. I've listened to these 'Blue Note Sessions' and I find it quite remarkable that the jazzcast aren't even recognizable in their playing. I don't really hear a Jack, Ron, Joe or Kenny on this record. I think that's very sad.
    I also want to add that a hairdo like NK doesn't predict good stuff :-)
    Greetz from Antwerp!

  7. 1939 or so,on the eve of world War Two, Benny Goodman goes to Budapest to record "Contrasts."

    He commissioned Bela Bartok to write it and they are joined by Joseph Szigeti on violin. It was a Columbia Odyssey release for years and more recently ended up in a cd compilation of various works Goodman commissioned.

    It is gorgeous and outstanding on every level and very spooky.

    How times have changed.

  8. I have listened to the kennedy recording and it wouldn't sound out of place as audio wall paper in a pizzeria.
    The word "Cross over" always has me break out in a rash and my cringe detector goes working overtime. Pavorotti, a giant in every sense singing with Sting et al was another example of somebody from the classical world trying to get hip with the kids and the results dilute what is best of both genres and produces something that is meaningless to either of them. Any "Duets" project has me reaching for the ear plugs.
    Many collaborations sound fine on paper but often crack under the weight of their own pretention in practice. Stan Getz's Focus is a fine example of a Jazz soloist improvising over written parts, more recently Charlie Haden's Art of Song project seamlessly combined both classical and Jazz elements and radio.string.quatet's reading of John Mc Laughlin are fascinating.
    Listen to Bill Evans solo Peace Piece and it's as if Ravel had rambled into the Vangaurd.
    Parkers recordings with strings were often cited by Bird as the recordings he was most proud of but many Jazz fans dimissed them schmaltzy.
    The best collaborations fuse two disperate elements together and create a new third form rather than the sound of two left shoes.
    To my untrained ear Miles's great orchestral works with Gil Evans created such a new form and his later electronic music, influenced by Sly Stone and even Stockhausen created something altogether new without sounding like either of those people. Influence should not mean imitation.
    But back to is a Vanity project, an indulgence that undermines the obvious talents of all concerned with it.

  9. Great, and fun, to see you being so outraged by NK, he's been doing this for ages 'NK plays Jazz' etc..... he even thinks he can play Balkan Music 'East meets East'. But I do think one should be aware that many jazz musicians also 'hire big guns' to get better gigs and the like. I won't start making a list here but I could leave a page of names of average jazz players who team up with names. Of course it is true to say that 'they' at least have jazz credentials, NK does not!

    (Although this doesn't apply to NK) it's sad that nowadays many festivals won't give you a gig without a name in your band. Due to the fickleness of the general public, who sadly are unable to go out and discover new names, it is quite normal to find the 'Jim Bloggs 4tet featuring John Coltrane', ..... it sells more CDs etc. We also have the same situation concerning 'going to New York' which has also become a sad sort of CV promotional tool, but does however boost your profile!

  10. Nigel should have listened to jazz's infant terrible, to Mr. Joe Venuti. -- Maybe he would have understood better what's jazz all about:

    Take risks, play as if it would be your last day, love *all*, or at least many kinds of music, and know about how it's phrased, and how it's put together.

    Bird's yearning to become a classical composer was never really understood, just because he had so much to say as a jazz improvisor. He admitted once that he was 'caged in the 32-bar, and 12-bar jazz forms', and that he would like to study 'serious' music with Varésè.

    Anyway, if Nigel would have listened 'deeply', and with real devotion to Joe, or to Stephane, or to Bird, or to ... it wouldn't have happened.

    By the way: I had almost vomited over my TV once when I saw clarinetist Sabine Meyer butcher Benny Goodman. -- Did BG wreck any sound of Mozart, or of Bartok he has played? Not at all.

    He may have never really *felt* their music in the 'right' way, but he was musically gifted enough for delivering some credible performances; so, there was no need to blush in embarrassment when the recordings came out.

    Benny really dug the classics, and he studied them seriously. His only musical education in the beginning were books with clarinet etudes, and listening to the Chicago jazz players.

    After reading your fantastic rant, Ronan, I doubt that one could say that about Nigel, regarding digging jazz, and the jazz life.

    Benny died with one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas on his music stand.