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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Boston or Berlin?

And so I gingerly set foot in the shark infested waters of the topic of American and European jazz. The title of this post, “Boston or Berlin?”, refers to a classic question asked of any Irish government of the last 30 years — do they lean more towards America, a traditional ally with deep historical ties to Ireland,  or to mainland Europe with which Ireland has been allied since entering the EU in 1974. This could equally be a question that’s asked of any young jazz musician in Europe -  do they identify more with American jazz, or do they take European models as their starting point? The same question probably couldn’t be asked of a young American jazz musician, since while young European jazz musicians are aware of what’s going on in the US, it’s rarely the case that their young American counterparts have any knowledge of jazz outside of the United States.

And why should they? After all, in the recent Jazz Journalist’s Awards only one European (Toots Thielemans for ‘Instruments Rare in Jazz’) made it into the winner’s enclosure, and only two, (add Evan Parker), even made it into the nominees list.

Of course the focus on American jazz by American jazz journalists is completely understandable – but I think it’s a shame that they are so insular. Not only are they missing out on a lot of great musicians and music, they’re also not really doing the right thing by their readers – which, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, comprises largely of musicians. Yes, musicians who do the European touring circuit are more aware of the wide variety of jazz activity in Europe  - but for those who are not lucky enough to get on the European gravy train, and who ply their trade solely in the US? Well they’re certainly not going to learn about European jazz activity from the US jazz scribes.

I originally considered writing this post a while ago while reading the ’Can Jazz Be Saved?’ controversy in the US. Terry Teachout used NEA figures to posit that jazz was in danger of disappearing, which prompted a firestorm of reaction from all quarters in US jazz blogdom. What was interesting to me as a European jazz musician, as I sit on the edge of a Continent that supports a huge amount of jazz activity – festivals, recordings, big bands, tours, clubs etc. - was the implicit suggestion in this discussion that jazz exists only in the US, which of course isn’t true. I feel that a more accurate title for that controversy would have been ‘Can Jazz Be Saved in America?’. Because jazz in Europe, relative to the US at least, is in rude health. Of course the same recent economic travails have affected the music in Europe too, but there’s still a huge amount of activity, young audiences, and money (less then there was, but there nevertheless), to support jazz activity of all kinds.

And it’s not just European musicians who benefit from this activity, In fact it’s true to say that over the past thirty years at least, that for many American musicians, making a living in jazz has only been made possible by the vitality and economic clout of the European jazz scene. Jazz - at least as a viable way to make a living for many American musicians – was ‘saved’ decades ago by the European tax payer!  Even the biggest names depend on Europe for a large part of their work – just having a quick look at Brad Mehldau’s upcoming concerts for example: From the list of 65 listed on his website, 39 are in Europe. So Europe accounts over 60% of Brad’s upcoming concerts – a statistic that tells its own story.

So while I can understand the concern over the music’s travails in the land of its birth, to carry on a debate about the economic woes of jazz, and the possibility of its disappearance, without once mentioning the vitality of the European jazz scene, and its impact on keeping the music alive and economically viable seems a bit blinkered to say the least.

But American jazz journalists ARE a bit blinkered when it comes to this topic. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in the US vs European jazz wars bullshit, this is much more about the fact that serious jazz writers are not checking out some very good music and bringing it to the attention of their readers.

And what is a shame about this is that many people are missing out on learning about great music and great musicians. This is especially a pity for young American jazz musicians who have absolutely no idea of the existence of great players on their instruments. For example -  if you are young trombonist you HAVE to know about Nils Wogram, certainly one of the greatest players on the instrument today. If you’re a bassist and you like Scott Colley for example, you are definitely going to like Anders Jormin. If you’re a pianist who likes Brad Mehldau you are definitely going to find great things in Stefano Bollani and Enrico Pieranunzi, if you are a drummer and you like Ari Hoenig then check out Chander Sardjoe. If you like that whole M-Base scene then check out St├ęphane Payen or Franck Vaillant. If you’re an improvising string player you’ll find killer and very original players in Europe like Dominique Pifarely, or the cellist Vincent Courtois. Is there a more original guitarist anywhere than Marc Ducret? What about Christy Doran? Nguyen Le? You like virtuosic legato lyrical playing? Try Julian Arguelles. And as for an unclassifiable original, how about Mederic Collignon? If you’re into composition, how about Django Bates? And there are many many more.

While all of these musicians are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by American musicians, they all bring a European sensibility to their playing and writing – a different approach that is definitely worth checking out, and worth listening to.

And there are great things going on between Americans and Europeans at the moment too. And not just the kind of ‘American star with local rhythm section’ thing that used to be the most common form of European/American interaction, but genuine artistic triumphs that represent the collective backgrounds of musicians from both sides of the ocean. For example Enrico Pieranunzi’s trio with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, or Tim Berne’s ‘Big Satan’ with Marc Ducret and Tom Rainey and Carlos Bica’s ‘Azul’ with Frank Mobus and Jim Black. And I’ll even risk the charge of being self serving by mention MSG, the trio I’m in with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Chander Sardjoe. These are all examples of groups producing great music which reflect a combination of American and European approaches to contemporary improvisation.

There is a whole continent out there with a lot of gigs, festivals, musicians, ideas, tours and creativity going on. Europe provides a financial lifeline for many American musicians, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with their European colleagues (and also gives Europeans the chance to collaborate with their US colleagues too of course). European musicians themselves are producing vital original music all the time. And of course though I’m just mentioning European jazz here, because there are also great musicians in other non-American environments too – Brazil, Canada and Australia immediately spring to mind. Yet as far as the JJA Awards are concerned, and most American jazz writers, anything east (or North or South) of the US just doesn’t exist.

In terms of what’s really going on in the WORLD of jazz, it makes their writing and by extension their awards quite parochial. It’s like having a major American newspaper that doesn’t have a Foreign News desk.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Elitist? Moi!?

Recently I took part in a back and forth in an online discussion, on the Irish Times music blog, about jazz and its perception in the eyes of the public. And there was lots of the ‘people think of jazz musicians as being ‘elitist’ accusation. And of course there were lots of ‘we’re not elitist!’ rebuttals from various respondents. And this is a thing I’ve seen many times recently – a kind of desperation on the part of jazz musicians to not be seen as being any different to any others, to be accepted as being the same as any other musicians, to be seen as being the same as rock musicians, or country musicians (though different to classical musicians for some reason.....). And in a way I’d, in an intellectually lazy way, almost come to believe that myself. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to say that deep down I don’t believe we’re the same as everybody else. I believe that as musicians, as people who are involved in the craft of music (as opposed to the art – that’s a different story....), we’re as good as anyone, and better than most. And we should stop apologising for it.

In fact we should, I believe, not be afraid to have pride in what we do and in the uniqueness of what we do.

I remember when I was in secondary school, in a religion class, the teacher stated the view that to be a true Catholic you had to believe that all other religions were wrong. I (being the worst Catholic since Genghis Khan), thought at the time that this was a shockingly intolerant opinion expressed by an old reactionary, but then when I thought about it I realised that he was right – if you’re a Catholic but believe that Buddhists (for example) might be equally right in their beliefs, then why would you be a Catholic? To put this into a musical context – for me, given the amount of work it takes to play the instrument well enough to play jazz, to know harmony well enough etc. - given all that, then if I believed that Indie-rock (for example) a music that is much less technically demanding, had the same value as jazz, then why would I go to the trouble of doing all that extra work on the instrument? If, in my heart of hearts, I really believed that Indie-rock was of equal value (to me) as playing jazz, then why wouldn’t I become an Indie-Rock musician and save myself all this technical practice? And the simple answer has to be that for me, being a jazz musician is more important than being an Indie-rock musician.

I’m tired of the apologetic stance taken by jazz musicians about their own music – why should we be so desperate to not be seen to believe that this music is somehow special? This music IS special! This tradition is special. It is unique, it has been peopled by some of the greatest musicians and artists of the 20th Century and it has produced some of the greatest works of musical art of the past 100 years. It has enhanced and enriched the lives of millions of people, it has influenced thousands of musicians, many of whom work outside the strict ambit of jazz. It prizes the musicians who work for the good of the group, while at the same time honouring individuality. To play it at its best demands, at the very least, great technical skill, an ability to listen to others while improvising your own part, sensitivity to your immediate musical environment, an ability to make split-second musical decisions, to hear everything you’re about to play just before you play it and then reproduce it on the instrument instantly.

Add to that an ability to read music, to know large amounts of jazz repertoire (melodies AND harmonic schemes), from memory, and an understanding of the major stylistic developments in music (all music, not just jazz) over the past century and you have a job description of the minimum requirements for a contemporary jazz musician aspiring to play the music on a high level.

When you see a jazz musician playing this music well, you are seeing someone who has submitted him or herself to years of discipline and practice in order to be able to play a music that is not only profoundly difficult to master, but is also generally financially unrewarding. You are also looking at someone who has at some point had the imagination and determination to set out on what they know will be a long and tough road, but a road they’re willing to travel in order to partake of one the world’s great musical traditions. They are prepared to undergo all of this work, all of this effort, for the sake of the music and in order to be able to play it with others.

Does that make them elitist?

Am I an elitist?

Frankly I’m past caring what people think – in general this ‘elitist’ accusation is born from a very lazy intellectual standpoint, usually made from the kind of person who would in no way submit themselves, in any music, to the kind of discipline and hard work necessary to be a jazz musician. If someday I’m accused of being an elitist by a musician who has spent over 20 years of technical practice and total immersion in their music and who plays it at the highest level, then maybe I’ll give the accusation some thought. Until then I couldn’t be arsed answering those accusations any more. I don’t have time for that kind of time-wasting distraction, I’m too busy working on the music.