From: Lynne d Johnson (lynnedjohnson_at_earthlink.net)
Date: 2003-03-06 07:40:14
It's happening, it's underway-it's just a question of how far and how
With more and more ensembles including a musician dealing with
electronics-sequencing, programming, DJing, sampling-the sound of jazz
is evolving. Call it jazztronica, nu-jazz or bluescreen jazz, but one
thing is certain: It's potentially the most exciting development in the
music for decades.
"Jazz is definitely changing," says pianist Matthew Shipp."It has to,
or it will die."
Today's generation of electronic gadgetry allows for far more
sophisticated experimentation than the old wickka-wickka sound of
turntable scratching or a basic sample loop for musicians to improvise
over. Now the improviser's art can be played out against a new sonic
backdrop colored by fragments of electronic sounds, rhythms and samples
swimming through the music. Amid this world of altered realities and
fresh possibilities, digital computer editing-literally cutting and
pasting sound-allows for juxtapositions never even dreamed about in
Charlie Parker's day.
Just as important, this technology's easy availability to the masses
and its relative inexpensiveness means the bedroom can now become a
recording studio. Jazz musicians have a new set of tools to mold and
shape sound, and they are using them to recontextualize jazz within the
nervous 21st century.
Pianist Brad Mehldau, who included subtle real-time electronics and
original overdubs with rock producer Jon Brion on last year's Largo,
recalls a conversation with a promoter in London: "I commented on the
large amount of DJs on the jazz festival rosters these days. He said
that it reflects the fact that turntable technology, sampling and the
like has now become part of the 'jazz vocabulary'—for better or worse."
And while at present this may be more the case in Europe than America,
it's a proposition Mehldau remains cautious about: "To me, that is not
a given, not in a music that depends so much on human interaction."
Trumpeter Dave Douglas gives the trend a guarded welcome but
nevertheless sees the importance of jazz relating to the plurality of
the current times, with electronic sounds and rhythms being a part of
this process. "It's really quite simple: wake up every day and try to
reflect what's really going on inside you and outside you. In this
period, it's reflected in the thousands of ways music is changing and
growing. These technologies, like anything else, are an important part
of that very human growth."
Like Mehldau, Douglas insists the jazz aesthetic should not be blurred
by artifice. "I feel that the sounds all around us are affecting even
the way acoustic music is heard, recorded and presented. It's
inescapable. And it's very exciting to hear the effect electronic
players are having on jazz and improvised music. But I feel the
artistic, personal statement is the more important goal in creating new
music. That this music is an inseparable part of our technological
environment seems inevitable. That's a great asset for music makers
With much of jazz still under the shadow of 1950s hard bop, Shipp
believes these changes toward a broader sound spectrum have come not a
moment too soon. "I think jazz has become its
own museum-keeper, its own graveyard attendant, and it's buckling
under the weight of its own pretensions. I definitely think there is a
necessity to broaden it out and try to reflect the times right now."
In this dazzling information-technology age, we are bombarded daily by
new sights and sounds, so it should come as no surprise that jazz
should reflect this. Art does not evolve in a vacuum, and jazz has
always adapted to and been shaped by technological as much as cultural
and social forces. So the notion of jazz being influenced by
technological advances is hardly new. Billie Holiday's art, for
example, would have been impossible without the electric microphone.
When the LP broke through the three-minute barrier of old 78 r.p.m.
discs, a new world opened up for the improviser and composer.
Meanwhile, advances in the recording studio itself allowed musicians
another way to create new music: Sidney Bechet famously recorded
clarinet, soprano, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums on his one-man-band
recording "The Sheik of Araby" in April 1941, and Bill Evans'
Conversations With Myself and Lennie Tristano's "Requiem" feature
multiple overdubbed pianos. Technology has long been a tool at the
service of the improviser.
Mehldau is quick to underline this distinction. "Innovation in jazz is
not determined by technological advances; it is a purely musical
matter. What I was trying to get to on Largo was not dictated by
technology; rather, certain technological devices were used in the
service of a musical vision that focused heavily nonetheless on live
group improvisation. If there's something innovative in Largo, it comes
first and foremost from the musical decisions that me and the other
musicians made, playing together live. Yet I can't deny that those
musical decisions were informed by the technology: recording
techniques, treatment of piano, etc. The actual sonic environment
influenced how we played."
Yet jazz is about expressing individuality, which should neither be
sacrificed nor submerged in this new electronic world, something
Douglas is quick to emphasize. "Many of the musicians I admire are
using this sound and technology. The availability of great electronic
sounds has been here for a long time-even more importantly, the
availability of great electronic players. That's the key to me-people
who can personalize the technology and sonic palette. All around the
world the impact is being felt. The present, and thus the future, is in
the hands of the musicians, and many of us are taken with the
possibilities. What's most inspiring about it to me is that everyone
has their own take on it and their own sound. That proves the
flexibility and value of the medium."
Helge Sten provides the electronics in the Norwegian improv group
Supersilent, whose 1-3 and 4, 5 and 6 CDs are on the increasingly
influential Rune Grammofon label, which is distributed by ECM. He
believes in human interaction, where electronics are guided by the
improviser's impulse. "Electronics is an extra instrument," he says.
"Today it's very popular to use-but you have to apply some rules, as
always. You really have to integrate it and make it a great musical
experience for yourself and the people who listen to it. I think the
meeting [between electronics and jazz] has to be the result of a
genuine musical expression and has to be a genuine musical adventure.
You are at the point where you can use sound like an instrument. When
you have sound as a tool, you can use any pitch in any variation; you
can use a lot of color-it's a big, wide spectrum-and it opens up a new
universe and it seems very natural to use it inside jazz, because it
has been the nature of jazz to experiment and evolve new expressionism.
I think jazz really needs to expand anyway, because it's been standing
quite still for a long time."
-- :: Lynne d Johnson :: :: lynne_at_lynnedjohnson.com :: :: http://www.lynnedjohnson.com :: "Rap music is a technologically sophisticated and complex urban sound." --Tricia Rose, Black Noise