Why do I still listen to jazz (and what do I talk about when I talk about jazz)

There are few art forms who represent better the spirit of twentieth century than jazz.  Its history and development run parallel to what Eric Hobsbawm called “the short century”, one that begins with First World War and ends with the fall of the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe. Jazz also is a perfect expression of many of the impulses that drive the century culturally and politically: modernism, anti-colonialism, and particularly of two tensions: that between individualism and collectivism and that between high and popular culture.

Jazz history begins a few years earlier than the century, New Orleans peculiar fusion of Afro-American musical traditions beginning to spread throughout the vaudevilles of the United States precisely around 1914. For almost seventy years, musicians who played and recorded music labelled “jazz” would lead an epopee of heroic conquests: mainly, the achievment of respectability of a music who was born to be played in brothels and today is heard in the same halls where Bach, Beethoven and Mahler are performed and of a group of musicians that were legally discriminated by their race when this music was created. But also, if we accept the main “big narrative” about jazz, the one that goes from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the conquest of freedom of the soloist from the combo and of the solo from the song. It is easy to forget today that jazz was the main form of popular music in America during thirty years, only to be replaced by rock in the early 60s, a moment when jazz had achieved respectability as a modernist form of art and was in a moment of constant innovation. By the 1980s, when Hobsbawm’s “short century” was dying, jazz had become a niche music, placed near “classical music” in the record stores and played as a kind of “classical Afro-American music” in concert halls or used to add a hint of sophistication to pop music. Nowadays the jazz aficionado is not very different of other niche music concertgoers. I particularly find them very similar to the lovers of the period performances of ancient music, even if it’s only because they are both two perversion I have. As any other aficionado they have their codes -where to clap or not to clap being the most valued of all- and their sanctuaries and festivals.

money jungle
Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach in 1962 during the recording of Money Jungle

So, as a jazz lover, my main relation with that music is with its history, with its past. I listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis or John Coltrane as I listen Johann Sebastian Bach, Jacques Brel, Arnold Schoenberg, Mississippi John Hurt or Johnny Cash. Obviously I have my preferences regarding the history of jazz: I particularly love a bunch of records produced during the early 60s where hard bop met avant-garde and world music via Afro-American political movements, albums by Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Jackie MacLean and many others musicians.

But what to say about jazz after the end of history of jazz? There are two things that need to be considered and can seem contradictory: first, a good part of the music I listen to nowadays is labelled as jazz or related someway to jazz; on the other hand, “jazz” is scarcely a word that interests me to think about that music.

Most of what is produced nowadays and is called jazz seems culturally irrelevant. As satisfactory as, for example, Jazz at the Lincoln Center can be, the reproduction in concert of a music that was recorded decades ago with true sense of wonder remains to me ultimately unessential. Given the choice among jazz as a celebration of its history or as the reenactment of an style cosmetically updated for a high-priced festival, I choose none.

For me jazz music has keep its relevance on its fringes, and always as an avant-garde. Particularly, I find jazz is a fascinating tool to explore the relations between composition and improvisation in a great variety of musical contexts. The jazz I listen to today uses its history and syntax to explore and often uncork this aspects onother musical traditions: folk music from all around the world, contemporary classical composition, etc.

Let’s give just two examples who might serve to begin to draw map of things happening in contemporary avant-garde music that have a direct relation with jazz.

First of all, it’s impossible to overrate the role of german label ECM for the survival of jazz. During the 70s its founder Manfred Eicher leadered a way of understanding jazz that helped the encounter of free jazz and world music and created a sound and sensibility that was completely european and new. “Play whatever you want whenever it doesn’t sound to jazz”, is supposed to have said once. Today the distinctive aesthetic and sound of ECM albums has become almost a common place and the amount of music the label produces is not always as excellent as it was in its beginnings. But at least two lines of the label keep for me huge power and meaning: on one side, the best remains of the quintessential ECM tradition of a meditative jazz that comes from the North and East of Europe: the Polish trumpet player Tomasz Stańko is maybe the best survivor of this tradition. The other line characteristically ECM I still admire is the meeting of this tradition with electronic and ambient music. Arve Henriksen and Eivind Aarset albums -released both in ECM and in the norwegian label Rune Grammofon– offer music brilliant and subtle exploring the limits of diverse musical traditions.


Tomasz Stańko’s Terminal 7 has become famous as the main them of the TV series Homeland


A concert by Eivind Aarset

Secondly, there is a new wave of jazz musicians in New York who are rethinking much of the jazz tradition about improvisation in a wider and more contemporary context. I will choose the name of those I consider the most brilliant of the group, those who have created some of the most interesting recordings of the last decade: Steve Lehman and Vijay Iyer. Both have played and recorded together -including in their common effort Fieldwork-, both are related with older figures of the american avant-garde such as Steve Coleman, John Zorn or Henry Threadgill, both have recorded for the label Pi Recordings, both have also produced an interesting body of theoretical and academic work… Lehmann has recently released and album as an Octet, probably my favourite jazz album in years: his music uses techniques proceeding from contemporary classical composition such as spectral harmonies and is richly textured in layers in a way that developes the work of Steve Coleman. Vijay Iyer -who has recently signed for ECM- has a distinctive approach, at once muscular and cerebral. In less than a year has released an hypnotic record for piano, electronics and string quartet, the soundtrack for a film about the Holi hindu festival which is a kind of meditation on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a totally addictive new volume of his trio.


A theme from Mise en Abime, the new album by Steve Lehman Octet


Vijay Iyer presenting his last album, Break Stuff


Trailer for Radhe Radhe with music by Vijay Iyer

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