On Forging New Directions

Rifftides reader George Finch sent this message in reaction to a ten-year-old article in The
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. There has been so little essential change in jazz since 1997 that The Atlantic piece might have been written last week. It consists mainly of a conversation among authors Tom Piazza, the late Eric Nissensen and the magazine’s Ryan Nally. To read the article, go here.

 Just read Eric Nissensen’s book while I was in Boston, and happened to come across this article. Haven’t read Tom Piazza’s book, but Nissensen makes a lot of good points, although he goes overboard on Wynton and his “neo-conservatism”. I didn’t know that Marsalis was powerful enough to shape jazz. Also, Nissensen’s existentialist definition of jazz as almost pure process is a tad extreme, although a good searchlight. It is a creative process that defines itself as people create the music, but the process does not take place in a void. There seems to be a tradition that they work with, and the good ones will not be content just rehashing it. There will always be ” there must be something else”.

Well, enough. I am not a musician, just trying to learn and think things out. Where do you stand visa vis their chit chat, and who are some of the musicians forging new directions in jazz?

Marsalis did not shape jazz. He shaped himself, shaped Jazz At Lincoln Center and served as a role model to young musicians. Nissensen confused that with shaping jazz. I am not aware of musicians who are forging new directions in jazz, despite blather and ceaseless promotional claims, more of them from managers, agents, publicists and record companies than from musicians.

Unless I’ve missed something (always a possibility), the last time new directions were forged was the late fifties, early sixties – Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis. Every “departure” since then has been imitation or elaboration. Fusing jazz and Latin, jazz and klezmer, jazz and blue grass, hip-hop, classical, folk, ragas, gamelan, etc., etc., etc., does not consitute newness. It constitutes fusion. Some of it is wonderful, but none of it amounts to innovations like those of Armstrong, Young, Parker, Gillespie, Evans, Coltrane, even Coleman. Playing without guidelines, which in the final analysis is impossible and which Ornette neither did nor claimed to do, is not a new direction.

There is a powerful and apparently unquenchable notion that to be worthwhile, music must break new ground. It is difficult enough, and should be satisfying enough, to play and write music well. To say that, is not to downgrade or discourage searching and experimentation. Even searches that lead nowhere and experiments that fail can be valuable and interesting. If a new direction is being forged, we will recognize it when the forging produces something so artistically powerful that it doesn’t need public relations to announce it or critics to analyze it.

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  1. says

    I’m a fan of the bassist Avishai Cohen. To my ears, his biggest contribution to the evolution of the music is his use of structural elements within a composition, specifically in how it integrates improvisation into the natural flow of a given piece.
    Rarely do his works come across as “head-solos-head.” Rather, I hear much more organic journeys from beginning to end in his music.
    Certainly not a brand-new concept, but one nonetheless that he seems to enact better than most. I hear this concept, albeit to a lesser degree, in the music of bassist Ben Allison, too. I’m sure there are others — who can you suggest?
    (Let’s hear from other Rifftides readers on that point — DR)

  2. says

    Hi Doug — I’m surprised you’ve overlooked the work of members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and I bet after you read George E. Lewis’s forthcoming “Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music” you’ll amend, to some extent, your view. The freedoms and/or “new directions” that Miles, Ornette and Cecil brought to jazz have been more than extended or “fused” with other forms by groups interacting such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and by composers such as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, and George Lewis himself. I think there is also a strong case for musicians including Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Herbie Hancock (in his post-Miles activities) and improvisers such as John Zorn (especially in his game pieces and cartoon-oriented collages) to have “advanced” jazz, each in different ways, but maybe that’s another discussion.
    Jazz hasn’t changed dramatically overnight, as it’s supposed to have done upon the emergence of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Kennny Clarke, Max Roach and Thelonious Monk, but it has been guided to much greater openness, adaptability and potential by those musicians and others. Consider that nothing by the AACM members cited, of most of those others I propose, would have been played by Miles, Ornette (pace Song X), Bill Evans, Cecil or Coltrane (very late Coltrane perhaps embraces Ayler’s influence and anticipates some of Evan Parker but not his realization of multiple simultaneous streams of melodies created from overtones and circular breathing). Multiple keyboard work has become a norm, which it wasn’t in the late ’50s and early ’60s either; that may be attributed to Bill Evans, but he mostly overdubbed himself, whereas Zawinul as well as Hancock, Paul Bley, Jan Hammer and Denny Zeitlin pioneered that dimension. ECM’s pastoral stylization — the label’s interest in downplaying jazz’s basis in the black American context — also seems to me new to jazz since the late ’50s/early ’60s. No???
    (Howard Mandel is the author of “Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz” [Routledge] and the artsjournal.com blog “Jazz Beyond Jazz” — DR)

  3. says

    What is happening throughout all music today (and The Seasons is part of it) is the attempt to break down barriers between forms and try to absorb what’s satisfying and what fits into a world music that partakes of European classical, latin, jazz and blues, plus adds in the sounds and ideas of middle eastern, European, Indian and Japanese/Chinese. Due to US media dominance, this “world” movement still has a very US sound. This could (and has) degenerated into Britney wannabes in every nation… but it also has led to a more important collaboration among those who are interested in the “high art” versions of music: Yo Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin, Branford Marsalis, Phillip Glass, Chris Potter, Jobim, our own Daron Hagen and Bill Mays, Takemitsu, and I’m sure others whom I’ve yet to hear.
    As the barriers come down, I believe all music will be enriched, and more tools will be available in every tradition to make new kinds of music. Whether these new tools can be made to fit every tradition, or if it is simply muddied into an incomprehensible stew, or provides new inspiration for even greater music, will no doubt be up to artists/composers who take up the challenge.
    I don’t agree with Doug that these combination musics don’t qualify as new directions (as an example, I believe “Sketches of Spain” is still one of the most important albums Miles Davis made)… So, I think they ARE the new direction. And I think once we get our arms around them and they are no longer just ‘novelty’ stuff, this will be the ground for our next major synthesizing composer to take hold and begin addressing what is becoming a world audience.
    The musical inspiration for the great composer/performers of jazz came (as it did in the classical era) from a return and refreshment from the life of the “folk”: the Harlem Renaissance, the great dance bands that made the US forget about the desperation of the 30’s, the BEAT (hippie) generation. A great art form is at its greatest when it is intertwined with cultural history: an artist like Charlie Parker grabs something from the air and it becomes a symbol of the frenetic energy and optimism of postwar America. When we are lucky enough that a “high art” grabs the popular imagination and is informed by it, it is a golden age indeed.
    (Mr. Strosahl is president of The Seasons Performance Hall — DR)

  4. says

    Well, I’d suggest that on some level, the whole concept of M-BASE involves much more organic, if complex, structures of composition and improvisation. Steve Coleman’s music in particular. And hey, M-BASE isn’t exactly spawning legions of imitators, but THERE’S a new direction for you.
    And along those lines, I think Robin Eubanks’ recent work is a damned exciting development. He’s using digital electronic equipment to generate tape loops and overdubs onstage, which lets him spontaneously build full arrangements. It ain’t TOO much of a stretch to suggest that he’s redefining the notion of jazz improvisation.

  5. says

    Rick, Doug and all,
    I agree with the comments regarding Avishai Cohen and Ben Allison. I especially love Ben’s writing and playing. His sense of form and use of sectional writing is great.
    I think Liebman is also great for this. His work, especially with his current quartet and most recent past quintet uses a lot of compositional development that goes way beyond the head-solos-head paradigm. I think larger ensembles are doing a bit of a “better” job with this kind of extended composition – Maria Schneider’s work exemplifies organic development to me. I have noticed that some of the folks who are regulars with her have taken that aesthetic into smaller formats. Two come right to mind:
    Ingrid Jensen with Nordic Connect
    Donny McCaslin

  6. Ned Corman says

    The new look is great. Congratulations!
    Your comments about innovations in jazz made me reflect to Alex Ross’s “The Rest is Noise,” which I may have already urged you read. Now there’s additional reason. Those academic discussions about who was new/innovative and who wasn’t lost interest for me not to many years after ESM. As a good friend and singer is known to say; “If you look at their feet and the toes ain’t tappin’, you know you’re in trouble and out the door.

  7. Rob Ewing says

    I question the idea that new directions haven’t been forged since the 60’s. The jazz tradition has its pantheon of mythic/legendary figures – the one’s you’ve named and others. We link them to a distant “golden age” of the music to which the music of today and tomorrow can never hope to aspire.
    I don’t think the word “innovative” is very useful in discussing developments in music. I think the word “influential” is more to the point. All of the golden age greats you listed exerted a strong influence on large numbers of musicians who came later. When a musician is influential, he can be said to have forged a new direction in the music, because other musicians are internalizing his contributions and moving them forward in various ways.
    Which jazz musicians of today are influential? Who are they influencing and why?
    The scene has become increasingly fragmented over the decades. It is hard to imagine a musician coming along and “changing everything” the way a Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman did – not for musical reasons, but cultural and societal reasons. The scene is much bigger and way more diverse. All of that aside, influence still happens!
    A few widely-known influential musicians of today: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Steve Coleman, Miguel Zenon, Maria Schneider, Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, Brian Blade. I single those musicians out because you can clearly hear their playing/composing/conceptualizing reflected in the playing of others.
    There are many well-known musicians who for one reason or another are less influential. Chris Potter comes to mind, contrary to the claim made on the cover of a recent downbeat magazine.
    There are also many less-widely known but highly influential musicians. Kneebody and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet come to mind.
    We shouldn’t forget influential jazz educators like George Garzone and Hal Crook.
    Their are many musicians flying below the national jazz magazine radar who are still highly influential in their regions.