Tuesday, April 21, 2009
All That Jazz Part I: Variety
Last week I made a vague offer to take on the 'Album of the Week' slot at some point, with an album that might persuade some of the sceptics about the sheer wonderfulness of jazz. I've since been desperately trying to think of what album could possibly support such a reckless promise. After all, there are so many different reasons for disliking jazz, and so many different tastes in music displayed on this blog - how can one album address them all? I really ought to have kept my mouth shut.
And then, on Saturday night, somewhere in the middle of the third bottle of home-made cider, it came to me. Where to find great tunes for ToffeeBoy and Frog Princess, and wacky experimental stuff for Japanther and Shoey, and some heavy guitars for DarceysDad, and folky stuff for treefrogdemon and DebbyM? Not on any one jazz album - but in the whole history of jazz, certainly. And by the end of the fourth bottle, the idea of a series of posts on different aspects of jazz was more or less sketched out, and not even the risk of being compared with nilpferd's brilliant essays on Miles Davis records could deter me.
This isn't claiming to be a history of jazz, or a complete account of the genre. It's more like ToffeeBoy's pop music series, except that rather than focusing on different artists I'm going to be talking about themes or motifs, which will, I hope, add up to an impression - very much a personal impression - of what jazz is about. And if I spread the net wide enough, there will surely be something for more or less everyone in here somewhere...
That's the theme for this first selection: variety. All five of these tracks would normally be labelled jazz - even if some jazz fans might wish to deny that title to at least one of them. The issue of definition, of what is and isn't jazz (or is and isn't 'proper' jazz), of what limits can and should be set on what musicians do in the name of this music, has been argued over furiously for at least the last seventy-five years, if not longer. Almost any statement that one might make about jazz (even, perhaps, "jazz is a genre of music") could be disputed on the basis of a track produced by a jazz musician.
One response to this is to insist that, nevertheless, my definition of jazz is the true one, and everything that doesn't fit is therefore not proper jazz. Another is to develop looser and more flexible definitions; for example - as I'll be talking about in later posts - noting the importance of rhythm for jazz, rather than specifying a particular sort of rhythm. Another is to argue that the whole point of jazz is to question restrictions and to push beyond boundaries, so as soon as you try to 'define' jazz there will be a jazz musician wanting to probe that definition, question its limitations and turn it upside down...
Duke Ellington once remarked that he didn't know "how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading." These tracks are intended to illustrate that point (though I'm prepared for the possibility that, to a non-jazz fan, they may all sound rather similar): classic small groups to big bands and orchestras; traditional instruments to electronics and sound manipulation; almost free improvisation on classic tunes to carefully orchestrated compositions. The one thing all these tunes have in common, I think, besides the absence of vocals, is fun; a sense of the possibilities of music and sound, and of the joy of creation.
Sonny Rollins, Moritat (1956) - aka Mack the Knife
Colin Towns' Mask Orchestra, Dreaming Man in Blue Suede Shoes (1999) - Towns' main living is as composer of TV theme tunes and the like, but he's invested a lot of the profits in running his own big band and jazz orchestra to play his music
Emily Remler, Daahoud (1988) - cover of a classic Clifford Brown song
Food, Freebonky (2001) - British saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Norwegian trumpeter Arve Hendriksen, in experimental mood
Guy Barker, Sounds in Black and White (2002) - inspired by 1940s film music, with each instrument playing a different character. The sections are: Opening Titles; The Guy (described, when I heard this live, as a Cary Grant type); The Girl (Ava Gardner); The Bad Guy; The Chase, The Romance and The End.