Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Music of John Adams (for Jazz Musicians!)

I have a feeling young jazz musicians don't listen to classical music as much as did previous generations.  In talking to young musicians I find a lack of awareness of classical music which is quite different from people of my generation and earlier.  Jazz players have traditionally had a good knowledge and relationship with great composers. 20th Century music particularly appealed to the modern generation of players, Bird loved Stravinsky, Miles admired many composers, everyone loved Bartok.... You can hear the piano music of Ravel, Debussy and others informing the pianism of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. etc. etc. And of course there was the so-called 'Third Stream' which attempted a fusion between the modern wings of both musics.

So it's an interesting phenomenon to see the relative lack of awareness of classical music among young jazz players these days. Of course some are listening to it, but in general I've found there to be a downturn in the classical listening habits of young jazz musicians in recent years.

Which is a pity, because there is so much great composed music out there, ready to inspire and elevate anyone who cares to listen. The purpose of this post is to introduce people, particularly jazz musicians, who care to check it out, and who may be unaware of it, to the music of the great American composer John Adams

Adams is an incredibly successful contemporary composer with a vast output, and one that happily is increasing every year. He has a huge expressive range, from taut minimalism, to opulently orchestrated pieces, many operas and oratorios, concertos, and chamber music of various kinds, the latter having been greatly expanded in recent years.

In 2007 I had the good fortune to be asked to be Artistic Director of that year's RTE Living Music Festival and had the wonderful task of programming a weekend of music whose main theme was Adams' music. I listened extensively to his output at that time and put together a programme that featured many of his works paired with jazz pieces. I felt this was particularly apposite given the nature of his music and the overtones, particularly rhythmic, of so many contemporary music styles which are contained within his compositions. Adams is a completely equal opportunities guy when it comes to the influences he welcomes into his music, and I can hear jazz sensibilities in much of his music along with other vernacular American styles.

This is not to say that Adams composes jazz music - he doesn't. Nor does he compose those dreadful hybrid pieces which stick what the composer imagines to be 'jazzy' passages onto his or her 'serious' work. These pieces are usually a dog's breakfast, with none of the rhythmic vitality of jazz or any of its improvisational flair. To me it always feels like the composer is slumming it, or 'letting their hair down' for a minute, and putting the serious work away in order to get down with those dissolute jazz guys. It always smacks of tokenism and condescension. And the music is usually dire too.

But Adams is different. In 2007, as part of that festival AD gig, I got to meet him and hang out with him for an hour or so. In talking to him, (and in reading his autobiography later), it became clear that here was someone who genuinely listened to, and had a knowledge and admiration of jazz, and rock, and bluegrass and many other American musics, as well as music from other parts of the world, and this widespread listening found its way into his music in many ways, and always in a very organic way. I admire him hugely as a composer and as a person - he is one of the most erudite musicians I ever met and if you look at any interview with him you will see someone who is both witty and knowledgeable about all kinds of things, not just music. His music is all of a piece with him as a person, and this clear connection between the man and the music is one of the characteristics that one so often finds in jazz. Despite the immense control of the music and the technical detail that he has, the music somehow always feels natural and organic and with an air of spontaneity about it. I think the reasons for this relate to how he has absorbed all his influences both from classical music and the many other musics he enjoys, and fused all of that into a personal language that is immediately identifiable.

As I said, he has a huge output, but I wanted to focus on some pieces that I know, as a jazz musician myself, will appeal to other jazz musicians. I've trawled Youtube to try and find good examples of these pieces and have not used the original recordings in order to stay on the right side of copyright law, and to stay on the right side of my own beliefs. If you see something here that you enjoy, please do buy the commercially available recording, it will help the serious music industry at least a little, will support the work of a great composer, and of course the sound will be one hundred times better than on the crappy Youtube compressed version you're listening to here!


A massive groove piece for orchestra! As a bassist I love the deep riffs he uses throughout this piece. Check out the typically brilliant orchestration too.

Eros Piano

This is an interesting piece, not one of his better known ones - composed after a hang with the great Japanese composer Takemitsu and the discovery of their shared love for the music of Bill Evans. It's a very reflective piece with some gorgeous voicings in the piano and beautiful textures in the orchestral writing.

John's Book of Alleged Dances - Dogjam

This is a movement from his composition for string quartet and pre-recorded prepared piano accompaniment. Although this clip isn't great visually, it had the best balance I could find between the recorded accompaniment and the live playing. Great off-kilter grooves in this composition and great string writing. I listen to this work a lot!

Saxophone Concerto - 2nd Movement, arranged for piano and saxophone

To be honest I find classical saxophonists' tone difficult to live with aurally. It always sounds closer to some form of oboe than the extraordinarily expressive instrument we know from jazz, and with the huge range of tone of its great players. The video here is of the 2nd movement of Adams' Saxophone Concerto arranged for piano and saxophone, and although the saxophone sound is the aforementioned classical one, there's much here to enjoy for the jazz musician - for example the sheer virtuosity of the playing and the very hip rhythms that inhabit the piece throughout.

Gnarly Buttons - Clarinet Concerto, 2nd movement

Another example of Adams' brilliance at coming up with titles for his pieces, and another favourite of mine - fantastic writing for a very unusual instrumentation that includes electric keyboard and banjo! This clip is good, but do check out the commercially available recording for a proper listen to the intricate detail of the orchestral writing and the properly gnarly clarinet part! Adams was himself a clarinetist at one point and you can hear the knowledge of the possibilities of the instrument shine through in the writing


And finally a piece that has, as far as I know, not been commercially recorded. This audio comes from the concert given at the 2007 RTE Living Music Festival by the London Sinfonietta. I deliberately programmed this piece because I think it's a fantastic piece, full of groovy rhythmic complexity and I know jazz guys will recognise the kinds of things that go on in contemporary jazz these days in that netherworld between funk, jazz and mathematics. And check out those electric guitar and bass parts - killer! I've only included a minute or so of this, because it's probably not legal to have it on here, but hopefully RTE and Adams and the Sinfonietta will forgive me for my 90 second transgression - as I said the work is not commercially available (I wish it was....), and I do it with the best possible motives!

There's so much more great music from Adams, not all as immediately connected to jazz as these pieces, but always brilliantly written and very profound in so many ways, and if this is your first exposure to his work, I hope it will serve as the gateway to many happy hours of listening pleasure and inspiration

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

21st Century Bebop?

A jazz schools question - should we be teaching traditional jazz skills and repertoire in the 21st-century? This is an endless subject of discussion wherever jazz educators foregather. In February last I was asked to give a short talk on this subject at the Association of European Conservatoire's Pop and Jazz Platform conference in London. This post is an extension of some of the ideas that I talked about on the day.

In a musical world which has moved away from traditional jazz repertoire, at least as far as the vast majority of the general public is concerned, what is the relevance or otherwise of these skills - playing standards, playing changes, playing common repertoire, the swing idiom etc. etc. ? Why, the question is often asked, should we spend so much time teaching a type of music that hasn't been popular for over 60 years? What is the relevance of standard repertoire in the 21st-century, and are we holding onto this type of teaching out of some misguided sense of loyalty to the past? The question is particularly asked in Europe, and other schools outside of the USA. The vast bulk of traditional jazz repertoire comes from the music and the experience of the African-American community in the United States. As Europeans, (or Asians or Australians etc.), why should we learn this music, that grew out of a set of social circumstances a long time ago, in a far away country, and from a society of which we are not part? What is the contemporary artistic relevance of learning music created by people from a different culture, from a different period in time? What is the professional relevance of teaching students rhythms and repertoire from music that has little currency on the contemporary professional music scene?

I used the word 'bebop' in the title here, and this word was also used in the title of my talk at the AEC, but in using that word I don't mean to limit the music under discussion to the period of the 1940s, but rather to look at the broader field of the jazz tradition - the one that contains both Broadway songs and jazz standards, the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter etc. etc.

For myself, I really do believe in the relevance of teaching this music, and the importance to any programme, that uses the word 'jazz' in its title, of giving the students access to the skills and ethos required to play music from the jazz tradition. I don't think there is any one reason to continue to teach this repertoire in jazz schools, but many reasons. I would list the value of working with this repertoire for aspirant professional performers under three headings - as a portfolio of skills, as a connection to a musical tradition, and as exposure to some of the highest levels of musical thinking and musical philosophy of the past hundred years.

As a Portfolio of Skills

The traditional skill set required to play jazz contains many varied yet interconnected skills that are of immense benefit to any aspirant young musician who wants to learn the craft of music performance. This skill set is eminently transferable  - skills acquired in the study of jazz are, in one way or other, of use in almost any music you care to name. In order to improvise over changes, in an ensemble, in the jazz idiom, you need a command of a wide variety of skills. You need a very good technique on your instrument, you need a thorough knowledge of harmony, you need to be able to read music, (notation and chord symbols), you need really good ears and an ability to identify and process aural information in real time. You need very good time, a thoroughly developed sense of rhythm and rhythmic nuance, and an ability to create rhythmic phrases that make instant sense both to you and to your bandmates. 

In order to improvise convincingly over the progression you need to develop a sense of form, to know where you are in the tune at all times. Allied to this is the ability to develop musical memory, to be able to keep large amounts of musical information in your mind and spontaneously use it to create music of the moment. You need to be able to listen deeply and respond instantly to musical cues and information created by your ensemble colleagues. Allied to the learning of these skills are the tangential skills often taught as part of a jazz programme - arranging, theory, transcription, composition etc.

So - technique, aural training, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic skills, reading skills, musical memory, deep listening, understanding of form and the ability to instantly create melodies over moving harmony. All of these are necessary in order to able to be able to play standard jazz material. This is a serious set of skills for any musician venturing into the professional music world, and some or all of them are transferable into any kind of musical situation you may be find yourself in.

If a jazz school were to remove the requirements to learn this repertoire, then, from a professional skill-set point of view, what would they replace it with? I cannot think of any other form of musical training, including classical training, that provides such a range of transferable skills.

Sometimes the question is asked, 'why are we training students to be bebop players when the music has changed so much?'. Well the answer to that is - we're not! Four years in a jazz school will not turn you into a bebop musician - like any deep tradition, the skills necessary to become a master of this idiom require many years of training, experience and immersion. Four years of jazz school will only allow you to scratch the surface of what it takes to be a convincing bebop player. Anyone who thinks that teaching bebop skills to students will turn them into bona fide bebop players within the time span of an undergraduate programme has a complete misunderstanding, and probably lack of respect for the jazz tradition. What we can give them, via bebop,  are the tools for the professional performance world, we can't turn them into convincing bebop players - the decision to undertake the years of extra work needed to achieve that is completely the students' decision, and will happen after school, if at all.

It Connects Students To A Tradition

The argument is often made that if you're playing improvised music influenced by jazz, but are not American, or not African American, or weren't born in the USA between 1930 and 1970, you can claim to not be part of the jazz tradition. I've heard this, or variants on it, so many times - 'I wasn't born in Chicago in 1950/I'm from Berlin/I don't play standards' - all used to explain why the jazz tradition, as commonly understood, has no longer any relevance for the musician making the statement. However, to imagine that because you were born outside the USA, or at a different time to the common practice period of jazz, means that you stand outside the tradition is an argument that doesn't stand up as far as I'm concerned. If you're playing in a group that has bass and drums in it, and the group improvises, you are fundamentally connected to the jazz tradition, since the concept of the rhythm section (i.e. at least in its most pared down form - bass and drums), evolved in jazz groups. That alone connects you, as does improvising over moving harmony in a rhythmic format influenced by the African-American rhythmic tradition - i.e grooves of any sort. The social nature of group improvisation is also predicated on jazz traditions and practices - when the band are collectively improvising, you are connected to the traditions and practices of jazz.

(John Adams)

I think there's a corollary to this argument about whether a non-American can be connected to the jazz tradition, and that's in classical music. Although classical music is an art form that developed and evolved in Europe, American composers have created a huge body of work that is immediately identifiable as having a vernacular all of its own. Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Conlon Nancarrow and John Adams have all produced music that is quintessentially American, and that would never have been written by European composers. Yet their music is unimaginable without the great tradition of European classical music that preceded it. Their music is resolutely American, yet part of the larger classical music tradition. In a similar way a European musician (or a musician from any other non-American country), can produce jazz music that is representative of their background and culture yet remain connected to the jazz forms that preceded it.

And what is the benefit to the student of being part of that tradition - of feeling part of it? Well first of all, let's face it, the desire to play improvised music in contemporary society makes you almost an automatic outsider. Contemporary society is a very hostile environment in which to try and be a creative improvising musician. Isn't it reassuring for a young person coming into this music to feel part of something bigger, that stretches back into the past, encompasses some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and provides a context in which they can feel that they are contributing to a continuum? I grew up in Dublin in the 1960s yet feel completely connected to the jazz tradition and its something I'm proud to be part of. I find it reassuring that the work I do has a connectedness to the work of other musicians spanning a hundred year period and across many countries, races and nationalities. To put it simply I feel very fortunate to work in an idiom that contains giants like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, as well as Europeans such as Django Reinhard and Jan Garbarek, Canadians such as Oscar Peterson and Paul Bley, Abdullah Ibrahim from South Africa and Danilo Perez from Panama.

It Exposes Students To Deep Musical and Philosophical Thought

I often think that jazz schools spend too much time explaining jazz history as a linear construct, ('and then in 1945.... etc.), and not enough time exploring, with students, the aesthetic and philosophical thought that underpinned some of the greatest music created in the 20th Century. The men and women who created the jazz tradition were largely an underclass, second class citizens in their own country, and yet they created one of the great musical art forms and shared it with the world. Sometimes, unfortunately, there is an unspoken belief that these musicians were producing this music without any analysis or musical/philosophical underpinning for what they did. However, even cursory research, reading of interviews etc. reveals people for whom the aesthetic and the seriousness of what they were doing was all-important. The giants of the music were deep thinkers and full of wisdom about music and its importance in their lives, and by extension, in the wider world of thought, art and ideas. Over the years there has been so much great thinking expressed by these musicians that is both inspiring for young musicians to read, and extremely helpful to them in charting their own course in  the bumpy ride that is creative music. The way the ideas are put are sometimes mysterious and sometimes opaque, but this adds to value of these utterances since the reader is called upon to make their own judgement of what is being expressed. In order to interpret some of the utterances delivered by the jazz greats, critical thinking is called upon - another valuable process for the young musician to be involved with.

Here is a sample of some of the musical wisdom imparted by some of the great musicians of the jazz tradition over the years -  very valuable thoughts which all young creative musicians should be exposed to as part of any jazz programme

'Invest yourself in everything you do. There's fun in being serious' -  John Coltrane

'A note can be as small as a pin or as big as a universe - it depends on your imagination' -  Thelonious Monk

'It's not what you play, it's how you play it' - Mary Lou Williams

'There's wrong notes that sound good, and then there's wrong notes....' Thelonious Monk

'Don't play the saxophone, let it play you'  - Charlie Parker

'Don't play what's there, play what's not there'  - Miles Davis

'I'm not in the nostalgia business'  - Wayne Shorter

But I'll leave the last quote to someone who was not a jazz musician, but this great quote sums up the reasons why any jazz programme should help young musicians towards an awareness of the richness of the jazz tradition......

'Tradition is not worshipping ashes, it's preserving fire'  - Gustav Mahler

Thursday, January 26, 2017

'I Dare You' - Innovation Versus Tradition, The Perennial Jazz Struggle

'To me the word jazz means: 'I dare you.'
Wayne Shorter 

Wayne Shorter (photo - Robert Ascroft)

There is a New York musician with whom I'm friends on Facebook. He is a very fine player, is well known in the scene there, and has played with lots of legendary figures in jazz, many of whom are now passed on. His most common Facebook posts take the form of admonitory messages to the younger generation of jazz musicians, whom he sees as being deficient in true jazz virtues and as being disconnected from the tradition. A posting of a Youtube video of a great past master will usually be accompanied by a comment highlighting the inability of younger musicians to play in the style and tradition of that master, and the admonition to these young musicians will often include a dismissive remark about odd metres or 'weird' scales. The message is - 'you young guys think you're great with your complex scales and rhythms, but you have no right to value your work as highly as you do because you can't play the real shit, don't know the tradition, and haven't served an apprenticeship with the masters, as I have'.

There is a subtext to this, that insists that unless you can play the tradition, (whatever that means to different people, though it's usually applied to the playing of the swing idiom and to the playing of standards), to a level that is comparable with past masters, then you can't be taken seriously as a jazz musician.

On the other side of the coin is the argument that playing standards in 4/4 swing reached its sell-by date 40 years ago, and that playing in this idiom is only undertaken because jazz schools insist upon it, and that it has no meaning in the 21st Century. In Europe in particular, this is a commonly held view by young musicians. The message is, 'I'm a young musician who came up listening to much different music to that of earlier generations. I have no affinity or connection with the standard repertoire or swing idiom, so why should I waste any time trying to emulate something I have no connection with or belief in?'

This tension and conflict between musicians who see themselves as upholders of a great tradition and musicians who see themselves as trailblazers with no need for genuflection to the past has been around in jazz for at least 70 years. It may have existed before that, but it is very evident in the Bebop era, when Swing era, (and earlier), performers were sometimes commercially, (and sometimes critically), swept aside by the bebop revolution. Louis Armstrong, himself one of the greatest innovators in jazz, scornfully described Bebop as 'Chinese music'. Here was a man who had been a trailblazer himself, a giant of the music, feeling threatened by, or at least feeling very uncomfortable with a music that he saw as having no connection to the tradition with which he identified.

For me, the idea that you must play the tradition to show your jazz bonafides, or the idea that to play the tradition is to make yourself automatically redundant, are both too simplistic and not nuanced enough to encompass the vast range of personal expression jazz is capable of. I was raised listening to jazz that was based on swing rhythms and standard forms, and that's the material I covered when I was learning to play - playing with older musicians, playing tunes, having to learn loads of standards, knowing the classic recordings, immersed in the tradition of the music. But I also have interests in other music, and as I began to bring these interests into the music I was playing and the music I was writing, I experienced at firsthand the kind of derision and suspicion that is so often engendered when older musicians are faced with the different tastes and interests of younger musicians - musicians whom they don't consider to have earned the right to be different.

Jelly Roll Morton

I find myself in both camps - I truly believe in the tradition of jazz and its core values - swing, blues, standard repertoire, and a veneration of the great figures of the music. But equally I see innovation and the development of new ideas as also being a core value of jazz. From its inception jazz has been resolutely modernist. The players who were most highly regarded we're not those who sounded like somebody else, but those who did something different. This tradition of innovation, of individuality, on the idea of moving the music forward has been a highly prized facet of jazz since it's early years. Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington - all of these giants were revered for their innovations, not for referencing past glories. 

And this forward looking psychology was dominant in jazz right up to the 1980s when the 'Young Lions' became the first real movement in jazz in which younger musicians expressly set out to copy their musical ancestors. Spokesmen for this cohort were very outspoken about what did and didn't qualify as jazz, right down to how the music should be recorded, and there were even officially approved methods of playing certain instruments (no pickups allowed on the bass....). This conservative outlook, while very prominent for a while, did eventually recede somewhat, but also left a lasting mark. A valuable one in my opinion in that it did bring the 4/4 swing tradition into the conversation of where jazz was, or should be going. Having said that, the ideological doctrine of this movement was far too narrow for me and while admiring their respect for one aspect of the great tradition - swing - their rejection another aspect - innovation and change - makes them ultimately, (and ironically) myopic in their view of very tradition they seek to uphold.

In trying to make sense of the tradition versus innovation argument, I think there's another important value that is overlooked very often and which to me is key to judging any jazz performance - the idea of personal expression. Authenticity and personality, rather than style, are the most important qualities that need to be on display in any performance in jazz for it to have any meaning. It's interesting to me that both camps see themselves as being radically different from each other, yet make the same kind of stereotypical accusations against each other - that the opposing camp's music is 'all the same'. For the traditionalists the music of the younger generation is marked by bloodless complexity, cleverness for its own sake, and lack of groove. For the non-traditionalists the music of the traditionalists is marked by cliched forms, licks and expressive devices trotted out ad nauseam. But either of these accusations is only true if the music that's being played is being played really badly! If the music is played well and with real personality, the means of expression, whether it's traditional swing or not, is immaterial. Vibe and personality is everything - style is a matter of the listener's taste and personal history.

Roman Schwaller

Let's look at some examples from different parts of the jazz spectrum. Firstly here's a track from an album I listen to a lot by the great Swiss tenor player Roman Schwaller (reproduced here with his permission). It's from an album called 'The Thurgovian Suite' and it features a group of players from Australia, Europe, and America (showing the universality of the swing idiom), playing original tunes by Roman. The music is resolutely in the modern swing tradition with very typical values associated with the best swing playing being on display - the very burning groove, great solos, tight ensemble playing and true interaction between the rhythm section and soloists. The vibe on this whole album is so vibrant and alive, and anyone who can listen to this, criticise it because it is using traditional jazz values and miss the sheer musicality, power and unity of purpose of the band is absolutely missing the point in spectacular fashion

Wayne Shorter, a man in his 80s, is still defiantly in the experimental camp. In a recent interview he said 'I still believe in a future jazz music. I am not trading in nostalgia'. He is in a way the perfect link between the two viewpoints - a player who has played at, and emerged from the highest levels of the tradition, yet has always been a trailblazer and innovator. In this excerpt from a concert with his by now classic quartet, he's playing a piece that has a backbeat rather than a swing groove, has collective rather than individual solos, yet is bursting with jazz energy and vibe. This music has one foot in the traditional camp of playing over song form based on changes, but has a very different collective modus operandi than would be heard on a traditional swing tune.

And finally something quite different - music by the New York saxophonist John O'Gallagher based on the compositions of the iconic classical 20th Century composer Anton Webern. This is complex music, both rhythmically and harmonically, yet again it has that vibe, that energy, that interaction between soloists and rhythm section that is the hallmark of good jazz, of any era and style

The arguments about what style constitutes the 'real shit' should be more centred on the mastery of the language that the improviser has chosen to express themselves in rather than the style itself. Playing swing does not automatically make you old fashioned, nor does eschewing swing make you inauthentic in the world of jazz. It's all about the vibe, the sense of the personal in the players. In the end it's about playing good music - so let's concentrate on that and give up these by now redundant arguments about style. Tradition is great in the right hands, so is innovation - there is no need to choose between them.