The Slippery Eel: Jazz and the hunger for re-invention.

What is it about jazz that attracts listeners so much ? What is the eternal appeal of jazz music ? Is it it the subversiveness, the way jazz undermines so-called ‘rules’ of classical music of related keys, permitted harmonies, ‘blue’ notes;’ its creativity, its reliance on spontaneous composition at the moment of improvisation; its rhythmic drive ? Or something of all of these ?

For me, the great allure of jazz is its constant hunger for new things: like a fire, jazz is forever consuming other forms in its path in its endless quest to re-invent itself. 

As jazz moved out of the Swing era into Bebop, it began to develop more advanced melodic, harmonic and rhythmic principles. An apocryphal legend has it that jazz musicians deliberately created more rhythmically and melodically complicated pieces to stop random amateurs being able to sit in on their sets and churn out the same old array of standards and popular tunes that were becoming dull.  Out came the effortless lyrical invention of Charlie Parker, the fierce muted trumpet tones of Dizzy Gillespie, both of them working through the rapid chord changes in each bar with supreme skill.

Never content to sit and contemplate its own achievements, jazz promptly reacted against its own complexity in Bebop and stepped back to Cool, a return to modality and simplicity in both melody and harmony. Kind of Blue stands as a laid-back testimony to the new austerity in jazz; So What features very few chords, a skeletal introduction from Bill Evans on the piano; jazz cocks its hat over its eyes and sits back with a cigarette dangling from its lips.

Jazz has always been open to embracing new technologies; think of the electric keyboards in the 1960’s with Herbie Hancock (who first played electric keyboard on the Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro), or the wah-wah pedals and amplification effects in the 1970’s with British trumpeter Ian Carr’s ‘Nucleus,’ or the sampling keyboards in the 1980’s with Hancock and Joe Zawinul. Jazz looked at the lifestyle of rock music in the 60’s and decided it wanted some of the action that was being handed out to Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix; jazz’s infatuation with the glamour and popularity of rock musicians (not to mention the large fees rock musicians could command) led eventually to the cultural epiphany in the famous Isle of Wight festival, where both Hendrix and Davis played (though alas not together), immortalised in Murray Lerner’s film ‘Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue.’

Jazz has also been willing to embracing new musical cultures: Indian music in the 70’s with the dizzying technical displays of John Mclaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra or the more thoughtful Indo-Jazz fusion of Joe Meyer and John Harriott; or African harmonies and rhythms in Coltrane’s solo career; Brazilian and Spanish influences in the music of Chick Corea’s fusion band Return to Forever.

Then there’s the hard-nosed funk-rock and jungle-infused music of one-time Miles Davis guitarist, John Scofield, or the experiments with hip-hop beats and DJ’s on decks in the music of Courtney Pine or (more latterly) Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. Reactionaries like Wynton Marsalis may preach the supremacy of swing – and swing in a variety of time-signatures, sure, but it’s still swing – but jazz will always hunger for new elements, for the cyclical rhythms of Indian ragas or the polyrhythms of African drumming. (In Marsalis’ defence, though, he’s technically untouchable  and swings like a demon.)

Like a slippery eel, just when you think you’ve grasped jazz, it scoots away from you and goes somewhere you hadn’t expected. Pronounced dead or locked in a dead-end by an endless succession of worthy critics for many years, jazz will still always forge a new dynamic, a different and exciting path.

Come to the next Jazz @ 5 in the Gulbenkian Foyer on Wednesday March 25th and hear some of these elements for yourself.

So What is there, if anything, that appeals to you about jazz ?

2 thoughts on “The Slippery Eel: Jazz and the hunger for re-invention.”

  1. A fine article sir, may I recommend some of Amon Tobins early work?
    Albums (linked below) such as Bricolage and Permutation are quite fine examples of strange proto-jungle/jazz electronica fusion.
    Also of great note is that every tune is made from tiny samples from hundreds of records meticulously cut, pasted, rearranged and warped to be of no resemblance to their original sources..
    http://www.last.fm/music/Amon+Tobin/Bricolage
    http://www.last.fm/music/Amon+Tobin/Permutation

    Also even more relevant is his Adventures In Foam album under the name Cujo, I’ll most certainly dig out my copy and send you a copy also..

  2. Thanks, Joe: expect an article about electronica and jazz some time, I’ve some Squarepusher I can’t get out of my head! In a good way…

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