We Can Keep Jazz Interesting, And Here’s How

No One’s Listening. Why?

Jazz can be as sophisticated as classical music, but with a beat. This gives jazz the potential to capture the interest of “casual” listeners, i.e. those who usually opt for less challenging (threatening?) popular styles, while surreptitiously conditioning the listeners’ ears for more well-crafted music. But there’s a problem with jazz. A few, in fact:

First, jazz can be tricky to understand if you haven’t heard much of it. So often we hear, “Where’s the melody?”, to which my impulse is to respond, “It’s everywhere, dummy!” I played the Bad Plus for a friend once, and he quipped, “They’d be really good if they practiced.” There certainly isn’t a shortage of melody and rhythm in jazz; in fact, it derives its worth from an abundance of melodic and rhythmic invention. But newcomers may feel overwhelmed by the resulting complexity.

Jazz performances often seem self-indulgent. I once took my jazzophobic wife to a club, promising her that she’d “get it” more easily if she witnessed a live performance. After the show, she said it seemed like nothing more than “musicians lining up to take turns showing off how well they play.” I took this to heart. She certainly wasn’t wrong. If this is how an outsider reacts to a jazz performance, we ought to check our indignation and consider where such a comment comes from.

The head/solo/head form is treated as the norm, when it should be regarded as basic. HSH arrangements are for jam sessions and beginning students. Why does the general public respond so favorably toward big band music? Because big band arrangements, old and new, contain a greater variety of form — longer introductions, textural variations between repeated sections, backgrounds for solos, shout choruses, more dramatic contrast in dynamics. Solos are treated with lower priority.

Instrumentation has become predictable. How do you build a jazz combo? Start with a trio of piano, bass, and drums. If possible, add a tenor saxophone and maybe a trumpet. Optional are guitar, vibes, trombone, clarinet, organ, flute, soprano sax, or alto sax. With few exceptions, one can expect this arrangement an overwhelming majority of the time. Casual listeners must find this monotonous. When a band leader utilizes non-traditional instruments, like harp, tuba, or synthesizer, purists regard it as novel. Classical music has all other styles beat in its acceptance of any possible instrument, and since the early 20th century, any possible sound. Even the blandest pop music, with its unlimited array of synth textures, has jazz beat in the category of texture. Fusion jazz only has taken things so far in that direction; plus, it remains marginalized as jazz aficionados continue to regard it as a sort of pandering to the pop music crowd.

How can jazz artists overcome listener apathy? Here are some ideas, and examples of artists who put these ideas into action with great effect:

Break the Box of Head/Solo/Head

Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of “Breaking the Box.” He disliked square spaces, and wanted to free the design of buildings from the constrictive nature of rectangular, closed-in rooms. In jazz, the head/solo/head arrangement is the Box. It’s a form which worked for short, simple heads that mostly served the purpose of establishing a context for solos. We can thank bebop for this. Invented for jam sessions, bebop heads were meant to be learned quickly so that artists could realize an “instant arrangement.” Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is the pinnacle of the head/solo/head era. For those sessions, Miles kept the compositions short and tight, allowing some of the greatest improvisors of all-time to add further shape to the initially simple forms. But Miles himself explored other forms during the next decade. In 1968, the title track of his album Nefertiti eschews solos, instead featuring semi-improvised repetitions of the theme:

Brad Mehldau develops multiple themes contained in the Beatles’s “Martha My Dear,” in his solo piano arrangement. Rather than merely playing the song once through then improvising over the changes, he presents each theme in many contexts, exploding the original song’s form into an ever-shifting contrapuntal odyssey:

In “Number Ten,” Kurt Rosenwinkel allows the trading of solos, but only between a catchy refrain, which itself is dovetailed among sections of a stream-of-consciousness melody shared by saxophone, guitar and vocalise:

“Short Tales of the Black Forest,” a duet between Al DiMeola and Chick Corea, is a piece that develops in a classical sense from start to finish:

Explore New Textures

I wouldn’t argue that we must abandon traditional instrumentation altogether. After all, many artists have created bold new sounds with fairly conventional combos. Eric Dolphy certainly did so in his album Out to Lunch!, particularly in “Something Sweet, Something Tender.” Let’s take a close look at how he uses conventional instruments in a way that sounds fresh:

At the beginning, We hear a characteristically angular melody by Dolphy, accompanied by Richard Davis, not only employing a bow, but playing two-part harmony in the bass. At 0:59, Davis suddenly switches to pizzicato, and the theme is restated with less embellishment by Freddie Hubbard, with Dolphy providing a slower countermelody. Vibes and drums enter, obscuring the pulse with irregular rhythms. Nonetheless, the pulse is felt, not thanks to the rhythm section, but to the strict time kept by the horns. At around 1:20, the drums all but vanish. At 1:42, cymbals mirror the crackling bass clarinet, which wails behind the climax of the melody maintained by the trumpet. At 2:00, the “head” winds down as Davis once again provides harmony in the bass, this time with more rhythmic drive, as a set up to the first solo by Dolphy. Dolphy then soars over the minimalistic accompaniment by the rhythm section, playing manic, highly chromatic phrases which contrast with the graceful opening, adding intensity. At 3:15, the theme returns as before, limiting the solo section to a mere 1/6 of the overall length of the tune. Dolphy gets a cadenza at 4:23, leading to a gorgeous restatement of the theme at 4:36 by unison clarinet and arco bass. A fermata at 5:44 closes the piece subtly — no big finish.

In 1992’s “Art and Aviation,” by Jane Ira Bloom, electronic percussion augments an otherwise fairly conventional instrumentation. Her melodies fly as aircraft over the rhythm section, irregular in length, sometimes in rhythmic unison, at other times overlapping, like multiple flight paths. Bloom applies signal processing during her solo to create the impression that a third horn has joined the group:

The opening of Eberhard Weber’s “The Colours of Chloë” is more reminiscent of the first bars of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder or the music of Phillip Glass than of any jazz before it. In addition to the standard jazz trio, his arrangement utilizes ocarina, synthesizer, and celli.

The oboe and acoustic guitar in Oregon’s “Canyon Song” take us almost into World Music territory. Every instrument’s part is composed — no walking bass, no ad-lib rhythms in the piano and guitar. Jazz tradition is only upheld by the presence of lengthy improvised solos.

One might claim that the last example should hardly be called “jazz.” This raises the question of what defines jazz. Even in jazz history textbooks, I have yet to find a concise yet universal definition. If jazz is defined by the use of swing rhythms, then you can forget about much of Miles Davis’s work after 1968. Ken Burns would have us think it is the musical embodiment of African American culture. Maybe so to an extent, but does that invalidate the contributions of Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Bill Evans, or Django Reinhardt? Perhaps the most all-encompassing definition of jazz is that it is guided by improvisation, but then again…

How Important is Improvisation?

If this isn’t jazz, what could you possibly call it?

Sure it’s quirky, but the I-vi-ii-V beginning at 0:32 is a jazz cliché. The elaborate clarinet countermelody playing against a more sparse trumpet and sax melody seems borne out of the Dixieland tradition. And listen to that sax swing right after 1:23!

Yet none of the material in this recording is improvised. Scott allowed improvisation during rehearsal, and he used some of the material he heard as he composed every last note on the spot. By the time his sextet’s pieces found their way onto vinyl, they were set in stone.

Fast forward to the 2000’s, when the Bad Plus released their masterpiece These are the Vistas, an album containing two songs with no solos. Here is one of them, a gorgeous vignette called “Everywhere You Turn”:

Maybe critics and fans call The Bad Plus’s music “jazz” because of the reckless improvisations on several of their other tracks. Or because of the instrumentation, or the prevalence of “jazzy” harmonies. Even when soloing, Ethan Iverson almost never plays a bebop lick. This is one of the most relevant modern jazz groups, for their ability to challenge a listener’s expectations of how jazz should sound.

From Scott to Iverson, jazz artists have occasionally performed pieces devoid of improvisation. Somewhere in the midst of this timeline is a beautiful little piece by Pat Metheny, titled “Letter From Home,” from the album of the same name:

Improvisation is certainly an important part of jazz. But it doesn’t necessarily define jazz. The most defining characteristic of jazz seems to be the fact that it so successfully eludes definition.

Jazz Improves When It Changes

The one thread running through all of jazz music and its periods of innovation is its tendency to change. When Bird and Diz brought us bebop, critics feared they were killing jazz, when in fact they were reinventing the language. In the 90’s, mainstream jazz snobs praised Wynton Marsalis and others for their revival of the 50’s and 60’s sound, after what they regarded as a period of banal jazz/rock fusion; never mind the music of Keith Jarrett, Steve Swallow, Gary Burton, and so many others who carried the jazz torch through the 70’s and 80’s.

The neo-bop revolution of the 80’s and 90’s was a reaction to nothing. I believe that although it gave us a lot of amazing music, it also hindered further growth of the art form. Today, you can still enter most clubs on any given night and hear music that could have been recorded fifty years ago; and the musicians and their audience seem to be wrapped up in a delusion that this remains the state of the art. Then they wonder why no one else wants to hear new jazz music.

Now that jazz has reached the level of academic attention that classical music receives, it is in danger of antiquation. If your ensemble performs hard bop, you aren’t playing modern jazz. You are a revival group. You might as well be playing dixieland or swing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; but classic styles attract niche audiences. Produce something new, and you may have a greater chance of attracting new listeners. New doesn’t just mean “unheard.” It means “untried.” As a community, we need to reach beyond the confines of tradition. This can only happen when we cease to identify ourselves as “jazz musicians” and explore all possibilities, wherever they take us.

Here’s something by Snarky Puppy for inspiration:


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