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The new fusion adds fresh ingredients to the original melting-pot music
By Steve Greenlee, Globe Staff, 2/17/2002
John Scofield is playing modern jazz guitar with his fusion band on the new album ''uberjam'' when something unexpected happens: Techno rhythms and samples begin to blend in, the precise computer-generated beats accentuating the organic sounds of the human drummer.
Matthew Shipp, a respected avant-garde pianist, wound up playing synthesizers equipped with space-age voices and programmed rhythms on David S. Ware's latest album. On his own new record, he returns to acoustic piano, playing thick blocks of low-octave chords against a cascade of beats and noises that barely resemble percussive instruments.
Herbie Hancock, a pioneer of both funk-jazz and the merging of jazz with hip-hop, had returned to straight-ahead jazz piano in recent years. But his new album is a playground of synthesizers and programmed beats; for all intents and purposes, it's electronica. On the one tune that features bop drumming, the drums are actually dubbed in from an old recording by the late Tony Williams.
Jazz is evolving yet again.
It's only natural. In the early '70s, jazz musicians, led by Miles Davis, created fusion by adding electric guitars and rock drumming to their sound. A few years later they created a hybrid of jazz, soul, and funk. In the '80s, they incorporated hip-hop.
Then the neo-traditionalists took over. Led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, a new generation of jazz musicians decided that jazz ought to sound the way it did in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Marsalis's success led to major-label deals for a slew of ''young lions,'' including Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, and Marcus Roberts. They brought an old yet fresh sound to jazz, revitalizing it while keeping it true to its roots.
The mid-'90s brought jam-band music, and pieces of it began to show up in jazz. Phish fans went to Medeski Martin & Wood concerts, and along came the likes of Galactic and Soulive. Now things are shifting again, and we are witnessing perhaps the most profound alteration of jazz since Hancock and his robot friend appeared in the ''Rockit'' video 20 years ago on MTV.
Medeski Martin & Wood, in fact, may have gotten this whole thing rolling when they brought DJ Logic aboard to do scratching on a couple of tunes on the band's 1998 album, ''Combustication.'' Since then, Logic has become a well-regarded jazz artist, releasing two innovative discs under his own name and guesting on new albums by Uri Caine (''Bedrock,'' just released), Soulive (''Next,'' due next month), and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (''Medicated Magic,'' coming in April), as well as the new MMW album, ''Uninvisible'' (also in April).
It's not just skills as a DJ that are finding their way on jazz records. Programmed drumbeats, synth effects, guitar loops, sampled sounds - all of this points to a major change in the way jazz is being performed, and in what is considered jazz. With the endorsements of such luminaries and high-minded artists as Caine and Ware, the blending of jazz and electronica cannot be ignored.
''It's happening now because so much of the sonic template, so much music, incorporates electronics and electronic sounds,'' says Steven Joerg, a record producer who runs Aum Fidelity, an avant-garde jazz label that has recently released two discs that illustrate the point precisely. ''In the UK and other parts of Europe, DJ music and electronic-based music have already taken over for guitar-bass-drums.''
Last year, Joerg produced Ware's ''Corridors & Parallels,'' a wholly improvised album that represents Shipp's first recorded performance on synthesizer. Space-age tones and rhythmic patterns are programmed into Shipp's keys, allowing him to create a strange and fascinating new backdrop for Ware's saxophone.
The latest album Joerg has released is Organic Groove's ''Black Cherry,'' on which DJ Sasha remixes tracks from the William Parker/Hamid Drake album ''Piercing the Veil.'' The Parker-Drake CD is a series of captivating duets, mostly between bass and drums; at Joerg's behest, Sasha (of the DJ team Sasha & Digweed) took samples from the tunes, created loops, and overlaid dance beats and keyboards. The result: club music that is a mesmerizing marriage of the organic and the electronic.
It should come as little surprise that all this is happening, considering jazz's history as a melting pot of music, one that through the years has used pop songs as launching pads for improvisation and has appropriated everything from arabesque to electric guitars to rap. Jazz artists who have until now eschewed electronic sounds - whether finding them enjoyable or monotonous - could look away no longer.
''I walk around record stores a lot in New York City, and I talk to a lot of people who are younger than me. They have been trying to talk me into this direction for years,'' says Shipp, who's 41. ''A few years ago, I would think, `I'm a jazz musician; I'm doing this.' But then all of a sudden it clicked: `You know, they're right.'''
After playing synths on Ware's ''Corridors & Parallels,'' Shipp released ''Nu Bop,'' announcing a new direction in his own career. On ''Nu Bop,'' Shipp returns to the piano, and his trio plays over a series of drum-machine loops, creating an oddly warm juxtaposition of the human and the high tech. The concept is new territory for Shipp, who has recorded a series of dense, organic free-jazz albums.
''At this point in our music, there's a definite need to explore a new aspect,'' Shipp says, speaking not only of his own music but of jazz in general. ''Theoretically, in free jazz anything can come into the pot and be used. You can melt it down to its basic parts, and it's just music.''
Scofield, too, found recently that he could no longer resist the lure of electronica. Scofield has a habit of switching style from recording to recording, and it's a bit of a shock to hear him playing guitar against a sea of samples after coming off last year's post-bop record, ''Works for Me.'' On the other hand, it was just five years ago that he went into the studio with John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood to record ''A Go Go,'' a career high point that capitalized on the popularity of both jam-band music and Medeski Martin & Wood.
Though at times more restrained than it ought to be, Scofield's new ''uberjam'' is a good example of how electronica can complement jazz. There's a lot of techno on this album, most of it played through samples controlled by the pedals of rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick and all of it played in ''real time.'' In other words, the band improvised against the samples rather than laying down tracks and then adding the techno later.
It's an interesting mix, but why techno for Scofield? Why now?
''It's sort of like the mountains,'' he says. ''It's because it's there.''
Scofield says this is nothing new, using electronics in jazz, and he's got a point. Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero produced the masterpiece of jazz fusion in 1969 when they created ''Bitches Brew'' by assembling bits and pieces of recording sessions with looped drums. In the '80s, after teenagers were turned on to Herbie Hancock, Miles was at it again on ''Tutu,'' on which he played trumpet against a barrage of electronic drums and samples. ''Tutu'' sounds painfully dated now, like the soundtrack to a bad '80s movie, but the point stands: Jazz artists have been using electronics for decades. Now, with the meteoric rise in popularity of DJ music, house music, and other forms of electronica, maybe the time is right for it to take off in jazz.
''I'd be lying if I said I didn't like that young people are coming to hear us,'' says Scofield, 50, who brings his band to the Paradise on Friday for a two-night stand. ''But this has given jazz-rock fusion a shot in the arm. ... This is the new fusion. Any fusion has to have a life of its own, and the technology is so happening and so all-around-us and so all-pervasive in music now that jazz takes from it too. It finally couldn't be overlooked.''
Weaving in electronica
Jazz musicians are finding a plethora of ways to incorporate elements of electronica into the music. On last year's ''Witness,'' trumpeter Dave Douglas had Yuka Honda (from the avant-pop duo Cibo Matto) provide sampled beats deep in the background of two tracks. A less than fully attentive listener might not even discern her contributions. Uri Caine employed DJ Olive on several tracks for his two-disc take on Bach's Goldberg Variations. Caine hopscotched across a host of genres, and Olive's treatments of his work are the most far-out, speeding up Caine's playing as if it were music for a rave. On his new disc, ''Bedrock,'' Caine uses Olive and Logic for a variety of effects, and on some tunes Caine's drummer, Zach Danziger, even imitates the stop-start action of drum 'n' bass and jungle.
Some jazz musicians use techniques derived from electronica to their own ends. Saxman Evan Parker, long a fixture of the avant-garde scene, has three people playing ''live electronics/sound processing'' on the two recent discs by his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. What that means is that Parker and his sidemen play while three other people sit at computers and ''process'' the sounds in real time. The result is a bizarre, sometimes creepy, sometimes enchanting vision of improvisation. These are by no means electronica albums; rather, they grab pieces of the genre and appropriate them.
Others go to extremes, veering so far into electronica that the result scarcely resembles anyone's definition of jazz. On ''Soul at the Hands of the Machine,'' which comes out in April, Guillermo E. Brown plays live drums over layers of electronic sounds and, in some cases, no other acoustic ones. The latest CD from out-there saxophonist Briggan Krauss, ''Descending to End,'' doesn't sound like jazz at all. It's layer upon layer of droning noise, his electronically treated sax sounding like a buzzing electric guitar, like a duo between Albert Ayler and Nine Inch Nails. It's a harsher version of trumpeter Graham Haynes's ''Tones for the 21st Century,'' which isn't really jazz either but ambient electronica. For last year's ''Revisite'' album on Blue Note, trumpeter Erik Truffaz hired a group of electronica artists to reinterpret songs from his first album. The result is a mellow hybrid of jazz and trip-hop.
Saxophonist Karl Denson has tried adding electronic music to his sound, but it ends up sounding like a souped-up version of smooth jazz. St. Germain, though they helped Blue Note sell a lot of records with ''Tourist'' last year, is no more a jazz outfit than are Groove Armada or Thievery Corporation, two other duos whose labels try to squeeze them into the genre. What they do is take elements of jazz and add it to their electronica, which is the opposite of what Shipp or Scofield have done. In April, Verve will release ''Verve Remixed,'' which features DJs turning 12 classic jazz tunes into dance music; it includes, of all things, a bizarre remix of Billie Holiday's ''Strange Fruit'' by trip-hopper Tricky.
And the outcome?
Whether any of this electronically assisted music succeeds as jazz depends on which side wins the battle between man and machine.
''Some of it can be great,'' says Ran Blake, chairman of contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music and an admired modern jazz pianist. ''It's all in the ear of the creator. There are a lot of boring non -electronic sounds. ... I'm very excited about the possibilities. I'm really drawn to it.'' Blake, who has performed with Plexus, an electronica trio, says many jazz students are interested in adding outside influences, such as those from electronica, to the mix.
Gary Giddins, a critic for The Village Voice who has written several books about jazz, says what is happening with jazz and electronica is no different from what Louis Armstrong did in the 1920s when he started playing Tin Pan Alley songs on his trumpet.
''Jazz has had a very involved relationship with popular music from the beginning,'' Giddins says. ''The idea that jazz could go off somewhere in a cocoon and pretend that it doesn't have anything to do with the world is always suicidal. I'm always glad to see jazz musicians going into other areas.''
Will it last? While the fusing of jazz and electronica be permanent, as the fusing of jazz and rock is? With there be a jazz-techno innovator with the staying power of Weather Report? Or is this a fad, one that in a few years will seem as dated as Miles Davis's mid-'80s excursions?
''I don't know if this going to generate its own idiom,'' says Shipp, ''but it feels right for now. That's the important thing.''
This story ran on page L1 of the Boston Globe on 2/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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