8 September 2008
It’s All Music
© Andrew Jamieson
Both artists and critics have often struggled to agree on a definition of jazz that includes all the music the tradition has spawned. Looking at the diversity of music created under the jazz umbrella, it would seem that the only thing it all really shares is the common ancestor of early 20th century African-American music. But it is this diversity that represents one of its key strengths: the ability to absorb the influence of other styles and transform itself.
From the emergence of swing, bop, funk and free jazz, right through to more recent fusions such as Lalo Schifrin's 'Jazz meets the Symphony' series and our own Australian Art Orchestra's forays into the music of India, the tradition of jazz has undergone frequent change since it inception. This flexibility has become not only a feature of jazz, but of all contemporary music, as artists become increasingly well versed in a variety of music.
The notion of breaking down stylistic boundaries in contemporary music, and indeed the defining of genres and styles at all, seems more and more redundant, with each new artist creating a sub-genre of their own. It would seem that, rather than working within defined genres, artists are simply creating works that reflect their individual and increasingly diverse aural (and other sensory) experiences, which may or may not adhere to an established genre. The globalisation of the music industry and the evolution of the Internet have created a richer and more diverse sonic landscape than the one that was previously available, and this has in its turn inspired the creation of music that is frequently informed by more than one genre, making it difficult to adequately describe and define most contemporary music with any one stylistic label. This is particularly true in jazz, which itself evolved through the coming together of different musical styles and traditions. Though not a new feature in its development, the influence of other styles has expanded jazz to such a degree that to define exactly what jazz is now seems beyond anyone. The diversity of music the genre covers robs the word of its usefulness.
As a composer who would often be put in the 'jazz' box, I never feel that this label adequately describes what I write, or at least what I think I'm writing. In high school I studied 'classical' music, at university I studied jazz, and now I spend nearly as much time writing and playing pop-related music as I do anything else. It is inevitable that all these influences, and many others, will permeate whatever music I write, often taking things outside one particular genre.
It would seem I'm not the only one uncomfortable with this kind of traditional categorising. Glancing at the annual West Australian Music Industry's compilation disc, Kiss my WAMi 08, I see genres described as 'country-tinged psychedelic pop', 'left-of-centre melodic pop' and 'slow brooding atmosphere with sonic eruptions'. There are clearly many artists who do not see themselves as fitting in to the standard pop, rock or jazz sections of their local record shop. The British band Radiohead, which is listed on the ubiquitous iTunes as being 'alternative & punk', but is often found in the 'post-rock' section of stores, is a group hard to place in existing genres. Reading a discussion board on 'Mortigi Tempo', one of their many fan sites, a lengthy debate resulted when one fan asked what genre Radiohead was. The answers ranged from 'alternative rock', to 'experimental electro prog-rock', to 'postmodern Britpop'. One of the more convincing arguments that appeared was that each of their albums warrants a different label, with one fan, more aptly still, stating that 'Radiohead is a genre in itself'. With the variety of music currently being produced, this sentiment could well be applied to many others.
In the same way that I find the label 'jazz composer' inadequate as a description of myself to others, I find it can actually limit me when I sit down to write.In my experience as a composer, the defining of genres can also be limiting to the creation of work. In the same way that I find the label 'jazz composer' inadequate as a description of myself to others, I find it can actually limit me when I sit down to write. The parameters imposed by the genre, perceived or otherwise, can become a prison from which it is hard to escape. Within the jazz genre there are, as in any genre, certain stylistic conventions and traditions, and as soon as you think of yourself as a 'jazz composer' the ability to escape these conventions becomes increasingly difficult. Not that the use of established conventions and common devices is in itself a bad thing, but when they start to be employed simply because they are the accepted and defined convention, as laid out through the history of a genre, we move away from the original purpose of expression and towards one of pointless recreation. Maintaining an awareness of convention – when its application is required and when it is a habit – is necessary, as it is very easy to start writing a lot of ii-V-I progressions when you tell yourself you're writing a jazz piece. I find great liberation in telling myself I am not in fact a 'jazz composer', even when I know I am writing a 'jazz' piece, as it frees my own mind from the conventions of the genre.
The idea of freeing oneself from convention is particularly pertinent to the jazz tradition, as it itself was forged through the meeting of several different musical styles and has evolved ever since through the experimentation and innovation of its practitioners. Indeed the term 'jazz tradition' itself seems an oxymoron, given the degree of change the art has undergone since its relatively recent inception. From the beginnings of swing, through to the innovations of bebop, free jazz, acid jazz and nu jazz, the influence of other genres of music on jazz, in addition to the refining and exploring of what's already there, have been and continue to be a key feature of its evolution. This evolution has intensified with the onset of globalisation, as the world becomes an ever-smaller place, and the availability and diversity of music increases. With this increased access to music from around the world, the differences in the listening profile of each artist can be vast. The effect of jazz being a primarily aural tradition, is that each artist's output is also different.
Some might say that one binding feature of jazz is improvisation, but this element is also present in much contemporary music that is not rooted in the jazz tradition. Even here the lines between the two are fast disappearing, with a great deal of contemporary jazz casting aside idiomatic practices and embracing new music. The Sydney Improvised Music Association (SIMA) is one organisation that encourages such expansion, as do festivals such as Sydney's NOW now festival of improvised music. With many artists moving towards a broader concept of improvised music, there is good reason for these organisations to not include the word jazz in their title.
As the approach to improvisation evolves, so too does the relationship of improvisation to composition. If we see jazz as a largely improvised tradition, jazz composition has traditionally served as a vehicle for the artist to improvise on. Even in big band music, though the balance between the composed and the improvised is different, an improvised section is still often about the soloist. This hierarchy has been re-thought in much contemporary large ensemble jazz, with improvisation being used as a tool for development rather than just as a means for self-expression. This approach is often found in the music of large ensemble composers like Bob Brookmeyer and his disciples. Here, rather than using the composition as a vehicle for the improviser's expression, the improviser is used as a vehicle for the composer's expression and for the advancement of the composition. The Australian Art Orchestra (AAO), and the various composers it engages, is an example of an ensemble that makes use of improvisation as a source of development. No longer are the improvised sections'So if it is not a genre, what then can jazz be? Jazz is an attitude; a respect and understanding of what came before and a search for what is yet to come...' bracketed neatly between a 'head in' and a 'head out'; instead they are used throughout, between composed sections, sometimes accompanied and guided by written lines, other times left to find their own way. They also do not necessarily improvise over the chord progression and texture that have already been established. The solos often link sections, flowing from one idea to another, often creating a change of mood and texture along the way. One need only listen to the first few tracks of the AAO's album Into the Fire to experience this integration of improvisation with composition.
These approaches are also found increasingly in small group composition, where composers incorporate the improvisation in a more organic way. This is not to say that all small group writing is like this, nor that one approach is better than the other. There are certainly many small combos where improvisation is the focus, but even when the written music is minimal, the improvisation is often still treated as an extension of the composition. It is not a case of assigning differing levels of importance to improvised and composed elements, but simply seeing the two as being increasingly equal. Improvisation and composition are the same thing, with one being spontaneous and the other premeditated. The role of each in a work then becomes a question of which will serve the music better at a given point.
Whether improvised or composed, as styles of music meet and leave parts of themselves behind, they become increasingly difficult to define. For jazz, at least, there seem to be as many definitions of the word as there are musicians. Jazz as a genre seems to be too all-encompassing to be of much use in contemporary practice, and trying to lump together such diverse music seems pointless anyway. So if it is not a genre, what then can jazz be? Jazz is an attitude; a respect and understanding of what came before and a search for what is yet to come, while never being fully comfortable with what we have. And what is to come is likely to sound like nothing we've ever heard, while at the same time being everything we have heard. Whatever we call it, though, let's not forget the prophetic words of Duke Ellington: it's all music.
Mortigi Tempo (www.mortigitempo.com/too_bored/archive/index.php/t-18989.html)
Acknowledgements: Tom O'Halloran, Mace Francis and Cat Hope for their help in writing this article
© Australian Music Centre (2008) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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