by David James
Modern jazz players, especially in the United States, are nothing if not exceptionally skilled. Intense education has had the effect of raising the facility of players to great heights; command of the instrument has risen as audiences have shrunk.
Consider, for example, guitar virtuoso Julian Lage. His lines are speedy, angular when required, often lyrical, dramatic, underpinned by clever dynamics and always informed by extensive erudition. As can be seen from his teaching videos, he is a student par excellence of the music and he translates that successfully into his performances. He tends to have a chamber music aesthetic, so what he does is usually on a small scale, but it is always perfectly executed.
So, it’s all good, right? Well, not exactly. There is something lacking in what he does; something that is absent in most contemporary jazz – the excitement that comes with exploring new terrain, of finding something that no one has ever encountered before. This is really what marks out the difference between the jazz greats and those who follow.
The freshness of discovery is unmistakeable in the playing of pianist Thelonious Monk, whose jagged, clunky rhythms are impossible to imitate. Of all the jazz pioneers, he was the one who left no trail. It is evident in the microtones and nuances of trumpeter Miles Davis: again, impossible to imitate.
The intense profusion of notes played by John Coltrane, what he dubbed “sheets of sound”, has been imitated more successfully by tenor saxophonists inspired by the heights of expression that nudges the transcendent. In the Australian context, Jamie Oehlers has made a decent go of inhabiting Coltrane’s world. Yet imitators always lack the sense of discovery that was palpable in Coltrane’s playing as he dispensed with all niceties – eventually even bass and piano – in search of transcendent, raw emotion.
Davis, whose playing was unusually sparse, once asked Coltrane: “John, do you have to play all the notes?” “Yes,” came the answer. He was right, of course. Coltrane did have to play with such speed and intensity because he had to find out where it went.
The results were not always musical, indeed sometimes the discordance sounds downright deranged. If there is beauty in it, it is more in its defiant ugliness: like dark, ominous streaks painted on the wall of Plato’s cave. But it was exceptionally original, and that sense of opening up new worlds lends the music an irresistible authenticity.
In the Western tradition, the greatest journey into new worlds was Bach’s exploration of the newly invented well-tempered scale, the equivalent of Homer’s creations, a true Odyssey. Bach’s music was not just written for the glory of God, it was a glimpse into what it is to sub-create under God. It is perhaps why his work is so heavily imbued with a sense of awe. It was not just awe at what is, but of what is becoming.
True exploration requires a certain level of, if not humility, then at least self-forgetting. The creators of atonal music in the 20th century were certainly doing something new, but it rarely sounds like the pursuit of musical delight. Instead, it seems mostly a form of sonic grandstanding; a display of cleverness and intellectual prowess – or sophistry – rather than the sharing of new musical jewels.
This can be heard by comparing the work of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The former, most famously in The Rite of Spring, traversed new regions that pointed to fresh forms of expression.
The latter provoked or impressed with his pugnacious insistence on following a formula that would dismantle Western tonality. It never led to the kind of music that one would repeatedly return to because in the end it was arid: an expression of artful egotism rather than art.
Now that music is a global “industry” – globalisation enforces a constant sameness – there is a great reluctance to invest in looking for the new. Classical composers wishing to do it must rely on either state funding or university resources, sectors where reprising the past tends to be valued more than looking to the future.
In pop music, new discovering has simply stopped; and little is happening in jazz. It is to be hoped that this will change; new worlds always beckon.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.