by Ken Vandermark
Isn’t it time for a new modernism in our music? By this I mean a move away from the classic, established forms of jazz and improvised music toward completely new structural considerations. Throughout much of the 20th century a creative dialectic existed between generations, which led to exciting and innovative expansion of artistic thought. When I look around and listen to much of the current international scene, I can’t shake the feeling that there isn’t enough of a push against the past and pull toward the future.
What I do find is 1) a general concern about “getting work” (and musicians have responded to this problem more and more by creating their own performance options); 2) a great knowledge of historical styles (the current access to musical information both aural and visual is unprecedented) and 3) a new level of virtuosity among young musicians (it would seem that the players that Anthony Braxton has wanted for his most demanding music have arrived in greater numbers). All of these developments are positive and important: work ethic, knowledge, instrumental discipline.
But what about ideas? Too often during a concert, doesn’t it feel that there is a strong element of creative complacency going on? Perhaps the music is played well, but it’s formally predictable (the perpetuation of ‘head-solos-head’ structure without an attempt to vary the sequence of events). Or there is an aesthetic ‘concept’ in place that’s recognizable within the first minutes but never developed, the surface of the musical ‘point’ is enough (yes AMM is great, but what about the groups that can’t sustain narrative tension with the materials they’ve chosen, reduced or otherwise). Or there is a simplistic hybrid of styles presented without concern for why the components worked in the first place, the end result a diminution of the source material (the energy of rock coupled with the instrumental technique of jazz led to some seriously bad fusion). Or old forms are analyzed into oblivion with smug satisfaction (the difference between clever and intelligent often lies in the use of irony). And on and on.
Despite all the hard work going on, the investigation of music history and the ability to play whatever is at hand (scored or otherwise), doesn’t it seem that something vital has been lost in the contemporary discourse of jazz and improvised music? I think that the issue may be that there has been a lack of concern for the question, “What is the subject?” Weren’t the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic innovations that occurred during the ‘40s caused because the subject matter for the Bebop generation had shifted away from the artistic concerns of the ‘30s? What was discussed by Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, et al, was no longer the focus for the musicians of the next wave. Times had changed – socially, politically, culturally. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (among others) turned the pop songs of their parents upside down and found a whole new way to portray their point of view with sound and spontaneous narrative. The Beboppers completely understood the subject, what they were going to address with their music and why. I would say the same is true with regard to the work that John Coltrane did with his own group(s); what Miles Davis did with the bands he led from the ‘50s to the ‘70s; what Duke Ellington invented for his entire life; why Cecil Taylor found one way to open up the expression of time in jazz and why Jimmy Giuffre came up with another; why the English improvisers like Evan Parker and Paul Rutherford found their own language across the ocean from the United States; why the Art Ensemble of Chicago created a socio-political music-theater language nearly concurrent with what was happening on the Dutch scene of the ‘70s, but with completely different results. And on and on.
Isn’t it necessary for us to do the same thing in our own time? Shouldn’t it be a requirement? As Mike Watt states in the documentary about The Minutemen, We Jam Econo, “All you had to do to belong was contribute.” Isn’t it the same for us? I suggest that this means more than getting gigs, being informed and developing technique. It means finding a new subject for us to describe, one that belongs to this period and whoever is conveying it, whether an individual, a group, a scene. I would suggest that this proposition is more essential than jobs, a large record collection and access to the Internet and hours in a practice room. Without “the subject” the rest of it has no point.
A new modernism would free all of us in the music, allow each individual to find different and personal things to say. The subject matter may lead to radical change, as the ideas of Ornette Coleman did. In other instances, the world may be presented with a unique voice, like that of Stan Getz. But in every case the musicians will have the opportunity to contribute something, belong to the legacy of jazz and improvised music by adding to it with ideas, instead of maintaining former structures, gestures and conventions. Without question there are artists of my time that I hear doing this: Ab Baars, Tim Daisy, Axel Dörner, Christof Kurzmann, Elizabeth Harnik, Jason Moran, Joe Morris, Paal Nilssen-Love, Craig Taborn, Håvard Wiik, to name a few. There are many others and many I’m sure I haven’t heard yet. These are the artists who inspire me now, who have the creative attitude of Thelonious Monk, the creative spirit of Derek Bailey, the creative imagination of Billie Holiday.
By embracing the innovative conviction of these musicians (past and present) – the integrity with which they push(ed) ideas to the edge with spontaneous sound and composition – we will locate the key to our own directions. Because in the end, from an artistic standpoint, it’s not just about gigs, erudition and chops – it’s about ideas. v
For more information, visit kenvandermark.com. Vandermark is at The Stone Jul. 8th-9th. See Calendar.
Since the spring of 1986, Ken Vandermark has focused on expanding the possibilities of improvised and composed music. He’s worked continuously from the middle ‘90s onward – both as a performer and organizer in North America and Europe – and his creative emphasis has been contemporary music that deals directly with advanced methods of improvisation. Vandermark moved to Chicago from Boston in 1989. Since then he’s performed and recorded in a vast array of contexts and with many internationally renowned musicians, touring on a regular basis in North America, Europe and Japan for more than half of each year. His concerts and numerous recordings have been critically acclaimed both at home and abroad.
Originally published in the New York City Jazz Record, July 1st 2011, page 11