[JPL] The perils of post-gig jazz debate

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Tue Oct 28 07:26:23 EDT 2008

  The perils of post-gig jazz debate

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Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau in 1999

Brad Mehldau in 1999. photograph: Martin Argles

When I heard Miles Davis's first full-on electric band play in London in 
the late 1960s, the feverish post-show reactions almost ended up being 
an integral part of the gig. As with Dylan's first outings after he 
abandoned his acoustic guitar for a Fender and a rock band, the audience 
was vehemently divided about whether the development was a triumph or a 
disastrous sellout.

After that Miles show, friends and total strangers were arguing all the 
way to the tube station and beyond about what place an electric piano or 
a heavily miked-up drum kit could possibly have in a jazz band, and 
whether or not Miles was abandoning his one true genius by not playing 
My Funny Valentine in a tight-muted whisper any more.

After the American pianist Brad Mehldau's performance at the Barbican 
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/oct/22/jazz> this week, the 
post-gig vibe in the foyer was nothing like that intense, but there was 
still a buzz of absorbed discussion about whether Mehldau - close on 
Keith Jarrett's heels as one of the most popular jazz concert artists on 
the circuit - was doing anything worth doing.

I maintained that the concentration of his work on a limited set of 
materials and his ability to do a lot with a little drew me irresistibly 
into his contemplative emotional space - as the show went on, I found I 
was letting myself go into his world of slow-burn improvisations of 
mostly simple songs and chord-forms, and forgetting about my own 
preoccupations of what a 21st century jazz pianist ought to be doing.

Others, with plenty of jazz perspective to bring to the discussion, 
contended that Mehldau was too predictable; the build-up of his 
improvisations too similar; the trio concept little different from that 
of Bill Evans half a century ago, except that the repertoire swapped 
modern pop songs for old Broadway ones.

Jack Massarik in the Evening Standard really went to town on Mehldau's 
perceived shortcomings 
feeling that the American was too classical to understand the most 
interesting jazz-piano developments of more recent times, and that the 
simplicity of some of his material showed how far adrift he was from the 
subtlety of Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock.

Intriguingly, Jarrett himself ran in to similar criticisms from many 
jazz fans in the years in the 1970s after he burst into mainstream 
appeal with his massive-selling Köln Concert recording. Like Mehldau, he 
was a classically-trained player who liked spinning long, 
melodically-intricate, but very song-like improvised lines off 
pop-catchy repeating hooks and steadily rocking simple vamps.

Jarrett could certainly play the daylights out of the fast moving 
chord-sequences of bebop if he wanted, but he chose not to until the 
development of his Standards Trio rather later in his career. As with 
Mehldau, perhaps the complaints about Jarrett playing fluffy, pretty 
tunes in a self-preoccupied, I-am-an-artist manner, are manifestations 
about much deeper preconceptions among listeners.

 From the regular-jazzers' angle, they include the view that the music 
should always be about driving (rather than undulating, or ambiguous) 
swing, the coolly casual deployment of breathtaking techniques, clear 
beginnings, middles, and ends, and probably close attention to the 
harmonically taxing vocabulary of bebop.

 From the experimental or avant-garde angle on the other hand, the 
convictions are different, but equally prescriptive - that contemporary 
artists are obliged to be warping traditional forms or using familiar 
ones ironically, startling or shocking the listener, and generally 
leaving the artform very different from the way they found it.

Without strong views, nothing changes. But without open minds, the 
changes might not be worth having - because there may be far more to an 
ostensibly conservative artist than first meets the ear, particularly if 
that aperture is a turnstile that only lets those with the right kind of 
artistic ticket through.

John Fordham <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/johnfordham>Posted by 
John Fordham <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/johnfordham> Monday 
October 27 2008 14.47 GMT

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