[JPL] The perils of post-gig jazz debate
drjazz at drjazz.com
Tue Oct 28 07:26:23 EDT 2008
The perils of post-gig jazz debate
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
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
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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