What next?

It goes on and on, it’s endless, feeds on itself – this discussion about what jazz is, when is it authentic.   The music (oh God what is it, the music?) is becoming endlessly fascinated with itself.  Where is jazz going?  A view of jazz on an A3 poster might look like a vast pantheon of names on which are superimposed an intricate web of lines, lines drawn in the sand by its practitioners, fans and commentators. Beyond these lines, the music doesn’t swing, has no soul, has sold out, is a cacophony etc etc.  The discussion usually polarises into two broad camps; tradition versus innovation, taking care of business versus going out on a limb.  There is endless debate about what either of these mean; I guess the general view is that “the tradition of jazz is to innovate”, which might be a slightly-too-neat conclusion, pulling the two sides together in a clever little knot.  Perhaps if questioned on the subject by Jeremy Paxman, George Osborne might trot that line out.  Which is not to say that I don’t believe it, and that I haven’t said it myself in the hope that it would give me an air of authority.

It’s like food.  If you like hot food, recipes established and handed down through tradition, eventually you might get obsessed with chillies.  You might want to find the hottest chillies in the world.  And you might have been surprised to find them, for two weeks in March 2010, in Grantham, Lincolnshire (http://www.chilefoundry.com/2013/03/02/do-you-think-you-know-the-hottest-chillies-in-the-world/).  Certain qualities in a musician’s playing might begin to dominate a person’s idea of that musician’s “essence”.  So maybe for some people, Miles lives on not through Wallace Roney (his devoted disciple…can’t imagine Miles wanting one of those), but through the stand up of Stewart Lee, sharing perhaps a certain approach to space in their delivery.

If I listen to music and can see the possibility of playing in, on, over or through it, it might be useful to me.  I don’t want to know if it’s any good, I want to know if it’s useful.  It’s this part of the process that is crucial for me, because you have to check that it’s still possible to play well in that situation, that the difference between an empty gesture and a crafted line is still worth chasing.  There has to be space to succeed or fail as an improviser, to be able to affect the overall sound from your position within it.  The classic “hard bop” line up is one of the greatest success stories from that perspective, and it’s endlessly customisable whilst still referring to something familiar.

But all this discussion and dissection can be counter productive when you are actually making music.  Now that I’ve got it all out of my system I can concentrate on the real issues; when and where to eat, how to fit in an extra rehearsal, who’s driving to which gigs, weighty questions all.     

John Cage, having tried a number of home grown systems of music making in an attempt to circumnavigate what he saw as the untrustworthy will of the human mind, finally concluded that “Music is work.”  That seems like a good definition, one that includes all manner of approaches and keeps things down to earth.  Perhaps it’s most valuable lesson is one of action over procrastination.  And each situation requires its own approach to working.

“Horses for courses”.

My nan said that, and it wasn’t about music as such, but it makes you think. 


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