Jazztronica: A Brief History of the Future of Jazz
It's happening, it's underway-it's just a question of how far and how fast.
With more and more ensembles including a musician dealing with electronics-sequencing, programming, DJing, sampling-the sound of jazz is evolving. Call it jazztronica, nu-jazz or bluescreen jazz, but one thing is certain: It's potentially the most exciting development in the music for decades.
"Jazz is definitely changing," says pianist Matthew Shipp. "It has to, or it will die."
Today's generation of electronic gadgetry allows for far more sophisticated experimentation than the old wickka-wickka sound of turntable scratching or a basic sample loop for musicians to improvise over. Now the improviser's art can be played out against a new sonic backdrop colored by fragments of electronic sounds, rhythms and samples swimming through the music. Amid this world of altered realities and fresh possibilities, digital computer editing-literally cutting and pasting sound-allows for juxtapositions never even dreamed about in Charlie Parker's day.
Just as important, this technology's easy availability to the masses and its relative inexpensiveness means the bedroom can now become a recording studio. Jazz musicians have a new set of tools to mold and shape sound, and they are using them to recontextualize jazz within the nervous 21st century.
Pianist Brad Mehldau, who included subtle real-time electronics and original overdubs with rock producer Jon Brion on last year's Largo, recalls a conversation with a promoter in London: "I commented on the large amount of DJs on the jazz festival rosters these days. He said that it reflects the fact that turntable technology, sampling and the like has now become part of the 'jazz vocabulary'-for better or worse." And while at present this may be more the case in Europe than America, it's a proposition Mehldau remains cautious about: "To me, that is not a given, not in a music that depends so much on human interaction."
Trumpeter Dave Douglas gives the trend a guarded welcome but nevertheless sees the importance of jazz relating to the plurality of the current times, with electronic sounds and rhythms being a part of this process. "It's really quite simple: wake up every day and try to reflect what's really going on inside you and outside you. In this period, it's reflected in the thousands of ways music is changing and growing. These technologies, like anything else, are an important part of that very human growth."
Like Mehldau, Douglas insists the jazz aesthetic should not be blurred by artifice. "I feel that the sounds all around us are affecting even the way acoustic music is heard, recorded and presented. It's inescapable. And it's very exciting to hear the effect electronic players are having on jazz and improvised music. But I feel the artistic, personal statement is the more important goal in creating new music. That this music is an inseparable part of our technological environment seems inevitable. That's a great asset for music makers today."
With much of jazz still under the shadow of 1950s hard bop, Shipp believes these changes toward a broader sound spectrum have come not a moment too soon. "I think jazz has become its own museum-keeper, its own graveyard attendant, and it's buckling under the weight of its own pretensions. I definitely think there is a necessity to broaden it out and try to reflect the times right now."
In this dazzling information-technology age, we are bombarded daily by new sights and sounds, so it should come as no surprise that jazz should reflect this. Art does not evolve in a vacuum, and jazz has always adapted to and been shaped by technological as much as cultural and social forces. So the notion of jazz being influenced by technological advances is hardly new. Billie Holiday's art, for example, would have been impossible without the electric microphone. When the LP broke through the three-minute barrier of old 78 r.p.m. discs, a new world opened up for the improviser and composer. Meanwhile, advances in the recording studio itself allowed musicians another way to create new music: Sidney Bechet famously recorded clarinet, soprano, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums on his one-man-band recording "The Sheik of Araby" in April 1941, and Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself and Lennie Tristano's "Requiem" feature multiple overdubbed pianos. Technology has long been a tool at the service of the improviser.
Mehldau is quick to underline this distinction. "Innovation in jazz is not determined by technological advances; it is a purely musical matter. What I was trying to get to on Largo was not dictated by technology; rather, certain technological devices were used in the service of a musical vision that focused heavily nonetheless on live group improvisation. If there's something innovative in Largo, it comes first and foremost from the musical decisions that me and the other musicians made, playing together live. Yet I can't deny that those musical decisions were informed by the technology: recording techniques, treatment of piano, etc. The actual sonic environment influenced how we played."
Yet jazz is about expressing individuality, which should neither be sacrificed nor submerged in this new electronic world, something Douglas is quick to emphasize. "Many of the musicians I admire are using this sound and technology. The availability of great electronic sounds has been here for a long time-even more importantly, the availability of great electronic players. That's the key to me-people who can personalize the technology and sonic palette. All around the world the impact is being felt. The present, and thus the future, is in the hands of the musicians, and many of us are taken with the possibilities. What's most inspiring about it to me is that everyone has their own take on it and their own sound. That proves the flexibility and value of the medium."
Helge Sten provides the electronics in the Norwegian improv group Supersilent, whose 1-3 and 4, 5 and 6 CDs are on the increasingly influential Rune Grammofon label, which is distributed by ECM. He believes in human interaction, where electronics are guided by the improviser's impulse. "Electronics is an extra instrument," he says. "Today it's very popular to use-but you have to apply some rules, as always. You really have to integrate it and make it a great musical experience for yourself and the people who listen to it. I think the meeting [between electronics and jazz] has to be the result of a genuine musical expression and has to be a genuine musical adventure. You are at the point where you can use sound like an instrument. When you have sound as a tool, you can use any pitch in any variation; you can use a lot of color-it's a big, wide spectrum-and it opens up a new universe and it seems very natural to use it inside jazz, because it has been the nature of jazz to experiment and evolve new expressionism. I think jazz really needs to expand anyway, because it's been standing quite still for a long time."
"It's a new world, and it seems very exciting," says Shipp, whose albums Nu Bop and Equilibrium for Thirsty Ear's Blue Series are regarded by many as benchmark albums of the new trend. "This is reflecting thought processes I have been going through for several years. Just recently I've had the character and the wherewithal to do it. I think it's definitely time for a change. I kind of wish the jazz establishment was a little more open-minded and could see it, but maybe that's why jazz is dying."
Under Shipp's shrewd stewardship, the Blue Series has become something of a standard-bearer of this new direction in jazz, beating a pathway to a new jazz frontier through a diversity of approaches. Tim Berne's The Shell Game, probably his finest album in a decade, features keyboardist Craig Taborn's well-conceived electronics. DJ Spooky's Optometry features him playing bass and electronics alongside and reworking tunes played by Shipp, bassist William Parker and others. And drummer Guillermo E. Brown's aptly titled Soul at the Hands of the Machine pulses with worldy polyrhythms, from Africa to Latin America, and postelectronica production techniques such as computer editing. "I think jazz has always been an abstraction of popular culture," Brown says. "And with technology, you can squeeze out amazing sounds."
Popular culture, of course, does not stop at the Billboard charts; it embraces the contemporary environment in which we live. Since jazz has become progressively more fascinated with its past in recent times, it has slowly undone its relationship with the present. For a musician such as Shipp, the preoccupation with older paradigms of jazz, shaped in a different time and a different place, has meant jazz is becoming less and less able to reflect the tensions, emotions and complexity of modern-day living.
"The music has to take into account that people's psyches are shaped by what is going on around them," Shipp explains. "I live in a urban setting. There's lots of things I take in-sounds and the ambience of the street-that I soak into my subconscious just from walking around the city and feeling the rhythm of city and just knowing how our lives are changed now just because of the Internet, how our lives changed because of many machines we have to deal with. There's things in the environment, things in my consciousness, just living in the world today that I'm trying to connect to, and I've been feeling that making jazz albums as we've known has not been adequate for me personally to connect to those things."
For others, matters are not quite so cut and dried. Even though Mehldau has used electronics in his music to reflect and understand the technology-focused culture around him, he confesses he generally shies away from it. "Not always, but usually, I want refuge from technology, not more evidence of it. More than anything else, technology can have the tendency to suck away the mystery in music. That's because technology, at least in my world, is the most obvious, overtly palpable thing there is. It is everywhere, in overabundance."
At the very least, however, the electronic age offers an inherent capacity to inspire improvisers to make musical choices they might not have otherwise done, moving their music into new and unexpected directions.
Douglas has worked with electronics before but never to the degree he did on his new CD, Freak In. "On previous records like Sanctuary and Witness I always wrote so that the [electronic] players would interact with the pieces and the band in real time," the trumpeter says. "The idea was to document an actual performance in which the electronics participated in the flow of the music like in any other standard 'jazz' performance. That's an approach that I revere and truly believe in as a player and composer. What I am about to say does not mean that I want to abandon that kind of playing, [but] I came to feel that that expectation for electronic music was unrealistic, that it was a handicap for the electronic players. Those sounds work much better under the microscope of the studio. The idea of Freak In was to create a sense of flow, of fluency that live bands get but with additional freedom of being able to really work the electronics in ways that their technology was created for," meaning as postproduction tools and sound enhancers as well as real-time instruments. "I think there is a big future for the use of this process in the music that's coming out of jazz."
Freak In is one of the most important and thoughtfully conceived albums yet to realize the potential of integrating acoustic and contemporary electronic sounds. "I worked very closely with musician and engineer Jamie Saft," Douglas says, "working the arrangements around bits of magic that had been created pretty spontaneously out of the written material. Bringing in different sounds and sources, we could play with the landscape of the music and still let it have the sense of breath you get from a live performance. There's nothing more boring than horn solos over a static 'groovy' beat. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. There's also a tendency for electronic music to get cold, to stand at a distance emotionally. I wanted to get passion and personality on this-it's very American in that sense.
"The sessions with [drummer] Joey Baron, [bassist] Brad Jones and [percussionist] Karsh Kale are the backbone of the album. That stuff is just killer. [Guitarist Marc] Ribot just sails over it and eats it up. [Sampler artist] Ikue Mori [who also performs on Witness] adds a lot of magic on these tracks and the sessions with her were very inspiring. Her sensitivity to texture and timbre is always ear-opening. When you find yourself wondering where a sound is coming from, it's usually Ikue. My own solos are mostly from first takes with the rhythm section. Some of them I tried replacing with overdubs, but felt I was losing the flow of the music. I was willing to live with the 'mistakes' to keep that excitement. Jamie also created a lot of sounds for this project that we were able to blend with things people had played. The range of different electronic sounds was quite broad, so it was sometimes a matter of weeding things out to make the music feel like what someone would have played or meant."
The question, as ever in art, is not the means used to achieve an end but the end it achieves. "Technology will keep changing at lightning speed," Douglas says. "Technology we consider groundbreaking today will seem like a dinosaur in five years. That makes sonic issues exciting but makes the eternal values in art seem much more important. All music has to be organic, has to come from the earth and the soul to be meaningful. Electro-acoustic music is no different-that was an overriding concern in making Freak In."
Shipp talks of creating a new emotional language for jazz in the 21st century, one that comes in bursts of information from a variety of sources. "I'm interested in the idea of syntax feeding the nervous system, and discreet little musical phrases forming its own nervous system, and how acoustic instruments relate to the computer, and how all these things form their own nexus, urban jungle, nervous system, information machine-whatever you want to call it. I'm interested in making my albums syntax generators, where you can soak your brain in the language."
Spring Heel Jack is a British electronica duo that, on its Blue Series CDs Masses and Amassed, takes the improvisations by the likes of Shipp, trumpeters Roy Campbell and Kenny Wheeler, reedists Evan Parker, Tim Berne and Daniel Carter, drummers Guillermo E. Brown and Han Bennink and others and recombines them, piece by piece, into a new jazz tongue. Shipp says that as a jazz musician, he "had never conceived of putting an album together that way, and I know most of the albums we do I don't put together that way even though some parts are. But the idea of doing an album completely by samples, or completely by pasting together painstakingly measure by measure, that whole idea intrigued me-as far as being an improviser and a free-jazz player, I don't mind giving up the control to the production aspect to try and create a new sound."
John Coxon, who with Ashley Wales comprises Spring Heel Jack, says: "The thing about the records we've been making for Thirsty Ear is that each track is a different sound world. In traditional bands-whether jazz or any kind of band-you can't control the environment as much as you can now, the sonic environment. Basically you have the sound of the band doing their set live or in the studio, whereas now with the technology it is very, very easy to create a completely different sound world for those instruments to fit in."
Brad Mehldau's Largo is an inspired example of jazz improvisation mixing with electronics, yet the pianist sounds a note of caution on one of the more popular uses of technology in modern music. "I have a pet peeve against sampling, enough to include in the track information on Largo, that there was no sampling used on the record. When you add a sample to your band, you are consciously relinquishing your own responsibility to interact with another human being. And in a music like jazz that thrives on human interaction, you should have a reason. Often, the artistic reasoning seems to be a tired species of postmodernist irony, in a familiar apocalyptic hue: 'Human interaction has been done already. We are making a comment on that, being ironic, by including a guy with a turntable in our band.'
"The problem with using technology in music is that you run the risk of collapsing back into the banality that you're trying to escape from, because your music becomes in some sense dependent on that technology for its project. Two musicians I've heard who have used sampling technology in an illuminating way are Bugge Wesseltoft and Sidsel Endresen, and hearing them both live in different situations. I'm sure there are others that I haven't heard. But the point is that the force of their musical imagination illuminates me: they have a viewpoint to begin with; something mysterious to share with the world. So the technology is a tool among many for them. Too often the musicians become tools of the technology they're using."
Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz, on his own Jazzland label, was slated for release by Verve Music Group in the U.S. last year, but the deal was unexpectedly nixed at the last moment due to severe cutbacks in the company's release schedule. The New Conception, originally released in 1997, was a best seller, along with fellow Norwegian Nils Petter Molvær's Khmer (ECM) on the European jazz underground in the late '90s. It was Molvær, a genuine road warrior, who spearheaded the sound of jazz and electronics across Europe. Since then, other Norwegian artists such as Wibutee, Eivind Aarset and Endresen, all on the Jazzland label, have joined Wesseltoft and Molvær at the forefront of European jazz and electronics, along with Norway's Jaga Jazzist and its Smalltown Supertown label, and the mysterious U.K. band the Bays, which refuses to record in a studio, has declined all major-label advances and distributes its music through thebays.com.
All these artists include discreet sampling in their music, a technique that Shipp, for one, has discovered provides challenges that inspire creativity. "What I find very interesting is dealing with the machine in my music, especially coming from a classical [and] free-jazz tradition," he says. "The machine is something that takes you outside yourself, but I'm actually finding the machine is allowing to connect more inwardly with myself. It's a kind of a paradox, but it's really fascinating how it's working out."
Saxophonist-composer-arranger-producer Bob Belden is another who embraces the potential sampling technology offers. His drum 'n' bass-influenced Blue Note discs with trumpeter Tim Hagans, Animation-Imagination and Re-Animation: Live in Montreal, were among the first and best of their kind. Belden sees the new technology as an enormous resource for jazz-if used creatively. "As a composer, I find sampling offers an unexplored universe of sound and texture. As a performer, I find the idea of improvising within a new world of artificial realities would free the artist of the need to imitate or lose sight of the soulful nature of jazz. In my group we view the turntable as a synthesizer of sorts, not confined to grooves and samples but being free to do anything, which sampling machines can do. There are no rules anymore. There is a sense of freedom one gets from dealing in the new world of artificial reality."
It's not just technology alone, or technology for technology's sake, that today's electronics-savvy jazzers use for inspiration. Popular music, from experimental hip-hop to avant-garde rock, has triggered new lines of thought and fresh possibilities to be used or rejected as the music evolves. Jazz has always interacted with popular culture and through it always found a way to be relevant to the time frame it finds itself in-from appropriating the songs from Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway stage to using sounds and rhythms of rock. So it's hardly surprising that today's musicians are looking to shape their jazz over sample-produced rhythms inspired by the electronica subgenre known as drum 'n' bass or jungle, which evolved in London's club culture. The style, which involves highly syncopated and fast-moving beats, has its roots in reggae (which in turn has its roots in American jazz) and may have eventually been created by flesh-and-blood drummers playing in real-time, but technology sped the process at mach speed.
"When loops started appearing on the scene I heard immediately the possibilities," Belden says. "Acid jazz had to get to drum 'n' bass because the tempo of acid jazz was groovy but not Charlie Parker. Drum 'n' bass introduced the 'Parker' tempo to the popular subculture. I heard Tony Williams when I heard Roni Size. That's when I knew. Drum 'n' bass adapted this groove to a programmed beat or beats and samples were used as orchestration or an inference of melody."
For Laurent de Wilde, author of the acclaimed biography Monk and a pianist who has worked on the New York City scene with the likes of saxophonist Greg Osby, electronica's rhythms opened up a new world. "The drum 'n' bass and jungle and all that music that comes from London and European clubs in general has kind of replaced the acoustic groove with electronic grooves and delivers the same feeling, and the same groove, and it's a great basis for improvisation."
Another Frenchman, trumpeter Erik Truffaz, has remained steadfastly acoustic, but as can be heard on his three CDs for Blue Note in the U.S., he too speaks of how he adapted the flexibility of drum 'n' bass to a jazz context. "My album Bending New Corners [Blue Note France] was influenced by bebop and drum 'n' bass, and from then our public changed: we find young people, 15 years to 30, in our audience, which is good."
Next to electronica, hip-hop has been popular music's biggest beneficiary of technology's advances. Shipp's newest Thirsty Ear album is Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp, a collaboration with the rap group in the title. "I have always been a big hip-hop fan," he says. "I've always wanted to do something with beats. I've always been a fan of a lot of contemporary music-one of my favorite albums is Low by David Bowie. I always wanted to do something that dealt with the modern landscape, but my own take on it, being a jazz musician."
This inclusive view of jazz today is echoed by bassist Christian McBride, whose current album, Vertical Vision (Warner Bros.), includes the track "Circa 1990," a hilarious yet serious commentary on the state of jazz today: "I find most of the musicians in my generation [former "young lions"] do love [electric] music but they are too scared to let it really show."
Jazz is a radical music, but it's now practiced by conservative people," says Spring Heel Jack's Coxon. For Shipp, the musicians who are reluctant to part company with the past are missing out on an opportunity to redefine their art. "What a huge, huge waste," he says. "I'm coming down on people in the limelight-might be good instrumentalists-but [who] are really stuck in the old paradigm. I've seen musicians sitting around drinking whiskey trying to pretend they're Lester Young or something-I guess I don't need to say how tired that is. It has nothing to do with how or why music is made today."
A struggle rages for the heart and soul of jazz by the prophets facing backward since for them, the possession of its history is more important than the present because of the legitimacy it confers. The dilemma for many artists is that while wanting to signify on that history, they also want to break free from its constraints. In March 2001, Eli Wolf, head of Blue Note's A&R department, told the New York Daily News that he felt there were now young musicians out there "who possess a high caliber of musicianship but don't want to get caught in that historical quagmire. They're in tune with what is going on today in music and not just the past. Traditional artists sometimes get stuck back there."
Change in life, and so jazz, is inevitable. Nothing is immutable. Today you can gather seashells on Himalayan peaks because they were once a seabed. Time passes, and people's lives keep changing and evolving, influencing their musical outlook. "When I hear Louis Armstrong records of the 1930s or Miles Davis of the 1950s and 1960s," says guitarist Pat Metheny, "you not only get this great music you get this time capsule, this feeling of how people walked and talked then and what the vibe was, and that's something that will never ever be able to be simulated or re-created, no matter how much people love that music."
Electronics are being seized upon as a catalyst to trigger change, to reimagine the overall architecture of the music in a way that reflects the world we live in today. It's an important concern for de Wilde: "Jazz has to evolve with the tools of its time. I had felt pretty bad about being from a generation in jazz that did not witness any 'revolution' in jazz. But all this electronic technology is a great leap forward as far as using it onstage, mixing live stuff and electronic stuff."
The challenge in jazz today, as Metheny points out, is to reinvent the music to a new paradigm resonant to this era. "The 20th century is over. It's simply not gonna cut it to just keep looking back, emulating what has already been done with just a slightly different spin on it. We have to get to work on a vision that is more concerned with what this music can become than what it has already been. We need to move the music forward! You know what excites me? The thought of a kind of jazz that sounds nothing like the jazz of the 20th century, that is an entirely different thing, a new kind of animal-but one that is still unmistakably connected to the larger jazz tradition."
Jazztronica A Listening Guide
Alog Red Shift Swing (Rune Grammofon)
Eivind Aarset Electronique Noir; Light Extracts (both Jazzland)
Tim Berne The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
Ketil Bjørnstad Grace (EmArcy Europe)
Jim Black Splay; Alasnoaxis (both Winter & Winter)
Jane Ira Bloom Modern Drama (Koch)
Guillermo E. Brown Soul at the Hands of the Machine (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
Uri Caine The Goldberg Variations; Bedrock (both Winter & Winter)
Cinematic Orchestra Motion; Every Day (both Ninja Tune)
Close Erase Dance This (BP)
The Detroit Experiment The Detroit Experiment (Rope-a-Dope)
Dave Douglas Sanctuary (Avant); Witness; Freak In (both RCA/Bluebird)
Jon Eberson Group Dreams That Went Astray (Jazzland)
Sidsel Endresen Undertow; Sidsel Endresen and Bugge Wesseltoft Out Here. In There. (both Jazzland)
Food Veggie (Rune Grammofon)
Russell Gunn Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2 (Justin Time)
Tim Hagans/Bob Belden Animation-Imagination; Re-Animation: Live in Montreal (Blue Note)
Herbie Hancock Future2Future (Transparent)
Graham Haynes Transition; The Griots Footsteps
(both Antilles); Tones for the 21st Century (Verve); BPM (Knitting Factory)
Jaga Jazzist A Living Room Hush (Smalltown Supersound/
Jazzland Friday Session; Saturday Session; Sunday Session (Jazzland)
Bill Laswell Sacred System: Chapter Two (ROIR)
Julien Lourau Gambit (Warner Bros. France)
Medeski, Martin & Wood The Dropper; Uninvisible (both Blue Note)
Brad Mehldau Largo (Warner Bros.)
Nils Petter Molvær NP3 (EmArcy Europe); Khmer; Solid Ether (both ECM)
Nojazz NoJazz (Warner Bros. France)
Evan Parker's Electro Acoustic Ensemble Drawn Inward (ECM)
Kimmo Pohjonen Kluster (Rockadillo)
Rinneradio Nao (Rockadillo)
Paul Schütze And Phantom City Site Anubis (Big Cat); Shiva Recoil (Live/Unlive) (Virgin)
Andy Sheppard Nocturnal Tourist (Provocateur)
Matthew Shipp Equilibrium; Nu Bop; Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp (all Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
DJ Spooky Optometry (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
Spring Heel Jack Masses; Amassed (both Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
Squarepusher Music Is Rotted One Note (Warp/Nothing)
Supersilent 1-3; 4; 5; 6 (all Rune Grammofon)
John Surman/Jack Dejohnette Invisible Nature (ECM)
Esbjörn Svensson Trio Strange Place for Snow; Somewhere Else Before comp (both Columbia); Good Morning Susie Soho; From Gargarin's Point of View (both Act)
Craig Taborn Light Made Lighter (Thirsty Ear/Blue Series)
Tied + Tickled Trio Tied and Tickled Trio (Bingo) EA1 EA2 (Drag City); Electric Avenue Tapes (Clearspot)
Erik Truffaz Mantis; The Mask comp; Revisté remixes; Bending New Corners (all Blue Note)
Bugge Wesseltoft New Conception of Jazz; Sharing; Moving (all Jazzland)
Wibutee Eight Domestic Challenges (Jazzland)
Laurent De Wilde Time 4 Change (Warner Bros. France)
Bert Wrede Actronic Hamlet (Act)
Originally published in March 2003