OK, Computer

In the liner notes for his Optometry CD, DJ Spooky describes the album as “jazz for the genre-splice generation.” It’s a good sound bite, but it’s a bit misleading. Jazz has always absorbed other music into its porous body, from African to Latin to European and beyond, so mixing musics isn’t new.

But what makes the 21st century different is the means by which we can splice variegated musics together. No longer is the combining of sounds achieved in the playing alone, as Dizzy Gillespie did when he adapted Cuban music to jazz, or in the tape edits that Teo Macero employed when he used musique concrète techniques to reconstruct Miles Davis’ electric jams. With modern technology—computers, samplers, etc.—we can construct a whole new sound environment with a few mouse clicks.

Because jazz is a music that exists in the moment, computers haven’t been readily, or successfully, adapted into its fabric. In years past, the computers available to most musicians, and the public, weren’t capable of holding more than a few bits of music information and performed them based on whatever rigidly programmed setting the user had devised. This is the complete opposite of jazz’s spontaneity.

But in the last few years, computers have become more sophisticated even as they’ve become cheaper and more flexible than ever before. It’s no surprise, then, that some jazz musicians are finally figuring out how to use technology in the natural framework of music that features improvisation as a core element.

In this month’s cover story, Stuart Nicholson talks to a few of today’s musicians who are wrestling with the beast of technology, to figure out how to use modern tools to help create new streams of jazz without forgetting the human pulse and smack-you-in-the-gut emotion that marks worthwhile music. These artists aren’t doing so at the expense or rejection of classic forms of jazz, either, so strike that misconception from your closed mind. I can easily see Dave Douglas doing a big-band CD down the road. If Matthew Shipp comes out with an album of killer standards, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit. Brad Mehldau will continue to thrive primarily in acoustic-trio settings, and Bob Belden will spend as much time making glorious orchestral arrangements as he does behind a production computer. The list goes on and on. These musicians are merely using modern tools, timbres and rhythms to express age-old conditions of humanity.

In Optometry, DJ Spooky asks, “This optometry jazz: Is it live? Or is it a sample?”

Who cares. The better question: Does it move you? It can if you let it.

Originally published in March 2003

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