Post Modern Jazz Quartet: Organic Electronic
Scanner and the Post Modern Jazz Quartet artfully, seamlessly revisit jazztronica
If you’re going to come up with a band name as clever and evocative as the Post Modern Jazz Quartet, you’ll want to make sure that the music is as inspired as that moniker. That’s the conundrum that faced Peter Gordon of Thirsty Ear Records and pianist-composer Matthew Shipp, one of the label’s signature artists. “We had the concept, but we agonized as to what the term meant,” says Gordon. “Clearly, we are paying great respect to the Modern Jazz Quartet, but then you get into ‘What is postmodern?’ You can drive yourself crazy with that.”
Early this year, the light bulb went on. Gordon and Shipp turned over a handful of multitrack recordings to British electronic music alchemist Robin Rimbaud, who goes by the name Scanner. Recorded in May of 2007, the acoustic session featured Shipp on piano, vibraphonist Khan Jamal, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Michael Thompson—the same configuration as the original MJQ, whose vibraphonist Milt Jackson is a favorite artist of Shipp’s. Scanner’s job? To fashion something new out of it. “Peter was really impressed with the naturalness of the landscapes Scanner had done,” says Shipp. “I checked it out and we decided, since we had not done anything with that session, to give him that.” The collaborative result is Blink of an Eye.
Scanner’s résumé lists collaborations with artists ranging from Radiohead to the Royal Ballet, and he’d applied his brand of electronica to film scores and more, but he’d admittedly had very little prior experience with jazz before embellishing the PMJQ tracks. In fact, he’d never heard the original Modern Jazz Quartet, the inspiration behind the recordings he was charged with transforming. “Not at all, that’s the irony of it,” he says. “And I deliberately and consciously never researched it, because I thought it would lead me in the wrong way.”
On the contrary, Blink of an Eye is a work of stunning sonic breadth, one in which the electronics augment, ornament and permeate the original acoustic work but never overwhelm the sounds laid down by Shipp and company. “That day, with the band in the studio, I was just concentrating on making music and trying to evoke a lot of moods,” Shipp says. “I actually was going for an old jazz sound, much more of an old jazz sound than I employ in my own recordings. And since Khan Jamal was involved I was trying to make it a lot different than my other album that he’s on, [2003’s] Equilibrium. I was trying to come up with a balance.”
For Scanner—who became an integral component of the ensemble once he gave the pieces his touch—the gig was a challenge, one he was eager to take. “It reminded me of taking a bag of toys and tipping them out on the floor and seeing what you could play with,” he says. “With the piano there’s a certain tonality and a certain sound you can get out of it. But to a certain degree, it’s still recognizable as a piano. I wanted to see how far I could go with what I had, what would complement it.”
The marriage of an acoustic quartet and electronics is seamless and never jarring, but some of the juxtapositions from track to track are startling—in a good way. The third track of the set, “A Galaxy of Winking Dots,” is an introspective solo piano meditation by Shipp given orchestral coloring by Scanner. It gives way to the explosive “Not a Frame Earlier or Later,” a wildly freeform improv that allows Scanner to let loose his entire arsenal of effects. The closing tune, “Beyond the Edge of the Frame,” is futuristic funk at its most engaging. All of the tracks were composed by the PMJQ save for a retooled take on Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.” Gordon is credited as producer. “These guys really locked in beautifully together,” he says. “The mandate given to Scanner going in was that as a member of the band you know your role and you know how you’re meant to take it forward. But he too had to be comfortable, and it had to work within his aesthetic. He took it to heart.”
“I didn’t want it to sound like a DJ had come in and tinkered with it, like a remix album,” says Scanner. “What is very moving to me about it is the sense of trust involved, and the fact that these very respectable musicians threw me the keys to the door and said, ‘Play as you wish.’ But I didn’t set out in any particular direction. [The acoustic and electronic elements] needed to maintain a balance. I didn’t want it to feel that things were colliding with each other and they were awkward bedfellows. The main thing it had to be is fun, but I also wanted to have this cinematic, epic approach.”
Shipp is no newcomer to the merger of acoustic jazz and electronics. A pioneer in the so-called jazztronica trend that arose from ’90s movements such as acid jazz and drum ’n’ bass, Shipp surprised listeners accustomed to his acoustic work with his 2002 Nu Bop album, featuring electronics from the Finnish producer/DJ Flam. All Music Guide called it “one of the first really new things to come across on the American jazz front in over a decade.” When JazzTimes covered the jazztronica trend in 2003, Shipp was featured on the cover.
But Shipp doesn’t want Blink of an Eye to be viewed as any kind of return to those days. “I’m done with it,” he says of electronic music in general. “With my old electronica projects I was actually involved in the production and everything. But with Scanner my part was purely acoustic jazz. We turned it over to him.
“This is a realized synthesis,” Shipp continues. “It’s not forced in any way. I attribute that to Scanner’s openness to dealing with us. Scanner actually became a member of the quartet. My part was purely acoustic jazz. He is the postmodern element.”
Originally published in December 2010