Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Sound of Sameness

A rainy night in Dublin. The eerie glow of the orange neon streetlights picks out figures scurrying along the glassy wet pavements. They’re heading for Whelan’s, a classic 17th century city center pub. But it’s not the famous Irish beer that’s attracting them; it’s a gig by saxophonist Dave Liebman in the pub’s spacious music room. Backed by bassist Ronan Guilfoyle’s group, bastions of the Irish jazz scene, the group deals in some ferocious improvising, ranging from originals that draw on Third World influences to pieces that abandon preset chord changes. At the end of the set the 200-plus audience rises in a standing ovation. Liebman is delighted and, dripping in perspiration, allows himself his first smile of the evening.

Relaxing after the gig with a glass of Irish hospitality, Liebman has clearly enjoyed himself. “I could never play like that in New York, except in the Knitting Factory,” he confesses. “New York is a very conservative scene now.” Dublin may be Europe’s last major city before the Atlantic Ocean separates the cultures of America and Europe, but just like the rest of the Continent it has a predilection for musical adventure. “Here in Europe the audience as well as the musicians expect experimentation and nonroutine, which translates into more adventurous music,” Liebman continues. “In America it’s pretty much up and down the line. It’s wonderful jazz playing but not that creative to my mind.”

Liebman is not alone in articulating a belief that American jazz, once famously called “the sound of surprise,” hasn’t been sounding so surprising of late. Some musicians are prepared to state the case a little more strongly. “This is the most noncreative period in the whole history of jazz,” says tenor saxophonist David Murray. “It’s catch-up time for people who want to play what’s been done before. They’ve stopped the clock and gone back again, to the ’50s and ’60s, to define jazz.”

One or two critics have also been bold enough to put their heads above the parapet and express frustration at the current scene, which, when it does hit the news these days, is curiously obituary driven. Francis Davis has written of the “deadening sameness” of what he was hearing on record and in clubs in Bebop and Nothingness, while writer Eric Nisenson speaks of how “this once continually innovative music has become so reactionary and staid” in his book Blue: The Murder of Jazz. But in searching for answers to the problems they saw as ailing jazz, they looked no further than the shores of the United States.

Yet in Europe, the momentum for innovation, the sine qua non of modernism, held in check for almost two decades, has become irresistible-not least as evidence the music is continuing to evolve as an art form. But with American jazz’s preoccupation with its past has come a failure to acknowledge the music is so broad and diverse it has finally outgrown its country of birth, and that its stewardship is now no longer an exclusive American preserve.

There is a touching naiveté about the impact the music has made around the world and an apparent unawareness that in relinquishing its traditional pathfinding role, others would jump into the void. European jazz, regarded for years by the Americans with the same kind of tolerant smile they reserve for Japanese baseball, is now raising the hitherto unimagined possibility of the vanguard of jazz, its cutting edge no longer resting in its country of origin but being claimed by Europe.

Five years ago this would have been dismissed as a fanciful notion. But as long ago as 1989, Finnish drummer, composer and bandleader Edward Vesala recorded Ode to the Death of Jazz, a denouncement of the “neo-classical” trend he felt had come to prevail in America. “This music is first of all about feeling and the transmission of feeling. This empty echoing of old styles, I think it’s tragic,” he said. “If that is what the jazz tradition has become, then what about the tradition of creativity, innovation, spirituality, individuality and personality?”

He was not alone in expressing such thoughts. A belief now held among many of Europe’s leading contemporary jazz musicians is that the evolutionary zeal that carried American jazz forward for almost a century is close to creative exhaustion. Internationally renowned trumpeter Kenny Wheeler says he can’t remember when he last bought an American jazz album: “I did all that [hard bop] stuff when I was coming up in the ’50s. I really don’t think it is advancing the music by going back to playing that.”

Equally, young European musicians have become disenchanted with the sounds they hear from across the Atlantic. “I think American jazz somehow has really stopped, maybe in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” says the highly praised Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. “I haven’t heard one interesting American record in the last 20 years. It’s like a museum, presenting stuff that’s already been done.”

In the past, European jazz largely marched in step to whatever developments were coming out of America, its musicians striving to keep abreast of successive shocks announcing the new since the ragtime era. But with the American jazz scene pausing to explore its past, Europeans have increasingly gone their own way, seeing little value in following the Americans by performing in the adopted voices of jazz’s posthumous heroes of the ’50s and early ’60s. “In Norway, once you reach a certain point, you are encouraged to find your own voice,” says Wesseltoft. “I was taught it is no good copying Bud Powell or Bill Evans, there are already hundreds of musicians in America who do that.”

But is there such a thing as European jazz? On the face of it a perfectly straightforward question, but like so many straightforward questions in jazz, there are no straightforward answers. Somewhat inscrutably, a European playing jazz does not always make for European jazz. While jazz may be a universal language, the dialect in which it is usually spoken is American. Yet in the ’30s, guitarist Django Reinhardt showed just how close the campfire extemporizations of a Manouche gypsy were to jazz improvisation within the context of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The group stood out because their jazz was so quintessentially European at a time when everyone else’s was so quintessentially American.

With violinist Stephane Grappelli playing yin to Reinhardt’s yang, their boulevardier brio convincingly suggested that jazz could have a strong European component without sacrificing the elements that made Afro-American jazz so compelling and subversive. It was a significant moment; Reinhardt was the first major European musician to propose an alternative to the dominant American style of jazz expressionism, but after his death in 1953, it was not until the late ’60s when Yorkshireman John McLaughlin and Austrian Joe Zawinul played a major inceptive role alongside Miles Davis in ushering in jazz-rock that Europeans again had a casting vote on the destiny of jazz.

Subsequently, McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Zawinul’s Weather Report, co-led with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, had a profound effect on jazz of the ’70s, while McLaughlin’s next group, Shakti, anticipated jazz-meets-Third World experimentation by two decades. Yet it was hardly a fluke that Europe should be able to produce such great jazz musicians. After all, jazz had been permeating European culture almost as soon as it emerged in America. Indeed, Sweden makes a very strong case for having recorded the very first jazz, “Cake Walk” by the Kronoberg Society Regimental Band conducted by Erik Högberg, in 1899.

Perhaps more importantly, Europe had access to real live jazz as early as 1918, when James Reese toured Europe and his Hellfighters were lionized in Paris; during their year-long stay in France they played in over 25 cities for thousands and thousands of civilians and troops. When the Southern Syncopated Orchestra arrived in Europe in 1919, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet lauded its clarinet player, Sidney Bechet, in print: “[Bechet’s] way is perhaps the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow,” he prophetically observed.

What is not generally known is that when the band toured Austria they had two London-based musicians in their ranks; one was trombonist Ted Heath, who would lead a big band in the ’50s widely admired on both sides of the Atlantic. Heath credited Cook’s musicians for teaching him many things he would have taken years to discover for himself. Since then, Europe has been willing host to thousands of American jazz musicians whose styles have been analyzed and dissected by their local counterparts. Even today, many American jazz musicians have come to rely on what they call the European circuit for a significant portion of their income.

Europe has also played an important role in developing the careers of new talent. “The role of independent record companies became quite important in Europe from the ’70s on,” points out Dave Liebman. “Producers were dedicated to ‘art for art’s sake.’ It is through their support that many Americans established a reputation as well as a platform to develop their art when American attitudes towards profit margins meant all but a few artists could regularly record in the U.S.” Just how important Europe has become to jazz was once highlighted by a comment made by impresario George Wein: “No Europe, no jazz.”

But European musicians claiming to be the vanguard of American jazz? Unthinkable. Just about as unthinkable as Europeans pushing aside America’s domination of popular music. Who would have thought a British-ified version of black rhythm and blues could be sold back to America, knock all the top American acts out of the Top 10 and sound the death knell for a world famous institution like Tin Pan Alley? But when the Beatles landed in America on Feb. 7, 1964, they were selling records worldwide at a monthly rate of $1.2 million and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew the largest audience in the history of American television to that point. The Beatles and what followed, “The British Invasion,” transformed popular music for good.

So let’s think the unthinkable. Dave Liebman has pointed out that “European musicians are definitely not tied to the bebop tradition. It doesn’t mean anything to them. They have respect for it, but it’s not something that’s part of the repertoire.” Perhaps this is precisely the reason they can bring some fresh thinking to tried and tested forms. “I grew up with American music, I think it is fantastic,” says Bugge Wesseltoft. “But I am not an Afro-American, I am a white man from Norway, and I have to try to use that as an advantage in my music.”

Yes, the Downtown musicians have put some wonderful experimental projects together, including seeking to incorporate elements of Jewish music into jazz (and none more successfully than John Zorn’s Masada). But by coming from a different (non-bebop rooted) angle, several European jazz musicians are coming up with music that’s, well, sounding surprising. “How many versions of Miles Davis can you do? How many versions of the blues can you do?” says Britain’s Courtney Pine. “There was a time when European musicians would basically find an icon from America and emulate him, but now we’re not happy with that. We’re going for our own thing.”

In Pine’s case, to advance beyond the given has meant bringing into jazz a whole range of influences that reflect the totality of his musical outlook in his latest album Back in the Day. “We all have computers, everyone in the band has computers and we’re really thinking that way. That is what really sets us aside from the American scene. And when you hear my music you’ll know I listened to Bob Marley, European stuff, African stuff and you hear that American thing, yet it’s all based on knowledge of the jazz tradition.”

The idea of bringing new elements into jazz is hardly new; Broadway standards, Cuban music, classical music, Brazilian music, rock music and a whole lot else have all shown up in the jazz mix. French trumpet star Erik Truffaz: “My album on Blue Note, The Dawn, the music was influenced by bebop and drum ‘n’ bass, which comes from London, England. Now we find young people, about 15 years, to the older audience about 40 and 50, so the audience is really larger for us. It’s great. People dance, the roots of jazz are dance.”

Bugge Wesseltoft’s New Conception of Jazz embraces the liberating potential of dance music, combining a heterogeneous mix of techno beats and house with ambient sound washes and jazz improvisation that’s as subtle as it’s Norwegian cool. “To me it seems European musicians are more progressive,” he says. “They want ultra new stuff, trying to mix and merge new musical cultures together.” Equally at home in acoustic jazz, Wesseltoft’s duets with singer Sidsel Endresen were hailed as “pure magic” by Rolling Stone magazine.

Wesseltoft has also recorded Jan Garbarek, and says “Even though he was really inspired by American jazz, he learned me that you can do it your own way, like he did.” Norwegian Garbarek can claim to have influenced several Americans with his ethereal approach to the saxophone and one of his recent albums, Officium, has sold in excess of a million copies. “The so-called ‘standards’ are not my standards,” he says. “I don’t feel a close attachment to that music, music that’s made for Broadway shows. They’re great compositions, but I’ve never had an urge to use that music as the basis of my playing.”

Garbarek’s music projects the stark imagery of nature near the Northern Lights. “I can’t say what extent growing up in Norway would influence you, but I imagine deep down it must have some influence. There are very dramatic changes of the seasons and the landscape is also dramatic.” His never-quite-letting-go style evokes longing in the listener; rigorous and disciplined, Garbarek’s work represents an ordered calm in the often frantic world of jazz, creating an evocative tranquillity rooted in Nordic folk forms. Today, Garbarek has come to personify the so-called “Nordic tone” in jazz.

“Nordic tonality is in fact a sort of blues, Nordic blues, Scandinavian blues if you will,” explains drummer Egil Johansen. “For us jazz musicians it’s but a short leap to experience that melancholy as a companion to joy.” The Nordic tone came to prominence through Manfred Eicher’s Munich based ECM label. “Somehow the musicians understood the solitude. Perhaps because they lived in solitude they formulated an approach that was entirely different to an American musician living in New York,” says Eicher.

There is a transparency and clarity associated with the Nordic tone, as well as folk elements that are subtly woven into jazz improvisation. “We play in the language of jazz,” asserts Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson. “But I guess we put other things into the music; we have other traditions here, from classical music to folk music and stuff, and I guess we put that into traditional American jazz.”

However, incorporating Swedish folk melodies into jazz is not exactly new. In 1951, Stan Getz, then appearing in Stockholm, recorded the Swedish folk tune “Ack värmland du sköna” that became known as “Dear Old Stockholm.” When the Miles Davis Quintet recorded it in 1956 it became a jazz standard. But it’s not just Scandinavia-Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark-that is bringing elements of its own individual and distinctive cultures to jazz. Hungarian saxophonist Dresch Dudas Mihály caused a sensation in London recently with a tone described by one critic as “the most passionate since Coltrane.” Both he and the Yugoslavian pianist and Paris resident Bojan Zulfikarpasic incorporate elements of their own cultures into jazz in ways that not only sound fresh and exciting, but sound dynamic too.

Yet whatever Europe may be doing, Dave Liebman is adamant that “for straightahead, swinging jazz, you cannot compare Europe to America.” Keith Jarrett also sounds a note of caution: “I think jazz is American. I wouldn’t say it has to be because I wouldn’t be that presumptuous, but I would say in its essence it’s definitely American and has a mixture of casualness and intensity that is very unlike any other culture.”

But for all that, in recent times saxophonist and clarinetist Michael Moore, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, moved to Holland observing, “In America there’s more pressure to be conformist and players who were once pioneers of new music can work a lot more if they play tunes in a traditional way. In Europe there’s a larger audience that grew up listening to [experimental jazz] over a 25-year period and they appreciate not hearing the same thing all the time.”

Today, if ironic commentary has replaced ’60s “new thing” angst in European postmodern jazz, it’s an acknowledgement that the artistic experiences of today often end up as the consumer products of tomorrow. Maybe this is the price of mixing art and technological media or mixing art with folk forms to break down barriers between high, popular and mass art so that “innovative” and “new” now replace the term avant-garde in service of creating the “new.” Of course, the purists will hold up their hands, the familiar cry of “This isn’t jazz!” will ring out, as they huddle around the security of the jazz canon.

“Those people in jazz are about pimping it!” says the distinguished clarinetist and experimenter Don Byron, an innovative thinker who follows his own star. “In that way, those people are naturally going to be ‘Jazz is this and not that,’ because they are about pimping it. If you’re about pimping something then you want it to stay the same. Especially if somebody is like a person whose entire output is basically some kind of repertory thing, then seeing jazz is going in a direction people are expressing where they come from, incorporating different things, if you don’t have anything to incorporate because your whole thing is doing some kind of repertory thing, then you would be threatened by seeing things go that way, that’s just natural. That’s not even a revolutionary thought!”

15 European Albums That Sound Surprising and They’re Not Free Jazz

1. Bugge Wesseltoft: New Conception of Jazz: Sharing (Jazzland/EmArcy 538 278-2)

Wesseltoft’s flight from the jazz status quo reconnects with the dance floor in hypnotic grooves. One of a new breed of European musicians who is in greater demand than Americans on the so-called European circuits, his suave blend of popular culture and jazz improvisation makes you listen with your body.

2. Nils Petter Molvaer: Khmer (ECM 1560)

Norwegian trumpeter Molvaer came to jazz via the electro murk phase of Miles Davis’ Agharta that marked a radical break with the jazz tradition only to become part of the tradition. A close friend of Wesseltoft, he plugs in and samples the best of drum ‘n’ bass, house, jungle and techno. His middle register trumpet holds it all together and, just like Wesseltoft, he’s making Europe sit up and take notice.

3. Dresch Quartet: Riding With the Wind (November NVR2003-2)

The Hungarian band that had London critics reaching for superlatives. Not since Coltrane has a saxophonist managed to communicate such power and passion. And not since Coltrane has a saxophonist sounded so individual.

4. Esbjorn Svensson Trio: From Gagarin’s Point of View (Act 9002-2)

A Swedish piano trio who make this basic combination of instruments sparkle in new and fresh ways. Don’t ask how, but this album got into Sweden’s pop charts. Maybe it’s because they speak the language of jazz in today’s tongue with a universality and honesty people can identify with.

5. Erik Truffaz: Bending Corners (Blue Note 522123-2)

The French trumpet star who somehow convinces you that if Miles were alive, this is what he’d be doing. Truffaz’s quiet understatement relishes open spaces and grey zones as he tries to negotiate an unexpected route to the future.

6. Bobo Stenson: War Orphans (ECM 1604)

Supreme piano lyricism perfectly balanced by Anders Jormin on bass and Jon Christensen on drums, whose psychic interaction is one of the joys of this album.

7. Bojan Zulfikarpasic: Koreni (Label Bleu LBLC 6614)

One of the most exciting (remember that word, they used it a lot 20 years and more ago) tracks of recent times is “La Petit Gitane.” A brilliant synthesis of Balkan folk music and the jazz tradition.

8. Tomasz Stanko: The Music of Krysstof Komeda (ECM 1636)

Komeda (d. 1969) was among the first musicians to project jazz with a specific European identity. A great composer, he also wrote for films (notably Roman Polanski’s Knife in Water, Cul-de-Sac and Rosemary’s Baby). Stanko, one of Poland’s great jazz musicians, has been around for a while now, but is reaching ever higher with the eloquence and captivating beauty of his playing.

9. Yuri Honing: Star Tracks (Via 992010-2)

Dutch jazz has always been at the forefront of cutting the umbilical with America. It’s sometimes mad, sometimes slapstick in its desire to be different, but none come as suave as Honing, one of the new young Dutch stars. Who could look behind pop artifacts like Abba’s “Waterloo” and come up with something so definitively lyrical, compelling and moving? More to the point, who would dare?

10. Terje Rypdal: Skywards (ECM 1608)

Rypdal must make label boss Manfred Eicher (“I was raised on chamber music, I want ECM to reflect this side of jazz”) cringe. But he’s backed Rypdal’s heavy metal forays to the hilt for 30 years now; the result, a solid body of work, of which this is one of many highspots.

11. Caratini Jazz Ensemble: Darling Nellie Gray (Label Bleu LBLC 6625)

There’s repertory and there’s the Caratini ensemble. The group’s superb re-imaginings of Louis Armstrong show how the idiom can be approached creatively and with originality. With typical Gallic flair and wit they hand down a lesson to those involved in rote recapitulation that there is another way, a way that speaks of the past in the present tense.

12. Ketil Bjornstad: The Sea (ECM 1545)

Just like the sea itself, its smooth surface can conceal depth, danger and the unexpected lurking below.

13. Courtney Pine: Back In The Day (Blue Thumb 314 543 580-2)

When you listen to this, just remember that 15 years ago Wynton and Courtney were two sides of the same coin. Look how far Courtney’s come, young audiences queuing around the block to hear his mischievous mix of jazz improv and popular culture. And, in case you miss the point here, young audiences are the future of jazz.

14. Max Nagl Quintet: Café Electric (November NVR 2001-2)

Austrian Nagl’s quirky take on café society works-in places. When he hits it right he’s a delight, suggesting real potential for developing an original (hey, remember that word!) approach to jazz.

15. Trio Toykeat: Sisu (EmArcy 536 580-2)

A piano trio from Finland, and once you’ve heard “Karate,” the opening track, you know you’re off on a journey to places you’ve never been before. Technique meets genuine imagination, creatively pushing forward fresh ideas and approaches with a real wallop.

Originally Published