Ken Mathieson: Classic Jazz Redefined
Though the veteran drummer, arranger and bandleader Ken Mathieson shouldn't be confused with his fellow namesake the critic Kenny Mathieson, he's also a very articulate jazz thinker based in their native Scotland.
Ken began as a schoolboy drummer, and when still very young lived for a couple of years in Brazil and worked in Sao Paolo clubs thirty years ago. A gigging drummer in a variety of settings, and sometime jazz festival organiser, he has been arranging for a long time. The otherwise all-American band he wrote for and was to tour Europe with fell foul of post-1989 German economic problems, but before that his work was toured far and wide by Fat Sam's Band, an initially bistro-based Scottish ensemble programmed around Louis Jordan inspired R&B, and extending into the swing repertoire many 1940s sidemen had played earlier. Check their excellent website.
In 1994 Ken organised a septet to perform a Buck Clayton/ Buddy Tate programme, in his own realisations, for a smaller Scottish jazz festival (Dundee). The music and the band were revived at the 2002 Edinburgh International Jazz Festival, including one Dickie Wells item which orchestrated Wells's wonderfully individual Wells trombone style brilliantly.
In early 2004 Ken got to discussing with Roger Spence of Assembly Direct (Scotland's National Jazz Impresario) the need and advantages of a professional-standard band in Scotland to re-interpret what he has come to call Classic Jazz.
Thus his Classic Jazz Orchestra came into being, but not on the model of similarly named bands re-playing what Louis Armstrong did as a lad. Alyn Shipton's New History of Jazz makes clear how very many influences and elements came together when jazz came into being in the 1920s. Ken believes that between the Spanish tinge of Jelly Roll Morton and the Portuguese of Horace Silver nothing came into jazz which wasn't there in say 1930. Where there was an input from outside, it awakened what was already an aspect of existing jazz, and found a new prominence for that. Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer influenced the phrasing of some of their contemporaries. Doc Cheatham said that they "beautified" the music. Later on the harmonic implications of their work, developed for instance by Lester Young, received conscious analysis and development into bebop.
Where Dr. Michael White subtitles his recent compositon "Give it Up (Gypsy Second Line)", and speaks of influence from Gypsy and Klezmer music, this item from a 2004 Basin Street Records CD is of a piece with some slightly exotic things Tiny Parham and others recorded in late 1920s Chicago. John Pattitucci's very, very nice 2003 Songs, Stories and Spirituals CD is by contrast not the development of jazz some reviewers have said, but a set of mostly Latin, Gospel and even Protestant hymnal music, performed in styles influenced by what jazz developed out of these roots. Horace Silver however combined just these things in his music. Latin Jazz, which Doc Cheatham regarded as an enrichment of the music; and Ken himself performs with ensembles called Braziliance and Picante and sometimes on dates by the new Orchestra, is quite different from Latin music with a jazz tinge: Ruben Gonzales, say. For a friend wanting jazz-free Klezmer I unearthed a CD without a breath of jazz. The reedman's Herb Geller! No breath of jazz did he play there, but how could there be jazz-influenced musics if there was no distinct though complex jazz?
.The coming into being of what the sleevenotes of Miles Davis's Jack Johnson call "Rock-Jazz" was for Ken a (sorry!) milestone development. A marker for the future it might well have been, but Ken doesn't see it as a stage in the development of jazz. The Rock came out of Blues, but not directly from the earlier or pre-Blues which went into jazz. Rock picked up on an electrified descendant of rural, mainly Mississippi Blues, and picked up elements from jazz and gospel music. By no means incompatible with jazz but in truth something else. Jack Johnson has brilliant trumpet solos pasted in. It's integrated, together, but an attenuation of jazz.
How far can combinations of genres go without falling into bland indterminacy? Some current jazz musicians can demonstrated the intimacy now possible with sub-genres of European concert music which was avant-garde when Beiderbecke might have liked to hear it. Quite apart from "free music", there are fascinating improvised performances on whose legitimacy Ken casts no aspersions. They are no more jazz than is jazz-influenced Ravel, or Andre Previn playing Mozart with his young violinist wife. Mixed genres tend to turn into something else, Northern European music can overwhelm the jazz element with which musicians try to combine it: frosty. Elsewhere rhythmic hypertrophy, rather than the "plenty rhythm" Jelly Roll Morton commended, can knock out swing and phrasing.