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Words on World Jazz

By Published: August 10, 2007

The term 'world' further opens the already wide-open arms of (American) jazz to sounds from other cultures. Yusef Lateef and John and Alice Coltrane were among the early pioneers of this expansion

By Kali Z. Fasteau

Let's take a dialectic approach to the subject of 'world jazz', looking at both the macro contours (the big picture) and the micro tones, like the Indian term 'sruti': the smallest audible difference of pitch. In response to questions about genre, I started using this term because it directly conveys the dynamic synthesis of world music and jazz. Some dislike the word 'jazz' because of its origin, but according to numerology, it is very auspicious: J (#1) + A (#1) + 2 Z (#8) = 9 = spiritual culmination. Also, names containing A, J or Z are considered lucky, so with all three, jazz is very lucky (we wish that would also apply to the economics of the music). Moreover, the word looks good on the page and sounds good on the tongue.

Worldwide, jazz implies improvised or spontaneously created music, departing from or 'improving on' form. Because jazz, of course, is itself a vital hybrid of mainly African musical energy, rhythms and melodic phrasing with European instruments, language and some aspects of harmony and song form, plus its overriding spontaneous creative aspect, it can embrace aspects of music from anywhere and everywhere, as can no other music on the planet, in a profound and high-quality synthesis.

The term 'world' further opens the already wide-open arms of (American) jazz to sounds from other cultures. Yusef Lateef and John and Alice Coltrane were among the early pioneers of this expansion. Miriam Makeba, Hamza El Din, Ravi Shankar, Olatunji, Solomon Ilori, Oum Kalsoum, Yma Sumac, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and many others introduced international music to the US in the mid 20th century, enriching this soundscape.

In the early '60s, multi-instrumentalist Donald Rafael Garrett brought an innovative global sonic template for spontaneous composition to the Chicago music scene. He was the idea man and co-founder with Muhal Richard Abrams of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). When Rafael and I began our collaboration in 1971, I had previously begun my jazz, blues, soul and world music journey from childhood listening and later during college (Reed). In 1968, when I got to grad school at Wesleyan, the department was known as Ethnomusicology; I started calling it "World Music and the term caught on.

These days, many more jazz artists are including sounds from other cultures in their musical vocabularies. In the last 15 years or so, the world music scene has burgeoned, including sub-genres "traditional , "fusion , "roots and "world beat , with widely varying results that you may appreciate according to your own preferences. The products depend on the source materials in the blend and the principal intent and direction of the artists. Especially earlier on, the main problem for 'fusion' artists from other countries was access to the best of American music, which was often practically unavailable to them; usually only rock and the most trite of classical music was exported by the US. Also, in India and several other countries, the import of jazz records was actually banned for some years. Sourcing authentic music from other traditions was not as often a problem from the US side. A wealth of field recordings from far-flung cultures has proliferated over the years, often with unscrupulous business arrangements (lack of appropriate payment) for the foreign artists thus 'catalogued'. The critical challenge now for musicians of other lands is to preserve and cultivate their musical legacy and to balance a nuanced synthesis with other sensitive musics, withstanding the onslaught of ubiquitous American commercial culture.

Playing piano, cello, flute and voice since early childhood and drum set and reeds in college, multi-instrumentalism is as natural to me as is multi-lingualism to people who have grown up speaking several languages. The shift from one language to another is instantaneous and without conscious thought. The main challenge of a poly-instrumentalist is making the time to maintain chops on each instrument, with its unique requirements, beauty and charm, delicacy and power. It is fascinating to see both the similarities and differences within the large families of chordal, wind, brass and percussion instruments across the planet, in terms of design, materials and sound. While Rafael Garrett and I pursued our musical odyssey around the world, we would seek instruments from each new place and revel in their unusual timbres, as well as learn new scales and rhythms. Rafael taught me how to make bamboo flutes and we created three types of flutes: shakuhachi (sho, quena), ney (nai, kaval) and transverse (bansuri), with both traditional scales and scales of our own invention.

There are some musicians who specialize in learning and performing precisely within the confines of one tradition, be it mainstream jazz, Indian music, one of many African musics, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Latin music or another. My chosen work is bringing together sounds I love through the innovative energy of the jazz tradition, doing justice to the original timbres and feeling, as the sounds flow through me. My personal taste in ideas and music has always leaned toward the unusual, uncommon, passionate and beautiful. Many musicians choose to play one instrument in many styles, whereas I choose to play many instruments in a unique personal style. In any case, our instruments are our tools, actually serving as extensions of our bodies as resonators and shapers of the sound-energy we are continually learning to channel.

"The Tao of Music is the way I see the infinite possibilities of music: as the dynamic union of opposite and complementary parameters of sound. This application of the ancient spiritual concept of Tao provides a universal theory for spontaneous composition. At any moment the musician is free to choose from the paired, yin and yang, aspects of sound: high and low, loud and soft, fast and slow, legato and staccato, rough and smooth timbres, odd and even rhythmic meters, static and bent tones, regular and aleatory pulse, diatonic and microtonal scales, monorhythm and polyrhythm, etc. Through contrast and juxtaposition, sounds define and delineate each other, thus creating and sustaining interest in the music. The spontaneous composer mediates among these opposite qualities of sound flowing through time, manifesting the fleeting moment, enhancing awareness of the eternal now for both listener and musician.

Music is (fortunately) beyond words and through this glorious and powerful medium universal love and true intercultural appreciation can be expressed and shared. From my experience, the best thought to hold in your mind as a musician while performing is to have every sound you produce carry the message of joy, love and compassion on its wings, to the immediate audience and out to the boundless universe. Our highest calling as sound doctors is to treat this ailing world with transcendent music. Working with the transformational power that is in music carries a heavy responsibility. We are so fortunate to have this healing energy come through us and should show our gratitude through our sincere and careful devotion to refining and deepening the music that we live.


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