John Law: Deeper into the Music
it's mainly about quantitative improvement. Jazz is about qualitative improvement. By that I mean that classical pianists or instrumentalists practice very hard on their technique, how to play faster, longer, louder etc and on their pieces, how to play them nearly 100% accurate. OK, I know they talk a lot about interpretation, but essentially they work on elements that can sort of be measured. In jazz we work really hard on less tangible things such as feel and groove. On the quality of our feel. On our sound (touch or embouchure, what reeds we use, what cymbals or kit we use, whatever our instrument is), on our harmonic sound (for pianists, those harmonies we really want to be associated with), on our actual melodic/improvisational vocabulary. This is all to do with quality. It's a different approach.
AAJ: There's a great awareness of form and an extensive knowledge of tradition in your music. Could you comment on your use of musical tradition? How do you see the link between the past and the present, improvised and composed music, mainstream and avant-garde?
JL: Form has always obsessed me. After Music, my main loves are Art and Architecture. I often 'see' music in a semi-synaesthetic way (I'll never forget when I first heard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger, as a student, when the themes all come together in the orchestra, with the first theme in the bass and the secondary theme in the strings, I could almost literally "see" the music unfolding in front of me; a life-changing experience). I remember, when I used to play with the free jazzers, I was never sure if it was the wrong thing to do or not, but playing with people like Evan Parker, I would start what was supposed to be a totally freely improvised gig with whatever motive popped into my mind but... I'd consciously make a mental note of it and remember it, so I could bring it back at key moments.
In terms of tradition I'm not one of those jazz pianists who embraces the whole jazz tradition. After all it's not essentially my tradition. I'm not a Jaki Byard or such like pianist. In terms of jazz traditions I sometimes try and use the impetus or essence behind certain piano stylings (like older genres such as boogie or stride) without attempting to master and reproduce them.
My main link is with the classical traditions, which is my first heritage. How I use this heritage is really up to others to comment on, I think. There are details such as on my latest trio CD Congregation (33 Jazz, 2009), there's a piece inspired partly by Bach (I say partly because the first direct inspiration was actually a tune by e.s.t.). Or another example: in an intro to a piece on a much earlier recording I quote Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll." I also did a four-CD series, in the '90s, based on Gregorian Chant. This was in a period when I was immersing myself in a lot of Renaissance and Medieval music.
There are quite a few other examples. But I suppose what you're really asking is a more generalized statement on how I feel I relate, in general terms, as someone who would loosely be called a jazz pianist/composer, working in the 21st century, to my musical past and how does it inform what I do now. I do think that's mainly for an outside observer to comment on but here are some thoughts. I think I try and retain some of the best elements of classical musicchief among these has to be classical (functional) harmony; it's unique in the whole of world musicand mix them with those elements I get from jazz which I don't get from the classical traditionmainly what I sometimes call the voodoo element. The repetitive rhythm and groove, which classical music never has.
You can say, as some people jokingly do, that Boogie Woogie started with Beethoven because he uses a texture and left hand figure remarkably similar to that style in one of the variations in his last piano sonata. But the difference between this and the drive of boogie is actually very revealing. Similarly, you can point to the rhythm and drive of some Systems music, and you can hear, in something like Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" (with Pat Metheny) that there's a great deal of rhythm, but, again, the difference between this music and, say, the African music he derived some of his language from, or jazz rhythms, reveals that they are very different. The classical rhythm lacks an essential, deep groove.