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On and Off the Grid

What Is Jazz Now?

By Published: September 10, 2012
HG: My students at both Purchase Conservatory and The New School are showing a marked fascination with odd time signatures, as they should. But there has been little innovation in odd times signatures, played as such, since Don Ellis
Don Ellis
Don Ellis
1934 - 1978
' experiments in odd time signatures. Like Ellis, these students think that playing in odd time signatures is the be all and end all of it. However, both Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
and Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
1919 - 1978
stressed the point that one should be able to play odd time signatures within 4/4! A recent Ari Hoenig
Ari Hoenig
Ari Hoenig
DVD, Intro To Polyrhythms (Mel Bay, 2009) clearly demonstrates how this is possible.

DM: Just because it's improvisation, is it jazz?

HG: This is one of my faves. Improvisation does not define jazz. Improvisation is a built-in component of the human physiology. It is a problem solving technique that everyone uses on a daily basis. I mean, how many problems have you solved by merely applying duct tape to it? That we use improvisation in jazz doesn't define the music as jazz.

I found Hal's answers right to the point and If I were asked the same questions my answers would have been basically the same especially numbers one and three.

Trombonist Steve Swell
Steve Swell
Steve Swell
is a monster player who has made his rep playing free jazz and improvised music, and is an outspoken musician who has a totally different take on this.

DM: The illusive "they" are always talking about moving the music forward. Do you think by adding electronics such as wah-wahs, loops, distortion etc. is helping do that?

Steve Swell: To be honest, the questions posed here, to this musician at least, are irrelevant and have been for quite some time. It seems, with the proliferation of jazz magazines/blogs, educators with little real experience playing the music and whatever else may soon be out there, the "illusive they" have little to do with the music let alone "moving it forward." Rather, it seems that there is a lot of interest in just talking about music, writing about music, being "experts" on the music (and musicians), yet little understanding about this music or we musicians who make it, whatever the genre of jazz or improvisational approach discussed.

It has become a side show and in some instances, cottage industries have sprung up where the "illusive they" make more of a living off of the music than the musicians themselves. So I guess right off I take issue with the "illusive they" ("allusive" I believe is the correct word but "illusive" makes it sound as onerous as it is) because the people doing the "illusive they-ing" and not the playing or composing don't really know much about it. There are many intelligent, sensitive writers and educators out there and I count a number of them as real friends. But the damage and promotional biases of some "illusives" I've witnessed over the years is frankly not very pretty.

DM: Is there a place for electronics in jazz?

SS: The question of electronics is an old one and being rehashed here for a new generation that may not know of its already lengthy history. First, wah-wah pedals are the direct result of plunger mutes. Miles Davis' use of electronics alone should have put this question to rest by now. There are many musicians who have been using electronics and computers in jazz, new music and other approaches to improvisation for quite some time. I don't believe electronics move the music forward necessarily but they do add soundscapes that weren't there before. There are many examples of "jazz musicians" who started in jazz and later incorporated electronics or computers into their work. And these musicians have fostered relationships with improvisers or composers who did not have their start in jazz, but together have found common ground in the making of interesting music by including electronics or computers. So I'm not sure if it's a question of "having a place in jazz" as is it okay for jazz musicians to be involved with this technology, and that question has been answered by the musicians. I'm not interested in using electronics personally but I'm not against playing with musicians who do if it's the right fit. I've performed with Elliot Sharp, Rob Mazurek
Rob Mazurek
Rob Mazurek
and Susan Alcorn, to name a few, and find lots of interesting areas in which to add my sounds. No one can predict what "moves the music forward." It just happens.

DM: Some musicians are using odd time signatures ( 7/8, 11/8/ 13/8); is that really what jazz is suppose to be?

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