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John Law: Deeper into the Music

Jakob Baekgaard By

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John LawClassical music and jazz are often perceived as two radically different art forms that cannot be merged. Historically, the idea of a so-called "third stream" that is able to combine the language of jazz and classical music into a coherent whole has proved rather difficult to translate into praxis, and yet it is undeniable that a bond, however fragile, exists between the two musics. This was evident from the very beginning, with pianist Scott Joplin's ambition to create a musical language equal to that of the classical masters. The widespread notion of jazz music as the classical music of America has, in many ways, become common stock, especially since jazz made the transition from popular culture to high art.

The truth, however, is that the worlds of jazz and classical music still remain fairly separated, but there is a handful of artists, especially pianists, who have been able to navigate between the two worlds while still working distinctively within the idiom of jazz. These artists include pianists Brad Mehldau, Tord Gustavsen, Enrico Pieranunzi and Keith Jarrett. Add to this list the name John Law.



Law started out as classical musician, doing his first public performances at the age of six and soon he received encouragement from legendary pianist Alfred Brandel, but a career as a classical concert pianist was interrupted in 1986 when he turned to jazz. Since then, Law has worked with a vast range of musicians from saxophonists Evan Parker and Jon Lloyd to drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Asaf Sirkis. Musically, he has covered genres from free jazz and bop to modern composition, working in several formations: solo, duo, trio, quartet and large ensemble. Besides the large-scale work, Out of the Darkness (Slam, 2006), where he conducted an orchestra of eleven musicians, including a string section, one of his latest projects has been the completion of the series, The Art of Sound that finds him performing solo and with the astounding trio of bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Asaf Sirkis.

All About Jazz: You started out very early as a classical musician. Could you tell something about your experience with the classical tradition and how you made the move into jazz?

John Law: Classical music (whatever that means) was my first love. My mother, who was a Viennese pianist and piano teacher, very much in the Germanic tradition (you know: Bach/Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert/Schumann...) used to relate that one of my first signs of musicality was when I got up and danced, as a two year old, to the last movement of Beethoven's violin concerto. It's worth pointing this out, as many people seem to think that, in relation to jazz, classical music is somehow a more intellectual pursuit. Not at all. It was absolutely my first love. And it still remains very deep within me.

I'm convinced that it's a bit like a field that's been sown with certain crops; my first crop is classical music. That means that if I don't tend my field, in terms of working almost daily on my jazz feel and groove, that first crop, rather like weeds, starts to grow up through the cracks and my time and feel suffer because classical music and playing, compared to any groove-based music, is a totally different feel. Almost every bar is different, time-wise. And that was my mother tongue. My first musical language.

John LawWhy I turned to jazz and how are two different questions. Why? Well I always wanted to write music and do music of now. Not 18th and 19th century music. I got turned on to jazz when I was about 23. I realized, immediately, that it did something that classical music didn't do. And I knew, also immediately, that I would still be able to play the instrument I loved, and compose, which I loved doing. Whether on manuscript paper or in real time, through improvising. It sort of just ticked all the boxes.

How did I change to jazz? Well in a way that's the whole story of my life since then. Because, to be honest, it's been a struggle. I'd love, some day, to communicate to someone else who's starting out on this path of changing from classical to jazz, all the difficulties I've encountered and my particular solutions to them. Because they are very different disciplines, classical and non-classical. If I had to sum up the main difference I would say that classical music is, being about interpretation (as the great English pianist Keith Tippett said: "you have to decide, are you going to be a curator or a creator.")

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