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.")

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.

John LawAAJ: 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.

John LawThere 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 music—chief among these has to be classical (functional) harmony; it's unique in the whole of world music—and mix them with those elements I get from jazz which I don't get from the classical tradition—mainly 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.

Then there's the element of spontaneity. Funnily enough I try and achieve, with my improvising, a feeling that it's sort of almost been composed beforehand, and with my compositions, the idea that they're made up on the spot. I don't always try for this but it's somewhere at the back of my mind. Because, on the one hand I truly believe that only through real time composition can one achieve some of the most amazing results in music, in terms of perfect form and in terms of matching the atmosphere with something totally appropriate. But on the other hand, I'm very conscious of the fact that when improvising's lost its way and is meandering, then it's suddenly the very poor relative of written music. In times like those I'd sort of rather be playing something I know is really beautiful and works.. <> You asked about how I see a link between mainstream and avant-garde. I don't really do these distinctions. I leave that up to critics! I think most critics would be hard pressed to accurately describe what they mean by these terms. And certainly not in technical terms that a musician would agree with. When people start using the term avant-garde it sort of winds me up. My stock response is how much more avant-garde can you get than a piece by Nam June Paik, which involves the performer crawling inside the vagina of a live whale!

John Law Abacus Quartet (l:r): John Law, Jon Lloyd, Tim Wells, Gerry Hemingway



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