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John Law: Deeper into the Music

Jakob Baekgaard By

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I play the piano. That's quite an old instrument, isn't it? I use harmonies.

I'll leave it up to other people to use labels.

AAJ: You have worked in many different constellations, both as a sideman and as a leader. Is there anyone in particular who has influenced your own playing and, if so, in what way?

JL: Not sure if you mean musicians I have played with who have influenced me or just generally pianists or instrumentalists I've listened to...

Regarding the latter I have a policy of never saying which pianists I consider my main influences. Firstly I sort of think it's probably quite obvious, mostly. Secondly, I like to think that's your job... I'm not going to make it easier for you! I enjoy seeing writers name influences just from what they hear, from examples like the very first write up I had (in the Wire Magazine) where the guy said I was obviously influenced by a certain pianist whom I hadn't actually ever heard up to that point (!) right up to where they actually get it spot on.

This policy came about many years ago, with the very first CD I was on, Syzygy (Leo, 1990), by Jon Lloyd. Every review raved about my playing. Except one. That was a French guy whom I sent the CD to, with a letter saying something like I didn't think I played that well on it but hoped he liked it sort of thing. The result was he said, in his review that I sounded, on the CD, ill at ease. I was sure that was because of what I'd said! I decided, from then on, never to do critics' homework for them.

So all I say is I've listened to everybody.

But I will say this about my trio. I'm trying to do something very wide-ranging. The fact is I really like lots of different music and different current piano trios. And I would say that, apart from some very obvious pianists whose influence anyone can hear in my playing (like I said, I won't name them!) there are three trios that are very, very different from each other that have all influenced my composing for the Art of Sound trio. They're what I would call my Holy Trinity of piano trio stylists. In no particular order: Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Tord Gustavsen and The Bad Plus. They all sound so different. And they hardly overlap in territory at all. Yet I like them all. Work that one out; for me, these three seem to cover most, if not all, of the areas I'm interested in.



People I've played with who have influenced me forever: well firstly the two guys in my trio, Sam Burgess and Asaf Sirkis, are a constant source of inspiration. Really, when I play with them I just hope, in my heart, to play to my satisfaction so that I feel worthy enough to be on the same bandstand as them. That's how high I rate them.

John LawOther than them I would have to say that the following five musicians I've worked with have left an indelible imprint on my sound-world: Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Tim Garland, Jason Rebello and Jon Lloyd.

And, if this isn't backtracking on my saying I wouldn't tell you all my influences, I listen absolutely loads to the new generation in the UK. Younger people give you such a buzz. There are things they do that older, supposed-to-be-wiser people just haven't got. The main guys for me are these pianist/composers: Tom Cawley, Gwilym Simcock and Robert Mitchell.

AAJ: So how do you judge the climate of jazz to be in Great Britain at the moment? And how do you see the relationship between the European and American jazz tradition?

JL: The situation here in the UK is that jazz education has reached, as far as I can tell (and I live now out of London, in the South West of England, where I teach privately, but I have some knowledge of what is going on in the main colleges and universities) an unbelievably high level. With the result that there are, every year, some quite extraordinary young musicians coming out of the colleges. Whether there's work for them all I don't know. I somehow doubt it. But they're unbelievably well equipped. By that I mean they play their instruments wonderfully well (of course), they can all read, they can play in different tempos and meters, they swap time signatures with no problem, they have a thorough knowledge of harmony. Most importantly, they seem to have a great feel and groove.

John LawAnd one of the reasons is that, because there isn't enough work for the current jazz musicians, a lot of them are teaching at colleges and universities themselves. So there are some quite amazing instrumentalists all involved in the education system.

I think the new breed of jazz musician is someone who's into trying lots of different things out. Mixing lots of different influences together. It's very exciting.

But I do worry sometimes that the public might be being left behind somewhat. You can go to a small jazz club in London and hear some quite remarkable music and sometimes I wonder whether some members of the public, who clap reasonably enthusiastically, but not wildly, realize quite what level of musicianship they've just heard.

The perennial question is always that American vs. European one...I think it's sort of become a non-question. Maybe not for people like me, as I definitely feel European and still grapple with the American jazz traditions and try to assimilate some elements into my European art music aesthetic. But perhaps for most of the younger breed. They've already assimilated all they want from the American traditions and they're moving on and doing their own thing.

Here's something strange: I got this idea, a while ago, after attending a concert by the Tord Gustavsen trio, that for people like that, for the pianist Tord and for many other Europeans, when we play something bluesy we seem to change the blues ( the scale, the sound, the vocabulary of the genre, because the blues is sort of like an Indian Raga, isn't it? It's not just a scale, it's a set of certain moods and contains also melodic phrases as part of the scale and part of the language), we change it so it sort of mutates into a folk scale, which is sort of what it is anyway.

But that's not quite what I mean. When someone like Tord plays something bluesy it sounds somehow really European, like European folk music. Definitely not black music. And I've heard other people do that. Jan Garbarek used to do it. There's an Italian pianist I really rate... he does it. I somehow try to do it too. I was recently looking at the score of Strauss' opera Salome. I started experimenting with the so-called 'Salome chord.' It's sort of a C# diminished chord over C# minor. That's a bluesy sound, if you like. But the reference points are very different.

So that's the sort of way my mind works and, I'm sure, from the results I hear across Europe, many other musicians' minds work. We're in a time of synthesis, where we take and adapt ideas. It's all a result of a lack of belonging. And it's an attempt to find a new belonging as well, I feel.

AAJ: What is your stance on criticism and the role of value judgment in music. In his 1968 book, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Gunther Schuller famously criticizes what he calls "well-meaning amateur criticism and fascinated opinion." Is the prerequisite for being a good critic a theoretical understanding of things such as melody, harmony, form and rhythm or is it enough to have a more intuitive understanding of these matters in order to make a sound aesthetic judgment?

John LawJL: Where to start? With a funny story... Quite a few years ago a critic emailed me to say he was writing an article, interviewing pianists about their thoughts on Thelonious Monk and something about their favorite Monk tunes. He asked me what my favorite tune of his was. I emailed back at length, explaining that I don't do favorites. It's against what I believe in and is simply not the way I see things. He emailed back saying fine, but if I had to choose, which one. I emailed back again saying that I didn't do favorites. I explained that I didn't do favorites among my pupils, nor among my children. I just don't compare like that. He emailed again saying yes but which one. So in the end, to please him, I gave him a couple I tend to play a lot. He said Thanks John!

Being a critic he just didn't understand.

I really dislike comparisons. They don't make sense. What's the point in saying artist A is not like artist B? Of course they're not the same; that's why they're different people. What's the point in saying that artist A's album from two years ago is not the same as the one he did this year? Of course they're not; they're different albums.

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