Jazz has never been completely cut off from the European musical tradition as some people imagine; we can immediately recall that some New Orleans musicians also played in the City Opera. Initially, most contacts were attempts to use ‘classical’ techniques, but as the general level of technical sophistication in jazz has increased, contacts between jazz and the more progressive parts of European music have been attempted. One of the first of these was Charlie Parker’s approach to Edgar Varese, destined to be fruitless because it took place so soon before Parker’s death. During the last decade, the number of borrowings, syntheses and approaches that have been attempted has increased, and a delineation and analysis of the total movement and its effects would take more time and space than we have available. Further development along these lines is in every way desirable. If we seriously accept the validity of the jazz tradition, we can envisage the development of a completely new musical form.
The approach made by Albert Ayler and his colleagues to contemporary European developments has been made solely on the basis of their attitude towards jazz, in some ways a destructive one. In making their music, these men have not used a knowledge of academic theory. Ayler and Peacock have had comparatively little formal musical education, while Sonny Murray is not much older than Ringo and was until recently a rock’n’roll drummer. Others, including both composers and jazz musicians, have attempted to make conscious use of European music in playing and writing ‘jazz’. Some of these attempts, such as parts of Gunther Schuller’s writing, and Donald Ellis’ use of serial and aleatoric techniques have been abortive. Others have been more successful, particularly the singular work of George Russell, which is a valid contribution to both traditions, and a complete refutation of the separatist point of view. One of the most recent attempts, of slighter significance than Russell’s music, but exciting nonetheless because it is so adventurous and thoroughgoing is that presented by the Bob James Trio in Explosions (esp-disk 1009). This record and Ayler’s
Though the group does not build its music from serialized material, its use of melodic and rhythmic ideas worked out in serial music is valid. The music has virtually no vertical dimension. Sometimes, the musicians play together, and the collective playing is intended as polyphony; at other times, a single, fragmented melodic line is distributed among the three instruments. Metrical form plays no part in the music, and no musician is required to make a continuous contribution. Continuous development has always been an essential part of the jazz musician’s method, and it is retained in Ornette Coleman’s music, in Cecil Taylor’s and in Ayler’s, and, taking this into account, some people might argue that this music is not jazz at all. This argument, however, would be futile and irrelevant.
On this record, James explores European methods even further by attempting to incorporate noise, in the form of prepared tape-recordings, into meaningful, improvised music. For this session, five ‘mixes’, based largely upon radio noise and the distorted sounds of the trio’s instruments, were prepared by James, bassist Barre Philips, and composers Bob Ashley and Gordon Mumma, also from Michigan. In each piece, a mix is used as the starting-point for improvization; the players intend to use the sounds as they would use another musician’s contribution. This approach to jazz improvizing is not necessarily a blind alley, as I thoughtlessly suggested in my last article. Electronic elements have been part of jazz for a long time, and rhythm-and-blues musicians have often used the ‘non-musical’ potential of their instruments to great effect, albeit naively. All good jazz musicians nake a constructive response to the environment in which they are making their music. Duke Ellington does this when he uses microphones and physical spacing to create stereophonic effects; Miles Davis does this when he plays to suit the accoustics of a concert hall. James, in adding a structural element to his musical environment, is doing essentially the same thing. The tapes merely alter the improvisational field and do not break it up or constrict it, as does Donald Ellis’ introduction of an intellectualized random factor. Therefore, it in no way contradicts the development of jazz.
Though the originality of James’ project alone would make this an important release, the actual results are, in general, satisfactory.
Four of the pieces, Explosions, Untitled Mix, An On and Peasant Boy are built around mixes of abstract sound. Of these, Untitled Mix is the most exciting, because of its continuous, unfolding development and sustained
The fifth piece, James and Ashley’s Wolfman is radically different from the rest of the music. It is a piece of pop-art, superficially more colourful than the other pieces, though perhaps less important, in which jazz and meaningful taped sounds are presented in dramatic contrast. Preceded by a mix based on a beer commercial, presented first normally and then speeded up, the central portion of this music involves a blues improvization played against a wall of swirling radio noise. The blues does not develop towards a climax; instead it becomes drowned in the noise which ultimately develops into a protracted broadcast motor-racing commentary of an unpleasantly frenetic character. It seems clear that this was not a failure to dominate the tape, as some reviewers have already suggested, but an intentional structure. One can question this intention, feeling that it would have been more desirable if the human elements had dominated the noise, as Coltrane does when soloing against the band in Blues Minor (hmv clp1548), or Ornette Coleman when improvising against Gunther Schuller’s string quartet (Jazz Abstractions: Atlantic 1365), but this gesture is not without effectiveness.