The Openness of Jazz

One of the great things about jazz is that it’s so open. You can’t just “sit in” with the orchestra when it’s playing Beethoven Five, but in jazz you get to play with different people all the time. It keeps the music fresh and edgy – makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger. It’s especially good when you get to hear great players perform your tunes.

This is what the photo above is about. It shows yours truly gigging at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2010 with Bob Sheppard. Bob is an LA-based sax player and gun improviser, whose output includes work with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker’s Quindectet tours. You can find out more about him from his website

I first met Bob when he toured Australia in the ‘90s as the featured soloist with Mike Stern’s band. When I heard he would be at Wangaratta with Kurt Elling, I asked him to play my set as well.

We played (my) acoustic/fusion originals – no standards. It was a good example of jazz’s openness; no rehearsing or talk about the music for the guy sitting in, just perform the tunes cold and solo straight up.

This audio is of Bob doing exactly that on a tune of mine called Silhouette. It’s a ballad with a loose tango feel and some unusual harmonic movement, then a kind of heavy cadence that you might hear in a pop tune.

Bob solos first and gets inside the tune straight away. Like all great improvisers, his soloing speaks to the head and the heart. In this excerpt you hear that in the lyrical economy of his approach to the tune’s quirkiness and with the emotional force that he plays that final cadence.

My solo follows and it’s interesting to compare the two. I’m hearing more happening over the changes, so my solo is busier. But getting inside the changes like that means that maybe the ideas don’t carry as much weight – more head than heart. I heard more clarity in Bob’s solo and liked the balance it struck. I’m going to explore that balance more in the way I play this tune.

It was great to hear Bob up close again – to play with him and hear him doing his thing on my tunes.

Long live the openness of jazz!

International Jazz Day

Today (1 May 2012) is International Jazz Day. The first ever! And Herbie Hancock, UNESCO’s new goodwill ambassador, has been spruking the day in the world’s media. UNESCO’s decision marks yet another incredible milestone in the ever expanding reach of this most improbable art-form.
It’s interesting too for what it might have to say about a touchy subject that’s weighed heavily on jazz for over two decades. It’s the debate about what jazz really is.
On one side, articulated beautifully today by Herbie, jazz is now a truly global phenomenon. In one interview he observes that it is “in a sense, a loss for America because finally UNESCO is proclaiming that jazz is not just American but it’s international.”
The other side, often championed by Wynton Marsalis, argues that jazz has always been and will always remain an African-American music. Many sub-styles have been derived from it, and this music might have been good, but it hasn’t been “jazz”. Marsalis wants jazz’s origins honoured for all time, as an achievement that Americans (and especially a dispossessed African–American poor) can take pride in, be inspired by, learn from and celebrate.
While every person of good will would want this too, the casting of a rebel music in iron runs the risk of marginalising the very foundation narrative the centrality of which Marsalis wants preserved. The problem is that today this narrative simply isn’t the key driver of jazz; a music that continues to explode unpredictably on the world stage in ways that can only partially be explained by its New Orleans origins.
Maybe the best way to honour jazz’s unique past is to revel in every reemergence of its incredible creative power, as if now permanently at play in the present. That’s what Herbie Hancock and UNESCO are doing today.
Happy International Jazz Day!

New Site

Welcome to my new site!

The story of jazz, improvisation and contemporary music in general has always
been incredibly fascinating to follow and to be a part of – and never more so
than now, when things feel like they’re changing so fast, the ground seems to be
shifting from under our feet.

What this all means for where jazz is at right now, where improvisation might be
heading and what trends in popular music will matter are going to be recurring
themes in this blog.

I hope you find it all as interesting as I do and hope that you get involved in the