Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh: Aspiration, 1978

Continuing on the topic of foreign influences in jazz music, here's Aspiration by Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh, the great pianist from Azerbaijan. The album consists of straight ahead jazz songs by a trio, adaptations of Azerbaijani folk songs featuring singing by Elza, Vagif's wife, and a very interesting title track that fuses jazz with the mugamat, or scales, common to Azerbaijani music and other Middle Eastern musical traditions. Mustafa-Zadeh plays the song in the tempered tuning standard to Western music rather than the uneven tuning of the mugam, but to me, this song nonetheless feels deeply rooted in another musical idiom. Hear an example of an Azerbaijani mugam here, played on a lute instrument called the tar by Bahram Mansurov: Clearly, with this song and other work in the same vein, Mustafa-Zadeh created a modernized hybrid music out of jazz and his country's musical tradition, not to mention causing a stir among the Soviets for playing American jazz in the early days of his career.

What I really want to talk about today is how unlike musicians from other countries whose musical backgrounds were gladly accepted into the cannon of American jazz, musicians from other parts of the world have had to force jazz to adapt to their regional music. That is not to say that some musicians, like Ahmed Abdul-Malik, have not expressed an interest in Middle Eastern and North African musics, and Joe Harriott's Indo Jazz Fusion work with John Mayer also paved the way for many hybrid musics to come. What's more, many musicians from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian backgrounds are highly regarded in jazz today. But because the musics from these places tends to lack an obvious connection to the diasporic musics of Black Africa, they have not been received as readily as Brazilian or Cuban music by most American jazz musicians. Jazz is an incredibly international music, and a lot of work has been done individually and collectively by jazz musicians to bring a variety of influences into the music. In some instances, like the Brazilian case, whole movements have occurred in which Americans and musicians from abroad have worked together and separately to develop these hybridizations. Both musicians and records played the role of jazz ambassadors. What fascinates me about music like Mustafa-Zadeh's is that people in his position have to work very much on their own compared to jazz musicians playing sambas and other musics of the Black diaspora well established within the jazz cannon.

George Lipsitz has said that the very project of establishing a conventional jazz cannon, a project undertaken by people like Wynton Marsalis, has forced the exclusion of many musicians from what is conventionally considered jazz even though those musicians see their music as a contribution to jazz. I think that Mustafa-Zadeh and others like him have had to cut out a place for themselves in the jazz world for another reason. While it might not have helped that elite circles in jazz lacked interest in their music and even saw it as less pure than other jazz, they were also largely off the radar of most jazz musicians in general, even those who discontent with the Marsalis model of jazz. Some musicians simply come from marginal corners of the jazz world, and like I say, because they have a fewer predecessors to look to in fusing their music with jazz, they must come up with creative ways to integrate two disparate musics into a coherent whole. Even if their songs and performances aren't always remembered as timeless classics, they are true mavericks of jazz.

Mustafah-Zadeh passed away in 1979. His daughter Aziza Mustafa Zadeh has continued along the path the he cut, singing and playing jazz-mugam hybrids on the piano. Nowadays, an increasing number of musicians have been integrating many musics historically unfamiliar to the jazz cannon into jazz contexts. I'm personally very excited to see Rudresh Mahanthappa, one of today's most widely renowned Indian-jazz hybrid artists, play at the Angel City Jazz Fest in Los Angeles this fall.

Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh: piano
Tamaz Kurashvili: bass
Vladimir Boldyrev: drums
Elza Mustafa-Zadeh: vocals

Aspiration by Easy Jams

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chico Freeman: Peaceful Heart, Gentle Spirit, 1980

Peaceful Heart, Gentle Spirit includes a lot of musical textures, from warm spiritual jazz to the more dissonant music that Chico Freeman is largely known for to a jazz/ classical crossover track to close out the album. What really interested me was the use of Brazilian and Caribbean percussion on this record. The percussionists, Paulinho Da Costa and Efrain Toro, are credited on the back cover but not mentioned on the front, presumably because they were not the biggest names on the record. Aside from their musician credits, there is really no reference to Caribbean or Brazilian themes anywhere on the front of back covers. This is not rare on jazz records, and I'm sure there are many other albums out there that include Caribbean and Brazilian influences this casually. That in itself makes this record noteworthy to me. In the forties, when American jazz musicians were first starting to play with Cubans, the inclusion of Afro-Caribbean music in American jazz was a big deal and a much remarked on sign of diasporic consciousness in Black America. Even in the early 60's, most albums with a Latin influence included some reference to it in the album title or cover art. The same thing tended to happen with Brazilian music when it became influential in American jazz.

Chico Freeman's unspectacular treatment of these elements on his album indicate a certain comfort with the genres, a sense that they are now so closely intertwined with jazz music that their presence is more commonplace than remarkable. One could interpret this as a heightened version of the diasporic consciousness that Jazz experienced in the 40's, because the link between the musics is assumed and accepted implicitly. The unmistakable sound of the Brazilian tambourine becomes almost as much of an icon of American jazz as of samba and bossa nova. At the same time, the presence of so many influences of varying conventionality on this album, notably classical music, may also dilute the significance of the casual inclusion of musics that were first developed abroad and famously integrated into jazz. In any case, the Brazilian and Caribbean influences in these songs weren't musically surprising.

Another thing on this album stuck out to me: the presence and occasionally outside style of pianist Kenny Kirkland. Kirkland is no stranger to free jazz and has played on a number of unconventional albums, but is probably best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis is one of the few musicians whose discourse has arguably had a greater effect on the genre than his instrument. He really solidified the notion of a conventional jazz cannon not only with his inside playing, but with his efforts to define jazz, like Ken Burns, as America's classical music, a music which is bound to a very particular format and style. An early article of his called "What Jazz Is- and Isn't" exemplifies the way in which he has tried to separate out true jazz from other creative music. Naming Max Roach as a jazz visionary of the highest caliber, Marsalis insists that Roach, "matched [his extraordinary] talent with an ongoing dedication to sustained development [of the genre.]"

To me, the history and development of jazz seem much less linear and focused. If it is not a history of combining many musical currents, then it is certainly one of navigating them. Early on, musicians balanced between blues roots and new complex chords. Early small combos worked off Black musical traditions but also covered songs written for Broadway by Jewish songwriters inspired by earlier Black musics. Some artists of that period also started to integrate instruments, rhythms, and harmonies from foreign musical traditions. (I've even heard that North Indian rhythms inspired some of Max Roach's music.) Later, musicians explored the overlap between inside and outside playing, and spiritual jazz albums focused as much on repetition and space as on the development of jazz as a pure, distinct, and (somewhat) predictable art form. To me, Kirkland's work with Marsalis as well as his contributions to this album and many others that defy convention in various ways speaks to the idea of jazz as a genre for navigator-musicians. Jazz musicians both go with the flow and fight against currents in the music that variously intersect and conflict. Jazz as much as any other genre is a composite of influences, and I don't believe that any one manifestation of jazz is most pure. As far as I can tell, the creative resourcefulness of the musicians binds all forms of jazz to the genre more strongly than the adherence to and development of a singular (but communal) artistic vision.

Chico Freeman: saxes, flutes, clarinets
James Netwon: flutes
Kenny Kirkland: piano
Jay Hoggard: vibes
John Koenig: cello
Buster Williams: bass
Billy Hart: drums
Paulinho da Costa: percussion
Efrain Toro: percussion

Nia's Dance Song by EasyJams

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

George Crumb: Vox Balaenae, 1974

This item (a first recording!) probably won't be too popular with most of the blog listeners, but it's an old favorite that I rediscovered recently. It's a composition for flute, cello, and piano inspired by the voices of whales. It seems to me that in some circles, the focus on pure music, ("art" music as its called,) in modern classical music got obscured by a new search for new forms. Innovation became such a major measure of success in that genre that a lot of composers and listeners began to focus extensively on forms, arguably to the detriment of the music's aesthetic. The intellectual experience of the music became prized at least as much as the listening experience. In my mind, George Crumb is a composer who did not lose sight of the importance of beauty in music.

A lot of people still criticize this kind of music because they believe that as "pure" art, it is only aesthetic and little if anything lies below the surface. I don't know a lot about George Crumb other than as a composer, so I can't speak to what might have gone into this album or what he meant for listeners to take away from it, but I can tell you how much I connected with it musically the first time I heard it. Of all the modern classical composers who focus on the use of space in their music, I think that Crumb is among the most tasteful with his understanding of the balance between sound and silence. He uses them to emphasize one another without overdoing it by trying too hard to develop new forms. Listening to his music, I get the sense that he was different from many musicians of his day and the present. Where many have said that working outside conventions have freed them from forms, they actually come under pressure to devise new ones and it shows in their music. Crumb seems to really operate best by his own rules, using his freedom as a so-called avant-gardist to make music that can appeal to people who accept it for what it is without trying to challenge them too much.

What's nice about this music is that its not supposed to go over your head and you're not supposed to need much if any background knowledge to appreciate it. Whether or not this is the case in practice is another story, but I appreciate Crumb's attempt at making a universal music. Even if I'm wary of the popular claim that music is the universal language, (often substantiated by the existence various cross-cultural hybrid genres,) attempts to make something fundamentally beautiful usually come from enthusiastic, dedicated artists. Crumb may not be trying to convey an important social or philosophical message with his musical imitation of a whale's voice, and his music might not quite do it for you, but he still goes about his trade with a level of passion that would step up the game in any genre. Maybe this is the closest thing there is to a universal in music.

Vox Balaenae by EasyJams

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Curtis Fuller: Smokin', 1972

Curtis Fuller's Smokin' is made up mostly of swinging, straight ahead cuts, but the opening track is funkier, built around what almost sounds like a rockabilly riff played by the electric piano and bass. On the first two tracks in particular, the band has a very playful approach to the basic structures of the songs, each musician deviating from them occasionally without interrupting the flow of the music. Fuller, best known for his work with a number of jazz giants in the 50's and 60's, plays with some notable musicians on this record, including renowned drummer and LA community music figure Billy Higgins and jazz legends Jimmy Heath and Cedar Walton.
Curtis Fuller: trombone
Earl Dunbar: guitars
Cedar Walton: keys
Billy Higgins: drums
Mickey Bass: basses
Bill Hardman: trumpet

Smokin' by EasyJams