It Ain't Got That Swing

Sorry, Louie, but it must be asked; if it ain’t got that swing, is it still jazz? Yes, indeed it is. And it does mean a thing.

Think of jazz, the complete body of history and knowledge, as a set of quanta; styles, musicians, concerts, albums and writings, then find a way to plot those quanta in a chart. For example, plot an X-axis of the evolution of jazz styles through time, and then place the number of albums issued in each style on the Y-axis, and you’ll get a distribution something like this:

Jazz Through Time.png

It’s rough, it’s generalized, but it illustrates the point I want to make, which is that jazz styles are distributed along a bell curve, with the styles that have had the longest history of propagation enjoying the greatest general success and thereby moving the bulk of the curve in one direction or another. This is an important way to look at jazz, because it’s a unique musical concept; it’s a social music which seeks a popular and (originally) dance-based audience, it’s a music which develops knowledge about what it can possibly do and keeps expanding and moving that forward through time, and it is a music the relies on improvisation for its existence and continued development. There are other musics around the world that have these characteristics, but no other which combines all three.

There’s a feedback loop built into that curve as well. Styles that musicians find the most attractive and fruitful will be played and produced more commonly (jazz is unpopular enough that musicians are still relatively unfettered to make music in the style they desire). Hard-Bop, arguably, is the most frequently produced style in jazz since it’s the most appealing to other musicians, and it certainly is the lingua franca, idiomatically, of the music since the mid-1950s. But jazz-rock and free styles have been hanging in there gamely over the last forty years, and enough musicians respond with their own variations of those styles to move the distribution along the curve forward through time. Of course, if a massive revival of Dixieland and Traditional styles happened and lasted for a century, the distribution would be moved back towards the left. It’s the styles at the edges that make the mainstream body of the music, and the mainstream idea of what that music is, move through tastes and concepts.

So, if it doesn’t swing, is it still jazz? Yes, indeed it is, it’s jazz to the right on the chart. But if it doesn’t swing, what elements does it have which identify it as jazz? This is an important and arguable question, and for the sake of this particular essay I define jazz in two inseparable ways; as a music with particular qualities and as a cultural concept. Jazz is a music which expresses an idea of rhythmic freedom within the limits of the rhythmic quality it presents, and which, through improvisation, allows for the possible expression of anything. Culturally, jazz is music created by racial and ethnic minorities as a way to place a sincere claim on American ideals and nationality and through which generations of new ethnic and racial minorities have assimilated into American culture and added their own voices to it (that is, until this past generation or so, which has used Hip-Hop as such a vehicle, an interesting story of Modernism vis-a-vis Post-Modernism which will need to be saved for the future).

Culturally, this story is pretty clear. Jazz began as a mixture of African-American work and worship songs, Spanish and French popular and dance music, and white marches, and was developed as an enduring music mainly by Blacks, Italians and Jews through the first half of the twentieth century. Musically, this definition requires refinement. “Swing” was created in jazz, but jazz itself didn’t swing for a decade at least. The earliest recordings of the music, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to King Oliver and even to Bix Beiderbecke, Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson have tremendous rhythmic drive and life, and are certainly not stiff, but the beat is not yet what we think of as a jazz beat, that’s not there yet. What is there is the clear desire to lay down a tempo and a beat and then see how far it could be pushed and pulled away from the center while sill being coherent. It was a process of experimentation which arrived at “Swing,” like science develops theories from evidence. But once swing as a rhythm appeared, it was subject to the further experimentation of Be-Bop, which itself doesn’t swing in the classic sense (it’s almost too fast to swing) but still seeks rhythmic freedom (and led inevitably to free jazz). Hard-Bop swings fiercely, it reclaims that idea, but by mixing in flavors of funk and R&B it points the way towards jazz-rock, which doesn’t swing either.

This history of jazz shows that the rhythmic element of swing is secondary to the articulation of sounds, which is what really makes jazz sound like jazz. It’s the way a player attacks and shapes notes, independently and in relation to the other notes in a melodic phrase, improvised solo, and even walking bass line. While every player has a personal approach to articulation (compare the way Coltrane and Sonny Rollins begin the production of each note on ‘Tenor Madness’ for a good contrast), there is a combination of elements that makes a certain way of playing music into jazz; a vocalized approach to making notes, meaning a variation in the dynamics, inflection and shape of the beginning of each one; a rhythmic articulation that goes hand in hand with the vocalized one in that a line or set of chords has a rhythmic emphasis that the articulation conveys and reinforces; and a consistent placement against the prevailing beat, whether that may be playing in tempo slightly ahead of the beat, like Dizzy Gillespie, or doing the same well behind the beat, a la Dexter Gordon. This is a way to make music that is absolutely jazz even as it’s played over a straight eighth note beat – Dave Holland’s contemporary Quintet is strictly jazz over mainly rock and funk grooves – and separates the vocalized, jazz articulation of John Scofield from the more uniform attack and metronomic precision of Al DiMeola, who is playing rock guitar, not jazz, on those Return to Forever records.

Just as swing is actually not an essential feature of jazz, the same is (counterintuitively) true for improvisation; not all jazz is improvised. This is heard across the decades, whether it’s the ODJB or Stan Kenton or Mingus, but many of the non-improvised records were developed through improvising parts before the music was felt ready, and all the music retains the possibility of improvisation as an essential part of its aesthetic. It’s the difference between a rock group improvising riffs and putting together a song, then recreating that finished result again and again, and a jazz group doing the same and then building more improvisation in repeated live performances.

The fundamental idea is that jazz advances. Like a living person, it explores, learns, masters and grows. What is possible now is so because previous generations of musicians accumulated a body of knowledge which supports each new generation. A handful of jazz releases, most new (with one new to me), which swing hardly at all, demonstrate a broad and exciting range of possibilities and are all definitely jazz.

Paul Motian has been one of the great and most unique drummers in jazz for many decades. As he nears 80 years of age he continues to produce records which explore what is possible in the music and what is possible for himself as a musician. His new release on the Winter & Winter label is his fifth CD exploring “standard” American songs, his On Broadway series. The first three in the series were issued on JMT records from the late 1980s to early mid 1990s (now reissued on Winter & Winter) and featured a band based around the drummer’s trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frissell, playing sympathetic, straight-forward readings of songs from Gershwin, Cole Porter and other composers who wrote for the stage. The records swing, but swing is a relative term for Motian, who has developed a singular way of keeping time; he pushes the beat forward with a joyful aggression, and even though he often eschews the back-beat with what would seems a stiff emphasis on the first and third beats of a four beat measure, he does so with such a loose feel that it comes to sound both right and innovative. This new release, and the previous volume, continue to approach the same world of songs but in a very different manner. The core of the group is paired down to Motian and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, though even he rotates in and out of tunes, along with various horn players and, on Volume 4, the singer Rebecca Martin.

Motian’s playing is also very different on these records, which tend towards slower, even almost still, tempos, with the band playing around a pulse that seems to be produced through moment-to-moment mutual agreement. The drums no longer keep time for the ensemble, instead they color the songs, comment on the solos and provide a bed of sound which stretches the canvas on which the instruments paint. Motian tosses brief rhythmic phrases off to bassist Thomas Morgan, and responds to Kikuchi with witty, quizzical gestures that have the sound and shape of scat-singing. It’s quite remarkable. The pianist is an exceptionally sensitive partner with a beautiful, limpid touch. He is comfortable both in the abstractions of Motian’s ‘Morrock’ and clearly outlining the harmony and structure of ‘Something I Dreamed Last Night.’ His rendition of ‘Midnight Sun,’ starting in dark pedal tones and moving via silent-movie piano type tremolos into the brightness of the major key portion of the melody, with Motian shuffling and Morgan plucking plangently, is a primer in how jazz doesn’t have to swing, or even have a tempo, and be absolutely extraordinary jazz. There are excellent contributions from saxophonists Loren Stillman and Michael Attias, with the latter’s mellifluous baritone especially notable. The horns offer a warm dialogue on the material, and the whole is a record that is quiet, but not reticent, free but judged with understated taste, and one of the most focussed and lovely jazz CDs of recent years.

There is a more familiar sense of time-keeping, but still no old-fashioned swing, on un monton de notas from Argentine pianist and composer Emilio Teubal, a recording with a sense of modern jazz which stands out from the crowd. Teubal, a recipient of a Meet The Composer fellowship, uses simple elements to create ensemble compositions that are more complex and involving than the standard legacy of Hard-Bop. He favors lyrical, lilting lines over a pulsating, sometimes heavy groove – bassist Moto Kukushima solely plays the electric bass – and there are rhythmic ideas and melodies from café music, New Tango and what seems to be folk music folded in seamlessly, which give the music a satisfying international quality, an Argentine returning jazz to America with new ideas. The title track is a multi-varied composition that sounds like a tour of the past and present of Argentine culture, at times rollicking, naive, rocking and mysteriously mournful. There is featured solo from cellist Greg Heffernan who plays with great clarity, strength and rhythmic force. The basic band is a quintet, with Franco Pinna on drums and saxophonist Xavier Perez and Felipe Salles, who are fine players, although Salles is following Chris Potter a little closely on this CD (Teubal features the two horns together on most of the compositions, but the liner notes don’t identify who can be heard in which channel). There is some deference to the standard, mainstream conception of jazz on ‘El amanecido,’ which is the only weak part of an otherwise completely enjoyable and satisfying record – Teubal’s own art and style are strong enough that he needn’t prove that he can fit into a mainstream conception. The opening track, ‘Ping Pong,’ does a lot with repetition over a solid ostinato, while ‘Before the outerspace’ wrings great power out of taking a long line and doubling it’s tempo, going from bluesy and funky to carnivalesque, and ‘Baguala’ is a sonorous ballad. Teubal clearly has a fulfilling idea of what he wants to do, it’s worth doing and he does it so well that he sounds like no one else. This is a CD worth seeking out, and a musician worth watching,

The same is true for Rob Mosher, whose The Tortoise with his large ensemble Storytime is not new but is new to me. Like Darcy James Argue, this is another formidably talented, fascinating Canadian jazz composer. What makes them similar is the quality of their ideas and execution, but they are refreshingly different in the approach to and goals for writing for a large jazz ensemble. His dectet mixes french horn and the leader’s double-reeds with standard jazz instrumentation, and his use of the darker range of the woodwinds, horn and flugelhorn gives the ensemble a rich, mellow quality. Mosher is writing complete pieces for the ensemble, and his voice is an absorbing blend of jazz sensibility, contrapuntal inner voices and a lyrical sonorousness from early twentieth century French music (in the liner notes, Mosher name-checks Debussy, Ravel, Bach, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wayne Shorter; I hear Milhaud in the way he brings lines together into chords, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra in the overall sound and Stan Kenton in the way solos emerge from the ensemble writing). His is an original voice, however, and the influences just give an idea of where he’s coming from. He offers witty, pithy takes on bossa nova and classic dance-band sounds on ‘The Sands of Maundune’ and ‘What Snowflakes Are Plotting,’ but that’s the closest he gets to the standard idea of jazz. This a serious jazz record though, and it wears its compositional methods lightly; it’s more sophisticated, more grooving and more pleasurable than the self-conscious third-stream experiments of the 1950s. The track ‘Sleepless Lullaby’ is an example of how the music works; it begins as a minor key lullaby, develops into contrapuntal chamber music, then a rich textured ensemble piece which channels the strengths of Milhaud’s “Creation du monde,” before transforming into a brief, powerful vocal chorus that has the effect of a protest song. That description may make the piece seem disjointed, but Mosher hangs it all on his melody while changing the setting and it all hangs together and is powerful. His music is attractive, with pithy and effective melodic material set against superb, imaginative, textured accompaniments which make what happens in each subsequent moment more interesting and more emotionally affecting. The centerpiece is the excellent ‘Twilight,’ with Nir Felder’s guitar sliding above and through rising woodwind textures in a dialogue that maintains forward momentum even as if seems to start, fail and start again. This is a strong, supple, beautiful and moving record from a talented composers and band-leader.

The final two records under review are related in that the leaders of each explore some similar directions and make up two-thirds of the group Fieldwork. Steve Lehman’s Travail, Transformation and Flow is a recent release, while Vijay Iyer’s Historicity comes out next month. Lehman and Iyer are on the vanguard of contemporary jazz, of what it is, where it’s going and what it could possibly become. There’s not a hint of swing in their music, but they each use rhythm ferociously. The saxophonist’s recording is his third on the Pi label, and the story they tell when put together through time is a sort of Hegelian dialectic in the development of a brilliant, searching musician. His Demian As Posthuman is a fascinating collection of truly edgy fragments, setting his keening playing against a variety of complex beats and pulses, themselves variously chopped-up, foreshortened and staggering. There is no concession to any kind of standard form; the short tracks state a focussed, severe idea and have done with it. There is very little development and no resolution. It’s intensely listenable. His following On Meaning adapts his ideas about time to a quintet, playing original material in more familiar forms and was one of the best releases of 2007. Like jazz through history, Lehman’s music shows the influence of pop music. But where before that meant that musicians took pop songs and transformed them through arrangement and improvisation into jazz standards, Lehman is learning from today’s electronically based pop music, especially the way software can produce beats and rhythms that are deliberately inconsistent, which start and stop the pulse, stagger and push forward at the same time. The difference in jazz is that there is a group of young drummers, especially the astonishing Tyshawn Sorey, who can play this type of music live, in the moment. Compositionally, Lehman is adapting ideas about form, structure and development from the exceptional music of Henry Threadgill. This means musical lines made in a tightly compressed range of notes, lines which turn back on themselves to repeat fragments before going on to repeat another group, and another. The emphasis is on rhythm, spare, stabbing harmonies, a bass pulse and improvisations that develop so seamlessly out of an instrument’s line that ideas of melody are secondary to the sheer excitement of the playing.

The new disc looks back a little and moves forward simultaneously. To this mainly horizontal process Lehman has added a harmonic idea from the cutting-edge of contemporary classical music, that of spectralism. Roughly, this is a method of using an analysis of the spectrum of pitches (essentially the overtone series), as a source for musical structures based on timbre. A struck note on a piano will generate a series of tones above that fundamental pitch, and those higher tones are an inherent part of the pitch’s frequency and also sound out of tune, as our ears have been conditioned by centuries of Western tuning which forces the placement of notes into predictable places within the octave. Applying spectral methods to instruments means fitting notes from the spectrum to the proper instrumental timbre, and produces a sound that is both tonal and surprising at the same time (this is a gross simplification, as the idea and technique are sophisticated and complex). Lehman orchestrates this by adding tenor sax, trombone and tuba to his quintet of alto, trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. The sound he gets has an exceptional affect; it’s transparent and full of wide open spaces with a powerfully low bottom which anchors the ear even as the stacked notes threaten to fly away from each other. Inside this open, vertical palette the music follows the approach from the previous record with stabbing, almost obsessive lines over pulsing, jittery beats and tempos. ‘Rudreshm’ alternates a short, intense line with equally short, intense solos, all frequently interrupted by a rhythmic, two-beat phrase by the ensemble. Lehman’s sound combines the beauty of Jackie MacLean with the neurotic energy of Charlie Parker, and there’s a case to be made that this is the contemporary equivalent of Be-Bop; it’s the first radically new experiment with harmony in jazz in decades, it has tremendous tension, energy and velocity, is exceptionally demanding in its virtuosity, is highly urban and is tremendously exciting. Once the ear acclimates to the method, the sound is quiet amazing, with tight voicings familiar from Hard-Bop, cleansing harmonies, hyper-funky rhythms and breathtaking solos from all; the centerpiece track “Alloy” sounds in part like a loving, imaginative and sophisticated updating of the entire legacy of the Jazz Messengers. Mark Shim especially shines on tenor, thinking and articulating at a pace and with a density of ideas which rivals the leaders brilliant musicianship. It’s impossible to predict what kind of influence this spectral approach will have on contemporary jazz, after all Kind Of Blue never sparked a broad modal movement, but like that classic record Travail, Transformation and Flow is a breakthrough of new thinking about the music and is still firmly jazz. It’s Kind of Blue for the twenty-first century.

Pianist Iyer has already produced, in collaboration with Hip-Hop artist Mike Ladd, a thrilling and important mix of the two genres with in what language?, a challenging masterpiece of music and politics. October sees the release of a new recording for him, this one in the classic piano trio format (with Stephen Crump on bass and drummer Marcus Gilmore). Iyer shares with Lehman an emphasis on contemporary ideas of rhythm in jazz. While he can play delicately and wistfully with the best, he generally favors a heavy left-hand ostinato coupled with a propulsive groove in the rhythm section. His series of records with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa are updates on Keith Jarrett’s European quartet, with more rock and blues feel and in-your-face intensity and a similar use of powerful pedal tones as a foundation for some real wailing, like their massive cover of ‘Hey Joe,’ ‘Because of Guns’ on the excellent Blood Sutra. The new record is immediately recognizable as Iyer’s work, but has surprises as well.

The disc is stylistically expansive, it reveals new ideas in the pianist’s work and new details in his palette. He opens up the left hand more for wider-spaced chords and a greater variety of color, and he accompanies his right hand solos in a sparer, more antiphonal style. It is old-fashioned enough to feature a walking bass line, in the introduction to Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere,’ but there’s nothing old-fashioned about the results. The bass serves as an anchor for a completely out-of-time rendition of the melody, after which Iyer’s own piano bass line swamps that of Crump’s and the trio settles into an involving and quietly intense deconstruction and exploration of the tune. Iyer tests the song in many ways; he repeats fragments, subverts the melody, tries to break free and settles back into lushly re-harmonized cadences, which smoothly elide into a bass solo, then into a vivid sensation of the trio finding a groove in the moment and riding out the tune on top of it. While Iyer’s previous work has been extroverted up to the point of mildly, bracingly confrontational, the trio format lends itself to more introverted playing, more of a sense of private conversation than public rhetoric. Even the brash and propulsive cover of MIA’s ‘Galang’, with Iyer picking over a musical fragment, has the sensation of witnessing someone in a fascinating but inscrutable private act. Gilmore’s drumming is fabulous, his beat is so uplifting that he sounds like he’s raising up the whole group on his drums, giving the band a funky dance step. There are other covers as well, of Andrew Hill’s ‘Smokestack,’ Stevie Wonder’s ‘Big Brother,’ Ronnie Foster’s ‘Mystic Brew’ and ‘Dogon A.D.’ by Julius Hemphill. The use of such varied material is one of the things which gives the record such an expansive feel; Iyer has chosen music that means something to him in various ways and playing it means offering us his different ideas about these songs and musicians. And a musician with Iyer’s brains and soul is going to have interesting thoughts about each one, look at each tune in a different way, find something unique to explore in each one. Historicity has stunning playing and the electrifying quality of an artist who is both reaching inside himself and expanding his possibilities. It’s a record with power which will endure.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

5 thoughts on “It Ain't Got That Swing”

  1. Okay, I’ll admit that I read the first few paragraphs of this post, then skimmed the next few and finally skipped down to leave a comment.

    The question I have to ask is: what would your graph look like if the # of albums were corrected for the cost of recording equipment at the time of that style’s height of popularity? Or what about correcting # of albums by the size and intensity of the recording industry’s marketing efforts at the time? I could propose even more complicated statistical corrections — perhaps the results would be very interesting. Could they even show that Dixieland and Trad are pound-for-pound more popular than hard bop?

    Just some food for thought.


    1. Hey Jacque! The chart is purely illustrative and not based on anything other than my own impressions. That being said, I would think that an actual statistical study would normalize things like recording costs and marketing efforts. I think that the costs of recording Bunk Johnson and Miles Davis during the same era would be essentially the same, probably cheaper in the south for Johnson rather than in NYC for Miles. I also think that the move Blue Note made from Blues to Hard Bop had as much to do with selling records to an audience as it did with Lion and Wolf’s taste. In other words, I think the costs have to do with the type of ensemble – maintain and record a big band? Darcy James Argue is a crazy man, thank goodness! – and the marketing has a built in feedback loop, which means that since Bitches Brew, there has been an audience for rock ideas in jazz music and musicians who sincerely want to give that to them. Intuitively, I cannot comprehend that Dixieland and Trad are pound-for-pound more popular, and I think the costs and marketing and such are built into that. But perhaps someone will prove me wrong?!

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