Jazztronica: Stimulating new developments or dead-end leftovers?

Jazztronica
Stimulating new developments or dead-end leftovers?

by The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society

copyright © 2004 The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society

Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival
Jazz Journalists Association Panel
Saturday July 3, 2004

This year the Jazz Journalists Association panel discussion focused on "jazztronica." Moderator PAUL DE BARROS introduced panel members GREG BUIUM, PETER MARGASAK, LAURENCE SVIRCHEV and MARTIN TURENNE and asked them to talk a bit about themselves before introducing the topic.

PdB: I'll ask the speakers to briefly tell you a little bit about themselves and then we'll just jump in with a few issues. Why don't you start, Peter?

PM: I have written for the Chicago Reader since 1993, I've written a couple of columns over the years and have pretty much written about all kinds of music over the years — rock, jazz, experimental music, world music. I've done plenty of freelance and I'm up here writing about this for Down Beat but the Reader's my main thing. I think I have broad eyes on all the music and how it relates, especially in Chicago where there's a really vibrant diversity that goes on and a lot of interaction between people from different scenes in the city.

GB: My name is Greg Buium. I wrote a piece about the Festival for the Globe and Mail. I too write for Down Beat Magazine, Coda Magazine — I've written for nearly all the jazz magazines about a lot of different kinds of music. I wouldn't say I'm an expert in jazztronica by any means, though I've written about the whole range of contemporary jazz. I'm a Vancouverite but I've spent the last five years in Toronto and actually just moved back to Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, so I'm happy to be home.

MT: I'm Martin Turenne. I write here for the GS and for Exclaim! in Toronto, and Pound, another magazine out of Toronto and quite a few in the United States. My focus tends to be hip-hop and electronic music, so I'm a bit of an oddball on the panel but I hope to bring something different.

LS: Good morning, good afternoon, my name is Lawrence Svirchev. I live in Vancouver. I first started writing and photographing for Coda magazine in about 1989 thanks very much to the invitation of the "dean of jazz journalists" in Canada, Bill Smith, who's with us in the audience — I want to thank you for that, Bill. From there I was a Festival photographer for over a decade and a writer for the Festival website. This year I'm writing for the Georgia Straight. And I've written for numerous publications around the world. The oddest one I think, was an article on John Carter translated into the Flemish language. That was a bit of a surprise. And I've photographed for many magazines.

PdB: Thanks, Lawrence.

Let me read you the question: Jazztronica: stimulating new developments or dead-end leftovers? From Dave Douglas, Nicholas Payton, and Evan Parker to Scandinavians like Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvaer, jazz musicians have embraced the use of electronics in a big way, influencing many young musicians in the process. Is this the next step for jazz in our technologically advanced and rapidly changing cyber world, or merely a temporary flirtation with technological exoticism?

So I hope we get from that general description that we're not just talking about a genre called "jazztronica," this was just a convenient word to use to talk about electronic developments in jazz. All the way from the kind of trance ambient music that you've sometimes heard at this festival that's coming out of Scandinavia, to the most creative and perhaps even jarring experiments that have gone on with electronics and processing in the world of improvised music. We don't mean to limit this discussion to one genre and I want to make that real clear. We might touch on issues of commerce, however. Three other issues that I hope we'll touch on as well are authenticity, work and pleasure. The issue of authenticity has been a long-term concern of jazz right from the beginning and I hope we can talk about some of the misconceptions about authenticity and the cult of authenticity, as well as what real application it might have to this issue. Another issue is who's doing the work, is it people, humans or machines? There's a labor issue there as well as an overriding issue in the culture that music is relating to and perhaps forging the way. And finally the issue of pleasure. I think that often gets slid under the rug in intellectual discussions but I don't want it to slide it under the rug. We're talking about music here and when you're talking about music you're talking about aesthetics and pleasure.

So, let's jump in with the issue of genre. Anybody want to comment just where we're coming from here in on the whole range of music? Maybe what's appealed to you or is this just a dead end?

MT: I don't know that it's a dead end at all. I'm probably showing off my biases here, but [take] Herbie Hancock and Rockitt. Should we have been talking about this ten years ago? It seems to be moot now.

PdB: Good point, I mean this is not a new issue and a lot of these kinds of discussions went on in the late '60s when all kinds of music went "electric." So what's the difference?

PM: Well, I think the technology [is the difference]. The '70s groups of Miles Davis remain a major template for what's going on, except now that there's digital technology electronics are a lot cheaper. You have access to a lot more sounds and textures. I think the group that played here that I didn't see, Wibutee, has a very heavy Miles Davis [influence]. To me at least, when I hear them it sounds like they're updating '70s Miles Davis stuff even though the electronics in that group was mostly guitars and keyboards, it wasn't so much synthesizers although I guess there were some drum machines early on. There are so many different angles. Younger musicians are not just growing up with the jazz that musicians in the '40s [grew up with]. In the '40s they heard jazz, they heard r&b. Things have become so stratified now — hip-hop, pop, electric pop and contemporary pop. Everyone's grown up with that stuff so increasingly musicians are just bringing that in, which is always what jazz musicians have done over the years. They've just brought in whatever is popular, whatever they listen to, it's constantly being replenished with new sounds, new styles.

So it's just the latest chapter in that I think a lot of people get upset because a lot of it is machines. I think the machines are doing the work in a lot of cases but I think [in] the most interesting music it's the other way around, people are exploiting the machines. Machines can do a lot of amazing stuff and the best musicians, the most interesting ones, are not letting the machines use them. You've got people coming from the electronic world trying to get to the jazz world, and then you've got jazz musicians that are reaching out to techno or hip-hop. It's coming both ways. There was a lot of experimentation in the '80s with a lot of the New York guys, jazz musicians trying to incorporate hip-hop. And they pretty much, by my account, all failed because it became like this kind of flavor. It was jazz with this hip-hop stuff dumped on top and it just didn't get to the essence of what hip-hop is. It took a long for people to find a real working blend where both musics are being served and respected.

PdB: I'd like to jump on that first point you made and maybe somebody would like to jump on that, too, about . . . Do you have something Lawrence?

LS: Yeah, what I wanted to say is that if you look at the history of music, there's really only one natural instrument. That's the human voice. Everything else is an extension, some kind of machine extension. A saxophone is an extension. Some types of samplers are manipulated by fingers, they're machines. So I would go back and say that the issue is not machines versus humans or something like that. If you took a look . . .was it last night or two nights ago when Evan Parker [from the UK] and Walter Prati from Italy, were playing? Evan was very clear as he was playing his harmonics, his superhuman harmonics, on soprano saxophone. He was pretty clear and knowledgeable and accountable to Walter Prati who was playing with various electronic instruments and manipulating and transforming the music that Evan was playing. So in this case, Evan was a willing participant in that musical process. And it was fantastic. Aesthetically it was extraordinarily pleasing.

PdB: Well, you took the words out of my mouth in a certain sense, because it seems like we're saying this isn't new. Jazz musicians have always brought in whatever is out there into the music. Are we seeing eye to eye here?

L: And not just jazz musicians, all musicians, because a guitar is a box, a resonant box with strings on it —

PdB: — it's a machine,

LS: — and there's all kinds of machines made like that. We just saw William Parker playing an acoustic bass next door, a traditional double bass. And he played a Moroccan sitar and they're both resonant boxes with strings attached to them.

PdB: Martin do you agree with that? Is there nothing new under the sun or is there something new coming into the music?

MT: I don't know, the electronics are part of the substance of our times so it makes sense that they'd be incorporated

GB: I agree completely with that. Electronics are contemporary music, and jazz musicians have always tried to assimilate contemporary music. But I thing there is also, beneath this, in certain parts of the jazz community — and of course it's so fractured, it's very difficult to say what that is — but I think there's kind of a collective memory of when jazz was at the center of popular culture. Sort of a desire to be a part of that still. Matthew Shipp has said this, the piano player, that if jazz doesn't keep moving forward, it will die. So what does he do? He looks around and he looks at electronica and he looks at hip-hop and he tries to bring this into the music. I think this is just an early 20th century version of things that might have gone on in earlier periods. But when electric music is brought in, I think it creates a schism that is far greater. It seems easier to bring in Cuban music or Brazilian music. As Larry said when music is rooted in — I don't know if I agree with you about the human voice in jazz, Larry . . . I think when a music is born as an acoustic music and you bring in electronics you're butting people up who may never, ever quite get along. I mean, look at folk music, the same thing happened there. With Bob Dylan and what have you . . .

PM: I think it's not so much electronics. I wasn't around but I can't imagine Charlie Christian got people really upset when he started playing electric guitar . . .

PdB: He got Benny upset, he kept telling him to turn down. You can hear it in 1939, the first time a guy played electric guitar on a record. Benny says, Turn that thing down!

PM: I mean it's . . .

GB: No, Peter, what I'm saying is it's not just amplified. I think it's using electronics . . .

PM: I think it's computers and synthesizers . . .

GB: But I think this debate though — I'm sorry to interrupt. I was just going to say . . .

PdB: No, please do!

GB: When I thought about this (I sort of came on late to the panel) I was thinking it strikes me that this discussion is simply a third generation of the same discussion that happened in the late 1960s, the early Miles Davis stuff. And maybe I sound old-fashioned for making that link. But I'm not sure how it's different. And if you listen to a lot of the groups now, as you were saying, Peter, who's lasted through all these changes in electric music? Half of sounds like something Miles Davis did in 1971 —

PM: Yeah.

GB: — or 1968. It's still the starting point to this conversation it seems to me.

PM: I think this touches on what you were saying about authenticity. I think there's a lot of resentment from older musicians who have worked their entire life learning how to play an instrument, mastering it. They're all machines but for someone who doesn't understand computers or a turntable, it doesn't seem like it requires the same training, rigor and knowledge as a saxophone or a conventional instrument, and I think there's a lot of misunderstanding and resentment from older musicians. Not even older musicians, just those who have really worked their asses off to learn how to play an instrument. They see some guy with a laptop going like this [mimics pressing a key] thinking there's a great inequity going on here.

GB: But what is he doing with the laptop?

PM: Well, it depends.

GB: And is it improvised music? I think this is where it becomes complicated. If it's dance music and he's just moving from patch to patch or something that's different than Walter Prati improvising —

PM: I know, I agree . . .

GB: — with John Edwards. I know you agree . . .

PM: The problem is that jazz is so, or whatever "jazz" is, is so stratified and specialized at this point that that's the difficulty of a discussion like this, because different rules apply to different approaches. There are different aesthetics with each style and it doesn't make sense to look at Walter Prati and hold him up against DJ Shadow. I mean, they're not doing anything at all remotely similar, and to judge them the same way is just, you know, it's stupid.

PdB: So Greg, you brought up the issue of popular music . . .

GB: Yeah.

PdB: Isn't part of the subtext here that people in jazz are suspicious of popular music? Popular music has traditionally gone to new technology before jazz.

GB: Sure.

PdB: If you look at the electric bass for example. Sure, Lionel Hampton hired Montgomery but country musicians were using electric basses 25 years before, or 20 years before jazz musicians.

GB: I think it matters who you're talking about. I think it matters what magazines you read, for example. Some of us write for Coda Magazine, or for Down Beat, an American magazine. I think the discussion among many American jazz musicians, the subtext at least, is a fear of irrelevance.

PdB: Definitely.

GB: While I think one of the great legacies of Coda magazine is that this seems to be an irrelevant conversation in some respects. Can I say that, Bill?

Bill Smith: I'm not actually the editor of Coda anymore, so I have no comment.

GB: OK. But I think there is that subtext: We will become irrelevant unless we jump onboard. I think there are a lot of musicians at this festival who would say: What are you talking about? I mean, certain avant-garde musicians. I'm not sure if jumping onboard means going from selling 800 CDs to selling 1100 CDs. What relevance are you talking about? There is that subtext, especially I've found, among American mainstream jazz musicians. And so electronics seem to be the thing and that is the bandwagon. And I think a lot of the more jazz purists are attacking them.

PdB: Right.

GB: But there are examples at this festival, in which electronics are used in a very sophisticated way. Mostly by European musicians — someone is shaking their head . . . It may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing, but at least it attempts to be artistically interesting. And it's not about bandwagon jumping; it's about investigating other sounds.

PdB: Martin?

MT: Where I can recognize that resentment, maybe from these musicians you're talking about is against these large venerable jazz labels that have since the late '90s have seen this market opportunity to open up their vaults to remixers. What they produce is invariably banal. I see that as being pretty crass capitalism on the part of those venerable labels exploiting their back catalogue in fairly uncreative ways to reach out to people in their '20s. Dance music people and even people who are into hip-hop. So I see that resentment growing out of that, perhaps, in part.

PdB: So there is a sense of jumping on a bandwagon, a commercial bandwagon that says: If I remix this I can sell it 'cause it'll sound new or it'll sound contemporary.

MT: They're all doing it — Verve, Sony, Blue Note — they've all jumped on that. Opening up the vaults to whoever the hot producer is.

PdB: Why don't we listen for a second to one of the groups who played here this week, Jaga Jazzist — I probably didn't say that right — from Norway. Just so we know what we're talking about or one of the things we're talking about.

PdB: [during the sample]: Did anybody see this band last weekend? Did anybody like this band last weekend?

[to audience member] And you saw Wibutee? Wibutee was great, too. Yeah, very good. So, any responses?

MT: When we hear that, where does that music come from, to you?

PM: To me? It doesn't sound like [what I would think of] when I think of jazz. I was just thinking that more than ever jazz musicians have often combated being labeled a jazz musician and I think it's becoming more [common]. It's everywhere now. And when I hear more and more musicians, they're traveling freely between different styles and I don't think they want to be any one thing. I think that's a really healthy thing and it's terms like "jazztronica" and discussions like this that get in the way largely, because —

PdB: Thanks John! [Orysik].

PM: — there shouldn't be borders. I think they have become less and less [relevant] as time has passed. Musicians were often expected to do one thing. You know, if you did something else it would be either blasphemous or revolutionary and I think we're in a time when younger musicians just travel freely from [one genre to another]. I see it all the time in the U.S., musicians that are nominally jazz musicians playing in all kinds of different projects. It's not new. Jazz musicians have done work for . . . The thing that's in my head is Brian Blade touring with Joni Mitchell and there's probably much better examples than that. So incorporating all these different styles. It's not just jazz and electronics, there's rock music there, there's a bunch of different things that are going on in that band and at a certain point it's like, who cares? Let it all be free, let it all flow, and I think that's good. And the good stuff's going to rise to the top. Some people are going to take the most superficial elements of something and bring it in and you can hear it.

PdB: We did have the discussion at this table two years ago about what the word "jazz" included so I don't want to go there, but it is an issue, definitely an issue. Do you bring new sounds into jazz and expand the definition of jazz and call it jazz or do you say jazz is an historical genre that's over and now there's something else going on?

GB: I don't know how many people here know what happens in other Canadian cities. This festival is so open-minded and what it represents — I'm sure some people will say, "Well, Al Green isn't jazz or Aaron Neville" — it stretches a pretty wide range here. Without slamming other festivals in the country, there are certain festivals in the country that stick to a pretty mainstream version of what jazz is, which is a drummer, chang-ch-ch-chang and certain sense of swing and rhythm and harmonic possibilities that is stuck maybe in 1958? And I think that a lot of people think that's jazz.

PdB: It sounds to me like everybody on the panel agrees that this is the next step and not just a dead end.

LS: Well, let's face it, musicians, creative musicians, have always been looking for new ways to express themselves. And generally speaking the ones who become classics — you know, Miles Davis has been batted around — they transformed themselves on a regular basis because they're listening to the newest things that are coming out. Now I should be at the age where I'm completely ossifying in my listening habits and I know there's a lot of jazz journalists out there who ossified in their 30s and they only refer to the music that they heard when they were 12. And yet I find that through festivals like this and by just trying to keep my ears open and relating, I find the use of electronics and the use of manipulation in the music to be fascinating, provided it's in the hands of masters and not just dial twiddlers who are making noise. I'd refer to a working trio, a working American trio, Ellery Eskelin's' group which has a drummer, a straight regular kit drummer. Ellery does not want to play electronics through his horn, he just wants to search out the natural sound. And then they've got this amazing character called Andrea Parkins who will spend 15 minutes starting from nothing, twiddling knobs, all the while with a big accordion over her shoulders. I don't how she maintains all that weight while she's out there twiddling. And she comes up with an opening, a middle part, a fantastic peak that's entirely exciting and a denouement and a climax and gets thunderous applause. Fantastic stuff.

PdB: Well what about the issue of authenticity then? There's a whole range of terms — some of them have already come up, natural, human, organic — that are used often to defend purely acoustic music. Is there any relevance to those terms and or saying that — "Hey listen, jazz is a music that's played through the fingertips into an instrument." It's an interactive music, you can't interact with a machine, it can't think. There's a whole range of arguments against this music, that it seems like we should address. Is there any validity to those?

MT: I don't think so. I think as far as any kind of attempt to take purist stances and defend one's own domain, that's a losing proposition. What I find interesting is the way that other genres of music, specifically hip-hop, have no qualms about going and just — it's not stealing — re-interpreting from other forms. If they take a Steve Reich sample or a sample from Indian music, or from jazz, and throw it in and take it over, annex that form of music, essentially. And why can't jazz turn around and jazz musicians annex other forms in that kind of free-spirited way?

PdB: Why can't it? What's the problem?

PM: I think it does, it doesn't necessarily need sampling to do it. I think, most jazz musicians try to understand how that music is made and learn how to play it. I think it's boring when it's brought in as this decal that's brought in to the music. The most interesting thing is whether its Randy Weston going to work with non-musicians or — there's countless examples — Max Roach going to Africa. That to me [is] what separates jazz musicians from a lot of other musicians. That rigor and that keen understanding of these things. It's not appropriating, it's learning. It's not like, "Oh, I'm just going to bring a little bit of this and a little bit of that." I'm not saying that's bad, but I don't really see jazz as becoming this sample-based music. It's fixed, you know. When you have a sample, a lot of the times, what are you going to do with it?

I think when you're talking about this idea of technology, the most interesting musicians have found ways to manipulate electronics or computers and bring a personality to it. I mean, whether it's analog synthesizer, which is very difficult to control anyway. I'm thinking of improvisers like Thomas Lehn who sounds like no-one but Thomas Lehn when he plays an analog synthesizer or a lot of people who play laptop stuff. There might be patches on their computer, but they're constantly tweaking stuff and reacting and that's part of it in terms of improvisation. It's not just making a sound; it's how that sound applies to what is going on. Like Walter Prati. He makes no sounds, he took this feed of Evan Parker's output and just manipulated it and put them in this hall of mirrors effect where Evan Parker is playing with himself but he's not controlling what this other person's doing and he's having a dialogue with himself that someone else is orchestrating. So, you know, I don't think that the electronics have to be the static. I think that's when it's boring. When someone's just pushing a button, but I think the most interesting musicians always find a way to bypass, like, you know, the technology.

LS: The difference is between creativity and lack of creativity, imagination and lack of imagination. And I'm going to use a very old example. When sound amplification first came out for concert bands in the 20s and 30s, we all of a sudden had this phenomenon where the individual, we usually call them the sound man, was sitting at the board manipulating the sound of the band. And the band didn't necessarily like being manipulated. So —

PdB: And what's changed?

LS: And what's changed? Yeah exactly, what's changed? What Johnny Hodges used to do, a member of the Ellington band, he would move in and out of the mic like this and start to drive the sound guy crazy until the sound guy just took his hands off and let the musicians do what they wanted to do.

PdB: I think you've raised a really good point. I don't think I know anybody under 25 who's ever heard music that isn't mediated. To hear music that doesn't come through a microphone today is very, very rare. Not to mention the radio, CDs, a microphone, amplification or some kind of electronic mediation. Maybe it's stretching the point to say it, but it seems to me that we already live in an electronic music, a sound world that's electronic. And in the era you're talking about, Bing Crosby was the master. The first person to figure out how to use the mic. People think of him as this natural crooner, but he was a microphone guy.

LS: And you know it's right, you're right, almost everything is amplified today. It's very rare that we will hear a purely acoustic set, and I can only think of one during this festival when the Ig Henneman String Quartet played at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, which was just marvelous because you could hear the tiniest, tiniest vibration of a string. But the issue is not whether we hear it through a microphone or if somebody is changing it, [the issue is] musician control. For me that's always it, musician control, creative control, imaginative control over their situation. Go ahead . . .

GB: I was just going to say that it's interesting to me, microphone or no microphone, a saxophone's a saxophone. Twenty years later it still sounds like a saxophone on record. But you go back and listen to some of the early electronic music now, and it sounds so dated, some of it, because the technology has changed at least. Maybe it's me, I can't listen to some of those synthesizers from the early days. In certain situations it sounds silly often. Music that was very heavy thirty-five years ago. It's interesting to me to see which of this will last. Martin, how much of this do you think will become just a complete anachronism in twenty years?

MT: I think a lot of it will. I had the chance to interview Bob Moog, who invented the Moog synthesizer, a couple of months ago, and he was talking about the importance of staying with one instrument. Musicians should take an instrument and live and grow with it. Whereas this mentality now of software updates every six months and new synthesizers every fiscal quarter, that doesn't allow a musician to grow and make that instrument his own and apply that sort of creativity to it.

PdB: Yeah, I guess I would add too — being somewhat of a classicist myself — that the issues we're coming back to are really the classically valued issues in jazz, improvisation and interaction and personal, individual, creativity. So, in a way, we're still talking about the same music, we're talking about the same issues. We're talking about a music in which the performer takes responsibility for the music that he or she makes on stage, that some of that is created in the moment, and that some of the music is a response to what is created around them. And that's jazz.

Or would someone disagree? I guess we're ready to open it up to you [the audience]. Do we have a disagreement or a question or a comment?

A1: A comment: I think for a lot of people, the difference between jazz and classical music and rock is the type of rhythm. And when you introduce technology, you're introducing a new type of rhythm. Like you can take improvised interactive music, kick out the drummer and the rhythm section, and it would sound like classical with a classical music rhythm section. And if you had a different kind of rhythm section, it could sound more like rock. So one of the big problems with technology is that it messes with the rhythm section, which is one of the fundamental foundations of jazz. And adding new sounds, I think that is irrelevant, because there's always new sounds. Some people bring in sitars, people bring in all kinds of instruments from all over the world. But what seems to be essential to jazz is the rhythm type and you vary the rhythm one way one get rock and in another way you get classical and then all of a sudden you're into a new territory.

PdB: Response?

LS: What we see these years and these decades is an audience, a population and a cohort of musician not only from North America but from around the world who aren't particularity interested in being put in some type of box. I just want to read a brief quote from an interview with Walter Prati. He's referring to his playing with Schiaffini, who's a trombonist. These are two guys from Italy. [Reads quote]:"We started playing twenty-two years ago. I was curious about his idea of music making without any particular classifications. Sometimes artistic directors, other musicians, and musical society in general want to know what kind of music you play. The music we are doing is unclassifiable but it's always exciting." And I thought that was very much the essence of what contemporary and creative musicians really want to get across. You know, if you go back centuries, and you had people playing, writers making fantastic storms, natural phenomena, thunderstorms and stuff with a symphony that still sounds great today. And yet you could take a contemporary player like Francois Houle, who did a whole suite a 2CD suite on the Quebec ice storms, and, using a combination of acoustic and electric instruments, and very much changing the rhythm, he made his electronic group sound like the Quebec ice storms. You c ould hear the zinging of those hydroelectric wires. It's fascinating stuff.

PdB: But I'm gathering you're saying: That's all nice, but it's not jazz because it doesn't swing.

A1: Something like that . . .

PdB: Without being too reductive . . .

A1: I saw Francois Houle and Yitzhak Yedid sometime this week and there was no drummer. They played very well but to me it sounded like classical music. You know, twentieth-century classical music. It didn't sound like jazz because it didn't have a drummer; it had a different feel to it. Similarly with electronica — electronica has a precise rhythm, it doesn't have the swing of jazz. It's perfectly fine music but one of the key ingredients is missing.

PdB: It's interesting you brought up Schiaffini, because I interviewed him last summer in Italy, at a school where they were teaching jazz, and I brought up this very issue. I said, 'Well are you teaching these kids to swing as well as teaching them all this other stuff?' And he said: Well yeah, but, remember jazz didn't swing in the beginning either. And he was right. So we've really ossified a certain rhythmic period in jazz that came up say, between 1928 and 1945, and said, žthat's jazz rhythmÓ and I think there's a lot of people who disagree.

A1: Still when jazz started what differentiated it from classical music was that classical music had no rhythm section.

PdB: True. Any other panel response to the swing issue? The big swing. No?

MT: The only response I have is to the quote that Larry read out about wanting to make unclassifiable music. Invariably, every musician I talk to speaks in those terms. No one wants to be put in a box and that speaks to what we're talking about here.

PdB: Bill?

Bill Smith: Two things seem very apparent standing here. One is, I don't think it's anything to do with amplification, this subject, its not making instruments louder. And the other is thing I find that is missing in the conversation is that when you put a hyphen on one of the ends of jazz — you know, jazz-rock, club-jazz, new-jazz — once you put a hyphen and then [add] another word, it isn't jazz anymore, it's whatever you added onto it. It's changed partly too. Possibly this is what Peter's talking about, this wonderful synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, who's part of a group called Konk pak, who have actually made an amazing work out of junk electronics and percussion and who are very exciting and very dramatic and they certainly aren't jazz and they aren't rock they're Konk pak. That's the name of the band, that's what they do. So this thing about making a title for everything, I think, is a crock. Years ago, if you remember, especially in Downbeat magazine, there were huge battles about whether Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, etc. etc. were actually jazz. In fact they were called anti-jazz. There's a hyphen . . .

PdB: It's a good point. Any response to the hyphen issue?

LS: Yeah, it's a nice word, the topic at hand. It seems to me to be a marketing term primarily. I don't know who invented it. It's kind of alliterative; it has a couple of consonants in it to harden it up a little bit. It doesn't have a hyphen in it last time I saw it spelled. But it's not a word I'm going to use in my journalism.

PdB: "Jazztronica."

LS: Yeah, that one.

PdB: Can you say it Lawrence?

LS: I can say it but you want me to say smooth jazz instead? I mean what's point? They're marketing terms that just don't creep into our articles.

PM: But all those terms are always thought up by either marketing departments or writers. They're not thought up by musicians.

PdB: New Orleans musicians did not call their music jazz. We know this historically.

LS: I was listening to a DVD, an interview with Randy Weston, the other night, Randy Weston the pianist. And he said: You know, we're musicians. Nobody comes up to me and says let's go play jazz. If I said 'let's go play jazz', they'd look at me like I'm weird. Let's play some Ellington, let's play some Randy Weston, let's play some Beethoven.

PM: Or let's play.

PdB: Tony?

Tony Reif: I think labels can be useful as long as —

PdB: — that's Žcause you own one [laughter]. Cheap shot.

Tony Reif: — no, as long as you don't take them too seriously and use them within limits. You know, not create in groups and out groups as such.

PM: Well I think for the average person it's dizzying to kind of keep tabs on everything so it invariably serves some purpose. But I think, as you said, if you take it too seriously and start being rigid about where this is and where that is it's counter productive. We're having this silly debate about what is this and what is that. I mean it's all music and there's different kinds of music and something is sort of like this and something is sort of like that so you have to come up with descriptors for it. I'm not saying that any of these terms are bad. I'm just saying be careful with it.

Tony Reif: I think the reason that "jazztronica" is a useful label is because it describes a music that I find totally uninteresting. It's not jazz, at least to my mind, whereas a group like Chris Gestrin's Stillpoint obviously is coming from jazz and using electronics in a way that is jazz-like, as well as a lot of other influences coming in. But another point I wanted to make which relates to authenticity that I've heard from musicians, like Jorrit Dykstra in particular — and this is a couple years ago, maybe the situation has changed — but he said: The problem I have with live electronics is they're slow. When I play my saxophone I can do things quickly. I have this quick feedback. I know exactly how to get what I want. When I start doing processing, it takes longer — particularly in the group situation where interaction is everything — and it slows down the music in a way that isn't ideal. But I think that technology —

PM: — yeah, it's getting closer to real time —

Tony Reif: — it's getting faster and faster.

MT: And the ways of interacting with the technology too. Hopefully not through a mouse forever and ever but through other manipulatable controls.

Tony Reif: Exactly, controllers that are digital.

PM: I'm sure it's only a matter of time before you have wires attached to your head and a computer will do what you will it to do. It'll happen like that, I'm sure that's not too far off . . .

PdB: You don't have one of those yet? Well OK. Bill, in the back. The other Bill.

Bill Shoemaker: Why are the Robert Moogs and his successors, considered technologists while guys like Stradivarius and Sax are considered merely instrument makers?

PdB: OK, yeah . . .

GB: Sounds loaded, Bill.

PdB: Lawrence touched on that in the beginning. If all musical instruments are machines or technology why are electronic instruments technology whereas guitars or saxophones or violins are not technology? Anybody want to respond to that?

PM: I think that part of it, in the most basic reductive way, is that most musical instruments are physical — you can see what's there, you know? With a computer it's just a bunch of coils and circuit boards and it's a lot more abstract. I mean, physically and visually. An instrument is a tube that you blow air through or strings that you rub a bow across. It's a physical thing. That's a very superficial observation but I think that, for a lot of people — most people don't know how a computer works. I'm not saying most people know how to play a violin, I'm just saying most people, I think, know how a violin works whereas a laptop . . . I don't think people have any clue how it works. It's all programmed by someone else anyway, you're just pushing buttons, you don't have any idea. With a pencil you know how that writes, or a typewriter you're pushing that button and you're seeing it hit. And now with computers there's no understanding whatsoever of the process, it's just this complete abstraction. That probably doesn't answer your question in the slightest bit but I think there's a distinction that people can understand one thing and not another and technology mystifies people.

LS: Bill Shoemaker, where are you taking that? Why did you ask that question?

Bill Shoemaker: Well, it seems to me that we take the science that Stradivarius and Sax invented —

PdB: — violins and saxophones —

Bill Shoemaker: — for granted. Whereas now we're in this particular period where all this digital technology is converging and we're on that learning curve. It's more of a matter of how we tend, after a period of time, to take things for granted. Sometimes I think about the years that went into creating the lacquer formula that makes the Stradivarius such a prized instrument several hundred years after it was made.

PdB: I think it's a really good point because if you look back at Mozart writing about discovering the clarinet and having it suddenly available to him, to compose with. The clarinet was a reflection of the mechanical age.. it had all these keys and it was considered really a highly technical instrument, a highly technological instrument at the time. And it still is a little goofy looking. So now we're in an electronic age and people are, as you were pointing out, taking advantage of the next technology. We have a question from Julie?

Julie Smith: I wanted to add that for me, there's an issue about the body that arises in this discussion.

LS: About what?

PdB: About the body . . .

Julie Smith: Yes, the relationship of our bodies to instruments and the way they resonate with our bodies. When new technologies are introduced we don't know how to relate to them in an embodied way and so for example, with laptops we're still deciding what the relationship is between the body and this "instrument." It is about new and different ways of seeing, feeling and hearing.

PdB: That's interesting . . .

LS: I think that when it comes to people playing electronic instruments — essentially you don't even see their hands hardly moving at all — I think it's time to close the eyes. I mean there's always a time to close the eyes but I bring that up because if you ever see a picture of somebody playing music — Sonny Rollins let's say, an exciting photo of Sonny Rollins — that's kind of easy to imagine and retain in your memory, your visual memory. But the only reason I found Walter Prati's music amazing — what resonates in my head is that, visually his head was shaved. But I don't remember his instrument. [laughter].

PdB: Greg, did you have something?

GB: I was just going to say that with any modern art, when musicians you respect choose to do something that may challenge you, you have to trust them. Whether the person is a novelist who's trying something that may scare you or a saxophonist. You mentioned Francois. If you are an admirer of Francois's work as a clarinetist he chooses to do various things with electronics and you may hear it and it may throw you. But, if this is someone you admire, you have to trust him and give him his due because he's doing it because it's important to his art. So they may be ahead of you, they may be ahead of your ear. So give them a chance, you know.

PdB: I think that whole issue of it being new also relates to it being scary and mysterious. I just talked to Ikue Mori who plays electronics with Dave Douglas and I really didn't know what she was doing in the band. I asked her: Are you processing other people's sounds or making your own? I don't think I was alone in not knowing the answer to the question. She was making her own sounds; she was not processing other peoples' sounds. I thought that's what she was doing and half the time I couldn't hear her anyway, which I told her, which she needed to hear because if she's going to be in the band she's got to be heard. So I think yeah, there's a lot of confusion and fear when something's new. And a lot of us don't know what's going on on the stage when we see a lot of these bands, it's like, guy's standing here, what is he doing with these knobs?

PM: Yeah, that's the joke with laptop artists, that a lot of people just say, the joke is that they're checking e-mail while they're running these programs. [laughter]. You really can't see anything. It's a guy with a glow on his face from the screen. And I think that's a whole new model for performance. Visually it's nothing. You have to shut your eyes. And that's a huge thing with electronic music becoming more and more common in terms of performance — performance as we know it is out the window because it's about what they're creating live. I'm sure you could sit at a laptop and make excruciating faces but I don't know that it's going to make it any more fun to watch.

PdB: That Caps key!

PM: I just was thinking about technology and about the body and I think with conventional instruments there's always this potential for mistakes and this human touch, these are not perfect instruments. Whereas with electronics, they are, they're perfect, they can be perfect, but I think some of the most interesting musicians are finding ways to bypass those, introducing corruptions into programs that screw things up. This is not jazz at all but there's a whole genre which has pretty much run it's course called "glitchworks" where people would scratch up CDs so they would skip and they wouldn't just play them but manipulate them but they'd use these skipping sounds as like the basic building block for their music. The interesting people are going to find ways to hijack the system, otherwise it's boring. It's just like someone else's sounds; it's all like these factory presets or whatever.

PdB: I love this idea about the body though because I think it accounts for all the rhetoric about things being organic, being true. And it reflects a social fear of what's going on in the society generally, with machines. So music's right there on the vanguard.

MT: And there's such a close alliance [between] the laptop as a business tool — that's the way we look at it as something wielded by businessmen in the world of commerce, not so much as a musical [instrument], as something that produces something aesthetically pleasing.

PdB: One more question and then I think we have to wrap it up. Way in the back.

A2: My name's Gary. I'm likewise a Vancouverite. I think one of the interesting things about this Festival is that it breaks down this over-seriousness about the direction of electric, acoustic or jazz. These [labels are] something that's actually scaring a lot of potential with, let's say, the younger club-oriented mindset. But [here] you take Hakon Kornstad with Wibutee and the next night he's playing with Paul Plimley and Dylan van der Schyff [and Torsten Muller] doing acoustic music. There isn't this separation — they don't need to differentiate, they're absorbing new ways where they don't have to make distinctions. What they're looking for is exploratory things. I think, you know, yeah . . . I'm going to Norway!

PdB: Well have a nice flight. Thanks for coming, thanks to all the panelists. Thanks a lot.


C o m m e n t s

No comments yet. You can be the first.
[<<] [<] [>] [>>]