The Mainstream Gets Worldly

The Mainstream Gets Worldly

excerpt from The Playboy Guide to Jazz
by Neil Tesser
copyright © 1999 Neil Tesser

1973 - 1999

Perhaps it was that evening in the mid '70s at the Village Vanguard, when the members of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra first put down their horns and picked up toys, that crystallized the historical moment.

Jones and Lewis led a no-nonsense big band; themselves alumni of the Count Basie and Stan Kenton bands, they had filled their award-winning orchestra with some of the finest and most committed jazz musicians in New York City. Yet here were a dozen of them, many veterans of the bebop wars and icons of mainstream jazz, putting down their trusty (and expensive) Selmer saxes and Stadivarius trumpets and switching to shakers and sticks, triangles and cowbells, tambourines and au-go-go the little instruments that musicians call percussion "toys." Suddenly, for a brief interlude in a modified samba written by Thad Jones, his entire band had turned into a faux-Brazilian rhythm section.

No one could have asked for a clearer indication that the world of music had again expanded as the world at large was shrinking, or that jazz had embraced the panoply of exotic musical styles that characterize the last quarter-century of life in the U.S.A.

In the 1970s, an influx of foreign influences in the form of artists and recordings that only later would be described as "world music" provided jazz musicians with another palette from which to work. The shapes, colors, and especially the rhythms of the world's older musical traditions had always found a welcome mat at jazz's door. What's more, progressive musicians of the sixties found extra inspiration in the example of John Coltrane, who experimented with world-music possibilities on the song "India" and the album Africa/Brass, and whose towering musical presence added credence to such experiments. But the earlier use of foreign beats and alien instruments had been only an occasional side-trip; here in the '70s,, the exploration of other cultures' music became a wide-ranging phenomenon. And in the eighties, this phenomenon reached unprecedented proportions, as jazz made the pursuit of internationalism a goal in itself.

In previous generations, musicians usually had a fairly narrow agenda for incorporating the sounds of other cultures. They might have warmed to a particular Latin American song form or gravitated to the rhythmic tradition of a certain African people. Impelled by religious or spiritual concerns, they might have experimented with instruments unique to India or the Middle East. But now the jazz community seemed intent on the very idea of adding outside elements; the choice about which ancient culture to tap sometimes seemed like an afterthought.

This trend in jazz -- which has ebbed and flowed up till the present day -- presaged and then mirrored the larger societal movement known as multiculturalism. Remember, the United States in the eighties had a consuming interest in not only the ideas and artifacts of other countries and traditions; Americans became fixated on the very existence of these other ideas and artifacts, and then on the value of mixing and matching them to find their common denominators. School curricula emphasized cultural diversity; so did fashion and art and theater and cuisine.

So the energizing polyphonic rhythms of multiple percussion instruments began to creep into jazz recordings. Soon came the pungent pinched timbres of the Middle East, the hard bright sun of Brazilian compositions, the stately tonalities of traditional Japanese scales and modes, and the occasional rumbling snore of the Australian didgeridoo. Cuba supplied the greatest amount of foreign trade -- shocking when you consider the current U.S. embargo on that nation, but hardly surprising given the impact that Cuban music had made on American jazz since the bebop years. But Brazilian musicians left their mark as well: the bossa nova might have faded in its homeland, but it had become a staple of jazz musicians, and they seemed especially eager to make use of the subesequent Brazilian styles. And Africa -- the source of rhythm, whose peoples had instigated not only jazz but also the various idioms of Cuba and Brazil -- remained a rich treasury of musical riches.

Some artists, such as Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie, simply continued to explore areas they had already pioneered, only now their efforts received heightened attention. Others (such as Pat Metheny) gravitated toward world music for the first time or -- as with Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter -- got the chance to delve more deeply into idoms they previously had only scratched. And in many cases, the artists exemplifying this jazz-world fusion fit into none of these categories, being South American or African or Asian or Eastern European themselves.

You can't really speak of an overall "world music" style, at least not in the sense that we discuss bebop or free jazz. In each of the descriptions accompanying this chapter's recommended CDs, you'll find more details about the specific culture (or cultures) at work in the music. And it's important to note that jazz's movement toward multiculturalism co-existed with other jazz idioms, which continued to evolve and even flourish and in many cases reflected international influence. For instance, the onrush of world music overlapped with the maturation of fusion jazz, most obviously in the persons of Chick Corea, Miles Davis, and John McLaughlin; their electric music of the seventies often bore the mark of (respectively) Brazilian, North African, and Indian music.

But you must remember this (as Dooley Wilson sang in the film Casablanca, one of the most memorable examples of foreign intrigue): The world itself can never really agree on a universal concept of world music. The term is a self-referential invention of the United States and Europe: it defines the "world" as everything outside one's own borders, and that causes some obvious problems. For example, the extraordinary singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, a celebrated world-music star, carries no such distinction in Brazil, one of the world's most music-savvy nations -- for the simple reason that Milton is himself Brazilian. The Brazilians don't think of Milton's music as "world music"; only the rest of the world does that.

Similarly, only listeners from someplace other than Finland would find anything "worldly" or exotic about Karelian folk singing. It depends entirely on where you stand.

Whatever the terminology, however, the trade winds blew through jazz with gale force in the '70s and '80s, and the music displays the effects of that storm to this day.

THE DISCS (from the list "20 essential recommendations" for this chapter) . . .

Gato Barbieri, Latino America or Chapter Three (Impulse).

The tenor saxist Leandro "Gato" (Cat) Barbieri left Argentina to play free jazz in Europe in the 1960s. Returning home in the seventies, he took a different tack, steering his wide-toned lyricism into the rhythmic currents of his homeland. Acknowledging both the tango (an urban invention) and the percussive music of Argentina's indigenous rural peoples, Barbieri offered simple tunes played simply, with a minimum of ornamentation. This allowed him to focus attention on his opulent and impassioned tone -- a sweet, yearning sound that made frequent use of the guttural rasp that most saxists use only for occasional emphasis.

Barbieri's best recordings place his sweeping melodies against distinctively Argentine backgrounds. Rather than the heat of Brazilian samba or Cuban son, it is the loping bolero of the Pampas, or the seductive march of tango dancers in Buenos Aires nightclubs, that supplies the music's long-limbed smolder. (Barbieri's saxophone style achieves a similar effect by juxtaposing his laconic phrasing with the sultry warmth of his tone.) These sets, recorded in the early '70s, remain the most fully realized examples of Barbieri's musical chauvinism. The double-CD Latino America, the more adventurous of the two, has wilder solos, a thicket of percussion, and bands that include aboriginal harps and flutes. The single-disc Chapter Three: Viva Emiliano Zapata finds Barbieri's sax framed by the excellent big-band arrangements of Chico O'Farrill, who had written for such icons of Afro-Cuban jazz as Dizzy Gillespie and Machito. (If you want to sample selections from both projects, go for the Barbieri entry in Impulse's Priceless Jazz series.)

The Playboy Guide to Jazz may be purchased directly from Playboy.

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