Jazz Modernized

When you have an art form that has existed for well over one hundred years, with roots to that art form going back even farther than that, you undoubtedly end up placing many different interpretations of that art form all under the same umbrella. There may be no better example of that than jazz. Because of the freedom and progression of jazz, a musician could conceivably call anything jazz if they find some ground to justify it on.

Jazz can be broken down by eras, styles, and about a dozen or so other fields. Debates and arguments happen over which era or style is the best, or what really made jazz what it is. And it seems that as time goes on, many artists try to offer their own performance of a traditional tune with as much respect to the original as possible, write new music, or completely transform old recordings into something completely different, with the vaguest hint of the original.

It is the latter that has my attention today. There are some musicians who are doing a wonderful job creating new modern works, or offering new looks at older compositions. Trumpeter Russell Gunn might be a perfect example of that. His original recordings, and his covers of older recordings both offer the same thing: personality. And not just personality in general, they offer his personality. You can hear one of his recordings, and whether its an original or not, it always has a little attitude and a little bite. It becomes very Russell Gunn.

Some vocalists have taken to putting lyrics to old instrumental tunes, and some have made it work. It took guts for Norah Jones to put lyrics to the Duke Ellington tune Melancholia, but she did, called it Don’t Miss You At All, and the end result was wonderful. On the flip side, you won’t see me banging down any doors to get to the Manhattan Transfer vocal interpretation of the Weather Report hit Birdland.

One of the things that stirred these thoughts more vividly recently was hearing more and more songs “remixed”, and hearing them everywhere. Not so much the radio, but in department stores and elevators. These “recordings” are classic songs chopped up by a DJ, who with the help of a couple turntables (used for scratching, not playing) and a $99 music software program turn it into something you could easily hear at a techno music club. The only resemblance the final product bears to the original is one or two lines that Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone sang that didn’t hit the DJ’s cutting room floor. The rest is purely electronically produced, almost always with a trance-like robotic drum beat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve spent hours in dance clubs that featured music produced entirely with electronics. And as a modern day employee of a radio station, there is no more reel-to-reel editing, thank goodness, as everything is done quicker and easier on computers.

But when do we hit the point where we realize, in some ways, that the wonderful modern technology we have in front of us might be a tool that robs us of personality? Is it bad that someone tries to recreate Nobody’s Fault But Mine with one or two lines from the original, plus a recycled drum beat and a heavy bass line, all at five times the original tempo? The majority of the lyrics and anything resembling a solo are completely gone. Maybe it isn’t bad, but it can be unnerving at the very least when someone hears it and assumes it to be the original.

I’m not some old stick in the mud that has anything against modern technology. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But to me, there comes a point where you simply rob music of its originality and personality. And it was that personality that got us all interested in the first place. One might have seen Coltrane in concert and spoke of his 45 minute solo, or heard a recording by Ella Fitzgerald and mentioned how “you could even hear the piano bench Ellis Larkins creak as he rocked in the background, while she sang that heartbreaking tune”.

Give me personality any day, especially when it comes to music…especially when it comes to jazz. Give me something interesting and creative to listen to, and leave the computer and the canned drum beat at home.

98 Replies to “Jazz Modernized”

  1. a very thoughtful parcel of observations here.

    appreciate in full your stance on the matter of the remix. i could argue that the positive value of such work (verve remixed, etc.) *might* be to serve as the invitation into the world of jazz to those who may not have otherwise headed in that direction. else, and again, i will not take issue with the deeper point regarding artistic merit, the extent to which the original is honored through the reworking, and so forth.

    appreciate too the selection of russell gunn as an illustration. recently learned of him through the on-a-lark purchase of his 2004 release ‘ethnomusicology vol 4 / live in atlanta.’ i’d offer that his version of ‘summertime’ on that one to be solid evidence that supports your points.


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