Two items I’ve been listening to lately, Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: the Joni Letters and Charlie Haden’s album with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky, have made me think about an awful lot of my favorite music right now and the issue of genre in contemporary music.
What are they? Jazz? They both involve extended improvisation, “jazz” instrumentation (i.e., saxophones, guitars, bass, drums, piano in various combinations), interpretation of songs by creative musicians, with or without vocals, extended tonal harmony, a preponderance of “groove-based” rhythmic and metric sensibility, an apparent desire to communicate with an audience and the sense that we are listening to a communication between musicians. But each in its way also seems like pop music, and each perhaps even more seems like contemporary classical music. And it’s not just Hancock and Haden–Ornette Coleman, Julian Velard, The Bad Plus, E.S.T., Bobo Stenson, Elvis Costello to name just a few have made recordings that share some or all of these qualities.
This seems compelling to me–that this music might be good jazz and good pop and good classical music all at once, without giving up anything. This stuff isn’t “fusion” in the sense that term has been used in the past (both inasmuch as it’s not generically like the 70s and 80s-era work by post-Miles musicians and proto-smooth jazz practitioners, and inasmuch as it doesn’t really seem to be an attempt to fuse distinct things). Rather, I think it’s a synthesis, it represents musicians finding the things that are in common between multiple traditions, or perhaps playing in the cracks between them.
Jazz musicians have said, for some time now, of course, starting probably with Ellington, that what they’re doing isn’t bounded by some narrow frame; many have rejected the genre label outright. In teaching jazz history I always bring this up, but I think I’ve failed to fully grasp its importance; I bring it up but dismiss it, because, after all, it is jazz, right? Even if the term is hard to define, slippery, a thing you can only see if you don’t focus on it, if you let it exist in your peripheral vision. And it is true–there are lineages, there is a semi-closed circle of a scene existing over the course of the 20th century, making a music that has characteristics of a single genre or tradition; but the potential is always there to see it as a genre that is its negation. In a sense it seems like these musicians are moving past a host of dying traditions. Jazz is doomed, I think, if it is understood just as a set of sonic markers (ii-V progressions, bop melodic lines, swung eighths, and so on), as it is taught in colleges and universities; contemporary classical music is a language that speaks to almost no one; and frankly, pop singing is capable of so much more than industry people often allow it.
These new recordings follow that and even suggest that what might be called the tyranny of genre in the 20th century is cracking in the 21st. In an interview on NPR with Tavis Smiley, Hancock said of the Mitchell album that he is just trying to make music–it’s a little jazz and a little classical and a little pop and a little of this and that; genre has become (and maybe always was) an industry short cut to sales. It is also a tool for communication with an audience, I think, but the possibility that all the musics of the 20th century with their rigid or at least semi-rigid race and class associations, might be let go in the new century, and that musicians, black and white, old and young, rich and poor, American and from elsewhere, male and female might come together to search out new paths is genuinely inspiring.
Joezer Mendonca, a professor and musician at Sao Paulo State University has a nice follow-up to this post on his blog, Nota Na Pauta. His point that similar processes of synthesis, crossover, etc. have happened in Brazil and are continuing to happen is well made. I particularly like the point that in the Brazilian pop scene sub-generic fusions (samba-reggae, samba-cancao and so on) have been important and different from super-generic fusions (like those I’m writing about above, and like figures like Pixinguinha or Caetano Veloso).