“A sense of urgency”
Darius Jones, alto sax: “They say you need to play what you hear. But if I do, they say, 'oh, you can't be hearing that.' “
Mary Halvorson, guitar: “I couldn't listen to jazz for eight years after I went to jazz school. I'm serious. I could not listen. It turned it into this terrible exercise. And I couldn't listen until about four months ago, when I got into it again, and remembered why I loved it initially. It becomes so formulaic. It all sounds the same and you're taught that the end goal is to perfect a style. Creativity is not emphasized. You're in school and you're being graded on how well you can perfect a style. I don't think it's bad having these structures. It's just overdone, and overdone in a crappy way. There's such an oversaturation of mediocrity.”
Darius Jones: “This is what they say: if you learn the arsenal, the arsenal will take you somewhere else. But it never does! How you get somewhere else is by leaving the arsenal completely out of the framework.”
Kevin Shea, drums: “For me, it's about active thought. If they tell you to play a specific way, there's no real reason do that except that someone's played that way in the past. But if you have active thought, and you're really invested in the music, you should be able to reevaluate the moment and play something in a way that is not just set up for you by history. In that way, you're actively reconsidering your approach. Otherwise you can get stuck in intuitively doing things, but with intuitions made up of things you've learned in the past.”
Mary Halvorson: “You're on autopilot.”
Travis Laplante, tenor sax: “It's more intellectual and less emotional, in general. Which is, I think, one of the main reasons that jazz is losing its audience. Because it's harder to pick up on, just on a humanistic level. That's one of the reasons people our age don't go out and see jazz all the time. They used to. There's a reason for that.”
Moppa Elliot, upright bass: “As [jazz] loses more and more market share, both Jazz at Lincoln Center and Winton Marsales get more and more adamant that 'if you're not doing what we're doing, you're not doing jazz.' And that's exactly what we're rebelling against. Not the actual jazz.”
Peter Evans, trumpet: “There are are probably musicians out there who would describe what I do as quite conservative. It's all a matter of perspective. If there's anything reactionary about my interests, it's that I look at the creation of music in general as a celebration of dynamic change, unpredictability, intuition, knowledge, and physicality. Dominant social trends in the world today seem to be actively squeezing these things out of everyday life.”
Moppa Elliot: “The Winton Marsales thing — this very conservative jazz — is more of a rebellion than we are”
Travis Laplante: “Albert Ayler's band would go four or five days without food, then wake up and walk around Harlem looking for a gig. And Charlier Parker, even: there are stories where he wouldn't have a saxophone because he'd have to pawn it. And he'd have to somehow find another saxophone.”
Darius Jones: “The personality was fearless.”
Moppa Elliot: “We're not trying to be disrespectful or anything, although a lot of people — well, a lot of conservative jazz guys — take it that way. They're like, 'how can you possibly play Kenny G smooth jazz in the middle of a Charlie Parker tune?' We're like, 'how can you not?' “
“Play everything you know, and then play it again, as fast as possible.”
What all these New York musicians have in common is that ultimately, they care about jazz. They know its history and they believe in its ability to captivate and astonish. But they've also all been disillusioned with jazz at some point, and their work today is a product of complicated relationships, whether they're attacking outmoded conventions, charting ignored or unknown territories of technique and style, or just pushing familiar forms to their best and brightest potential. Full disclosure: I don't listen to much traditional jazz. But these reconfigurations have proven very capable of seizing my attention.
With emphasis moved off of endlessly practicing specific songs and into a loose, flexible overall instrumental facility, many jazz-trained musicians are able to maintain vastly more projects than is typical in the rock world. Mary Halvorson and Kevin Shea are avant-rock duo People (see People's recent profile), but Halvorson also leads her own trio and plays in other projects with the likes of violist Jessica Pavone, bassist Trevor Dunn (formerly of Mr. Bungle) and drummer Ches Smith (currently of Xiu Xiu). Among examples ranging from rock to lounge, Shea plays with keyboardist Matt Mottel in the technical-noise rampage of Talibam! (they're calling it “harmoniacal”), and, along with Peter Evans and alto sax player Jon Irabagon, in Moppa Elliot's “terrorist bebop” outfit Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
Despite being most recognizably a jazz band of all those consulted for this story, MOPDTK are rarely content to leave the form as they found it. Tellingly, this is the band that gave us the section title above. Solos start only to be cut off abruptly by the other members two bars later. Evans' trumpet regularly leaps from clear tones to dissonant hiss and back within a phrase. Shea clatters every which way. Irabagon drops suddenly into syrupy-slick dinner music riffs. In fact, a surprising amount of thought has gone into this last aspect.
“I've been getting really interested in the smooth jazz phenomenon,” Elliot explained. “As musicology and sociology. It's some weird shit. Just the fact that is exists, and that so many people get so mad about it. And yet so many people like, for really bizarre reasons. People like to dismiss it, but I also know a lot of great straight-ahead jazz musicians who can't play smooth jazz to save their lives. They just don't know how to do it. So it's a little more complicated than that. You can actually be good at it. I've been trying to listen to more of it, which usually turns my stomach. But I'm making the effort. I'm gonna figure out what the hell's going on, then I'll get back to you.”
MOPDTK, exploring the terrifying depths of smooth jazz so the rest of us don't have to. Of course, that's only a tiny part of their wildly varied sound, surprising even when in recognizable theme-solo-theme arrangement for the closer of a show last spring. Elliot, who considers bass solos to be basically boring whoever is doing them, lead off by exploiting amp problems in weird feedback overtones off his upright. Evans played what I can only describe as “trumpet drone”, his breath a shifting atonal sputter that built and quickened. And Shea wrapped up a rapid bout of percussion from every surface of his kit by gripping his snare to him and dragging his hands across it in a seedy squeak. Soon he was on top of the kit. There were pelvic thrusts involved. And then everyone was playing again, riotously. It was impossible to miss how much fun the band was having. It was impossible not to be caught up in that feeling.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Elliot and co. seem to be messing with jazz out of a sense that that's what jazz would have wanted. That what they're doing feels right. Evans doesn't even see his experiments, in MOPDTK, solo, or in his quartet and other projects, thrillingly atonal as they often are, as particularly outside of what jazz can and should be doing. Even when his work reveals a background in classical trumpet, as in the new music-minded International Contemporary Ensemble. Of course, Evans' refined extended technique is part of a strong tradition in free jazz experimentation, one that currently contains similarly inventive NYC contemporaries like trumpet player Nate Wooley and clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman (incidentally Wooley and Evans played as a duo at Cymerman's latest album release in April).
Little Women, a noise outfit fronted by Darius Jones and Travis Laplante on alto and tenor sax respectively, with guitarist Ben Greenberg and drummer Jason Nazary, is more aggressive in decrying stagnant or restrictive elements in modern jazz. Narrow-minded educators, talented musicians who will only push their instruments so far. “It should be so much more far out than what it is,” said Jones, who actually teaches classical music at NYU. “I feel like traditional jazz music is great. I feel like a lot of great musicians are doing that. But I DO NOT feel like a lot of jazz musicians are doing anything progressive.” Little Women's retort is a cacophony of tense guitar stabs, ever-warping sax-squeal, and near blast-beat-intensity drums. Just as quickly as they can plunge into disarray, however, they can leap back into perfectly synced melodies, recasting apparent chaos as carefully structured improvisation between compositional sections. Given the people involved, the combined jazz-noise-rock results are somewhat unsurprising. Laplante also plays in the more classically-informed avant-rock group Extra Life (see last issue), and Greenberg is the guitarist for experimental ensemble Zs, both of whom share Little Women's flexibility in playing both punk shows and “serious” music outlets like jazz clubs.
Most of all, Little Women are concerned about what they see as a critical cooling of jazz's passionate center. Their response is unique, and rooted in the band's formation. The first time Laplante and Jones played together, “it ended up with the saxophones on the floor and us just emoting into them.” Laplante said they found themselves “trying to break through sonically into the most primal sound we could possibly produce. With our bodies, saxophone aside. We were talking about getting the band together. After after that we knew we had to do it.” Today, that raw “emoting” — murmuring, sobbing, yelping — often into the bells of their instruments rather than mouthpieces, ends every show in an outpouring that may be the most aggressive part of the set. A friend of the band in the audience once said, “it makes me want to take off all my clothes and vomit at the same time.”
“Little Women bears more resentment than Zs, which is a very zen, positive band to be a part of,” said Greenberg of the contrast between the projects. “Jazz is kind of ultimately fundamentally part of both bands. A small part, but still there.” Though Zs riffs often seem to be quoting free-jazz forms and phrases, it's partly illusory: the band is tightly compositional, everything played precisely from sheet music. It is an approach shared, unsurprisingly, with Extra Life, whose Charlie Looker was once a principle Zs songwriter, and suggests modern classical minimalism as a equal influence in both projects. “The initial conception of the band,” Greenberg described, “was to avoid all the pitfalls of being a trained musician, and simultaneously avoid all the pitfalls of operating in a d.i.y. scene. To eliminate the worst of both worlds and take the best. To merge high and low art.”
Similarly, past Zs bill-mates Child Abuse merge jazz leanings, both trained and self-taught, with rigid structure and hectic noise-punk and metal references. Bassist Tim Dahl spews feedback in tightly modulated loops, keyboardist Luke Calzonetti barks unintelligibly over dissonant chord stabs and riffs of demented elevator music, drummer Oran Canfield pins everything in place with fluid but solid percussion, making it clear that even at most seemingly haphazard, everything is, in fact, in its proper place. Despite the apparent aggression, Child Abuse don't seem to be rebelling against anything, but simply combine varied backgrounds in what they see as the most logical way. When not attending noise shows for inspiration, Dahl still plays in distinctly less frenetic “background jazz” groups out in Long Island. (What is “background jazz”? Googling yields the evocative example of “Still Time: Christian jazz for evangelism, worship, & enjoyment.”)
Punk was a reaction to the musical bloat of the 70s. Prog, long drum solos, longer guitar solos. They had to go, and the ancestral simplicity of the earliest rock'n'roll, combined with a healthy dose of socio-political fury, was the way to do it. Punk reset pop music, and we're still reeling from it. Today, Dahl said, punk-based simplicity is still the mainstream and instrumental virtuosity, driven underground in the late 70s, has been allowed to return as a new counterculture, waiting to break through. If this is true, it could bode well for this current crop of renegade jazz. And help explain why audience reactions to these bands, even unfamiliar and capricious touring audience reactions, have often been surprisingly good.
“Dude, can you hear how fun this is?”
Darius Jones: “At this point, we're kinda freaked out. People just like Little Women. It's weird. Even to us it's weird. Some of this shit is kinda fucked up even to us. It's like, 'We love it, but we don't understand why you love it. But we're glad you do.' “
Moppa Elliot: “We haven't scared away an audience yet. At Cornelia Street Cafe we played to an audience that was half European tourists who had no idea what they were getting into. A 10-year-old kid came up afterwards to buy the cd and get it autographed. So, unlike a lot of noisy, raucous things, I think the form translates fairly easily. Even if you can't see the huge shit-eating grins on our faces while we're doing god knows what. Breaking things.”
Darius Jones: “There was this girl in D.C. Afterwards, her boyfriend was there going 'oh my god oh my god oh my god', and she came over and she said 'I wanted to punch you in the face.' And I said, 'well I'm glad you didn't.' And she said, 'no, it was good.' “
Travis Laplante: “The only negative reactions we've had were when we were rehearsing at NYU. This professor came in and started waving his hands and said 'I don't know what you're doing but you need to do it quietly.' Yeah, and then the chair came in multiple time and said we were wiping out the whole floor, and driving everyone crazy. But I feel like there was other stuff that was louder. We weren't even mic-ing or anything. It was all acoustic.”
Moppa Elliot: “The only times we've ever gotten a negative reception are when we played for rooms full of jazz musicians.”