The responses to my recent post about the lauding by critics of Robert Glasper’s recent music as a great leap forward, (both artistically and commercially), and in particular my questioning of whether what Glasper was doing was jazz at all, has got a discussion going on the hoary old question of ‘what is jazz’? While I’m reluctant to get into such a complex and ultimately unanswerable question, I have been thinking about one aspect in particular that I think is indispensible to what I would consider to be jazz – collective improvisation by the whole band.
This concept where the accompanist has an active rather than passive, or static role is one of the most unique features of jazz and is something I miss in the Glasper music under discussion, and also in Esperanza Spalding’s music. In general once you have a strong backbeat in action, it usually comes with a musical modus operandi where the soloist is in one area and the rhythm section is in another. The soloist solos over the groove, but the interchange between the soloist and accompanists is very limited – the collective improvisation and true interchange of ideas between soloist and rhythm section is missing. The clear 2 and 4 bar structures of much Hip Hop and Pop music also mitigates against fluidity and blurring of the lines of soloist and accompanist – each section being marked off with the drummer’s crash cymbal, the cymbal performing the role of cookie cutter in marking out the sections. The fluidity and improvised collective consciousness is missing.
This collective improvisation is very clear even in the earliest jazz recordings. The groups typical of those times involved themselves in what can best be described as multi-voiced counterpoint, each player weaving in and out and taking their turn in both soloing and accompaniment. Have a listen to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five from 1927 – and in particular have a listen to Armstrong’s use of what later became known as metric modulation, at around 1.39.
In the 30s the concept of the rhythm section came into being and while the first traditional rhythm section line-ups (piano, bass, drums) were sometimes stiff and provided a rhythmic and harmonic cushion for the soloist rather than interacting with him (and in those days it nearly always was a him), jazz’s collective instinct soon reasserted itself and pianists and drummers found ways to both respond to and provide inspiration to the soloists. The soloists in turn could interact with the rhythm section, influencing how they performed and being involved in a true interchange between soloist and accompanist.
This became very well developed during the bebop period of the 1940s and early 50s – have a listen to Bird with Max Roach and Al Haig, at how both Roach and Haig are both responding to Parker, spurring him on, and how he in turn sparks responses in them. For example listen how at 1.53 the phrase Parker plays makes both Haig and Roach hit a strong and held accent on the second beat of that bar – true improvised interaction.
In the 50s and 60s this interchange between soloist and rhythm section developed in leaps and bounds – the Bill Evans trio defined a new way for the traditional piano trio to interact, Miles’ various quintets ramped up the interplay quotient until we reach arguably the apogee of this interconnected improvising concept – the quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. This group blurred the lines between accompanist and those being accompanied in a way that had never been seen before. The interaction between all five members of the group was of an extraordinarily high level, and they operated on a kind of philosophical telepathy. It wasn’t the kind of telepathy where everyone could predict what everyone else was going to do – that would have been very dull – but a telepathy in the way they seemed to understand what was required for the music at any given time, and that could include playing something really unexpected or something the diverged from the path the music was on at that time. Here they are in 1964 tearing through that old warhorse ‘Walkin’
To listen to the extraordinary creative organism that was that rhythm section is to hear something unique to jazz – the way they both respond to and drive the soloists is a wonder, it’s right at the top of the creative tree and this kind of interchange between the soloists and rhythm section is something you can only hear in jazz. And they weren’t the only ones doing this in the 60s – Coltrane’s group, in an albeit very different way – also played in a way in which the rhythm section were as important as the soloist at all times. McCoy, Garrison and Elvin were as indispensible to Coltrane’s music as Herbie, Ron and Tony were to Miles’. They don’t interact in the same way as Miles’ rhythm section but they are driving and shaping the music and it’s impossible to imagine this music without McCoy and Elvin in particular (I was never as big a fan as some people of the few recordings Roy Haynes made with the group) being as much a part of the identity of the band as Coltrane himself. Here they are (with Eric Dolphy and Reggie Workman on bass) in 1961 playing ‘Impressions’
What Miles, and Coltrane, and Evans, and Ornette and the members of their bands, and the members of many others, did was create a way of playing, a collective impulse in which each member had not only a role, but also a responsibility to add to the creative life of the band. And this way of thinking, of playing, of hearing, has stretched out to influence most of what became the mainstream of the music. It is unique to jazz – both soloist and accompanists have the freedom to lead and the willingness to be led, it is creative democracy at work, played in a spirit of equality and of parity.
For me, if you dispense with this interaction between rhythm section and soloist, the equality between accompanied and accompanist, you dispense with one of the vital jazz virtues. And as soon as you bring a backbeat into the equation, you’re immediately locking down the rhythm section, and removing the possibilities of interchange between front and back line. 10 years ago everyone was raving about Bugge Wesseltoft and Nils Petter Molvaer and saying this was the new way forward. But once again, like the Glasper music being lauded now, the preponderance of the backbeat robs the music of all of this organic interchange, eschews the collective improvisation tradition, and puts everyone in the band into clearly defined roles – soloist or accompanist, with little or no exchange between them.
Fortunately there are still great examples of the more collective way of playing out there, and for my money one of the greatest exponents of this way of playing, not just now, but of all time, is the current Wayne Shorter Quartet. Watch this stunning rendition of Joy Rider, and how it morphs, ebbs, flows, twists and turns under the collective guidance of the band, everyone taking responsibility, ready to move into the spotlight and back into the background as the music demands. This is JAZZ, with a capital J and several dozen Z’s after it. For me, apart from a few piano voicings, there’s really no similarity between what Glasper played on Letterman and what Wayne’s band do here. It’s not just the music that’s different, the whole improvising philosophy is different. In one you have the monolith of the backbeat, with some piano improvisations on top, with the other you have four musicians actively engaged in spontaneous creation (during which the backbeat makes an occasional appearance), using the medium of the composition as a launchpad. (I make no apologies for posting this clip twice in a short space of time - it's that good!)
One may argue about whether what Glasper is playing is jazz or not, but one thing’s for sure, what Wayne and Co are playing here is very definitely jazz!