"Everybody else, I realized, was playing jazz. Chet Baker was playing the song." (Dave Hickey)
Attend a jazz student recital and you're likely to hear highly familiar versions of "Autumn Leaves" or "All the Things You Are"; check out a jam session and you can witness some dudes trying to impress each other with how well they can play over rhythm changes. In either case you would probably, understandably, draw the conclusion that success in jazz, the end these aspiring musicians are all ostensibly working toward, is about mastering the playing of standards-- is about bringing one's playing on a set of tunes from the 1940s and '50s to a level indistinguishable from that of the great players of the '50s and '60s.
And then you hear the really interesting, the really creative, the actually exciting jazz music of today. Incidentally, it does exist; as a matter of fact there is a shitload of it. It's being played by people like Ben Allison, Dave Holland, Polar Bear, Vijay Iyer, the Claudia Quintet, Avishai Cohen, &c. &c. &c.
And what do you see when you read these players' tracklistings?
Not that you won't occasionally encounter those in jazz school, but we have to admit that the emphasis is different -- that jazz musicians are educated, tacitly and contextually at least, to do one thing (viz. replicate the great players on familiar tunes), and that the important jazz musicians in the non-academic musical world are doing something completely different (viz. trying to sound like themselves on programs made up nearly entirely of originals).
Where we do see familiar tunes, they are not usually faithful versions, they are recreations--they are arrangements--they are, to be pop-rock about it, covers. Vijay Iyer playing "Somewhere" has more to do with Jimi Hendrix playing "All Along the Watchtower" than it does with some cocktail piano trio playing "There Will Never Be Another You." In the latter case the proceedings are going to be basically the same as the other trios playing in other restaurants across town that evening; in Iyer's and Hendrix', we're dealing with reinvention, with an arrangement that is unique to that player, one that wouldn't necessarily make sense in the hands of another band.
I don't mean to globally impugn the tradition of playing well-known standards through a system of improvised solos. That is where jazz came from, and many musicians are still doing beautiful things with the formula. And of course, jazz education has developed as it has because the traditional system provides discernible standards for "achievement" and its assessment--and because learning to play in a post-bop combo style does yield useful and transferable skills.
But just as the first jazz practice came from necessity -- "we have a 3-hour gig and we only know 15 tunes, let's stretch them out" -- so today reinvention has become the necessity. "There are too many jazz groups and not enough gigs, and everyone sounds the same, what can I do that's different?"
And it's originals, original originals, and it's personalized reinventions. With recorded music around, we don't need tons of jazz bands to play catchy, recognizable tunes for people to dance to. (Some, but only a few, and usually as a novelty, not as standard practice.) The needs have changed. Now we want to listen, the few of us who are listening--we want to listen closely and repeatedly, and we want something unique. The music needs to be unique in order to get anyone's attention. If it's going to be straight-ahead, it had better be really perfect, or else who would put down their CDs of the first Miles quintet to listen to you instead?
This is why dedicating oneself doggedly to perfect explication of standards is a headlong rush into certain irrelevance. This is why, I suggest, the Bad Plus has found such success combining originals with covers of well-known contemporary pop songs. When they choose "Life on Mars?" instead of "All of Me," the intention is clear. Everyone knows it's a cover and a deliberate one, not just calling a tune from the book to fill up the gig or the record. (Brad Mehldau is also famous for choosing Radiohead or Nick Drake for his non-original selections. His treatment of recent pop music isn't as interesting from the perspective of individualized recomposition or arrangement, but to be fair even he, when playing "All the Things You Are," did so in 7/4.)
And of course, we must recognize the historical continuity inherent in this trend, because at one point "Autumn Leaves" too was a contemporary pop tune.
"Jazz is not dead," Frank Zappa said, "it just smells funny." Stale, I would specify. But not all of it, and you can tell the difference immediately. The stuff with that fresh odor of vitality is the stuff that isn't trying to be jazz, that's just trying to be strong music, unique, unapologetic, honest, new.
Nor is jazz alone. Contemporary composition is often the same way -- the education is often about following instructions toward an ideal that is supplied by someone besides yourself. About playing jazz, whatever that is, rather than playing the song.
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