With the exception of a handful of intrepid travellers, it’s fair to surmise that, when it comes to dialogue between their respective disciplines in an Irish context, jazz musicians are from Mars, traditional musicians are from Venus. There is however, ample evidence right here on Earth to suggest there is much to be gained from enjoining these two supposedly incompatible partners in creative matrimony, in an interfaith union that would be blessed by healthy, well adjusted offspring.
The Chinese say a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and as good a place as any from which to embark is an examination of the common ground shared by jazz and traditional music. First, the audience. Without them, we are all consigned to the scrap heap of musical indifference. This is not merely an economic consideration, which is a reductivist view of their role – they are the vital component in a social transaction which is as old and universal as the music itself, regardless of where it is performed, from the grandest concert hall to the most modest parlour.
The respective audiences for these musics are tribal in their rugged independence, but while the plumage, ritual and body paint vary, they share a common musical ethos. Respect for tradition and authenticity, primacy of the artist’s voice, rejection of shallow artifice and gimmick, quick to criticism if a musician has not addressed the artisan nature of first principles, and on occasion, a gnostic knowledge of the idiom that can often exceed that of the practitioner.
The jazz and trad tribes are also cut from the same cloth when it comes to the places where they range, and share a similar aversion to the vast stage, the cavernous auditorium, and the vertiginous PA, where much of the music’s detail and filigree is compromised, and sensitivity gives way to bombast. For both trad and jazz, less is more and small is always beautiful.
So much for the punters, what about the players? Like traditional music, jazz’s primary means of transmission is oral, despite what may appear evidence to the contrary. Its enthusiasm for pedagogy more readily associated with the European classical system, and all the codification that entails, has been driven by the quantum strides it made in the last century, and the subsequent need for the modern practitioner to have at his or her disposal an array of melodic and harmonic devices with which to speak fluently, in a language whose vocabulary was expanding accordingly. Concurrently, jazz was embracing all manner of musics from around the globe, the most obvious being Latin, Indian classical and latterly Balkan, all of which have fed into jazz’s rapacious appetite for new rhythmic information. All this promiscuity should not detract from the music’s oral first principle, but rather should be viewed as evidence of its equally persuasive philosophy of perpetual evolution. Jazz is the shark that can’t stop swimming, lest it asphyxiates.
Jazz and traditional music parallels
Strip all of this away though, and you’re left with musicians who are remarkably similar. The shelves of music shops are groaning with books on jazz theory, all of which are useful for learning the vocabulary, but none of which will provide the poetry. For that, jazz musicians return to the source. Just as the young traditional fiddler spends years at the side of a local master, or wears out the pause button analysing old recordings of Michael Coleman, the young jazz saxophonist is likewise mentored by the patriarchs of the local scene, returning home to burn the midnight oil with the recordings of Parker and Coltrane, figuring out licks, ornamentation, phrasing and all the other idiosyncrasies that are the signature of a master musician.
Further parallels occur in their respective approaches to repertoire. In jazz, just as in traditional music, there exists an exhaustive corpus of standard compositions which are a mandatory element of any player’s arsenal. Whether it’s a Broadway standard from The Great American Songbook, or a set of reels from O’Neill’s The Dance Music of Ireland, a similar rationale is at work whereby these songs provide continuity from one generation to the next, a benchmark by which to appreciate landmark interpretations, and most importantly, imbue players with a sense of tradition and their own location within the music’s continuum. Equally, five minutes at a jam session in J.J. Smyths on Aungier Street, where you might observe a sax player verbally instructing the bassist or pianist on the requisite chord sequence for a standard, is not a million miles removed from what happens at the nightly seisiún in Hughes’ of Chancery Street, and implies that the jazz and traditional engines are fitted with a similar transmission. Saxophonist Phil Woods put this ongoing transaction more succinctly when he defined it for young jazz musicians as ‘know where you come from, know where you’re at, know where you’re going’, an adage that could equally apply to the emerging traditional player.
Approaches to improvisation
If the above smacks of constructive ambiguity, let’s not be coy about the substantive issue on which they differ – the role of improvisation. While many genres employ improvisation as an ornamental or colouristic device, and I would include Irish traditional music among them, jazz is unique, in Western music at least, in that its creative index is overwhelmingly based on the currency of the improvising musician. Notwithstanding the fact that most, but not all jazz, is made in a group context, plus the increasingly important role of original composition, this cult of the individual musician remains as true today as when Louis Armstrong recorded his solo to ‘Potato Head Blues’ in 1927. In short, improvisation, often in a fashion that deviates radically from the source material that informs it, is the oxygen that feeds the jazz respiratory system. Equal importance is attached to individualism within traditional music, but within a modus operandi that allows considerable less latitude. Here, the vocabulary is more fixed, and the player’s interpretation is governed by strict, historical guidelines. Tempo, instrumentation, phrasing and ornamentation may be negotiable up to a point, but the tunes themselves are sacrosanct. Just as jazz is defined by its great solos, traditional music is defined by its great tunes, and this respect for the repertoire is surely its enduring characteristic, and its greatest strength.
If the role of improvisation is the principle fault line between jazz and traditional music, there are other minor fissures to be considered. Their respective attitudes to notation are illuminating. In the main, traditional musicians have resisted the use of notated music, as if learning to read ‘the dots’ would somehow compromise their authenticity, that playing music from the page would cause them to lose their mojo. Jazz musicians take a more prosaic view, that the ability to read is simply a means to an end, a tool with which to absorb complex information faster, to be unceremoniously discarded when the real business of improvisation comes to the fore. ‘Freedom through discipline’ is one of the music’s guiding principles, and ability to read is seen as an integral part of the skill set that gets you there. Jazz and traditional practitioners articulate their distinctiveness in other ways too, but perhaps these are more a reflection of socio, economic and geographic paradigms that can no longer be taken as a given in a rapidly evolving society like this one. Ireland is in a dynamic state of economic, cultural, spiritual and social flux, and these powerful forces are asserting themselves in our music, just as elsewhere, and old assumptions no longer hold true. There are a lot of jazz musicians living in Leitrim.
Blueprints for jazz/traditional collaboration
Depending on your outlook, you might view the above as evidence of fundamental incompatibility, in which case I respectfully suggest that your glass is half empty. To these optimistic ears, it is within that very contradictory nature and the creative tension it implies, that a brilliant jewel lies waiting to be discovered. The irresistible force of jazz (viral), meeting the immovable object of trad (glacial), presents an unparalleled opportunity for musical dialogue and creativity to the mutual advancement of both parties.
Irish musicians have been slow to grasp the nettle, unlike their international counterparts. In my capacity as a broadcaster, I get to hear a lot of music in this vein from far beyond our shores. Lest you think I’m relentlessly sunny in my outlook, I must caution that not all of it is good – often it’s a case of me listening to this stuff so you don’t have to! Invariably, the projects that come a cropper are those where the participants have neither the musical ability nor the artistic sincerity to make the alchemy successful. The failure rate is particularly high in those places where the folk tradition itself has been driven to the point of extinction, leading to misguided attempts to resuscitate it through fusing it with other idioms like jazz, rock or dance music. Where the tradition is sound, it usually follows that greater collective understanding of its sensitivities prevail, and projects prosper accordingly. In this regard, many countries, particularly in Southern Europe, can only look on in envy at the rude health of traditional music in Ireland.
For my part, I will continue to tough it out with every weird and wonderful recording that comes my way because failure is an integral part of this creative process. Having kissed a lot of frogs, I like to think I know a prince when I hear one, and there are many projects from this jazz/traditional nexus that have stayed with me. Here are some examples. In the US, guitarist Bill Frisell has travelled full circle over the last two decades, from one of the most experimental voices in contemporary jazz to his current locus as a twenty-first century bluegrass musician, his textural approach infusing this aspect of Americana with the faintest jazz residue. Also in the states, the polyglot Bob Brozman has woven an intriguing tapestry around resophonic and slack key guitar traditions, working with musicians from such far flung locations as India, West Africa, Okinawa, Hawaii and La Reunion, always yielding convincing, at times exhilarating results. At a remove from his native Vietnam, the Paris-based guitarist Nguyen Le, stylistically a highly regarded jazz rock player, has tempered this approach in his work with traditional singer Huong Thanh. Using Cuang Lok, an almost moribund style of Vietnamese folk opera as their source, they have forged a new music that seems to inhabit the contemporary and ancient Asias simultaneously, and for this writer, their three CDs together on German label ACT are almost a blueprint for jazz/traditional collaboration. In Europe, two pianists come to mind – Serbia’s Bojan Zulfikarpasic and Spain’s Chano Dominguez, both of whom have authentically transposed all the rhythmic nuance of their respective folk music to the piano, the former with Balkan horas, the latter with flamenco bulerias.
Sometimes it’s like a whole country is infused with the pioneering spirit. Step forward, Brazil. This vast country is a musical wonder, where melody and rhythm course through the veins of its citizens without impedance, insinuating themselves into every facet of life. Trying to stay on top of Brazilian music is like watching cells divide on a petri dish, and samba and bossa nova are just two of the strings in its DNA. Mangue (swamp), the new music from Recife in the North East, fuses the region’s powerful Maracutu rhythms with ritual music from the widely practised Candomble sect along with elements of traditional Rabeca fiddle music, and just for good measure, a shot of angry urban hip hop. Trust me, its sounds a whole lot better than it reads.
Closer to home, our Viking brethren have also been making significant strides. Throughout the Nordic countries one can observe the creative momentum in bridging Nordic jazz, arguably the strongest scene in Europe, with its equally compelling folk traditions. Historically, Nordic jazz has always been informed by its traditional music, manifest in its use of space, and lending it an almost introspective quality which is extremely attractive. Jazz musicians like Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek were in the vanguard of this movement, which is loosely referred to as ‘Nordic Blues’ and primarily associated with Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. Nor is all the traffic one way. The Copenhagen based group ULC, with whom Liam O’Flynn has recorded, play a repertoire of eighteenth-century Danish folk dances and boast a frontline of three traditional players with a rhythm section of jazz piano and upright bass, combining to make music that ‘swings’ with its own integrity, without compromise to either idiom. Nordic musicians are happily migrating between jazz and traditional music, and you’re just as likely to find the noted traditional singer Lena Willemark (from the Swedish group Frifot) popping up on experimental recordings by the great jazz bassist Anders Jormin, and vice versa.
Oh, that we could all relocate to the Nordic circle, where their extremely well resourced and progressive music education system is having a profound impact, breaking down barriers and old hierarchies, and recognising the value of all music making to society. In Ireland, musicians of all persuasions find common ground in the basket case that is Irish music education, which is scandalously under resourced. While educational provision is just one factor, its impoverished state is symptomatic of a climate that stymies the developments that have proved effective in Scandinavia and elsewhere. There exists in all Irish music a certain apathy toward engaging with other pastures, evidenced by the comparatively low level of interaction we witness between musicians of differing persuasions. This inertia is manifest across all genres, each of which have their own siege mentality, and from which it is a major challenge for any individual musician to extricate him or herself.
A new spirit of adventure
From where I’m standing, only our traditional music holds the key to this particular door of perception, for it is the only music that binds us all together in a shared narrative. That this unique musical legacy, of which I believe we are all entitled to a sense of ownership, is not duly celebrated throughout Irish society, is part of a broader debate around cultural values in a post post colonial society. Here’s where Tommy Potts comes in. As I’ve been writing, The Liffey Banks has been playing in the background. This is a record that, when I heard it for the first time, just blew me away and altered forever my perceptions of traditional fiddle music. I was thirty-six years of age at the time, about two decades too late in terms of my own formative experiences. It was a chance encounter and I consider myself extremely fortunate, otherwise I would be like the vast majority of people in Ireland, who have never heard his beautiful music. That Tommy Potts is justly revered within traditional circles, yet completely obscure outside them, indicates to me that it is also in traditional music’s interests to engage with that debate.
If a dialogue with jazz (or any other idiom for that matter) were to form part of that engagement, would it be to the detriment of traditional music, as some of its more doctrinaire forces would have us believe? I don’t think so, largely because traditional music demonstrates, through its longevity, self-sufficiency, diversity, resourcefulness and durability, the ability to withstand any contaminant which jazz might introduce into its ecology. Indeed, the introduction of some bio-diversity is a prerequisite for the survival and evolution of every culture. Like planets rotating around the sun, the velocity seems fastest on the outside of the curve while at its core, progress is more stately. Similarly, the joint ventures I’m espousing happen at the periphery of both forms and as such, are not representative of their central traditions but complimentary to them. Nobody is looking to reinvent the wheel or sell the family silver here, but rather to promote a climate of mutual trust and sincerity around shared creative resources, and if great music gets made, we are all enriched in the process.
Perhaps this argument is redundant, and the process is already underway. Groups like Altan, Dervish and Danú and Sharon Shannon have happily assimilated music from Galicia, Cape Breton, Brittany, The Appalachians and elsewhere into their oeuvre, and still retain the distinctive identity of their Irish localities, while Andy Irvine’s Bulgarian influenced compositions still galvanise Planxty into scenery chewing performances, as recent concerts will attest. It’s also important to acknowledge the part other musicians who have stepped into this arena have played. If their laudable efforts have proved less effective, they have nonetheless added to the sum of our knowledge. The precautionary principle is a poor bedfellow to the spirit of adventure.
I’ve often felt that Ireland is home to two kinds of musicians – those that embrace everybody’s culture save their own, and those that see little of relevance outside our own. The next generation will confidently straddle the divide, and there are enough green shoots within it to suggest that they will harness its inherent potential, be they traditional players like accordionist Peter Brown, whose band Tavil with fiddler Oisín MacAuley, guitarist Shane McGowan and bodhran player John Jo Kelly are breaking new rhythmic terrain, or jazz musicians like saxophonist Michael Buckley, whose upcoming sean-nós project for RTÉ Radio 1’s Music Spoken Here casts this old music in a moving new context.
Too often in the past, groups that held great promise have withered on the vine for lack of support, and it behoves all of us to empower these adventurous minded musicians to make their vision a reality, from development agencies like the Arts Council, broadcasters like RTÉ, publications like JMI, concert producers like myself, and the audience, who ultimately will be the final arbiters. The water may be uncharted, but there is enough evidence out there to suggest that it really is rather lovely. Anyone for a dip?
Published on 1 March 2005
Gerry Godley is Artistic Director of Improvised Music Company, a resource organisation for jazz and related music in Ireland. He presents the world music programme Reels to Raga on RTÉ lyric fm.