Mainstream Variations

It used to be the Mainstream and the Avant-Garde. Now the favoured binary division in jazz seems to be In or Out of The Tradition. I say this because all of these four records, which differ considerably in influences, mood and geographical origin, come with the words “In the Tradition” appended either to sleevenotes or promotional blurb. This phrase, which simply seems to mean that the performances sound like jazz as most of us recognise it, would surely be a mark of honour in the post Ken Burns-Wynton Marsalis marketplace — perhaps also a guarantee of an audience.

Unfortunately not. There is no evidence that artists like these have gained anything from the much debated espousal of the basic virtues of the jazz repertoire. Not only that, but the jazz critical machine tends to be somewhat snooty about those who stay within recognisable boundaries (unless they happen to be already famous, or in some way iconically fashionable). For example, John Goldsby’s effort, which is as good an album as you will hear all year, was subject to an unbelievably patronising dismissal in the normally even-handed Jazzwise. This was admittedly extreme, but represents the logical conclusion of an attitude which hugely undervalues the contribution of these small group performances to ensuring the continuing validity and strength of jazz as a form.

If a blues artist stays “true” to the blues, it viewed as a plus. Jazz with its emphasis on innovation is less easily pleased. Hence the recent rows. The musician has to be both radically innovative and belong to an unproblematised lineage that stretches back to New Orleans. Almost impossible to do both; therefore an ideological line has been drawn up that has some (but not total) basis in fact but is positively unhelpful when it merely acts as a term of abuse — from whichever side of the fence that happens to emerge.

Actually, the old term Mainstream better suits these acts. Not in the pop sense of mainstream equals commercial — I doubt these records are going to make any of their makers rich. Mainstream came about in the 1950s to describe those kinds of jazz that were neither traditionalist in the revivalist sense but nor were they at the avant-garde, rule-exploding frontiers of the art. In the 1950s, when the term gained currency, Mainstream meant those artists who had assimilated some of the techniques and freedoms of bebop but who still worked within a framework that pre-dated that revolution — mostly Kansas City swing. For a later scene bebop became the framework and the revolutionary lessons were those of Coleman, Mingus, Dolphy, etc. — and so on and so forth.

Modern jazz then. Without the dissonance and fury of the experimentalist and with an undying respect for standards, conventional melody and harmony. Not revolutionary certainly, but no more pointlessly derivative than a poet like Tony Harrison using the sonnet form or a filmmaker like Martin Scorcese refusing to abandon certain rules of narrative. There is still plenty of room for creativity and hybrid experiments within the given parameters. In fact each of these records is brimming with vitality and, dare I say it, bucket-loads of individual expression — that cornerstone of our still largely romantic conception of what jazz is about.

So, with the John Goldsby we get a bass-led, bebop-inspired set consisting of a mix of standards and originals. The Enrico Pieranunzi is easy on the ear — piano and guitar, a sort of updated Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass affair. Saxman John Tank is more modal and Coltrane-influenced but with a friendlier if more modest groove and D.D.Jackson takes us on a tour around a variety of genres from classical to Latin in a style that owes something to Don Pullen but comes across as post-modern Billy Taylor. Not one of these artists changes the language of jazz. However, all are superb musicians and, if there is a better bass-player than Goldsby or a more promising pianist-composer than Jackson around, then we jazz fans are indeed lucky to live when we do.

This is the point. Mainstream/In The Tradition they may be, but not one record has the same general vibe of the others. The Stream is wide enough to carry a wide range of craft (and craftsmanship). Goldsby’s bowed bass that introduces “I Love Paris” is classical in its poise while Olivier Peters, his reeds-man, brings the energy of bebop to his solos. The combination is wonderful — joyously fluid (“Seven for Twelve”) and then careful and controlled — but never uptight. Ellington’s “Warm Hours” and the well-worn “Folks Who Live on the Hill” are masterly in their execution — the former a group performance of real conviction, the latter a showcase for some very classy bass playing. There is an ambience and an expertise to this set that some more prestigious projects would do well to emulate.

Goldsby stays within well-defined areas at all times, one of the reasons why Viewpoint was attacked. Tank’s playing is equally orthodox but he has a fondness for some fusion flavours. He is very groove-oriented and instead of playing standards old-style is quite happy to re-work Bacharach’s “A House is Not a Home” into his post-bop phraseology. Less of a consistent group effort than Viewpoint, Canadian Sunset is a sax showcase that succeeds by the sheer sprightliness and confident playing of the quartet leader. He has something of Joe Henderson about his approach and an easy swing marks even the most hectic pieces. Less bop oriented than Goldsby, it is in other ways more old-fashioned. Solid blowing takes precedence over other formal, compositional qualities. This is jazz as emotional statement; some tunes, such as the ballad “Surrounded by the Night” are achingly heartfelt. Familiar in some ways the playing may be but it is never complacent.

Far less heart-wrenching but a model of organisation and flawless musicianship is Alone Together. Enrico Pieranunzi is an accompanist of note and is happy to hold things together while his sidemen take much of the limelight. Guitarist Philip Catherine and guest trumpeter Eric Vloeimans need little encouragement. They take their solo spots with panache and great relish. The pianist sets the mood, somewhere between elegant dinner jazz and small club groove work-out, and the band extemporises and embellishes with absolute mutual empathy. There is no great claim to originality, the swing’s the thing. And swing it does, in an urbane toe-tapping sort of way. If guitarist and trumpeter are new names to you, as they were to me, you will want to hear much more of them. The format is relatively restricted — less difference between the tracks than one might wish — but the sound is impressive enough for it not to matter.

D.D.Jackson is an artist of much greater ambition than the European combo of Pieranunzi. Sigame is perhaps less coherent and self-contained as a whole session, but compensates by being positively esoteric in the variety of its ingredients. Brazil, the classical repertoire, gospel and contemporary popular influences can all be identified in a performance that is loyal to melody and structure but open to new ideas at all times. Jackson has been involved in some very diverse projects in a short but full career. Here he shows what he has learned from nearly all of them. From catchy tunes like “The Welcoming” to solemn mood pieces like the haunting “For Desdemona” this of all the four albums demonstrates most vividly that a respect for the past does not stop a musician from looking towards the future.

In the Latin and Spanish informed pieces, particularly the exquisite title track (which features fine Spanish guitar and a devastating violin solo), Jackson fuses jazz modernism with the folk sources that are coming to challenge the blues as the prime jazz basis for the new millennium. If this is traditionalism then it is one with its ear very much on contemporary developments. Brad Mehldau and Jacky Terrason notwithstanding, Jackson is the pianist whose career might be most worthwhile following over the next year or two.

If there is one tradition to which all these artists unquestionably belong then it is the tradition of fine small group performances. None of them are really backward looking — least of all Jackson. There is no whiff of nostalgia to any of the projects. No sense of better days and former glories to blight the music. No great pretensions perhaps but skill, style and sophistication aplenty, all deserve more than life as the marginal afterthought to the main review of either the box-set Louis Armstrong reissue or the latest Schoenberg-Gamelan Orchestra inspired concept album. Sadly, in the current critical climate, that will probably be their fate.

One last point. On these records you will hear musicians from the States, Canada, Cuba, Holland, France, New Zealand, England, Belgium and probably one or two other places. Jazz, contrary to the impression one might have got from the Ken Burns documentaries, has been truly international for some time. Whether that fact is in or out of the tradition I cannot decide, but it is, I believe, something to celebrate. As indeed are all four of these discs.

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