LOOKING BACK AND FORTH: NEW LIGHT
By Dave Liebman 10/16
I recently did two tribute gigs playing music in both cases from other eras, decades ago. One event was playing the music of Monk for a week at Birdland, NYC with Joey Barron, Steve Swallow and John Abercormbie, followed shortly after by a European jaunt celebrating my first major gig as a member of the Elvin Jones Quartet in the early 1970s. Choosing from 20 tunes, both originals and arranged standards with Gene Perla on bass, Adam Niewood on tenor and Adam Nussbaum on drums, we had a great time and received some of the most enthusiastic audience responses I can remember. What is this phenomenon about looking back but, as we call the Elvin group, in a “NEW LIGHT?”
First of all, we have to acknowledge that the jazz public is getting older worldwide, specifically in the U.S. and Western Europe, younger in Eastern Europe, South America and Asia so far. Along with ageing comes the natural inclination to want to recall the past, referred to as nostalgia. It may sound corny but it is a natural human desire to revisit happy times. Outside of horrific tragedy everything looks better in retrospect. We tend to remember things in a more positive light than it might have been at the time.
Music is one of the great nostalgic drugs. Everyone has a song they associate with love or good times as well as music that commemorates the memory of a person or place, etc. The bottom line is nostalgia wins while modernity loses or shall I say contemporary jazz suffers when it comes to audience response compared to a tribute repertoire. A side bar… in the classical world this situation is even more extreme. Schoenberg and his buddies are still persona non grata in most concert halls worldwide with exceptions of course. Just look at a season’s presentations for a concert series–predominantly Romantic, Impressionistic and Baroque stylistically speaking. The point is that there is something intrinsic to the human psyche that says old feels good while new is beyond the listener’s pay grade.
I don’t think that the people New Light played for on tour were present at the Village Vanguard in 1972 when we played this music with Elvin or that they are at all familiar with it. Let’s be honest. What is being played now by the younger generation, again with exceptions of forward looking older artists, is extremely complex, difficult and nearly impossible to enjoy on a visceral level. The audience has been “robbed” of being able to enjoy music in one of the most basic ways of appreciating jazz. That is by snapping your fingers or moving your foot with the pulse, both of which are pretty hard to do in the complicated meters being played now, something that is the norm in contemporary composition. A lot of the music heard now is often quite intellectual and complex, albeit performed virtuosically as a matter of fact. The bebop generation said the same thing about John Coltrane and even further back Louis Armstrong referred to bebop as “Chinese music.” Whatever the reason, in general the audience if given a chance will go for the familiar more times than not. This is not to say the younger generation doesn’t respect the tradition, but outside of school and jam sessions many of them are more likely to be playing original and again, often quite complex music. This is a fact of life for any performer in any field that the art moves faster than the ability to comprehend it.
What about the musicians? Do we feel nostalgic when we play material from decades ago? Do we feel celebratory commemorating a great body of music that is beyond reproach as in these two gigs for Monk and Elvin Jones? Or do we just accept the gig as it is and play our hearts out like we are supposed to do? I would hope that the third scenario is correct. If we are playing our hearts out as we are supposed to do in present time, then everything is cast in a “New Light.” I couldn’t possibly mimic or repeat what I did years ago in any case. When I hear music from my past, besides technically critiquing it I, don’t know who that guy is!!
The bottom line is that with more and more requests (demands??) being put on performers by venues and promoters to play ‘the music OF………..‘ we, the artists, must stay in present time and take care of business no matter what the repertoire is. There are always musical and creative ways of bringing the past into a “New Light.”