Monday, July 18, 2011

Jazz, that international music

July is well under way, which means that American jazzmen are working hard... mainly in the European circuit. The three jazz festivals in my old backyard, Getxo, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Donostia-San Sebastián, Marciac in France, the trade fair that is the North Sea Jazz Festival, Montreux... and very many others are a vital part of the workload of many jazz artists from across the pond.

The history of jazz beyond the East and West coasts of America is almost as old as the music itself. By the 1930s, a decade when Buck Clayton had a gig in Shanghai (!), live jazz played by its greatest stars was hardly news any more in Europe.

And what about jazz played by non-Americans? Django was probably the first foreigner to have some sort of impact in America, both via his recordings and his concerts with Duke Ellington which, although they were not a complete success, they were not the complete failure the official history of this music tells us.

But, what if we take the US out of the equation? When did non-Americans get access, look for and enjoy non-American jazz from other countries?

A few weeks ago, I got a 3-CD set from Svensk Jazzhistoria, the mammoth series on Jazz in Sweden. The esteemed Roberto Barahona, director and producer of Chilean radio jazz programme Puro Jazz got wind of it and asked me whether that set included the tune "What's New?" played by a flutist that drove him crazy the first time he heard it when he was a kid, back in Chile, sometime in the mid-1950s.

Since this wasn't in my 3-CD set, he asked his compatriot and Chilean jazz über-collector Pepe Hossiason, while I consulted with Swedish jazz historian Jan Bruer, and both came up with the same answer: Philips P 10950 R.

Jan Bruer:
[T]his 10"LP [was] issued in Europe as Swedish Jazz, Philips P 10950 R, recorded 1955-56. One side of the LP is a ballad medley with five soloists in five different titles. Rolf Blomquist plays "What's New" on flute, he was best known as a tenor saxophonist in Arne Domnérus band and the Harry Arnold Swedish Radio Big Band.

Hossiason produced the actual artifact, as released in Chile:

In short, this music comes from three sessions recorded in Stockholm on December 7, 1955, and April 10 and 20, 1956. The first two as "jam sessions", and the last under "Bengt Hallberg All-Stars". Hallberg, by the way, was the pianist on Stan Getz's original recording of "Dear Old Stockholm" fiver years earlier. Ake Persson (trombone) and Arne Domnerus (alto sax) are also among the musicians involved.

So, this is 1956 or 1957, with no internet, no e-mails, no mp3 file-sharing, very fewer transatlantic flights than today, costly international phone calls, and records with a size of... well, either a 12-inch or, in this case, 10-inch flat square. And yet, made-in-Sweden jazz was deemed apt to be commercialized in Chile or even Singapore. Just take a look at the map:

This, below, is a clipping from the Singapore Free Press of January 23, 1957, p. 13

And Jan Bruer adds that this LP may have been shipped to Australia too.

This is just an example, but it'd seem that jazz was going places earlier than some of us thought.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Musicians' quotes: About the 'avant-garde'

What we understand as 'avant-garde' in jazz is a funny concept: it's a kind of music that's over 50 years old, so it is hardly new (although the devil is in the details, is today's avant-garde the same as 1960's?). Many listeners from the more mainstream persuasion have problems with a paradigm that is too alien for them, whereas their vanguardist counterparts can be as dogmatic in defending the music they like. As a general rule, I would distrust anyone telling you what music must be like, unless it's a musician talking about their own music.

So, what would be a healthy approach to the avant-garde from the more conventional side of things? Guitarist Russell Malone's response to a track by fellow six-stringer Mary Halvorson in a Before and After interview with Bill Milkowski for Jazz Times provides a few good leads.

... Mary Halvorson. I’ve seen her play. I kind of dig her, man. I went to go see her at a place called The Stone [in Manhattan] a couple of years ago, and it was a band with Chris Cheek on sax and a couple of other musicians. I’ll tell you, man, I know a lot of people who may not like this kind of music—free music or avant-garde or whatever you want to call it. But this stuff is hard to play. First of all, they’re not up there just playing a bunch of random stuff. It’s composed and these guys are good musicians who can read well. I know a lot of guys who, if you take them out of their comfort zone and put them in a situation where they have to play this kind of music, it probably wouldn’t come off as well. But I respect the musicianship here and I respect the music. This is good. She’s a good musician and she’s sincere. It’s just another way to hear. I mean, if everybody’s playing the same way and thinking the same way, then nobody’s really thinking.

This is Russell Malone playing "Caravan"...

... and this is Mary Halvorson playing "Dragon's Head"