Thursday, January 19, 2006

IAJE 2006 - 1

This year’s IAJE International Conference – the 33rd in the series – held in New York City from January 11 to 14, was an astonishingly dynamic and wide-ranging event featuring many of the best-known figures in contemporary jazz. It’s not even remotely possible to visit all of the hundreds of clinics, panels, sets and concerts that take place over the four days, but this year the task of navigating the conference was even more challenging than usual. I was fortunate to be staying at the New York Hilton, which was also the venue for much of the action (the Sheraton next door accommodated the rest), but even so I found it hard to plan my attendances solely on the basis of the “Conference-At-A-Glance” brochure, which looks more like a busy commuter train schedule than a conference program.

Still, I had a great time. There is something about the atmosphere of an IAJE conference that is really electric and energizing, and I found that if I let my main preoccupation – the role of strings in jazz – guide me through the labyrinth, I was able to take in the week’s main events as well as many more peripheral and out-of-the-way ones. And above all, I was able to maintain a focus on the proceedings, something that’s essential in such a vast and diverse confluence of music-related activity.

The first clinic I attended, at 9 am on the Thursday morning, was given by a string player, the very gifted classically-trained jazz violin virtuoso Christian Howes, who talked on the subject of “preparing classical string players for the leap into jazz”. Since many or most string players have a background in classical training and musicianship, this is an important point of focus. It’s not always realized that in order to play jazz at all, it’s necessary on most instruments to have quite a high level of classical technique, and this is particularly true of the violin, viola and cello, where conventional, folk-based “fiddling” technique is simply not sufficient to meet the demands of this modern and sophisticated music. On the other hand, if classical players are to embrace jazz, they also need to modify and even forget certain basic functions of classical playing. Chris began by admitting that as a classically trained violinist who made the leap into jazz later in life (he is only 32), he had found “three central problems” which held him back. These he characterized as improvisation, practical theory, and style, and he showed ways in which they could be tackled, including a free use of the instrument in the exploration of creativity, and the employment of technology, such as the Yamaha Silent Violin, Viola or Cello, combined with devices such as pedals, distortion, delays, looping units, and so on.

One point that emerged with clarity from the morning clinic concerned the question of bowing in jazz string playing. This was closely linked to the vexed questions of amplification – issues for which Chris has his own solutions, profiled in the clinic handout. Perhaps the most concise expression of these solutions is revealed in the handout’s supplemental materials, which contain answers to some of the most commonly asked questions on improvisation and the use of electric instruments. A quotation may serve to pinpoint Chris’s approach:

The electric violin is similar to an acoustic violin in some ways and also very different. It feels the same in the left hand, and I hold it the same. However, I don't need to think about tone generation in the same way with the electric violin because the amplifiers do all the work. Consequently, I can reserve the energy normally used to create tone, and put this energy into other elements of making music. In other words, I don't have to use as much bow, so I can play faster if I want and focus on smaller movements of the right arm, focus on my left hand, focus on the musical ideas themselves, etc.... Whereas, with an acoustic violin, so much energy is taken up simply producing a big sound. The electric violin cannot produce the SAME sound as an acoustic violin, but it can be very similar. If you ever amplify an acoustic violin (even with a microphone) you're essentially filtering the tone, and you might as well consider yourself "electric". It's impossible to cut through a rock band, or a moderately aggressive jazzband, or most dance music bands, without amplification. So I use an electric violin that's set up to be amplified. Furthermore, you can customize the tone of an electric violin through multiple processors. The degree of nuance in tone that you control just by playing (i.e. using only the bow and instrument, as opposed to using the amps and processors) is greater and very different with an acoustic violin, and this has advantages as well as disadvantages, depending on the context.

To my ears, in a jazz context Chris often makes the violin sound much like an amplified blowing instrument – a clarinet or alto/soprano sax – or like an electric guitar, and in certain situations he seems to move away from the subtle, violinistic sound and tone of standard-setting African-American players like John Blake, Regina Carter and others who among the many technical methods at their disposal make use of bow pressure and vibrato to achieve projection and definition. His approach to jazz on the violin could perhaps be characterized as “post-modern straight ahead”, and in spite of some obvious, sometimes immediately recognizable vestiges of classical nuance, his playing shows affinities with bebop and post-bop expressions, channeled as though on a horn. It’s certainly very different from the traditional swing style of Stéphane Grappelli, though in some ways it does perhaps have more in common with the sonorous, horn-like quality of the melodic lines that were produced by the great swing player Stuff Smith – though without the same pressure of the bow.

The clinic was illustrated with live performances by Christian Howes with cello accompaniment, and these were uniformly brilliant, with a particularly moving and agile rendering of Round Midnight. At the end of the hour, clinic attendees were invited to sign a guest book, and received a complimentary CD of music by Chris.

By the end of this hugely enjoyable session, one lingering reflection refused to go away, though it’s one that probably has little to do with Chris’s wonderful playing as such. The fact is that he is a Yamaha Performing Artist, and the electric focus and bias of his work is clearly audible and visible. The Yamaha family of electrically amplified string instruments and electronic pickups has undoubtedly enriched the possibilities of expression for string players, and has made the traditionally hard-to-access violin, viola and cellos more available, especially for young students. But whether the almost exclusive emphasis on electrically amplified modes of expression is a positive development, only time will tell. As the earlier quotation makes clear, Chris Howes’ own view is that in order to be heard at all in a jazz environment, the violin needs to be amplified – and once that step is taken, whether by microphone, pickup or solid frame, the instrument’s tone is filtered and altered, and it is by definition “electric”. There are, however, other contemporary practitioners of jazz for strings who don’t take this view, or who adopt it only in part and strive to preserve the unique tone and colorations of the acoustic instruments. Also, it has to be said that when he isn’t playing straight-ahead hard bop, or rock, but working in the vein of Latin jazz or his own extraordinarily fine jazz arrangements of classical works, Chris Howes also appears to look back in no uncertain terms to the world of the acoustic instrument. In the light of his prodigious playing, the debate about "alternative styles" and their relation to jazz is obviously not going to go away.

There is evidently some kind of conflict here, one that’s grounded in the history of jazz and of strings in jazz, and which awaits resolution in a future that is only just beginning. What I hear in Chris Howes’ playing above all is an awareness that the “post-modern” approach to strings in jazz, where the emphasis is on trying to reproduce the sound of earlier string players or, more significantly, other jazz instruments, on the violin, viola or cello, regardless of history, is simply not sufficient, and that some other way of looking back at the roots of jazz and their relation to other forms of music is needed to make further progress possible. As Gayle Dixon has noted:

Listening to Chris Howes play it is very clear that he has made a thorough study of the Black musical genres that are the bedrock of jazz -- the blues, bebop and even gospel music (hear the first track on the complimentary CD). I don't think of Chris as an Alternative Styles player because he has mastered the language of jazz.

All of these considerations are essentially related to another important and central discussion that took place at the conference, concerning the place of strings in the big band. I’ll look at that discussion in my next conference-related post here.

See also in this blog:

IAJE 2006 - 2
IAJE 2006 - 3
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