Cultural Notes: Everyone his own leader in postmodern jazz

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JAZZ IS, after all, a modernist music, and in modernism the present is only valid in terms of the potentialities of the future. Change, therefore, is not only inevitable, it is essential. Yet, at first glance, jazz appears to be slipping inexorably towards stagnation, with few coherent new styles or schools emerging to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and prompt further innovation. On the face of it, what jazz seems to have been suffering from since the death of Miles Davis in 1991 is a crisis of confidence.

The usual argument is that no one has providentially arrived of the sort that in the past provided a rallying point for the diatonic, chromatic, free and jazz-rock eras to resolve this dilemma - a Louis Armstrong, a Charlie Parker, an Ornette Coleman, a Miles Davis. But, while seemingly waiting for Godot, jazz has not stopped evolving. The absence of a major figure of consensus around whom recent history can be constructed should not conceal the fact that the task of moving the music forward has now passed to a diversity of individual contributors. Perhaps the real truth lies in the fact that jazz has become too broad and diverse to be changed by the revelations of one man. Now everyone must be his own leader.

Equally, the dilemma faced by virtually all modernist art forms is the onset of postmodernism. But, even then, innovation still remains a primary aesthetic principle. Today, postmodern jazz musicians expropriate and transform practices, fragments and signifiers and relocate them within their own expressionism. In particular, postmodernism does not try and legitimise itself by reference to the past, a feature of the somewhat self-righteous acoustic mainstream during the last 15 years or so.

As ever, change occurs in the music's margins where postmodernism has seen a variety of musicians emerging who do not congregate around the established canons. The sheer stylistic diversity of postmodernism has meant that it has resisted convenient categorisation, so its impact has been restricted to the recognition an individual player might receive.

Postmodernism has meant the essentially teleological model of jazz evolution ended in the Eighties, although no one realised it at the time. Today, jazz comprises a myriad highly individual interpretations drawing on a variety of sources, often beyond the music. It is this appropriation of references decontextualised by juxtaposition that creates "the new", such as the Norwegian keyboard player Bugge Wesseltoft's recent album The New Conception of Jazz.

This is smart European postmodernism and, if playful ironic commentary has displaced the protest of the Sixties "New Thing" angst, maybe it's an acknowledgement that artistic experiences today often end up as consumer products. Maybe this is the price of mixing artistic and technological media and breaking down boundaries between high, popular and mass art styles, so that "innovative" and "new" now replace the term avant-garde in service of creating a "new" future.

The fact that The New Conception of Jazz is currently being played on Radio 1 yet still retains its essential jazz characteristics shows just how far postmodern juxtaposition can go. Using sounds associated with dance culture with jazz improvisation is a step as obvious as Miles Davis appropriating the sounds and rhythms of rock in the Sixties. Davis then had no interest in competing with past achievements, which is precisely what the jazz mainstream is doing now.

What Davis did, in effect, was switch the backdrop to his playing and allow change to evolve from that construct. It's what Wesseltoft, an accomplished pianist who has appeared on the ECM label, has done. Like Davis, he has no interest in being boxed in by jazz convention. Postmodernism or not, in art it's not the means used to achieve an end but the end it achieves that matters.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of `Jazz-Rock: a history' (Canongate, pounds 12.99)