Talking Jazz

By Sholto Byrnes
Friday 20 February 2004 01:00

It felt perilously close to man-the-barricades time recently, when I caught sight of one of the new songbirds currently en vogue, Katie Melua, being described as a "jazz singer". The impulse to defend the boundaries of the genre receded again, though, as it seems to be clear that these new recording sensations are being perceived as belonging more properly to the spectrum of pop. If the fact that a dash of jazz in the mix leads to the word being overemphasised, then it must be accepted as a minor irritant, a compliment, even, implying that the word "jazz" has cachet, which is why it has long been used to market coffee, perfume and cars. The appearance of Dolly Parton on Norah Jones's new album surely removes any suggestion that Jones should be considered a purely jazz singer, and points to the truth that was always evident: that her sympathies lie as much with that abomination known as country music. This is a useful revelation coming from the market leader, and should help to clear any remaining clouds of misapprehension.

The success of these singers does point to something, however, and something of which jazz musicians should perhaps take note. There is clearly a yearning for old-fashioned melody, one that cannot be satisfied by rap, a genre that, for all its strengths, seems to be so incapable of producing anyone who can pen a tune that it must constantly raid the back catalogues of Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers and even Boney M to provide musical substance to go with the rhythms of speech.

This desire is one that could be satisfied by jazz musicians, but many don't seem to be inclined to do so. A recent review of Wayne Shorter at the Barbican described him as spending much of his time "noodling". It wasn't meant as a criticism, but it has to be said that noodling doesn't have a lot going for it. A vague, otherworldly search for fragments, shying away from anything approaching a fully expressed phrase of any length, can be profoundly irritating, especially when it's not backed up by some sense of conviction. Shorter and his old colleague Herbie Hancock have both shown themselves to be incorrigible noodlers in recent London appearances, and I fear that I may have put one friend off jazz for life by taking him to see the pair in concert a couple of years ago.

Talking to another critic, I once expressed an admiration for the late Don Grolnick's writing. "Yes," he replied, "but can you hum any of the tunes?" It was a good point, not a facile one, because although no one would suggest that any art form should have to reduce itself to producing statements of sufficient simplicity that they can be recalled in their entirety by the layman, there is merit in being able to come up with a few. The fact that one can instantly name great tunes by Ellington, Mingus, Rollins or Coltrane doesn't serve to diminish such artists' sophistication of approach.

Perhaps in the week that her new album has gone into the charts at No 1, there is something that we can relearn from Miss Jones after all.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments