Letter from europe
by Stuart Nicholson
The close proximity of jazz to classical music in European jazz conservatories is now leading more and more young musicians to draw naturally and spontaneously on elements of both in shaping an individual approach to jazz improvisation. Unlike most American universities and conservatories where jazz departments and classical departments are often self contained worlds where never the twain shall meet, in Europe, the majority of jazz institutions insist students undertake parallel classical studies.
“Most European jazz musicians have a thorough training in classical music,” says Wouter Turkenburg, Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. “Almost every jazz school in Europe puts an important emphasis on learning how to play classical music. Not only to improve the technique but also to know and understand another realm of music better. All of my students have one hour with a jazz teacher and half an hour with a classical teacher per week. If they fail the classical exams it’s hard for them to continue their study.”
There is good reason for this, as Orjan Fahlstrom, second principal of the Royal College of Music in Sweden, and a jazz composer and arranger in his own right, points out, “In our Conservatory we use the European composing tradition as a huge knowledge database,” he explains. “For us music is music, and absolutely the most important thing is artistic expression. If you don’t have anything to say from an artistic standpoint it does not matter what style you are using.”
The result is more and more musicians are emerging who are not rooted in the dominant bebop/technicist pedagogy. In a feature in Music Teacher magazine in 2004, UK educator John Robert Brown noted a move away from America as the source of jazz innovation among students in many colleges and universities. Quoting Peter Sklaroff, the admissions tutor at Leeds College of Music in the United Kingdom, Brown said some students want to sound more “contemporary” and European, pointing to the ECM label as a source of inspiration and focusing less on bebop or standard songs, “This has been put to me as a way of avoiding sounding old fashioned.”
Where once musicians strove to sound authentically “American,” many young musicians are now emerging who are unafraid of sounding “European” by way of their classical influences. Pianist Esbjörn Svensson is perhaps the most high profile of this new breed of young musicians, indeed, his latest album Tuesday Wonderland was even inspired by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. He studied classical piano at Stockholm’s prestigious Royal College of Music, “The music that interests me very much – music by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Bartok all those big composers,” he says.
The brilliant young Belgian pianist Jef Neve studied in the Lemmensinstituut in Louvain, graduating with Master of Music degrees in classical and jazz, and going on to post graduate studies in Chamber Music, graduating “cum laude” [with honour] in 2001. His use of classical influences within jazz is both profound and moving. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t use classical influences in jazz music,” he says. “I think that’s the typical European attitude from European musicians – we actually don’t mind that maybe some of our music doesn’t swing. That’s not a rule here, we don’t have that pressure that maybe you might feel as an American, so I think we are more free to adapt these classical elements, like introducing rubatos, tempos that don’t have to stay right in line. Maybe if the music asks for it why can’t we do this or that, use dynamics more and so on.”
The young German pianist Michael Wollny, a product of the Hermann-Zilcher Conservatory, studied classical music from the age of five and has harnessed 20th century contemporary classical influences into jazz with startlingly original results. Nik Bärtsch from Switzerland studied piano and percussion from the age of 8. A graduate of the Musikhochschule Zürich and University of Zürich he brings classical influences face to face with jazz, The Meters and James Brown in his band Ronin. In Italy, Stefano Bollani studied at the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory of Florence where he graduated with distinction. His recent ECM album Piano Solo mixes Prokofiev with Scott Joplin (“Maple Leaf Rag”) and Louis Armstrong (“Do You Know What It means To Miss New Orleans”).
In the United Kingdom, Gwylim Simcock studied piano at Chetham’s School of Music, Trinity College and the Royal Academy and recently devised a solo piano project based on the piano works of Shostakovich. In fact, there is no shortage of European jazz pianists who are unafraid to let their classical background help shape their musical outlook.
Yet jazz musicians turning to classical music is hardly new. In the late 1930s there was a craze for “swinging” the classics – Benny Goodman scored a hit with British composer/arranger Alec Templeton’s “Bach Goes to Town,” the John Kirby Sextet recorded several successful classical novelties by the likes of Chopin, Dvorak, Schubert, Lehar and Donizetti, while Tommy Dorsey enjoyed huge success with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Song of India.” A few more selective examples might include Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” written for the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1946, Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” and Mussorgsky’s “The Old Castle” brilliantly re-arranged by Gil Evans for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra (Evans would later successfully adapt Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez” for Miles Davis in the 1950s), while Boyd Raeburn’s arranger George Handy, who had studied with Aaron Copland, was actually compared to Stravinsky in print. Mention also must be made of Bob Graettinger’s “City of Glass” for the Stan Kenton Orchestra during this period, a stunning achievement that is all but contemporary classical music in name. In the 1950s, Gunther Schuller was a leading figure in the Third Stream movement that tried to combine jazz and classical, Duke Ellington turned his hand (and those of Billy Strayhorn) to Tchaikovsky while in Europe, Jacques Loussier sold over 7 million records using classical themes from Bach, Vivaldi, Satie, Debussy and Handel, rather than standards, as a basis for jazz improvisation.
So what’s so different this time? Well for a start, for many the results are more organic than jazz-classical crossovers in the past. As a result of learning two “musical languages” simultaneously, musicians find that elements of one seamlessly bleed into the other through a shared harmonic foundation. In language itself, one might draw an analogy with the rise of “Spanglish,” a mix of Spanish and English involving what is known as code-switching, in the United States in recent years. Spanish, traditionally a major linguistic influence in the south-western states is now set to become the largest minority language in the country; in fact, in a number of US cities Spanglish is already the majority language.
Also, European musicians are well aware improvisation is hardly the exclusive province of jazz. A feature of Mozart’s performances, for example, was his piano improvisations, such as his performance in Prague on January 19th, 1787 where he conducted his D Major Symphony No.38 (subsequently referred to as “The Prague”) and followed it by not one, but three piano improvisations. “When I started to play piano at the age of four Mozart was my hero, and what fascinated me was that Mozart was capable improvising these little melodies and that was something I wanted to do as well,” explains Jef Neve. “So I actually improvised from the very beginning, even before I could read notes, so that’s my starting point. It’s quite normal that I should have this huge classical influence, it’s my cultural heritage, and that’s something that’s been there all my life.”
While these young musicians can swing powerfully, they often don’t choose to, preferring more rhythmic “elasticity” of the sort that can be found on many albums produced by European musicians on the ECM label. There is also an emphasis on melodic, rather than pattern based improvisation and a move away from harmonic complexity to more open structures in the belief that the cyclical song form, sometimes with changes every two beats, forces the improviser to rely more on mechanical (or pattern based) improvisation to negotiate complex changes at the expense of melodic improvisation. “With ‘Giant Steps’ or a complex harmonic structure,” continues Jef Neve, “there is always the danger you follow the mechanical process – chord, chord, chord, chord, chord – a lot of jazz is technique. Melody is lost. I say don’t play 15 notes if you can tell it with three notes.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these developments in Old Europe, with its long tradition of Western classical music that stretches back to plainsong and beyond. History does have a habit of repeating itself, and at the turn of the 20th century, the classical tradition was in flux, looking for new directions and new ways of doing things. This was reflected in Debussy’s non-functional harmony, Skryabin’s attempt to find a new harmonic system and Schoenberg’s revolt against tonality – “composition with twelve notes” – that put an end to hundreds of years of music devoted to the dramatic-expressive ideal.
The conflict between Brahms and Wagner was pulling apart the symphonic tradition; Brahms (considered a conservative) remained true to standard musical forms (the sonata, the string quartet, the symphony and so on) while Wagner (deemed the revolutionary) was moving towards more ambitious musical forms and a use of chromaticism that seemed to threaten the tonal system itself.
New ideas were in the air and there was widespread belief that “the tradition” was now stifling creativity, particularly in France, where the arrival of jazz was seen as a breath of fresh air whose vitality and exuberance brought something new to European art. Composers Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre and their unofficial and mischievous “godfather,” Erik Satie all shared a fascination with this new music, which in turn provided them with a source of inspiration in their own works where, they claimed, they “fused art and modern life.” Their work was intended to challenge Romanticism in the hope of invoking a new French art music based on popular sources ? Auric’s suggestion of “blue notes” in “Huit Poémes,” Satie paraphrasing Irving Berlin’s “That Mysterious Rag” in his own “Steamship Ragtime” from Parade that mocked the loftiness of Romanticism or Milhaud’s 1923 ballet La Création du Mond that used jazz influences. The members of “Les Nouveaux Jeunes,” or as they later became known, “Les Six,” believed that art should continue to broaden its expressive resources and that music must be true to itself.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century, where instead of classical musicians looking towards jazz for inspiration, young European jazz musicians are looking towards the classical repertoire for inspiration in the belief art should continue to broaden its expressive resources – just like their predecessors a century before. And, again like Les Six, they too believed their tradition’s overpowering legacy was freezing current practice. Change is in the air in Old Europe, indeed, it is already underway.
Recordings discussed in this article:
Esbjorn Svensson and EST- Tuesday Wonderland (ACT)
Jef Neve Trio - Nobody Is Illegal (Universal/EmArcy)
Michael Wollny and [em] - [em II] (ACT)
Nik Bärtch’s Ronin - Stoa (ECM)
Stefano Bollani - Piano Solo (ECM)
Gwylim Simcock - Perception (Basho Music)