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.

         Nightclub by Suzanne Cerny

“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)


December 24, 2007 · 5 comments

  • 1 Abbott Katz // Jan 01, 2008 at 11:44 AM
    Interesting piece. There is a dicey issue left unstated here, though: the hard-wired identification - rightly or wrongly - of jazz as an African-American idiom. How will the Euro-based genres impact associations of the music with race? Abbott Katz A New Yorker living in London
  • 2 Chad Lexington // Jan 08, 2008 at 02:32 PM
    Stuart Nicholson's tired routine is propping up European Jazz musicians and saying that the new home of jazz is Europe. And if he;s not correct now, he may be in the future. But this is really only due to the support of culture in Europe. The musicians he glorifies, while decent players, would not stand out if they were trying to make it on the New York scene. Esbjorn Svensson is just average as a pianist, and that goes for the other guys in EST as well. They're OK, but the reason they have tours all over the world is that they have tons of monetary support from the Swedish government. And there are tons of places in the US where students have to do jazz and classical. And even if you do, it doesn't mean that you will end up as a great artist. And I know plenty of American jazz artists who are influenced by classical music in a very overt way, but Nicholson will never know them because his sphere of knowledge is limited to Europe. Plus the musicians here can get the same funding( all our country's money goes to war)and now European promoters won't book Americans as much as they used to. And I read Nicholson's book, because unlike Nicholson, I do my research. CL
  • 3 Cezary Lerski // Jan 08, 2008 at 05:12 PM
    Is the home of jazz in the United States or in Europe? None of the above. Today, how could we define what part of jazz is American and which European? What criteria should we use: The color of skin of the musicians? Their school’s curriculum? Musicians’ passports? Jazz club address? Are those questions really relevant at the beginning of the 21st century, almost one hundred years into development of jazz art? Are Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis “European” because one is of Hungarian origins and other likes to play philharmonics? Where should we file Joe Zawinul albums – under “Central European music”? Should Dexter Gordon be considered to be “European”? After all he lived in Denmark for a quite long time. Are collaborations of Polish musicians like Marcin and Bartlomiej Brat Oles with American artists like David Murray, Kenny Werner, Erik Friedlander or Ken Vandermark “European jazz”? Are projects of American pianist Uri Caine with the music of Bach, Mahler or Mozart strictly “American”? Please don’t kill the messenger (Stuart Nicholson) because he sees what is right in the front of your face, even if your eyes are shut. Please don’t over-hype Big Apple “two drinks minimum” jazz clubs that specialize in “jazz” for tourists. Please do not dismiss European jazz scene and vibrant community of jazz fans that fills the clubs, buy the records and support local musicians there – I guarantee that it could not be solely explain by the “monetary support from the Swedish government”. Open any jazz magazine in the United States and look at the advertisement read the reviews and count how many European and how many American jazz labels can you count there. As with any art – the strict classifications make no sense. There is only one jazz. The one played by jazz musicians all over the world, US and Europe included.
  • 4 Peter Wockner // Jan 10, 2008 at 02:41 AM
    McDonalds doesn't taste the same in Europe either but it's still McDonalds
  • 5 Chad Lexington // Feb 03, 2008 at 12:18 AM
    There are only 2 types of music, good and bad. Beyond that, it's just about how good and how bad. I'm not killing the messenger, I'm just questioning his logic, and I think he oversimplifies in order to make his arguments. I think saying that the home of Jazz is or will be Europe implies that European musicians are more creative and more skilled than American musicians. You'd have to go case by case , and also look at who emulates who. EST is a bargain basement Keith Jarrett trio, yet Nicholson holds them up as the standard to which musicians should aspire. I defy anyone to say that EST plays on the level of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack Dejohnette. Now there is no crime in that, because most musicians will never get to that level. Everybody does the best that they can and they develop their own style within their abilities and that's great. But if EST is the best that Europe has to offer then I'm sorry, what I heard was just OK, not the stuff that legends are made of. And I think that's worth noting. I also think that Improvisation is not always jazz. And that's ok. But OCCASIONALLY people want to talk about improvisation and being original because they don't really want to check out the history. Let's face it, there are European musicians who think that they are above learning the traditional stuff and they just want to "Play FREE". Which is fine. But just because you have an understanding of classical music does not mean that you can play jazz. ( I went to a classical school, trust me.) Somehow there is this snobbery, like" We study classical music , so we are superior to Americans who can't read music" or whatever. And I'm not over-hyping 2 drink minimum jazz clubs of NYC, they feature a lot of crappy music. I think the problem is that the jazz press, like the regular press, is essentially lazy and they don't want to find out what's really going on with the music. That's why I think the musicians should be doing more writing, cause we really understand the music. And I actually agree with Nicholson in a way. I think Europe might be the future home of Jazz because the US scene is dying a slow painful death. Too many musicians, too many jazz education programs, not enough opportunities or places to play. It's become like European Classical Music. Most musicians who graduate from COnservatories end up teaching or in some other field. Music is very competitive. But I think in general Europe puts more money towards culture, especially that which is not purely for profit.Although that might change , the more that corporations start to control governments and make everything more conservative. And also, there are TONS of great players who were born in Europe and live in Europe or live in the US or wherever but Nicholson never mentions them. There's a group called AKAMOON based in Belgium which is really awesome. I know tons of great players in Spain, Perico SamBeat is one of the best Alto players in the World. Not to mention Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler who are for all intensive purposes European( although I think Wheeler is Canadian originally but he's been in London for a long time. Jan Garbarek, Michel Petrucciani, Palle Daneielson, Michal Urbaniak, there's a long list. But I don't like the implication that Jazz music is dead in the U.S. The business is dying, but there are more great players than ever. But we can't get the funding like EST. Cezary, you didn't really read what I said, you just got all defensive on me. But I'll forgive you since English is probably your second language.And I don't speak Hungarian. I think American musicians should move to Europe, especially if MCCAin wins the election, because the Republican's vise grip hold they have on this country will get tighter and tighter and America will just become the super rich and their slaves. How come there are so many millionaires in NEW YORK now and there are fewer venues to play or hear jazz and the money has not improved for 20 years? Sorry I guess I went off on a tangent CL