The Jazz.com Blog
August 16, 2008 · 0 comments
Stuart Nicholson, a frequent contributor to these pages, finds a surprising resurgence of interest in strings on the European jazz scene. He looks for the reasons behind this trend and highlights more than a dozen interesting recent recordings in this two-part article. T.G.
Historically, strings have not really been embraced by the jazz community. Most have regarded violinists from Eddie South to Stephane Grappelli as an engaging diversion to the “real thing” offered by the more forthright brass and saxes. And ensembles with string sections have definitely been no-go areas, evoking the spectre of that bęte noir of all jazz fans, Paul Whiteman. But in recent times, many musicians have been looking for ways to broaden the tonal palette of jazz by doing the unthinkable – embracing strings.
It’s hardly a practice that’s unknown – The Turtle Island String Quartet have been around since 1985, for example, and recently won back to back Grammy Awards, for 4+4 and their adaptation of A Love Supreme (Telarc). But gradually musicians are turning to strings as a way of sounding a bit different, such as Billy Childs on Lyric (Luna City Music), Paquito D’Rivera on The Jazz Chamber Trio (Chesky) and Vince Mendoza on Blauklang (ACT). But what is a slow drip on the US scene has become something of a flood in Europe during the last eighteen months or so.
Maybe history offers a way of understanding what is at work here. Towards the end of the 19th century, as the United States began to found its own concert orchestras, concert halls and conservatories, one question began to be asked with increasing frequency: “Where are the American composers?” Up to this point, Americans who had wanted to compose sonatas and symphonies, rather than popular melodies, had gone to Europe to study in its famous music conservatries in Paris, London and Berlin. John Knowles Paine, for example, wrote his Mass in D while studying in the Berlin Conservatory before returning to the USA to become Professor of Music at Harvard.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who studied piano in Paris, emerged as the most celebrated American composer of the mid-19th century, yet his reputation today is still of a prophet with little honor. John C. Griggs, musical director of the Center Church in New Haven, was another pondering the prospects of creating an “American” voice while studying in the University of Leipzig but concluded: “The very breadth of outlook and the lack of any musical history of importance are two great reasons why American music cannot, for the present, have any distinctive national character.”
Yet the desire to develop a nationalistic voice remained very real and in 1892 the National Conservatory of Music in New York invited the Czech composer Anton Dvorák to become its principal, partly in the hope of inspiring an American nationalistic movement and partly to show American composers how they might adapt aspects of Americana into symphonic forms. On his arrival in New York, his words were more prophetic than he realized, “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.”
In 1893 he wrote his ninth and last symphony called From the New World and the furor that followed its New York premiere centered around the fact that at the time the dominant culture in the arts was mainly derived from Europe. Consequently many resented the way in which Dvorák re-inscribed European classical music with American significance, arguing it devalued the European tradition.
Interestingly, these tensions have echoes in the current response to some European jazz musicians who are in effect doing the reverse of Dvorák by re-inscribing an American art form with European significance. Just as From the New World included allusions to spirituals and Hiawatha, for example, some European jazz musicians see a way of asserting their identity is to incorporate allusions to their own culture within the music, be it folkloric or classical.
These musicians argue that while they love and are inspired by American jazz, they do not come from America, so why should they play jazz as if they did? They feel it would be artistically dishonest to pretend to be somebody they are not and consciously seek ways of reflecting their own cultural identity in their music.
In recent years this has taken many forms, but nothing could be more quintessentially European than turning to the string quartet, an institution of European classical music since the form emerged in Germany and Austria in the early 1600s.
This is the end of part one of a blog article by Stuart Nicholson. Check back soon for part two, in which Nicholson surveys more than a dozen interesting recent European jazz CDs that feature strings.