I have to bite my tongue when friends boast about their favorite rock musicians—whether they be old-timers like Jimmy Page, jam-banders like Trey Anastasio or indie-rockers like Johnny Marr. I have to stop myself from saying, “They’re all nice players, but I listen to jazz, so I know what real skills are.”
I can’t say that; it would be obnoxious. I don’t want to throw cold water on their enjoyment. On the other hand, I can’t in good conscience agree with them. Because, in fact, even the best rock players lack the skills of jazz musicians you’ve never heard of. So I just shut the hell up and smile enigmatically.
I was reminded of this when I was at the Newport Jazz Festival in early August and heard In: Common, a quintet so obscure that its only album was released by a tiny London label. And yet the group tackled both notated passages and improvised solos that were far more challenging harmonically and rhythmically than anything one might hear at any rock festival and they did so with a command of pitch, tone, drama and invention that outclassed their rock comrades.
All five members were virtuosos, but let me focus on Matt Stevens, who was playing the quintessential rock instrument, the electric guitar. This tall, lanky, 37-year-old Canadian wasn’t playing particularly fast or flashy, but he was constantly altering the chords in each composition to make them denser and tenser even as his tone grew harsher in response.
This created sounds one had never heard before and situations packed with suspense: Where could this music go? How could it come to terms with the other instruments? And when Stevens finally revealed his intentions, reaching a climax that clicked with the rest of the band, the catharsis was cleansing. It was as if he were tying and untying knots in the music all afternoon.
This was instrumental music of a high order, and it was only possible because Stevens and his comrades had a larger palette to work from, because they could go beyond the few dozen chords and handful of meters that rock uses. Once a listener learns this expanded vocabulary, the eloquence of the music is staggering. And it’s not just In: Common; most of the ensembles at Newport or at January’s Winter Jazzfest in Manhattan demonstrated a similar level of instrumental excellence.
Does this mean that jazz is a superior genre to rock or that jazz musicians are more talented than their rock counterparts? No. It merely means that jazz musicians have more advanced instrumental skills. Why? Because a higher level of technical expertise is expected just to enter the field and so aspiring jazz players—in school and/or on their own—train to clear that higher bar. Musicians will always work to become as good as they must to succeed in their chosen genre.
In fact, when it comes to notated music, there’s a genre whose players have even better instrumental skills than jazz musicians. That’s classical music. Aspiring classical players don’t have to worry about improvisation, so they can focus on achieving the best possible speed, accuracy, tone and nuance for written scores and in that realm they surpass even jazz musicians.
I still remember the National Symphony Orchestra performing some Duke Ellington pieces at a Wolf Trap jazz festival in the ’80s. On the notated passages, they sounded better than anyone else at the fest; on the improvised sections, they sounded worse than everyone.
If jazz and classical are so great, you might ask, why do I still listen to pop music? I listen, because rock ’n’ roll, country, R&B and the rest still create and execute short songs better than any other genre. They can still combine words, melody, chords and beats into concentrated packages of pure emotion. The best pop vocalists and instrumentalists are essentially songwriting collaborators in the sense that they heighten the storytelling rather than embellishing it with virtuosity.
When Aretha Franklin sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” she was enhancing Carole King’s seductive melody and Gerry Goffin’s evocative words with every stretch of a syllable and every leap in volume. When Jerry Garcia played a guitar solo on “When the Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” he was bolstering Smokey Robinson’s syncopated vocal line with every melodic detour. What’s impressive about Franklin’s and Garcia’s performances was not their technical expertise but rather their gift for adding to the songwriting process.
This is not to say that Franklin and Garcia lacked purely musical skills; they both commanded their instruments extremely well. But it’s dangerous to focus on their technique when jazz artists such as singer Ella Fitzgerald and guitarist Jim Hall had similar command over a much broader range of harmonic and rhythmic material—and when classical performers can demonstrate a greater mastery than Fitzgerald and Hall.
It’s not a question of talent; it’s a question of training. Classical musicians are trained to excel at complex notated music. Jazz players split their training between complex notated music and inventive improvisation. Pop instrumentalists and singers are trained to do whatever it takes to make a simple song stand out from the rest. Each training methodology yields its own brand of genius. I readily acknowledge that.
What I’m not willing to do is pretend that the best rock soloists are somehow the equal of the best jazz soloists. They couldn’t be; they haven’t had the preparation. If we’re going to talk and write about music—and there are few things in this world that I enjoy more—we need to be clear and accurate. Critics who go on and on about the brave, new sounds coming out of hip-hop, electronica, ambient-rock and noise-rock without acknowledging the far more courageous, substantive and enduring breakthroughs being achieved by jazzers on acoustic instruments are not being responsible to their readers.
When it comes to bringing new sounds to funk, for example, no programmed loops can match the inspired blending of John Coltrane and P-Funk by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and sousaphonist Theon Cross as part of London’s Sons of Kemet at Newport. No admixture of African and North American motifs is more impressive than Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke and Chicago keyboardist Herbie Hancock trading phrases at Newport. And no experiments in minimalism are more exciting than Cecile McClorin Salvant’s pared-to-the-bone interpretations of show tunes at Newport.
Even when jazz musicians are not playing jazz, they bring a larger box of ammunition than the usual rock soloist. When jazz guitarist Ben Monder, for example, emerged as the lead soloist on David Bowie’s final album, Black Star, or when jazz guitarist Bill Frisell played on Lucinda Williams’ latest albums, they could pull out substitute chords, counterpoint melodies and push-and-pull rhythms that hadn’t been on Bowie’s or Williams’ previous albums. And when Monder interprets ’60s pop hits on his latest solo album, Day After Day, or when Frisell interprets John Lennon’s compositions on 2011’s All We Are Saying, they bring a new language to old songs.
That’s how it’s supposed to work: Pop music creates small gems of condensed feeling, and jazz artists refashion that material with more sophisticated harmonies, more elastic rhythms and more adventurous melodic variations. From the 1930s through the 1950s, that’s what jazz did; it took the best blues, show tunes and tin pan alley songs and expanded their possibilities. That kind of broke down after the Beatles rewrote all the rules, but both sides would benefit if that interaction was restored.
For that to happen, professional critics and avid fans have to stop muddying the conversation by overpraising rock soloists and jazz songwriters. I also have to bite my tongue when jazz musicians and their fans claim that jazz players are so talented that they could conquer the rock and R&B worlds anytime they deign to do so.
I have to stop myself from saying, “When’s the last time you heard a really good jazz lyric that wasn’t written by Gregory Porter?” Or, “How can you defend the instrumental R&B known as smooth jazz?” Or, “When’s the last time you saw a 21st century jazz recording on a jukebox?”
I can’t say that; it would be obnoxious.