Rooted in history

The November DownBeat features Steve Wilson in the “Backstage with…” section. The following exchange made me think.

What do you look for in your sidemen?

Musical ability and a respect for the legacy and history of the music. I’m looking for someone who understands that you cannot go forward until you look back. Pushing envelopes can be great and significant. But if it’s not rooted, it tends not to have the same substance and integrity.

What is rooted envelope pushing? Which parts of the legacy and history of the music must be respected? Is it possible to create music that has substance and integrity but is not rooted in some tradition?

I don’t mean this to be some sort of poke at Steve Wilson, I like the work of his that I have heard (mostly old Dave Holland and Chick Corea). His answer just made me question my relationship to the tradition. I know I have done my J.J. homework, but I don’t sound much like him these days. Am I disrespecting that tradition? I don’t know the music of Cecil Taylor like I possibly should. Am I disrespecting the free tradition? Is there anything that I can do with substance and integrity?

Comments encouraged.

5 thoughts on “Rooted in history”

  1. its getting to the point where no one can actually play/perform until theyve digested about a centurie’s worth of music.

    i wonder if steve wilson was asking that his band members be rooted in the part of the tradition that he likes. which then becomes “the tradition”!…..!?

    there is something to be said for having the knowledge of the spectrum of what is called jazz. but who the hell wants to listen and digest music they dont like? i wonder if this idea that you must be “rooted” has killed the spirit in these musicians – hence boring by the numbers music.

    i think its ok to pick and choose where to put roots-there are so many places in “jazz” alone to do this.

    i think in alex ross’ new book the rest is noise he makes the argument that there is no such thing as classical music anymore. there are so many different approaches that are labeled classical that the word has lost any real meaning.

    i not would go as far to say that “jazz” has reached this point. i wonder what would/will happen tho if/when the word jazz becomes as meaningless.

  2. That’s interesting. I have the Alex Ross book on order. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    The words can be problematic. Do Ligeti and Mozart belong in the same section of the CD store? How about Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, or to be more extreme Louis Armstong and Ken Vandermark?

  3. hi jeff,

    some related thoughts. we live in a time of access to vast amounts of information. access to examples of music that can be sliced up into various interweaving traditions. does this make us better musicians? certainly not. studying the whole history of music, the mainstream, the tributaries, is not necessarily where it’s at. working within limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, and going as deep into that as possible is what makes us better musicians. substance and integrity is about depth, and depth is not synonymous with encyclopedic knowledge.

    there isn’t one unified tradition of music. what would that even mean? there are only musicians gaining inspiration from other musicians and developing there own approaches.

    when i think of rootedness, i think of being grounded psychologically and spiritually. i also think of roots in the community and family sense, having a sense of stability and place. certainly these qualities are linked in with integrity and substance on a human level.

    it’s easy to look at the tradition from the perspective of consumerism – the need or desire to own the tradition, to ingest it. but i don’t think that’s where it’s at.

  4. hi again,

    just to hedge a bit on what i said before, the issues i brought up are not totally central to the desirable skills of a sideman, which is what wilson was discussing. being an in-demand jazz sideman is often about versatility. being able to deal with any number of tunes, forms, styles, tempos, etc.

    it makes sense to think about developing this versatility through studying what came before in a wide-ranging way.

    it’s such a jazz thing though, this expectation that you should have the ability to do it all, that you should know everything.

    what other music expects that ability of its players?

  5. I think that expectation shows up to some extent in other scenes. I’ve listened to classical players sit and discuss the differences in various conductors versions of pieces. I may own more than one recording of a few pieces, but I would be hard pressed to elaborate on the differences in them.

    I like what you said about psychological and spiritual grounding. That makes a lot of sense. Players that understand the spiritual roots of the music…maybe that’s what he meant.

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