Monday, March 10, 2014

Jazz, Variation Form, and Brothers's "Solo and Cycle"

Brad Mehldau is perhaps the most outstanding and influential voice on piano of the last two decades. His new project with magician-drummer Mark Guiliana is one of the most exciting and inspiring recent developments in music.

Mehldau’s abilities and endeavors as a writer also set him apart  from most jazz musicians. In a series of essays for his residency at Carnegie Hall, he discusses the subject of “Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane.”  (I find the comparison apt.)

In the second essay of that series, “Who Needs a Good Melody Anyways,” Mehldau argues that jazz improvisation on standard chord changes is an example of “theme and variations.” 

I wonder however if this designation is accurate only in the very general sense that almost all music consists of the varied repetition of certain musical elements.

The view of jazz as “theme and variations” is commonly held. There is a certain plausibility to it. Lee Konitz’s 10-step approach to improvising on standard changes incorporates the principle of variation form with its progressive rhythmic diminution of the theme. This is, however, an exercise. Its last two steps call first for a “totally new theme” and then the ultimate goal of improvisation, “an act of pure inspiration.”

Compare Gershwin's Variations on "I Got Rhythm" with Charlie Parker's "variations" on "I Got Rhythm." Is it really more or less the same process at work in these pieces? 

In associating jazz improvisation with variation form, Mehldau is correct to distinguish jazz practice from the linear and teleological forms of European classical music. As van der Merwe writes, “The matrix of the pre-ordained end seems to be a fairly recent and sophisticated development. The natural musical form is the repeated cycle” (107).

Is classical variation form closer to the “repeated cycle” of folk and dance music, and even to Baroque variation forms like passacaglia and chaconne, or to the other teleological Western classical forms? Tovey’s definition of variation form may suggest the latter: “groups of progressively developed versions of a complete self-contained theme [italics mine].”

To be sure, it is not the Baroque dances but the variation forms of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven we have in mind when Mehldau says “theme and variations.” Indeed, he uses the Diabelli Variations as his example. Certainly jazz is not the kind of “embroidery on a melody” which for Tovey is denoted by classical variation form---but then neither is Diabelli, as Mehldau illustrates.

The problem is not simply that Mehldau draws an analogy between jazz improvisation and variation form. Perhaps this analogy works well enough; it might even be useful. The problem is that Mehldau claims a genealogical connection between jazz and classical variation form. He says: “The chief reason why theme and variations interest me here is because they are the most significant formal device that jazz music took from western classical music.

While the early history of jazz may have involved the “Afro-American transformation” of certain European dance forms like the quadrille, there is no indication that such a process involved the appropriation of variation form. Now, jazz and variation form may have a common ancestor, perhaps in van der Merwe’s “natural musical form…the repeated cycle.” But if the configuration of jazz does not directly borrow the classical variation form, as Mehldau dubiously argues, where does it come from?

Thomas Brothers has an intriguing answer.

In an article entitled "Solo and Cycle in African-American Jazz," Brothers contends that, much like in West African drum music, syntactical meaning in jazz results from a soloist's variable agreement with and creative departure from a relatively fixed underlying cycle. In contrast to the popular notion that jazz inherits its rhythms from Africa and its pitches from Europe, Brothers argues that pitch organization in jazz (in the form of the harmonic cycle and melodic soloing) reflects the fixed-group/variable-group syntax of traditions like southern Ewe drumming. Jazz improvisers, then, are not "trying to be little Beethovens," as Mehldau puts it, so much as they are trying to be atsimevu master drummers. 

Since jazz is syncretic, it is difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of its practices---especially because the European and African traditions that contribute to it may often have a common ancestor. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that any analytical approach to jazz music that does not take some view to Africa is fundamentally flawed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment