This morning as I perused my Facebook feed I saw that a steel guitar player, Mike Neer, just released an album called “Steelonius.” It appeared on my feed because a gentleman who plays slide, Rob Anderlick, who is a Facebook friend, liked it and exposure to things such as this are one of the things that ensure that I continue as a Facebook user. Neer has done an entire album of T. Monk tunes and evidently done them true justice. The article I read about it mentioned a new John Scofield album, “Country for Old Men,” which appears to be a play upon the book “No Country for Old Men,” by Cormac McCarthy. On this album Sco, along with Steve Swallow and a couple of other heavy hitters does a bunch of real country tunes, but does their thing with them. It’s currently on in the background as I’m writing and they’re killing it, in the best way possible.
I find this type of cross-genre pollenization to be incredibly vibrant and alluring and have been a fan of it for years. I also firmly believe that it’s something that needs to happen in order to save some types of music from stagnation. I love jazz, have studied it, but really don’t play it. For one thing, the old jazz standard catalogue doesn’t really speak to me as a performer. Despite hearing tons of it as I was growing up due to my father’s love of it, the catalogue of standards doesn’t resonate, but the conceptual aspect of it does very deeply, particularly the part about taking an existing tune and creating something from it. This is very appealing to me on so many levels.
If we really take a look at many of the jazz standards, they were the popular music of the day. Many were show tunes from musicals that became the starting point for the players. Granted, they do tend have more complex harmonic content than most current popular music, but then they’ve also been the core repertoire of the jazz idiom for sixty years in some cases, if not more. Many jazz musicians have added to the repertoire along the way, but there is still a reliance upon these standards that has a tendency to wear on many listeners, particularly the younger ones.
There are players out there who are crossing the boundaries and in the process creating their own idioms and genres. Bela Fleck has been doing this for years in his work with The Flecktones. The blended music his group presents could very easily be presented argumentatively as a form of jazz. He’s been a pioneer in boundary pushing and expanding into other areas for years, even pairing Bach with banjo. Other players like Jimmy Herring of The Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead have also been moving rock idioms closer to a jazz train of thought, or an application of a jazz approach to rock to create something that has more punch than a stereotypical “jam band.”
Even with the jam band genre there has been an uprising of cross genre creativity with folks like The String Cheese Incident bringing together elements of folk, country, rock, and jazz into a glorious creative expression. The Dave Matthews Band has performed in a similar manner, as has Bruce Hornsby in his many explorations and cross genre quests. Hornsby has worked jazz, rock, bluegrass and whatever he can get his hands on into his own genre that at times seems to defy categorization. This type of hopping around, mixing, and assimilating brings a fresh perspective to the old while bringing in the new as well. It also forces musical growth in ways that repetitively working within the same framework doesn’t.
I once saw an instructional video where the focus was John Scofield’s guitar style. The interviewer asked Scofield to show the audience some of his licks. His response was that he didn’t use licks, and if he found himself creating one he’d write it into the head of a tune so he couldn’t use it. I think this was in “John Scofield Jazz and Funk Guitar.” While learning the solos of greats that have preceded us is a valid and very useful way to learn how to speak the language, I really appreciate his perspective because he is forcing himself to constantly create something new each time he approaches a piece of music, which is the very soul of jazz and most forms of improvisational music.
Scofield has been doing his thing in the background throughout this reflection and opinion piece, so if you want a soundtrack for the essay go ahead and hit him up for it. What he has done with this recording is clearly jazz, because first and foremost he is a jazz player. It undeniably and unapologetically uses classic country tunes and at least one modern country tune for material. And it shouldn’t be apologetic. Miles Davis once said, “It’s all blues.” I’m not going to argue with the master on that one, but I think that when we get down to all really good improvised music, it might be all jazz.