St. Germain


(Blue Note)

Nils Petter Molvaer

Solid Ether



Somewhere Else Before


By Kevin Whitehead

English critic and jazz historian Stuart Nicholson thinks Americans should heed European sounds, and right he is. But he’s using a novel method of persuasion: tell us our own jazz is such a sad retread the Euros don’t care about it anymore; then tout, as something new and continental, music hip-deep in old American styles.

Nicholson has peddled this tale twice, using many of the same quotes and arguments–first in Jazz Times last December (“The Sound of Sameness”) and then again in the June 3 Sunday New York Times (“Europeans Cut in With a New Jazz Sound and Beat”). The original didn’t stir folks up much, but the New York Times version did. By the end of the day it had been E-mailed all over the country on jazz lists, mostly by people it had pissed off. Gary Giddins referred to it in his Village Voice column the following week, characterizing its argument so: “Europeans–and maybe South Americans, Asians, Australians, Eskimos–think American jazz musicians suck.” WBEZ built a program around Nicholson’s thesis, as part of the station’s June spotlight on European jazz. Even so, the article won’t help his cause–although it does illuminate how critics trip themselves up.

In the New York Times, Nicholson writes that the new Euros are “raising a tolerant smile at the mention of American jazz. Talk to them about the current state of the music, and it’s as if an old and dear friend has passed away. They believe American jazz is retreating into the past while Europe is moving the music into the 21st century.” In support of this he quotes a “highly praised” Norwegian pianist, one Bugge Wesseltoft: “I haven’t heard one interesting American record in the last twenty years. It’s like a museum, presenting stuff that’s already been done.” If Nicholson demurs, he keeps it to himself.

The America Nicholson describes sounds stuck in 1990, when Wynton Marsalis was riding high and major labels were signing as many retro bop bands as they had pens to go around. But the bottom fell out of the neoconservative boom by mid-decade, and overnight sensations got bumped from major labels to minors. And those young suits were never the whole story, even then. Wesseltoft had better stop getting his CDs from Columbia House: he apparently missed out on John Carter, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Davis, John Zorn, Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Uri Caine, the Chicago Underground, and anyone else whose sense of line, rhythm, or ensemble organization provided an original or personal alternative to Wyntonian nostalgia.

Three artists Nicholson endorses–Parisian club stars St. Germain, Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, and a Swedish trio unfortunately named E.S.T.–have recent or new American releases. “Rose Rouge,” the first and best track on St. Germain’s first album for Blue Note, Tourist, makes its bold break with America by looping a swinging ride-cymbal vamp apparently sampled from some hard-bop classic, and floating snippets of a Marlena Shaw vocal over the top–the sort of jazz ‘n’ loops thing Guru’s Jazzmatazz or British acid-jazz acts like US3 were doing by the early ’90s. The groove is poppin’, but by track two, it’s just disco with a new mirror ball. Jazz rhythm lives in the myriad small variations the musicians work on a basic pattern. With inflexible loops underneath, even the live horn and keyboard players are stuck going around in circles. St. Germain’s concept backs rhythm into the same dead end where one-chord modal jazz pushed harmony: there’s nowhere to go but the fade-out.

On Molvaer’s Solid Ether (ECM), his trumpet tone is mostly another faint echo of vintage Miles Davis. That pleading timbre worked for Miles because it created intimacy with the listener, but ECM’s ice-castle reverb renders Molvaer distant enough to be a sample. Elsewhere he revives Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s gauzy Fourth World sound–he sometimes uses a harmonizer on his horn, Hassell-style–itself indebted to early electric Miles, in particular the low-simmer Bitches Brew. But the live rhythm section gets stuck on unflinching thumpy rhythms almost as often as St. Germain; it’s less bubbling Miles than Crazy Horse plodding through “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Nicholson hails E.S.T., aka the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, for playing mod dance beats as an all-acoustic piano trio, thereby roping in a bigger, younger audience than stuffy Yankee jazz. On a couple tracks from Somewhere Else Before (just out this week on Columbia), bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrom play some watered down hip-hop beats–mildly pleasant. Berglund’s iron throb is ideal for oddball Swedish saxophonist Per “Texas” Johannson’s inventive quartet, but in this case, there’s nothing to go on top. Svensson’s tinkling variations on 70s Keith Jarrett recapitulate the birth of New Age piano.

Jazz musicians, European or otherwise, neglect blues inflections at their peril. The wiggle room afforded by ambiguous thirds, fifths, and sevenths, like the microvariations in swinging rhythm, let jazz phrasing approach the flexibility of speech, be your vernacular the drawling yah-yahs of plunger-muted trumpeter Bubber Miley, living in Harlem in the 1920s, or the excited east European vibrato of guitarist Django Reinhardt, living among Gypsies in Belgium. Svensson’s music speaks like an elevator announcing floors.

Besides, hasn’t Nicholson heard of Medeski Martin & Wood, whose hip thrust has attracted a bigger, younger audience for years? Even on 1992’s Notes From the Underground, before Medeski switched from piano to organ, they deployed club-conscious rhythms. They fed off dance pop just like John Patton or Eddie Harris in the 60s, Miles in the 70s and 80s–or Greg Osby and Steve Coleman in the 90s.

Nicholson goes wrong the same way many critics do: by treating what he knows as the sum total of available knowledge and using it to support unsupportable generalizations. All of us read these all the time: how so-and-so is the world’s best player of some instrument or style, how whozis was the first to do such and such, how cats over on that other scene (across town or an ocean) don’t do what our guys do. But no matter how diligently you study any scene from afar, it’s teeming with more varied music than you can know. Records never tell the whole story–not that anyone hears every record. Nicholson’s made the common error of confusing something he recently noticed with a new trend.

In truth, many Europeans lost interest in American developments ages ago. Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg has said jazz ended around 1960; afterward he was a key player in the English-Dutch-German free scene, which developed its character largely in isolation from the American branch. In the 80s he taught the musicians in his pocket orchestra, ICP, to deftly integrate counterpoint, instant composing, absurdism, chaos, fanfares, and pithy jazz tunes while keeping the shape of a whole set in mind. The results were distinctly European–but Mengelberg developed his players partly through repertory projects devoted to Ellington, Monk, and Herbie Nichols.

Nicholson isn’t the only continental critic to declare various Euro schools liberated from American models. David Toop’s May 13 piece for the New York Times, “A Style of No Style That Spurns All Constraints,” wrote the influence of black American music right out of the history of the English bands Music Improvisation Company and AMM. Never mind that MIC’s Evan Parker and AMM’s Keith Rowe came up playing jazz–or the odd coincidence that their free music erupted in the same period as ours, when American free jazzers were all over western Europe. (To hear the germ of Evan Parker’s corkscrew soprano saxophone style, listen at 30:01 to “Afro Blue” on Coltrane Live in Japan.) The Euro pioneers of Parker’s generation are still hard-core jazzbos. Drummer Han Bennink warms up by playing along with an Erroll Garner record; Parker and drummer Paul Lovens can sing 50s Sonny Rollins solos note for note; Peter Brötzmann (like Albert Ayler before him) reveres early jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet. They keep that music close because jazz is the model for improvising together, with a concept of tonality, rhythm, and timbre broad enough for free conversation.

Nicholson says the new European music reflects “specifically European club-culture styles”–so pay no attention to the recycled Miles, Sly, Detroit techno, and Jamaican dub that join Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder in the soup. American jazz retreats into the past, he says; this doesn’t?

His world is too simple. It isn’t the 70s or even the 90s anymore when it comes to the distance between continents. (In 1996, a typical American show on Dutch TV was the original Fantasy Island. Three years later they were watching The Sopranos.) In both articles Nicholson quotes American reed player Michael Moore (whom he calls, in Jazz Times, a recent expat to Amsterdam, though Moore moved there in the early 80s) to the effect that tolerant European audiences encourage more adventurous music. True enough. But Moore is no Bugge Wesseltoft–I’ve seen his huge (and current) American jazz record collection. Nicholson might check out Moore’s new trio record, Jewels and Binoculars (on his Ramboy label): all Dylan songs.

The North American and European jazz scenes may never have been closer than now, and the flow is not all in one direction. Chicagoans like Josh Abrams, Jeb Bishop, Hamid Drake, or Ken Vandermark are glad to play with Sean Bergin, Tobias Delius, Paul Lytton, or Peter Brötzmann, maybe because they can learn something, if only about how easy interaction can be. The old divisions apply less and less. That’s why Dave Douglas likes playing with Han Bennink as well as the other way around–both like mixing standards and free play, swingtime and floating phrases. Or why Mengelberg can make a record called Two Days in Chicago (Hatology, 1999); he liked playing with Drake and Vandermark enough to request their company on a return gig last March.

If some new Europeans do in fact want to ignore American music, good luck to them. But they might better recognize that folks here are working on some of the same things they are. Hearing, say, Uri Caine’s collaborations with DJs Logic, Olive, and Boomish on his Bach-meets-everything Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter, 2000) might give them ideas about the flexible use of samples and electronic drums, and integrating far-flung musical cultures. Or they can keep reinventing wheels. In which case, let’s spare them the patronizing smiles.